In Search of Quality in Class – Mission (Im)Possible?

Written by: Svetlana Dimitrova, PhD (NBU),
Svetlana Tashevska (NBU)
and Georgi Geshev (University of Plovdiv)

Abstract: Our conference workshop presented the outcome of a partnership project with British Council – Bulgaria, geared towards improving the quality of foreign language teaching through (self-)assessment of classroom practices. This followed up a presentation at the previous BETA Conference [1] of the same project at the stage of piloting the instruments and the videoed sample lessons from the training pack under development.

This time the participants were offered a chance to try out the product of the Quality in Foreign Language Teaching (QIFLT) project – a training pack containing tools for observation and evaluation of classroom practice of foreign language teachers and a selection of representative English lessons. They went through the experience of observing one of the latter – a lesson that they might have taught and role-playing the post-lesson discussion, stepping in the shoes of the teacher/ the observer in view of improving their professional performance and FLT classroom practice. The feedback collected during the plenary at the end of the session shed useful light on the application of the assessment criteria and the way the pack could benefit the work of both practising teachers and ministry experts.

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The project

The QIFLT project aimed at implementing and sustaining quality in teaching foreign languages through creating a set of unified criteria for observation and evaluation of classroom practices of foreign language teachers at secondary schools in Bulgaria. The project was initiated in response to the need for changes in the routine ways of EFL teaching established during recent research [2] and the general European tendencies for developing common standards for assessment of professional performance and promoting continuous professional development.

The core team of the project consisted of 9 professionals [3] representing different regions of the country, as well as various levels of the educational system (schools, universities, education inspectorates) and professional positions – teachers, experts, methodologists, mentors, teacher-trainers, directors of studies. However, the final product of the project reflects the experience and owes a lot to the contribution of many other colleagues, both Bulgarian and international, among which there were specialists in the teaching of other foreign languages too. Dr Desmond Thomas of the University of London deserves a special mention here having acted as our main consultant throughout all the stages of the project. Work under the QIFLT project spanned over the period October 2003 – January 2006, including activities like analysis of a wide range of existing documents for evaluating foreign language teaching, drafting a set of assessment criteria followed by large scale piloting and standardizing, continuous revision of the product in the light of feedback, videoing of sample classroom practices and designing a training pack (in both English and Bulgarian) to accompany the assessment tools.

We believe that the outcome of the project could be of great practical value to foreign language experts at the Ministry of Education and Science in helping them to objectively evaluate the performance of secondary school FL teachers in the light of professional standards. The materials from the pack can also be used by practising secondary school teachers for their own professional development through self-reflection and self-assessment. In pre-service teacher training, it can provide a tangible goal for student-teachers and teacher-educators (mentors, methodologists, etc.) [4].

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The product and its application

The training pack consists of several components.

  1. The Assessment criteria for observation of classroom practice of teachers of foreign languages (Form No.1), comprising a number of indicators and descriptors for quality, will help the user to:
    1. identify the essential features of the observed lesson (i.e. see more clearly when observing) and compare them to the benchmark classroom practices required from teachers of foreign languages in Bulgarian secondary schools;
    2. report on the quality of the foreign language teacher’s performance.
    3. They are organized in three main areas: Professional Characteristics of the teacher, The Lesson and Classroom Management. The descriptors are further subdivided into two types: essential features and extra features. The former are deemed as most important and expected to be present in good language teaching practice. The latter reflect the belief that quality teaching should include more than the minimum.
  2. The Classroom practice observation schedule (Form No.2) is a tool for recording impressions during and/or immediately after the lesson. It contains a teaching-context information box, a section with a descriptor checklist and room for comments on each of the three areas from the criteria, and an overall comments box. The schedule focuses the observer’s attention on the essential features but it also allows for free comments on the extra features (not listed on the form), if considered necessary.
  3. The Guidelines for the use of the assessment criteria are meant to help in making sense of the tools in the pack and give practical advice for their most effective use.
  4. The Glossary of terms used is a useful reference to some of the most frequently used specialized terminology.
  5. The Bibliography comprises documents which have been reviewed and analysed by the team in the process of developing the set of assessment criteria, relevant key titles from the background methodology literature and project-related publications by team members.

The tools are supplemented by Appendices which contain the following:

checklists for the three video-recorded lessons, each including a commentary on the lesson with links to descriptors, a lesson plan with copies of teaching materials, post-lesson teacher self-evaluation comments;

completed observation schedules for each of the three videoed lessons to serve as an illustration of its application;

video material (on DVD) presenting a selection of English language classroom practices (from three lessons) that illustrate some of the descriptors of quality foreign language teaching. [5]

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The workshop

The participants were involved in a practical activity – a role-play where they observed a part of a video-recorded lesson (stages III and IV of lesson 3), and then held a post-lesson discussion, focusing on one area of the teacher’s classroom practice in particular – that of classroom management. The participants were divided into pairs and roles were distributed:

Role A: the teacher from the video

Role B: the observer

Before the observation the teachers (role A) familiarized themselves with the lesson plan of the teacher from the video, while the observers (role B) were introduced to the lesson context and the outline of the lesson content. Their main task was to study the tools, concentrating on the Classroom Management section from the Assessment Criteria (Form No.1) and the Observation Schedule (Form No.2) respectively.

Then the excerpt from the video recording was played. After the observation, the participants were given the following tasks for role-playing the post-lesson discussion:

Teachers (Role A): Try to step in the shoes of this teacher – this is your lesson / activity. Reflect on the strong and weak aspects of your teaching. Try to be open and constructive in the post lesson discussion with your observer.

Observers (Role B): Choose 2-3 positive aspects that you would like to comment on and 1-2 problematic areas for improvement. Try to elicit possible reasons and suggestions for improvement / future action.

The pairs were given 10 minutes for the role-play of the post-lesson discussion. This replicates the real-life situation where teachers, in their busy schedules, rarely have a longer interval between classes to discuss their teaching and development.

After the role play, plenary feedback was collected both on the lesson and the applicability of the tools. The participants were invited to reflect on the following questions:

  • On the lesson and the benefit of the exercise
  1. Which were the positive aspects of the lesson that you discussed? Did you both (teacher and observer) consider the same positive aspects important?
  2. Which were the aspects for improvement that you discussed? Did you agree?
  • On the benefit of the tool and its applicability for maintaining quality
  1. Did the tool help you (observers) organize your observation and see more clearly?
  2. Did it help you in focusing the discussion?
  3. Did it help you formulate your comments and structure the feedback?
  4. Did you (teachers) find the feedback informed by the assessment criteria clear, relevant, helpful, etc.?
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Feedback and comments by participants

Finally, we would like to share some of the feedback we elicited from our participants and outline some implications for the future use of the assessment tools as well as for the conducting of training sessions with potential users.

Among the features the participants unanimously considered as examples of good practice in the target area (classroom management) were:

  1. the efficient organization of the classroom activities (including the layout of the tables and the seating arrangements) leading to the involvement of all students all the time and simulation of communicating in real-life situations,
  2. the variety of interaction patterns,
  3. the use of supporting realia,
  4. the clear instructions
  5. the good use of the whiteboard to record feedback,
  6. the relevant praise of students, and
  7. “finishing the lesson off nicely”.

These observations coincide with the lesson analysis of the project team (see the Commentary section, pp. 36-38).

Some of the suggested improvements were:

  1. providing closer monitoring of individual pairs during the role-play,
  2. giving the floor to spokespersons from the groups of doctors/ patients to report on the agreement reached by their group about the best doctor and worst-case patient,
  3. organizing an open-pair performance of the best doctor and the worse-case patient.

Despite the fact that the feedback questions in the second set were somewhat leading, they still elicited valuable responses supported by arguments and thus proved effective under the circumstances (as most of the participants had never acted as experts and catalysts of professional development).

Comments on the applicability of the tools included the following:

  • “it [Form No.1] gives you specific points to focus on, to look back and reflect on”;
  • “it helped to pick out relevant points”;
  • “it directs [the observer] in noticing some problematic aspects”;
  • “it makes the agenda of the observer transparent [for the observed teacher], if provided in advance … thus stress is reduced”;
  • “it serves as a reminder of methodology points”.

Although the participants did not actually use the tools during the observation or the discussion, they acknowledged their usefulness during the preparation for the post-lesson discussion, as can be seen from their comments as well. Both ‘observers’ and ‘teachers’ emphasized on the need for familiarizing themselves with the assessment criteria in advance if they were to be put to optimal use. This could probably explain why the participants preferred to stick to Form No.1 only. In spite of the limited time for getting to know the tools, the participants saw their value for helping them to see more clearly and for focusing the post-lesson discussion. As most of the participants were practising or student-teachers, they could appreciate the potential of the pack (incl. the videoed sample lessons and the training activities implied in it)  for professional development.

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Observations for future training

As far as subsequent training of potential users is concerned, the time dedicated will naturally need to be extended so as to provide opportunities for trying out the whole set of assessment criteria applied to at least one complete sample lesson. The presentation at the conference aimed only at giving a ‘flavour’ of the training pack documents and implied activities. A training session with ministry of education experts would ideally build in ample time for careful study of the tools before inviting users to apply them, as well as for analysis and reflection on what has been observed. Such a session would also provide a forum for comments, questions and suggestions, leading to personalized ways of employing the tools and to standardizing quality-in-FLT assessment procedures.

Finally, we believe that the mission of implementing and sustaining quality in foreign language classrooms is a common responsibility for both the teacher, seeking professional improvement and the expert, externally assessing language teaching and learning. The success of that mission depends on the combined efforts of all parties involved.


[1] Velikova, S., Stefanova, E. and Geshev, G. (2005) “Be the Expert”, 14th BETA-IATEFL Conference, Sofia

[2] Thomas D., Dimitrova S., Geshev G. and Tashevska S. (eds.) (2002) A Baseline Survey of English Language Teacher Education in Bulgaria, 2001-2002, Sofia: British Council Bulgaria

[3] The members of the team in alphabetical order: Elena Stefanova, Regional Inspectorate of MES, Vidin; George Geshev, University of Plovdiv; Irina Ivanova, University of Shoumen; Mariana Iordanova, First English Language School, Sofia; Svetlana Dimitrova, New Bulgarian University, Sofia; Svetlana Tashevska, New Bulgarian University, Sofia; Sylvia Velikova, University of Veliko Turnovo; Tsvetelina Harakchiyska, English Language School, Rousse; Valentina Angelova, University of Shoumen, Department for Information and In-service Teacher Training, Varna.

[4] More information about the project can be found at www.britishcouncil.org/bulgaria or by contacting library.sofia@britishcouncil.bg and QIFLTmembers@yahoogroups.com .

[5] The participants in the workshop were only familiarized with the assessment tools – Forms No.1 and No.2, which they applied to lesson No. 3 from the DVD.

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