“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Ok, true. But it turns out that if the water tastes good enough, you won’t have to try!
Busy teachers might need to be persuaded to take time to observe their colleagues from other departments. But, as recent experience has reminded me, once in there they typically find it a hugely rewarding experience and will be glad to have been persuaded.
*This blog post explains why I believe that peer observation is one of the best forms of CPD available. It is good for all of us, and it costs nothing.*
In the spirit of tight but loose (thanks @LeadingLearner and #ClassTeaching), in the first half of this term, all teaching staff in our school were put into pairs and asked to observe one another. The remit was very simple and quite open. Choose one lesson of each other’s to observe (minimum 20 minutes) and submit brief feedback on two areas:
1. Aspects of good practice worth highlighting
2. How the observation might inform the observer’s practice in the future.
And that’s it.
Over the course of the term I enjoyed overhearing colleagues discussing their observations of one another over coffee, or in the corridor. They were always so positive! They had only smiles for each other! It struck me how great such observations are for simply bringing people together. Quite apart from the pedagogical benefits, it is a great way to get colleagues talking to one another when, even in a medium sized school such as ours, it is possible they might otherwise hardly come into contact for a whole term (see “busy teachers” above). It reminds us all what we have in common and gives us more of a sense of being part of a larger team.
Now, I have in front of me a stack of feedback forms. Going through them has been someone else’s job in the past, and that person always told us what a privilege it was to read through them and how impressive they were. And she was so right! (She never said quite how long it took, though). Now I confess that I rather cynically expected a large number of these responses to be short and somewhat cursory (remember the “busy teachers”?). I feel ashamed for ever having thought that about my colleagues! For even the shortest observations, the observer has felt motivated to write with enthusiasm, and in great detail, about the good practice they witnessed.
It was interesting to see how many teachers from quite different subject areas observed teaching strategies which they felt were transferable to their own practice. Just a few examples examples:
- An English teacher observed how, in a Physics lesson, mini whiteboards were used within groups to make notes during a task. She commented that this would work well in English “…to keep notes brief and show pupils how work in progress note making can be questions, not just answers: correct answers and conclusions can be made at the end in books. Gives more motivation to try things out!”
- A Psychology teacher felt that the technique she observed in Geography would be applicable in her subject, too. Her colleague had made use of imagery (4 photos projected onto the screen) and simple questioning (Similarities? Differences? Odd one out?) to really engage students at the start of the lesson and make them think.
- In the return observation, the Geography teacher enjoyed the “washing line” activity employed by her counterpart, where students placed post-it notes on the board to indicate the position of concepts on a continuous scale (in this case, “nature vs. nurture”)
- A Physics teacher noted how powerful it was when her colleague from Drama took time to give verbal feedback to groups on their ongoing work, allowing them to respond and engage in a genuine dialogue about their work. This struck me as well, reading the feedback. We can spend a lot of time producing written feedback, when sometimes the job is much better done face to face.
- Use of role play in a lesson on Russian History (examining opinions on the Tsars and Dumas) engaged the students and enabled them to experience much “...deeper learning than if they were just reading out other people’s opinions”. This according to the observing Biology teacher, who would definitely consider using the technique.
- When an English teacher observed a Mathematics lesson, she was taken by the way the teacher encouraged metacognition, asking the students “What are we trying to achieve?” and asking them what inquiries they must make in order to move forward. She felt this could be used when introducing a new poem to Year 11, by giving them some key quotations and asking them “…to come up with questions they need to ask me for further clarification.”
- The return observation reminded the observing Maths teacher of the significance of seating arrangements. She resolved to “…try to place more emphasis in my own lessons on how girls are grouped/paired to enable them to benefit from each other’s strengths.”
- Another Maths teacher, observing Chemistry, was impressed by the teacher’s effective use of strictly time-limited activities with an AS group, remarking that the girls were “completely absorbed” and “covered a significant amount of material across the three tasks.” “I will definitely trial the use of time constraints in my 6th form lessons.”
- A Drama teacher noted a Physics activity throughout which girls, in groups, generated experimental results which were immediately reflected in a display on the IWB. The girls loved seeing their contributions writ large, and this chimes with other feedback about collaborative work using Google Docs etc. Said Drama teacher now wants an IWB in her Studio to help her to give immediate feedback to students on their work!
- Classics observing RS, picked up two great strategies for the price of one! Firstly, five minutes of quiet reading to being the lesson, during which time girls read feedback from their teacher and address/respond to the points made. Secondly, the use of a dictaphone for students to record their ideas for a debate. Recordings from previous years were used as exemplars to begin the task.
Here are some other Teacher comments which stood out to me:
“Wow! The thing that impresses me most about this lesson is how lucky our students are to be able to learn at such a high, specialised level across such a range of subjects.”
– French teacher observing Physics teacher
“Superb relationships with the girls. Fantastic atmosphere; girls willing to ‘have a go’ and take risks, answer and ask questions”
– Spanish observing Maths
“Many different opinions were expressed and this challenged all girls to consider and take on board points of view that were not always their initial thought on a particular subject”
– Music observing PSHE
“Group work was particularly effective and provided a supportive environment for individual students; each had their own responsibility and all were engaged and focused on the task – all contributing to the results”
– Art & Design observing Biology
“Like how students were encouraged to Scribble ideas down on extracts – I want my classes to do more scribbling and not worry about everything being neat”
– Business Studies observing English
“The teacher had an excellent relationship with the class. They respected her knowledge and listened carefully”
– History observing PE
“One of the most impressive aspects of the lesson was the comfortable and appropriate use by the children of the subject specific language”
– Dance observing Art
“Excellent AfL – the summary sheet of requirements for each grade informed the girls about their current level of attainment and the next steps to take in their learning to access a higher grade.”
– Maths observing Chemistry
“Girls are really enjoying this lesson. Eager to learn!”
– Art observing German
Other highlights/common themes included:
- High expectations of all pupils
- Well planned lessons with creative use of different styles of activity
- Lesson objectives explained/shared
- Teachers know the students very well
- Students are engaged immediately with interesting activities, often linked to prior learning.
- Excellent use of questioning to measure students understanding and help them to progress
- Frequent reference to, and explanation of, assessment criteria
- Discussion in pairs to support student responses, e.g. “Tell your partner why…”
- Use of extended questioning to ensure depth of understanding and draw out misconceptions
- Structured group work with girls having different responsibilities/roles within each group
- Considered and meaningful feedback given to students both in writing and orally, leading to responses in kind from students.
It really has been a pleasure to read the comments of such a dedicated bunch of teachers.
- My colleagues are awesome. I will never doubt them again.
- We must never stop doing Peer Observations.