… in these videos ;o(
A reflective account of a recent peer observation
These were my first thoughts when I started watching the videos of the observation and the feedback conversation with my observer. I felt extremely uncomfortable and found it hard to watch the clips but in the end I watched them twice and it became easier, I have to admit.
I am currently carrying out research linked to the use of video in the context of peer observations and my own feelings shared above are no different from from comments I have received so far from participants in this study. For example one participant noted:
I really didn’t want to watch myself. I think that you believe you look and sound a certain way and when you see how you ‘really’ are, it can be a shock. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from the process and I would be happy to repeat it again. [core module student]
After trying to forget about all the above and accepting who I am – this was really hard and painful! – I did some valuable discoveries.
First of all, I have to admit that I felt more relaxed during the observation and the discussion that followed than I thought I would. The day before, my heart was racing with 1000 miles per hour up and down a huge and scary roller coaster and there were moments when I felt really sick… On the day, I was nervous initially (how many times did I look through the glass doors?) when Simon arrived a bit late – and hoping that he would have changed his mind maybe? Soon, I felt more relaxed and I was fine. I think there where three main reasons for that.
1. While my history with Simon started stressfully during an intense job interview just over two years ago, he has become a critical friend in recent months and I have shared some of my deeper concerns with him about my role and the programme and he has been very helpful and understanding. I trust him and know that he was wants to support me. Actually this is exactly what Simon said, when I told him in advance of the session how nervous I feel. I wanted the peer observation to help me grow as a teacher (Gosling, 2000) and thought that Simon would be the right person at the time also since he was visiting us anyway for the PGCAP Exam Board and this activity would enable him to gain a better insight of the programme. Usually peer observations happen between colleagues from the same institution but not exclusively as also stated in Bell (2002). These can be in power positions or any colleague, depending on the peer observation model used (Gosling, 2005), which could be managerial, developmental or collaborative . By the way, I got that job when Simon was on the interview panel and I wouldn’t be here today otherwise ;o)
2. I felt comfortable making this feedback conversation in front of the current group because of our special relationship and the openness I have encouraged and the group embraced from the beginning of this module. Most of us have shared personal stories and have reached out for each other in difficult times. A partnership did grow, in most cases, and we see each other as learning partners now which is wonderful. At least some of the students have become critical friends with each other and I have seen them grow in the weeks that have passed. I trust my students and they trust each other and I think they also trust me, well I hope they do ;o). Shrives and Bond (2003) discuss the role of academic developers and recognise that the way forward is through “building up a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.” (p. 65). I have seen it many times, the difference relationships can make in what we do and what we can achieve. I also felt that this shared peer observation experience would be of value for my students since we are asking them to carry out peer observations on the module and were up to now sending them off to carry out peer observation just by talking to them about these. Experiencing one as a participants and informal observer at the same time would be, I thought, more beneficial for them. As Land (2003) suggests “Do as I do” rather than “do as I say” (p. 3) which is indeed more powerful and effective.
3. The session was around assessment and feedback using a Problem-Based Learning approach to maximise engagement and opportunities for self-directed and peer learning. The session has evolved over the last 2 years. This had given me the chance to refine my approach a few times already, not of course that it was perfect, of course. It would be boring to just keep doing the same thing and it is not in my nature to do this anyway. I am too curious about things. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat!!! It took her places! I am confident and comfortable with a variety of assessment and feedback practices and have been using PBL in various settings and engaged in research activities and experimental work around these areas. Knowing what I was doing, sort of, content and process were familiar, helped a lot I think to feel some sort of comfort and confidence that I could do this. But how would I have felt if this would be a brand new session? A brand new topic I knew nothing or very little about? Something that I haven’t taught before? Would it make a difference? What if I was an experienced facilitator without any or very limited subject knowledge? And the question now is, could an experienced facilitator, facilitate any session successfully? And if this is the case, what does this mean for the teachers and the students? Would such a model be problematic? For whom? And why or why not? I would love to find somebody who would carry out a related experiment with me on this!!! Anybody interested? These are a few of the questions that just popped into my head. Last time, this session was offered, we received really positive feedback and I had been asked by a School to run a similar PBL assessment and feedback workshop for them. This I guess means that the session worked and worked well! This also boosted my confidence a little bit and I believed that it could work again, despite the time constraints – despite the fact that Simon told me during our pre-observation meeting, that my plan “was ambitious”, did he mean “too ambitious”? Time constraints are always there and while I don’t think it is a good idea to remind students that we don’t have enough time… I think I did! You usually say these things and then think, “oh, I shouldn’t have said this” but it is too late because your tongue is quicker than your brain…
The above three reasons made the peer observation ok in the end and manageable to watch the clips. While I am now writing this, I am listening to the video of the observation in the background. Just hear the noises, the music of learning. The enjoyment, the excitement! I have a big smile on my face because I can really hear the engagement, I can sense the excitement – the classroom sounds like in a busy market place on a Saturday morning. It was definitely a (loud) and collaborative thinking classroom! Pure magic!!! This magic helps me relive some of the special moments and triggers more and deeper reflection and thinking. I am actually now thinking that we could make an mp3 file out of the video recording of the session and share it with everybody. How would my students react? What would they think? Would they find it as fascinating as I do? There is of course the possibility that they wouldn’t… For me, just listening to the voices, the sounds, the music, the laughter enables me to focus, re-focus and re-create my own connections, visual memories and reflections.
What did I notice?
- Delay in reflection to kick in (experiencing a reflective blackout?): While I reflect in- and on action and am always confronted with dilemmas which I try and resolve when they occupy my mind, reflecting immediately after the event and being asked questions was challenging and stressful – it didn’t work very well for me, I have to say and I feel that I didn’t answer Simon’s questions properly… Was it too fresh? Was some time in between the observation and the feedback conversation needed? Should I have watched the observation video first? I think the answer to all this questions is YES. However due to the circumstances this was not possible and I am grateful to Simon and the time he spent with the whole group and participating in this experiment. An example of this delay for the reflection to kick in, when Simon asked me the question what happened when I split the class into groups. I just couldn’t remember what exactly I should have noticed. If I had seen the video of the session before he asked me this question, I would definitely have seen that nobody was listening and that the groups did their own thing. For a while I appear to be talking into the black hole. Everybody was ignoring me!!! What could I have done? Obviously the bell doesn’t work anymore. I think next time, what I will try is to sit quiet without saying anything and see what happens. Silence can be very powerful. Another strategy would be to leave the room and see what happens then. I am thinking about options and will try a different approach next time. I am also thinking of getting a different “noise maker”… must check what Argos has… or the Poundshop ;o)
- Students defending teacher (ganging up on the observer?): I had seen it before from the other side, when observing teachers in their classrooms and when talking to students afterwards about their teachers. Now my very own students agreed with most of my decisions and disagreed with some of the observers comments. Is this what people naturally do? Was this a defense mechanism? Did my students feel that they had to defend me or did they really feel that I had taken the ‘right’ decisions… if there is such a thing, for example linked to a. break or no break b. how the intended learning outcomes where presented. c. Students also agreed with what I thought they got out of the session. This was all very exciting and I would love to ask them what made them agree with my decision and my rationale. Was it the familiar against the stranger? Was it an in- and out of-group re-action or am I reading too much into this now and start over-analysing situations…
- Less is more: I would agree with this as suggested by the observer but I really find it hard to de-touch myself from some of the things I want to do and feel excited about. This is my big problem you see. Too often I also think, that I enjoy the course more than my students… I have too many ideas which do clutter probably some of my sessions and this observation made me even more aware of this, especially now that there is video evidence of this as well… at least not all the clutter is captured there… I have to say that I am so pleased that one of the PBL groups discovered the feedback sandwich because in the past, in a similar session, I did bring in bread, ham, and lettuce etc and actually made a real sandwich to demonstrate this. I decided the night before NOT to do this and I am pleased but also sad because I know from comments received from past students that the making of the sandwich stayed in their minds and helped them creative a visual image of feedback and also understand the importance of feedback, how to phrase and frame it in a positive, constructive and sensitive way. I will continue thinking about decluttering, I will try my best and I recognise that it is vital to help my students on their journey. But then again, while I am writing this, another part of myself thinks, what is wrong with a (short) detour? What if learning and teaching does become a bit messy? Is there any learning that is straightforward? Is there such a thing as linear learning? This is something that I have been thinking about many times. I don’t like boxes. Ok, we need some structure, or better frameworks which, I think need to be not just flexible but elastic and create the environment for messy and experimental learning to happen! I have captured my thinking about this in the photovoices “the messiness of learning”.
- PBL groups: I think this was my main challenge. Groups were formed based on specific criteria. My rationale was to stengthen existing relationships, give opportunities for individuals to work with others whom they knew less but also keep certain individuals apart. Looking back now, I think I should have used the existing action learning set groups. Why? Because in a way, action learning set group members had already opportunities to work closer together in the last 7 weeks, got to know each other a bit better and had started bonding. Their relationship would have helped enormously with the PBL task, especially if we think about Tuckman’s model of team development. Tuckman suggests that there are four main stages that lead to effective teamwork. Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. I asked the PBL groups to do this rapidly. Did it work? No, it didn’t. Well, it it work in some, but not in all groups. The PBL groups, where at different stages and while some moved more swiftly from the Forming, Storming to the Norming and the Portforming Stage and glued, I think there was evidence that some groups were stuck in the Storming stage while trying to Perform at the same time. If I had kept the action learning sets for the PBL groups, the disadvantage would be that it could potentially increase a silo and in- and out-of group learning approach which I wanted to avoid. So, again, I am not sure I think at this stage… which is confusing, I have to admit! The observer asked me a question linked to the group dynamics in these PBL groups. I had noticed that there were problems in some of them but was unsure how much to intervene. Part of me wanted to step in and maybe I should have done. The other part of me was thinking, let the group work it out. They will learn more this way. Then again there are specific roles in PBL. I could or should have emphasised more on these! Hmelo-Silver (2002) defines the role of the PBL facilitator as somebody who helps “students construct causal explanations that connect theories, data and proposed solutions.” (p. 10) and I would agree with this, I think I should really have helped some of the groups more. Perhaps though I expected also a certain level of what Moon (2009, 8) calls academic assertiveness and defines as “a mix of self awareness and awareness of the behaviour of others, the development of some abilities, some ideas and specific techniques. Being assertive involves also a willingness to apply these ideas to yourself, to learn from them and change where necessary. Being assertive in a group context sets up a mindset to sort things out and we all know that being in groups can be difficult.” Why did this not happen? Is the why related to time and the newness of the group members and goes back to Tuckman? It was a tricky situation and I don’t wanted to be directive but I think it is needed sometimes in PBL especially when working with students who are brand-new to PBL. Facilitators should, I think, move progressive from a push to pull approach and I acted as if we were ready for pull. For the majority of students, this was the first time they experienced PBL and while we had a clear framework, a structure and agreed roles (a chair, a timekeeper and a scribe) I am not sure that all groups made effective use of these roles. If we would use again PBL in the next session, and I would keep the same PBL groups. I think the groups would approach their collaborative task differently the second time. I am sure most, if not all, reflected on how their group performed but also what role they played and have learned something valuable from this experience. The major roles, such as chair, scribe and time keeper were decided from the outset and the groups agreed that they needed to formulate ground rules. What happened? What could I have done? Ask each group to take 5min, discuss accepted working practice and agree the rules of the game. Could Moon’s (2009) checklist on academic assertiveness (see page 9) be a useful guide to formulate ground rules? At a first glance, I think it would be useful. The agreed ground rules could be captured on a piece of paper stuck to the table next to the scenario and the PBL model we used. The chair could then remind everybody of their group agreement, especially if it was felt that things were going out-of-control. I think that would have helped. Why didn’t I think about this?
- Clean start: De-clutter! said Simon. This is definitely something I must address. It is not my intention to confuse anybody. All I want is my students to think and perhaps I am asking them to think about too many different things at the same time… I think, I do. So, all these little activities that were added to the beginning of the session, such as the sharing of the very personal story “The white magic sauce” and the “Ask the students about assessment and feedback” research activity where not used to their full effect. Looking back now, and while I think I agreed with the observer that they need to go! I am now re-thinking and see a potential in using them differently. The story would be much more powerful at the end of the session to bring closure but also extend thinking beyond the classroom. The research activity should really be carried out in advance of the session. I could have asked everybody to ask these 2 questions a student on their way in this morning. Why didn’t I think about these things? But it shows that there is always room for improvement and that sometimes it takes a while to see things clearer and in a different light. When we have such eureka moments it is exciting and revitalising!
What did I learn
- peer observation is a powerful tool to enhance practice
- it should be done regularly
- pick a person you trust from a different discipline or professional area
- be open
- involve students
- record the session if you can, or snippets
- be brave and watch the video
- watch the video again
- give the person who has been observed some time to reflect before meeting
- take notes during the conversation
- record the feedback conversation with the observer
- reflect and share your reflections with the observer and your students
- take actions to enhance practice based on the observation, the conversation you had with your observer and your students.
Usefulness of the peer observation for my students
After carrying out this open peer observation experiment, I felt the need to find out what my students thought of this, if it was useful and in what ways. Evidence suggests the following:
- Better understanding: Students agreed that it helped them develop a better understanding of peer observations and what is expected and “what it is about” as one of the students commented.
- Demystifying peer observations: It enabled them to gain a better insight of peer observations and demystify these. A student noted “You can also see that potentially worrisome things like observations aren’t that bad. [...] I bet loads of people on the course really benefited.”
- Common observations: the feedback conversation that follows these and confirmed, in most cases some of their observations which agreed in most cases with the observer’s feedback. A student noted: “The observers feedback gave me confidence that I am good at giving feedback following observations, as his comments were similar to those I would have made.”
- Feeling nervous: Seeing their tutor being observed and feeling nervous, just as they do, made the students realise that we all feel very similar when being observed. One student said: “It was helpful to see Chrissi going through the same experience as we go through, and encouraging to see that she wasn’t entirely relaxed either, just as we are when being observed.”
- Observation resources: Students agreed that these were useful to access in advance and following the observation.
It is over now. Some might think that this was a risky strategy but I am pleased I took this risk. One of my students actually said doing the feedback conversation that followed the observation that “doing this publicly, in front of her students, that was brave!!!” I think it is important to be open and transparent and model learning if we want our students to learn. Engaging in such shared activities with our students and opening our classrooms are vital to further enhance practices. I feel that I learned a lot and most importantly my students benefited as well as it gave one of our External Examiners an insight into the programme, which is an added bonus. As he said:
“I thoroughly enjoyed observing. It gave me a far greater insight into the work you are doing and a better idea of the excellent stuff. I expect the work will reflect this in the future, so well done. So I should be the one saying thank you for inviting me. You are clearly a very thoughtful and good teacher and I learned a lot from watching yesterday. [...] It was my pleasure and I did genuinely learn a lot from being involved both from you and the way you worked with the participants, but also from the participants as well. So all in all, a very worthwhile experience.”
What I am going to do next
- I feel that I would benefit from reading these reflections again and watching the clips too after maybe a month or so to identify how much my thinking has developed and changed since then.
- I must identify some very specific enhancement opportunities to this specific session but to my practice more generally!
- I would like to integrate this open peer observation experiment into the module and carry it out in week 2 or 3 to assist students in the peer observations they have to do.
- I must remember to arrange a better seating for the group next time for the feedback conversation. A circle would have been much better and I wouldn’t have to talk over my shoulder…
- I would like to identify a peer observation buddy for the next academic year and engage in regular peer observation.
- And last but not least, I MUST have a haircut soon! ;o)
Palmer (2007) states “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.” (p. 11) this is something I aspire for.
Final notes: Bell (2002) notes that “the presence of an observer or video may affect the dynamics in a small class” (p.8). This is also documented in Gosling (2002), however others strongly suggest that the use of video in peer observation can be beneficial to aid reflection and further development (Keig and Waggoner, 1994). In this session, we had an external peer observer who also recorded large parts of the session and I don’t think that these factors altered significantly what happened during the session. However, a small minority stated that they behaved differently during the observation because the session was recorded. Generally, I think my students have got used to being filmed on this module. I also take regularly photographs in class, and we have completed video activities together as well, which all helped and made them feel more relaxed. I was probably more nervous than anybody else at the beginning but have to say, that as the session progressed I “forgot” that Simon was there and that he was filming too. This has been a highly useful activity for me and I think for my students too. But I would like to investigate further in what way it was useful for them.
Palmer (2007, 147) states “When we walk into our workplace, the classroom, we close the door on our colleagues. When we emerge, we rarely talk about what happened or what needs to happen next, for we have no shared experience to talk about.” – if we want to change this, we, academic developers, need to open our classrooms as well.
Thank you Simon for being so generous with your time and all my lovely students from CoreJan12 from the PGCAP. A special thank you also to Liz who did a great job recording the feedback conversation, Sarah who took detailed notes, see: notes_from_feedback_conversation and Craig who helped me patiently finding a way to upload these massive videos and showing me the pineapply HandBrake tool. Simon also provided additional written notes referring to before, during and after the observation which can be accessed here SLB_Observation for Chrissi.
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Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Buckingham: Open University Press.
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Gosling, D. (2005) Peer Observation of Teaching, SEDA Paper 128, Birmingham: SEDA.
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Moon, J. (2009) Making groups work. Improving group work through the principles of academic assertiveness in higher education and professional development, Higher Education Academy, Escalate, available at http://escalate.ac.uk/5413 [accessed 17 March 12]
Palmer, P. J. (2007) The courage to teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Shrives, L. and Bond C. (2003) Consultancy in educational development, in: Kahn, P. and Baume, D. (eds.) A Guide to Staff and Educational Development, SEDA, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 61-75.