#AusELT chat summary: Setting up and running effective peer observation programs (4 April 2013)

Many thanks to Nicki Blake (@Penultimate_K) for this mammoth summary – an amazing job, which clearly lays out the issues involved in this tricky area. 

@20 year old binoculars by @CliltoClimb at ELTPics: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/

@20 year old binoculars by @CliltoClimb at ELTPics: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/

We’d had some preliminary discussion of peer observation on the #AusELT Facebook page which was prompted by Kristin (@krisawal) Walters’ question about the different ways in which academic managers set up and monitor peer obs and the response of both observers and observees to a peer observation program (POP). So on April 4, it was good to be able to go into this issue in more depth. Thank you to everyone who participated and in particular to @SophiaKhan4 for moderating another rapid-fire hour of Twitter chat.

Once we’d reconnected and agreed that a month between chats was just too long, @SophiaKhan opened up the discussion by asking:

  • Why bother embarking on a peer ob prog? What’s the value?

The value comes from getting valuable feedback from a colleague/peer. They might see things we miss in ourselves. (@trylingual)

Most teachers have come through diff training experiences – there’s lots of info to exchange. (@Penultimate_K)

Value for observee and observer: mentoring and exploring new techniques. Reflect on own practice. (@Eslkazzyb)

Chance to see inside microcosm of another’s c’room.see/compare/evaluate/share (@krisawal)

The idea of the classroom as a microcosm and the need for teachers to perceive their rooms as equal was seen as a good point by @trylingual. @krisawal added that often teachers compete with each other on this level. Whether a session of peer obs is more collaborative than evaluative often depends on the teachers involved and consideration does need to be given to pairings (@Eslkazzyb) but there is certainly the potential for the observer to gain feedback that is less evaluative and could therefore prove more acceptable than observation by a manager (@krisawal).

The next question was from Paul Forster (@forstersensei)

  • How to encourage teachers to do peer obs?

Teachers need to see a value. I encourage teachers to think about other programs they r interested in or other styles (@EslKazzyb)

Tell them the alternative is DoS obs! (@Penultimate_K)

Plant the seed when talking to a T about a teaching Q that Teacher X is good at that so ‘why don’t you observe? (@EslKazzyb)

Teachers may prefer to be observed by a peer than by the DoS (who often isn’t involved in regular teaching but sometimes they can be shy to ask a peer if they can observe them. (@trylingual).

@SophiaKhan asked for @Eslkazzyb ‘s view  on this, seeing that she has worked hard to create a climate that was positive about PD. The response was that she had her teachers come to her with suggestions for peer obs which they then arranged together with the DoS/Academic manager taking on the role of facilitator and the teacher choosing who they wish to observe.

@TESOLatMQ pointed out that there is very little justification for doing peer obs when teachers don’t get extra pay or paid hours to participate so it is probably better to focus on the issue rather than the observation itself.

  • So should the pairings for peer observation be self-chosen or organised by a ‘DoS-type’? (@trylingual)

It was generally agreed that teachers should choose their own partners for mutual observation and that, if teachers are interested in similar issues they can easily be persuaded to observe each other. This often happens naturally out of conversations that they have had in the staffroom (@Eslkazzyb). However, @SophiaKhan4 pointed out that this might not be so easy to achieve in staffrooms where the culture of peer obs and sharing was not usual. Management may need to have a hand in the organisation but obs cannot be forced. As @michaelgriffin commented, he had had ‘not so helpful’ experiences of forced obs, mainly because there was no explicit focus, target or benefit. There is more likely to be a genuine motivation in the case of self-chosen obs which a forced observation simply does not have.

  • Developing a culture of observation

UnknownCertainly, unless your institution develops a culture of observation, then all of the above questions are moot. @SophiaKhan4 commented that “if you want to set up a program it just won’t work without the groundwork laid first”. @forstersensei suggested that there should be an inservice PD to encourage teachers in this area and that it could be helped along if there were a good collection of teaching videos for teacher self-access. This has the added benefit of letting teachers observe in their own time (@sujava). A good starting point could be to let teachers watch the videos that accompany Jeremy Harmer’s “The Practice of English Language Teaching” seeing as most managers were not so keen about their own teaching being captured on smartphone!

@SophiaKhan4 added that such a PD would allow teachers time for discussion and the building of awareness, as well as giving them time to absorb the concept of an obs program. Starting slowly and letting teachers see and hear positive reactions in the staffroom is a good plan. Just be careful not to overkill it by making a big deal out of it. @sujava suggested that “before PO can begin a school or group teachers should be doing some action research to embed the PO in a context”

  • Who observes whom?

@Penultimate_K had suggested that one of the selling points of a POP was that fact that teachers are peers or near-peers and that if they are teaching the same level or course in different ways they could see how they achieved similar outcomes via different paths. @SophiaKhan4 asked if there was value in a newer teacher ‘watching an older hand or vice versa?’

The idea of more experience teachers mentoring ‘newbies’ through a POP was a popular one. Many managers have encouraged their less experienced staff to watch a colleague. However, the reverse is not as common. Experienced teachers who had been asked to observe a less experienced colleague were described as ‘weirdly nervous about it’ (@SophiaKhan4) and @Eslkazzyb said that some of her experienced teachers had refused to participate in observations. Whether this is down to arrogance or to the implication that participation in an observation program means that you have something to learn (and, therefore, have weaknesses), there needs to be an understanding that once you are an in-service teacher there are benefits to be had from a POP for everyone. The way to approach this might be to emphasise what the benefits are for the observer.

@Eslkazzyb suggested that it might be better for newer teachers to observe rather than be observed as this can help them to build confidence.

  • Do observations get a bad rap because teachers expect to be criticized? (@aparnajacob)

@shaunwilden observed that newer teachers often equate observations with judgement and @forstersensei pointed out that for him (as with many others) negative connotations had arisen out of forced annual obs.

The judgement/appraisal issue stems can be traced back to compulsory pre-service teaching where the trainee is watched and graded by an assessor.

This led to two lines of discussion:

1)   How can we ‘funacize’ (@forstersensei) obs? (And would we really want to? (@shaunwilden))

2)   Is feedback the main point of obs? Or it is discussion, reflection and questions etc? (@Eslkazzyb)

Most people liked the idea of, if not ‘funacizing’ exactly, minimising the more threatening aspects of peer obs by taking the emphasis off feedback.

Certainly you can structure your observations in various interesting ways (classic classroom games like ‘2 truths, 1 lie’ @trylingual or a ‘tag-team’ lesson where teachers teach half and observe half swapping mid-lesson @forstersensei) or you can develop your POP in such a way that it becomes about collaboration and discussion (@SophiaKhan4).

@michaelgriffin raised the point here that many of us were assuming that there had to be feedback and questioned whether this was an ‘absolute must’.

A more constructive way to develop peer obs would have the post-obs discussion (with the emphasis on ‘discussion’) being led by the observed teacher about predetermined focus areas. As @TESOLatMQ said, “It’s inquiry, not feedback!”

For those of us who are, perhaps because of our management roles, ‘feedback-obsessed’, it could be quite refreshing to move away from this. A simplified, more informal procedure (@shaunwilden) in peer obs would mean more of a chance to ‘discuss and grow professional relationships in the staffroom’ (@Eslkazzyb). It’s important to revisit the idea that peer-obs is about ‘colleagues helping each other’ (@trylingual) and that we can often dispense with the training or lengthy discussions and just encourage teachers to enjoy the experience.

  • Is it worth using any feedback/reflection forms, or just leave it up to teachers then? Is there any kind of admin follow-up?

That sounds a bit structured for my liking 🙂 The best PO I’ve exp have been more informal & more a conversation (@cioccas)

I’m not a fan of forms. Ts see enough of these. I ask for a short report (1/2 page) (@Penultimate_K)

If teachers are tracking their dvp, they’d need written feedback, I feel. (@aparnajacob)

Keep them as informal and optional as possible. i.e. no feedback forms/admin work.(@HennoK)

These were very differing views. @trylingual asked ‘Is reflection and growth guaranteed if there is no record?’ with @cioccas contending ‘No, but is it guaranteed if there IS a record?

Certainly a written record can be of benefit especially as a starting point for the post-observation discussions but also for future observations. @HennoK commented on how teachers often dig out an old observation form and reflect. Again the idea of simplicity was stressed for any form that managers or teachers intend to use in a peer obs situation.

  • Final tips? Cautionary tales? Good resources to keep exploring the issue?

Keep an open mind, observer and observee. Watch students’ response to teacher. (@aparnajacob)

If you make notes, make sure the observee gets a copy to keep. I saved all of mine – documented progress! (@Penultimate_K)

Get copy of Ruth Wajnryb’s Observation Tasks I used to give T’s for an idea of all the diff things they could focus on (@TESOLatMQ)

Blog about it if you develop one! (@SophiaKhan4)

The pre and post are start of a discussion that hopefully continues after the PO: culture of collaboration (@Eslkazzyb)

Unknown-1Having a copy of the late, great Ruth Wajynryb’s “Classroom Observation Tasks” to hand received support from @michaelgriffin and @Penultimate_K. This book can provide structure when/if structure is required during a peer obs program. It can also be used as a source of focal points if the observer/observe feel the need to explore different areas of the teaching learning process.

The chat finished on a high note with everyone looking forward to next month’s online get-together as well as some excitement for those of us who get to meet face-to-face at the NEAS conference in May. #AusELT drinks were mentioned as a great way to celebrate the success of the Twitter chats and the growing membership of the Facebook page!


5 thoughts on “#AusELT chat summary: Setting up and running effective peer observation programs (4 April 2013)

    1. #AusELT

      Hi Andy, thanks for the feedback – I’m sure @penultimatek will be pleased to receive it. We’d love to add your article to the blog – we could feature it in a separate post perhaps? 🙂 Kyle.


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