Watch and learn: the transformative benefits of observing your peers

Person takes notes while observing

“I didn’t realize I did that,” observed teachers always say. And while sometimes they’re referring to a habit in need of change, it’s often about something positive the observer noticed.

A gentle quieting of a dominating student. An ingenious metacognitive-awareness-raising question delivered extemporaneously at the perfect moment. A gesture that draws life from the reluctant brooder.

Peer observation holds up a mirror for observer and observee, helping both reflect on what good teaching looks like, effecting changes at all levels of consciousness. It’s essentially the high-intensity workout of teacher development. It can be hard when you’re doing it — maybe a little bit painful — but do it regularly, and the results are astonishing. There may be no shorter path to excellence.

Benefits for observers

David Gooblar of Chronicle Vitae recently wrote about his experiences engaging in peer observation with colleagues. He noted:

“So much of the work that goes into teaching is necessarily invisible. Nobody sees your best teaching days — when everything clicks, when you get your class to truly see the world differently — except for the students in the room. Most of us don’t teach for plaudits, but it’s a shame that our best work in the classroom is usually unseen by our peers and superiors. It’s also a shame that those of us who want to improve as teachers don’t get the benefit of learning directly from excellent teachers in our fields.”

What’s particularly refreshing in Gooblar’s essay is his focus on the benefits of peer observation for the observer — something often neglected in the literature, which tends to focus on the feedback observers give, but not the insights they gain from this process:

“The very experience of opening up to a different approach might be the most important benefit you take away from a classroom observation: If someone else can do things differently, so can you. But that won’t be the only thing you learn. Think of all of your expert strategies, all the wisdom you’ve developed over the years. You get the opportunity to take a peek into someone else’s bag of tricks to see how their magic is made.”

This focus on observer benefits is reinforced by a 2012 study by two researchers at the University of Sydney, Graham Hendry and Gary Oliver. Published in the Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, their study found that observing peers was actually rated by participants as more helpful than being observed:

“Evidence is emerging that the process of observing is just as if not more valuable than being observed and given feedback. … The benefits for observers include learning about a new strategy and enhancing their confidence to try this strategy in their own teaching. Receiving feedback was also perceived to be useful but not more beneficial than watching a peer teach,” (p. 1)

Hendry and Oliver suggest that institutions reposition peer observation as “peer modeling,” shifting the focus to what the observer is learning. They advocate for post-lesson dialogue, but not the high-scrutiny kind one might associate with management observations (p. 8).

Getting out your mirror 

Google “peer observation guidelines,” and you’ll see that these abound. But many — like these from Northeastern University — focus on how observers can provide quality feedback, not how they can learn. These also typically come from K-12 and tertiary education contexts, where peer observation is a mandated institutional process. Many TESOLers are not required to engage in peer observation — it’s something we do ourselves to improve. This frees us to adopt our own approach, focused not on filling out forms but on learning what we want to learn.

If you’re ready for the high-intensity, transformative experience of observing colleagues and have the institutional freedom to shape this yourself, here’s how we recommend getting started:

1. Identify something in your own teaching that you want to explore. Do students’ eyes glaze over during your grammar explanations? Do you find yourself hand-wringing about cell phones? It could be something general, like how you interact with students. Reflect and identify something to explore.

2. Approach a trusted colleague and ask if you can observe them. You might choose someone more experienced than you, or someone who’s known for skill in the area you’re working on. Explain that this is for your own development, and that you’d like to see an hour and then ask them some questions. Establish how involved you’ll be in the lesson: typically it’s best if you’re not a participant, but observer benefits can be gained through team teaching, as Gooblar mentioned.

3. Have a plan for how you’ll observe this class. Will you take notes in a notepad? Draw a map of the class? What will you look for related to your area of focus? What parts will you pay particular attention to? If you’re very new to teaching, you might use one of Jim Scrivener‘s excellent peer-observation prompts to guide your thinking, but it’s also okay to adopt a minimalistic approach.

4. Learn about the lesson if you can. If you can meet the teacher ahead of time and/or get a copy of their lesson plan, this will help you think through what to expect. Do what feels right.

5. Come on time and sit in the back. Respect the teacher’s authority in the class. NEVER insert yourself into the class activity without being asked to by the teacher — this is their show, not yours.

6. Immediately after the lesson, thank your observee and find some space to reflect ALONE if you can. Organize your notes, do some freewriting, and identify three or so questions that you’d like to ask. If you have ideas for feedback you could give, think them through and see if you can tie them to questions to ask, so you can ‘go there’ only if they want to.

7. Meet with your observee. Buy them coffee. Ask your questions, and if the opportunity to give feedback arises through this, proceed cautiously, following the observee’s lead. This should be a conversation of peers, learning together. Remember that no matter how experienced they are, they’re likely seeking affirmation, just like you would. Praise what impressed you, and gingerly tease out things you didn’t understand. Enjoy a respectful, mutually-informative dialogue.

8. Identify your takeaways. Following this conversation, you’ll likely have an idea of something you want to try out in your class. Do it while it’s fresh. Reflect and experiment.

9. Repeat and reciprocate. If your observee wants to observe you, let her! As Hendry and Oliver note, this isn’t an essential part of the process (p. 9), but if they ask you for the opportunity, it would be courteous to agree!

10. Thank yourself for this gift to future you. Initiating peer observation is hard, but it’s is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. And just like those high-intensity workouts, you’ll be glad each time you do it!

Discussed in this article:

Gooblar, D. (2016). You’re Never Too Old to Observe or Be Observed. Chronicle Vitae. Retrieved 11 September 2016, from here.  

Hendry, Graham D. and Oliver, Gary R. (2012). Seeing is Believing: The Benefits of Peer Observation, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice. 9(1). Retrieved 11 September 2016, from here.

Faculty Peer Observation and Feedback – Center for Advancing Teaching & Learning Through Research. (2016). Center for Advancing Teaching & Learning Through Research. Retrieved 11 September 2016, from here.

Have a tip for engaging in meaningful peer observation? Let us know in the comments!