There are many protocols for observing classroom technology integration, including FCIT’s own Technology Integration Matrix and our corresponding TIM-O tool. In this post, I’m using the word “protocol” broadly to refer to any checklist, survey, questionnaire, or model that is used to structure a classroom observation. Regardless of the form it takes, any protocol should be clear, meaningful, and actionable.

Clear

The first thing to look for in an observation protocol is clarity. All items should be clearly worded so that two observers would interpret them the same way. If different classroom observers interpret items in different ways, the observation data will be useless at best, and misleading at worst.

In addition to ensuring that the meaning of each item is clear, you should watch out for “or” questions. This sort of item pops up in observation protocols more frequently than one would expect. I imagine it’s because the creators of the protocol want to keep the number of questions down. Often, you’ll see something like this, “The teacher models appropriate technology use in class or students have weekly access to a computer lab. Yes/No.” A “Yes” answer to that question doesn’t really provide useable information.

Meaningful

The second thing to ask about a protocol you are considering is whether the observed items are meaningful. Is the observer looking for things that actually impact learning? A question about how many minutes per day students use technology might be interesting, but where is the connection between technology minutes per day and student achievement? We may not even know what students are doing with their minutes. Is there research tying each item to student outcomes? That was our goal years ago when we originally developed the Technology Integration Matrix. We selected the five characteristics of a meaningful learning environment that we felt had the strongest research-based connection to student achievement. In the end, it’s all about the pedagogy, not about the technology by itself. The tech is merely the means to an end.

Actionable

If a classroom observation doesn’t result in a report that can be acted upon to improve student achievement, then all we’re really doing is assigning a “grade” to a teacher based on 20 minutes out of 180 teaching days. Instead, the purpose of the observation should be collecting classroom observation data can be used by the teacher, by leadership, and by the professional development department to improve classroom instruction.

For the teacher, the results of an observation should provide specific, achievable suggestions to improve teaching practice. The TIM is sometimes criticized because it “seems so complicated.” We’ve been told that teachers will never learn all those specific descriptors. Well, yes, there are a lot of descriptors, but they aren’t there to be memorized like some multiplication table. When you take five characteristics of meaningful learning and multiply it by five levels of technology integration and multiply it again by four (summary, teacher, student, and instructional environment descriptors) you end up with 100 specific descriptors.

The whole point of the specificity is that once an observed lesson is assigned a profile, teachers can look at the indicators that are one level higher and select one to aim for the next time they do a similar lesson. For example, they may realize that even though their students know how to use appropriate technology to create a presentation, movie, or an infographic, they always tells them which technology to use. The next time they do a similar lesson, they could encourage higher-order thinking skills by giving the students the opportunity to decide which digital technology would be most appropriate for the kind of response to the assignment they are planning. Specific feedback can be acted upon for continuous improvement. Generalized feedback, not so much.

For leadership, aggregate observation data can be used to pinpoint technology needs, provide insight into resource allocation, or inform district or school-wide goals. It’s not unusual for a district to say something like, “We’ve discovered that we are really weak in collaborative learning. We’re two decades into the 21st century, but we are not doing well at integrating that basic 21st century skill into our instructional practices. We’ve decided that next year we are going to have a district-wide focus on collaborative learning.” A good observation instrument should provide data that is useful to both academic and technology leaders in a school or district. And, of course, observation data should be used to target professional development. No one wants to waste time and money on inappropriate PD.

Conducting classroom observations represents a significant investment of school resources. If your observation protocol doesn’t result in improved instruction, then you are merely wasting resources without a resulting benefit. If you ensure that your observations are clear, meaningful, and actionable, the resources will be well spent and encourage student achievement.

Roy Winkelman is a 40+ year veteran teacher of students from every level kindergarten through graduate school. As the former Director of FCIT, he began the Center's focus on providing students with rich content collections from which to build their understanding. When not glued to his keyboard, Dr. Winkelman can usually be found puttering around his tomato garden in Pittsburgh.

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