By Jason Flom
Peer-to-peer observation—that is, teachers observing teachers—is the most powerful way for teachers to improve their practice. However, simply having teachers visit other classrooms will not fully realize the potential of peer-to-peer observation for improving instruction and, ultimately, learner experiences.
Below are five questions to help teachers steer through the process of establishing a culture of productive peer-to-peer observation.
1. What is the essential question being observed?
Albert Einstein once wrote, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask . . . for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Essential questions play a similar role in schools. With a focused line of inquiry shaping peer-to-peer observations, both the observed and the observer are more likely to take away transformative insight that positively affects instructional practice and student learning.
Additionally, pre- and post-discussions about an essential question can provide educators with an opportunity to dig deeper—something many of us don’t have enough time to do—and help ensure the takeaway from the observation is applicable and relevant.
2. Are the essential questions for the observation created with a top-down or bottom-up approach?
What do our students need from us to learn?Administrators often have general questions that they would like to explore and discuss as a school. For example,
- As a school, where do we most need to grow in order to further actualize our mission?
- Do all students feel safe, respected, and welcome on campus? How do we know?
However, a top-down approach to creating essential questions—that is, administrators dictating questions to be discussed and observed—is not the most effective way to begin the peer-to-peer observation process. Administrators should pose questions to stimulate inquiry and solicit teacher insight, ultimately leading teachers to determine their own essential questions based on the priorities they feel are most pertinent to their students. Administrator questions should not serve as vehicles for a hidden agenda but rather as opportunities for teachers to engage in discussion, generate ideas, and create essential questions. These essential questions should then be used as the foundation for peer-to-peer observations.
Teachers are more likely to fully embrace the opportunities afforded by peer-to-peer observations when they have played a role in identifying the essential questions to be investigated and observed—that is, when a bottom-up approach is used. Administrators need to find ways to give teachers an authentic voice when developing the questions that matter to them, their students, and their practice.
Curious about developing essential questions? Check out Essential Questions by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. Although the book is geared toward essential questions to help promote deeper understanding for students, it also includes valuable insight for educators working with educators. For a shorter read, check out “The Art and Architecture of Powerful Questions” (PDF) by Eric E. Vogt.
3. What is the scope of the observation?
The questions, “Are our students thriving with our math program? How do we know?” can lead to several different types of peer observations.
As the questions are unpacked by a teacher team, the focus may be on the continuum of the curriculum, from the youngest to oldest students and their success overall. Or it might be on how the students engage in math on a daily basis. Or both.
The type of observation will depend on the focus. Would it be better for teachers to observe one class during a single lesson, or to organize a walkthrough which visits a greater number of classes? Both may elicit valuable evidence, but the data captured will be very different.
4. What is the purpose of the observation?
Just getting together to watch each other teach can be unnerving. However, when there is a clear purpose and mutual trust among teachers, everyone can benefit—both the observed and the observers.
However, before entering into any peer-to-peer observation, the focal point of the observation needs to be crystal clear. Are we looking at teacher actions, student behavior, or both? Are observers watching for personal learning or to gather data as part of a study? Are we trying to understand instructional practices or student engagement? Are we watching all students or specific ones?
Answering these questions prior to an observation creates a transparent and safe environment for teachers, who may feel under the microscope and vulnerable when peers come to observe.
5. When is the time?
For peer-to-peer observations to work, there needs to be time—time to meet and establish the goals of the observation; time to plan the observation; time to find/develop the protocols and tools to use during the observation; time to conduct the observation; time to debrief after the observation; and time to implement changes based on the evidence/knowledge gathered during the observation.
Expecting teachers to just use their already-limited planning time will result in a less fruitful experience and is likely to be met with resistance. With this approach, observations will not be sustainable. Teachers need to feel that observations are a key part of how they improve their practice, not one more thing they have to do.
Thus, it is important that sufficient time, separate from standard planning time, is allotted for observations on a regular basis. The results will speak for themselves, especially over time, as teachers make their practice public with each other.
In order to peer-to-peer observations to be successful, there must be leadership support in place. Below are five ways administrators can support their teachers to create a school culture where observations can thrive.
- Accommodate authentic engagement—Find space early in the year to solicit teacher input about the observation process and respond to it. Giving teachers ownership over goals within their purview ensures their vestment in the process.
- Provide facilitative leadership development for teacher leaders—Team leaders need opportunity to build their capacity for facilitating professional learning communities. Learning to use protocols, engage participants, effectively organize, brief, and debrief observations doesn’t happen by accident. It requires forethought, intention, and follow-through.
- Create space and time—Teachers are already stretched thin. Peer-to-peer observations can either be one more thing a teacher has to do, or they can be an enriching and invigorating part of their practice. How a teacher views observations depends on how they affect their workload.
- Follow-up—Check in regularly with teacher leaders (before and after observations) to support their efforts, normalize the program, and demonstrate your ongoing commitment to their growth and development.
- Ask questions—How’s it going? What’s working? What should we change for the future? What are the takeaways? How do your reflections relate to your essential questions? What’s the effect on student learning? How do you know? What do you need? What can I do to help? All of these questions add meaning to the process and signal your support of and trust in their efforts.
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Jason Flom is director-elect at Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Fla. He has experience with curriculum development, organizational structures related to democratic practices in schools, and teacher leadership. Flom is also a member of the ASCD Professional Learning Services faculty where he provides customized professional development solutions for schools and districts.