February 2007

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Understanding What You See Happening in Class 

While conducting a class, even though teachers may be doing all or most of
the talking, students communicate important nonverbal messages. They
communicate these messages through facial expressions, body postures, and
how they say what they say, as well as what actions they do or the skills
they attempt to perform. Both novice and expert teachers see the same
student responses, but expert teachers see in those responses something very
different than novices see. Research summarized and referenced in the
article below identifies four features that distinguish how expert teachers
see what transpires in class. As the authors note, the good news is that
teachers are not born experts. Rather, the ability to see and respond to
this kind of feedback can be learned. The four features and suggestions for
developing expertise in each are highlighted below. 

Focus on the relevant - When an expert teacher looks at what students are
doing, he or she focuses on events and information relevant to the decisions
that must be made as a teacher. So if the students are learning to play
tennis, that teacher attends to how the student swings at the ball. Novice
teachers notice extraneous details such as how students are dressed, whether
they look like they are enjoying the activity, and if they are talking to
other students. To help them focus on relevant details, the authors suggest
that teachers might refer to a checklist that identifies those student
responses relevant to how well they are learning. 

Draw inference from observations - Based on what they see, expert teachers
make good judgments about which subsequent activities will interest students
and improve their performance, if what's being taught is a skill or if the
students' understanding of what's being taught requires a cognitive
response. One excellent way to develop this ability to see what's happening
and use that knowledge to plan next events is to partner with a teacher who
does it well. "The technique requires the person to verbalize his or her
thought processes. It may be awkward at first, because verbalizing a thought
takes considerably longer than only mentally processing a thought." (p. 31)
The reverse of this technique may be equally instructive. If the novice
teacher explains what she or he sees and what conclusions she or he'd draw
about next steps, then the expert can point out differences. 

Tuning into the atypical - Experienced teachers know how students typically
respond when learning a particular technique or grappling with a particular
part of the content. If an individual student or a group of students
responds differently, expert teachers automatically tune in to what's
happening with those students. This is true whether the student is
struggling or excelling. If a student learns something with great ease,
perhaps that approach would be of benefit to others. Part of what helps
novices develop expertise here is their explicit attempt to understand how
and why something works for students. If a particular set of exercises moves
students to a new skill level, teachers need to know why. "Teachers will
need patience as they are learning to see-which means they will not
immediately understand what they see. With deliberate practice, teachers
will make better sense of instructional situations and become adept at
finding potential in the unusual." 

Developing a critical eye - The objective here is to use what is seen to
implement improvement and to always consider ways to do it better. It is
almost as if experts don't know they are expert. Their efforts to improve
are even more relentless than those of novices. Key to success here is the
ability to analyze what's happening, to thoughtfully consider what one sees.
The dynamic milieu of the classroom does not afford time for scholarly
reflection, but events can be noted and then more carefully thought about

"To improve in teaching, teachers must deliberately practice their teaching
skills." (p. 32) Teachers are not born understanding what is happening as
students attempt to learn. Moreover, they can see something happening time
and again, but that does not mean they will come automatically to understand
it. The effort must be deliberate. The effort is work making because,
"Unless you understand what you see, your class might as well be invisible."
(p. 29)

Reference: Schempp, P. G. and Johnson, S. W. 2006. Learning to See:
Developing the Perception of an Expert Teacher. JOPERD 77 (6): 29-33. 

Copyright C 2006 Magna Publications, Inc. All rights Reserved.


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