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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part One – Using peer observation

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Peer reviewZarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. Since 2000, she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina now spends her time divided between teacher training, materials writing, trainer training and presenting at conferences.

 “When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon, we weren’t thinking about looking back at the earth. But now we’ve done it, that may have been the most important reason we went.” – reported by David Beaver, co-founder of Overview Institute.

Similarly, when we go into the classroom, as teachers, our total focus is to help our students to learn. But unlike the astronaut, who was quoted, many of us fail to look back. We can become so focused on the job of teaching that we don’t reflect often enough on how we can develop ourselves.

Let’s consider a question. What’s your ultimate goal as a teacher? Many would say they want to help their students be the very best they can be. However, the reality that many language teachers face is that they cannot always engage their students in what they are teaching. They feel they have to teach to the test, or cannot cover everything in the book in the time allocated. Not enough feel like they may be ‘making a difference’.

This is the first of a series of six articles designed to help teachers develop themselves, in order to make a real difference to their students. I’ll be suggesting ways you can boost class participation, and encourage your students to really experiment with the language they are learning.

So, where to start? It can be very helpful to begin by objectively considering how you teach, by being observed. Classrooms are a teacher’s territory and if observations are done as a form of inspection or prerequisite to promotion, it can be very stressful. However, if you invite a close teacher friend into your territory, it is quite a different matter. It allows you to ‘see yourself’ through another professional’s eyes, and a professional who is non-threatening at that.

I suggest asking a colleague (preferably in the same school as you) if they would be willing to partner up with you. It could be as informal as “I don’t really think I teach p.68&69 in the Grade 6 book very well. Would you be interested in seeing how I do it? Could you share any of your ideas with me?”

Although it won’t be assessed, it will still probably cause a bit more anxiety than if it were just you and your students. So be sure to plan to do it a little way into the future and not just “next Tuesday”, only to realise it is parents’ evening the same night…

When discussing and arranging your time to be observed, you should also negotiate when you can observe your colleague in return. If you make it a two-way observation, you are effectively both agreeing to be open and honest with each other and discarding all barriers. It is also fair.

More importantly, observing, mentoring and listening to, as well as giving feedback can be a very beneficial process that leads to some reflective time and consideration on how to do things differently. When you see how others teach exactly what you teach, it provides a real chance for you to try out new things. These changes you make, however small, refresh your teaching.

Before observing someone, there are certain things that need to be in place. Make sure you understand what the other teacher is hoping to gain from the experience and also what they hope to achieve for their learners. It can be helpful to ask them to write a lesson plan, even if they don’t normally do so for every class they teach. This is because it is good to understand what led to the lesson you observe. A lesson plan also gives the teacher the chance to point out ‘known difficulties’, whether these are particular students, or specific things about the class the observer needs to be aware of.

In addition, a lesson plan allows the observer to have some questions in mind before the lesson begins. For example, “Why is this activity not happening till the end? I would’ve used it at the beginning!” They are questions that shouldn’t be asked before the observation because you could make the teacher feel unsure of themselves, but hopefully will be answered by what is evident in the classroom. And of course, a lesson plan is equally important to provide for your teacher friend who is going to observe you. Remember to keep things equal.

Make sure you always thank the person you observe at the end, and highlight the positive things that you saw. If they asked you for constructive criticism, give it, but remember it should be useful and more constructive that critical. Be sure to take notes and get yourself organised before speaking to them.

What kind of things should you note? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Level of anxiety / stress in the classroom
  2. Levels of differentiation and learning
  3. Method of questioning to increase student participation
  4. Listening to students and clarifying what is said
  5. How cognitively challenging are activities for the students?

It’s a good idea to also provide some points that you would like the other teacher to look for in your lessons, so when you are observed, you too benefit from the experience. When this is done effectively and efficiently, both teachers usually benefit so much that they implement it at other times and it becomes a peer observation tool for self-development. It works when all things are fair and equal.

This way, we can deal with our students’ learning and also our own, by putting into place a method of looking back and reflecting like the astronaut who went to the moon. Ours is just as epic a journey and I hope you will join me in my next blog post. I’ll be exploring anxiety in the classroom, both for teachers and students, and how you can reduce it to improve class participation.

This article first appeared in the June 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

3 thoughts on “Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part One – Using peer observation

  1. Great criteria suggestions. Especially liked levels of anxiety and how cognitively challenging the activities are.

    I would also add rating the percentages of Teacher and Student(s) Talk time which shows a lot about the confidence of the teacher and the motivation of the individuals students to participate. It is also interesting to get a general feel of the length of the communication exchanges (a bit like a rally in tennis) and the interaction levels between students – which I believe relates to your question 3.

    I agree that the reviewer and teacher should negotiate the criteria and would add that the students need to be consulted in advance as to what is expected of them. As you suggest, the observed lesson should be a win win for reviewer, teacher and student in the end for there to be value (something to check with feedback mechanisms).

    Really looking forward to the next blog about how to reduce Anxiety.
    Kind Regards

  2. Reblogged this on teachconnectlearn and commented:
    All eyes on me…
    Peer observation really works!

  3. I totally agree with this blog…
    I can illustrate these ideas with my own experience…
    During my first years teaching professionally I was terrified by the idea of being observed… Studying at university and being observed by your professor is totally different from being actually working as a teacher and being observed by one of your colleagues….
    But it’s undeniable the great benefit this has on your teaching… From preparing your lesson plans to the feedback… All that process does help the teacher to ‘boost’ EVERYTHING in class… Students and teachers will notice the difference!
    Thank you for the reminder!!

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