We’re very pleased to introduce you to our next featured speaker from at the TDSIG Day at IATEFL (Monday, April the 13th incase you haven’t already marked your calendars!).

Phil lives in Istanbul and works for Oxford University Press as a Teacher Trainer. He has worked in Germany, Austria, The UK, The USA, France, Malaysia and Turkey. He has published over 20 articles in various teaching journals around the world and his book, In My Opinion, a photocopiable collection of opinion gap activities, was published by Prolingua Associates in 2008: (http://www.prolinguaassociates.com/In_My_Opinion/index.html)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA When not teaching or training, he likes to cook, play the guitar, sing and take long, aimless walks around the Anatolian side of Istanbul, stopping off regularly for refreshment and a spot of people watching.

We are very proud and honoured to have Phil with us for the conference and we hope you enjoy his thoughts on observations in the classroom.

The Elephant in the Classroom

by Phil Keegan

I think all teacher trainers are aware that when they are observing lessons their presence can make observees nervous and this can affect what happens in a lesson. After all, we have all been there ourselves. I became quite graphically aware of this when working as a CELTA tutor. On a few occasions my body language inadvertently caused panic in some trainees (I’m no oil painting, but even so). For example, one time my laptop crashed, causing me extreme annoyance. On another occasion, I had chronic indigestion, which was causing me severe discomfort. My unhappy and disgruntled demeanour was taken by the trainees to be an indication of what I thought of their teaching performance, and this caused them serious stress. (In both cases, by the way, I thought the lessons were fine).

The experience really made me think about how my presence was affecting proceedings and how I might minimise any negative effects. Obviously, masking any bad feelings or thoughts seems like a good idea, but then again human beings are always communicating something, no matter how much we might think our body language is giving nothing away.

Demand characteristics 

The psychologist Martin Orne (1969) identified what he called demand characteristics. These have to do with how the behaviour of participants in psychological studies and experiments alters according to what the participants think the study is meant to investigate. Orne and others have argued that there is a strong tendency on the part of research participants to be ‘helpful’ and to try to produce confirmation of whatever hypothesis they think is being tested. When they haven’t been specifically informed what the hypothesis is, they often try to guess what it is and then, possibly unconsciously, attempt to confirm that. For example, the results of experiments into the efficacy of lie detector machines have varied according to whether the subjects were told that the ability to lie convincingly was a characteristic of strong-minded people (and therefore a positive characteristic) or a characteristic of psychopaths (and therefore a negative characteristic). As a result, the results and outcomes of these tests are not particularly reliable or useful. Orne saw demand characteristics as a serious weakness in psychological research. His argument, rather crudely paraphrased, is that it is unrealistic to tell people to act normally and then to observe them on the assumption that they will indeed act normally.

The ‘observer’s paradox’

Back in the 1960s,  sociolinguists William Labov and Joshua Waletzky discovered that when people are aware that their speech is being observed or recorded, they tend to speak more formally than usual, which means that researchers who observe them can obtain no reliable data on how those people use language ordinarily (Labov & Waletzky, 1967). The presence of an observer affects the subjects being studied and thus invalidates, to some extent at least, the study.

As with the above mentioned ‘demand characteristics’, it seems clear that teacher trainers asking teacher observees to ‘carry on as normal and pretend I’m not here’ just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Parallels to lesson observation

When they are being observed, I think there is a tendency for trainees to try and second guess what the observer is looking for and teach for that rather than teach the learners. I think there is also a tendency for observed trainees to keep half an eye on the observer, taking the observer’s body language and reactions as running feedback on their performance. I think that this can also affect how they teach. As a young American trainee once commented to me:

“we watch you [tutors] as much as you watch us.”

I am sure too that many trainees pick up on tutors’ individual enthusiasms and pander to them somewhat, something I call the ‘point to the phonemic chart now and again because he likes that’ syndrome.

As much as we might tell teachers and trainees to ignore the fact that they are being observed and encourage them to focus on the lesson and teach the learners and not jump through hoops for us, there is no doubt that having an observer in the room, sitting in the corner and making notes for later feedback is going to have a significant influence on observees’ behaviour. My talk at IATEFL will make a few suggestions as to how the observers can strive to minimise the effect of their ‘elephant in the classroom’ presence.


Labov, W. 1972. ‘The Social Stratification of  /r/ in New York City Department Stores’, in W. Labov, Sociolinguistic Patterns, pp 43-54. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, W. & J. Waletzky. 1967. ‘Narrative analysis’, in Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts, pp. 12-44, J. Helm (ed.). University of Washington Press. Reprinted, 1997, Journal of Narrative and Life History 7: 3-38.

Orne, M. T. 1969. ‘Demand Characteristics and the concept of Quasi-Controls’, in Artifacts in Behavioral Research, pp. 143-179, R. Rosenthal & R. L. Rosnow (eds.). Academic Press.