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Professional Growth

Dr. Jim Knight: Videotaping Lessons as Professional Development for Teachers

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“Video is a central part of my own personal growth, because you need feedback to grow. You need to see where you are, you need to see where you’re trying to get to. So it’s a key part of what I do, not just professionally but personally.”

Dr. Jim Knight is widely known in the world of instructional coaching. He is president of the Instructional Coaching Group, and author of such books as The Impact Cycle: What Instructional Coaches Should Do to Foster Powerful Improvements in Teaching and High-Impact Instruction: A Framework for Great Teaching.

In 2014, he also wrote a book called Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction. Recently, he joined me for an interview about how teachers, principals, coaches and teams can all use self-produced videos of classroom lessons to advance teaching practice.


[Note: this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

FRONTLINE EDUCATION: Dr. Knight, you’ve written and spoken about the use of video for high-impact instruction quite a bit. We really have to start with thinking about video itself. Why is video important for educators to consider?

JIM KNIGHT: We’ve seen the power of video in lots of other fields. You wouldn’t have a football team in America that doesn’t watch themselves on video, and lots of performing artists watch themselves on video. The reason why I think video is so important is that it provides you with a picture of reality you can’t get while you’re actually doing the job.

A hockey player, for example, might not know how out of position he is unless he sees the video, and when he sees the video he goes, “Holy smokes, I had no idea.” That’s why athletes, whether they’re in a middle school or in a university or whether they’re professional athletes watch themselves on video all the time. It’s the same thing with teachers, we’ve found…. Most people don’t have a very clear picture of what it looks like when they have conversations or when they do their work.

FRONTLINE EDUCATION: I can imagine someone saying, “I don’t think my teachers are going to be comfortable with it.”

JIM KNIGHT: Well the first thing I’d say is that they’re probably right. It is hard to watch yourself on video. We don’t like the way we look, and often we’re a little disappointed with our practice. But the way forward, the way to get better isn’t by avoiding reality, it’s by looking reality full-on. Video gives you a clearer picture of reality, and after a few times, you get used to it, and then it just becomes a tool you use.

The first time is kind of like hearing your voice for the first time on a recording to the power of ten. The way you move, what your voice sounds like — all kinds of things are a little disconcerting, but once you get used to it, you’re good.

We see it varies more by school than it does by person. In other words, if you wanted to introduce video in a school, likely either almost everybody would do it, or hardly anybody would do it. It’s not really an individual thing, it’s a culture thing. I think the issue is, if people feel psychologically safe, and they feel they can trust the people they work with, then they’re good. But if people don’t feel psychologically safe, they’re not going to open themselves up to a judgmental situation.

FRONTLINE EDUCATION: Your book discusses a number of ways that video can be used to improve teaching, by teachers themselves, by coaches, by principals and by teams. If I’m a coach, I can already observe teachers in the classroom, so what else does video bring to the table?

JIM KNIGHT: Well the trouble is that people often don’t have clear picture of current reality because of a number of different perceptual errors. I’m not just talking about teachers. We have a tendency to look for data — what’s called “confirmation bias” — that reinforces our perceptions of things. We also get used to stuff over time, what’s called “habituation.” What we think is happening and what’s really happening are often quite a bit different.

Video also allows us a chance to see things we might not see. It doesn’t have to be negative, necessarily. Sometimes a coach will video record a class, and the teacher will say, “I heard my kids talking and I couldn’t believe how supportive and encouraging they were, it was really a wonderful thing to see.” Or, “I realize when I watched the video, the kids actually understood the activity even before I started.” So sometimes they’ll see things that are good, not necessarily bad. It provides a bigger picture.

FRONTLINE EDUCATION: As you’ve spoken with teachers who have done this, what are the kinds of things that they’ve said to you that they’ve seen or come away with?

JIM KNIGHT: Sharon Thomas, who was a teacher in Maryland, she now works with us. She said when she watches it, it’s like the MacGuffin effect in Hitchcock movies. She always sits down expecting to see one thing and she’s looking for that one thing, but then as she watches the video, it always ends up being something else than what she thought. And I’ve heard that from other people too, that their expectation of what they’re going to see in the video, and what they really see, is quite a bit different.

FRONTLINE EDUCATION: What are the biggest hurdles that schools and districts face in using video to support improvements in practice?

JIM KNIGHT: The biggest hurdle is the culture of the school…. If [as a teacher] I know they’ve got my best interest at heart, it’s going to be pretty easy for me to agree, but if I’m not sure of that, I’m going to hesitate. I’d say it’s really important to create a culture where that’s going to happen.

A second thing is not just psychological safety. Sometimes there’s a culture of talk versus a culture of action — we do workshops all the time, and we talk about evaluation, and we do school improvement but nothing really changes. When you use video, the moment you push the red button on your phone or tablet, you move from a culture of talk to a culture of action. Once you look at the video, something has to happen, and in some systems it’s counter-cultural to actually be working on really doing things.

FRONTLINE EDUCATION: Is there anything else you’d add?

JIM KNIGHT: There’s a kind of a paradox at the heart of all of this: to live a fulfilling life, you have to be getting better. If you just stay the same all the time, something kind of shrivels up inside you. You impoverish your life if you don’t grow and learn. That’s why there are so many self-help books. To get better you have to face reality, and that can be painful, so the initial experience of getting better doesn’t seem like it’s nourishing your well-being at all. But you’re not going to get to the point of feeling like you’re really improving and growing unless you look at reality. So ironically, to get better you have to feel worse first. You have to learn where you are.

Right now, I’m trying to get in shape so I can run more, and that means I have to lose weight and I have to look at the scales every day and go, “Oh, I never should’ve had those chips and salsa.” I have to see reality every day and maybe it’s a little painful, but to get better you have to see it, and that’s a really interesting dynamic about the use of video.

Sometimes people would rather not see reality because it hurts too much to look at reality. But in the long run, to really feel fulfilled they have to be getting better.

This was just a small excerpt from a longer interview. Listen to the entire interview above, or subscribe to the podcast..