The classic method for researching in classrooms is non-participant observation, the method used by OFSTED inspectors. However, there are other methods available to the researcher who wishes to conduct research on actual lessons within schools.
Classrooms are closed environments with very clear rules of behaviour and typically containing around 20-30 students, one teacher and maybe one learning assistant, and lessons usually lasting from 40 minutes to an hour.
The obvious choice of research method for using in a classroom is that of non-participant observation, where the researcher takes on the role of the OFSTED inspector.
The fact that there are so many students in one place, and potentially hundreds of micro-interactions in even just a 40-minute lesson gives the observational researcher plenty to focus on, so classrooms are perhaps some of the most data rich environments within education.
Arguably the most useful way of collecting observational data would be for the researcher to have an idea about what they are looking for in advance – possibly how many times teachers praise which pupils, or how many times disruptive behaviour takes place, and how the teacher responds, rather than trying to watch everything, which would be difficult.
And students will probably be used to OFSTED inspections, or other staff in the school dropping in to observe lessons occasionally, thus it should be relatively easy for a researcher to blend into the background and observe without being too obtrusive.
The fact that classrooms are usually organised in a standardised way (they tend to be similar sizes, with only a few possible variations on desk layouts) also means the researcher has a good basis for reliability – any differences he observes in teacher or student behaviour across classrooms or schools is probably because of the teachers or pupils themselves, not differences in the environments they are in (at least to an extent!).
There are, however, some limitations with researching in classrooms.
Gaining access could be a problem – not all teachers are going to be willing to have a researcher observing them. They may regard their classroom as their environment and think they have little to gain from an outsider observing them – although if a researcher is a teacher themselves, they could maybe offer some useful feedback about teaching strategies applied by teachers.
Teachers will probably act differently when observed – if you think back to OFSTED inspections, teachers usually ‘up their game’ and make sure to be more inclusive and encouraging, this is likely to happen when anyone observes.
Similarly, pupils may behave differently – they may be more reluctant to contribute because of a researcher being present, or disruptive students may act up even more.
Classrooms are very unique, controlled environments, with only two roles (teachers and students) and clear norms. Teachers and students alike will not be themselves in these highly unusual situations.
Finally, researchers wouldn’t be able to dig deeper and ask probing questions when part of a lesson, unless they took on the role of participant observer by becoming an learning assistant, but even then they would be limited to what they could ask if they didn’t want to disrupt the lesson flow.
It’s not all about direct non-participant observation
Researchers might choose a more participatory approach to researching in classrooms, by training to be a learning assistant or even a teacher, and doing much longer term, unstructured observational research with students.
This would enable them to get to really know the students within a lesson, and make it very easy to to ask deeper questions outside of lessons.
The problem with this would be that they would then be part of the educational establishment and students may not wish to open up to them precisely because of that reason.
A further option would be to put up cameras and observe from a distance, but this might come up against some resistance from both teachers and students, and it would be more difficult to ask follow up questions if reviewing the recordings some time after the actual lesson took place.
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