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Peer observation

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All academic institutions have to demonstrate their commitment to providing effective teaching. Peer observation has an important part to play in this process.

In this article I shall look at the basic principles underlying peer observation and its value to institutions and to individual teachers.

  • What is peer observation?
  • Quality control or professional development?
  • How should peer observation be organised?
  • What are the advantages of peer observation for teachers?
  • What are the advantages of peer observation for institutions?

What is peer observation?

Peer observation is the observation of teachers by teachers, usually, though not always, on a reciprocal basis.

Pairings may be mentor/novice or experienced teacher/experienced teacher. In the first case the focus will be more clearly on helping the novice to develop their teaching skills both by observing and being observed by an experienced colleague. In the second case, the objective is to provide opportunities for experienced teachers to reflect on their teaching in a calm and private environment.

Quality control or professional development?

  • Quality control
    Peer observation may be used by an institution as part of its quality assurance procedures. In this model, teachers are asked to assess and report formally on the performance of their colleagues according to criteria set out by the institution. Observation reports form part of the ongoing evaluation of the teacher's performance and may influence decisions on promotion or tenure.

    There are clear advantages to this type of peer observation. An experienced and competent teacher may be perceived by the institution as the best person to appraise his or her peers. Such a teacher is familiar with the subject, the materials, the methods and may be able to offer both practical help to a fellow teacher, at the same time demonstrating good practice for the fellow teacher to observe and incorporate into his or her own teaching.

    However, there are major problems with this model. A good teacher is not necessarily a good appraiser. Unless there are very clear guidelines for the observations, supported by appropriate training for all involved, observers may record subjective and unsubstantiated judgements on their peers. These judgements may unfairly influence the institution against the teacher. This can lead to a deterioration in peer relationships.

    Despite these drawbacks, some American universities use peer observation as part of their quality assurance procedures.
  • Professional development
    The model favoured by academic institutions in the UK focuses on the professional development of the observing and observed teachers, while at the same time ensuring that the institution remains uninvolved and uninformed about the outcome of the observation and the issues discussed.

    The institution provides a framework for the observation, takes care of the administrative arrangements and ensures that the observations take place as agreed.

    The framework and objectives will vary according to whether the observations involve a novice working with an experienced teacher, or whether two experienced teachers are paired.

How should peer observation be organised?

  • Choosing your partner
    As far as possible, pairs should have the freedom to choose their own partners. Clearly, if there is trust and respect on both sides, the outcome is likely to be more useful for both participants.
  • Agreeing the format of the observations
    Both parties should agree on a focus for the observation in advance. The observed teacher may request feedback on a specific area of their teaching which they are finding particularly challenging or which they would value input on from a trusted colleague. The institution may have identified an area of focus for peer observation, for example the introduction of a new curriculum area or a specific area which external quality control mechanisms have revealed as needing attention, for example error correction, the teaching of pronunciation or learner training.
  • Background
    The observer will need to be informed in advance by the observed teacher about the students in the class, the content of the lesson, and how the lesson fits into the overall structure of the course.
  • The observation
    Normally the observer will play no active role in the lesson itself, unless an element of team teaching is agreed in advance. The observer will keep notes on the observation to refer to during feedback.
  • Follow-up
    The observer and the observed should meet soon after the observation. The focus should be on identifying the strengths of the teaching observed as well as the sharing of practical ideas as to how the teaching might be improved. Care needs to be taken to focus only on areas agreed in advance. Where two experienced teachers are involved they should take the opportunity to reflect on the underlying rationale of their teaching, rather than more superficial issues of procedure or technique.
  • Confidentiality
    Both parties need to be sure that their post-observation discussion and any notes on the observations will remain confidential.

What are the advantages of peer observation for teachers?

Peer observation gives teachers an opportunity to learn from each other in a non-threatening environment. Where there is no judgemental outcome and an atmosphere of trust between the participants, it is to be hoped that teachers will share ideas and suggestions openly and constructively to their mutual professional benefit.

What are the advantages of peer observation for institutions?

Institutions need to ensure that their students are being taught effectively and - equally important - consistently. Peer observation is a powerful tool for disseminating good practice throughout an experienced staff. It is also an important way of helping less experienced teachers both to improve their teaching skills and to absorb the shared values of the institution.

Graham White, Principal of Eastbourne School of English