IH Journal of Education and Development

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Manipulating Mindset to Make the Most of Observations - by James Egerton

20170615 IH Journal_42 v2 37“I want to improve my teaching practices so students learn better”.

Most teachers will say it, or why would we bother doing this job (it’s probably not to get rich)? However, as with anything, there´s a wide schism between intentions and making them reality. Observations are commonly used to bridge this gap and help teachers with individual issues; but the word ´observations´ is often synonymous with ´judgment´ and ´threat´. Jack C. Richards summarises this attitude to the observer (´guest´) in Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms (1996): ´A guest’s purpose…is not to judge, evaluate, or criticise…or to offer suggestions, but simply to learn through observing´. However, if only the ‘guest’ learns, this would be a wasted opportunity for the teacher, and most importantly, their students. We’re all familiar with the caricature of the observer as a hostile vampire in the corner of the room, poised to swoop on any errors and suck the life out of any enjoyment teaching can bring. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth: it’s great to see effective teaching in action, and when observing I often learn something new I can use in my own lessons. There is no struggle to suppress a cheer if a teacher misses a great opportunity for a CCQ. Yes, observers note down opportunities to improve (or errors, depending on the action and/or how you choose to label them), but this is not to quench a thirst for ‘blood’, but to be able to help the teacher concerned.

Mindset Theory

My new job as Senior Teacher at International House Riga gives me a unique double perspective on observations, as I am the only teacher to be both observer and observed in official observations. This has got me thinking about applying Professor Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory to the observation process (particularly pre-observation prep and post-observation feedback). I tend to apply this to all aspects of life, as readers of my blog (http://www.jamesegerton.wordpress.com) will testify to, and some may have seen in my article on mindset feedback in the November-December 2016 issue of IATEFL Voices. So, what is mindset theory?

Someone with a growth mindset is characterised with a positive attitude to learning from failure, and a belief that they can learn anything given enough time and well-directed effort. In contrast, someone with a fixed mindset is conditioned by the belief that talent is innate and unchangeable, and an unwillingness to take risks in fear of exposing a lack of ability. This is based on years of academic study related to psychology and neuroscience, and I’d encourage anyone to further inform themselves on the topic, for example on Dweck’s website or by watching one of her numerous TED Talks on the subject. Growth mindset can be seen in examples of peak performance from all walks of life, and is something that I’m working hard to incorporate into the common psyche of English teachers. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Teacher Training Day at IH Toruń, Poland on 25th March, for example, where I gave a presentation on using mindset theory in teacher-to-student feedback.

So outside conventional education, take UFC cage fighter/mixed martial artist (label the sport how you will) world champion Conor McGregor on his attitude to innate talent – “There is no talent here. This is hard work” – and failure – “It’s really not that much of a big deal. You brush it off and come back. Defeat is the secret ingredient to success”. In business, study any successful entrepreneur, like Richard Branson, and you’ll see that small failures were the key to learning, refining and improving the company; true growth mindset, whereas someone with a fixed mindset would have given up at the first sign of failure, ashamed at their lack of natural ability and not believing that effort would bring improvements. Dweck’s Mindset Theory can be taught and incorporated into schools, and studies in the USA have shown outstanding transformations in students’ attitudes and academic results (and here) once growth mindset has been developed.

But How Does This Apply to Pre-observation Prep?

So back to applying growth mindset to observations, and the effects start by choosing which class is to be observed. Although teachers were encouraged to choose their most challenging class, several I observed opted for an easier ride in fear or being exposed as a ´bad´ teacher (no such thing), and facing subsequent punishment (not the purpose). This unwillingness to take risks is classic fixed mindset, and meant that very little was learned from the hours we both invested in the process. Frankly, it was pretty much a waste of time.

Chris Ożóg, writing in Issue 32 of the IH Journal in 2012, neatly synthesised what observations can be if teachers adopt the growth mindset: ´Observations are there to help teachers develop´, not as an excuse to punish or even sack them. Speaking from experience, I know it´s nerve-wracking to be observed, but this feeling should be embraced as a part of the challenging process of improvement, which with few exceptions means stepping outside one’s comfort zone.

To get the most out of the observation, ask yourself:

  • In which lessons do learners most struggle to learn? (not the same as: in which lessons do I find harder to teach?)
  • What can I gain from being observed?

Mindset Theory in Post-observation Feedback?

Any worthwhile observed lesson has aspects which can be improved. No teacher or lesson in the world is perfect. Valuable observer-teacher feedback should go both ways, so teachers should also consider their own strengths and weaknesses in post-lesson self-evaluation.

Nevertheless, the key is the next step: acting to improve the improvable. Someone with a growth mindset is willing to learn from failure, whereas those with fixed mindsets believe that ability (teaching in this case) is innate, so much less malleable. The former will act on advice to improve their lessons; the latter will let out a sigh of relief when the observation forms are signed and filed away to collect dust, reassure themselves that everything´s fine and carry on as before.

To get the most out of the observation, ask yourself:

  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson? How could I improve?
  • What steps can I take to put the observer’s advice into practice?


Observations can be an outstanding tool to improve individual teaching practices. They aren’t always easy or comfortable, but it’s a small price to pay. The intensive six-week Delta Module 2 course at IH London was my first taste of regular observations, and I´d say my teaching improved more in these six weeks than in the previous three years.

We can channel learners into a growth mindset by tuning the language we use in our praise and feedback. As teachers, we should be self-conscious enough to do this for ourselves, so we can make the most of the observation process for our own professional development and for the learners themselves.

So if the phrase “I want to improve my teaching practices” applies to you, try to adopt a growth mindset in your attitude to the next round of observations at your school.

Ożóg, C., Observations on Observations, International House Journal of Education and Development, Issue 32, Spring 2012, http://ihjournal.com/observations-on-observations-by-chris-ozog (4th December 2016)
Richards, C., 1996. Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms, Cambridge: Cambridge Language Education.
Author’s Bio:
James currently works at International House Riga-Satva in Latvia after 5 years teaching in Spain, and is a keen exponent of applying mindset theory to classrooms and staffrooms. He had an article published in IATEFL Voices on the topic in the November-December 2016 edition, and the concept appears regularly on his blog at www.jamesegerton.wordpress.com.

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