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Let’s Rewind

From the UK Blog: With the right support, video technology can offer a promising new path to teacher growth

October 6, 2015
Let's Rewind

There are critical moments in every educator’s career when a remote control would come in handy. Years ago, while teaching first generation college-bound high school students in San Francisco, I reprimanded a student for not bringing pen and notebook paper to class. A small argument set off a whirlwind chain of events that ended with my student flipping her desk and storming out. By the time my administrator arrived for support, it was too late. I did my best to retell the events of the hour, but I was shell-shocked. What had happened? What did I do wrong? Would she come back? 

Researchers and educators agree that feedback about classroom practice must be specific and job-embedded in order to be valuable. It was not enough for my administrator to tell me, months later, that I needed to work on my enforcement of rules and procedures and to direct me to some loosely related resources about classroom management. I needed to examine the particular events and root causes that culminated in flying furniture and slamming doors. I often wish I could rewind that day, press pause, and pinpoint how I could have de-escalated the situation.

Today, the increased presence of video in teachers’ work-lives means that observers and teachers have an opportunity to do something very similar to that — to leverage a shared record that can be used to tackle classroom challenges. In the past, the cost of video equipment and production made it prohibitively difficult to integrate video into professional development. Now video is more accessible to schools across the country through low-cost smart devices and webcams.

For the last three years, the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard has run a randomized controlled trial of video technology in classroom observations — a project called Best Foot Forward. When we surveyed teachers about their experience participating in our in-person and video observations, I was not surprised that teachers who had used video technology reported having learned about their practice at a significantly higher rate than those participating in in-person observations alone.

In speaking with study participants in four states, we learned that teachers using video became observers themselves, not just the subjects of observations. “I started rearranging my cameras and putting groups right in front of the cameras, so I could hear their conversations that they never shared with me,” one teacher told us. ”That's when I realized that I really have some bright kids. I need to push them even harder.” 

Feedback like this led us to conclude that the particular nature of video made it fundamentally different from the other artifacts collected during observations, such as observers’ notes, board snapshots, lesson plans, and student work. Teachers and observers were using video as both a shared artifact and an investigative tool.

Yet we also learned a hard truth: simply having video technology is not an automatic ticket to teacher growth. Teachers need manageable technology that does not distract from teaching and learning; they need instructional coaches who can effectively use the footage for professional learning; and they need a supportive school climate for sharing challenging moments in the classroom.

This is why, alongside our research findings, the Best Foot Forward study team is releasing a toolkit for introducing video observations. We hope education leaders and teachers will find useful protocols and strategies to help them bypass the inevitable challenges in piloting new technology, so that they can focus on their own growth as professionals.

I know I could have used more of that kind of support. After that long-ago dust-up in my classroom, my student never returned to class. While she faced significant challenges at home that even the most sophisticated camera couldn’t capture, the opportunity to replay and share with colleagues these kinds of difficult interactions — or the more productive ones — would have greatly aided my ability to learn how to support my students, and to learn how to become a better teacher.

See the video observation toolkit from the Center for Education Policy Research for resources and guidance.

Additional Resources

About the Author

Miriam Greenberg
Miriam Greenberg is a director at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University. She writes about the ways in which education data reaches beyond the numbers and into our lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mirigreenberg and @HarvardCEPR.
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