By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Last semester, I had the pleasure of teaching the first-ever offering of IDT G91: Peer Observation, for employees at Delaware Tech. This course provided participants an opportunity to observe their colleagues in the classroom and reflect on those experiences. Because it was my first time teaching the course, I also completed all of the observation hours and assignments. This post is a slightly modified version of my final reflection on the course.
I share it to inspire educators everywhere to consider the benefits of peer observation, whether through a formal program or something much more organic that starts at the water cooler. I have also included, in several captions, testimony that others enrolled in the course offered to be shared.
I’m the instructor in this course, Peer Observation, so shouldn’t I already know everything about it? What do I really have to reflect on?
In a word: everything.
My experience with peer observation was actually severely limited before running this course. Back in grad school, I had to observe a few high school English teachers for many, many hours.
But those weren’t peers. Those were gods–experienced gods of teaching, before whom I, a lowly neophyte, simply stood in awe. I was so overwhelmed at the idea of even standing in front of twenty-some high school students that I barely had any opportunity to really reflect on the observation experience.
Years later, I found myself on a subcommittee at Delaware Tech, charged with designing IDT G91: Peer Observation. The only goal we had was to create a course that would give instructors credit for a practice that instinct suggests and research confirms is beneficial for instructors. I hadn’t observed anyone since grad school, so when the course was approved and I volunteered to teach it, I knew that I would have to practice what I was preaching.
Eight hours of classroom observation later, and I am severely humbled by every pedagogical skill that I never knew I was lacking.
During my observations, I witnessed other instructors take explicit actions to engage all students. They called on students by name rather than asking for hands (which only engages the go-getters). During individual work, these instructors checked in on the less engaged students rather than just letting the squeaky wheels get the grease. Seeing these strategies in action made me realize one of my own weaknesses: I focus only on engaging the students who are already engaged.
This is something I need to work on, and I’ve thought about a few ways that I can do this. For starters, during the spring semester I plan to stop asking for volunteers to respond to my questions (at least, for most of them). Rather than just pick students, though, which would leave room for unintentional bias, I’ll select students randomly by rolling dice. I already use dice in my gamified course anyway, so this will be an easy way to build in a new practice.
In addition to engaging all students during class-wide activities, I also want to implement a strategy for use during individual work, which we spend a lot of time on in my writing classes. Usually, the hour or so of time that I allot per week to individual work is abuzz with questions from students seeking one-on-one attention from me. This is good, but it only benefits the students who actually get my attention. For the spring semester, I plan to create a list at the end of week 3 of every student who has not reached out to me for assistance. That list will then become the group that I make an active effort to check in on during individual work.
Beyond the practical applications to the classroom that I’ve taken away from my observations, I’ve also learned a lot about the peer observation process itself. While I originally imagined that the meat of observation was the actual time in the classroom, I discovered that, like any good sandwich, you need bread on the ends to hold it all together. That is, you need a pre-observation and post-observation meeting.
The post-observations, in particular, provided me with a chance to compartmentalize the techniques I had observed, and the conversations with my colleagues solidified the experiences in my memory. If the observations resided solely in my notes, then I would easily dismiss their import. The post-observation forced me to not just write down what I observed, but react to it. Similarly, the process of formally summarizing my observations proved infinitely more valuable than I imagined. I initially approached the task begrudgingly, but upon completion of my first summary, I discovered that I learned a lot more from my observation than I had thought.
The gains I made from the act of writing about and discussing my observations were a visceral experience that immediately brought to mind John Dewey’s famous quote that “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
If you are an employee at Delaware Tech, and interested in participating in the peer observation process, the next session of IDT G91 is set to begin on Monday, February 8th. It is a 12-week online class, and you can find registration instructions here.