Should observation “count”?

To have our first idea of things, we must see those things. To have an idea about a natural phenomenon, we must, first of all, observe it…All human knowledge is limited to working back from observed effects to their cause. (Claude Bernard, 1865)

If we make the observations with preconceived notions of what the truth is, if we believe we know the cause before we observe the effect, we will almost assuredly see what we want to see, which is not the same as seeing things clearly. (Gary Taubes, 2007)

Today, I am thinking about the power, value and importance of observation. I am hoping that thinking “out loud” will help me clarify my ideas and stop them from flitting around like butterflies.

Observation is not new to education. In fact, it is a cornerstone of effective teaching and teachers have been doing it since teaching began. So, I don’t think recognizing observation as part of our work in schools is news to anyone. However, I think that accepting observation as an important indicator of learning, both formatively and summatively, is harder to accept. Maybe rephrasing my thinking as questions will help: Can observation of a learning experience “count” as an assessment event? Is observation enough to conclude that learning has occurred? Can we use observation evidence to report a summative grade?

Certain subjects seem to lend themselves to answering yes to these questions. If we are teachers of physical education, we depend on observation. We also seem to be comfortable assessing in this manner in industrial arts, drama, music…it seems that in certain subject areas, observation is deemed vital, and everyone accepts a teacher’s judgement as sound and reasonable. Teachers document their observations, certainly, but this is enough.

Certain grade levels also seem comfortable with observation as part of the documentation of learning. In Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, the play-based environment lends itself beautifully to observation. Pair this with strong invitations to learn and effective verbal engagement between teachers and students and you have recipe for growth and development.  No one questions whether or not the teacher has the “right” to observe and make instructional decisions as well as report learning to families. This is how early years educators assess.

So, my question is if physical education and drama teachers or Kindergarten teachers are able to use observation of learning as an assessment event, then why can’t a middle years math teacher? I ask this because I have been puzzling over the strong tendency to have students write their thinking down at every turn. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate strongly the importance of literacy and writing. It is critical that students learn to express themselves in a variety of ways, including through the written word. My concern is more that writing is the only way students are being invited to show their understanding in some subjects.

I can think of a couple of reasons why we might be reluctant to use observation of learning as assessment. First, I think it is because we want to have visible accountability for the decisions we are making about student grades. There may be a fear that if a parent questions a grade, we won’t be able to support our decision. This leads me to think that we might need to learn how to document learning or make learning visible. There is a ton of literature around these two topics. If we document learning as part of observation, and keep track of our observations during learning experiences, we will have plenty of “evidence” to support our decisions. In fact, I think the evidence will be stronger and certainly more compelling than a single math sheet would. Second, I wonder if we are afraid to trust our own professional judgement. Is it easier to fall back on math as a justification of a grade than it is to assert our training, education and experience with children and learning? The truth of the matter is we are always making professional judgements, even when we grade a math paper. It is just that those judgements are often masked by a score.

It is the responsibility of a teacher to teach, to assess, and to report learning. We need to become comfortable with ourselves as professionals. We need to trust our observations. Once we do, we are free to experiment with learning experiences. We can move beyond paper into a three dimensional world. Using observation regularly allows us to be highly responsive in our instruction. It allows us the freedom to walk alongside students as they construct meaning, engage in inquiry, experiment, take risks and experience. No longer would we have to think: Wow, you really understood that. I sure hope you do well on your test next week!

Just thinking out loud…

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