Improving the teaching of writing through teacher peer observation and feedback

Professor Judy Parr and Associate Professor Eleanor Hawe, University of Auckland

Teacher co-learning (teachers learning from their peers) is an important type of professional development within both teaching practice and initial teacher education. Learning in a professional community facilitates the development of teacher reflection, self-regulation and collaborative inquiry. We wanted to know more about how teacher co-learning occurs and what helps or hinder it. This blog post reports on some of our recent research into ways to optimise teachers’ learning.

What we did

In our study, we examined ways to facilitate professional interactions that support teacher learning. The study involved a research–practice collaboration (as part of a TLRI-funded project). Our overall aim was to enhance teacher knowledge and practice through having pairs of teachers engage in observation of, and feedback about, their respective classroom practice in writing. The school involved in the study selected writing as the curriculum focus area because of writing’s position internationally as the neglected “R” among education’s “three Rs”(see also here) and, relatedly, because of New Zealand students’ ongoing underachievement in writing.

We worked with this particular school because they had previously participated in a national literacy project and been successful in raising reading achievement. The staff now wanted to attain similar outcomes for writing. As part of a year-long, school-based programme, we facilitated professional learning sessions in partnership with the school. During these sessions, we introduced protocols for feedback discussions and practiced the use of a classroom observation guide that captured the key elements of effective literacy teaching, drawn from the research literature. This guide then served as the basis for pairs of teachers to participate in seven rounds of peer observation and feedback throughout the school year. Over the year, we gathered information from the observation guides, teacher feedback sessions, short surveys and individual teacher interviews, in order to explore what conversation and learning was happening in the teacher pairs.

What we found

The data showed that most of the feedback discussions after peer observations either identified a change that had already been made or contained an “enhancement message” (a statement that provided evidence of an area for improvement and how this might happen). As the year progressed, the degree of specificity of the feedback increased. For example, after one observation, the observing teacher stated to their peer:

“Cut down your teacher talk… the ratio was about 4 to 1!”  

This direct, open and specific feedback was great to see, because often teacher-to-teacher feedback is generic, affirming, or consists of well-meaning advice not necessarily linked to the observed elements (evidence) of practice. Unfortunately, we know that this type of generic, affirming and well meaning advice tends to lead only to superficial “tweaks” rather than substantive pedagogical change. Feedback is most powerful when it makes learning visible; in the case of our study, peer feedback was most powerful when it drew attention to specific features of good writing teaching (identified in the observation guide) such as the quality of the goals / learning intentions, the differentiated nature of the learning activities, the level of student involvement, and the presence (or not) of student peer review/assessment.

There was evidence (both observed by the peer and reported by the teacher) of teachers using this feedback to inform and change their practice over time. For example, one teacher reported:

“[Peer observer] has helped me to focus on some techniques like [detailed description of several, related teaching strategies including utilizing student-peer expertise; mini lessons where small group with similar need have access to targeted instruction] that have made tailoring teaching to student need far easier.

And one observer made this comment about how her colleague had responded to feedback from an earlier observation:

[Teacher] has developed learning intentions/success criteria to meet the purpose for the lesson and has been exploring a range of activities, comparing which ones work best in terms of alignment with each aim.

The perceived usefulness of individual feedback varied, but teachers generally found that observing their peers, with a clear aim and in a purposeful and in a guided way, was a very useful professional learning activity. In the words of the teachers, having an observation guide as a framework:

“makes it very clear what you are looking for”

during peer observations. Moreover, without the observation guide framework,

we’d be a mess … [we’d] wallow around …”

and

“[we] wouldn’t be looking for specific things like ‘deliberate acts of teaching’.”

Supports for effective teacher co-learning

So, what did we learn about what helps and what hinders effective teacher co-learning?

1.  Specific tools can help clarify what effective practice looks like

The use of the observation guide revealed much to the teachers about their current knowledge of specific, effective practice in writing. Initially, teachers experienced difficulty in knowing what to look for when observing their partners’ lessons. Becoming familiar with the observation guide helped, as it had details and descriptors about what teachers’ practice might actually look like at various levels of expertise. Professional learning sessions also highlighted the specific aspects of teaching practice captured in the observation guide and provided teachers with an opportunity to unpack these.  During these sessions we analysed written teaching and learning scenarios, looked at video exemplars of effective practice and responded to reflective prompts. This time and conversation helped us develop a shared understanding about what counted as evidence of effective practice in the teaching of writing.

2.  Norms for effective learning conversations can promote teacher co-learning

For the conversations that followed the lesson observations, we asked teachers to use the principles of a “learning conversation.” These principles helped the teachers negotiate what can be delicate ground. Learning conversations, aimed at improving practice, were facilitated through helping teachers understand the types of talk that best ensure teacher learning. When teachers observe their colleagues and feel that aspects of their colleagues’ practice are problematic, presenting feedback can be very difficult. However, in our study, the teachers reported that tackling the presentation of feedback was easier as they had already ‘contracted’ with their peer and agreed to talk about a specific area or aspect of practice. Teachers felt this contract gave them license to address issues arising from the observations. Furthermore, both parties put on the table their own beliefs, theories and expectations of good practice. Most useful was the concrete data or evidence that the observing teacher had gathered and recorded during the observation. For example, one teacher recounted:

We talked about it [differentiation, which had been the focus of the observation] and I told him about specific students and their behaviours during the lesson. My partner understood [and we explored] some ways that effective differentiation could take place.”

Challenges to effective teacher co-learning

The process of engaging in dialogic (two-way interactive) feedback was challenging for teachers. After a year of professional development and support from both the observation guide and the professional learning sessions, and after having seven opportunities over the year to practice being both givers and receivers of feedback, some teachers continued to find the act of having a genuine learning conversation challenging. It is difficult to move some teachers from a notion of feedback as being simply one-way advice or “telling”. And, a small number of participants remained reluctant to don a semi-evaluative hat and critique their colleagues’ practice even when they accepted that almost all practice (no matter how good) can be further enhanced. In order to shift deeply entrenched beliefs and long standing practices in these areas, considerable time needs to be devoted to exploring the nature and role of teacher co-learning during professional learning programmes.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, the responses from teachers in our study reiterated the importance of building teachers’ content knowledge about writing and writing pedagogy—but also the need to build teachers’ skills for engaging in professional learning conversations. Both these sets of knowledge and skills—writing-focused and professional learning-focused—are needed to promote and support changed practice in order to optimize the value of peer observation, discussion and feedback. We encourage professional educators at all levels to attend to both dimensions as they support teacher learning.


Judy.jpgJudy Parr is a Professor in the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. Both a teacher and a psychologist by training, her research programme is grounded in improvement science and focuses on enhancing professional practice and raising student achievement, particularly in literacy. Judy’s particular expertise is in writing, encompassing how writing develops and considerations of instructional issues like teacher knowledge and practice and assessment of written language. Most of Judy’s research has been larger-scale funded research, conducted collaboratively within major projects for school change and improvement.

Eleanor.jpgEleanor Hawe is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Auckland. Her research focuses in the main on assessment for learning – in particular goal setting, feedback (including peer feedback) and self-regulation. Eleanor’s recent work has addressed the development of students’ evaluative and productive expertise across a range of educational contexts and teaching subjects.

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