Vol. 2. No. 1 A-3 March 1996
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Mind the Gap: Thoughts on Self Help and Non-judgmental Observation in the Classroom

John Norrish
Institute of Education, University of London


This paper uses some of the findings of two major research projects in the University of East Anglia which show that any contemporary teacher will need to develop techniques to stand aside from their work and, with the assistance of colleagues, reflect on it and, in so doing, become involved with theory construction. It is axiomatic that any resulting description should be non-judgmental in character. Some examples of the kind of work that is done with groups of trainee teachers and future teacher trainers leading to facility in this area are described and discussed.


The title of this paper was suggested to me on a teaching practice in Portugal. One of my British post-graduate trainee teachers had the misfortune to get her leg jammed between a train and the platform as the train was about to pull out of the station. I am pleased to say that she was able to extricate herself and is now none the worse for her misadventure. As an image, however, the event remained with me. The accident happened since she had supposed that the speed and manner of the train's departure would be the same as the London Tube trains with which she was familiar. It wasn't. Nor was the gap between the train and the platform, nor were passengers enjoined by public announcements to "Mind the Gap," as we are in London. The point of this anecdote, if it is not already clear, is that there is a parallel here between this kind of event in everyday life and what happens when teachers suddenly find themselves in different situations either in different schools or countries new to them, or brought about by changes in educational policy. Carl Rogers (1983) puts it thus:

Teaching and imparting of knowledge make sense in an unchanging environment.... But if there is one truth about modern man (sic)it is that he lives in an environment that is continually changing (original italics). The only man who is educated is the man who has learned how to learn ... how to adapt and change ... who has learned that no knowledge is secure, that only the process of seeking knowledge gives a basis for security (p. 120)[-1-]

Rapid change has become a feature of many teachers' lives. I shall suggest that an element of preparation for this should form a part of any teacher education course, whether pre- or in-service, to enable them to cope with this rapid change.

ESOL in particular demands an even greater degree of flexibility than other forms of language teaching; its practitioners move from country to country, from adult to child teaching and from general to Specific Purpose teaching. What works well in one situation may not do so in another. In Service Education may help to relocate teachers, but is a relatively unknown feature for those employed in small scale private language schools or in countries where financial provisions for education are barely adequate. What then are teachers to do about coping with changing situations and climates of opinion?

Working within the paradigm of clinical supervision, Acheson and Gall (1980) and Stones (1984) feel that teaching has structure and is susceptible to control. The relationship between teacher and supervisor is essentially one of mutuality involving individual autonomy, self regulated enquiry , analysis, examination and evaluation. It is worth noting that this latter feature, evaluation, comes only after the other processes. It also accepts the role of the supervisor, who, alas, is not a permanent fixture in classrooms after the course. How can the solitary teacher develop this facility?

An approach which aims at developing precisely this has been termed "reflective teaching." Scott Thornbury (1991) quotes Calderhead on the subject:

Some of the common principles of reflective teaching ...are that professional growth, both in pre-service and in-service education, is viewed as being achieved through the adoption of responsibility for one's own actions (my emphasis) and through the analysis and critical evaluation of practice. (p. 140)


What is not clear in the quotation above is that teachers can only evaluate in terms of a theory, whether explicit or implicit. It is only theory which can give any internal consistency to the outcome of observation and form the basis of any reflection; a key issue in this paper is to indicate the source of the theory.

The aim of the paper is then to suggest that teachers can, by examining their own practice through reflection, generate their own theory and thereby develop a quality of professional flexibility. It is by constantly reflecting on practice, wherever it may take place,[-2-] that the 'renewal of connection' is established between the necessarily abstract theory and the situations to which it will be related. I propose to examine work done by a group of teachers and academics in the University of East Anglia (U.E.A.) (Elliott, 1990) and practices which we have developed at the Institute of Education in London while working with two groups of our own students.

Work at the U.E.A.

Work on the two major research projects, the Humanities Curriculum Project and the subsequent Ford Teaching Project, "Educational Researchers as Teacher Educators," began in the late sixties. Arising from a need to develop a new curriculum for less academic school pupils, work on the first of the two projects very soon began to indicate that any treatment of curriculum reform must necessarily entail considering the methods by which that curriculum was delivered. Elliott (1990, pp. 5-6) points out that curriculum reform of this nature is not theoretically neutral; it was guided by "a cluster of interrelated ideas about the nature of education, learning, curriculum and teaching"; the now familiar shift in the concept of learning was towards learning as the active production rather than the passive reproduction of meaning. This in turn entailed a change in the view of the relationship between curriculum and teaching. As Breen (1987, p. 166) was later to indicate, the curriculum depends for its realisation upon each teacher's interpretation of it in the light of the actual classroom circumstances. As Elliott puts it (1990, p. 6), "the curriculum is always in the process of becoming"; this represents an essential element of reflective pedagogy since teachers constantly assess student responses to materials and their organisation and deal with institutional constraints upon different forms of learning. As a result of the first of the two projects, a great deal of theory was generated by teachers working in groups.

It soon became clear that this theory was in danger of "being hijacked" in Elliott's words, and dressed up in academic jargon by the academic participants in the project. Inevitably upon its being represented to teachers, it took on the air of a decontextualised and imposed set of views, remote from its original matrix of situationalised ideas. This appeared to teachers to constitute a critique of their pedagogy; to the academics Elliott (who had begun the project as a teacher himself) and Stenhouse it became clear that providing feedback from their own observation and interviews was not sufficient to enable teachers to develop the capacity for self-reflection, since it was also clear that the project was no longer simply dealing with production of materials for teachers to test, but rather with their ability to adapt to new situations and new materials in those situations. It had also become clear that the self-imposed role of the development team as generators of theory subsequently to be implemented by teachers in classrooms "tacitly [-3-] re-inforced an unequal power-relation between ourselves and teachers" (Elliott, 1990, p.11), whereas if teachers saw this theory as a legitimate part of their concerns they should be helped to formulate it for themselves as they reflected about strategies for realising their aims. It thus became a tactical necessity for teachers to be given a far greater say in the collection of data (taped lessons and transcripts), in group discussions arising from it and in how it was used. [1]

Elliot goes on to stress that the reflection takes place not on the learning outcomes of a product model, (i.e., adapting the mind to pre-existing structures of knowledge) but rather on the processes experienced by the participants, both teachers and taught, in the fully contextualised classroom transactions.

The projects showed that it would be possible to define two different approaches to teachers developing reflective priorities:

  1. Reflection initiates action: The teacher undertakes research into the theory underlying a practical problem and, on this basis, changes some aspect of his/her teaching. The development of understanding precedes the decision to change teaching strategies; for example, a teacher spends two or three months reading up on group and pairwork in ELT and, as a result, decides to begin some regular work of this kind to improve his/her students' fluency in the language. This clearly needs a considerable amount of time to fulfil.

  2. Action initiates reflection: The teacher changes some aspect of his/her teaching in response to a practical problem and then self-monitors its effectiveness in resolving it.

Through the evaluation, the teacher's initial understanding (i.e., his or her own theory of the problem is modified or changed.

For example, a teacher decides to use a longer period of waittime between asking a question and receiving the answer in an attempt to encourage a class to take more responsibility for group discussion. (S)He asks some colleagues to monitor what happens. More discussion follows. This has the immediate advantage that the research occurs simultaneously with the teaching and is situated in the immediate environment.

Of these two differing approaches, the second is by far the more practical for classroom teachers faced with day to day scarcity of time and resources; taking a calculated risk is usually more practical than waiting while studies are made in various printed sources dealing with it. [2][-4-]

The second of the two projects, the Ford Teaching Project, focussed on the relationship of teaching and research. The main aim was to explore the possibility of getting teachers to develop "a common stock of professional knowledge" (Elliott, 1990, p. 18) about changing approaches from the then traditional to a more active and participatory mode. The project was designed to obviate the distinction between teaching and research, and saw each as a crucial component of the other; the two concepts were integrated into a reflective practice in which teachers were encouraged cooperatively to develop pedagogical theory and generate practical and diagnostic hypotheses. Revealing hypotheses were generated, which examine and attempt to explain why so often teachers feel they are failing in their work. These relate crucially to the whole notion of the teacher's self image: the "performer of well-crafted lessons" (Van Lier, 1994) or the independent teacher/academic reflecting on practice and learning from that process.

The UEA Hypotheses

The first hypothesis sets the scene (all too familiar to many of us) for the subsequent ones. In order to adopt an objective attitude to their practice, teachers need to be able to tolerate the existence of gaps between their aspirations and practice, with a subsequent lowering of self-esteem.

The more teachers self-monitor, the more mastery of their craft appears to elude them (my emphasis).

How would it be possible to encourage teachers in this situation in classrooms anywhere in the world to tolerate this loss of self-esteem? While serious in the West, in some cultures it is potentially disastrous. Fortunately, some of the succeeding hypotheses generated in the Ford Project offer suggestions, albeit indirectly.

The more teachers value themselves as potential researchers, (my emphasis), the greater their ability to tolerate losses of self-esteem. We found that once teachers began to perceive themselves as potential researchers they developed a greater tolerance of gaps between aspirations and practice. (Elliott, 1990, p. 22)

In other words, when teachers were less concerned with assigning worth to teaching behaviour, even their own, they were less inclined to feel inadequate. A further hypothesis was the following:

The more teachers perceive classroom observers as researchers, rather than evaluators, the greater their ability to tolerate losses of self-esteem.[-5-]


The more access teachers have to other teachers' classrooms, the greater their ability to tolerate losses in self-esteem.

This indicates that an environment in which teachers are free to attend each others' classes in an atmosphere of professional openness will assist in this reduction of feelings of inadequacy.

From these hypotheses followed the others, that:

the more teachers are able to tolerate losses in self-esteem, the more open they are to observers' feedback.


the more teachers are able to tolerate losses in self-esteem, the more willing they are to give other teachers access to their classroom problems.

These hypotheses indicate that once the virtuous circle of establishing a climate of non-judgmental professional interest is established, then teachers will begin to regard themselves as researchers with a professional stake in their own theory generation and a stronger chance of reflection on practice.

It was also shown that more openness to observer feedback led to a greater ability to self-monitor, and this in turn showed a greater likelihood that teachers could, if they wished, bring about fundamental changes in their classroom practice. We see, then, that when teachers observe and describe each others' classroom behaviour, activities and the like, but do not ascribe worth to what they see, it is more likely that developments and changes are possible, based on those observations, than when an observer, colleague or teacher trainer judges what is observed.

Some Practical Applications of the U.E.A. Work

The U.E.A. research confirmed one aspect of teacher behaviour beyond doubt: that teachers find that being observed is potentially threatening. The threat diminishes, however, in proportion to the amount of trust that the teacher has in the observer and in the observer's not attributing value to what is seen. To put this another way, an ethos of open and professional interest rather than one of immediate judgment encourages professional development. Relating to the traditional mode of observation, Williams says, "Classroom observations have always presented problems for teachers and trainers and generally cause considerable stress and upset on the part of the teacher" (1985, p. 85).[-6-]

The UEA research shows that this appears to be equally true for experienced teachers and recent recruits or students. Indeed, one might suspect that, for established teachers, the threat might be even greater as they have a greater time and effort investment in the profession than the neophyte.

One of the problems with classroom observation has always been that there is so much going on that it is virtually impossible to describe all that happens [3]. The tendency is, then, for the observer to evaluate simply as a shorthand, and it is precisely this evaluative element of observation which causes the stress and upset mentioned by Williams.

Consciousness Raising Tasks

In 1992, our M.A. students following a module on Teacher Training, were fortunate in being able to work with our Post Graduate Certificate in Education (P.G.C.E.) students on their teaching practice in Portuguese secondary schools. [4] Since the students on the M.A. course come from a variety of different cultural and pedagogical backgrounds, we regard this practical work as vital to the aim of encouraging an exploratory and non-judgmental ethos in their work. To do this, we gave each of these students, inter alia, a set of observation tasks to practice in the classes of trainee teachers. Each task tended to focus on one activity only. A frequent comment to this kind of work is that the Teacher Trainers were unaware of anything else going on in the classroom while they were recording, for example, teacher movement. This was usually said with some surprise. What also followed, in many cases, was an initial reaction against describing something, which is apparently so trivial as movement, on its own. But, of course, it is not on its own, an end in itself .

We then asked the two students, the teacher trainer and the trainee, jointly to relate the described movement to the particular stages of the class, the aims, the particular function of teaching at various times--monitoring, checking group work, introducing new material, dictating, and so on. It is at this stage, usually, that the realisation begins that in conjunction with these features of lessons, teacher movement can be an important variable which by itself is not susceptible to impressionistic evaluation.

We also find that the fact of being observed by someone perceived as a colleague, rather than a tutor, helps the trainee teachers to be less sensitive to observers and to enable issues to be raised in a non-judgmental sense as significant and to perceive both themselves and the observer as interested fellow professionals. The choice of what precisely was to be observed was often left to the teacher.[-7-]

We should not think, however, that this approach alone provides the panacea for all classroom ills. A characteristic of teachers under observation, and particularly students on a teaching practice, is the stress filter which seems to shut out all thought of previous experience, or recently learned ideas. Gutierrez (1992), working on teachers' thinking, has shown, by comparing detailed interview results and subsequent teaching practice performance, despite favourable attitudes to a more communicative approach, that this stress factor brought about in part by tutors' visits can effectively block all but the most elementary survival tactics for initial teacher trainees. Teachers are all too well aware that this is happening (see the U.E.A. research as detailed above) and seldom need observations of a judgmentmental nature.


What is, I feel, most important is not so much exactly what is done, what observation techniques are used, but rather that something is done; here, as elsewhere in teaching, we clearly see the benefit of focussing on the process: of standing aside from practice and attempting to see ourselves as others see us. As the U.E.A. research indicated clearly, this may well lead to unpleasant surprises and loss of self-esteem when we hold up the mirror to ourselves and see not a Clint Eastwood or a Meryl Streep, but rather Kermit the Frog still awaiting the kiss of the Princess.

It is important for teachers to realise they know a lot more than they think they do. To encourage the realisation of this, and to break down the solitary quality of the classroom, is surely worthwhile to enable teachers, and teacher trainers alike, to develop a more open professional ethos.

Classroom observation between peers is a productive method of trying this. One way to avoid the judgmental from insinuating itself is to look at some specific aspect of classroom life which seems interesting and relevant for a particular problem. For example, with a restive class who appear not to want to listen to the teacher's explanations, it is useful to record or note the explanations and to analyse them: Are they long? Are they complex? Are they above the language level of the class, and above the level of what is being explained? A simple tape recorder is of great use here.

Another simple technique is recording teachers' movements. A plan of the classroom is drawn showing desks and classroom furniture; the teacher's movements are plotted throughout the lesson, with, say, a different coloured marker for each stage or activity. Related to the plan, quite a lot can then be deduced about a noisy class. In the case of one particular pupil/learner being difficult, a description of his/her actions can be built up [-8-] over a class, which, put together with other descriptions, can help to explain the behaviour.

For beginning teachers, an activity as simple as noting how often a colleague actually uses the learners' names can be interesting. Apart from the gain in general rapport, there is nothing quite so effective in quelling a boisterous class as the judicious use of a name or two!

We would suggest that collections of observation schedules can be built up over a period of time, and that where possible, beginning teachers be encouraged to observe both experienced teachers and teacher trainers as well as their less experienced colleagues, experienced teachers should observe as many colleagues as they can and that all teachers should adopt an approach which will allow them to suggest areas of their work which they would like to be observed in this manner. In this way, we would suggest that a more investigative ethos could develop where all teachers would become accustomed to observation and would feel less threatened by the process. As teachers move to different kinds of work, so the reflective, investigative ethos will move with them, and learning to cope with new contexts would also be less threatening.

As with teachers, so with the formation of teacher trainers; it is clear that the same process is of value; in this case it is not the case that evaluation should be absent, since professional constraints frequently indicate otherwise, but rather that first should come a rather dispassionate observation leading to a more objective joint evaluation, the outcome of a dialogue between professionals, rather than a master instructing an acolyte. I believe that this kind of approach will better equip teachers to become better at minding the gap.


[1] Van Lier (1994, p. 340) makes the point that "Practitioners tend to be, to adapt a wonderful phrase of Lee Schulman (1987, p. 478), missing in action rather than lost in thought. The pressure to act fast and well, to perform well-crafted lessons, or in less happy circumstances, to go through routinized motions so as to reach the end of the day with the least amount of hassle, creates its own rhythm of movement, within which systematic reflection and teacher research seem to find no place, except for the most restless and courageous souls." He goes on to indicate that those hardy souls who do adopt a reflective research based approach may be subject to opposition both from uncomprehending peers and threatened academics. He agrees that teacher research needs promotion so that "practice can grow theory."[-9-]Back to text

[2] This second strategy represents what has since come to be called Action Research (see e.g., McNiff, 1988; Hopkins, 1985).Back to text

[3] Academic research is littered with books and Ph.D. theses which started off with intentions of devising a simple system to annotate and record classroom transactions, and which became complex beyond all recognition. Fanselow (personal communication), for example, recommends that relatively untrained observers should not even attempt to use his system Focus. Rees, in his Ph.D. work (1989) in the same vein, realised that the more one describes, the more one needs to describe.Back to text

[4] Since the untimely demise of the British initial one year teacher training Post Graduate Certificate in Education (P.G.C.E.) in E.S.O.L., the teacher trainers work with Maltese B. Ed. and P.G.C.E. students on their own teaching practice in Malta.Back to text


Acheson, K. and Gall, M.D. (1980). Techniques in the clinical supervision of teachers. New York: Longman.

Breen, M. (1987). Contemporary paradigms in syllabus design, Part II. Language Teaching 20/3.

Gutierrez, Gloria. (1992). Towards developing a qualitative perspective of student FL teachers' knowledge, its origins, development & relation to practice. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Institute of Education University of London.

Elliott, J. (1990). Teachers as researchers. Teaching and Teacher Education 6/1, 1-26.

Hopkins, D. (1985). A teacher's guide to classroom research. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

McNiff, J. (1988). Action research, principles and practice. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Rees, A. (1989). Developing a segment-based survey of second language classrooms. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Institute of Education University of London.

Rogers, C. (1983). Freedom to learn for the 80's. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company.

Schulman, L. (1987). Sounding an alarm: A reply to Sockett. Harvard Educational Review 57/4, 473-82.[-10-]

Stones, E. (1984). Supervision in teacher education. London: Methuen.

Thornbury, S. (1991). Watching the whites of their eyes: The use of teaching practice logs. English Language Teaching Journal 45/2, 140-147.

Van Lier, L. (1994). Forks and hope. Applied Linguistics 15/3, 324- 346.

Wallace, M. (1990). Training foreign language teachers: A reflective approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, M. (1989). Developmental classroom observation. English Language Teaching Journal 43/2, 85-91.

The author

John Norrish worked in Asia and Africa teaching English at secondary and university levels before returning to the Institute of Education, University of London. He has participated in many teacher training projects in Europe and the Third World and has published internationally in different areas of TESOL.


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