Taking Peer Feedback to Heart - ASCD
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November 1, 2012

Taking Peer Feedback to Heart

During Campus Crawl weeks, coaches and teachers visit classrooms—observing, evaluating, and exchanging ideas.

Consider how most classroom teachers receive feedback on their performance. Traditionally, a teacher gets feedback only from an administrator as part of an evaluation—often after the administrator has visited his or her classroom only once. The next observation, if there is one that year, usually isn't done until the following semester.

Would we consider this kind of feedback arrangement to be good practice with students? It's unlikely that we'd expect mastery from a student who received such paltry feedback and follow-up. Taking seriously the fact that, with the traditional arrangement, teachers don't receive enough feedback to help them grow, the leadership team at Discovery Canyon Campus developed a model through which teachers get regular feedback on classroom skills—from one another.

The Campus Crawl

One unique feature of our model is something we call "Campus Crawl." Twice a year, during designated Campus Crawl weeks, teachers use their planning time to visit other classrooms across our preK–12 campus. Each teacher must make a minimum of two visits, and we encourage teachers to observe at least one teacher from their grade level or content area and one from a different level or discipline. Teachers spend 30 or more minutes visiting each classroom. They reflect on what they observe, both in written feedback that they give the observed teacher and in their professional journals.

Having teachers exchange collegial feedback in this way gives teachers time to reflect on their own teaching while learning from one another in a nonthreatening manner. When teachers observe and learn from one another, better teaching practices, more student learning, and more positive evaluations result.

And because Discovery Canyon serves all grade levels and content areas, Campus Crawl enables our teachers to align their curriculums and share high-yield teaching ideas not only among teachers in the same grade, but also between grade levels and across disciplines. One of our middle school–level math educators gave this feedback to an elementary grade math teacher she observed:

You did a really good job with modeling at the board and having the students come up in front of the class and do some problems. I think I'll try to incorporate more student work in my room as well. I also really liked your room setup with partners. I have been trying this lately, and it does work better than the group seating chart.

Creating a Culture of Feedback

Our teachers' acceptance of the consistent mutual feedback characteristic of Campus Crawl did not evolve overnight. Campus Crawl is only one aspect of how feedback and informal peer assessments drive our teachers' growth. For years, we've intentionally created a schoolwide culture of feedback. Classroom teachers at Discovery Canyon are divided into clusters, usually by department or grade level. Once a week each cluster meets with a master teacher assigned to coach the cluster. The master teachers model either research-based teaching strategies we've identified that are aligned to a schoolwide goal or general best teaching practices.

These master teachers also train our staff in using a research-based instructional rubric that we implement schoolwide. Master teachers use this rubric in assessing the teachers they observe, teachers use it during Campus Crawl, and administrators use it during evaluative observations. Using this common language when offering feedback helps ensure that the collegial sharing of Campus Crawl is targeted and of high quality.

Our school leaders model how to constructively share suggestions with another teacher before we expect our faculty to do so. Throughout the school year, master teachers schedule times to visit and observe in the classrooms of each of their cluster members for 10 to 20 minutes. Upon leaving the classroom, the master teacher leaves a note offering feedback on what he or she observed. Generally this coach specifically praises something the teacher did well, citing evidence from the class period, then offers thought-provoking questions to help the teacher reflect on his or her methods. For example, a master teacher told a 4th grade teacher,

Your grouping strategy seemed very intentional. Assigning the role of a Quality Controller to one student enhances that student's leadership skills. How can you encourage each group to set a goal and monitor its own progress toward that goal?

Helping Teachers Reflect

The professional journals that Discovery Canyon's teachers keep are another important component of how they give and receive feedback. Teachers reflect on the comments they receive after their observations by master teachers, administrators, and peers. They process what they learned through observing others, specifically commenting on differences they noticed in teaching practice and procedures between classrooms at different levels and content areas.

Most important, teachers apply their learning by trying something new that they've observed in another classroom or have gleaned from suggestions. They may try out a new method or simply focus on doing a current practice better—or differently—and reflect on how the change is working. One teacher wrote,

During Campus Crawl, I observed a social studies teacher who had her standards and objectives for both the unit and the lesson posted in the back of her room. She intentionally posts it there not only for students' benefit, but as a reminder to refer to them throughout the lesson. … I loved it and implemented the same practice in my room. This practice was noted as my reinforcement area [an area of strength] on my next formal observation!

Teachers also use their observation feedback throughout the year as a means of assessing their progress. Because teachers so often focus on their own strengths and weaknesses as educators, fewer surprises happen during supervisor evaluations.

Instilling the Message That Everyone Improves

It's an implicit belief at our school that even the best teachers can get better. Even our master teachers, who go through an extensive application and interview process, have the potential to improve. To draw attention to this idea, our master teachers frequently have themselves videotaped as they teach a lesson. They then show this recording to their cluster group and teach them how to give meaningful feedback.

Suppose that during a cluster meeting a master teacher—we'll call her Carol—shows her group a video of herself presenting a lesson involving much questioning. During that presentation, she might ask her classroom teachers to pay attention to her questioning techniques. They might be asked to script the questions asked during the lesson and look for certain criteria, such as, Is Carol asking different levels of questions outlined by Bloom's Taxonomy? Who's answering the questions: volunteers or a mix of volunteers and nonvolunteers? Are students generating their own relevant questions?

Next, cluster members might create their own questions likely to promote self-reflection by Carol—such as, How do you differentiate questions for the various levels of learners in your classroom?—and give Carol examples of ways she could enhance questioning in that particular lesson.

Classroom teachers frequently volunteer to be videotaped and to have their peers give feedback. They're willing to do so because we strive for an intellectually safe environment where constructive criticism is valued and errors are a natural part of the learning process. Occasionally, even administrators volunteer to be videotaped while teaching a lesson. This practice demonstrates that administrators are instructional leaders foremost and that no one is above feedback.

A comment by one of our science teachers reflects how our teachers appreciate the openness to sharing:

Campus Crawl has the added benefit of building an open professional community. It's OK to drop by classrooms to check out what's going on. This also allows for people to do so at times when they know a colleague is doing something that they want to see. I have never taught in a system where that was part of the school culture.

Using Formal Observations to Build Support

In addition to the frequent visits by master teachers and the Campus Crawl, teachers are formally observed four times a year, usually for an entire class period.

Administrators conduct two of these observations, and both of these observations count toward a teacher's evaluation. These two visits are announced and preceded by a pre-observation meeting. Besides using these visits to gather overall information on a teacher's planning and instruction, the administrator gives feedback on a specific teaching standard on which that teacher has requested some guidance.

At the end of each of these evaluative observations, the observer asks the teacher for a written self-reflection on several instructional practices. In a post-observation conference, teacher and administrator together select what aspects of the teacher's practice were strong and should be reinforced and which should be refined. This professional dialogue is the main focus of our evaluations; little emphasis is placed on the teacher's actual scores.

Master teachers conduct the other two formal observations, which are nonevaluative. Their sole purpose is to provide feedback to improve instruction. We stress to teachers all year the difference between a master teacher observation and a supervisor evaluation. Master teachers have no evaluative authority and don't share their observation notes with administrators. However, the added formal observations help teachers prepare for evaluations from an administrator.

These two extended observations give the master teacher the opportunity to provide extensive feedback on a number of teaching indicators, rather than just the one indicator they focus on in weekly visits.

Post-observation conferences with master teachers feature the same protocol of sharing a strength and a weakness, coupled with specific suggestions for improvement. However, communication is typically more open than in administrator-teacher conferences, and idea sharing is more extensive. Ideas flow freely, partly because there's no pressure of evaluation and partly because the master teacher is usually fresh from the classroom and may have a larger store of ideas.

The master teacher also provides follow-up support during subsequent weekly informal observations. These multiple observations by master teachers enable them to collect evidence on more complex teaching attributes, such as the ability to teach students to problem solve. This type of feedback is hard to provide after one or two visits.

New teachers to our school quickly get used to the notion that other colleagues may be in their classroom during their lessons. Teachers know that they're getting feedback from highly competent instructional leaders, which can only enhance their craft. And because of the team approach, teachers feel supported rather than "caught" when someone points out that one of their practices isn't helpful to students.

Discovery Canyon's model of cluster meetings with master teachers, frequent observations by these coaches, and our Campus Crawl can be used in any school to provide teachers regular peer assessment and guidance, rather than one-time high-stakes evaluation. Such practices help teachers at all points in their careers.

But the model requires trust. The administration must promote the value of lifelong learning in the teaching profession, ground feedback in a common language, make time and structure for the model to succeed, and create a climate conducive to sharing knowledge.

When teachers view peer feedback as a means to enhance effectiveness rather than as an attempt to fill in deficits, a trusting relationship ensues. The focus shifts from scores to the learning process. We've discovered this makes our formal evaluation process more productive. Rather than dreading an intimidating review, teachers look forward evaluations as opportunities to demonstrate mastery.

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