Understanding What You See Happening in Class

While conducting a class, even though teachers may be doing all or most of the talking, students communicate important nonverbal messages. They communicate these messages through facial expressions, body postures, and how they say what they say, as well as what actions they do or the skills they attempt to perform. Both novice and expert teachers see the same student responses, but expert teachers see in those responses something very different than novices see.

Research summarized and referenced in the article below identifies features that distinguish how expert teachers see what transpires in class versus what beginning teachers see. Here are two of the differences:

Tuning into the atypical — Experienced teachers know how students typically respond when learning a particular technique or grappling with a particular part of the content. If an individual student or a group of students responds differently, expert teachers automatically tune in to what’s happening with those students. This is true whether the student is struggling or excelling. If a student learns something with great ease, perhaps that approach would be of benefit to others. Part of what helps novices develop expertise here is their explicit attempt to understand how and why something works for students. If a particular set of exercises moves students to a new skill level, teachers need to know why. “Teachers will need patience as they are learning to see—which means they will not immediately understand what they see. With deliberate practice, teachers will make better sense of instructional situations and become adept at finding potential in the unusual.”

Developing a critical eye — The objective here is to use what is seen to implement improvement and to always consider ways to do it better. It is almost as if experts don’t know they are expert. Their efforts to improve are even more relentless than those of novices. Key to success here is the ability to analyze what’s happening, to thoughtfully consider what one sees. The dynamic milieu of the classroom does not afford time for scholarly reflection, but events can be noted and then more carefully thought about later.

“To improve in teaching, teachers must deliberately practice their teaching skills.” (p. 32) Teachers are not born understanding what is happening as students attempt to learn. Moreover, they can see something happening time and again, but that does not mean they will come automatically to understand it. The effort must be deliberate. The effort is work making because, “Unless you understand what you see, your class might as well be invisible.” (p. 29)

Reference: Schempp, P. G. and Johnson, S. W. 2006. Learning to See: Developing the Perception of an Expert Teacher. JOPERD 77 (6): 29–33.

Dr. Maryellen Weimer is the editor The Teaching Professor, and a professor emerita, teaching and learning, Penn State-Berks.

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