Observations on Observation


“Observation” is one of those buzzwords that experienced teachers have heard hundreds, if not thousands of times. We all know that mindful teaching must be based in observation of individual children and groups, as well as self-reflection. Every college or university that offers early childhood courses features a class on observation and assessment – in fact, I will be teaching Observation and Assessment at San Francisco State this fall. It’s one of those things, like “each child is unique,” that doesn’t always mean anything when we hear it, because we’ve heard it so much.

As an educational consultant, I love how I get to just sit in a corner and observe teachers. It makes it easy and exciting for me to see what teachers are doing well, and also what kind of advice I can offer them. And I give advice largely about inclusive support of children and inquiry-based curriculum – both of which, we all know, are driven by observation.

But here’s something I have observed: teachers spend very little time observing. What’s more, there seems to be an inverse ratio between a teacher’s expertise and the amount of time he or she steps back to observe. The more experienced and skilled the teacher, the more active they tend to be.

There are some common sense reasons for this: the lead teacher in a classroom is often the most experienced teacher in the room. She wants to make sure things happen at a high level, and so she takes personal charge of a lot of them. The lead teacher often feels the most pressure to produce specific positive outcomes, and is the most aware of what the director, the district or the state expects. She also often has the most continuous experience with the children and the environment, and takes the lead with planning and implementing curriculum.

I remember well how this felt. I went through one period as a teacher where I worked with 8 different co-teachers over a 10-year stretch. The exhaustion of establishing relationships, conveying and rationalizing my way of doing things, figuring out team dynamics and delegating roles and responsibilities overwhelmed me. I got into the habit of just putting my head down and plowing ahead. It seemed easier than trying to achieve balance.

I see this same look on teachers’ faces in certain classrooms. These teachers are good enough to do it all themselves. They lead group time, set up art projects, set limits, comfort the needy, move groups through transitions, and score standardized assessment rubrics simultaneously. What they often struggle to do, is nothing: just watch.

These are teachers, I find it interesting to note, who also often have a hard time with inquiry-based curriculum. They could recite a full and vivid developmental profile of each child in their group, but they aren’t sure what the group wants to learn.

Project-based curriculum, as described in Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach (which has, incidentally, been re-issued in an excellent new edition) begins with observation and questioning. I have noticed that this stage gives teachers particular challenges. When teachers tell me they feel lost about their projects, I usually ask them, “Where did your topic come from? How did you know the children wanted to learn about it?” Only when they clarify this part can they figure out how to structure and guide a project and move it forward.

The approach to inclusive support of children with challenges we describe in our book, Including One, Including All, also begins with observation. What’s more, the plans themselves often center on regulation. When teachers ask me for advice in this realm, I point to their own regulation, and how it can promote more slowing down and observing. And when teachers take care to focus on their own regulation, and use observation to get organized, they often discover that this advances therapeutic goals for specific children by itself.

As a result, I have put more emphasis on encouraging teachers, especially expert teachers, to find ways to step back and just observe what is going on. Here are a few key points we have developed together:

Integrate observing with active teaching – So often, teachers will tell me that I didn’t see them observing because they had too much to do. They may have been preoccupied with helping a new child separate, scoring the DRDP, or slicing up an unexpected birthday cake at snack time.

In response, I always encourage teachers to think of how much all kinds of different tasks can incorporate observation and how much you can plan tasks to promote observation. A needy child will often benefit from you sitting a few feet away for a stretch, watching her and the rest of the room (and she might also integrate well if you bring her to group activities which you can then observe). Scoring standardized tests can be part of larger observation goals. You can involve children in preparing and serving snack and observe their development.

In short, observation isn’t a separate teaching act or task that you need to find time to do. Observation (and it’s partner, reflection) needs to be woven into your active teaching. An expert teacher does clear the deck and sit on the sidelines sometimes. But slowing down and taking in is also a core disposition that can be part of active, busy times as well as quiet, watching times.

Be systematic and model systematic observation habits – Observing offers many program benefits in terms of assessing children and curriculum. But it also models a systematic approach to observation and information gathering. As children watch you observe and record, so they will learn to observe and record.

Systematic recording and data capture can be easily incorporated into observation – clipboards, notebooks, and cameras are spontaneous and easy to use. Far from detracting from children’s exploration, their observation, questioning and imitating of your observation and documentation process will model systematic observation and documentation on their part and promote fine motor skills, visual motors skills, math and letter learning, literacy, and math and science inquiry.

Delegate – When I feel like I don’t have time to do everything, I run through a simple list of questions: What can I cut out? What can I simplify? What can I integrate? What can I delegate? This last one is particularly important to team teaching.

In order to find time to just observe, you must let other adults around you do more. You have to trust them and communicate and collaborate. This is good team management: co-teachers will do a better job for longer if they have meaningful roles and opportunities to take the lead. But it’s also good teaching.

Children learn through relationships, and not just our relationships with them. They learn more than we are often aware from the ways in which adults around them interact and collaborate. Observation habits don’t just show children a model of observation and reflection – they show us the model of interdependent partnership we want them to learn. The balance of each teacher’s leadership and flexibility is a crucial aspect of the curriculum. Making sure you rely on others so you can observe and reflect will ensure higher quality learning in your classroom.

Know and use your team’s strengths – We observe for many reasons, not the least of which is to gain better understanding of a child’s strengths and preferences. In order to delegate roles and responsibility among adults in the group, you will also have to observe your co-teachers and build increasing awareness of their strengths and preferences. Some may be good at leading circle time – a good time for you to sit and observe; others may thrive at planning and guiding curriculum projects – another good time for you to sit and observe. When we are stressed and moving quickly, we tend to notice only our partners’ mistakes. Think of the potential positive effects of watching your co-workers in a relaxed moment, from a strength-based perspective.

Children learn from us largely through the ways we regulate our own activity and mood. An expert teacher may be accomplishing a lot by being constantly active and vigilant. But that also teaches children that vigilance, constant activity and accomplishment are the most important tools of learning and living. I believe we want to model something more balanced. We want children to be able to move an agenda forward, but we also want them to be able to slow down and reflect. We want them to be self-sufficient and competent, but, by all means, we need to help them learn to depend on each other and share roles and responsibility. We want them to learn in relationship to the world around them, from the world around them, and in reflective appreciation of the world around them.

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