Trainee teachers: Learning from observing?

Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts taught English, Media and Film for 10 years; four as Leading English Teacher. She has been involved in teacher training for over five years as a school-based mentor and trainer, and currently works part time at the University of Chichester, contributing to PGCE and School Direct pathways. Rachel is studying for a Doctorate in Education at the University of Reading, and works as a freelance trainer / consultant.

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Remember the first time you stepped into the classroom of an experienced teacher to observe their lesson? Did they make everything seem so easy? Were you swept along with the rest of the class in the energy of the lesson? Or bored to tears because you didn’t know what you were looking for; keen to get on with teaching your own class? If you have student teachers in your school, this is likely to reflect part of their school experience. Described in Lortie’s seminal Schoolteacher (1975), teacher training is an “apprenticeship of observation”; learning through observing others is an integral part of all Initial Teacher Training (ITT) in the UK.

The Problem of Tacit Knowledge

"It might be reasonable, with this supposition, to think that trainee teachers should observe the best teachers, the ‘experts’."

The dominant paradigm for ITT, regardless of pathway, is to develop ‘reflective practitioners’: we instruct our student teachers to observe, learn and reflect in order to develop their own practice. The trainee can see good practice, the theory goes, and therefore they should be able to enact it. But it’s not quite as straightforward as that – there’s the problem of ‘tacit knowledge’. Tacit knowledge, rather like an iceberg, is the stuff that the teacher is doing that you can’t see on the surface. Donald Schon (1987) compares deep, experienced-based knowledge (such that an experienced teacher would demonstrate during a lesson) to the ‘knowledge’ of how to ride a bike; you may know the theory of how to ride a bike, and be able to demonstrate it physically, but can you describe how to do it to someone who can’t ride? There’s the rub.

Expertise in Teaching

Teaching is a highly complex profession, and to do it effectively requires deep and broad subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1987) (that is, knowledge about how to teach a subject). It requires engagement with educational theory and evidence-based research. It requires reflective classroom practice. Observing experienced teachers is one way of trying to access this hidden knowledge. It might be reasonable, with this supposition, to think that trainee teachers should observe the best teachers, the ‘experts’. However, analysis of experts’ own understanding of their expertise (see Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986)) suggests that they don’t have a very clear understanding of how they do what they do – they just do it!

As a teacher trainer, I was interested in this problem and conducted some research to explore how trainee teachers do learn through observing ‘expert’ teachers.

Part of the problem is defining what we mean by an ‘expert’ in teaching. Number of years served develops experience, yes, but expertise? Not so much. Is it the inscrutable Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ rating? Contestable. Is it popularity amongst the study body? Unreliable. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of expert states that it is connected with experience and having gained a ‘special skill’. There it is again: that nebulous, impossible-to-pin-down tacit knowledge. The academic literature summarises the conundrum:

  • Expertise and the ‘tacit knowledge’ associated with it is difficult to describe and communicate (Loughran, 2010).
  • Expertise is demonstrated through ‘knowing-in-action’ (Schon, 1987).
  • Learning expertise should be through situated experience and reflection (both social and self-reflection) (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986), (Kolb, 1984), (Schon, 1987).
  • There is a specificity (eg pedagogical content knowledge) to knowledge acquisition (Shulman, 1987).
  • There are identifiable traits associated with being an expert (Hattie & Yates, 2014).
  • Novices find it difficult to identify or ‘read’ expertise through observation alone (McIntyre, 1994).
  • Novices need to shift from a passive pupil’s perspective to the teacher’s when observing (Walker & Adelman, 1975).
  • Dialogue with the expert would potentially allow access to otherwise tacit knowledge of the expert, and modelling can be a useful tool if there is analytical, iterative application of it (Fieman-Nemser & Buchmann, 1987); (Furlong & Maynard, 1995); (Hattie & Yates, 2014).

The Research Project

"More interesting than what they’d made notes on was the way in which they’d written their notes – the use of questions (directed at themselves), suggesting embedded reflective practice."

To examine this in the ‘real world’ of school, I gathered qualitative data in a small-scale study, using three School Direct trainee participants. They were nearing the end of their training year, so had a fair amount of observations under their belt, as well as classroom practice. They completed a pre-observation questionnaire, to assess their perspectives and experiences of observing ‘expert teachers’, participated in a joint observation (with me) of an ‘expert’ teacher1 (see bottom); completed a post-observation (reflective) task, in which they were asked to use something that they had observed the expert teacher do in their own teaching and finally participated in a one-to-one interview.

The Findings: Pre-observation Questionnaire

  • The participants observed between 20 and 50 lessons, mostly at the beginning of their training.
  • They were given some guidance on how to observe.
  • Their usual method for recording observation was qualitative 'field notes'.
  • They felt that they had become better at 'reading' classrooms.
  • They tended to focus on external actions of teacher, particularly behaviour management.

Observation of ‘expert’ teacher

The participants were free to choose their own methods of recording what they observed; they all wrote qualitative notes. More interesting than what they’d made notes on was the way in which they’d written their notes – the use of questions (directed at themselves), suggesting embedded reflective practice. None of the participants interacted with the pupils in the lessons, or spoke with the teacher. I felt that a joint observation might provide the trainees with more specific guidance on what the teacher was doing and why.

Post-observation task

The participants were asked to choose a technique that they’d observed and thought effective and use it in their own teaching. They chose:

  • Individual extension tasks on pre-prepared on slips of paper. 
  • Use of a visual diagram of ‘think, pair, share’ activity to structure discussion.
  • Clear explanation of strategies to tackle reading exercises.

Where the participants had focused on specific techniques for learning, rather than behaviour management, they were able to state how they’d use this in their own teaching. All said that they’d used the strategy in more than one lesson.

Interview findings

All of the trainees had had guidance from their ITT provider, although (certainly initially) this had predominantly focused on behaviour management. They had occasionally had conversations with the teachers that they’d observed, and they did, particularly as they were ending their training year, see the value of observation. They realised that they had greater skills in observing others, as one participant put it: “maybe there were things that they’d done that I didn’t necessarily realise why”.


Whilst a small-scale qualitative research project can’t make any grand claims, I would make some suggestions for further research:

  • It may be the case that observation of expert teachers is overlooked or side-lined by school trainers or ITT providers, in terms of priority, value and time.
  • Trainees may benefit from shifting their position of focus from that of ‘passive student’, to ‘active teacher’ early on in training.
  • An evaluation of the training provision for observation by ITT providers would establish how comprehensive/effective it is. If it were to be found that it is inconsistent, then training on how to observe from the outset of the course (possibly through joint observations) would be beneficial. This could be part of an analytic modelling method, incorporated in the weekly training targets that might be set for the trainee.
  • Using dialogue with the observed expert teacher could provide greater access to ‘tacit’ knowledge that is so difficult to communicate, where learning is situational, social and reflective.

A more efficient and integrated use of observation as a teacher training tool would, I think, reap benefits for novice teachers as they enter their NQT year and beyond (particularly as the time available to observe others is reduced to almost nothing once they are in post). Teacher see, teacher discuss, teacher think, teacher do better.


Dreyfus, S., & Dreyfus, H. (1986). Mind over machine : the power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. New York: Free Press.
Feiman-Nemser, S., & Buchmann, M. (1987). 'When is Student Teaching Teacher Education?'. Teaching and Teacher Education, 255-73.
Furlong, J., & Maynard, T. (1995). Mentoring Student Teachers. London: Routledge.
Hattie, J., & Yates, G. (2014). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Abingdon: Routledge.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Loughran, J. (2010). What Expert Teachers Do. Abingdon: Routledge.
McIntyre, D. (1994). Classrooms as Learning Environments for Beginning Teachers. In M. Wilkin, & D. Sankey, Collaboration and Transition in Initial Teacher Training (pp. 81-93). London: Kogan Page.
Schon, D. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.
Shulman, L. (1987). 'Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform. Harvard Educational Review, 1-21.
Walker, R., & Adelman, C. (1975/1992). A Guide to Classroom Observation. London: Routledge.

1 The criteria used for identifying the ‘expert’ teachers to observe were primarily based on reputation within the school. I have worked with all of the teachers observed for ten years. One was a former AST, one a former head of department and the other a former assistant head. They were all certainly experienced – all had been teaching for fifteen or more years, although ‘experienced’ does not equate to ‘expert’ (Hattie & Yates, 2014). I asked current Heads of the relevant department for their recommendations, specifically using the term ‘expert’ in my request. Whilst this is not the most ‘scientific’ approach to identifying experts, it was expedient and, as witness to their observed lessons, I feel satisfied that they fit my own subjective definition of an ‘expert’.

Have you trained teachers during your career? Let us know in the comments.

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