An Interview with Rod Bolitho, Academic Director of Norwich Institute for Language Education (NILE) United Kingdom
After an intensive workshop on ‘Classroom Observ ation and Supervision” organized by MINDS (Mentoring in Delhi Schools) Project, headed by Professor Rama Mathew, Central Institute of Education (CIE) University of Delhi and British Council, New Delhi on 26th April 2011, Prem Kumari Srivastava and Sabina Pillai, both Associate Professors of English at the University of Delhi, caught up with the workshop leader, Rod Bolitho, a well-known English Language Teaching (ELT) expert. An Academic Director of Norwich Institute for Language Education (NILE), UK, Rod Bolitho started out teaching English in Germany and has been active in teacher education and trainer training for over 30 years. He has also been a consultant to a number of British Council projects since 1989, including the CBSE Curriculum Reform Project in India, and is currently involved in Teacher Education and Materials Development initiatives in Uzbekistan and Romania as well as in Policy Dialogue initiatives in India.
Prem Kumari Srivastava (PKS): Right at the outset, Rod, it is indeed a pleasure meeting you and then interacting with you for the whole day in this intensive workshop on “Classroom Observation and Supervision’ organised by Professor Rama Mathew, Coordinator, Minds Project in collaboration with the British Council, New Delhi. Many thanks for agreeing to talk to us after a full day and to discuss some significant issues related to classroom pedagogy: Observation and Supervision.
Rod Bolitho (RB): Not at all. I hope everybody enjoyed the workshop as much as I did.
PKS: A little about Fortell. An affiliate of IATEFL, Fortell, is a Forum for Teachers of English Language and Literature, located in New Delhi. Amongst its myriad activities like organising workshops and conferences as also having a pool of resource persons for these events who are experts in diverse areas related to the pedagogy of English Language and Literature, Fortell also brings out a peer-reviewed journal thrice a year.
Sabina Pillai (SP): What brings you to India this time?
RB: I have been involved in a Policy Debate on the future of ELT in India. The British Council has organised a ‘Think Tank’ on it and I am here for its second meeting on Continual Professional Development (CPD).
SP: Talking of CPD, it is not yet a widely recognised or acknowledged concept in India. How do you view it in the Think Tank?
RB: CPD is not exclusive to the teaching profession. The interest in it stems from a wider context. For example, it has been prevalent in the engineering, medical and other professional fields where people were keen to know what others were doing in their respective fields. Part of the mandate of the Think Tank is to raise awareness about it amongst Principals and education managers. CPD need not just be in-service training. Any professional development activity can be seen as CPD.
There is a direct link between the individual and the institution here. An institution’s development depends on its staff’s professional development. It is a good indicator of the professional climate in an institution.
SP: When will we hear about the recommendations of the Think Tank? Is there any schedule for the roll out of this programme?
RB: I am sure that there will be a strategic launch of the programme, supported by a publication in due course. I am not sure when that will happen but probably some time in 2012.
PKS: You have been associated with the CBSE Curriculum Report project in India since 1989. It is 2011 today. What are your observations on the Indian educational system and particularly the way English teaching is being handled? Have you noticed some significant changes?
RB: I think there is a marked shift in the way English is perceived in India today. David Graddol’s English Next India (2010) established that English is very much a tool for economic growth in the country. I remember a time when it was seen as a post colonial legacy and therefore faced a lot of hostility. It was percieved as an alien force. That is no longer the case. This shift is also felt in the CBSE school curricula. In fact Indian English has come of age. There are recognizable varieties of Indian English today. Then, there was a generous use of the present progressive forms. Interestingly, even today there are some striking archaic usages in India. What immediately comes to my mind are examples such as: ‘to nab’ or ‘lakhs and crores’. Beyond the sub-continent, I doubt if anybody can understand these expressions.
PKS: Looking at your vast repertoire of scholarship, it is clear that you have been keenly interested in understanding the negotiation of classroom pedagogy of English language. What interests you the most?
RB: I have been in teacher education and training for over 30 years. Initially I was in teacher training and also got involved in in-service training. Then I saw the wider implications. Interestingly I came down to India at around the same time as Adrian Underhill to meet and write about the self –help group called English Language Teaching Community (ELTC) in Bangalore with members like Michael Joseph, Esther Ramani and Jaya Gowri Shivakumar after the Special Interest Group in IATEFL wrote of them. The group was a model of its kind and worked in a very democratic, non- hierarchical way to discuss issues. It had a bottom-up approach. CPD brings me back full circle. We were looking at Observation and Supervision today within a CPD framework.
PKS: How important are observation and supervision in a discussion of CPD and classroom pedagogy?
RB: The Minds project is a perfect example. Within the ambit of CPD the different purposes of observation and a principled approach to supervision have a potential impact on professional development
SP: Outcome based teaching has become a central concern of education today. Given that, what would you include as imperatives in class-room pedagogy?
RB: Teachers must know where they are headed and therefore outcomes and predicting destinations are important. At the same time they should not be obsessed with outcomes only. The process of getting to the destination is more important. One should not emphasise the product at the expense of the process. Observation and supervision are part of that process.
PKS: You are widely travelled and have interacted with scholars from around the world. In Institutes other than teacher training institutes, what are the other segments of higher education where observation and supervision helps?
RB: Apart from Teacher training institutes, institutions such as the Higher Education Academy in Britain demand that there should be a mandatory observation exercise by a peer every year. This is followed by a written report on the exercise. Such initiatives are indicative of a learning organisation.
SP: Observation and supervision are much more complex than they appear to be. What are the inherent challenges?
RB: I look at these challenges as four dilemmas that a practitioner must negotiate to derive value from the exercise. The first one is to understand that we all carry ‘Baggage’ consisting of our own views on quality teaching and this means that we tend to become judgemental about others’ methods. One must consciously make a package of all these critical voices in one’s head and leave it outside the door before entering a room to carry out an observation exercise. It is not easy but it comes with self discipline and practice. The second dilemma is the ‘Perception Gap’. By this I mean the different perspectives people have to the same event. The teacher’s point of view could be at variance with that of the observer’s. This can be minimised by dialogue and raising of awareness by the parties concerned. If handled well it can be a good opportunity for mutual learning. Such a strategy would allow the observer to go deeper into critical moments in the session than look at the particular class as an artefact.
The third dilemma is the ‘Impact of the observer’s presence in the classroom’. What status should he be accorded? Is the observer to be included in the equation as a guest, an assessor or a participant in the event? Would it not then distract the learners and also impact negatively on the teacher’s performance? Is there a need for the observer to be always present? The last dilemma is ‘Feedback’. It is a vital part of the whole exercise. The degree of directiveness of feedback is normally proportional to the experience of the teacher who was observed. A fresh young teacher would expect to be told what to do, whereas an experienced teacher would be more likely to benefit from prompts to think about, rather than being told how to teach. In any case, feedback has to be negotiated wisely and should be based on questioning techniques. The supervisor should not be abrupt, judgemental or conclusive in his feedback. He must not lose sight of the fact that he also has a mentoring role to play.
SP: You mentioned Donald Freeman’s2 seminal article on observation in this context?
RB: Yes. Freeman makes a distinction between Training and Development. He sees them as two ends of a continuum wherein training is mainly concerned with imparting skills while development addresses the whole person by way of personal and professional growth. It is here that he discusses three possible approaches to Observation and Supervision – the Directive Approach which is largely prescriptive and therefore addresses training issues for the observed teacher, the Alternatives Approach which is more equitable and non-evaluative and lastly the Non- Directive Approach where the observer uses the counselling approach and becomes an ‘understander’ or a catalyst in facilitating self enquiry in the teacher.
PKS: Supervision simply means “having an overview of classroom teaching” It is also supposed to be a non threatening strategy. Is it really so?
RB: It is the business of the supervisor to take the threat out of supervision. Clarity about the focus of the observation exercise and pre- lesson and post- lesson dialogues will help.
PKS: What is the difference between observation and supervision?
RB: Observation is simply the ‘watching the lesson’ stage in the overall process of supervision, which includes pre-lesson and post-lesson meetings with a teacher.
PKS: How can observation, supervision and classroom teaching happen in a collaborative manner?
RB: It is a real fight to banish subjectivity from the exercise. Observation and supervision with a developmental perspective and with the teacher feeling secure and unthreatened is always likely to be the best way forward within a wider framework of CPD.
PKS: In a University like Delhi, where we have been teaching English for the last 20 years or so, formal observation of classroom teaching has never happened. Our observers and supervisors are our students. How do you respond to this?
RB: Students know how to differentiate between good and less good teaching. But it is important to look at feedback from the whole student body and not rely on any one isolated response. That would give you a skewed picture.
PKS: Isn’t observation and supervision a top-down approach with an inbuilt hierarchy in it?
RB: Teachers have to understand that it is a collaborative venture which is going to benefit them in the long run. A classroom cannot be seen as a closed-door domain. Gibbs and Habeshaw(1989) and King(1983), both talk about the advantages of post-observation feedback procedures.
PKS: The last decade has witnessed a new kid on the block, a novel challenge in learning platforms: VLE, Virtual Learning Environments, E learning, E-Classrooms. Some claim that this has shaken the fulcrum on which classroom learning rests: face to face interaction, observation and supervision. How do we negotiate this novel menace that is ‘e’ in nature?
RB: E- learning can never replace face – to- face learning. E-learning options are quite different in that they offer flexibility, logistical advantages and wider participation. E-Learning gives opportunities to those learners who can’t physically come to attend classes. In NILE, where I work we use blended learning wherein face-to-face sessions are supported by online tutorials. This I feel is a model which offers the best of both worlds.
PKS: Don’t you think that observation, supervision and feedback are still some challenges that this new kind of platform needs to overcome.
RB: You are right and that is why I say that it can never replace face-to-face learning.
PKS & SP: Thank you Rod, for talking to us and sharing your views on the areas of observation and supervision.
2Freeman, Donald. “Observing Teachers: Three Approaches to In Service Training and Development “TESOL Quarterly 16.1 © (Mar 1982): Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL)
* Prem Kumari Srivastava is Associate Professor of English at Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org
* Sabina Pillai is an Associate Professor of English at SBSE College, University of Delhi.
* Interview first published in FORTELL, September 2011