Learner observation tasks as a learning tool for pre-service teachers

  Allen, J.P.B., Fröhlich, M. and Spada, N. (1984). The communicative orientation of language teaching. In Handscombe, J., Orem, R.A. and

Learner observation tasks as a learning tool for pre-service teachers

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lly, the observation and analysis must be objective.


  1. Approaches to observation in the language classroom studies

Observation in the language classroom is treated either as a research procedure for in -service professional development or as a learning tool for pre-service teachers. Hargreaves (1980:212) suggests that the 1970s were a notable decade for classroom studies thanks to the number of projects and the wide range of methodological approaches, and he identified three great traditions of studying classrooms - systematic observation, ethnographic observation and sociolinguistic studies. Sociolinguistics studies the aspects of linguistics applied toward the connections between language and society. These aspects are not of prime interest for pre-service classroom observation that is why I do not dwell upon this approach in this paper.

Hammersley (1986:47) proposes that systematic observation and ethnography are treated as self-contained and mutually exclusive paradigms. The further description of both of these approaches supports this idea. Croll (1986:5) illustrates some fundamental aspects of systematic observation as follows: explicit purposes which are worked out before data collection; explicit and rigorous categories and criteria for classifying phenomena; data should be presented in quantitative form to be analysed with statistical techniques; any observer should record a particular event in an identical fashion to any other. Ethnographic approach involves a complete cycle of events that occur within the interaction between the society and environment. Lutz (1986:108) defines ethnography as a holistic, thick description of the interactive process involving the discovery of important and recurring variables in the society as they relate to one another, under specific conditions, and as they affect or produce certain results and outcomes in the society. So, systematic observation is described as highly eclectic studies of an event with pre-specified categories and detailed analysis is presented in quantitative manner whereas ethnography describes and interprets events holistically in their naturally occurring contexts. More detailed characteristics of systematic and ethnographic approaches are provided in Chapter 2.3.


  1. Observation as a problem


  1. Classifications of errors in the process of observation

There is always the possibility of error in the observation process. Fassnacht (1982:43) reviews Campbells (1958) classifications of errors in representing data in psychological and social studies. Some of these errors frequently occur when making judgements and primarily concern language behaviour:

  1. error of central tendency
  2. error of leniency or generosity
  3. primacy or recency effect
  4. halo effect
  5. logical error

A first error occurs in using a rating scale. Hollingworth (1910) called the effect central tendency in a series of judgements about objectivity of quantifiable stimuli, when the large stimuli are underestimated and the small ones overestimated.

An error of leniency or generosity could arise in making favourable verbal judgements using personality scales. Fassnacht (1982:40) clarifies that in the personality scales a number of questions relating to one particular personality trait are drawn together and the answers to these questions are given in the form of yes, no, sometimes, often which might not reflect objective reality.

A third error occurs as a result of the order in which perceptual events happen. The problem is that in behaviour testing the first impression could have a distorting effect on later data collection and thus lead to errors. Bailey (1990:218) admits that in diary keeping, events that are embarrassing or painful when they occur often lose their sting after weeks of reflection.

A fourth error, halo effect, is described by Mandl (1971) when the evaluator has the tendency when judging a personality trait to be influenced by a general impression or a salient characteristic.

Logical errors or error of theory reveals due to the theoretical assumptions of the observer. It is now widely accepted that observation is always theory-laden (Phillips 1993:62). He continues that observations can not be pure, free from the influence of background theories or hypotheses or personal hopes and desires. Ratcliffe (1983:148) supports this assumption in that most research methodologists are now aware that all data are theory-, method-, and measurement-dependent. As Bailey (1990:226) suggests in conducting 'pure research' it is better to avoid reading the research literature in the field, to keep from biasing the results.


  1. The problem of observable items

The item observable in the definition given by Seliger and Shohamy (1989:118) mentioned above emphasizes the problem of what items to be treated as observable in classroom setting. Thus, Smith and Geoffrey (1968) make valid assertions criticising systematic observation systems:

The way the teacher poses his problems, the kind of goals and sub-goals he is trying to reach, the alternatives he weighs … are aspects of teaching which are frequently lost to the behavioural oriented empirical who focuses on what the teacher does to the exclusion of how he thinks about teaching. Smith and Geoffrey (1968:96)

McIntyre and Macleod (1986:14) generalize the problem of observable items and limitation of data obtained through systematic observation claiming that there is no direct evidence on the actions of participants which are not overt. The detailed criticism of systematic observation is given in Chapter 2.6.2.


  1. Data recording problems

The problem of accurate recording

Data collection, description procedures face problems of the accuracy and explicitness of records. The crucial problem is to be able to render interpretable the process of events and behaviour as it occurs naturally (McKernan 1996:60).

Hutt and Hutt (1970:34) emphasise the difficulty of accurate description of the behaviour. They emphasize the problem with the vocabulary choice in that there are many thousands of words which describe motor and language behaviour but unfortunately, the words are injunctive concepts, learned by usage rather than by definition (Hutt and Hutt 1970:34). Other than that, it is frequently found that some definitions are over encompassing in that they cover patterns of behaviour for which ordinary language has two or more terms. Lofland and Lofland (1995:93) recommend employing behaviouristic and concrete vocabulary rather than abstract adjectives and adverbs, which are based on paraphrase and general recall.

The problem of objective recording

Another problem with the written commentary to be discussed is the problem of objectivity. All researchers agree that the data are often subjective, reflect personal impressions, inferential and interpretative. Events may not be viewed the same way by different observers. It is common to find that witnesses to an accident give differing accounts of what happened (Lofland 1995:127).

Eisner (1993:49) defines objectivity as being fair, open to all sides of the argument. He considers that to reduce subjectivity the observer must achieve correspondence not only in what s/he perceives or understands but how she or he represents it. Schaffer (1982:75) continuous the problem of vocabulary choice saying that there are some aspects of reality which can be described fairly objectively and those which can only be described subjectively, and it is difficult to know where the borderline between objectivity and subjectivity lies. Scheurich (1997:161) doubts in the very existence of gross material reality. He claims that research mainly addresses interpretation of meaning or constructions of reality.

To sum the problems with data recording I can suggest that an observer may describe and interpret an event in subjective way due to personal bias, theoretical assumptions, s/he can experience difficulty in the choice of an object/behaviour to observe and words to record an event in accurate and explicit way.


  1. The choice of an approach to observation

An observer faces the dilemma in choosing systematic or ethnographic approaches. The main problem of ethnographical approach lies in its very nature it is so broad that it demands a highly trained observer to do a competent and reliable observation. An untrained observer may be overwhelmed by the complexity of what goes on and not be able to focus on important events in the classroom (Day 1990:44). Pre-specified coding systems in systematic observation are exclusively concerned with what can be categorized or measured (Simon and Boyer 1974). Thus they may distort or ignore the qualitative features which they claim to investigate. At the same time limiting the attention of the observer can help improve reliability.


  1. Reliability and Validity


  1. Types of reliability

Reliability and validity are the most important criteria for assuring the quality of the data collection procedures. The criterion of reliability provides information on whether the data collection procedure is consistent and accurate (Seliger and Shohamy 1989:185). The researchers suspect that observers may unintentionally impose their own biases and impressions on the observed situation. Seliger and Shohamy (1985:185) claim that for different types of data collection procedures different types of reliability are relevant. Thus they determine for th

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