“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.” (Palmer, 2007, p. 147)
The purpose of peer observation is to assist in the evaluation and development of teaching and learning approaches, not to make absolute judgements about teaching quality. And while we all understand this, we are still convinced that somebody will make a judgement about us and our teaching. How can we wipe this thought from our minds and feel a bit more relaxed and comfortable about peer observations?
Peer observations can only work if we trust each other, if we care about each other, each other’s practices and our students and are keen to help our colleagues develop and grow as teachers. We need to accept and respect their individuality and the strength they have and find a way to motivate them and create an appetite for further development of their practice. Peer observation are valuable for both, the observer and the observed and research shows that the observer actually gets more out of an observation than the person who is observed. This is something I would like to investigate in the near future. Ok, but what is ok and what isn’t in a peer observation context:
- Positivity needs to shine through!
- Empathy definitely!
- Negativity should be absent!
- Sensitivity is a must!
We need to remember, it is more important how we say things than what we say!
As part of the Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (LTHE) module of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) multidisciplinary programme, we ask our students, who are practising teachers, to carry out a series of peer observations. Some guidance is provided but I think so far but I think there is more we could and should do to help our students to be more prepared for the peer observations and get the maximum out of these when observing and being observed. So far, the majority of our students have valued the opportunity to visit each other’s classrooms. They see it as a great opportunity to watch colleagues from other disciplines teaching and their comments and reflections suggests that they find these peer observations extremely useful for their own learning and practice which is wonderful and encouraging.
Our students are observed by
- a peer on the module
- their mentor
- their tutor
and also observe one of their peers on the module.
I feel that when the tutor observation happens first, there are the most gains for the students.
Recently, I asked one of our students to co-deliver a session with me and it was the first time, I did this. I find team-teaching really useful for further development of teaching practice. It can be a rich and valuable experience for everybody involved and I include the students too. I used to teach this module with a colleague who was very different (and he would agree with me on this) and I had found it useful to reflect afterwards on the sessions together. This is no longer possible. In the past, I have also shared openly my own reflections about specific sessions with previous cohorts to model reflection on own practice but also enable an open and honest conversation about my teaching. And then, I am reflecting on my teaching online hoping to enable conversation, exchange and further learning. I recognise the usefulness of shared reflection and see a lot of value in this type of reflection beyond self-reflection. Sharing our reflections helps us further make sense of situations and experiences and can also help us boost our confidence and be less critical of ourselves but also identify options and strategies to enhance our practice further. It is very easy to be overly critical and negative when self-reflecting and ignoring all the stengths we already have…
Academic Developers, are in a way, peer observed all the time, even if it happens unofficially and reflections are not shared that often. My students are not ordinary students. They are students and teachers and that makes it all even more complicated, I think. Sometimes, I feel this double role is confusing for the students themselves. But it is a useful confusion which enables them to think (and act) as students and reflect at the same time on their practice as teachers. In a way it allows them to be teachers and students at the same time and become more reflective and reflexive and there is evidence in their portfolios that confirms exactly that.
Ok, lets go back to what I wanted to say. I felt that there is a need to equip these students better for what a peer observation could look like by modelling peer observation more openly. Should we really ask students to do things we are not prepared to do ourselves? I don’t think so.
After I had a conversation with one of our students with whom I co-delivered a session recently and reflecting together on another team-taught session and a tutorial with other students in which peer observation featured strongly, I realised that something needs to be done and I started thinking what I could do. More help was needed.
Is this a good idea?
Suddenly an idea popped into my head to be peer-observed officially during one of our LTHE sessions. When this idea occupied my head, I thought: “Why didn’t I think about this earlier???” I was annoyed and frustrated with myself and felt that I had missed this opportunity up to now. I tried to think and think fast about what I could do to help our current cohort to experience and be part of a peer observation as a collective. I knew that I had to become the one to be observed. The one who is officially observed by the whole cohort. And the observer? This should be a colleague, a colleague I value and trust, a colleague who would be constructive and willing, of course, to participate in this strange but valuable, I think, experiment (note to self: I must evaluate this afterwards!).
The target? Not me. Learning is the target!
Not sure if what I am proposing is orthodox and has been done before… in a way I put myself up as a target carrying out 23 peer observations simultanuously… this is a bit scary, I have to say and even more scary that I actually agreed and am going ahead with this. But then again could we view it as a microteaching session? This makes me feel a bit more relaxed, I have to say.
As mentioned before, peer observations should be done in a supportive way and I hope that my own students will see this experiment as a opportunity to develop peer observation skills and not shoot me down.
The observation will focus on whether teaching is likely to result in effective student learning. All processes will be agreed between participants before observation commences. I am transparent about this massive peer observation experiment and am sharing my thoughts here openly, hoping also that (at least) some of my students will read these thoughts and comment in preparation for my big day. The cohort has been informed about my plan and the pre-observation form has also been shared with them already. The process has been explained to all. I have identified specific areas I would like some comments from the observer and the cohort which are captured in the pre-observation form. I hope that we will also be able to capture snippets of the session on video that I can use later to reflect on the session further. Usually, I am the one recording my students teaching. Now it is me in front of the camera. This makes me nervous too… and I know that I will see things in the clips that will make me feel uncomfortable and exposed. However, this experiment will also provide useful data for my research that I have started in Semester 1 linked to using video to aid reflection linked to peer observations.
How many are too many?
Any outcomes of observation, whether spoken or written, are confidential between pairs of participants, unless both agree to make some or all of the outcomes public.
Usually peer observations are carried out in pairs and are reciprocal. Sometimes there are three but we will be loads, as mentioned above. The content of the feedback conversations are usually kept private. Sometimes they are shared within reflective accounts and this is what we are doing on the PGCAP to trigger further reflection and learning through reflection. However, in our case, the massive peer observation, can we really speak about confidentiality and private conversations? We can’t avoid that some of what will be discussed within the class, will also end-up out the classroom and probably in different versions as well depending on interpretation of our discussions. I will also reflect on the observation afterwards and share my thoughts with the cohort and the observe. We will see how it goes. Wish me good luck!
What will we take away from this experience?
And by the way, my peer observer and critical friend is one of our External Examiners. He was on the interview panel for my current job and has helped me a lot since I became the PGCAP programme leader. I am looking forward to this observation and hope that it will be a rich experience for all of us.
My completed peer-observation form follows.
Capturing the peer observation process
- Asked a colleague to observe me. Agreed.
- I plan my session.
- Identify on which areas I would like the observer to comment.
- Complete the pre-observation form.
- Share pre-observation form with observer.
- Organise a pre-observation meeting (this will happen on Wednesday) to discuss the observation
- Observation (Observer keeps notes and records)
- Open post-observation conversation between me and the observer in front of the whole class.
- Students are also invited to comment and ask questions
- Summary: What did I learn?
- What did everybody else learn?
- I will watch the video clips in my own time (if I can do this!) and reflect on the observation and the process (ideally this should happen before the feedback conversation with the observer but it won’t be possible)
Useful questions to ask during the feedback conversation (this is what I do, not sure how my observer will approach this part)
When I have observed a colleague and at the beginning of our feedback conversation (this is better done face-to-face and can be recorded if both agree), I always start by asking the following questions:
- How do you think the session went?
- What do you think worked well?
- What would you do differently if you would offer this session again and why?
These three questions enable the observed to reflect on the experience in a positive and future facing way but also give the observer the chance to empathise with the observed and praise good practice. Many times, comments around what could be done differently are in agreement with the observer’s observations which is really interesting and shows that learning through reflection can really work. I listen carefully to what my colleague shares with me and ask further questions linked to what I hear to trigger further reflection and discoveries which are more valuable if they come from the observed colleague.
If there is something that hasn’t come up yet and I feel it is important, I still mentioning it but again, using questions instead of telling steering the conversation to what I would like to discuss. If we hit the wall, and the observed colleague doesn’t come up with an option or answer, I then make a few suggestions:
- Could you try this?
- Would you consider this?
- What about…?
I avoid using words such as you must, you should etc. and I avoid being negative altogether and using negative language. I don’t want to dictate or instruct. I don’t want to demotivate. I want to empower! I see my role more as a critical friend, a friend who cares. A friend who has some ideas and might be able to help. But also a friend who gives the observed colleague the freedrom to identify what is best for them and their students to move practices forward.
Something that is also vital is to share with the observed what we, the observer have learnt thanks to this observation. What we are taking away. Peer observations enable peer learning and it would be of value to share our learning with the colleague we observed. This will also boost our colleagues confidence and self-belief.
A peer observation links collection is available here.
I am already thinking about next semester and how I can introduce such a peer observation in week 2 or 3 so that students benefit from it early in the module. Thinking of possible options, ideally I should also engage in reciprocal peer observation with a colleague from a different professional area/discipline. Could be somebody who has completed the PGCAP or at least the core module. Any volunteers?
What might happen if we open the door?
My completed peer observation form can be accessed here.
Palmer, P. (2007) The courage to teach, exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.