The advantages and disadvantages of peer observations

Summary: What are the advantages and disadvantages of peer observations?

Peer observations are when people are observed by someone at the same level, usually meaning a fellow teacher rather than a senior member of staff such as a Director of Studies. The person who observed then gives some feedback, which could be anywhere from a simple "Thanks, I thought it was great" to written feedback based on an observation task form they have been given or have chosen.

Although peer observations are no substitute for regular observations by people with more experience and knowledge of teaching, being observed by and observing your colleagues does have some advantages even over that more formal kinds of observations. Because of that and the advantages listed below, many schools at least think about running peer observations occasionally or as a regular part of a CPD programme. Teachers, however, do not always see the advantages when it means more time and effort for them without any obvious effort from the management, and it can take a real focus on how to use the advantages to the full and avoid the disadvantages listed below in order to make a system of peer observations run smoothly from Day One. Please note that the number of disadvantages outnumbering the number of advantages below in no way means I don't recommend peer observations, which I do, very strongly.

The advantages of running peer observations

It can save management time: This could mean a DoS being able to do something else when they would be sitting through a class, or on them being able to concentrate on observing people who need more help. See Disadvantages below for tips on how to make sure that teachers don't get the impression that peer observations are just to save management time and to make sure that it really does save management time.

It's good training for teacher training and ELT management: If people want to move up the TEFL ladder, sooner or later they are going to need to observe other people and give them feedback. Starting with peer observations means they can get that on their CV in a low pressure way, and means the management can see how people coped with that when they are interviewing for promotions. For teachers to be really ready to move into doing more formal observations where they might be grading teachers, they will need to get to the point where they can give written feedback in several different formats, including a lot of raw data on what went on in the classroom and comments that seem factual rather than subjective.

Teachers might take feedback better if it comes from other teachers: As teachers could have other issues with the management of the company or be more nervous if they think they are being formally assessed, they might take suggestions on how their class could have been improved better if it comes from a fellow teacher. You can increase this effect by making the feedback on the lesson something that the management never hears, with the DoS only following up how the observation process went. Letting teachers pair themselves up can also help make sure they get comments from someone whose opinion they respect and they will be happy to get constructive criticism from.

You can double or triple the number of times each person is observed: Theoretically you could do even more peer observations due to the lack of management time needed, but as teachers should be using them as a stimulus to reflect on and change their own classes they will need a lot of time between observations in order to turn their new ideas into new classroom practices they can get feedback on. You can make sure that peer observations are not a substitute for formal observations by regularly scheduling observations by senior staff, e.g. twice a year, and fitting a set number of peer observations in between each one.

Teachers can get different feedback from different people: This is obviously a good thing, and one which can be further developed by matching teachers with people who have very different teaching styles and by having each observer especially looking for different things, e.g. use of time, use of space or classroom interactions.

Both the person being observed and the person observing learn: This is the biggest advantage of peer observations. Teachers observing not only learn how to observe, but also see different ways of doing things in other people's classrooms and can see both good things and bad things that will make them reflect on what goes on in their own classroom.

It makes the teachers understand how difficult observing and feedback can be: When teachers have experienced trying to put a positive spin on criticism of someone's lesson, they should hopefully understand the difficulties the DoS has next time they are being officially observed.

It can take on a life of its own: As unlikely as it might sound to someone dreading the next observation of their lessons by their DoS, in two of the three places where I set up peer observations for the first time the experience was so positive for the teachers that they ended up asking each other to do further observations without any involvement from the management. If only I could say all my CPD efforts had been that successful!

It can boost a teacher's confidence: Although teachers observing other people's lessons can tend to underestimate how much hard work the teacher is putting in, they still get a much more realistic picture of how other teachers are doing than they would get from just hearing the laughter coming through the wall. The result is almost always a more realistic idea of how they are doing in the classroom, and therefore an ego boost.

The disadvantages of running peer observations

Teachers seeing a "better" teacher can lose confidence: This is rare and would probably mean a crisis of confidence had already started, but seeing someone who is (seemingly) effortless in the classroom can be the last straw for some teachers. If you suspect there is any such teacher in the school, you could leave peer observations until the crisis is over, make sure he is observed by someone who can tell him or her "Really? It seemed you were having a great time to me" or have them observe someone so senior that it is no surprise that they appear to find teaching easier.

Teachers seeing a "worse" teacher can get slack: The negative version of a teacher's confidence being boosted by seeing the less than perfect lessons of others (see Advantages) is that they could think "My lessons are already better than that. What was I putting all that effort into them for?" It can be difficult or impossible to spot that thought process going on in teachers, but you can try to counter it by having observation tasks that ask teachers to reflect on what they learnt as well as what they can teach the person they were observing. You can also make sure they get useful feedback when they are observed, that teachers do get rewarded for consistently giving particularly good lessons, and that everyone gets to observe someone who has lots to teach them as well as someone who they can teach lots to.

Teachers need training on how to observe and be observed: At a basic level, teachers need to be introduced to a range of different observation tasks (looking at classroom interactions, use of time, language used by the teacher, staging etc etc) and different ways of writing that data down in a factual way. Ways of cutting down on the amount of training that is necessary before peer observations can start include just giving teachers observation feedback forms with clear written instructions, and getting a volunteer from the teachers to give a workshop on observing and being observed.

It can actually take more management time: As well as training teachers to observe each other, the DoS will need to schedule two people for each observation (the person observing and the person being observed), and deal with any disagreements that arise. Once you have convinced teachers of the benefits of peer observations you can leave them to schedule themselves, but they will inevitably need a bit of a push and chasing up after when it is first set up, and possibly again when the intial enthusiasm has dropped off. Lower labour ways of doing all these things mainly consist of posters and forms where teachers sign up when they have done various parts of the process.

Teachers might think they know better than the person who observed: Due to the personalities or differences in level of experience of the teachers involved, this can be a factor- but then it can be a factor when DoSs are observing too. This is another example where the observation tasks and the training should concentrate on getting hard data that can't be argued with, such as the number of times the teacher spoke to each student or what students were doing when the teacher wasn't watching. You can train teachers on this by doing a task in the workshop on observations where teachers rate sentences from oral or written feedback (real or made up) on how factual or subjective each sentence is.

Teachers might think that it is just CPD on the cheap: Unfortunately, most of the ways of tackling this impression involve more work for the management and take away the time savings advantages. Ways of using that time to help with this point include the managers checking how the observations went, giving workshops and feedback workshops on observations, and observing someone formally at the same time as the other teachers are in peer observations. The DoS could also sit in on some observations and feedback sessions to give feedback on the feedback, or take part in the peer observations as just another teacher.

The feedback might not be as useful as feedback from the DoS: Learning to do observations is like learning to teach- it takes time to learn how to do well, however much training and materials you have before you start. The only exception is if someone is naturally talented at it, in which case they could be better than the DoS from day one! Apart from preparing teachers properly and giving them regular practice, the best solution is simply to make sure that the DoS still regularly observes everyone as well and that there is a clear distinction between DoS observations that are mainly from the DoS's perspective to check how things are going in the school and DoS observations that are there to help the teachers with the things they want help on, in which they could choose the class that is observed and the observation task that is used.

It could turn into a slanging match: If the DoS has done the interviews properly, hopefully your school doesn't have too many teachers who generally get involved in these types of conversations. If it is a problem of clashing personalities or bad feeling between two particular people, letting people choose their own observation partners or choosing them carefully so they can avoid each other are possible solutions. You also might want to think carefully about whether people observe each other mutually or observe and are observed by different people. Observing each other doubles the contact they have, but might make them more careful about what they say in case they are caught out on the same thing when someone observes their lesson. In a worst case scenario, the DoS could sit in on the feedback session as a peacemaker, with the excuse that they are training everyone on how to observe and give feedback.

The feedback might be insensitive: This could be a personality trait again, in which case pairing them up with someone who can cope with quite direct comments might be a good idea. Otherwise, the solution is just the usual good practice methods of careful training, well chosen observation tasks and clear feedback forms.

The fact that it is extra work might give people a bad attitude: I've written whole other articles on not making CPD seem like an imposition, a process that starts at the job interview and can be a continual effort. Techniques specific to peer observations include covering a teacher's class so that they can observe someone else without putting in extra hours; and rewarding regular peer observations with certificate-like CPD forms, mentions on job references, and promotions.

Teachers can use peer feedback comments as a weapon against the DoS's observation feedback: For example, they could say "All the other teachers have said that my use of L1 in the classroom is good, I think school policy is just behind the times on this one". If this discussion occurs it is probably a sign of deeper problems than just one observation, but there are ways of avoiding the problem in the short term, e.g. to make the observation tasks of the peer observations and the formal observation totally different so that they are not comparable.

The students might get the idea that something is wrong: Students might have been in EFL classes long enough that they know that if an observer appears it usually means that another student has been complaining, in which case you can imagine they might start to doubt their teacher is they have observers in every couple of weeks! Solutions include having regular observations as a selling point in the school brochure (for reasons of class quality and teacher development), and telling them that the observer is there to learn from watching their expert teacher rather than to judge them. Alternatively, trouble making students might think that teachers are there to check up on them, in which case a quick explanation of the reasons for having an observation system in the school should suffice.

Teachers can just respond to feedback with "I saw you do the same thing!": This doesn't have to be a bad thing, as being held up to the same standards as you ask from others is exactly what makes peer observations a great tool in pushing you to improve your lessons and to give realistic and sensitive feedback- in fact, I recommend all DoSs to have their lessons observed by their teachers too. If, however, this is one of many tricks of a teacher who cannot accept any constructive criticism, there are ways round this. The best method is to give the two teachers completely different observation tasks and feedback sheets.

The students might know the teacher: If the students have already been taught by the person observing, they might be distracted and/ or shy when that person is in the room. This is exactly the kind of situation teachers will get better at coping with once they have got used to being observed, with techniques like using the observer as a classroom resource rather than just letting them sit there. If they can cope with this, the observer should be able to give them especially useful feedback due to already knowing the students. If it is a first or second observation in the school, you might want to avoid this situation by careful pairing up of teachers and scheduling of observations.

Copyright © 2008

Written by Alex Case for

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