Mentor teacher/Observation in mentoring

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What is observation

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There is a big difference between seeing and observing something. Observing is watching something or someone in a particularly attentive manner. In first-order observation the observation itself is the main task (Bjørndal 2002). This can for instance be a student teacher who is observing a lesson.

Good observation requires a narrow focus
Good observation can be challenging. Student teachers may easily choose a focus that is too broad. For instance, they might try to observe too many students at a time. In order to narrow the focus of observation, they will need the mentor's help. If the aim is to observe the collaboration between students in a classroom, some indicators of collaboration should be established in advance (Nilssen 2010).

Observations can be both structured and non-structured. Unstructured methods can be used to get a first impression which can help us decide what we want to observe later in the process. With structured methods the observation is planned and we focus on specific activities. We can use an observation form or other kinds of "running records" to write down observations. Observations can be written down during a situation, immediately after a situation, or a combination of during and after.

There is a difference between the description of an observation and its interpretation. One idea is to create an observation form and divide it into two columns: one column can be about what we see and the other column can be about what we think. If we want to know what a particular child spends her time doing, we can make note of an activity at particular time intervals. If we want to know about the prevalence of a specific behaviour, we can make a note on a form every time this behaviour occurs (Nilssen 2010).

The learning potential is greater if the student teachers make the observation forms themselves instead of simply copying them from a book. Their attitude towards the observation changes, and they get a chance to practice how to refine their focus.

In addition we need to consider the location and the length of the observation. An observation of children's interaction in play may take longer than the assessment of a child´s reading level. A year's observation of a student's reading development is a long stretch of time, but every single observation does not necessarily take that much time. It is important to remember that the observation time will often be there (Nilssen 2010).

We need to be aware that bias may influence the observations. For instance, Nilssen (2010) claims it is usually to overfocus on the positive aspects of schools or kindergartencultures. The student teachers also tend to seek out positive relationships, and consequently have a more positive than negative attitude. Furthermore, we have a tendency to remember best the first and last impression of the people we meet. It is easy to generalize these observations and give them too much weight. In addition, the observer's previous experiences and prejudice will also influence what we see.

Observation in mentoring

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Observation is an important part of the daily work of a teacher. According to Nilssen (2010) it is essential that the student teachers become more aware of the children are doing in the classroom. In order to become a good teacher we need to learn from the children continuously. We need to know who the children are, how they think and feel, how they cooperate and gain knowledge in different school subjects. Inexperienced teachers tend not to see how different their students are. Through observation we develop a more and nuanced understanding of the children. Additionally, student teachers can use observation as a documentation method when they are doing written assignments.

Example 1
The mentor Susan experiences that new student teachers often goes into the role of a teacher who merely transfers knowledge. However, if the student teachers get to observe the students, they will be able to see the class as a group of individuals with unique personal challenges. Sara stresses the importance of the student teachers not only observing the students, but they should also talk to them and get to know them (Nilssen 2010).

Example 2
A student teacher tells about her observation of the children in the classroom: "I found the observation of Peter and John particularly interesting. Peter was the first child who guessed the name of a hexagon. This made him more certain of himself, and he started enjoying the game more because he mastered it. In the end he was very eager and finally he won the game. For the first time since I came to this class, I noticed that Per was among those who were in control! It was fun to see. After they finished the game, they started embroidering. As usual, John had some problems with this activity. I suggested that perhaps Peter could teach him how to do it. Peter, who was still excited that he had done better at the game than the others, immediately took on this challenge and taught John to embroider in no time! Both of them were very proud of this accomplishment, and while Peter sat there with a big smile on his face and was pleased with himself. John went over to Mary to show her what he had made. It was exciting to see two different ways of showing how they were proud of themselves.

I have many thoughts about this; how important self-esteem is for learning, how much the students can learn from each other, how many roles a student can inhabit etc. I have to absorb these impressions before I can elaborate any further, but I have to say that it was a really fun and exciting experience. It was obvious how Peter blossomed when he felt that he mastered the game, and he performed better than I have ever seen him perform before. I think that a feeling of success has implications in other areas as well” (Nilssen 2010:117).

Nilssen (2010) argues that it is important for student teachers to observe the interaction between the teacher and the children. They need to observe how students learn. Otherwise they risk concentrating solely on keeping discipline in the classroom, not on ensuring that the students learn. If they happens, their focus will be on how they themselves perform, not on the teacher-student interaction.

Example 3
The student teacher Eli thinks she has learned the most from during practicum by observing the interaction between Sara, her mentor, and the pupils in the classroom. Eli notices that the students are not withdrawing that much when Sara is present. This is particularly apparent when they are doing mathematics, where a lot of students often have performance anxiety.

Sara also thinks it is important that the student teachers watch her teach. She knows that she is a role model, but she makes it clear that she does not want to force a particular teaching style onto them. Sara wants the student teachers to not only observe her, but also other mentors with different teaching styles. Within the apprenticeship model, there is an emphasis on the observation and imitation of experienced professionals (Nilssen, 2010).

It is important to preserve the integrity of the persons we are observing. This is particularly important with children. When systematically collecting data over a long period of time we need the permission of parents or caregivers. Parents or caregivers should also be made aware that the student teachers have signed an agreement of confidentiality (Nilssen 2010).


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  • Nilssen, V. (2010) Praksislæreren. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.