How can we support each other to become better teachers?
Peer learning visits are a valuable tool for staff professional development, particularly because their focus comes from the teacher. They build a community of trust and offer the chance to open up classroom practice to an audience wider than just your students.
Volunteering to be observed? No way!
Let’s be honest here, the ‘O’ word can strike fear into even the most experienced teacher (well, both ‘O’ words actually).
The thought of being so open and vulnerable to judgment is something which teachers don’t often want to volunteer for.
If you can put aside the nightmare memories of management sitting at the back of your classroom, clutching a clipboard and sporting a stern face, there is much to be gained from engaging in peer observations.
Change your language and your mindset
First, let’s change the terminology.
Consider eradicating the use of the term observation in favour of ‘learning visits’. Not only does it better describe the nature of the activity, but it attaches a different mindset to the practice. Peer learning visits are not about judging each other but about learning from each other and sharing best practice.
Learning new strategies from colleagues is just the tip of the iceberg.
When a culture of peer learning visits is embedded, a natural peer coaching model will develop as teachers engage in professional discourse before, during and after the learning visits.
Teachers will critically consider their own practice regularly and seek improvements. Think about all the great practice going on in your school behind closed doors.
Let’s empower teachers to share their ideas beyond the classroom so that the impact can be felt school-wide. Think about the impact that kind of sharing practice could have on the students in your whole school.
5 Tips for Implementing Learning Visits
So how do we get started?
1. Identify a focus
What do you want to find out? What do you want to learn?
Answer these questions before the learning visit so that there is a clear purpose. Otherwise, you can end up aimlessly popping into classrooms trying to pick up new ideas with no clear direction.
You might be interested in how your students are able to articulate their learning process, self-reflect and identify their next steps. Teachers could find out how effective a new strategy is or discover how they could improve their questioning techniques.
It’s important that the pre-visit discussion covers where you are right now with the identified focus as well as any particular students you’d like visitors to focus on.
2. Schedule time
Probably the most challenging thing is actually finding and allocating time for this process.
Ideally, set aside time for a meeting before the learning visit to consider the focus, as well as after the learning visit to share ideas and open further discussion. How much time is up to you but I would recommend at least 15 minutes for the pre and post discussion with the actual learning visit taking on more of a ‘drop-in’ style, lasting no more than 20 minutes.
3. Focus questions
During the visit, it’s important to engage with the students and get a feel for what they are thinking during the lesson.
If possible, write down or record what they say there and then. This dialogue will be useful during the follow-up session after the learning visit. Write down some questions beforehand to help guide you through this. Tailor these questions to the focus of the learning visit. For example:
- What are you learning?
- Are you learning anything new?
- What hinders your learning?
- How do you know if you’ve been successful in your learning?
- What are your next steps?
When you’re in the classroom, sit amongst the students, listen to their conversations and engage in discussions.
4. Feedback dialogue
This is the key.
Find a time to meet and discuss the selected focus alongside any noted observations by the visiting teacher as well as the student dialogue from the lesson.
Keep this informal, this is not an observation feedback session. The visiting teacher can share things they saw which they could use in their own practice. The teacher visited can identify where they might take their practice next.
Everyone can learn something from this session. Consider how you could record the outcomes of the process so that you can refer back to it at a later date.
For peer learning visits to be an effective strategy for learning for all involved, this process needs to become a habit.
Start small and manageable. Plan for this cycle to happen once a term. If you have more time, try to repeat this process every half term. If scheduling visits become a timetabling nightmare, discuss your vision with your line manager. They might be able to help provide some cover for this process.
If you’re interesting in taking this a step further and developing professional learning communities and a culture of practitioner enquiry, then I can recommend this book to give you tips for how to get started: Practitioner Enquiry: Professional Development with Impact for Teachers, Schools and Systems, George Gilchrist (2018).