When Stanford Professor Lee Shulman was first enmeshed in the research that led to Board certification of teachers by NBPTS, I asked him – in a hotel bathroom, of all places – what interesting findings were turning up about great teachers as compared to the rest. He replied: “Well, you might not find this such a big deal, but a big indicator is the degree to which a teacher accurately describes what happens in her classroom.”
I DID find it a big deal! It confirmed something I had noticed for years, memorably captured by Ben Stein playing a boring and clueless history teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: weak teachers have big blind spots. In fact, earlier that week I had watched one of the top teachers in Jefferson County KY overlook some revealing student behavior after she had stopped to work with a small group doing a task. At the end of her brief conference with them, she asked: OK, got it? They all smiled and nodded their heads. But the moment she started to leave, 3 of the 4 girls shrugged their shoulders and made that frowny look we all make when we don’t get it. The teacher missed it.
I think understanding is difficult to achieve, so I am always a bit skeptical that it has been achieved. I have thus always had sensitive peripheral vision and a desire borne of skepticism to see what’s really going on as a teacher. That’s why I was a pretty fair soccer referee (where you need eyes in the back of your head if you’re going to catch many fouls away from where the ball is, i.e. “off the ball”). And though I was a reasonably effective teacher, I think my strength was more my ability to read faces and body language (as well as papers) than my initial teaching. I saw when something was not understood or I noticed who wasn’t paying attention and responded accordingly.
Seeing is not so easy.
Yet, as Shulman noted, a surprisingly high number of teachers, like my Kentucky friend, are guilty of noticing only what they expect and wish to see and hear rather than what is really there to see and hear. This is a critical reason why evidence-based supervision is needed because teachers sometimes describe in post-observation conferences what they think occurred in ways that do not reflect the evidence at all. It may also explain why many teachers don’t trust test scores because we intuitively think our students learned more than tests show because “we taught them well.”
Think it’s easy to see what’s there to be seen? It isn’t. We have a clear agenda in mind, far more is happening on the periphery of the action than we can easily take in, and we often unwittingly rely on very selective evidence for how things are going.
When I was a teen, a great trick (and winning bet) was to ask people to count how many E’s, lower-case and capital, are in the paragraph on the back of a pack of Camel cigarettes. Practically no one gets it right:
The first time I did it I found 7, if it’s any consolation.
Or, watch this video, if you haven’t already seen it.
I was the first teacher in my school to ever videotape his class because I was so interested in teacher blind spots. (I won’t say it was a while ago but it was before VHS cassettes: the SONY deck used 1-inch reel-to-reel tape!) Even with my decent perceptual skills, however, I was shocked at the number of things I had missed while going over the tape: students who made slight movements as if to speak, and who didn’t get my attention, and often gave up for the rest of the class; how regularly I used the word “obviously” in analyzing a text – deadly for most students to whom it was not obvious; how few student questions were higher-order; and how many students wrote nothing in their notebooks for an entire class even though their notes were meant to be a key helpful resource to them for later drafting papers and doing exam preparation.
Looking ‘off the ball’ and seeing what of note doesn’t occur.
I became a better teacher by being a defensive-minded JV and Varsity soccer coach. As a coach, my eyes were always off the ball because in coaching the defense you are deliberately looking away from the action to see what the defenders are doing in anticipation or response. Yet, not only do most fans constantly watch the ball, many naïve players and coaches over-watch it as well. (Watch the eyes of your youth soccer coaches this fall!)
Ever notice how many teaching videos make this same mistake? The camera focuses far too much on the teacher teaching instead of the students trying to learn, which makes the video far less valuable than it might otherwise be. (One easy fix: mike the teacher, but let the cameras follow the kids.)
Making matters worse, we know from the research that people have a far more difficult time noticing what doesn’t happen than what does. This is true even in the highest levels of soccer, as I am learning from reading a new book called The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong. The text is filled with all sorts of cool and counter-intuitive statistics about professional soccer.
A big take-away so far, for example is that a goal not conceded is more valuable than a goal scored, over the long haul of a season. Yet to “see” a goal not conceded is as difficult as hearing the non-barking dog, or seeing the e in the the on the Camel pack:
Defense has, for too long, been ignored by those who analyze and assess soccer…. The debate over how best to play the game has said precious little about defending and everything about offensive play.
Even the data collection companies that have emerged to computerize traditional notational systems find their eyes drawn to one end of the [field]. Things that form part of an attack – passes, assists, crosses, shots, goals – are easily spotted, coded, and counted… The best defenders are those that never tackle [because tackling represents a last-ditch effort that should have been avoided sooner]… Ball events are tracked, but things that happen off the ball are ignored. It is far harder to tune in to excellent marking, cutting off passing channels, and wonderful positioning….The art of defending is about dogs that do not bark.”
What you might trying seeing better in the future.
What is the equivalent of “hearing” the dog that, for once, doesn’t bark, as Sherlock Holmes famously did in Sliver Blaze? To what things do we as teachers in our own classrooms tend to be blind? Where should we be looking “off the ball” to better see and understand what is happening in our classroom? The following areas might be targeted more carefully next school year, perhaps with recording equipment, to better see what is there to be seen:
- Look beyond the “yesses” and head nods. “Everyone got it?” we ask after a mini-lecture. We are typically fooled by a few strong affirmations: Yes! we hear some kids say strongly, and we see some nodding heads. So, on to the next topic we go. But what of those who did not say anything or nod? And how many didn’t say Yes or nod? Count them next time: it will be more than you realize. An absence of nods and questions is a non-barking dog. This is where ‘clickers’ (LRS) are invaluable, too.
- Look “off the ball.” Watch students who are not speaking when their peers are speaking. Watch students other than the one you are speaking to. Watch student eyes after one student speaks: do they all come back to you, as if every next move is always passively viewed as yours? Are they engaged or not? Understanding or not? Cold call the ones who look puzzled or who look back at you: “Jake, you look puzzled by what Kathy said. What questions do you have?”
- Spot the “first foul.” We easily see a disturbance or an off-task behavior, and we naturally offer a reprimand. But we often do not see that the episode began a step back, when offenders were bothered by someone else first or frustrated by their own lack of understanding. In soccer and other sports, a typical referee usually sees and calls only the second foul but not the first foul that started the incident, caused by the player now being fouled! Learn to look for subtle clues that something has just happened out of hearing or sight, like a good referee; try to avoid punishing only the retaliator.
- Listen for the ‘dog that does not bark’. We all have students who constantly talk in class and others who cause minor troubles by smart-alecky contributions. So, pay close attention to when the chatty child doesn’t speak and when the wise guy makes no attempt to get a laugh. What caused the change of behavior? We need to know.
- Look for what the quiz does not show. Multiple choice quizzes hide, by their very nature, the reasons the students choose the answers they do. Yet, the unheard reasons matter as much as perhaps more than the answers on quizzes. Why not turn every 5th question into one where students have to say why they made that choice, or rate their confidence level in their answers? Or in Part 2 of a quiz (where they have already made their selected response choices), require an additional 2-3 constructed responses for some of the harder questions. Take points off for the right answer for the wrong reason and give points for the opposite.
- Who are my “starters”? Without realizing it, we sometimes only call on a select group of students: more girls than boys, the most talkative, the least shy, etc. Either via tape or a colleague, track your calling patterns for a week to see if you have fallen into an unconscious and unproductive pattern. It is especially important if you have whole-class discussions regularly to count who doesn’t participate for a few days because that pattern can quickly extend to the whole year if you don’t take steps to address it.
- Feedback on your feedback. As in my story of the KY teacher, it is vital to watch students after you give them feedback to see if they understood what you said and/or appreciated the help. It is very tempting to give the feedback, look for a quick nod, and get up to join another group; resist the temptation.
- What notes do they take? Spot checks of student notes as they take them, not days after the fact, are key to ensuring that current lessons are useful to them for future tasks. Even though it feels like an interruption to the lesson, make sure you see a sample of what they write down to ensure that the time isn’t wasted.
- Call a time-out. Learn to better and more quickly notice when things are not working as well as they should, be it a group activity, a writing assignment, a class discussion, or a lecture. Call a time-out to either ask learners what the trouble is or to quickly re-direct the learning to make it more productive.
- Assess formatively every few minutes. A blind spot for many secondary and college teachers involves not realizing how much time has elapsed as we teach and how heavy the cognitive load is during that lengthy time. What common sense and the research say is that we need to pause and do a quick check for understanding every 10 minutes or so when we are teaching, either using a prompt and a learning-response system like paddles, note cards, thumbs and fingers, or clickers; or quick questions that target common misunderstandings. I recommend setting a timer on your computer for a while to get a feel for what a 10-minute chunk feels like.
- Ask for feedback. No matter how much you attend to what is working and what isn’t, routinely ask students for feedback. It can be as informal as a thumbs up-thumbs down in the middle of discussion, a traffic light post-it or other exit slip, or a brief survey for homework (What worked today? What didn’t? What would you like me to review tomorrow, if anything?). Teachers who don’t actively seek feedback about what works and what doesn’t are unwittingly limiting their effectiveness. Not to mention a lost opportunity to gain greater student respect for acknowledging what they can all see when it’s not working.
Readers: any other suggestions for better seeing and hearing what is there to be seen and heard if we would only make a conscious effort to notice it?
PS: Tip of the hat to John Norton for correcting my Holmes reference. It was NOT The Hound of the Baskervilles, but Silver Blaze – thus an ironic example of seeing what I thought I saw.
PS: I since was directed by Frank Nochese to a great discussion of pseudo-teaching – i.e. on the surface, it looks engaging and intellectually solid, but under the surface it isn’t clear that real learning occurred. Great discussions, too: