Have attitudes changed?

March 15, 2002

Peer observation of teaching is being held up as the next big quality tool. But will staff want to score one another? The THES reports.

I recently studied the introduction of peer observation in three post-92 universities and a university college from a management and a staff perspective to find out if attitudes had changed in the past decade.

The background to resistance was the turbulent industrial relations climate in the post-92 institutions in the early 1990s. After a bruising national dispute over the nature of a new national contract for lecturers, the then Department for Education and Employment imposed an element of funding "clawback" to enforce the introduction of classroom observation (as it was then called) into the lecturers' appraisals. Appraisal had yet to be introduced in most institutions and was still controversial.

There was a feeling that adding classroom observation to this untried process would doom appraisal. By a large majority, Natfhe forfeited 1 per cent of that year's pay rise, and branches set their faces against compulsory observation.

What my study found was that over the following decade the experience of systematic and ad-hoc departmental observations for quality purposes had an effect on academic attitudes.

While union and staff concerns about teaching observation focused on its potential for performance measurement and disciplinary action, the idea of observation as a quality tool was more acceptable.

Although the four institutions I studied had different managerial styles and industrial relations histories, all four had developed peer-focused, developmental, institution-wide schemes of observation that ruled out any links to performance measurement.

There was a consensus among interviewees that performance or payment linkage would sink the developmental aspects of peer observation. It was with these aspects - scope for reflecting on and improving practice, and for sharing new ideas with colleagues - where the perceived value of observation lay.

The Natfhe branches had varying levels of involvement in the development of schemes - from consultation to prolonged negotiation - but they all shared the view that they wanted to protect the peer-owned and developmental nature of their schemes. Indeed, the concern that surfaced in a number of discussions, including with people in staff development and academic standards roles, was that insufficient resources were available for embedding, support and dissemination.

It was clear that achieving changes takes time and requires a climate of commitment to teaching and learning. Staff need to feel sufficiently confident to make creative use of observation, in which they can work with colleagues, rather than just showing off their "prize session".

They need to be able to seek support and development without feeling this will single them out as a weak link. Indeed, while the cynical (or realistic?) saw peer observation as a mechanistic process to satisfy external demands, the more enthusiastic saw it as an important developmental tool, if genuinely peer-owned and properly resourced.

While observation clearly needs to be kept separate from performance measurement and disciplinary processes, it seems the more pressing question is just how seriously teaching and learning enhancement is taken by institutions increasingly driven by research success.

The benefits of POT

* Reassurance: new teaching staff particularly benefit from receiving positive feedback from a peer or mentor

* Feedback on innovations: some staff have used observation to evaluate experimentation

* Revealing hidden behaviour: important diagnostic revelations have been reported in, for example, a scheme at Harvard Business School

* Testing unease and addressing known problems: provides a forum in which lecturers can receive help from a trusted observer

* Learning as an observer: participants report they also learn watching someone else and discussing the approach with them

* Identifying staff development needs: some systems use observer feedback explicitly to open discussion about staff development to enhance practice. Benefits can also flow to the wider institution, including the spread of knowledge about and experience of good practice and the range of teaching approaches. The intangible effects of POT can also be significant. For example, teaching becomes a legitimate topic of conversation in the coffee room, opening the way for further improvements.

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