The majority of my fellow volunteers in Nigeria I were assigned to secondary schools. Because I had practice taught, I was assigned to a teacher training college where part of my responsibilities would be working with practice teachers.  As it turned out, though, one of the requirements for entry to the teacher training college where I had been assigned was a minimum of two years of teaching experience.  So all of the teachers I was asked to supervise had two to twenty times more years of experience than I had.  When the Principal realized this fact, he asked me to join the most senior member of the staff in his visits to schools so I could learn how to supervise.

On my first joint visit with this senior supervisor, one Mr. Ononye, I was invited to sit on a stool next to him in the front of the class where he was supervising a practice teacher.  About five minutes into the lesson, Mr. Ononye shot up from his stool and, pointing at the teacher, shouted, “You call yourself a teacher? Sit down!  I’ll show you how to teach.” I was so shocked by the Mr. Ononye’s sudden movement as well as his comment that I fell off the small stool that I was sitting on.  But the practice teacher was not at all shocked!  He moved from standing in front of the class to sit on the stool that Mr. Ononye had just left vacant. He seemed eager to see what Mr. Ononye was about to demonstrate.

Mr. Ononye’s comment is a symbol of the most common conversations about teaching between supervisors and either practice teachers or teachers who have to be reviewed for promotion or for retaining their position. Supervisors project their values on to the teaching activities they observe.  Here is a slightly exaggerated description of the aims of the usual post observation conversations: “I am going to observe you and your actions.  After the lesson, I will tell you what is right and wrong about your teaching and what needs to be improved.  I will prescribe better activities or collaborate with you to develop better activities.  Or, if you have a problem, tell me, and I will help you solve it.  I have been teaching a long time and know what will be needed to improve your performance as a teacher and to solve the problems I observe.”

I have found the usual post observation conversations stultifying and through the years along with many others have encouraged a wider range of post observation conversations.  On my blog, I introduce a range of contrasting post observation conversations designed in the first instance to explore and understand teaching and learning rather than to improve teaching and learning. Of course, over time, as we understand what we are having our students do, we will select some practices that consistently engage us and our students more.  But the initial goal is understanding rather than improvement.

The contrasting conversations you experience are based on these seven assumptions:

Assumption 1: We don’t know what good teaching or bad teaching is for all students in all settings with all teachers.

Assumption 2: Much of our teaching and our students’ behaviors are ritualistic-governed by unconscious rules the same way much of our other behaviour in life is governed by unconscious rules or habits.

Assumption 3: When we and others use the same word to refer to a practice, it is unlikely that we both have the same practice mind.

Dictation to one might be a listening test to another.

Role-play to one may be recitation to another.

Drill to some might refer to repetition and to others the rote memorization of grammar rules. Conversely, when we each use different words to refer to practices, we cannot assume that the practices are different.

Focus on form and emphasize the importance of accuracy might refer to the same practice, to cite one example.

Assumption 4: In addition to the fact that the same words often refer to different practices and different words might refer to the same practices, words we use to discuss teaching tend to be general, one-dimensional and judgmental. Here are a few frequently heard comments: “Use positive feedback; don’t worry about accuracy as long as they are fluent; meaning is more important than form; always start with an icebreaker or a warm up activity to relax the students.”

Assumption 5: Each of us is capable of generating many alternative practices through the observation and analysis of our own teaching and language use outside of classrooms through discussions about practices with our students and colleagues.

Assumption 6: What we and our students actually do in class and what we think we and they do are in most cases totally different.

Assumption 7: Atrophy is a condition that applies to teaching practices just as it applies to our bodies and other things in nature. Without constant tweaking of our practices, most practices become less and less effective.

Here is my description of the contrasting conversations that will emerge as you do the activities on this blog:

Rather than observe classes live, let’s jointly transcribe a two to three minute section of a class that you and I have taught and are keen to explore.  As we analyze the excerpts and view a video of the excerpts we each select, let’s try to see something new about teaching and learning, alter the practices in the excerpt based on what we see that is new.  Then, let’s compare the original transcriptions and video excerpts with those of the alternative practices Let’s ask a few students for their comments on the contrasting excerpts as well.

Let’s have as our goal a deeper understanding of teaching and learning. Though as we try alternatives, we are likely to see that some practices are more engaging and powerful than others, the immediate goal of observing and analyzing our teaching is understanding rather than improvement or prescriptions for ourselves or others.

If you are keen to try contrasting conversations, I invite you to do some of the activities on this blog suggested in articles that will be posted soon.