Learner observation tasks as a learning tool for pre-service teachers

1.1. Teaching Practicum in Kazakhstan

Teaching Practicum is compulsory for student teachers of graduate level enrolled in the English Language Teaching Department. Student teachers take Teaching Practicum at state schools, and follow the Teaching Practicum Curriculum issued by the Department of High Education of Kazakhstan. According to the foregoing Curriculum

the Teaching Practicum consists of two periods: five-week period for the third-year students at the end of the 5th semester, December, and seven-week period for the fourth-year students at the beginning of the 7th semester, September and October.

Lesson observation is one of the major components of the Teaching Practicum. Both Teaching Practicums involve observation weeks: two weeks for the third-year students and one week for the fourth-year students. Observation weeks are devoted to observing lessons and familiarising with the school’s facilities, policies, procedures, pedagogical practices, and the preparation of timetable.

During the Observation Weeks student teachers have to observe lessons given by their monitor teachers to be aware of the methods and techniques of her/his teaching. In addition to it they observe the relationship between the teacher and students, students’ learning styles and their behaviour. To get better understanding of the learners’ personalities student teachers are recommended to observe lessons across other subject areas that are taught for the class they are allocated. At the same time pre-service teachers observe lessons of other experienced teachers who display exemplary teaching practices, and novice teachers to evaluate various teaching techniques at different levels of professional experience.

During the Observation Weeks student teachers are required to record their observations of fifteen English language classes for the third-year students and ten classes for the fourth-year students to be assessed. Students must have daily entries of their observations reflecting on various types of teaching or participation experience. Moreover, student teachers are strongly recommended to conduct peer observation and provide feedback on at least one lesson per day, and written feedback on at least two lessons per week during the Teaching Weeks.

1.1.1 Types of records at the Teaching Practicum and trainees’ problems

There are no fixed observation instruments in the National Teaching Practicum Cirriculum. Every English Language Teaching Department compiles their own, in ethnographic or structured format. Some Departments prescribe that student teachers must keep diaries, whereas others provide trainees with observation schemes. The former technique requires that pre-service teachers have to describe their reaction to the lesson observed, learners, the relationship between teacher and pupils, school policy in general and their initial teaching experience in the form of narration. The latter ones are introduced in different formats; it is either a detailed structured check-list with pre-specified categories of the teacher’s or learner’s behaviour and the trainee’s role is to record their occurrence, and accompany with evidences or jotted comments that they consider relevant to the observation, or a general lesson reports where student teachers make notices about plusses and minuses of the lesson observed.

As a teacher trainer at the state University in Kazakhstan I have read, analysed and assessed more than 200 diaries and observation sheets for six years. This work has raised my doubts about usefulness of observation as a learning tool. The comments of trainees are mainly descriptive; the student teachers note down what the teacher and the learners have done during the lesson and whether the learners are "interested", "involved", "active" or not. I have noticed that trainees face problems with identifying the aims of the lesson, means of transition, teacher’s prompts and learning outcomes. There is very little analysis or reflection. They observe that the teacher has no problems with discipline but do not ask themselves why it has been so. Very few trainees have made any connection between observations and their own teaching.

I can name some reasons of these problems. The main one is in the little amount of time that is allotted to TESOL course in Kazakhstan. Due to this reason, pre-service teachers are formally introduced to observation skills and strategies. Student teachers need help in observation, but university supervisor and educational psychology instructor are far too often in the classroom with pre-service teachers to guide them and conduct observation, further analysis and reflection in collaborative way. Another reason is that the format of the observation schemes seems to limit the student teachers very much. They feel obliged to fill in the space often repeating the same remarks in subsequent observation sheets. Finally, observation sheets prescribe categories or tasks in the form of broad statements without explaining the reason of observation, what to write and in what sequence. Teaching process is a complex procedure that covers teaching behaviour, learning behaviour, patterns of interaction, and patterns of group dynamics. Some aspects of these procedures are overt, for example, question-answer work, but sometimes it is far more covert, such as learner’s interest. So student teachers face the dilemma what is noteworthy to mention, how to interpret teacher’s, learner’s remarks or behaviour, what size the notes should be.

1.1.2 Tasks as solution of the problem

In my paper I am looking for some help for my students to make their observation experience more meaningful. Student teachers should know that the reason of observation and filling the observation sheets is that we want them to learn something from doing so, and only then grade them. The features of a good observer should be made clear to them. They should realize that the skills of observation can be learnt. The university supervisor should try to transfer some of her observation skills by observing a lesson, and analyzing observation sheets after a lesson she has observed with the trainees in a collaborative and consulting way.

The main suggestion concerns the format of the observation schemes. Numerous schedules of observation have been introduced: the Flanders System of Interaction Analysis (FIAC) by Flanders (1970), the Foreign Language INTeraction (FLINT) system by Moskowitz (1971), FOCUS by Fanselow (1977), COLT by Allen, Frölich and Spada (1984), the Stirling system by Mitchell, Johnstone and Parkinson (1981). They are valid and do not require trials. But the main problem with these instruments is that they were originally designed for educational research and for in-service teacher development. Some of these instruments, they are described in Chapter 2.5.2. are recommended for teacher training education. However, the researchers do not deny the fact that all of them are complex and require intensive training. Thus for teacher training education we need reliable observation instruments based on scientific grounds that develop observation skills gradually and improve them with practice.

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