Four Verbs to Hone Your Observation Superpowers

Observing students is one of the most important teaching skills. It is also one of the most under-prioritized in professional learning initiatives and district-wide change. Unlike a curriculum and 1-1 digital tools, observation can’t be scaled and sold.  Observation data centers on teacher agency and teacher perception. It centers on what students—meaning all the unique individuals we serve—say and do in every lesson.

Observation Data Matters

A teacher’s expertise watching and listening to kids during learning is foundational for effective scaffolding. It is foundational for responsive teaching. It is foundational to helping students build on what they know now in order to learn at higher levels.

As teams and schools, our collective capacity to use observational data effectively determines whether or not we are limited to setting goals and measuring progress through tests, or if we can also use data-driven collaboration to improve student engagement, motivation, risk-taking, agency, collaboration, academic language, and more. Consider the following goals.  Do you want to . . .

  • shift the power dynamics in classrooms so all students have voice and agency to thrive?
  • increase equitable engagement in peer-to-peer conversations about grade-level content, concepts and texts?
  • deepen student motivation, joy and initiative to learn?
  • strengthen student’s collaboration and communication skills?
  • empower students to make meaning from complexity and problem-solve together?

Every one of these goals, and honestly every goal beyond raising test scores, requires we use observation data strategically to differentiate, and to continuously improve.  Observation data should get more emphasis in professional learning communities and teacher collaboration. Every educator needs to learn the nuances of using observation data to improve teaching.

Biases Shape What We See and Do With Data

On the surface, it’s easy to gather observation data: You teach. You watch students. You pay attention to what they say and do as evidence of their learning, thinking, and understanding.

In reality, using observation data powerfully requires more nuance—especially in the context of creating equitable learning in racially and linguistically rich schools. Add inequitable power dynamics and biases to the equation, and brain science makes it clear- we don’t always see what’s right in front of us, or use it to change our ways. We need more than observation data about students—we need all educators to see beyond biases and use new data to challenge assumptions.

The following four verbs are foundational to gathering the right observation data and using it to change what isn’t working so that all students thrive. Miss anyone of these, and what we “see” in the moment of teaching and how we act on that “data” will actually perpetuate inequities rather than ensure equal opportunity. Here’s a quick introduction to each. As you read about each verb, think about how it impacts what we see when we watch students during a lesson, and how we use that data to reinforce false assumptions or change what isn’t serving kids.

Four Verbs that Make or Break Our Use of Data

Have high expectations for all kids – especially ELs, Black students, Latinx students, Native students, and all historically underserved groups. Disrupt socially-constructed, false narratives of racial difference. Biased expectations shape what we see when observing students and whether we use that data to blame and refer or reflect and adapt. 

Structure active engagement aligned to lesson goals. Structure peer-to-peer conversations and active tasks in every lesson. Passive lessons give us nothing to watch for. Only active tasks give valuable formative data about thinking, content and language use. 

Have an asset orientation to ELs and all kids. Observe and listen to understand the linguistic, cultural and life-experience assets each student brings to learning. Know how your cultural lens shapes what you see, and seek to see assets you may not share. 

Be in humble inquiry about the impact of your teaching, task and scaffolding on student learning. When there are inequities in who engages and learns, don’t accept these as a given.  Instead, reflect– “what do I need to change in my approach?”

We need high expectations, active engagement, an asset-orientation and the humility of reflective teaching in combination, to seek and see the right data, and then use it to change our teaching for deeper impact. Every single one of these is foundational to using observation data to choose and lose scaffolding.  Every one is foundational to teaching and collaborating for equitable schools.

Each of the four verbs in this table makes, or breaks, our use of observation data in our professional learning communities.  Without them, we use observation data to reinforce biases and perpetuate inequities.  With them, we collaborate to transform business-as-usual so all kids thrive.

This is a brief introduction to why each verb matters when we use observation data to create more equitable schools. I’ll go deeper with resources and action steps in the next posts of this blog series.

Read the next post in this series:  Expectations Define What We See.

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

One Comment

  • Jennifer Shea Mulcahy

    December 18, 2019, 11:32 am

    I look forward to your upcoming post on January 7th because I am a firm believer in the notion that what we expect shapes what we see. It is crazy how much.

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