Managing without Managers: The Politics of Peer Obsevations

Although peer observations are no substitute for regular observations by people with more experience and knowledge of teaching, being observed by and observing your colleagues does have some advantages even over more formal kinds of observations                                      Alex Case 2008

At Marxist TEFL we have little argument with Alex’s succinct summary of the potential of peer observations. (Peer observations taken to mean a form of professional development where teachers observe each other in order to share good practice and reflect critically on their own teaching). We do, however, wish to place the escalating enthusiasm for peer observations within a wider political framework and strike a stronger note of caution towards this practice of substituting peer observation for building real expertise in English Language Teaching,

Whilst we clearly do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we would argue that seemingly humanistic arguments often result ,in this class society of ours, in the baby being carelessly discarded and the average man and woman being forced to drink the remaining bathwater. This was certainly the case with health care reform in Britain in 1990. Using arguments from Erving Goffman’s “Assylum” and “Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, cuts in health care provision were justified under the banner of de-institualisation- “Care in the Community”. What this really meant was that the problem was dumped onto people without the training and resources to care. There were highly publicised deaths of people killed by patients lacking adequate supervision but there were also the less publicised cases of the mentally ill ending up in prisons, committing suicide, sleeping rough, etc. Despite the Labour Government abandoning this policy in 1998, the UK still lacks sufficient hospital beds and community resources to help those suffering from sever mental illness or the families who care for them.

Now we wouldn’t argue that peer observations will result in numerous deaths and misery but we would argue that we have to be extremely cautious in the face of liberal sounding policies introduced by an industry which has shown utter disregard for both teachers and learners. Naturally we are all attracted to the idea of teachers sharing expertise rather than having their knowledge and experience ignored. We are also attracted by the idea of a managerless office where no hiearchies exist.  Life, however, is clearly more complicated and, like UK Community Care legislation in 1990, we are witnessing a giant intellectual and moral fraud. 

The Rise of Peer Observation

The popularity of peer observations is most prevalent in the university system, particularly Britain, the United Stastes, Ireland and Australia, and not in primary and secondary education. The principle is clear, the university wishes to attract students with its quality teaching but those university lecturers or professors have little or no formal training in teaching. Indeed, those in charge of imparting knowledge are there because of their expertise in the field and not through their ability to transmit that expertise. A position in stark contrast to the primary and secondary education where a teacher must demonstrate both an appreciation of the complex dynamics of education and its role in society and a practical ability to actually teach. The universities have, therefore, favoured a system where lecturers pass on best practice to each other, we might call them “tricks of the trade”, thus avoiding “unnecessary time wasted” in indulging in the complexities of what truly constitutes education. Furthermore, the students in these classes have, arguably, already demonstrated both a knowledge of the area in which they will be taught further and an ability to cope with academic demands.

We believe, however, there are sufficient reasons to doubt the super-efficacy of peer observations and, like Deborah Peel (2002), ‘, we believe that teachers must engage in a critical manner with pedagogical theory and not take an instrumentalist view of sharing good practice if it is to succeed.  Moreover, even if we were to concede its effectiveness in Higher Education, which we don’t,  teaching a foreign language is hardly comparable to what happens in higher education. Firstly, the average TEFL recruit does not have a background in linguistics or education, rather their only expertise is that English is their mother tongue; and rarely can they  explain how it works. Ironically, non-native speakers who teach English have the expertise of having studied the language itself but they  find themselves discriminated against in large parts of the industry. In our opinion, it is not surprising that many countries and academies demand that teachers hold a university degree and are native speakers, otherwise there could be no claim to expertise or qualifications (let’s face it, four weeks is hardly enough time to teach a dog to fetch a ball let alone prepare someone to teach a language). The fact that these degrees often have little relation to teaching English as a foreign language is of little concern either. Furthermore, the majority of students themselves can hardly be classed as sufficiently expert in second language learning or have a high level of English before embarking on their EFL classes. Indeed, we might argue that TEFL, viewed from this perspective ,would only serve in helping students master the nuances of more idiomatic parts of the language.

This is in no way to minimise the quite considerable skills and knowledge we teachers go on to develop in this industry, nor do we wish to argue that a university degree is necessary for teaching a foreign language. We do, however, question how we come to acquire these skills and this knowledge, and how adequate these skills and theories are. Borrowing a model from a different educational system, itself open to criticism, is simply not valid given the contrasting expertise university lecturers and students hold in their particular subject matter. This model is simply a red herring, diverting attention away from the very real need to support teachers with opportunities to study and develop their expertise

Failing our students.

Finally, we would argue that the emphasis on techniques and opinions which forms the basis of peer observations ignores wider questions of culture, education and politics. For example, a recent piece from IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) , written by someone teaching young children epitomises this lack of wider perspective: Contrast the following:

 Why is it then that teachers then are so eager to tell you ”all there is to know” about certain students, even though you never asked them to? Is this a real pedagogical need between colleagues?………….I am not saying “wise” teachers are wrong., not at all, they are absolutely correct , when it comes to their world and their way of teaching and operating in their classrooms. 

 Different classrooms, different topics, different approaches to teaching and learning evoke different reactions and behaviour of students.

                                                                                         A H Habe Teacher Development Spring 2009 Issue 60

With a typical Ofsted (UK Teaching Watchdog) report of teaching at a school in the UK:

 Teaching and learning

Grade: 2 (very good)

Teaching varies in quality from satisfactory to outstanding and is good overall. There is an excellent climate for learning in all classes. This stems from teachers’ very high expectations of pupils’ behaviour together with pupils’ enjoyment of and commitment to their studies. Teachers make clear to pupils what they are expected to learn. They often use questioning and discussion to ensure that pupils have thoroughly understood what they have to do. Lessons often have good pace, and teachers increasingly use information and communication technology, such as the interactive whiteboards, to make lessons more interesting. Teachers also work closely with teaching assistants to make sure that extra help is given to those pupils who need it most. However, teaching does not consistently challenge all pupils, particularly the more able. This is because some teachers are not secure enough in their assessments of pupils’ work and consequently tasks are not always pitched at the right level.

Now we are not suggesting for one moment that ofsted is a magnificent organisation or that the state system of education is adequate (indeed we believe that ofsted has heaped politically motivated misery on many British children and teachers). However, there are issues concerning the intellectual, social and emotional development of children  (even their personal safety) that this mindless  relativism and lack of a broader picture in current TEFL teaching misses. There has to be an accountability above and beyond, “they are absolutely correct when it comes to their world”.

If this is true of children’s  EFL then it is also true of adult EFL. Enrolment figures and low costs generally drive the TEFL industry.  Peer observations fit neatly into this low cost perspective. Indeed, peer observations cannot be used to measure effectiveness, only to exchange opinions (maybe prejudices) because there is no agreed criteria against which to measure the classes. There is no wider perspective with a clear statement of values. As long as enrolment does not decline, the effectiveness of the syllabus and the teaching methods are not questioned. Enrolment being the only measure. Under peer observation the organisation does not have to continue to deepen and extend layers of experience and knowledge, capable of giving direction and support to the whole teaching staff. Peer observation wraps itself in cuddly relativistic notions of learner-centred learning while ignoring the possibility of developing real expertise and learning. 

Here at Marxist TEFL we believe that current training for EFL teachers is a scandal, both prior to taking up posts and after. There is a considerable knowledge and skills base among teachers which can and should be shared but only as part of a drive towards improving expertise and not simply “swapping ideas”. Indeed peer observation is effectively deskilling and not training, replacing experience and training with ineffective short cuts. We would like to see proper in-service training, mentoring schemes for new trainees and paid educational and research sabbaticals for long term staff: You may think us idealist in this respect but our arguments are truly humanistic and based on the needs of learners and not of lowering costs. Should managers try to impose such observations, we strongly suggest you refuse to do them unless they form part of a proper professional development programme.

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2 responses to “Managing without Managers: The Politics of Peer Obsevations

  1. Jon

    Your average private language school proprietor probably isn’t a Marxist, but your proposals (proper in-service training etc.) would serve their profit motives as well. How many classes have you seen where a substantial proportion of the students have left because the teacher doesn’t know how to do the job properly?

  2. marxistelf

    Beenmullimg over what you say for quite some time now. Your point could go right to the heart of how TEFL operates. Firstly, in the era of late monopoly capitalism, competition between giant concentrated capitals is not so great and price fixing in industry rather than price cutting is the order of the day. The giant teaching enterprises like the British Council, International House and Berlitz have done little to raise the standards of teaching (in fact the latter have done their utmost to lower them). They have, however, spent more and more on publicity, slick websites, etc. And here is the point, very few language academies are offering anything different.

    Secondly, the giant TEFL publishers have concentrated their market on producing easier and easier material to be readilly employed in the classroom. English File is the extreme end of this.

    Finally, this is all wrapped up in the jargon of student-centred learning, where teaching expertise (i.e knowledge of the subject) is to be frowned upon. This allows schools and publishers to charge students more and more but actually to give less and less. From cabinet makers to IKEA- this is the long “democratic” journey we have followed.

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