When Stanford Professor Lee Shulman was first enmeshed in the research that led to Board certification of teachers by NBPTS, I asked him – in a hotel bathroom, of all places – what interesting findings were turning up about great teachers as compared to the rest. He replied: “Well, you might not find this such a big deal, but a big indicator is the degree to which a teacher accurately describes what happens in her classroom.”
I DID find it a big deal! It confirmed something I had noticed for years, memorably captured by Ben Stein playing a boring and clueless history teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: weak teachers have big blind spots. In fact, earlier that week I had watched one of the top teachers in Jefferson County KY overlook some revealing student behavior after she had stopped to work with a small group doing a task. At the end of her brief conference with them, she asked: OK, got it? They all smiled and nodded their heads. But the moment she started to leave, 3 of the 4 girls shrugged their shoulders and made that frowny look we all make when we don’t get it. The teacher missed it.
I think understanding is difficult to achieve, so I am always a bit skeptical that it has been achieved. I have thus always had sensitive peripheral vision and a desire borne of skepticism to see what’s really going on as a teacher. That’s why I was a pretty fair soccer referee (where you need eyes in the back of your head if you’re going to catch many fouls away from where the ball is, i.e. “off the ball”). And though I was a reasonably effective teacher, I think my strength was more my ability to read faces and body language (as well as papers) than my initial teaching. I saw when something was not understood or I noticed who wasn’t paying attention and responded accordingly.
Seeing is not so easy.
Yet, as Shulman noted, a surprisingly high number of teachers, like my Kentucky friend, are guilty of noticing only what they expect and wish to see and hear rather than what is really there to see and hear. This is a critical reason why evidence-based supervision is needed because teachers sometimes describe in post-observation conferences what they think occurred in ways that do not reflect the evidence at all. It may also explain why many teachers don’t trust test scores because we intuitively think our students learned more than tests show because “we taught them well.”
Think it’s easy to see what’s there to be seen? It isn’t. We have a clear agenda in mind, far more is happening on the periphery of the action than we can easily take in, and we often unwittingly rely on very selective evidence for how things are going.
When I was a teen, a great trick (and winning bet) was to ask people to count how many E’s, lower-case and capital, are in the paragraph on the back of a pack of Camel cigarettes. Practically no one gets it right:
Camel pack
The first time I did it I found 7, if it’s any consolation.
Or, watch this video, if you haven’t already seen it.
I was the first teacher in my school to ever videotape his class because I was so interested in teacher blind spots. (I won’t say it was a while ago but it was before VHS cassettes: the SONY deck used 1-inch reel-to-reel tape!) Even with my decent perceptual skills, however, I was shocked at the number of things I had missed while going over the tape: students who made slight movements as if to speak, and who didn’t get my attention, and often gave up for the rest of the class; how regularly I used the word “obviously” in analyzing a text – deadly for most students to whom it was not obvious; how few student questions were higher-order; and how many students wrote nothing in their notebooks for an entire class even though their notes were meant to be a key helpful resource to them for later drafting papers and doing exam preparation.
Looking ‘off the ball’ and seeing what of note doesn’t occur.
I became a better teacher by being a defensive-minded JV and Varsity soccer coach. As a coach, my eyes were always off the ball because in coaching the defense you are deliberately looking away from the action to see what the defenders are doing in anticipation or response. Yet, not only do most fans constantly watch the ball, many naïve players and coaches over-watch it as well. (Watch the eyes of your youth soccer coaches this fall!)
Ever notice how many teaching videos make this same mistake? The camera focuses far too much on the teacher teaching instead of the students trying to learn, which makes the video far less valuable than it might otherwise be. (One easy fix: mike the teacher, but let the cameras follow the kids.)
Making matters worse, we know from the research that people have a far more difficult time noticing what doesn’t happen than what does. This is true even in the highest levels of soccer, as I am learning from reading a new book called The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong. The text is filled with all sorts of cool and counter-intuitive statistics about professional soccer.
A big take-away so far, for example is that a goal not conceded is more valuable than a goal scored, over the long haul of a season. Yet to “see” a goal not conceded is as difficult as hearing the non-barking dog, or seeing the e in the the on the Camel pack:

Defense has, for too long, been ignored by those who analyze and assess soccer…. The debate over how best to play the game has said precious little about defending and everything about offensive play.

Even the data collection companies that have emerged to computerize traditional notational systems find their eyes drawn to one end of the [field]. Things that form part of an attack – passes, assists, crosses, shots, goals – are easily spotted, coded, and counted… The best defenders are those that never tackle [because tackling represents a last-ditch effort that should have been avoided sooner]… Ball events are tracked, but things that happen off the ball are ignored. It is far harder to tune in to excellent marking, cutting off passing channels, and wonderful positioning….The art of defending is about dogs that do not bark.”

What you might trying seeing better in the future.
What is the equivalent of “hearing” the dog that, for once, doesn’t bark, as Sherlock Holmes famously did in Sliver Blaze? To what things do we as teachers in our own classrooms tend to be blind? Where should we be looking “off the ball” to better see and understand what is happening in our classroom? The following areas might be targeted more carefully next school year, perhaps with recording equipment, to better see what is there to be seen:

  •  Look beyond the “yesses” and head nods.  “Everyone got it?” we ask after a mini-lecture. We are typically fooled by a few strong affirmations: Yes! we hear some kids say strongly, and we see some nodding heads. So, on to the next topic we go. But what of those who did not say anything or nod? And how many didn’t say Yes or nod? Count them next time: it will be more than you realize. An absence of nods and questions is a non-barking dog. This is where ‘clickers’ (LRS) are invaluable, too.
  • Look “off the ball.” Watch students who are not speaking when their peers are speaking. Watch students other than the one you are speaking to. Watch student eyes after one student speaks: do they all come back to you, as if every next move is always passively viewed as yours? Are they engaged or not? Understanding or not? Cold call the ones who look puzzled or who look back at you: “Jake, you look puzzled by what Kathy said. What questions do you have?”
  • Spot the “first foul.” We easily see a disturbance or an off-task behavior, and we naturally offer a reprimand. But we often do not see that the episode began a step back, when offenders were bothered by someone else first or frustrated by their own lack of understanding. In soccer and other sports, a typical referee usually sees and calls only the second foul but not the first foul that started the incident, caused by the player now being fouled! Learn to look for subtle clues that something has just happened out of hearing or sight, like a good referee; try to avoid punishing only the retaliator.
  • Listen for the ‘dog that does not bark’. We all have students who constantly talk in class and others who cause minor troubles by smart-alecky contributions. So, pay close attention to when the chatty child doesn’t speak and when the wise guy makes no attempt to get a laugh. What caused the change of behavior? We need to know.
  • Look for what the quiz does not show. Multiple choice quizzes hide, by their very nature, the reasons the students choose the answers they do. Yet, the unheard reasons matter as much as perhaps more than the answers on quizzes. Why not turn every 5th question into one where students have to say why they made that choice, or rate their confidence level in their answers? Or in Part 2 of a quiz (where they have already made their selected response choices), require an additional 2-3 constructed responses for some of the harder questions. Take points off for the right answer for the wrong reason and give points for the opposite.
  • Who are my “starters”? Without realizing it, we sometimes only call on a select group of students: more girls than boys, the most talkative, the least shy, etc. Either via tape or a colleague, track your calling patterns for a week to see if you have fallen into an unconscious and unproductive pattern. It is especially important if you have whole-class discussions regularly to count who doesn’t participate for a few days because that pattern can quickly extend to the whole year if you don’t take steps to address it.
  • Feedback on your feedback. As in my story of the KY teacher, it is vital to watch students after you give them feedback to see if they understood what you said and/or appreciated the help. It is very tempting to give the feedback, look for a quick nod, and get up to join another group; resist the temptation.
  • What notes do they take? Spot checks of student notes as they take them, not days after the fact, are key to ensuring that current lessons are useful to them for future tasks. Even though it feels like an interruption to the lesson, make sure you see a sample of what they write down to ensure that the time isn’t wasted.
  • Call a time-out. Learn to better and more quickly notice when things are not working as well as they should, be it a group activity, a writing assignment, a class discussion, or a lecture. Call a time-out to either ask learners what the trouble is or to quickly re-direct the learning to make it more productive.
  • Assess formatively every few minutes. A blind spot for many secondary and college teachers involves not realizing how much time has elapsed as we teach and how heavy the cognitive load is during that lengthy time. What common sense and the research say is that we need to pause and do a quick check for understanding every 10 minutes or so when we are teaching, either using a prompt and a learning-response system like paddles, note cards, thumbs and fingers, or clickers; or quick questions that target common misunderstandings. I recommend setting a timer on your computer for a while to get a feel for what a 10-minute chunk feels like.
  • Ask for feedback. No matter how much you attend to what is working and what isn’t, routinely ask students for feedback. It can be as informal as a thumbs up-thumbs down in the middle of discussion, a traffic light post-it or other exit slip, or a brief survey for homework (What worked today? What didn’t? What would you like me to review tomorrow, if anything?). Teachers who don’t actively seek feedback about what works and what doesn’t are unwittingly limiting their effectiveness. Not to mention a lost opportunity to gain greater student respect for acknowledging what they can all see when it’s not working.

Readers: any other suggestions for better seeing and hearing what is there to be seen and heard if we would only make a conscious effort to notice it?
PS: Tip of the hat to John Norton for correcting my Holmes reference. It was NOT The Hound of the Baskervilles, but Silver Blaze – thus an ironic  example of seeing what I thought I saw. 🙂
PS: I since was directed by Frank Nochese to a great discussion of pseudo-teaching – i.e. on the surface, it looks engaging and intellectually solid, but under the surface it isn’t clear that real learning occurred. Great discussions, too:


28 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Farrell Ink and commented:
    I read every post by Grant Wiggins, but this one really stood out to me as essential to great teaching in any subject for any age group. It is also challenging, but not intimidating. There are excellent practical suggestions at the end of this post, like doing formative assessment every 10 minutes.

    • Thanks! I had fun writing it which is often NOT the case with my writing. Prompted by the soccer book I am reading and a conversation I had with my soccer-playing daughter. Then I recalled the Shulman comment, so off I went…

  2. Grant,
    First, I proudly state I counted 15 passes, saw the gorilla, & counted all the e’s. Now that my boasting is complete, …
    This is such an important discussion. It speaks to the relevance of having high emotional intelligence as a teacher and supervisor, thus better understanding the gestural and other cues observed, given they are indeed observed, which returns to your point.
    As I read I thought, layered atop the valuable tactics you shared, could be a simple habit of continually asking on e’s self, “What am I missing?” Then while asking this not only assume but trust things are being missed. In disabilities work we follow the principle of the least dangerous assumption, to always assume the highest possible ability in exceptional learners, and even when evidence indicated otherwise to never assume there isn’t another way to meet the goal sought. This applied here in not assuming all was caught, but rather assuming stuff was missed.
    I will gratefully take this post with me into the new school to consciously focus on teaching “off the ball”.
    And by the way, as a volunteer youth soccer coach of my kids’ teams, yet by no means an expert in soccer, I appreciate and also have learned from this and other soccer analogies you have shared.
    Thank you for sharing this. Peace.

    • Props to you! I think the key is the assumption: there MUST be things I missed, and some are important. What might they be? Great point.
      As for soccer coaching: defense is alway the key in youth soccer since few coaches coach it. Simple tips:
      1) Never, ever as a defender be in a line with other defenders parallel to the goal-line. Then 3 or 4 of you are all beaten at once by a single mistake. Always align yourselves as a defense, therefore, on an angle: the player on the far side should play much further back than the kid on the near side, to handle a missed tackle or fast break.
      2) Always anticipate the next most likely pass when you are well off the ball but on the same side as where the ball is, and try to intercept it.
      Guarantee: you’ll win a few more games if they can reliably do this!

  3. I am entering my 43 year of teaching, and often wish we could hire for that elusive quality I call “with-it-ness'” — that uncanny ability and dogged determination to hunt for nuance, to observe the imperceptible, and the willingness to act intuitively on it in a timely manner. So much of excellent teaching and learning depends on it. We now ask our potential hires to teach a lesson with our kids, and I actively look for it in our candidates. It’s an outstanding indicator of talent.

  4. I randomly pick one student each class. A the end of the period, they record a 30 second voice memo for me, telling me what the important part of the lesson was, or what they learned that class. I used to post the recordings to a posterous site where parents and other students could hear that child’s rendition of what they thought was important or what they had learned that class. It was very fascinating, in a horrible way, because what I thought I taught was NEVER what they told me they’d learned.

    • HA! Indeed, it is always humbling to get the feedback. I like the audio clip idea – easy to do with phones now – but perhaps with a more focused prompt? (e.g. What were the 2-3 most important things I stressed today? What, for you were the most important take-aways?)
      My favorite piece of withering feedback was from a kid named Roger, who knew me well enough (from baseball as well as other classes) to say to me one day: Mr W., have you ever taught this stuff before?? it doesn’t seem like it. (In fact the answer was no). Ouch. Good lesson, though. I used him as a barometer all year. I do the same, still, in long workshops – I pick out 2-3 people to use as barometers of how the workshop is going. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Excellent and fun to read as well. I hope you don’t mind that I posted it our IL Assn of Tchrs of Eng fb page.
    It struck me that if one has an intern or observer or student teacher, that s/he might do the observing, maybe for one or two of these things. It would train them in observation and give the two of you good material to discuss. Then, the “regular” teacher can do it for the younger person.

  6. My trick, during class discussions, was to move as far away from the speaker as possible. (i.e., I would be doing laps around the room as students spoke, rather than just hang out in the front of the room.)
    Of course, this forced the the speaker to speak up, as I want him/her not speak to the class, and not to me. But it also constantly changed my literal perspective on the class. It made me more aware of different parts of the room, different students, different groups. I believe that it this helped me to learn the dynamics of that groups of students faster, and therefore helped me to be able to understand what was occuring off the ball with less effort.

  7. When I was just starting out, I would spend at least one period a week in someone else’s classroom, as an observer. (Not just as a student teacher. In those days it was a period a day. Later, I continued, but at a reduced pace.)
    This, I think, helped me to understand the nature and rythms of a class better/faster. That is, I could observe them without playing a role in them (either as a student or as the teacher). I could focus on my own learning, rather than my own role.
    Sometimes, I would choose just to watch a single student all period. I knew how I behaved, responded and all that, when I was a student. But I intentionally focused on other sorts of students. Again, this was an intentional to accelerate my own learning, so I could use that background (and even unconscious) knowledge when I was in my position as teacher of my classes.
    I often reccomended this to student teachers and novice teachers. I hope it helped them, too.

    • Shadowing a single student for a class or even a whole day is a very powerful experience. We did it in a few projects and for some educators it was transformative.

  8. I’m going to be somewhat blunt here. Do we really want to see? I know plenty of teachers who like questions in theory, but after a while will mock students for asking questions after lessons. Do observers want to see students tell the teacher they don’t get it after being taught a lesson? Do we want to see it?

    • Teachers mock kids for asking questions? Grim…
      I know there are teachers who do not see, whether by choice or not. I once watched a teacher teach to 4 kids for an hour – in a class of 28. It was mortifying. But it still make me wonder what the motivation is and whether they really don’t or really won’t see it.

      • I honestly think some teachers forget what it means to learn and that students don’t all learn at the same rate, or have the same proficiencies. Some people get things really easily, some really struggle to understand – I’m like that with language. This is why we need to shift the focus to students. How many times have we heard teachers mocking a student when the students aren’t around? Maybe some teachers really don’t want to teach students who struggle.
        I do agree that we almost need a sticky note on our desk each day reminding us to check around and make sure we are making a difference to everyone in the room. It’s easy to get tunnel vision! Maybe we need a sign put up in the room reminding students to advocate for themselves as well.

        • I like the idea of the sticky note, and a big sign saying Advocate for yourself! but in a sense the sign lets the teacher a bit off the hook. The professional obligation is to make an extra effort to notice who is having trouble learning or participating or even fitting in. Maybe this should be more central to annual goal setting and self-assessment: who did you not reach as much as you would/should have wished? Why? What lessons can be learned for the future? or something like that.

          • In a way you are right about letting teachers off the hook, but students also need to build their metacognitive skills and realize that they are a huge part of the learning process. As much as we teachers like to think we are awesome, we are not always mind readers.
            Maybe this all should be part of team meetings as well. Who is struggling and how can we get them engaged? What’s working and not working? The student can also be a part of this with a, “How I like to learn.” statement.
            Great stuff to think about all around!

  9. Great post – and perhaps in keeping with the selective attention theme, you assumed that the dog didn’t bark in The Hound of the Baskervilles (it’s a hound, right?) but it’s actually in the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_Blaze I made this same mistake in a post one time… thought I’d pass the lesson forward. 🙂

    • Argh!!!! – right you are. Thanks for pointing this out. This is the 2nd time in 2 weeks I have been burned by false associations. Last week I was certain that “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” was said by Liz Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Whoops – All About Eve, Bette Davis. Thanks!!

  10. Hello Grant and thank you for the very useful tactics and strategies to implement in the classroom! I know in the past I have utilized several of these methods, like a exit card or looking for the class to give me a series of “thumbs”, both are great ways to get a quick idea of how much your students are understanding and taking away from the lesson or activity. Often times I will conduct a quick survey at the beginning of the next class to see if I can prompt students to remember the objectives covered from the previous class, although more often than not they feel that I am giving them a ‘pop quiz’ and I am forced to reassure them that it will not be collected as a summative assessment. In the end I try to find as many quick formative assessments as I can to vary my style and to keep the kids interested.
    The ‘blind spots’ that you speak of and all teachers experience, I know that I have mine and there are days when I know I missed something in class and wish I could have gone back to address it, are perhaps one of the hardest things for teachers to deal with on a daily basis. I feel that most teachers have an agenda that they want to make their way through and do look for those indicators that will allow them to move on. As educators we absolutely need to assess on a regular basis to gain better insight to what our students understand and what knowledge they have taken in, but part of me wants my students to advocate for themselves and come to talk to me about what they missed or don’t understand. I know that being anonymous with ‘clickers’ is a great tool for all students, especially shy ones, but I also want to encourage them to talk to me.
    I feel that reflection is an important tool to use in the classroom and it can take form in many different ways, it builds communication skills as well as a more collaborative community. I have had students write a brief paragraph (this could be a journal they keep and then they can see their progress of learning as the year moves on and you can read it too to see how you are doing too) about the level of the understanding of what we have just covered, either that class or for the week. Students can choose to share their entries with class. Sometimes just sitting the class in a circle and talking about the topic being covered is enough for questions to come out. I go around to each kid and ask for the first word that comes to mind when I mention the day’s activity or lecture, then I go back and ask for them to build off of that. Sometimes I write everything down on butcher paper and leave it up for the next day, then you can reference it later.
    When working with groups I have found that accountability for the teacher a student is a two-way street. Students can help each other by learning effective means of assessing each others performance. By setting up the right criteria for what a collaborative group looks like and feels like students can get the idea of what they are doing, especially if you are not around to see it. Students can peer-assess each other individually or as a group, then you can look at them later both individually and as a whole. I like the idea of my students learning how to self/peer assess because it helps keep some of the onus on them.
    Thank you so much for the great insight and tools to help me in my classroom!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I fully agree that a key variable is setting up groups to fully internalize protocols and criteria for self-assessing their work and staying focused. What many teachers of older students don’t seem to realize is that they need to ‘free’ themselves up to coach and the only way to do so is to develop self-sustaining and engaging work for groups to do. I also used journals, though I preferred to call them ‘Reflections’ to signal that it wasn’t to be either a diary or too self-centered. Again, thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

  11. Working in an ESL classroom in Asia it is extremely hard to get student feedback. I really liked your ideas about a either a stop light or thumbs up or thumbs down. Thanks!

    • I feel your pain. I found it very difficult to work with teachers for a week in Beijing on UbD – no typical non-verbal or verbal feedback. At least I had 2 translators, but you never know what filters they are using.
      True story: 10 or so years ago I presented to a visiting group of Chinese educators in Hartford CT. Old guy doing the translation. When I got to the part of UbD as a way to develop critical thinking and the development of good questioning thru EQs and paused for the translation, he said like 1 sentence. I turned and looked at him quizzically: Really? You just translated everything I said? Yes, he nodded. Hmmmmmmmmm.
      On the other hand, after the week in Beijing, a HS teacher came up to me, bowed, and thanked me: I was the first teacher he had ever had who did not read from a script and never deviate from it. he and his colleagues were amazed at my ad hoc responses to comments and questions. So, there’s hope!

  12. Grant,
    My principal and I have talked (I am the mathematics dept chair) about having our tech person record a class from a different math teacher each week and then discussing sections of the video at our PLC’s.
    Do you know of any departments that do this already? I think it would absolutely help with the “blind spots” you are referring to. I would like to get some ideas on pushback and difficulties other departments have had before I make the proposal to my teachers.

  13. Grant,
    I have the privilege of proposing this to my department today. They are getting a printout of this post sans comments and then we will discuss. My principle is completely on board and she has already scheduled a date for me to be the first, er .. victim!
    Thank you for being such a public face to good teaching and encouraging this type of constructive classroom feedback.

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