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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

In Singapore / SOCRATES Streamlines Lesson Observations

In Singapore, educators place great emphasis on lesson observation as a strategy for improving instruction. Administrators observe trainee teachers while on teaching assignment in schools, as well as inservice teachers for routine staff development and annual assessments of performance.
To help principals and heads of departments in their mentoring role, the Ministry of Education of Singapore in 1994 developed a computer system for classroom observation. Named SOCRATES—an acronym for Systematic Observation of ClassRoom AcTivitiES—the system is a tool to complement existing classroom observation practices. Here's a scenario of how it works: Scene 1: In the Classroom Mr. Tan, the school principal, is observing Ms. Lim teach. He observes vigilantly all classroom events and interactions between Ms. Lim and her pupils. But instead of noting what he observes on paper, he clicks at items on the screen of a laptop computer with a mouse.Scene 2: In the Principal's Office Immediately after the lesson, Mr. Tan displays on the same laptop computer notes and graphs of observation data collected during Ms. Lim's lesson. As they peer over the data, she reflects upon her own teaching and her students' learning.
At present, most principals and heads of department in Singapore schools use the paper-and-pencil method of collecting data, namely rating the teacher on predetermined activities or jotting down descriptive notes. Some videotape the lessons. These methods are fine for collecting qualitative data; however, if quantitative data—like task engagement time or frequency of teacher-pupil interactions—are desired, then a computer program can be a very useful tool.

How the System Works

Using SOCRATES, administrators can preset a schedule to observe and time events and behaviors as they occur. The system then presents the data for analysis in various graphic forms.
The timer feature. SOCRATES's built-in timer is activated when administrators record the first event marking the start of a lesson. Rather than note the time or do the actual timing, observers merely point and click a mouse at an event descriptor on the computer screen (fig. 1). When class events are mutually exclusive (for example, teacher questions and pupil answers) the system times only the main instructional activity at any one time.Simultaneous events can also be recorded concurrently.

Figure 1. Menu of Preset Event Descriptors

In addition, the computer system ensures as accurate timing as possible. For example, if an observer mistakenly selects an event, the system can transfer the time captured up to that point to the correct event. In this and other ways, the program minimizes time loss attributable to human error.
Customized observation schedules. SOCRATES enables observers to tailor their schedules for focused, systematic observation of lessons in most any subject or learning setting. If the objective is to observe verbal interactions, a principal may preset the system to look for "teacher presents facts" or "pupil clarifies." At the same time, if a principal is interested in pupil grouping as a teaching strategy, he or she may specify to observe for whole-class instruction, individual work, or group work.
With SOCRATES, administrators can also specify the person being observed, grade level, name of class, subject of lesson, and date of observation. Additionally, while recording is in progress, observers can type notes to describe any class event and switch back with ease to the recording mode.
Data analysis. Perhaps what is most powerful about SOCRATES is its ability to generate instantaneous analysis of the recorded data—for example, the number of times a specific event occurred, the duration of each occurrence, the total time recorded for each type of event, the proportion of lesson time taken up by that event, and the sequence of events. Immediately after the lesson observation, both principal and teacher can access data such as the amount and proportion of time taken up by teacher talk, group discussion, or watching a video show. These and other statistical measures are presented in tables or graphs.

The Genius of SOCRATES

  1. Requires no coding. Because the categories of events are displayed on the computer screen, SOCRATES needs no coding system. Observers need only familiarize themselves with the positions of the event descriptors on the screen. These can be displayed systematically by learning dimension, in logical sequence of occurrence, or according to whether they are teacher-initiated or pupil-initiated. Events are grouped by color.
  2. Continuously records entire lessons.Many observation systems use "snapshot" or "interval" recording because of practical constraints involving timing. In contrast, SOCRATES enables continuous recording of entire lessons from the moment the first event is recorded until the observer selects the "End" button. Without the need to keep track of time, observers are free to concentrate on detecting the occurrence of an event.
  3. Compiles data that are useful for sequential analysis. Its capability to record continuously gives SOCRATES another advantage as an observation tool. Because the entire stream of events is recorded, the program can analyze the data in sequence. For example, researchers interested in patterns of verbal exchanges can call for a grid display of verbal interactions that shows the frequencies and probabilities with which one event usually succeeds or precedes another.

A Tool for Improving Instruction and for Research

To improve their instruction, teachers need access to helpful information. SOCRATES provides such information. In postobservation conferences, principals and teachers can refer to the data to identify their strengths and weaknesses in particular skill areas.
Alternatively, teachers can use the SOCRATES program to review and reflect upon their lesson delivery at their own convenience. For instance, the data can help teachers ascertain if they provided sufficient instructional emphasis or whether management procedures or discipline management took time better spent in teaching. Or teachers might check the placing and pacing of certain activities or analyze their teaching behaviors and the pupils' behaviors.
By referring to the notes, tabulations, and graphical analyses of the data, teachers can also study the structure and direction of a lesson to determine whether it went as planned. When data about a lesson are put to such close scrutiny, self-evaluation becomes common practice. Over time, teachers become more self-directed in taking charge of their own instructional improvement.
SOCRATES is also a useful tool for educational research. For example, if lesson observations have been carried out in the classrooms of numerous teachers, subjects, or grade levels using a common schedule, researchers can combine data on all the observations for aggregated analysis. SOCRATES allows researchers to collect data that answer their specific research questions—for example, the use of curriculum time (amount of time-on-task, time taken up by management routines, and so on); questioning techniques (frequency of low-order and high-order questions, duration of wait-time); or the range and use of media to enhance the learning environment.

Technology Leads to a Better Way

Accurate data for research purposes or for teachers' professional development is undeniably desirable. The lack of sophisticated methods or tools can make getting accurate data difficult. By employing computer technology, the SOCRATES system permits systematic observation of classroom activities and enhances the accuracy of the data recorded.
Schools in Singapore are promoting developmental supervision of teachers as part of their overall staff development plan. With better observation methods and tools, however, the task of helping teachers improve their instructional performance is greatly facilitated.

Meh Chee Choy has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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