4: Working Together

4: Working Together

Giving instructions and observing other teachers to help their development.

Twenty years in the same secondary school had turned Paolo into an automaton. For most of the time he had stuck to the tried and trusted methods of drilling, long grammar explanations and rote learning of word lists.

Six months ago, however, a new teacher, Sophia, had arrived at the school with bright innovative ideas that were a breath of fresh air to Paolo. Sophia talked about students discovering language for themselves, interacting in groups, and becoming confident with using English.

Hearing these ideas, Paolo had realised that he had been treating his classes like a production line, something he had sworn he would never do when he had started teaching twenty years earlier. Quickly becoming friends, Sophia and Paolo had decided to work together to help each other develop as teachers. They decided that they would talk English outside the classroom to improve their language, they would subscribe to a couple of journals for teachers, and they would encourage each other to innovate and try out new ideas in the classroom.

They had worked together like this for over four months now. Paolo felt that his interest in teaching had been rekindled, and that his students enjoyed themselves more and seemed to look forward to learning English with him. Most of Paolo's lessons worked well, and now he sometimes found himself trying to persuade other colleagues to try out new techniques.

Today's lesson, however, had severely shaken his confidence. In his plan, the lesson had appeared straightforward and effective, but in the classroom it had ended in shambles. The focus of the lesson was reading, and Paolo had decided to do something different from the old 'Read the passage and answer the questions' approach.

In one of the journals he and Sophia were subscribing to he had found a technique called Jigsaw Reading. Cutting a long passage into pieces, he would give each of the pieces to a different group of students. The groups would read and try to understand their section of the passage. Then new groups consisting of one student from each of the previous groups would be formed. The new groups would try to reconstruct the whole passage. Paolo thought that the students would pay a lot more attention to the reading if he used a Jigsaw Reading technique. In addition, the technique would generate a lot of beneficial student-student interaction.

Paolo had been looking forward to trying out Jigsaw Reading with his fourth-year students. In the classroom, however, the new technique had been fraught with problems. The seemingly simple procedures of Jigsaw Reading turned out to be almost impossible to convey to the students, even when Paolo resorted to Italian. In giving the instructions before the activity, he found himself using longer and longer sentences with all sorts of convoluted phrasing to explain whether he was talking about the original grouping of students or the regrouping halfway through the activity.

Because they had been unclear about the purpose and organisation of the activity, the students had been uncertain of what to do while reading. Regrouping the students had taken a full ten minutes of class time, and once they had been regrouped, the students just sat there not knowing what to do next. Paolo had had to explain all the stages of the activity over and over again, until he was relieved to hear the bell ring at the end of the class. 

Exhausted and dispirited after the lesson, Paolo sought out Sophia. He explained all that had gone wrong while Sophia listened attentively and made sympathetic noises. When he finished, they discussed the possible causes of the problem. They decided that everything came down to the clarity of his instructions. The next problem, then, was how Paolo could improve his instructions. Paolo, still discouraged by the lesson, did not feel capable of improving his instructions by himself. He wanted Sophia to help him.

Together, Paolo and Sophia brainstormed ways of helping Paolo overcome his problems with instructions. Obviously, he could pay more attention to his instructions during the planning stage, and Sophia could help him here by working through the plan with him. But Paolo was more concerned about what would happen once he was in the actual classroom. He knew that Sophia was free when he taught his third-year class and he wanted her to come into his classroom and watch him give instructions. While Sophia felt flattered that Paolo trusted her so much, she was worried about observing his teaching. First, what would the students think? Paolo was a far more senior colleague, so it would look strange if Sophia went into his classroom and took notes on his teaching.

What's more, Sophia wasn't sure about how much help she could be to Paolo by observing him. She didn't know what sort of things she should look for when Paolo gave instructions, and she didn't think she would be able to identify what his problems were. Another thing that worried her was what she should say to Paolo after the lesson. Although they had built up a close relationship, Sophia knew she wouldn't feel comfortable criticising Paolo's teaching and wasn't sure what his reactions would be. With these misgivings in her mind, Sophia was undecided about whether to accept Paolo's invitation to observe his teaching.


1. Paolo's instructions for the Jigsaw Reading activity are at the root of his problems. It is suggested that he could pay more attention to his instructions during the planning stage. One of the skills of planning is predicting what problems will arise during teaching and pre-empting these problems.

How do you think Paolo can improve his problem-predicting skills while planning?

2. Instructions are vital to the success of an activity. What content should be included in instructions? Should instructions be explained or demonstrated, or both? How can a teacher tell how effective any set of instructions is?

3. The regrouping of the students in the Jigsaw reading activity causes most of Paolo's problems.

Should all of the instructions be given at the start of the activity or should the instructions be broken down into two sets, one given at the start of the activity and one given in the middle before regrouping the students?

If you were going to use a Jigsaw reading activity in your teaching, what instructions would you give? Can you predict any problems which might arise from your instructions?

4. Regrouping the students creates a transition in the middle of the Jigsaw reading activity. Transitions, if not well-organised, may waste valuable time and possible lead to chaos. How can transitions be managed to reduce the chances of time-wasting and chaos occurring?

5. Paolo and Sophia decide that Sophia should help Paolo while planning. How should Sophia help Paolo?

Should she be actively involved all through the planning process or should she only comment on the final plan that Paolo produces?

6. Paolo also wants Sophia to observe his teaching and give him feedback. Sophia, however, is unsure of what to look for and how to observe.

If Sophia observes Paolo, do you think she should just write down any comments she thinks might be useful as she observes? Alternatively, Sophia could use an observation sheet, in the form of, say, a table which would help her to categorise certain aspects of Paolo's teaching.

If she chooses to use an observation sheet, what aspects of Paolo's teaching should Sophia include on the sheet? What form should the observation sheet take?

If you were going to observe a colleague focusing on his/her instructions, how would you record your observations? If you decided to use an observation sheet, what would it look like?

7. Sophia is worried about giving feedback to Paolo on his teaching. Feedback can often seem critical to the person receiving it, leading to defensiveness and relationship problems. If Sophia needs to give Paolo feedback, how can she give feedback so that such problems do not occur?

Further reading

A full description of Jigsaw Reading, including a detailed rationale, can be found in de Berkeley-Wykes (1983). Teacher instructions are considered in depth in Watson Todd (1997), while Ur (1996) gives some basic guidelines for giving instructions and Campbell and Kryszewska (1995) contains training activities for improving teachers' instructions. Froyen (1993) gives examples and guidelines for managing transitions effectively. Regarding working with colleagues, Knezevic and Scholl (1996) is a case study of collaborative planning; Day (1990) provides an excellent background to observation; Richards and Lockhart (1994) give guidelines for observing colleagues; Wajnryb (1992) is a comprehensive collection of useful observation sheets, including one for instructions; and Wallace (1998) discusses different ways in which data can be collected through observation. Finally, Gebhard (1990), Wallace (1991) and Woodward (1992) contain a variety of ways of giving feedback with the probable effects of each feedback technique.