Student shadowing

Student shadowing is the process of following a student through all or part of a school day to gain an insight into the student experience within a school setting.

Teacher 'shadowers' gain clarity about teaching and learning practices in different subjects, an awareness of the level of support that exists for students and the challenges facing learners. These insights have the potential to fundamentally alter a teacher's view of students, the learning environment and the teaching practices in their own classrooms.

Often, student shadowing will focus on a particular group of students and the nature of learning for them, for example high potential students or students with additional needs. Educators can shadow students in their own school or in other schools and must develop an agreement regarding the process of shadowing, their interactions and confidentiality throughout the process.

Key elements

  • An inquiry based model of professional learning, which engages teachers' imaginations as they make connections between students, curriculum, teaching strategies and the established learning environment.
  • Focuses on how the learning environment could be improved to enhance student engagement.
  • Teachers look for trends and potential strategies and practices to overcome challenges.

How can I coordinate and facilitate student shadowing?

Student shadowing is most successful when conducted as part of a team of teacher 'shadowers' led by a facilitator or school leader.

Teams should progress through Stage 1 collaboratively and Stage 2 as individuals, with no more than one teacher shadower in the same lesson.

Teams should then collate individual insights, evidence and observations in Stage 3 as a collaborative group.

  1. Teachers in shadowing teams decide upon an aspect of learning they wish to gain insight into. For example, differentiation, building student engagement, use of learning environments or use of informal assessment strategies.
  2. Shadowing teams select students appropriate to this area and discuss the choice with school leaders.
  3. Shadowing teams decide upon key questions and focus areas to concentrate on in lessons, which will be dependent on the learning area identified.The following questions may help to prepare for the consultation process with school leaders, adapted from Margery Ginsberg's 'Stepping into a Student's Shoes' (2012):
    1. How can I make the experience productive and comfortable for everyone?
    2. What do I want to learn and why?
    3. How will I set up the process so that it is do-able, productive and comfortable for all?
    4. How will I focus my attention? What do I want to observe?
    5. How will I take notes?
    6. What agreements do I want to work out with the student?
    7. What kind of an inquiry stance do I want and how will I make note of facts, inferences and wonders?
    8. How will I know what I've learned?
    9. What do I hope to do with the information that will support my effectiveness?

Communication with staff and students:

  1. Teachers and the facilitator will need the support of school leaders and must communicate with the relevant teachers and students regarding the process and confidentiality. It is important for teachers to make clear that this process is not about making judgements on teacher practice, rather it is to observe student learning and engagement and the environments and practices that students participate in over the course of a day.
  2. Teachers may wish to explicitly state the following comments to students, as adapted from Margery Ginsberg's 'Stepping into a Student's Shoes' (2012):
    1. My goal in shadowing you is to understand more about the experience of students in our school by witnessing, first hand, some of your learning experiences. I hope this will help me be more effective as a teacher.'
    2. I would like to sit in classes with you and will pay attention to the learning and activities in classes without being too obvious. Let me know how I could best do this without making you self-conscious.'
    3. 'I will take notes on what I observe. Anything I write will be confidential and I will use what I learn from shadowing you to help make learning at our school more worthwhile for all students.'
  1. Teacher shadowers will need to consider the key indicators that their observation is based on and record evidence from lessons appropriately. The purpose in this stage is to experience school from a student's perspective and to record the observations. Shadowers should try to suspend all teacher judgement and focus on the experience – what is feels like physically, emotionally, intellectually. The following questions may help direct initial observations in each lesson. Watch the student's face, body language and conversations with peers to observe this, not the teacher.
    1. How engaged is the student being shadowed?
    2. How engaged is the remainder of the class? Is this impacting on the learning experience of the student being shadowed?
    3. How easy is it to follow the teacher's instructions?
    4. Is there a clear goal to this lesson? Are the learning intentions clear?
    5. What activity is being completed by students? How interesting is this lesson/activity from a student perspective?
    6. How is the pace and flow of the lesson? What student discussion is being heard as they move from activities?
  2. Teacher should engage in a 1 minute debrief at the end of each lesson to discuss points with the student. This should also occur throughout the lesson, if possible, and at the end of the day in more detail. Teachers may wish to use photo elicitation to enhance this process ie taking photos at key points in the lessons to use as a prompt for discussion with the student at the end, eliciting a response to calibrate or check understanding. Following this, teachers should direct discussion by asking the student whether they felt challenged, successful, comfortable, engaged in this lesson, question why they think this is and enquire what other types of learning usually occurs in this class. question why they think this is and enquire what other types of learning usually occurs in this class.

The goal of shadowing is not just to learn about students' experiences. The teacher also must apply those insights to planning and teaching in a way that supports a broader range of students and is shared with staff. Teams will look for patterns they see in light of their original questions, reflect on those patterns, and choose specific practices to change, or at least explore how to change. These distilled observations will be shared with other teachers in the school context.

  1. Teachers who shadowed students will meet and discuss observations.
  2. Teachers draw commonalities between their experiences – the strengths and areas for development seen in teaching practice and lesson environments.
  3. Teachers will decide how to feed back to staff regarding their observations.

Things to consider

  • Teacher 'shadowers' must be chosen carefully, taking into account the position the teachers hold in the school and assumptions teachers and students may have about the purpose of this person engaging in 'shadowing'.
  • To ensure a normal classroom environment is seen, teams are advised to refrain from telling classroom teachers the exact date of the student shadowing. This is to ensure that lessons seen are an authentic representation of the learning that usually occurs in class.
  • School leaders and teams must ensure there are guidelines to ensure confidentiality between student-observer conversation and lesson observation. These should be clearly discussed with all staff and students involved, so that the purpose of the experience and process is made clear and to allow all involved to feel confident about the commitment to confidentiality.
  • If students are uncomfortable, they need to be aware that there is a process where they can terminate the shadowing.
  • When reporting back to staff, teachers must ensure there is a process to protect teachers and maintain the focus on making suggestions for improvement to student learning.

Further reading and resources

Stepping into a Student's Shoes Ginsberg, Margery, The ASCD, 2012 (69:5)

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