Skip to Content


Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

Astute Observation

by Kimberly A. Crandall

Three years ago, while sitting in a graduate education course, I found myself looking at a tally sheet for keeping track of whether each student in a classroom is “on task.” To do an observation, I was to sit in the classroom and “sweep” the room. I could make as many sweeps as I wanted but the more, the better. The sweep entailed focusing on each student for so many seconds and marking yes or no on the tally sheet—yes for “on task” and no for “off task.” The grad class was called Clinical Observation and was one I was required to take if I wanted to be endorsed as an education administrator. Something bothered me about it being called “clinical” observation: Something was missing. The human element wasn't there. What if all students were always “on task”? Would that guarantee an effective learning experience?

Today, after performing close to 200 observations of teachers and their students, I believe I can safely say that to be “on task” means absolutely nothing—if the task is meaningless, rote and/or irrelevant. It didn't take me long to figure out that what I really want to know is whether or not students are engaged. Ahhh, “engaged,” now there's a warm, fuzzy, “human” word. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to determine an “engaged” student as opposed to a “disengaged” student. I had to define engagement for myself. What does that look like, whether it's Ms. Doe's U.S. history class where lecturing is the prime teaching mode or Mr. Brown's wood class where students never leave the saws?

I observed a class recently where students were asked to complete a crossword puzzle using their vocabulary words. They did this every week on the same day. Instead of working on their puzzle, two students were discussing the reading that was for homework the night before. They’d both done the reading and while discussing it found that they didn't understand the same part of the story. Together, they were trying to find meaning. Needless to say, I was not doing a sweep. Instead, because I had read the story and taught it a few years back, I got involved in the students' conversation. Later, when I met with the teacher to discuss the observation and to offer feedback, she became apologetic about the two students who were obviously “off task.”

It was easy for me to tell the teacher that her engaged students were the two discussing the reading assignment, but it wasn't easy for her to agree. She argued that all the other students were diligently working. They were “on task.” But I insisted, "Even if the use of the puzzle is for review, does it work? Does it get them thinking about what you want them to learn?" I reminded her that far too often I've heard students say, "I love crossword puzzles—I don't have to think!"

Students are engaged when they are making meaning in a relevant context, one that is as close to a real-world experience as possible. The task, the skill and the content required must be meaningful. And students must be able to understand how these things have meaning beyond themselves. They should know the greater purpose, and they should be able to connect to it. They should be able to tell you what the greater purpose is.

We have to be careful what we ask students to do, especially when it’s the same thing over and over. Don't get me wrong: I think there's a place for crossword puzzles, but students who work diligently on one every week are most likely involved in what has become a meaningless activity.

As the teacher and I came to the close of the post-observation meeting, we finally agreed on some essentials. We came up with a list of meaningful ways to teach and review vocabulary that didn't become monotonous. We discussed how to tap into what students are thinking about when they walk into the classroom without losing much time. And we discussed how important it is to listen to students: To actively move about the room listening for meaningful conversations like the one I heard. This is what we're looking for as educators.

If there's nothing else I've learned as an observer, it's to be an active one. Forget sitting in a corner passively watching whatever unfolds and tallying marks on a sheet. In order for me to know whether or not students are engaged, I get down on my knees next to their desks or tables and ask. I get involved. I make them explain to me what they are working on and why. I ask them how what they’re learning is tied to the bigger picture. If they can't tell me, I take note and bring it up with the teacher later. Teacher by teacher. Student by student. I love my job.

Crandall, a member of the Orange County Education Association, is the instructional coordinator at Orange County High School.



Virginia Capital

Fund Our Schools Now


Check out our products!


Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard