Developing peer observation
Peer observation belongs to a culture that supports colleagues’ morale, gives job satisfaction and provides for pupils’ success. As one senior leader put it, ‘We are using peer observation alongside other means to make this a school people want to work in,’ and, by implication, a school where pupils want to learn.
The coach/observer learns as much as, if not more than, the colleague being coached or observed
Others commented as follows:
- A trainee: ‘The best way to learn is to watch others teach in situ.’
- An experienced teacher: ‘It sharpens me up. You can feel nervous, self-conscious, and also self-doubt can creep in. How can that be solved? Be observed more often. The more you do something, the more comfortable you get doing it.’
- A deputy headteacher: ‘The greatest learning takes place through peer-to-peer work.’
- A headteacher: ‘Everybody can learn from everybody.’
The coach/observer learns as much as, if not more than, the colleague being coached or observed. The starting point is wanting to learn about teaching so you can do the best for your pupils. It is a process colleagues can govern. They may work in pairs, but there can be advantages to working in threes. Teaching assistants as well as teachers can take part.
Peer observation is a forum for dealing with the changing demands on your school such as changing intake, curricula, accountabilities or partnerships. It enables colleagues to share experiences about how they find job satisfaction, and challenge themselves and one another to look into why one thing works in lessons and how another element might be done differently.
You can have a coherently framed whole-school development plan. You can have well-organised performance management team leaders. You can invite lively and reputable consultants and trainers to work with you. But if colleagues do not want to look into what is happening in lessons, there is little prospect of real, sustained development. They need trust, imagination and persistence: peer observation is an ideal vehicle for this.
Creating a plan for peer development
If colleagues do not want to look into what is happening in lessons, there is little prospect of real, sustained development
Before training and development start, it should be clear what the plan is.
- Will the training and development begin a process of introducing peer observation to all colleagues?
- Will you start with volunteers and then use their experience to inform subsequent phases of development for other colleagues?
- Will you talk about how peer observations entail experimentation and learning as you go, so that everyone knows you will be evolving a model of peer observation to suit your school?
To establish good processes, key strategic decisions need to be made about:
- how peer observation will be developed, e.g. initially via a training group
- how pioneers can share their experience and expertise with other colleagues
- any limitations you will place on colleagues’ choices of who to work with and how they can plan, carry out and evaluate their peer observations
- how a protocol can be developed for peer observations as a reference for practice, evaluation and further development
- how much funding is available and how to use it to release colleagues to meet for preparation, observation and feedback
- how developing peer observations are made coherent with other activities designed to promote enjoyable and effective teaching and learning across your school.
Everything depends on the quality of cooperation, discussion and decision-making you and your participating colleagues can achieve. The more those who take up peer-observing and coaching can inform, and be informed by, other discussions and decision-making processes across the school, the better.
Your role as curriculum leader
This kind of development depends on colleagues’ resilience and inventiveness. From your point of view as curriculum leader and potential facilitator for peer observation development, it is a matter of working with colleagues, rather than dictating procedures or delivering training to them. It also means channelling resources into supporting the associated activities: preparations, lesson visits and feedback. Some schools, for example, have staff members on permanent contracts as supervisors to cover lessons, enabling colleagues to manage absence from a class with some consistency, flexibility and confidence.
Developing peer observation further
Facilitating the development of peer observation involves creating conditions in which colleagues can explore what they try to do in lessons and work on alternative methods when these look promising. What you have to avoid is taking ownership, initiative and responsibility away from them. You can ask for commitment and perseverance. You can ask for their reflections and recommendations to be recorded. You can ask for what they learn to be shared with others. Above all perhaps, you can reflect back to your colleagues your appreciation of what they achieve.
You may bring together colleagues from your school with others from partner schools to develop peer observation. This is particularly apt if you are already working on other things with one or more schools in a partnership or cluster, or if you wish to start a collaboration.
The intention is to promote the best possible teaching and learning across your school, and to do that via action research, coaching and mentoring. There are plenty of other occasions when lesson observations have to record judgements about the quality of teaching and learning, for example according to Ofsted’s or other authorities’ guidance. There are also occasions when non-voluntary coaching and observation are used to support colleagues whose teaching is judged to be below what the school requires. In those instances, the term ‘peer observation’ does not seem warranted: during enforced training and improvement, colleagues do not have the mutuality and control that are hallmarks of successful peer observation.
A headteacher summed it up like this: ‘We invest in peer observation, because it has been the main driver in taking this school from “satisfactory” to “outstanding”’.