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How Admins Can Conduct Effective Classroom Observations for Inquiry-Based Classrooms

For decades, educators have been seeking new ways to boost students’ engagement and knowledge retention while stroking their love of learning and hunger for knowledge. In response, many states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or similar standards emphasizing a student-centered approach, also known as inquiry-based learning. This active learning methodology creates classroom environments where teachers trigger curiosity and students actively participate in their own education.

But change doesn’t always come easily, particularly for teachers juggling many other evolving demands and expectations. While professional development programs can equip educators with tools and best practices to succeed with inquiry-based learning, it can take time for them to find their groove when applying these methods. Fortunately, that’s where classroom observations can offer tremendous value.

Here’s what you need to know about performing classroom observations in inquiry-based environments and a few tips to help ensure those observations benefit teachers and support student outcomes.

Why are Classroom Observations Important for Inquiry-Based Classrooms?

Unlike traditional classrooms, where teachers deliver lectures while students passively ingest information, inquiry-based classrooms cultivate respectful discourse and academic discussions. Rather than acting as the “sage on the stage,” the teacher assumes the role of a facilitator, encouraging deeper engagement and helping students connect the dots between their existing knowledge and new concepts while also discovering and honoring their classmates’ perspectives.

“Getting students talking to one another is one of the most important things that can happen in any classroom,” writes Chase Nordengren, PhD, in his paper The transformative ten:Instructional strategies learned from high-growth schools. “In talking to one another, students confront the limits of what they currently understand, build on one another’s knowledge bases, and consider how learning in one context applies to work in another.”

Furthermore, research shows inquiry-based instruction enhances students’ critical thinking skills, among other benefits, preparing them for success in their future careers and lives. But, for teachers accustomed to more traditional classroom environments, adopting inquiry-based learning techniques can initially feel strange. Some educators may worry they’ll lose control of their classroom with this less-structured approach or fail to adequately prepare students for state-mandated standardized tests.

As an administrator, classroom observations allow you to identify each teacher’s unique areas of opportunity and deliver relevant, tailored feedback that will help teachers overcome their apprehensions and excel with inquiry-based techniques. These observations can also give you better insight into which practices work best so you can suggest them to other teachers or include them as examples in professional development sessions.

6 Tips for Performing Effective Observations in an Inquiry-Based Classroom

Because inquiry-based classrooms differ from traditional learning environments, you’ll need to evolve your observation tactics too. Here are a few tips to help you conduct the most beneficial classroom observations:

  1. Familiarize yourself with what to expect
    If you’ve only conducted observations in classrooms that use traditional or passive approaches, it’s important to note that inquiry-based classrooms can and should look much different. Because it’s founded on a more student-centered approach to learning, you can anticipate significant student involvement via projects, experiments, lively debates, and respectful discourse.

    “Children are hard-wired to talk — we know as teachers from the amount of time we spend settling classes down to ‘listen’,” says Jo Tillson, Former Educator and VP of Content and Curriculum for Propello, in our recent ebook Deepening Learning with Discourse. “It is often said that if you can explain your learning to someone else, then you truly understand it, and purposeful classroom discourse enables children to explore and build on their thinking through talk.”

    In other words, in inquiry-based classrooms, prepare to see and hear students speaking up more than in traditional classrooms and even taking turns leading discussions or debating points with their classmates.

  2. Ask teachers about their biggest wins and challenges beforehand
    Many admins are charged with observing classes outside their content area of expertise, making it difficult to provide meaningful feedback. That’s why it’s a good idea to meet with teachers before your observations and gather useful context. One strategy you can employ is to ask each teacher what they think is going well, why it’s going well, and what they see as their biggest challenges or obstacles.

    This type of self-evaluation allows teachers to identify their own strengths and weaknesses while also equipping admins with the background information you need to gather and deliver the best possible feedback.

  3. Visit the classroom outside of observations
    Observations can be uncomfortable. Teachers can feel like they’re on trial — as if you’re scrutinizing their every move and waiting for any minor slip-up — while students may be distracted by having an unfamiliar presence in the room. And this defeats the entire purpose of an observation. Rather than getting a glimpse into a typical lesson, your visit may put teachers on edge and make students less likely to speak up and participate.

    The best way to overcome this issue is to casually drop by the classroom when you’re not observing. Making more frequent visits will help you better understand what a typical day looks like and build rapport with both teachers and students. Then, when you do conduct your observation, your presence won’t feel out of the norm.

  4. Become an active participant
    The only thing more disconcerting for teachers and students than an unfamiliar presence in a classroom is when that visitor is also a silent observer, slipping in to quietly take notes and then leaving without a word.

    Instead, before the observation, ask teachers how you can participate in their lessons. In addition to defusing the tension, this will also help you develop a clearer understanding of the learning sequence and gather first-hand insight into what it feels like to facilitate an inquiry-based lesson. As a result, your feedback will likely hold more weight and provide more value.

  5. Be empathetic and supportive
    Even if you have no intention of intimidating teachers, educators can sometimes assume administrators are only in their classrooms to amass a log of their failures — which can be incredibly demoralizing when they’re trying to master a new approach.

    As an administrator, it’s your responsibility to let teachers know you’re on their side and want them to succeed. Simply sharing your genuine intentions can alleviate their anxiety about an observation, open up the lines of communication, earn their trust, and make them more receptive to your feedback. When teachers feel supported and empowered by administrators, they’ll likely also feel more comfortable sharing their challenges or asking for your input and advice.

  6. Evaluate impact above all else
    Rather than using a highly structured rubric or prescribed list of what teachers “should” be doing in each lesson, consider the students’ learning outcomes. For example, ask yourself: Are students actively engaged? Are they eager to learn? Are they building knowledge through deep learning? Is the classroom an environment where they feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions, making mistakes, and following their curiosity?

    Remember that each teacher has their own style, and the most important thing is that they’re making an impact and driving positive results for each and every child.

Modifying your observations for inquiry-based classrooms is a simple and worthwhile endeavor. By building rapport with teachers and students beforehand, actively participating in lessons, showing teachers they have your support, and focusing on impact, you can conduct more effective observations and help your school succeed with inquiry-based learning.