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A more holistic approach to PPE

Guest post by Dr Carole Davis, Head of Academic Development, Warsash School of Maritime Science and Engineering

Let me start by giving you a number: 577

If I could put it in neon lights I would. 

That number represents the number of Peer Practice Exchange episodes I have been involved in over the last ten years of my career as an academic. Never have I tired of it; in fact, its appeal and my interest in its nuances and potential have increased over time. I am not exaggerating when I claim it has made me a better teacher, academic leader and colleague. 

The act of observing teaching itself can appear an oxymoron; whilst presented as a developmental opportunity, it is often formally linked to appraisal, quality enhancement, management and assessment. The common perception is that it is one-sided, something that is done by one person to another in an arena where there is an imbalance of power. On one occasion I was referred to by one colleague as ‘The Teaching and Learning Police’ before I put them right. 

What bothers me is the assumption made by organisations that peer practice exchange is done intuitively and well, without considering what makes for constructive feedback and what informs the ensuing dialogue which should inevitably follow. This is why I am a strong advocate of establishing a consistent, whilst flexible, approach for engaging in it so there is maximum benefit for all involved. Experience has taught me that this does not happen through osmosis and that those observing colleagues appreciate a structure and guidance along with an opportunity to talk about the experience. In order to integrate it as a normative activity in our school I am leading a group of colleagues, representing the different subject areas, supporting them to hone these skills so they might become role-models and champions for Peer Practice Exchange.

The main message of this post? Adopt a more holistic approach to Peer Practice Exchange.

My research on teaching observations revealed that it is so much more than a ‘snapshot in time’ or a single hour spent in a classroom or learning environment. We need to look at ‘the bigger picture’ which is as much a collective experience as an individual experience, also often social and political. Through teaching observation we are able to gain insights into and awareness of the student experience whilst the nuances and strengths of subject specific and vocational pedagogies are thrown under the spotlight. When I embarked on the research I began with the question, ‘What do we see when we observe teaching?’ which changed in the course of the research to ‘What might we see?’ My findings showed that what we might observe is limited if we rely only on the naked eye and within a short timeframe. 

If we focus solely on the actions and competencies of an ‘individual’ within the teaching observation we are missing an opportunity to look at the meso layer, that vital middle layer that tells us so much about the health of a curriculum and the pedagogic principles embedded within it. In future blog posts I will share the framework I developed for supporting academics in challenging times, which has the potential to lead to further peer collaboration and communities of practice.  

So let us together ‘flesh out’ and give voice to the perspective of both the observer and observed, and to articulate that which is often tacit and implicit for those of us who teach, and vague for the observer.