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From isolation to improvement: Rethinking peer observation

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Teaching is an isolating profession — we have so few opportunities to collaborate and learn from one another. Peer observation has long held the promise of helping teachers overcome professional isolation and improve their satisfaction. But it has struggled to gain momentum because we traditionally perform it upside down.

At least three challenges impede the usefulness of peer observation as we know it. First, the purpose for the observation is often unclear, making it difficult to know whether objectives were accomplished. Second, since teachers work in the “land of nice” for most of their careers, their peer observation experiences tend to sidestep open acknowledgment of teachers’ weaknesses, and fail to dig beneath the superficial. Finally, most peer observation processes are intended to benefit the observer. While an observer can witness powerful techniques, transferring those practices into her own classroom is not as easy as it sounds. The observer has to figure out how to tailor the techniques to her classroom, personality and style, students, and content and grade level.

Teacher-driven observation

By changing the purpose, leader and target audience, teacher-driven observation (TDO) essentially flips the traditional peer observation concept on its head. It’s the difference between having colleagues watch you perform, and inviting friends to support you in your work.

The primary function of TDO is to collect data. Other models focus on gleaning strategies from model teachers or evaluating the effectiveness of instructional strategies. In TDO, there is a clearly stated problem that the observed teacher has identified, and a fundamental question that can only be answered through the collection of classroom data. For example, a teacher may ask: “How do my higher-order questions affect the quality of peer interaction within my student groups?” This question creates a clear purpose for the observation itself, and directs the data the observers will collect.

Based on this purpose, all parties involved have clear roles to perform. Have you ever participated in an observation without understanding your role clearly? The results are scattered at best. An effective TDO group gathers data that specifically answers the teacher’s fundamental question. With this data in hand, teachers are empowered to make informed refinements in their classroom.

Unlike other peer observation models, TDO puts the observed teacher squarely in the driver’s seat. This is a key distinction: the leader and the primary learner of TDO is the observed teacher, not the observers. This means that the observers gather data she instructs them to gather, and she interprets the results, with their help. As the leader, the observed teacher may be gathering evidence about a student issue, or attempting to implement a new instructional strategy. In asking the example question above about higher-order questions, a teacher may be experimenting with cooperative grouping, or attempting to increase the rigor of discussion among her students.

Because the leader of the process is the observed teacher, and because she explicitly asks for help from her peers via data collection, the “land of nice” is rarely an obstacle. The post-observation discussion is productive and improvement-oriented, not defensive. Locating the observation in the teacher’s own classroom minimizes content lost in translation: the learning, application and practice of an instructional strategy occurs real time on the teacher’s own battlefield.

Flipping peer observation on its head addresses the problems that hinder most peer observation processes. Teacher-driven observation builds collaborative momentum. By decreasing professional isolation and increasing teacher satisfaction, teacher-driven observation has the potential impact of long-term school improvement.

Trent E. Kaufman is CEO of Education Direction, a professional development and consulting firm. He has been a teacher, technology coordinator, department chair, coach and administrator at California’s Dublin Unified School District. He, along with Emily Dolci Grimm, is the author of “The Transparent Teacher,” a book that describes teacher-driven observation, an innovative peer observation process.