I was really intrigued by the prospect of observing a peer’s lecture and was fortunate to be able to attend David Kreps’ introduction to HTML session very early on in the PGCAP course. In fact, the observation took place before I’d given my own first lecture of the term.
I think my students owe David a thank you!
In my previous career as a professional journalist, peer observation was woven into the structure of how we worked. We never called it peer observation, of course, but it was such a key part of our workflow it didn’t even need to be named. Newsrooms are big, noisy, open-plan spaces. Privacy is hard to find! Everything we write is checked by at least one other person and will almost always be “improved.” Every programme we make is broadcast on speakers across the room and we usually have de-briefs after a programme to discuss what went well, what went wrong, how could we make it less likely it would go wrong in future.
But when it comes to teaching at University, the situation is reversed and we work behind closed doors as Parker J. Palmer writes:-
“Though we teach in front of students, we almost always teach solo, out of collegial sight – as contrasted with surgeons or trial lawyers, who work in the presence of others who know their craft well. Lawyers argue cases in front of other lawyers, where gaps in their skills and knowledge are clear for all to see. Surgeons operate under the gaze of specialists who notice if a hand trembles, making malpractice less likely. But teachers can lose sponges or amputate the wrong limp with no witness except the victims.”
Palmer, P J (2007) The Courage to teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 146.
But I was still unsure what David and I could get out of the process of peer observation. Whose benefit was it for? Could we conduct it in a way that enabled us both to learn? Simon Lygo-Baker, a senior lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Surrey offers this Food for Thought about peer observation.
What struck me in this film was the assurance that both observer and observed would benefit from the process – if we went about it in the right way. He poses an interesting question – how can the observer ensure the observed colleague has an opportunity to voice their thoughts on the observation.
But is peer observation guaranteed always to be a “transformatory tool?” – a topic explored by Deborah Peel (2005 ). She argues that simply watching another teacher teach is not sufficient to improve our own practices. Instead, the observer needs to recognise good practice; the observer needs to think about how to use the observation to improve own practice; even if we do change our practices following the observation, it’s not guaranteed that the changes will be for the better; and finally Peel points out that we come to peer observation with our own “theoretical baggage”
It subsequently became clear to me that observation of teaching is not sufficient to enhance teacher performance in the classroom. Other factors influence teaching competence. More than a behaviouristic learning process, learning depends upon individual perceptions, individual reflective capacity, and the potential creative use of personal insights. Further, these may need to be developed through cognitive strategies. Engaging with the wider literature and policy documentation thus became critical for me in order to enhance my teaching practices in the classroom. (Peel, 2005)
If my observation was to be beneficial, it needed to be part of an ongoing personal development that included the courage to challenge my existing practices and a determination to engage with theory as stipulated in UKPSF A5 (“Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices.”) I also needed to ensure I was able to reflect on the observation and feedback discussion in a constructive way. Gibbs Cycle of reflection would help me construct value out of the peer observation.
Unfortunately, David and I did not have an opportunity to discuss his lesson beforehand so I had no idea what to expect. The first thing that struck me as I walked in to his teaching room was that this was a big, traditional lecture theatre with rows of seats, students scattered all around and David at the front. It felt very familiar from my own student days! I sat at the back so that I could observe the students as well as David. I immediately felt isolated and slightly uninvolved. I was also distracted by the sound and smell of a student just in front of me who was eating a hot dinner during the lecture, hidden from David’s view by a large bag placed on his desk!
It was a very powerful moment for me because I hadn’t really paid much attention to the architecture of our teaching spaces before and how it affects the relationship between students and teacher. I asked David whether he thought the architecture of his lecture theatre affected his teaching.
I thought a lot about this before my first lecture. I teach in a very large space which is designed to function as a newsroom during simulations. It works less well as a teaching space. Students sit in horizontal rows with two large computer screens on each desk so there are a lot of obstacles. Half the desks have their backs to the front of class. So, taking on board what David said, I was more assertive about getting students to sit where I wanted them to and fill the front rows – no hiding at the back. Getting them to work in groups also helped break up the architecture of the room by messing up the formal rows.
(Photograph by Rachael Pazdan CC)
And I discovered that actually I didn’t need to stay at the front of the room! I could go to the back and speak to them from there. Or sit on a desk in the middle of the room. Or just wander around. It felt much more “me” – I was a part of the learning group rather than apart from it. It ties in with UKPSF A4 (“Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and engagement”) by acknowledging that the teacher has a role in creating a positive, physical learning environment that enables all students to feel included.
As David’s lecture continued, several students wandered in late. This annoys me and I usually scowl at students arriving late. But David was very different. He welcomed them in with a smile! I asked him if this was a deliberate policy he’d developed over time.
This was so interesting! I realised I had just been copying behaviour I’d witnessed in classrooms myself as a student and pupil and was unquestioningly repeating it. Seeing David and discussing it with him made me see it in a whole new light. Yes, we all have stuff going on in our lives which sometimes makes us late. Why sour the whole session for that student with a thoughtless scowl when I could just smile? Like David said, they might have had an unpleasant experience which delayed them and the last thing they need is a scowl. So, observing and discussing with David certainly cast fresh light on this and made me engage with UKPSF Professional Values V1 (“respecting individual learners.” I need to keep in mind that they’re not just students filling my empty seats for a set time of the week but people with lives beyond.
However, if students are persistently late, how would I deal with that? It’s not a situation I’ve had to deal with this semester but I can see it would present a different challenge. I think my first step would be to discreetly discuss the situation with the student to find out the reasons for the lateness and explain why punctuality is vital in broadcast journalism.
Observing David teaching has had a profound effect on my own practice but it was the discussion and the reflection on the observation which achieved this rather than the simple act of witnessing. I found myself echoing Deborah Peel’s assessment of her own experience of peer observation. It “heightened my alertness, and stimulated my sensory perceptions of my own physical presence in the classroom, and the human value of the teacher as the principal ‘teaching aid’.” (Peel, 2005).
I really hadn’t paid much attention to the choreography and architecture of the teaching environment until I’d observed David and then discussed it with him.
The discussion following the observation enabled me to feed back my reflections to David to get his perspective. I think this then took us to another level of reflection where we could incorporate each other’s thoughts and restart the reflective cycle.
I am surprised how much the peer observation influenced my first lecture and I’m very grateful to David for his generosity. He’s coming to observe me in a few weeks time which is daunting but I’m also quite looking forward to it and expect to learn a great deal.