March 2017
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Mitchell R. Goins, Triton College, River Grove, Illinois, USA

NOTE: This article has not been copyedited due to its length.

"[T]ruth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person; it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction" – Bakhtin


Classroom observation has long been regarded as an important procedure for teacher development in the English language teaching field. However, it has been widely recognized that many teachers find classroom observation stressful and threatening (Lam, 2001; Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2011). Teachers’ negative feelings toward classroom observation are due in large part to the fact that many classroom observation procedures adhere to a top-down approach in which teachers are observed by superiors who design and implement the classroom observation process. (Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2011). In other words, teachers often have no agency in the process; they are simply subjected to it. As a result, teachers often perceive classroom observation as an intrusion rather than an opportunity for development (Lam, 2001, p. 162).

Lam (2001) notes that there are two different types of classroom observation: “one for the sake of accountability and one for development and improvement purposes” (p. 169). Often, however, these two processes are combined into one, thus preoccupying teachers with apprehension about their evaluation and inhibiting them from being able to actively reflect upon their teaching beliefs and practices. As such, in this article I focus strictly on classroom observation for the purpose of teacher development and highlight two different classroom observation models—top-down classroom observation and collegial classroom observation—arguing that collegial observation has the most potential for facilitating teacher development.

Top-Down Classroom Observation for Teacher Professional Development

In the top-down or supervisory approach to classroom observation, the observer, usually a supervisor or administrator, visits a classroom to observe a teacher with the intention of helping the instructor improve their teaching effectiveness. Oftentimes, the observation is preceded by a pre-observation conference in which goals of the observation are laid out. Afterwards, the supervisor conducts a post-observation conference and may provide feedback and suggestions on how the teacher can improve. The overall goal of this process is to help the instructor develop their teaching effectiveness by way of feedback and suggestions in a post-observation conference.

Within this model, observers are presumed to possess “superior” knowledge of teaching practices and methods and are expected to actively transmit this knowledge to teachers. Conversely, teachers are presumed to possess “inferior” knowledge of teaching practices and methods and are expected to passively receive the observer’s knowledge. Consequently, the locus of authority resides within the observer, whose knowledge, experience, and beliefs about teaching often form the basis and focal point of post-observation conferences and discussions.

This model of classroom observation is not optimal for helping teachers develop their effectiveness in the classroom for a number of reasons. First, it must be noted that teaching is a cognitive activity. Teachers are always, to some degree or another, actively thinking about their practice and making decisions based upon this thinking. As Borg (2003) states, “teachers are active, thinking decision-makers who make instructional choices by drawing on complex practically oriented, personalized, and context-sensitive networks of knowledge, thoughts, and beliefs” (p. 81). Moreover, there is agreement among researchers that teachers’ beliefs and experiences govern their instructional judgments and decisions (Borg, 2003, p. 81). The chief problem with the top-down model, therefore, is that all interaction between the teacher and the observer revolves primarily around the observer’s knowledge, not the teacher’s. Arguably, then, teachers are less likely to reflect on their teaching practices through the prism of their own knowledge and beliefs—the very notions that govern and influence their instructional practice. In effect, the observers’ comments and suggestions in the top-down model risk carrying little import, as they do not exploit teachers’ individual background knowledge and experience, which in turn limits the probability that teachers will apply the observer’s comments and suggestions to their own teaching practice.

Furthermore, many teachers find top-down classroom observation uncomfortable and threatening. For example, in a survey conducted by Lam (2001) on Educators’ perceptions of classroom observation for staff development, Lam notes that “an overwhelming majority of the respondents ranked ‘Pressure felt by teachers’ as the top difficulty that undermined the practice of classroom observation” (p. 170). Lasagabaster & Sierra (2001) also note that many teachers are unaccustomed to being observed and as a result classroom observation provokes “uneasiness, nervousness, and tension” (p. 450). Such emotions should not be easily dismissed, as anxiety and stress have the potential to impede learning, which is the overall goal of classroom observation for teacher development.

Finally, supervisors face a difficult task in defining improvement. As Gebhard (1999) states, “the relationship between teaching and learning is complex and not enough is known about how the teacher’s behavior results in student learning to specify improvement as it relates to student learning in all contexts” (p. 36). In other words, the chief metric by which teaching should be measured is student learning, and not enough is known about the relationship between instruction and learning for observers to make accurate judgments about the kinds of instruction that result in student learning outcomes. Consequently, recommendations about how a teacher should teach are subjective at best and potentially harmful at worst, for an observer cannot possibly account for the multitudinous factors in a particular classroom and how they will determine the best and most effective means of instruction.

All in all, the top-down classroom observation model is based upon an instructivist epistemology— a theory of knowledge in which teachers (the observers in this case) are the primary agents of learning, knowledge (observers’ comments) is fixed and absolute, and learners (the teachers in this case) are passive recipients of information. As noted above, these assumptions restrict teachers’ opportunities for reflection and introspection, which are among the key prerequisites for learning.

This is not to say, of course, that teachers never learn as a result of this approach, or that observers necessarily exercise authority that is threatening or stifling. Indeed, there are no doubt many instances in which observers and teachers participate in the top-down model in effective ways that produce teacher development. Still, the model itself inheres in institutional hierarchies and structures of power which position teachers as passive recipients of information, not critical and reflective professionals, and observers as owners of knowledge, whose responsibility it is to transmit their knowledge to teachers.

Collegial Observation for Teacher Professional Development

Collegial observation stands in stark contrast to top-down observation. Gebhard (1999) describes the process of collegial observation as observing “other teachers to construct and reconstruct our own knowledge about teaching and thereby learn more about our teaching attitudes, beliefs, and classroom practices” (p. 38). Within this model, colleagues observe one another, with the intention of engaging in “exploratory conversations…prior to, and after, the classroom visit” (Gray, 2012, p.234). In contrast to the top-down model, it is the teacher being observed who “leads the identification of the focus and the protocols to be observed” (Gray, 2012, p. 234). The overall goal of this process is for the observed to “see teaching differently,” allowing them to become more reflective about their teaching practice and to develop new and different means of instruction. (Gebhard, 1999, p. 38).

Practically speaking, two instructors meet one-on-one in a pre-observation conference, wherein one teacher describes the principle, method, or activity that he or she would like the observer to focus on. Next, the observer conducts an observation, aiming to observe the principle, method, or activity that the teacher he or she is observing prescribed in the pre-observation conference. Finally, the two instructors meet in a post-observation conference in which the observer offers insight and perspective based upon his or her observation and the teacher responds with his or her impressions. Again, the chief goal of this process is exploration—the exchanging of new and different ideas between two teaching professionals. There is no standardized procedure for facilitating this process, but Gray (2012), who conducted a research study on secondary teachers’ use of collegial observation in New Zealand, provides helpful pre-observation and post-observation forms that teachers can use to facilitate this process (See Appendix A and B).

The collegial observation process differs markedly from the top-down model in a number of ways. First of all, “knowledge” is construed in very different terms than within the top-down model. Rather than being a fixed, deliverable construct, knowledge is constructed, in dialogic interaction between the observer and the observed. That is, through exploratory conversations before and after the observation, teachers develop new understandings of teaching and thus new theories of how they might practice it. These new understandings are built upon teachers’ prior background knowledge, beliefs, and experiences, and as a result, they have great potential to transfer to teacher’s actual classroom practice.

Secondly, in contrast to the top-down model, teachers are autonomous over the entire collegial observation process, and thus have the authority to expand their own understanding and draw their own conclusions. There is no one telling them what they should or should not do. The consequence of this authority is increased likelihood that teachers will own—in a very personal way—the new knowledge that they gain from the observation process, and thus use it to improve their teaching effectiveness.

Finally, research clearly shows that teachers are more comfortable being observed by their peers than by a supervisor (Lam, 2001, p.171). After all, even when classroom observation is presented as a means of professional development and not appraisal or evaluation, hierarchies of authority might potentially inhibit teachers’ freedom to be active and engaged in the observation process.


The purpose of collegial observation is by no means to replace classroom observation for teacher appraisal or evaluation, nor does it preclude the need for teacher remediation. To the contrary, teacher evaluation by way of classroom observation is crucial to developing a successful instructional staff and holding teachers accountable to excellent teaching standards. Too often, however, these two processes are combined into one, thus preoccupying teachers with worry about their evaluation and inhibiting them from actively reflecting on their teaching practices. English language programs should consider implementing collegial observation for the sole purpose of professional development, with the goal of empowering their teaching cadre to be critical and reflective practitioners, in turn helping them to develop new pedagogical theories and methods of instruction with which to better serve their students.


Borg, S. (2003). Teacher cognition in language teaching: a review of research on what language teachers think, know, believe, and do. Language Teaching 36(2), 81 – 109.

Gebhard, J.G. (1999). Seeing teaching differently through classroom observation. In J. Gebhard & R. Oprandy (Eds.), Language teaching awareness: A guide to exploring beliefs and practices (pp. 35-58). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Gray, S. (2012). From principles to practice: collegial observation for teacher development. TESOL Journal, 3(2), 231 – 255.

Lam, S. (2001). Educators’ opinions on classroom observation as a practice of staff development and appraisal. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17,161 – 173.

Lasagabaster, D., & Sierra, J. (2011). Classroom observation: desirable conditions established by teachers. European Journal of Teacher Education, 34(4), 449 – 463.

Appendix A

Teaching Partner Observation Procedures for Organising Observation

Use this grid to plan your teaching partner’s observation of you class. Discuss these aspects with him or her.

Date for observation:

What principle would you like focused on in the observation of your class?

What data would you like collected so (for example, student talk, interaction that you can receive useful feedback patterns, examples of student work, on the development of that teacher talk) particular principle?

How would you like that data collected (for example, observation grids, audioin your class? or video recording, field notes, photographs)

Appendix B

Written Report for Teaching Partner After Observation

Instructions for the person who visits:

In your report for your teaching partner after observing his or her lesson:

  • Comment on the aims of the lesson as pertinent to your given agenda.
  • Include a description of the activities that were relevant to your teaching partner’s stated interests/principles/problem.
  • Do not give an interpretation of the classroom events, but rather richly describe what was going on in the lesson related to the stated interest of your partner. From the data you collected, try to give your partner a new perspective on an old problem.
  • Do give alternative ways to teach related to your teaching partner’s interests.
  • Concentrate on giving constructive feedback from another subject specialist with a language perspective.

Mitchell Goins serves as assistant ESL director at Triton College in River Grove, Illinois and teaches writing, rhetoric, and discourse at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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