The value of peer observation
Peer observation can be a stimulating, fascinating and rewarding thing to do. Yet in many colleges and schools it is patchy, sporadic or non-existent, possibly because the concept of “observation” brings to mind the stress, resentment and anxiety caused by many formal observation processes such as inspection.
However, observing a fellow teaching professional in an informal way can have all sorts of benefits for teachers and take many different forms, making it a very useful and developmental experience. Watching another teacher can be a reassuring, stimulating, shocking, challenging or fascinating experience. But in most cases it prompts reflection on the teaching and learning process, which is a healthy thing in a profession that can tend towards rather isolated practice and create rather comfortable ruts.
Using peer observation
Here are a few situations in which peer observations are used:
- when a new member of staff joins the team, so that they get a feel for the context
- when an inexperienced teacher starts work and wants to watch others with more teaching expertise
- when co-tutors want to reflect on aspects of lesson delivery or class management and observe each other teaching the same class
- when a teacher wants to observe a new approach in action or see how a more experienced colleague works with a particular resource or technology
- when any teacher wants to reflect on learning process and practice and chooses to observe a colleague as stimulus.
Setting it up
There are many ways of setting up peer observations, such as teaching triangles or teaching squares, in which three or four teachers volunteer to observe each other and have a professional conversation afterwards. The benefit here may be exposure to a wider range of approaches and methods, if different subject areas and types of lesson are selected for observation. This approach can also foster links across curriculum areas and participants often comment on the power of the model when it is a voluntary, teacher owned process.
In some colleges, peer observation is part of the quality improvement process and is compulsory instead of voluntary. It is sometimes used when teachers get a low observation grade and they are prescribed a series of peer observations as part of the development plan.
When trying to encourage more peer observation in your school or college, it can be helpful to consider these questions.
1. How can you engage teachers with peer observation so that they feel safe and happy to get involved?
Part of this may well be about promoting it as a voluntary process with no managerial or quality intervention. Perhaps putting it out there as an idea for teachers to consider, with some quotes from people who have tried it. On the other hand, perhaps some guidelines or tips might be helpful, for example it can be interesting to agree the purpose of the observation beforehand so people know what the main areas for discussion will be afterwards; that grading and criticism are not appropriate but professional dialogue is welcome. For some people this loose framework may make it more appealing.
2. Is there any benefit in encouraging teachers to share what is learnt through this process?
One college I heard of keeps the scheme totally voluntary but asks participants to write a few reflective comments at the end of it on an anonymous online form. Many colleges leave the learning with the individual. It seems to me that there could be some fruitful reflective discussions in team meetings, after the peer observations take place, along the lines of “What do you want to steal from what you saw?”
3. How can the peer observations be set up in practical ways, when timetables are so heavy?
Several managers I know allocate some budget for one hour of peer observation for each member of their team each year. It’s not a lot but it means that the teacher observing can get cover, which in many cases is the main stumbling block for any peer observation process. A few colleges I’ve spoken to are toying with ring fencing some of their professional development budget for this purpose, in an attempt to encourage more cross curriculum connections.
A new approach to peer observations: Red Card, Green Card
It seems practical for peer observations to be short, bearing in mind workloads. One teacher told me about an interesting way of setting this up. The team chooses a week each term as peer observation week and for each lesson that week the teachers use a sign system to indicate whether they are happy to be observed or not. They hang a red sign on their door if it’s not a good time for peer observation or a green one if it’s ok for people to drop in. Teachers observe for about 20 minutes. There are informal conversations in break and lunch time and in team meetings, the managers time for any key points that people want to share. The teacher told me that most people were observed and did a peer observation as well and that over time, more and more staff got involved as they saw the benefits and began to get comfortable with this process.
There are so many benefits from peer observation that it is worth finding a way to encourage it in your college or school and engage staff in discussion about the best way to get it off the ground. I’d be very interested to hear from anyone with experience of doing this in their context.