Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Right now we're asking people to do two peer observations during the year, and we haven't required any reporting beyond a debriefing conversation between the participants. Within our department, though, we have had conversations in which people said what they'd like to learn more about and colleagues have suggested which teachers (in and out of our department) they should observe. That was a nice conversation, calling one another out for things we admire.
I like peer observations. They can be a great way for observed teachers to get a friendly, supportive perspective on what's happening in the classroom, and for observers to get fresh ideas and perspective on their own teaching. It's just hard to get the culture of it going--people are busy and they build it up in their minds to be this formidable thing and keep putting it off.
I swapped observations with a colleague in a different field, an experience we both learned something from and should probably repeat, and have also observed a few innovative classroom approaches in my field and others. There are several approaches where it just isn't enough to read about it. You need to see it in action to appreciate that it can work. As in your description, this was totally off the books in the sense that the feedback was only shared with the person being observed and there was no report to the Dean. I'm not even sure if we each reported it as "service" in our annual reports. And in other cases it was just done for my own benefit, to see how something is done.
But there was never a central repository of resource people for various types of classroom activities. I think it was more along the lines of "who wants to do this" as just one of several things brought up at a fall convocation, and hardly anyone stepped up because no one had even heard the idea until that morning.
It seems to be a great tool to either generally improve teaching or to tackle a persistent challenge.
Friends who have done it have told me it was very helpful.
But the success of such a program depends critically on the amount of trust that exists between the faculty and the administration. There must not even be the remotest suspicion that these peer reviews could somehow become part of the administration’s faculty performance review process, that the administration couldn’t tap into the data. This is especially important if there is retrenchment and downsizing going on. In such an environment, I would be reluctant to give a fellow faculty member anything other than a sterling review, in which I thought they literally walked on water in the classroom, if I feared that I could be putting their career at risk.
While I was working at Telecommunications Giant, our management attempted to introduce a similar sort of peer review process, in which we would be required to give feedback to our peers. Many of us felt very threatened by this idea, especially since there were layoffs going on. We feared that these peer reviews could be used by management as yet another means to justify the cutting of staff. Because of the bad feeling and the general atmosphere of distrust between staff and management, management eventually abandoned the idea.
I highly recommend this model.
(And the peer review observations sound wonderful as well. If such an opportunity were available here, I'd participate.)
Of course if a person is really paranoid, they could suspect copies are being made secretly, but if someone is sufficiently paranoid then nothing will convince them. But I assume any electronic document that passes through the university is university property (I think that officially my email belongs to the university for example, and they can look at anything that is in there), so I think suspicion of any kind of electronic reports is not just paranoia. You could try to promise in writing that you will never peek, but I've learned through my experience with insurance companies that the mostly seemingly airtight written promises can turn out to be full of loopholes...
I would choose an evaluative instrument that is more like a rubric than a performance eval. If they get a "5" or a "1" on something, they should know why. This allows some norming between different members of the team.
I had a nursing faculty member eval my hematology class once with mixed results. She expected me to have more group work and classroom participation. I think she didn't understand the content and found the course boring. This limited the usefulness of her feedback. I know you are trying to get cross pollenation but it might make sense to try to pair up people who have enough info to understand what is being taught in the course they observe.
The way we did it, there were no data and nothing was shared with the administration. It was none of their business, since the only thing they see are the results in the classroom. As you note, it can never work if the information is not completely private between the two people involved.
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