A classroom observation is a formal or informal observation of teaching while it is taking place in a classroom or other learning environment. Typically conducted by fellow teachers, administrators, or instructional specialists, classroom observations are often used to provide teachers with constructive critical feedback aimed at improving their classroom management and instructional techniques. School administrators also regularly observe teachers as an extension of formal job-performance evaluations.
Classroom observations may be called learning walks, teacher observations, walkthroughs, and many other things, and they may be conducted for shorter or longer periods of time—from a few minutes to a full class period or school day. Educators may also use a wide variety of classroom-observation methods—some may be nationally utilized models developed by educational experts, while others may be homegrown processes created by the educators using them. In many cases, observation notes are recorded using common templates or guidelines that describe what observers should be looking for or what the observed teacher would like feedback on. Increasingly, educators are conducting and recording classroom observations using digital and online technologies—such as smartphones, tablets, and subscription-based online systems—that can provide educators with observational functionality and data analytics that would not be possible if paper-based processes were used.
While classroom observations are conducted for a wide variety of purposes, they are perhaps most commonly associated with job-performance evaluations conducted by school administrators and with professional learning communities—groups of teachers who work together to improve their instructional skills. Classroom observations may be conducted by teachers in the same content area or grade level—in these cases, teachers share students or similar expertise—or they may be conducted by teachers across academic disciplines—in this case, the goal may be to observe and learn from the varied instructional practices used in different types of classes.
It should also be noted that many educators make a strict delineation between observations made for the purposes of helping a teacher improve, and those conducted for the purposes of job-performance evaluation. Some educators may object to the use of walkthrough, or other terms associated with non-administrative observations, when referencing evaluative observations by school administrators.
Generally speaking, classroom observations could be considered a de-facto school-improvement strategy, since they are typically intended to improve instructional quality and teaching effectiveness, whether they are conducted by fellow teachers or by administrators.
Since teachers often work in relative isolation from their colleagues—e.g., they may create courses and lessons on their own, or teach behind the closed doors of a classroom without much feedback from colleagues—teaching styles, educational philosophies, and academic expectations often vary widely from class to class, as does the effectiveness of lessons and instructional techniques. Classroom observations arose in response to these common trends, and they are often used as a form of professional development intended to foster greater collaboration and more sharing of expertise and insights among teachers in a school.
Classroom observations may become the object of debate or criticism for a variety of reasons. For example, if classroom observations are used as part of a job-evaluation process, school leaders, teachers, and teacher unions may have divergent ideas about how the observations should be conducted and what the evaluation criteria should be. In addition, while classroom observations have long been used in the job-performance evaluations of teachers, some critics contend that the observations contribute relatively little to the improvement of teaching for several possible reasons:
- Principals may not use consistent, evidence-based evaluation criteria.
- Principals may not have been trained in proper observation strategies, or they may not have the teaching experience or expertise required to evaluate instructional techniques.
- Job-performance observations are typically prescheduled, which means that teachers can prepare in advance and alter their methods, and that the quality of teaching on the observed day may not be representative of a teacher’s normal practice.
- The feedback teachers receive may be superficial, inconsistent, or unhelpful in terms of improving instructional quality.
- Most teachers receive high job-performance ratings from principals, even in poorly performing schools where there is evidence that low-quality teaching is occurring.
Classroom observations may also challenge established institutional conventions and teaching practices, which can make the strategy an emotional topic in some schools. For example, some teachers may not see any value in the process, they take issue with the specific criteria being used, they may not approve of certain people watching them teach, or they may be uncomfortable with the idea of being observed because they they may feel threatened or insecure in such situations, to name just a few possible reasons.