Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Observation as Professional Development

I've had the opportunity to visit several colleagues' classes this semester. It was a privilege for me to sit in on a variety of different disciplines that are not my direct area of expertise across the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.

I've volunteered to serve as a peer mentor, which means I sit in on another professor's class to help him or her think about the teaching and learning happening there. There are a small team of us who are doing this. We began by visiting each others' classes and practicing some techniques for providing feedback. We explored different things we can look for, such as tracking the level of questions being asked, mapping the interactions taking place, capturing student engagement (check out their body English--it speaks!), or even just the gestalt "what's-it-like-being-in-this-class?" from an outsider's perspective.

Colleagues are invited to have a peer mentor visit for pure professional development. These visits are NOT evaluative--we make that clear from the very beginning. Once we are paired up with colleagues we'll visit, we arrange a pre-visit conversation. I always frame these conversations as "how can I best be of service to you?" I am there to be eyes and ears and to look for and listen for whatever my colleague is wondering about. I usually run through my menu of options of the things I have practiced with my fellow peer mentors, but I find that the colleagues I'm going to visit often have specific things they would like me to look for as well: what do I think about the way they are using powerpoint? Could I watch a couple of focus students throughout the lesson to see how they are responding to the lesson? Could I position myself in the back of the room and see what students have on their laptop screens during the lecture? Could I sit off to the side and listen in on a group during the discussion time?

What could you learn from sitting in on another educator's class?

After we agree on what I'll do when I visit, we schedule the class meeting. It's always a blessing for me to see colleagues at work! I am impressed with the variety of different teaching methods that are used in different disciplines and by different individuals to help the content come to life for their students. It's also a blessing for me to see students engaged in learning--and they really are engaged! (Even the course I visited at 8:00 am on a Monday, to my pleasant surprise.)

Following the class visit, I send my observation notes to my colleague, and we find a time to get lunch to discuss the visit. These lunch meetings are always interesting and enjoyable for me as well. I've joked before that I'm "the dumbest guy in the room" because my content area (Education) is the thing we're all supposed to be good at--we're all educators, after all. But it's interesting to think out loud about the pedagogies with colleagues across a variety of disciplines, and see the similarities and differences. Sometimes I am asked to weigh in with ideas for how they might change things up; sometimes I am asked for strategies that can make their class more interactive or student-oriented. As a rule, I don't offer this kind of advice unless asked. I view my role as an observer, and I'm not likely to give suggestions unless asked. I take this approach because I have found that there are sometimes very deliberate instructional choices based on the demands of the various disciplines. While we sometimes say things like "good teaching is good teaching," I think it's important to distinguish "good teaching" for a given discipline. (This is the idea of what Lee Shulman introduced as pedagogical content knowledge--that we contextualize our teaching methods based on the needs of the content we are teaching.)

I always wrap up a visit by inviting my colleague to also visit my class, if they like. I have had a few take me up on this, and I hope that this could become the norm: that we would regularly learn from each other by seeing each other at work. Wouldn't that be something?

Because I definitely learn something every time I visit a colleague's class. It doesn't matter if it's art or computer science, biology or communication, history or journalism: every class I've visited opens my eyes to a different way of thinking about the practice of our craft. In fact, seeing other educators at work helps me rethink my own practice...the things that I am currently doing, the things I think about trying but haven't made time to explore, and the things that I have decided not to do in my own classroom.

What if observation of colleagues at work became a key part of your professional development, my fellow educators? How would it impact your thinking about your craft? What are the barriers to you getting into your colleagues' classrooms?

1 comment:

  1. Several times on my Spring or Summer Break, I have been able to visit another Kindergarten classroom that is still in session. It is so wonderful to just observe how others teach my grade. I always go home with a few new ideas. It is my favorite (most enjoyable, most useful) type of professional development.