It’s a jungle out there

gorillabookSome years ago I read this book.  It was entertaining and thought-provoking, and a very quick and easy read.  I highly recommend it for a rainy afternoon.

I came across the ‘gorilla experiment’ again awhile later in New English File (Upper-Intermediate, re-hashed into a listening comprehension exercise, if memory serves…).

Then George Pickering talked about it at English UK in 2010.  (If you were there, I was the embarrassed one person who raised her hand when he asked if anybody had heard of it before.)

And I’ve just come across it again on the BBC website, this time with reference to radiologists spotting (or not) certain disturbing anomalies in CT scans of lungs.

This last time I came across it again, a few questions started buzzing around my head.

What do we look for when we observe our students (i.e. when we’re monitoring)?  What do we look for when we observe other teachers?  Is this the same when we observe novice or experienced teachers?  What do we look for when ‘observing’ our own teaching?

Most importantly: in the classroom, what effect does what we’re looking for have on what we see?

(If you’re not familiar with the experiment, there’s a clear and succinct explanation (with video!) here.)

As a teacher trainer, I am fortunate enough to have lots of opportunities to watch others teach, both on and off formal training courses.  It’s one of the highlights of my job and I always delight in how much I can learn from observing others, as well as what they’re (supposedly) learning from me.

But one thing that doesn’t always sit comfortably with me is the task/form/list of tick boxes I inevitably have clutched in my hand during these observations.  I hasten to add that I do acknowledge their uses and usefulness — but sometimes I just find them too constraining.  My hand always aches after observing a lesson because I have so many things which make me think and which I want to comment on, but which don’t fall neatly into the pre-defined categories.

“Why does everything have to be so rigid?”

This notion of pre-defining what we want/hope/expect to see when watching someone else’s lesson is incredibly pervasive in ELT.  I struggle to think of a single occasion, whether formal (e.g. when assessing a CertTESOL lesson) or informal (e.g. if a colleague asks me to watch a lesson and share my thoughts), where there is no structure whatsoever to what I’m supposed to be ‘looking for’.  Even the time I’m to spend in the classroom is usually fixed beforehand — there’s no “yeah, just drift in whenever and stay as long as you like”.  It’s “60 minutes” or “the first half” or “we’ll just be checking homework at the start so come in after that” (this last one’s a real shame — I find it quite interesting to see what teachers do with homework).

Training courses and development programmes have their tick boxes and time limits; teachers otherwise inviting observers into their classrooms are advised to ask them to look for particular things to give feedback on later.  And pitting all this against the ‘hidden gorilla’ concept raises some interesting issues.

An optimistic explanation of all the categorising, box-ticking, organising and measuring would be that it’s all well-intentioned, informed (somewhere along the line) by research, tried-and-tested and efficient.  It helps organise the observer’s thoughts and notes, before, during and after the observation itself.

But what might we be missing?


Sniff. Nobody notices me.

In the BBC article, Daniel Simons, one of the original ‘gorilla project’ researchers, explains that:

“We focus attention on those aspects of the world that we want to see.  By focusing attention, we can filter out distractions. But in limiting our attention to just those aspects of our world we are trying to see, we tend not to notice unexpected objects or events.”

In other words, while we’re staring down the microscope at teacher X’s boardwork or correction techniques, there could be a gorilla standing inches behind us.

Simons and Chabris, the original researchers, claim on their website that their (2011) book about the experiment “will make you less sure of yourself–and that’s a good thing”.  And I tend to agree that a healthy dose of self-skepticism, if I may coin a term, is important to continuing teacher learning.

So how to apply all of this?

Here are my suggestions…

bullet Observe other teachers in the school, but DON’T ask them what they’d like you to look for before you go in, and don’t take any other observation task.  Just take a blank sheet of paper and keep your eyes and ears open.  The same applies vice versa – invite your peers into your classroom occasionally, with no pre-defined agenda.  Just see what they notice.

bullet Invite novice teachers (or even non-teachers) to observe your lesson.  Invite their thoughts afterwards on what they noticed, what they liked, what they felt worked/didn’t work, etc.  They might pick up on things your ‘training’ is actually obscuring.

bullet If you will focus on something, film one of your lessons, or a short part of one (probably more tenable to do the latter), and watch it later several times, each time focusing on something different.  See what appears… like a 3D image in a Magic Eye!

bullet Ask the students to do the observing!  Perhaps they could take turns to sit out of an activity and just observe it, then give feedback to you and the other students afterwards on what they noticed, what they learned, what some people in the room picked up on but others missed, etc.  (An aside: some research has suggested that peers may benefit more from being present during teachers’ corrections than those learners who were themselves corrected (see Havranek, 2002).  In other words, learners likely benefit from witnessing instruction directed at other students, not only from being the ‘target’ of instruction themselves.)

I’d like to think such steps might help lead us out from behind the veil of our training, experience and intuitions and enable us to see anew what’s right in front of us.

And that this might reveal a few interesting gorillas in the jungle that is a language classroom.


P.S. Did you spot all 7 gorillas in this post?


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. I first came across the experiment in the Royal Institution Christmas lectures from a couple of years ago – the series called ‘Mind Matters’ (on a side note, did you know you can watch all of them for free on the RI website?)
    Being in the middle of Delta as I am, tickboxes during observations are a huge part of my life. I always have my door open, and like people to drop in – not that anyone ever does! I really like the idea of a student observing an activity. Have you tried that? I wonder if they would complain because they might not feel before they do it that they are going to learn as much as the participants. What do you think?
    PS No, I didn’t 🙂

  2. Hey Sandy, thanks for dropping by!

    Ever since I read that article I mentioned (Havranek, 2002, about correction) I’ve been itching to try some kind of student-observation thing. I just haven’t made my mind up yet about how to set it up. I dunno if you can access the full article (I logged in from my university) but the long and short of it is that they researched a couple of hundred learners over several weeks at different ages and levels of proficiency and altogether observed 1700 instances of corrective feedback, whether by the teacher or peers–then analysed it all (fun!). They concluded from their findings that correction worked best when the learner was already focused on code (i.e. on linguistic form itself, not on general communication of a message, like during grammar practice task feedback for example) and was able to self-correct. But what was really interesting was that the success rates were even higher for their peers, i.e. other learners who had witnessed the correction. For the sake of space I won’t go into all the possible explanations here…

    But I think if students were talked through this kind of thing, they’d be willing to experiment with me. It’s always made sense to me to talk to students about why we do things the way we do them. If you are essentially saying that you’ve come across some research that suggests a particular thing is effective for learning, why wouldn’t they be willing to try it out? You can (should?) always get their feedback later on how it worked and how they felt about it.

    Anyway, all this is what’s been simmering in the back of my mind for some time – so you can see why I haven’t yet been able to work it into a coherent practical idea yet! 🙂 If/when I do, I’ll be sure to post it here.

    Thanks again for visiting – I’m off to check out the RI website now!


  3. That research sounds really interesting.
    I’ve just been looking at the Reflection and Action document I’m writing throughout my Delta as part of Module 2, and it made me think of your post again. One of the comments I keep getting about my reading is ‘Make sure you know what you’re looking for before you start reading’. I know this can make reading more efficient, but if I knew what I was looking for, I’d use the index. When I’m reading the book I have no idea what I might miss if I, say, try to find ‘three activities to do with connected speech’!

  4. Pingback: Watching myself teach – the encore | Sandy Millin

  5. Hi Laura – Just read this before heading over to Sandy’s new post – I’m really into video reflection these days, so I’m curious to see how Sandy’s using it, but wanted to refresh memory on the gorilla thing (only found 4…too focused on your words, I guess). I agree completely that minimizing viewing topics has the advantages you mention. I think that’s what I’m liking about video reflection – you can watch it the first time tyhat way, then go at it again for specifics. Same with colleagues/trainees viewing it. Anyway – I appreciate the chance to share your thoughts.

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