Teachers Reflecting and Learning from Peer Observations - Steve Barkley

Teachers Reflecting and Learning from Peer Observations

Differentiating Peer Observation and Peer Coaching:

Peer Observation is an activity that is focused on the observer’s learning while Peer Coaching is focused more on the benefits to the observed teacher. Of course, there are some benefits to both in either activity but the clarity of expectations going into and throughout the activity can increase the learning outcomes.

In Peer Observation the observing teacher has the opportunity to focus on student learning behaviors in a way that one can’t while teaching. Consider John Hattie’s thought that 80% of what is happening in a classroom is unobserved by the teacher. The observing teacher can look at how the teacher’s actions are impacting student learning behaviors. During and after the observation, the observing teacher can reflect upon her choices and learner reactions in her own classroom.

In Peer Coaching the observed teacher should be directing the focus of the observing teacher and the feedback that the observer shares. Therefore, pre-conferencing is a necessity for peer coaching. When the information is shared and discussed in a post-conference trust is built for continued learning through peer coaching.

What can a teacher gain from peer observation?

I encourage observers to first look at the whole class, then groups of students, and then individual students. Peer observation provides an opportunity to observe students in a way that we seldom can when we are engaged in teaching in our own class. I use the term “student learning production behaviors.”  As a teacher, my goal is to have the largest number of students spending the greatest amount of time engaged in the most important student learning production behaviors. As an observer in a classroom, I can consider the connection between teacher actions and students’ learning or non-learning behaviors. How do a teacher’s choices seem to influence student actions?

The complexity of the classroom is communicated by Peter Liljedahl as he describes his observations in K-12 math classrooms. (Podcast available here). He identified a range of student behaviors, many of which were not likely to generate the learning outcomes we desire.

  • Slackers are students characterized by their tendency to quickly give up when faced with challenging problems, often they don’t even begin. Their off- task behavior is likely observable to the teacher.
  • Stallers are students who delay or procrastinate when confronted with a task or problem. This behavior might stem from a fear of failure, a lack of understanding of the task, or simply a habit of avoiding immediate engagement with challenging work. Stallers differ from Slackers in that they care what the teacher thinks, so they get permission to not work (think.) “Can I go to the bathroom?’ Or,” I need something from my locker.”
  • Fakers are students who pretend to understand or engage with the material without actually doing so. They might mimic the actions of others or give the appearance of participation without genuinely processing the information or problem at hand. Some students are great pretenders. Liljedahl describes watching a student moving a pencil with nothing appearing on the paper and then erasing. I’ve observed fake readers whose heads move back and forth like those who are reading. Watching closely, you observe that they don’t turn a page.

  • Mimickers are those who follow the steps or methods demonstrated by the teacher or others without deeply understanding the underlying concepts. They can replicate procedures but may struggle to apply these methods in novel situations or to explain their reasoning. You may hear this from a mimicker, “I didn’t do problem 13 in the homework because you didn’t show us how.”

Liljedahl shares research suggesting that 100% of students who continually mimic eventual struggle. He describes mimicking as being like an addictive drug because it appears to the student that they are being successful from the practice.

  • Thinkers are students who actively engage with problems and persist in seeking solutions. They are characterized by their curiosity, willingness to explore different approaches, and ability to think critically about the task. Thinkers often display a deep understanding of concepts and can apply their knowledge flexibly.

Some insights teachers have shared with me after observing students in other classrooms.

-Teachers tended to report seeing much more comfortable or off- task student behavior (stallers and fakers) than they would want to find in their own classrooms. Several teachers later in the day shared that they returned to their own classrooms with increased awareness and spotted similar behaviors in their students. They stated that they had been missing these signs and now realized they needed to respond with modifications in instruction.

-The time “cost” of an activity versus the learning value of the activity is frequently overlooked in many teachers’ planning process. As they observed their colleagues, the time it took for students to prepare the materials or organize for the learning event became much more obvious than when one is busy facilitating as the teacher.

– Teacher talk often filled much of the time. In a 5th grade classroom, a teacher placed a problem on the board suggesting students would do it. He then went through how to do it point by point. As he spoke, observers noted some students were doing the problem incorrectly as they went straight to work from his initial request.

-Teachers who had students taking notes from a board or power point often talked during the time that students were writing. The more interesting the teacher’s comments, the harder it was to take the notes. The students who focused on getting the notes frequently tuned out the teacher. (Consider the time students spent writing the notes…What’s the cost against the gain?)

Our goal should be to have the largest number of students spending the greatest amount of time engaged in the most productive learning behaviors. In another teacher’s classroom, one can observe this in a way that one can’t while teaching a class. Reflections on these observations should raise questions about what I observed and think about my classroom.

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