Becoming a better teacher by listening to your students

I came across this interesting little article by Dorset language teacher Rory Gallagher entitled “Learning from learners: student feedback boosted my teaching skills” posted to the Guardian Teacher Blog by Rebecca Ratcliffe today (29/6/14)

Have a read by clicking here

In it Rory talks about courting opinion from the second of Brookfield’s (1995) critically reflective lenses: the students. I regularly did this with my classes, even the ones I only covered once or twice and totally agree that it is perhaps one of the most useful things I did as a trainee. I found that well constructed questions received very frank and mature responses which enabled me to adjust my teaching style, my focus and ultimately helped me make lessons more interesting and engaging. This is a useful brief on Brookfield’s theory with a reading reference at the end:

This blog post made me think about those four lenses and how we value the opinions of our tutors and of our mentors through formalised OTLS procedures as we eagerly await, read and digest feedback. We are taught relentlessly to pursue autobiographical introspective self reflection and we are encouraged to compare our performance against the theory but we are not really pushed or taught to court the opinions of those we teach and surely this is as if not more important than any of the others.

Rory had been teaching for some time before he realised that “when asked about the activities they preferred, students gave such intelligent responses, that I should be asking them more questions, more frequently” (Ratcliffe 2014). I feel this should be more emphasised during training and it could help to avoid making mistakes with the way we ask questions.

I found myself nodding in agreement when he advised some caution in the way we canvass opinion and how to avoid simply becoming the brunt of a disgruntled student who maybe hadn’t had such a good day or one who feels giving candid opinion is just too ‘uncool’. Some theoretical discussion of the best approaches to seeking student feedback and appraisal and some class discussion would be really useful. I feel it would be useful for a cohort of student teachers to develop a standard questionnaire or question bank for themselves to use in their own classrooms.  I had realised the same thing as Rory and had learned to construct my questions in a similar manner to that which he described when he says:

“Of course the level of question you ask of a student will reflect the answer you get back. If you just ask “What do you think to my teaching?” you may well find one of the students answers “it was crap”. If you give students a structured question – for example: “If I didn’t understand a point my teacher is able to explain it and help me understand it better” – then a student will think carefully, consider an example and say that they strongly agree or not. The process helps students to understand the language of teaching” (Ratcliffe 2014).

I would add that it does not pay to ask students too many questions, just one well constructed one at the end of a class is sufficient, especially if you have a selection to use over the course of a semester and slot them in now and then rather than it being an end of every session predictable occurence. I feel that makes it lose its value. If you are wanting to start a debate or discussion and if you are wanting lots of feedback I would suggest making it a session in itself and setting the right tone. Maybe planning to teach a fun but short lesson and then seeming to cut it short in favour of a ‘chat’ making it feel like a reward while you have students in an upbeat and engaged mood would work, it definitely worked for me the couple of times I tried it. I don’t think the students even realised what I was doing and because of that they were very open and frank and also very innovative in their suggestions for how lessons could be improved.

I like that Rory points out that this method of performance appraisal is not without its dangers when he mentions things like “10% of teachers would not trust what students said and worried about the feedback they would get” and “There is a danger that if student feedback becomes too formalised it will become part of an evaluation process”. I can fully empathise with his concerns, if it did become part of the evaluation process it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing but it may be less measured, controlled and well managed by a central body than by individual teachers and I think it is important to seek opinion in the healthiest of enviornments. Not so that the feedback is all good, you would be crazy if you expect a bunch of teenagers to ever glow and tell you how amazing you are on demand, but so that it is more likely to be honest and constructive.

I also appreciate what he says about teachers being somewhat reserved about courting this feedback from students. “As a new teacher, it’s often more important to concentrate on technique and your voice in the classroom. You have to focus on developing your confidence… some more experienced teachers who are still uncomfortable about relinquishing that authority or power in the classroom” but I don’t think it necessarily comes down to relinquishing power if done in a well thought out and carefully orchestrated manner. I perhaps felt comfortable doing it as I don’t really consciously feel I have the power in the classroom, although of course the teacher usually does, but to feel like a part of the organic whole of the class perhaps makes you feel less cautious about letting the seat of power ebb and flow a bit more between teacher and student, it’s just important to be the force which controls that ebb and flow when it needs a bit of a push or pull.




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