Of our two sessions reviewing each other’s teaching videos, the second was far more valuable and useful than the first, because of how we approached it. Similarly to my first couple of peer observations, this was partly because we weren’t quite sure how to approach this process in its early stages, and the first video peer-review session was very early on. By this I mean that we hadn’t yet learned which questions we should be asking of ourselves and each other, and how we could frame the exercise within our larger interests and motivations to produce results. There was also a human element to what we took from our first video peer review, though.
I probably should have written about it by now, but unfortunately there was not a great deal which I took from it at the time. Looking back, part of my focus for peer observations 1 and 2 actually did come from the video of mine which we looked at during the first session last year, namely cognitively overloading the learners with vocabulary in a vocabulary-based lesson, and how to avoid doing this. Now I think about it, one of the reflective gems retrieved from the second video peer-review session is actually very relevant to that first video too, namely taking a facilitative instead of a didactic role, or making your lesson learner-centred as opposed to teacher-centred. At the time though, neither of these points received any consideration at all. Because of other events during the day, my classmate, and actual mate, who I was working with in the first session was really quite upset and in a strained place emotionally. It made it difficult to prioritise talking about either of our teaching practices or beliefs, and in the end we were basically passive when watching each others’ lessons, and any feedback was only surface level. The immediate lesson was that, however much I like to rave about peer observations, this is what you might call a humanist industry and field, and most of the moving parts are people. Peer observations are inestimably helpful for professional development, even necessary, but you need to step outside your mental comfort zone a little to make the most of them, and sometimes that’s not the best thing for the moment.
As for the second session, more than one question emerged from it which would prove either to be a reference point for future reflective development or to be a catalyst for synthesising previous reflections. I was working with Matt; we’ve got a good relationship and a productive way of working together, in my opinion. Quite a few of our interests in teaching and the areas we want to develop coincide, so often our ideas build on each other’s. Its a good example of the “critical friend” as a reflective tool, and of how productive open discussion can be when there’s trust in both people. If I were organising peer observations in an institution, or if I were involved in it, determining who collaborates with who would be one of the first things to consider. You’d have to take experience into account, but also personality, and teaching style and beliefs (if they were known to you). Equality is important in this situation, concerning experience, but contrasts in the nature of teachers’ experience within a collaborative group would be a positive thing, I believe. Having confidence in the parity and maturity of your relationship with collaborators is essential too, and from what I’ve experienced so far, this confidence only increases the more teachers collaborate with one another, in a virtuous cycle. Similarities and varieties in teaching habits and beliefs are both productive, for different reasons. If you’re aware of specific points of view of the teachers involved, and how they would interact with each other, this could even be deliberately tailored. Varied beliefs and habits can provide fresh perspectives and insights on one another, and similar attitudes, if both are being earnestly and sincerely reflected on, can build on each other in the evaluative conclusions they produce. I think the second video peer-review session was an instance of this.
The point which we both seemed to be quite focused on revolved around learner-centredness in our lessons. Our mutual interest in this allowed us to feed into one another’s thought process, and contribute to each other’s development of action points and goals. In the first couple of observations, as mentioned above, a goal of mine was to move the cognitive load on learners in vocabulary lessons away from excessive input of new lexis, and towards meaningful use and opportunity to practice and contextualise new lexis. This was a point which did come out of the first video peer review:
‘The video of my own vocabulary-based lesson which we watched ended up in a mass of words on the board, and more extensive teacher-led discussion than was necessary of an overly large lexical group’
In the end, having watched Elyse (in Peer Observation 1) focusing attention on contextualised use of the language, not constantly throwing in connected input, I decided I should, ‘although it now seems blindingly obvious, just resist the urge to keep throwing words into the mix’.
This stuck with me. It also grew into something a bit wider, which I’m only now properly realising; A fairly thematic target for evaluation and improvement in my journey so far has been increasing learner-centredness, and creating lessons and classroom atmospheres focused on the students. Motivations such as developing autonomous learner skills, encouraging cognitive engagement, and revealing the most pertinent language upgrades for individual learners by approaching classes from a “macro” perspective all fall under this general umbrella. Since Peer Observation 3, and in all but the first assessed observation, I’ve cited student-centredness as an aim of mine for exploration. It’s only writing this, though, that I appreciate how similarly driven my aims for Peer Observation 1 were; allowing the students, not myself, to dominate the lesson, and facilitating rather than presenting all the time. This suggests that this was an underlying interest which this process has helped me to elucidate.
Watching Matt’s video, and hearing his commentary on it, revealed this as a concern of his too. This discussion took place a few months ago, and the confirmation of this growing theme was seminal in my decisions regarding the two assessed observations which followed, and the focus for the peer observation which followed, Peer Observation 5 (watch this space). He told me that he had observed a colleague who barely intervened at all in her class for the whole hour he was present for, unless asked for help by a student, which happened infrequently as her learners seemed to be in the habit of relying on their own resources to resolve problems and clarify language use and meaning. He introduced me to an idea he had been introduced to by her, of ‘sage on the stage vs. guide at the side’. He said he had realised that he, like me, had been slightly off the mark in viewing his own lessons as learner-centred. This conversation was really valuable because it gave me some fodder to take forward in my own reflections, and some hooks, if you like, to hang my ideas on. It tied together the aim of promoting development of learner autonomy with the aim of creating a classroom more centred around leaner interaction. I think this was the point, two months ago now, that I started being conscious of the undercurrent that had been running through this process for me, and began to actively pursue it. Peer observations came into their own here – Matt’s observation of another colleague allowed him to pass on new discoveries and evaluative angles to me, which I could then apply to myself and to him, creating exponential benefits.
We talked about our habits of intervening before the time limit for a group task had run out, to “help” our learners, and how we found this very difficult to avoid. The unintended result of this, we realised watching the videos, was to draw focus away from the learners and back to us, and also to possibly stymie some opportunities for learning by reducing demands on learners’ language ability. We both made a conscious effort to correct this in future stages of this process, including my subsequent peer observation. This also connects somewhat with my thoughts in Critical Incident 3; I sometimes take the easier way out, trying to make the lesson run smoothly within it’s remit, as opposed to seeing challenges to me or my students as opportunities for me or them to invest an extra effort to produce deeper and more long-term learning outcomes. Yes, they should be happy and comfortable, but also allowing our learners to flounder a little bit could help them become stronger independent swimmers. To echo Critical Incident 3, it’s not supposed to be easy; maybe I need to raise the bar of expectations for my learners as well as for myself. Resisting the urge to “cop out” and intervene when learners are struggling is a way of doing this.
There’s an interesting clash here with “demand high” ideas, which I mostly subscribe to (although due to the cognitive load they can place on teachers, its not always realistic). The principle of ensuring that “learner moves”, or key points in the development of an individual learner’s interlanguage, are noticed and dealt with by the teacher, relies upon Underhill’s assertion that ‘it’s O.K to teach’ – the high-demanding teacher should be attuned to learners’ thought processes and language development, and moreover should intervene and upgrade language at the crucial points. This could be seen as contradictory to the thoughts above about consciously not intervening and allowing student-led activities to take their course. I think the reconciliation of these two principles, which I see as both valid, is a focus on why and when to intervene. As is often the case in language teaching and learning, I shouldn’t apply a blanket, overgeneralised rule to this, but should think about my reasons for intervening, and my reasons for not intervening. I need to develop my instincts concerning this, as video and live peer observations have shown me, and the first thing to do is to consciously examine when and why to intervene, after which I can put it into practice.
If it’s for the sake of easing the progress of a task or a lesson, reducing the demand on learners to make my life easier, or my lack of self-control in terms of classroom focus, I shouldn’t. If it’s for the sake of constructively upgrading language at a crucial moment, or of altering cognitive demand on learners to a more suitable level for their acquisition, then I should. Eventually, hopefully, with continued “controlled processing”, it will become second nature – we’ll see! I’m making it one of my focus points for day-to-day teaching, and so far this seems to be holding up as a plan. I’ll post a comment later about how it’s going!