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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alities of ethnographic practices. Ethnography is a detailed sociological observation of people which immerses the researcher in an intense period of observation which guides and informs all subsequent data gathering. (Radnor 2002:49)

Ethnographical approach is originally developed from the methodologies of field anthropologists and sociologists concerned with studying human behaviour within the context in which that behaviour would naturally occur. Methodologically, anthropological classroom studies are based on participant observation, during which the observer immerse him/herself in the new culture. Initial data gathered by the ethnographer are open-ended and relatively unstructured that allows and encourages the development of new categories (Delamont and Hamilton 1976:13). An ethnographer uses a holistic framework. S/he makes no attempt to manipulate, control or eliminate variables. At the same time s/he reduces the breadth of research problems systematically to give more concentrated attention to the emerging salient issues.

The great strength of the ethnographic research is that it gets away from the simplistic behavioural emphasis of the pre-specified codes. (Delamont and Hamilton 1976:37).

The main purpose of the ethnographic approach is the search for meaning and is based on the description of the studied phenomenon. However, Lutz (1986:112) warns that not everyone who can write a paragraph describing an encounter between a teacher and a student is an ethnographer, and he points out that an observer should be trained in ethnographic methods, particularly participant-observer field methods.


2.5.3 Ad-hoc approach

The term ad-hoc is used to describe something that has been devised for a particular purpose, with no claims to generality (Wallace 1991:113). The ad-hoc approach relates to structured approaches but the categories derive from a particular problem or research topic. That is why this system is more popular with practising teachers. What is more this approach is flexible and eclectic, and involves both quantitative and qualitative data where each seems appropriate. Wallace (1991:113) assumes that each different area of concern will yield a different system of analysis. Ad-hoc approach is considered to be the most appropriate in teacher-training education as it is basically guided discovery approach that drive student-teachers to focus and reflect on an important area of language teaching, and provide a meta-language with which to discuss. The instrument of ad-hoc approach is known as observation tasks (Wajnryb 1992) and is described in Chapter 2.6.2.


  1. Methods and techniques of observation


2.6.1 Classification of data collection techniques

Seliger and Shohamy (1989:158) present classification of data collection procedures according to the degree of explicitness. On one end of the scale they set broad and general techniques which do not focus on a particular type of data and are considered to be of a low degree, while at the other end they tend to put procedures which are more explicit and structured and thus reveal high degree of explicitness. Collecting data by procedures of a low degree of explicitness is done by means of open and informal description, which tends to be done simultaneously with its occurrence. Typical procedures of this kind are field notes, records, diaries, journals, lesson reports, personal logs, life history accounts, informal interviews with the subjects of observation. Collecting data by means of procedures of a high degree of explicitness involves the use of formal and structured types of data collection procedures. Examples of such procedures are interaction schemes, checklists, observation schedules, observation tasks, formal interviews, surveys, structured questionnaires, case studies, rating numerical scales. Different procedures imply different techniques for data collection. Data obtained from more structured observations are presented in the form of checks, tallies, frequencies, and ratings, while data obtained from the informal observations are presented in the form of narration, field-notes, or transcripts.

According to this classification I am going to describe a range of procedures that are applied to pre-service classroom observation.

2.6.2 Observation instruments

Field notes

Field notes are records of naturalistic observation in the natural context of the behaviour researched through direct listening and watching. The main focus of observation notes is accurate description rather than interpretation. An observer can write down interesting details on various aspects of school life in general and of the teaching process in particulars. Each observational note represents a happening or event it approximates the who, what, when, and how of the action observed (McKernan 1996:94). McKernan considers field notes as a useful tool as

  1. they are simple records to keep requiring direct observation
  2. no outside observer is necessary
  3. problems can be studied in the teachers own time
  4. they can function as an aide-memoire
  5. they provide clues and data not dredged up by quantified means.

At the same time an observer should consider some drawbacks in the use of this technique presented by McKernan (1996:96) as follows:

  1. It is difficult to record lengthy conversations
  2. They can be fraught with problems of researcher response, bias, and subjectivity
  3. It is time-consuming to write up on numerous characters
  4. They are difficult to structure
  5. They should triangulate with other methods, as diaries, analytic notes.

The case study

Elliot and Ebbutt (1986:75) treat case study as a research technique in which teachers identify, diagnose and attempt to resolve major problems they faced in teaching for understanding. Richards (1998:73) considers case materials help students to explore how teachers in different settings arrive at lesson goals and teaching strategies, and to understand how expert teachers draw on pedagogical schemes and routines in the process of teaching. McKernan (1996:76) reminds that the researcher or an observer should use a conceptual framework, which can relate to existing science. So, the researcher employs various concepts to make sense of the observed data.

Richards (1998:76) enumerates advantages for using case studies in teacher education:

  1. students are provided with vicarious teaching problems that present real issues in context;
  2. students can learn how to identify issues and frame problems;
  3. cases can be used to model the process of analysis and inquiry in teaching;
  4. students can acquire an enlarged repertoire and understanding of educational strategies.
  5. cases help stimulate the habit of reflective inquiry.


Some research employ both terms equally. Allport (1942:95) has made the point that the spontaneous, intimate diary is the personal document par excellence. Many researchers have kept diaries as self-evaluative tool of their own experience. The most notable study of a diary keeping method is described by Bailey (1990). She has used the diary study approach as one option for the classroom-centered research project required in the practicum. The resulting journals have focused on issues related to lesson planning and creativity, time management, problems faced by non-native teachers of English, classroom control, group work, and difficult student-teacher relations. Baily's (1990:218) sense of result is that diaries were often extremely useful exercises for the teachers-in-preparation, both in generating behavioural changes and in developing self-confidence.

Requirements to write the diary entries she identifies as follows:

  1. to set aside time each day immediately following the class, in pleasant place free of interruptions;
  2. the time allotted to writing about the language teaching or learning experience should at least equal the time spent in class;
  3. to set up the conditions for writing so that the actual process of writing is or can become relatively free. It's difficult in getting started;
  4. in recording entries in the original uncensored version of the diary, one should not worry about style, grammar, or organisation. The goal is to get complete and accurate data while the recollections are still fresh.

Her studies reveal some problems in keeping diaries. In actual practice, students experience difficulties in describing events freely, the process of writing seems to be tedious for them; they do not get used to criticize, reflect, express frustration, and raise questions in written form. Some students were reluctant to edit their private journals.

Porter, Goldstein, Leatherman, and Conrad (1990:240) consider the journal is not a personal diary. They emphasise that the journal is a place to go beyond notes made during observation by exploring, reacting, making connections. The journal entries are intended to be polished pieces of writing. But as diaries, as journal are not assessed. The problem with assessment is in that there is no rigid regulation about the frequency of entries per day or week. It depends on the nature and structure of the course. At the same time writing every week is considered to be productive since the journal is meant to be ongoing. Sometimes students need to process what they are reading and make connections among a number of readings.

Benefits of using journals Porter et al. (1990:287) sees as:

  1. students can get help with areas of course content where they are having difficulty; get a teachers response;
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