If your school or your department has a system of lesson observation in place, it is important to recognise that it can be very useful, when observing a lesson, to quiz the pupils as well as watch the teacher. So, when the teacher gives the instruction to “get on with your work” while s/he walks around the classroom, instead of walking out, do some walking around of your own, and ask these sorts of questions:
What are you doing?
Whatever the pupil answers, ask...
An answer such as “Because Miss told me to” is a warning signal. If lots of pupils answer like that, it is likely to reflect the fact that they do not actually know why they are doing it.
Explain how this works, please
I think this is an important question because it's possible to learn things by rote and sort of parrot them back, but it's not quite so easy to explain why something behaves the way it does.
Supposing…, how would you…?
You need to ask a question here which is likely to be slightly more difficult than the skill level the pupil seems to be displaying, but within the scope of what you would expect from someone of that age. If in doubt, ask a question or several questions that try to get at the heart of whether the pupil really, deeply, understands what they are doing. Asking 'what if' questions help to probe the pupil's knowledge and understanding more deeply.
Now, none of this is scientific, but if several pupils in the class appear to be working at a level (however defined) that is lower than what you would expect, it merits further investigation. For example, is the teacher being challenging enough? Does the class need some catch-up lessons?
If most pupils are working at the level you would expect, but one or two are not, why is that? Is there an inclusion issue here? Should they be given extra help, or extended tasks?
What grade do you think you will get in the examination/test at the end of the year?
Each pupil should know this.
How do you think you could improve your grade?
What you are looking for here are specifics. Not “By working harder”, but, for example, “By making sure that I annotate my work properly and include an evaluation of what I did.”
If you could, what would you like to explore next in this topic?
This is a good question to ask because some pupils might have some really good questions they would like to find the answers to. It's useful to see if any of the pupils ask what I call 'higher order questions'. For example, 'Why isn't this website working?' is a lower order question -- unless the lesson has been about building a website.
The idea of asking the pupils these sorts of questions is not to catch the teacher out, but to find out extra information which will help to put what you’re observing into context.
This article is an updated version of one first published in my newsletter in February 2009.