Two:nineteen Review: Cathy Clarkson, “ ‘While-observation’ discussions: using text-based synchronous chat to scaffold ESOL trainee-teachers’ reflective noticings during teaching practice,” Language Issues: The ESOL & Community Languages Journal, Vol. 31, No. 2, Winter, pp. 61-75 (15).

Do you cringe when you see yourself on video? Have you ever recorded the audio-only of your teaching? Or taken the plunge and videoed yourself teaching? (having taken everyone’s knowledge and permission, of course). It is not for the faint-hearted but remains one of the most powerful tools for improving practice.

Don’t be put off by the convoluted title of this paper (‘noticings’ is not a typo!) It explores how the teaching practice of trainee teachers may be developed through reflection. Whatever stage we are in our ESOL adventure, it is a good thing to reflect on different aspects of our teaching so that we can remain sharp and meet the language needs of our learners more effectively.

Observation with feedback is one of the most often used tools for developing teaching. It is most likely carried out by peers or an experienced, senior, authority-type figure – silently and individually. Clarkson’s paper asks if observation could take another approach in the context of trainee ESOL teachers in a CELTA-like situation.

What if teaching was videoed and everyone (including the trainer) got to observe one another on an online platform? Throughout the teaching, comments and questions could be typed into the chatbox for everyone to see. All in real time. Everyone would be in the same physical location just not in the classroom.

My first reaction was that it would take an unusual teacher to be willing to undergo live group feedback of their teaching. Most people find classroom observation nerve-racking, unsettling, and distracting. It is true that using video and the chatbox would be very useful in time-sensitive situations such as a course or workshop. It may take away the presence of ‘outsiders’ in the classroom, yet I doubt whether it would much reduce the disruption of being observed for both teacher and learners.

Having said that, I appreciate the way in which the trainees drive the observations being made in the chatbox. The trainer’s role is to nudge further reflection through questions. Feedback is immediate with the chat transcript handed to the trainees straight after their teaching for (ideally) immediate reading while the experience is still fresh. The trainer then identifies patterns in the chat comments and shares them with the trainees for a post-observation group discussion. The idea of ‘double-seeing’ where observing hopefully leads to change in the observer is compelling.

Giving and receiving feedback on teaching practice, however, is an incredibly complex process which has the potential to cause more harm than good. The paper admits that peer comments tend to be positive rather than negative (is a permanent record off-putting?) and trainees are unsure what to focus on. This is where the trainer would need to prep trainees about appropriate feedback-giving and be vigilant to insensitivity and unfairness.

The paper mentions that traditionally, trainees have a guided handout for making notes about each other’s teaching. This is so important as there are infinite things to notice. A pre-observation discussion with teachers about what to focus upon would be beneficial. Rather than anything and everything, observation could be a mutual focus on, say, instructional language, error correction, grammar explanations, or classroom management.

Another thing that struck me was that the trainer would need strong communication, diplomacy, and facilitation skills. These skills would be desirable for a trainer in a CELTA-type scenario anyway. However, steering comments towards effective feedback in real-time in a chatbox seems to me a different ball game. The trainer would need to approach the reality of the permanency and potential harshness of the written word with the trainees. The post-observation discussion seems to me to be the perfect opportunity for the trainers to pick up on questionable comments and for participants to explain, build upon, and retract their chatbox observations.

It is one thing using this live chatbox feedback approach in CELTA-training type situations where trainees need to go along with time-sensitive assessment approaches in order to make the grade. Participants are unlikely to meet one another again. It is quite another thing observing volunteer teachers who may have little to no ESOL qualifications and experience. Long-term working relationships go hand in hand with their motivation, morale, and camaraderie.

For volunteer teachers, I would recommend that chatbox feedback be used for teachers who are unknown to the group in non-live situations (e.g., YouTube). This would make the whole process less personally intimidating. Later perhaps, people may be more open to feedback by recording the audio-only of their teaching for feedback from a trainer and possibly one or two others rather than the whole group. Those who are qualified and experienced should be encouraged to lead by example and be observed first. When group trust is established, video could be used which would take account of aspects such as board work, body language, and class dynamics.

The chatbox idea is intriguing and could serve a useful purpose in time-sensitive situations and if approached sensitively. Whether teaching is live or not does not seem to be so important to me, especially in the case of volunteers. What resonates more is the intentional creation of opportunities for teachers to reflect, share, learn, and grow in their teaching.

Written by Daniel Whetham
Area Developer for Manchester
September 2021