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In a world where teachers hate being observed, how do you observe 30,000 teachers?

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How do you convince Chinese teachers it is useful good practice to have their lessons scrutinised? There is a way, Jocelyn Wang writes

In Chinese education ‘teacher observations’ have long had a rather nasty reputation. From the teachers’ perspective they are intimidating, a form of judgement overseen by ‘important people’, giving rise to resentment or even fear.

Teacher development here is typically delivered top-down – knowledge is transmitted from trainers (experts) to trainees (teachers).
The only established and accepted form of observation is one where trainee teachers watch an expert ‘model-teacher’ to see the ‘right way’ of doing it.

Chinese teachers subjected to observation tend to think, ‘What have I done wrong? Why are they watching me? Who are these observers who have the power to decide on whether my teaching is good or bad?’ So almost any form of classroom observation is met with strong resistance, even downright refusal.

At New Oriental, we are always trying to challenge conventional ideas of teacher development. So realising the limitations of the contemporary Chinese system, we wanted to change that.

In a rather bold move, we invited none other than teacher-training guru Jim Scrivener to visit many of our schools across China to conduct a wide evaluation of teachers at all levels teaching all types of classes for learners of all ages.

You can imagine the shock, horror and sheer panic some young teachers felt when Jim walked into their classrooms unannounced with his checklist in hand, beaming that trademark grin.

Cries of ‘Isn’t he the man who wrote the book?’ were heard echoing in New Oriental schools across China.
It was immensely valuable to have Jim’s insights and feedback and he gave an enormously detailed ‘snapshot report’ of teaching practices and teaching behaviour in our schools.

When we started to dig deeper into this lengthy report, however, we began to notice something. The observation criteria used was very ‘contemporary industry standard’ and that’s where the problem was. ELT ‘industry standard’ is often based on a very Anglo-European assumption of not just how lessons should be taught but more importantly on what English lessons actually are. At New Oriental, as across the sector, the spectrum of ‘lesson types’ is enormous.

From young learners learning phonics to middle school students preparing for the high school entrance exam to young adults preparing for Ielts and Toefl – notice that in this list there is no ‘learning English for meaningful communication’.

These lessons exist but they are few and far between.

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Take middle school lessons for example. These students are learning English for the sole purpose of passing one exam: the zhong kao needed to enter high schools.

In this test, students might need to recognise the difference between a phrasal verb and prepositional verb, understand which are separable or inseparable and what a ‘particle’ is.

They will never be asked to use this language for any communicative function, whatsoever, ever.

For such learners, a teacher-centric L1 explanation of grammar rules is exactly what they need.

At New Oriental the scope of lesson types is vast, and we have 30,000 teachers to observe. Clearly a very organic and versatile observation system is required.

This is what drove us to develop our own internal system of lesson observation and evaluation. We began by talking directly to teachers and trainers themselves about what really works in their lessons, what gets results (in China it’s all about exam results), what engages learners and what is achievable in often large classes with limited time and sparse resources.

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The feedback from this cross-section of teachers enabled us to create a menu system of over fifty evaluation criteria, all directly relevant to particular areas of teaching that happen here. Trainers and teachers were able to select the very items which matched their own lesson types to create a lesson-specific form of evaluation. Middle school teachers teaching grammar were now being observed on the clarity and succinctness of their L1 grammar explanations, not their lack of pair-work activities and peer feedback.

By involving everyone in the process of developing the system we have created a system that is welcomed by teachers. Trainers and teachers at all levels are now encouraged to observe using a system that fits their own reality of what teaching is.

Now, we even have teachers complaining, ‘Why hasn’t anyone observed my lesson yet?’ The answer is, we have 30,000 of you to observe, someone will see you soon.

Jocelyn Wang is the National Director (Teacher Development & Management Center) at New Oriental.