Recipe for Peer Observation Success: Following Best Practices
Part One of NEE’s peer observation series presented the research findings surrounding the use of peer observation and its benefits as identified by researchers and practitioners. In this second part, we explore the elements that are required for a successful peer observation process and the practices that will lead to:
- enhanced teaching through critical reflection
- enhanced quality of teaching and student learning
- gains for both the observer and the person doing the teaching
- an active role for teachers in their professional learning and improvement
The use of peer observation can multiply the number of times a teacher is observed and receives feedback each year. Increased teacher observations and feedback are linked to instructional improvement. What’s more, peer observers, when matched by grade level and subject experience, may have a deeper understanding of the teachers’ work than school administrators, especially the content knowledge and content-specific pedagogy. This can increase the accuracy and credibility of the peer observation for the observed teacher.
Setting the Foundation for Peer Observations
The research findings may make it seem like a good idea to simply start arranging peer observations for your teachers. However, schools that have found success with peer observation programs tell us they began by establishing a foundation of support before they launched the new process. The following foundational beliefs must exist for peer observations to succeed:
- Everyone involved in teaching has knowledge and expertise to share.
- The school embodies a culture of collaboration, mutual trust, and respect.
- All teachers can learn a great deal from watching how other people design and deliver their teaching – even teachers with a lot of experience.
- Peer observation that includes feedback and reflection can greatly impact a teacher’s professional practice and student learning.
After securing the necessary foundation for peer observation success, teachers must become comfortable with the idea of peer observations. They may need to ease into the practice by beginning with self-reflection on their teaching via video recordings, progressing to sharing videos of their teaching with peers, and then transitioning to live peer observations and feedback. NEE has developed the following suggestions for establishing a peer observation process at your school. In the future, NEE plans to support schools throughout the process with an online peer observation tool that is under development.
Step 1: Establish Norms and Values
Step 1 in our process begins with establishing the norms and values that are necessary for success with peer observations. This will vary from school to school, but the following suggestions are a good starting point:
- Develop and support a school culture that is respectful, trusting, and supportive.
- Conduct an assessment to determine whether your faculty is ready for peer observations.
- Make sure teachers understand the rationale and purpose behind a peer observation program.
If these three areas are not assessed and provided adequate support, it is doubtful that peer observation will be successful.
Step 2: Develop and Adopt Procedures and Protocols
Peer observations are not informal visits to another classroom. Formalizing the process increases the likelihood that reflection and improvement will occur. Procedures and protocols should be created by the school and followed for every observation. Step 2 involves developing and adopting peer observation procedures and protocols.
Consider the protocols and procedures that are needed in regard to the following questions, and other parts of the process outlined in Step 4:
- How will peer observations be scheduled?
- How will goals for each observation be determined?
- How will the observer offer feedback?
- What format will feedback be delivered, what type of feedback will be expected – both strengths and opportunities?
- What kind of reflection or documentation will be expected after the observation?
As you develop the protocols and procedures, keep in mind the following guidelines:
- Procedures and protocols should articulate the expected behaviors and actions in peer observations. They are critical for the success of a peer observation process and must be adhered to.
- All staff should agree to the protocols.
- Peer observations should be implemented in a staged approach with opportunities for reflection and adjustment to the process and protocols.
Step 3: Prepare the Participants
Although teachers are familiar with being observed, they will need instruction on how to conduct an observation, deliver feedback, prompt reflection, and provide coaching to others. Step 3 in the process consists of preparing the participants.
- Teachers who plan to participate should complete training on how to be an effective observer/coach.
- Teachers who plan to participate should develop a shared understanding of the highly effective use of, and expectations for, the teaching practices that will be observed. If peer observations will incorporate the NEE indicators, watching the NEE scoring videos and discussing the classroom observation scoring rubrics can help build such an understanding.
Step 4: Conduct Peer Observation Rounds
When all of the necessary prep work is complete, the teachers are ready to begin Step 4, conducting peer observation rounds. We divide the peer observation into three distinct sections.
Before the observation
- Teachers meet to discuss the focus of the observation – what the observer hopes to learn or what the observed teacher would like to receive feedback about.
- The focus should be on an agreed aspect of learning and teaching practice.
- The observation should be planned, scheduled, and aligned with school improvement priorities.
- The pre-observation conversation provides contextual information about the content, the students, and the teacher.
During the observation
- Attention should be on the identified teaching focus.
- The observer should take notes.
- In an ethnography-style observation, the observer records factual descriptions of what the teacher is doing and what the students are doing throughout the observation. The aim is to gather as many details as possible but not make any judgments or subjective comments. This is a good way to stay neutral and provide useful feedback for the teacher to use in reflection.
After the observation
- Teachers meet to discuss what was learned within a day or two of the observation.
- A feedback form can focus and direct the conversation.
- If the observer is offering feedback, begin with objective statements of what was observed. Let the observed teacher reflect on the implications and create a plan for the next steps to be taken.
- If the observer was there to learn, begin with what the observer saw and ask the observed teacher questions about how instructional decisions were made before and during instruction. The observer should develop a plan for the next steps to be taken.
- Questions the observers might ask of themselves: What did I see? What did I hear? What questions occurred to me about what I observed? What evidence do I have? How does the evidence relate to the observation focus? What did I learn from the observation? Based on the evidence, what constructive suggestions or changes could I make if asked?
- Questions the observed teachers might ask of themselves: What happened? What was I thinking and feeling? What did I do well? How do I know this? What could I do differently/better? What can I do to find out more about the focus for development? What could my next steps be?
- A reflection on the peer observation process should be conducted so that the overall process can be adjusted as necessary to increase its effectiveness.
NEE is currently working on a suite of peer observation supports and tools. We plan to provide training materials for peer observation participants, an easy-to-follow process with each step toward success explained in detail, and an online tool that will help participants match with peers for observations, process the experience, reflect on the data gathered, and create a plan of the next steps to be taken for professional growth and improvement.
Our final article in this three-part series will provide a sneak peek at NEE’s plans for an online peer observation tool.
The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.