Introduction to Observation

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INTRODUCTION

Observation is like acting or directing or writing or any other complex skill-set. It takes practice. We all observe things all the time. We notice or perceive things that might be in our path—metaphorically and literally. We see things we want (or don’t want) and take action to secure them (or push them away).

When we talk about observation as an assessment tool, we sometimes refer to it as “formal observation” or “field observation” or “qualitative observation.” In those instances, we are observing with purpose in order to collect data that may or may not support a hypothesis. For example, we may be observing a class of students who are creating performance pieces. An objective for the class might be “Students work together to accomplish a task.” As an observer, we might begin by asking ourselves “How could I tell if students were working together?” or “What behaviors would students demonstrate if they were working together?” We then sit quietly in the back of the class, taking notes as a fly on the wall, and observe what is (and is not happening) in the class.

Simple, huh? Yes, but…

The purpose of observational data is to describe, not critique, the setting that was observed, the activities that took place in that setting, and the people who participated in those activities. But as we observe, our own personal experiences and biases often interject. We think how we might do things differently. We rely too heavily on how we ourselves act when we are engaged, and don’t acknowledge that there may be other ways to demonstrate engagement. And, most of all, we get bored or unfocused. We forget why we are there, and only part of our brain remains present and the rest is off at the grocery store.

Don’t worry if you feel you are missing something. It is just not possible to observe everything. Take time to scan the room for activity more generally, and then focus for a few minutes on specific students or elements.

When observing,...
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