Field Trip: See Reality, Get Better


One of the best things teachers can do to improve their practice is to film themselves teaching, then replay and reflect. This week, we speak with well-known researcher and author Dr. Jim Knight, to learn how teachers and administrators can best use classroom video to enhance teaching, mentoring and coaching.

Dr. Knight’s 2014 book Focus on Teaching looks at this topic in-depth. In this interview, we ask him about:

Books, videos and other resources from Dr. Knight can be found at

Full Transcript  

JIM KNIGHT: Well I think the big thing is if you don’t understand what’s happening in your setting, you could be focused on entirely the wrong things.

If you want to move forward, you have to begin with a good sense of where you are. That’s the case in pretty much any profession, but it’s especially true in teaching.

JIM KNIGHT: If I don’t have a very clear focus on what’s happening in my classroom, if I don’t have a clearer picture, I might not be that motivated to change, because I just don’t see what’s needed. But often when people watch the video, they go, “Holy smokes, I’ve got to do something about that,” so they’re more focused, they’re more committed to change.

Teachers recording and sharing videos of their own teaching practice isn’t exactly new, but more and more school leaders are seeing the value of using video outweigh the discomfort that sometimes comes along with it.

JIM KNIGHT: 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.

Welcome to the podcast for education leaders. Each episode, we bring you stories of people who are finding creative ways to solve problem, improve schools, advance teaching and impact students in the classroom. From experts in the field, to superintendents, to principals, from departments like HR and Instruction to the business office, we’re speaking with leaders who have stories to tell, and we’re sharing those conversations here.

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

Dr. Jim Knight is a well-known researcher and speaker, and is president of the Instructional Coaching Group. He has written numerous articles and books on instructional coaching, such as The Impact Cycle, Better Conversations, Unmistakable Impact, and Focus on Teaching. Today, we’re speaking with him about the use of video as a tool to improve instruction.

Dr. Knight, thank you for making time today.

JIM KNIGHT: It’s my pleasure.

You’ve written and spoken about the use of video for high-impact instruction quite a bit. You have a book about it that came out in 2014 called Focus on Teaching, but we really have to start with thinking about video itself. Could you tell me a little bit, why is video important for educators to consider?

JIM KNIGHT: The first thing I’d say is that we’ve seen the power of video in lots of other fields. You wouldn’t have a middle school football team in America that doesn’t watch themselves on video, and lots of performing artists watch themselves on video, speakers. And 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.

 So a hockey player, for example, might not know how out of position he is, or how slowly he’s trying in certain circumstances, or any number of different things unless he sees the video, and when he sees the video he goes, “Holy smokes, I had no idea.” And that’s why athletes, whether they’re in a middle school or they’re in a university, or professional athletes, watch themselves on video all the time.

 It’s the same thing with teachers, we’ve found. Not just teachers, but people, in the way they have conversations, the way people lead organizations, in an educational context, just about everybody. But most people don’t have a very clear picture of what it looks like when they have conversations or when they do their work.

How do you think video can support effective professional development in K-12 then? What does that look like?

JIM KNIGHT: Well, I think the big thing is, if you don’t understand what’s happening in your setting, you could be focused on entirely the wrong things. So unless I see what’s happening in my classroom, I could invest a whole bunch of time learning something that isn’t actually what’s needed, but when I see the video, I get a much clearer sense of where the priority should be.

 And the second thing is, if I don’t have a very clear focus on what’s happening in my classroom, if I don’t have a clear picture, I might not be that motivated to change, because I just don’t see what’s needed. But often when people watch the video, they go, “Holy smokes, I’ve got to do something about that,” so they’re more focused, they’re more committed to change.

I can imagine someone saying, “Look, you’ve sold me on the value of video to support great teaching, but I don’t think my teachers are going to be comfortable with it. I don’t know where to start.” I know that you have a number of guidelines that are really helpful for districts and educators to follow. What might some of those be?

JIM KNIGHT: Well, the first thing I’d say is that they’re probably right. It is hard to watch yourself on video. It’s hard for a number of different reasons. 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. And so 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 to it, you’re good.

 The one thing I would say, and then I do have a couple suggestions. But one thing I would say is, we see it varies more by school than it does by person. So 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 moralistically judgmental situation.

 Just a couple guidelines: I don’t think it should be forced. I think it should be a choice. I think growth and learning should always be expected. I think that’s a non-negotiable in any kind of organization, but how you learn is up to you. And I think if teachers in a whole school don’t want to do it, you should step back and say, “Well what is it? Why don’t we have that trust there? Is it that they don’t think we’re being honest with them, if they don’t feel that we’re warm towards them or have their best interest at heart?” You have to analyze what the source is, because forcing it is not going to solve the problem. What’s going to solve the problem is something else.

You’ve used the phrase, “Go slow to go fast.” What do you mean by that?

JIM KNIGHT: I think it’s important that you realize, just because you think it’s a good idea, other people aren’t going to be with you on that unless they can truly see the value of what you’re proposing, and so what I really think is a good strategy is to start with some of the people in the school district. If you’re a coach, for example, who are informal leaders in the school, and you want someone where you go to them and you say, “Look, would you try this out and tell me if you think it’s valuable?” And then if you like it, other people will probably like it because they trust what you have to say.

 I think also it’s probably essential that the leaders in the school use video. So if a principal says, “I expect you to use video, but I’m not doing it,” it’s probably not going to get a lot of people on board. But if the principal says, “Look, I just video recorded myself modeling a lesson in class and the coach is going to coach me,” and tells that to the staff, or video records herself giving professional development or leading meetings or other kinds of conversations, if the principal does it, if the coach does it, if the assistant principal does it, and if they are using video, then it’s going to be more likely that other people will be likely to embrace it.

 It’s that whole idea of walking the talk. You know, if you want people to embrace something, you need to do it yourself.

Your book discusses a number of ways that video can be used to improve teaching, both by teachers themselves, by coaches, by principals, by teams. Let’s start with coaches. 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. It’s true of any kind of leadership position, or any kind of performer. We have a tendency to look for data, what’s called for “confirmation bias.” I have a tendency to look for data that reinforces our perceptions of things. We also get used to stuff over time, what’s called “habituation.” And then so what we think is happening and what’s really happening are often quite a bit different.

 And so video also allows us a chance to see things we might not see. It doesn’t have to be negative, necessarily. So 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.” And so sometimes they’ll see things that are good, not necessarily bad. See, you can’t see everything. So it provides a bigger picture.

Is the idea that then the coach and the teacher look at the video together and discuss what the practice looked like at that point?

JIM KNIGHT: Well what we’ve found is it’s actually better initially for the coach and the teacher to watch the video separately and there’s a lot of tools on our website,, that are free and you can download. They’re all organized by book in the resources section, so there’s a whole section for Focus on Teaching.

 But we think it’s best to have the conversation separately, especially initially because it’s a lot to take in and you might not be happy with how you look, and you have to get used to your voice. You might have to watch it a couple times just to process it, and we think sitting down and watching it … Plus it’s complex. So initially we think watching it separately makes sense, and then you get together to talk about it.

But once you’ve picked one thing to work on — let’s say the teacher says, “I really want to shift my questions to be higher order thinking and more open questions” — then I think you can watch it together if it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s not necessary, and you’re always looking for ways as a coach to make it easier for the teachers.

 So maybe the teacher watches it, and you write down all the questions, so when you get together you can just look at the questions. You don’t have to watch the video. But initially at least, in our studies, we had coaches trying to say, “What we found was the coaching conversations were very stilted initially, and yet when we did it separately they were a lot richer.” There’s just too much going on for those conversations to work.

As we think about teachers using video for self-reflection, both recording their lesson in the classroom and then watching it, improving their own practice, are there any best practices that you would recommend for teachers who say, “Look, I just want to work myself on getting better and use video to do this”? What’s the most effective way to do that?

JIM KNIGHT: You mean what should they be looking for?

I would say, what should they be looking for, but is there a particular technique or procedure that you have found that is really helpful that maybe might not be obvious right out of the gate?

JIM KNIGHT: Well initially, they probably need to watch the video twice. Because the first time through, it’s like, “I’m never going to wear those pants again,” you know. “I can’t believe I just saw a bald spot I didn’t know was there,” would be kind of what I would see. So I think the first time through, you just kind of have to get used to watching yourself. You have to grin and bear it.

 And then the second time through, to go through looking for specific things, and there’s quite a few in the Focus on Teaching book. Things like, how much time was wasted? How engaged are the kids? How often did I reinforce versus correct students? Which kids are responding to questions? Are all the kids responding or just a few?

And so there are a few simple things you can look at in the class. Some of them you can quantify, and some of them are more qualitative like engagement. It’s the kind of thing you almost have to ask the kids about that, involve them in giving you some feedback on their level of engagement. But you can get a qualitative picture of what’s going on through the video.

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: One thing I’ve heard… 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 the 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 other 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.

In your book, you mentioned a teacher who observed video of her teaching — both her most engaged and least engaged classes. I wonder if you could tell that story and what she observed.

JIM KNIGHT: That was really cool, because it was, again, that MacGuffin effect. But what the teacher did is, she had one class that was humming along really well, and another class where it didn’t seem to be working too well. I think, if I remember correctly, she was an elementary teacher in Michigan. So she recorded the two classes, and she looked at them back to back. This is the class that’s going great, the one that’s not great, and she said that what she realized is, she was a different person. In the class that wasn’t going great, her whole behavior and demeanor with those students, the way she reinforced and encouraged them, her enthusiasm, her positive attitude, was different. So she used video to change the way she related to the students in the second class to make it more like the first class. She thought she’d see things in the kids, what she really saw was something in herself.

Wow, wow. What about with teams? You’ve written about video learning teams. Is that similar to a PLC? And what would you say is important for schools and districts to keep in mind as they structure these teams?

JIM KNIGHT: Yeah, it’s like a PLC, where video is at the heart of the learning. So sometimes what they’re going to do is a version of instructional rounds, maybe, where they video record the class and then everybody comments on the class.

 Sometimes a team will pick one particular teaching practice they’re trying to get good at. Like, say, the gradual release idea of, “I do it, we do it, you do it,” and each person, each week, will bring video of them and say, “This is what I like, this is what I didn’t like, what do you think about how it went?” And that way, the teachers get to see multiple models of the practice. At the end of the year, they should all be really good at it because they’ve seen so many different people, they’ve explored it together.

Sometimes they’ll pick a theme, like, say, questioning or engagement — not so much a practice, but just a theme they’re looking at. And they’ll keep trying to work on that, and the video — you don’t show the whole thing, you just show a few clips — but the video becomes a vehicle for that kind of meaningful discussion.

What I would say is most important is what the professional learning community literature talks a lot about, is creating a psychologically safe environment for collaboration, and that’s especially true for video. You don’t want to open up and then feel you’ve been moralistically judged by the people on the team.

 So I think establishing meaningful norms where everybody says, “This really is the kind of team we want to be,” is really, really important. It can’t be just some little quick thing. There should be a lot of discussion about, “What kind of team do we want to be? How are we going to monitor what we’re doing so we really do create a safe environment?”

And then lastly, you talk about how principals can use video to enhance teacher evaluations. How does that work?

JIM KNIGHT: Well again, I would make it a choice. So I wouldn’t make it a forced thing, but personally, if I was teaching and I was being evaluated, I would like to have video evidence of what’s going on so I can make my case. But the idea is, because people don’t have a very clear picture of reality sometimes — and to be honest, sometimes principals don’t do the greatest job gathering the data in the classroom. Sometimes they forget a few days before they get a chance to write everything down and organize it all, and they’ve sort of forgotten what happened. Sometimes they’re not really clear on how to gather that data in a way that’s reliable.

 So when you use video, what you do is, or at least the way we describe it, is that the principal and the coach get together, and they talk about the data that’s going to be gathered for the evaluation. Let’s say it’s Charlotte Danielson’s framework. They sit down and they go through the framework, and they make sure they have a shared understanding of what it means. Being with the framework, they might pick one section like instruction and just focus on that. Or they might do the whole thing, but it’s a lot to see in one video.

Then the principal comes in when they would do the evaluation, observation, and they video record the class. The teacher gets the video and the principal gets the video. The principal and teachers separately go through the evaluation form and fill it in. And then they get together and they talk about it.

What we’ve heard in interviews was, when you do evaluation without video, it often doesn’t go very well. Sometimes the teacher doesn’t think the observations are accurate. Sometimes the teacher is unclear on what’s really happening in the classroom, so the conversations are a little stilted and they can be negative and not fostering growth. But when they both look at the video, they both analyze it, the conversations are a lot more rich and meaningful, and there isn’t a problem. The principal has to be able to justify her or his observation, so they need to be reliable in the way that they gather the data, and the teacher sees really what’s happening and so a lot of the problems you have otherwise with those evaluation conversations disappear when you do it this way.

Evaluations can already be a bit of an anxiety ridden process. Does using video add to this at all or impact that in any way?

JIM KNIGHT: That’s a good question, and I honestly don’t have a good answer. I think that’s a good reason, though, why I would say I would want to make it a choice. I think if a teacher doesn’t feel right about it, we shouldn’t force it on them, but it’s there.

So if I’m a principal, I’d say, “This is an option we can do if you want to do it,” and then as more people do it, if it’s really productive and helpful and not a painful ritual, but actually a stimulus for growth and people like it, then other people will want to do it. So I think it could increase anxiety, but you’re already pretty anxious anyway.

The other thing is you could make it a formative process. So if somebody feels the class doesn’t go that well, they could take another stab at using the video and see what they can do.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles, either real or imagined, that schools and districts face to using video to support improvements in practice?

JIM KNIGHT: Well the biggest hurdle is the culture of the school. If the culture of the school doesn’t support, if it’s not creating a safe environment in the school, and really there’s a lot of things around trust, and I wrote about them in this book, Better Conversations. But a real big part of it is, I need to believe that the school and the leaders and the system have my best interest at heart.

And if 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. So 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, but 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. People will say, “Well, if I can get one good thing out of a workshop it was worth it,” and 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 actually, in some systems, it’s kind of counter-cultural to actually be working on really doing things.

What would you say are the biggest pitfalls that you have seen school systems fall into that prevents them from using video effectively?

JIM KNIGHT: Well, I think if you force people to do it, they’re naturally not going to want to do it. I think that would be the biggest mistake. I think trying to push it through because you think it’s a good idea.

I think something has to happen after the video, that’s why coaching is so important. So just watching your video and not having any idea on how to improve or what to do. I watched a video of myself presenting once, and I thought, “This is going to be great, I had such a great presentation.” And then I watched it, and it fell well short of my expectations. 

One of the things that I struggled with was, my delivery just wasn’t as smooth as I would’ve liked. It seemed kind of choppy, but I really didn’t have anybody who was an expert on how to improve your delivery. I could’ve looked it up in books and stuff, but I’m not sure that would’ve been as helpful as someone who could’ve looked through the video and given me feedback and given me strategies right there. 

So I think to have a coach available to provide that support once the person looks at the video is really going to increase the power of it.

Out of curiosity, have you videotaped yourself since then to see if you what you took away from that first time made any difference in your presenting?

JIM KNIGHT: I use video all the time, and it’s a kind of a funny question, “Are you getting better?” I like to think I’m getting better, but I’m also getting older. So my memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and I need more sleep. So maybe it’s kind of counter balancing, but we use video in all kinds of ways.

Jenny and I, for example, my wife and I, we video record conversations. We have conversations at the end of the day about what worked and what didn’t go well, and we watch those on video sometimes, and we practice a lot of the communication skills and better conversations through video.

If I’m leading a team I’ll watch video. It’s easier for me to watch myself on video when I’m presenting than it is to watch a one to one conversation. I think other people might be different, but yeah, 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.

I’m curious what it has looked like as you have come up with these practices that you have found to be effective in school systems, what does your research look like, or how have you come to these conclusions that you’ve been writing about?

JIM KNIGHT: We’ve done a lot of different studies. First, we didn’t even know we were, because really we haven’t studied video. It’s been in the body, it’s in the context of coaching. But at first we didn’t even think we were studying coaching. We were just trying to help teachers learn new teaching practices, and we knew they would need support, so we just kind of put people in schools and said, “Have at it,” you know?

And then we had several grants funded by Gear Up, and they provided us an opportunity to put instructional coaches in all the middle schools and high schools in Topeka, Kansas, the home of Brown vs. Board of Education. And you know, that team that I led, we would meet every Friday afternoon. We’d spend a couple hours talking about what worked, what didn’t work, how can we improve? We started out as learning consultants, and we became instructional collaborators, and we became instructional coaches. 

Then we had other funding through the IES Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and we were able to do other studies, qualitative studies where we looked at great coaches. We called it the Great Coaching Study.

We started out with a pool of about 2,000 coaches in Florida and narrowed it down to five. Nine of us went down there and interviewed coaches, principals, teachers. And we’ve used a kind of design model for research in the last six or seven years, where we try something out, we figure out where the friction is, and we try to remove the friction with a change.

So, The Impact Cycle, or the book on the coaching cycle, has done that and it’s in that that we start. We got the idea for using video watching the World Cup. It was, I don’t know, it would’ve been the early 2000’s, and England was playing soccer in the World Cup. Mick Jagger was in the stands and they kept flashing to Mick Jagger, and he had this little thing, and they said it was a flip camera.

And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool, we should get those for our research.” It turned out they weren’t very expensive. It was a couple of weeks later, I gave the coaches flip cameras and we knew about the power of video.

My friend had studied video with tutoring programs, and seeing huge impact when he used video versus when he didn’t. But you used to have to bring in this big machine, a kid had to show you how to use it, it disrupted the class, then you had to go watch it in the staff lounge because you had to plug it into something else, and just wasn’t worth the effort. But now on your phone you can do it. So Mick Jagger is the reason where this all came from when we started to use it.

Anyway, we’ve done a lot of design research, we’ve done qualitative studies. One of them is going to come out pretty soon, a quantitative study where we did what’s called a multiple baseline design, and we watched the impact. The impact on engagement was pretty dramatic as a result of that coaching.

There’s a kind of a paradox at the heart of all of this. Paradox is 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 people read books, that’s why there are so many self-help books and so forth. But 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. In fact, sometimes it could be really disappointing or unsettling. 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 crap, I never should’ve had those chip and salsa,” you know? 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.

Dr. Jim Knight is author of Focus on Teaching: Using Video For High-Impact Instruction, as well as 2017’s The Impact Cycle: What Instructional Coaches Should Do To Foster Powerful Improvement In Teaching. Dr. Knight, thank you again for speaking with us today.

JIM KNIGHT: Hey, thank you, I learned so much about asking questions just watching you ask questions. It was a pleasure.

For more from Dr. Jim Knight, you can visit his site at

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