Issues in Educational Research, 9(1), 1999, 1-14.

Teacher renewal, peer observations and the pursuit of best practice

John Buchanan & Mon Khamis
University of Western Sydney, Nepean
The dynamics of teacher change have been extensively documented in recent literature (eg Hargreaves, 1994; Joyce & Showers, 1988; Huberman, 1995). This paper describes some of the processes of change identified during a research project undertaken in order to identify and maximise best practice in teaching. Of the models identifying best practice existent within the literature, one was used to develop an instrument for describing excellence as it emerged in the pedagogy of 25 teachers at four western Sydney schools. Teachers observed one another, and observers provided their colleagues with feedback on the strengths of the teaching they had witnessed. As part of an evaluation of the project, teachers were invited to provide feedback on the impact of the peer observations. Two years after the observations, teachers at one of the participating schools were interviewed, in order to ascertain the permanence of the processes adopted during the study, and the teachers' attitudes to it in retrospect.


While teaching, like many professions, has recently come under increasing public scrutiny (eg. Seddon, 1997), it remains a largely isolated profession, sheltered from scrutiny by others. The importance of teacher collaboration is widely documented (eg Hargreaves, 1994; Joyce & Showers, 1988; Nias, 1988) in enhancing personal and professional development, through processes such as offering moral support, sharing ideas and forming lobby groups.

In 1996, the (then) NSW Department of School Education, funded a project aiming to identify excellence in teaching. Teachers observed one another and provided feedback on successful approaches and practices. This report traces the project's development, documenting some of the dynamics which led to changes in perceptions of and approaches to teaching among the participants.

The project did not seek to define a generic optimal practice (see McGaw, Banks & Piper, 1991). According to Sternberg and Horvath (1995, p.9), "there is no well-defined standard that all experts met and that no nonexperts meet". Actual elements of best practice are not the central focus of this paper, and are discussed only briefly.

Reports from the literature

Teacher renewal

Change is a slow process, often met with strident resistance (Louden & Wallace, 1996; Boston, 1997; Eltis & Mowbray, 1997). Certain aspects of professional development have exacerbated resistance to change. Some inservicing has been 'deficit' in philosophy, 'remediating' teacher shortcomings (Hargreaves, 1994) rather than recognising their expertise as the school's greatest resource (Ingvarson & Chadbourne, 1994). Moreover, the importance of the teacher as learner has consistently been underestimated (Sarason, 1990; Smylie, 1995), overlooking teachers' preexisting pedagogical constructs. Compounding this, initiatives for change are often compromised and frustrated by political, economic and other constraints (NSW DE, 1998).

Developing best practice through peer interaction

The centrality of the teacher in focused, purposeful and effective, educational reform can scarcely be overstated (eg West, 1998; Redman & Mackay, 1994; NSW DE, 1998).). The Australian Effective Schools Project (McGaw, Piper, Banks & Evans, 1992) widely distributed questionnaires to Australian schools. More than two thirds of responses nominated teachers as the sine qua non of effective education (Banks, 1992). Smylie (1995, p.94) underscored the significance of teacher learning for student learning , contending that
If we wish to improve schools as places for teachers to learn, we need to be able to identify those workplace conditions that promote or constrain learning. Furthermore, we need to specify which teacher learning outcomes we wish to promote.
Owing to professional busyness and demands, teachers often have little time and energy to reflect on their own (Schoen, 1983) or others' practice. It appears, too, that the prevailing culture among teachers tends to extinguish opportunities for talk about pedagogy. West (1998) observed a paucity of teacher talk about teaching and learning styles, amid a sea of conversations about school structures, students, policies, resources, management etc. This represents a lost opportunity, in West's opinion, for collegial support and development. In her experiences with professional interaction among teachers, Nias, (1998, p 1261) describes praise and recognition of others as "the interpersonal attribute both most valued and most noticeable for its absence". Nias (1998, p.1269) also refers to collaborative situations which enable teachers to
assist one another's daily work, confirm yet extend one another's basic assumptions about education and its purposes, widen one another's professional horizons and responsibilities, provide for one another an experience of independence within interdependence, and offer one another attention, esteem and affection.
Peer observations are one way of recognising the expertise which teachers bring to their profession. Such an approach is of benefit to novice and experienced teachers alike (Joyce and Showers, 1988). As the NSW Department of Education and Training (1998, p.32) asserts, effective models of professional development
aim to support the learning of beginning teachers by creating settings in which novices enter professional practice by working with expert practitioners, allowing these expert practitioners to renew their own professional development and assume new roles as mentors, faculty adjuncts and teacher leaders.
Putting teachers in front of each other in the execution of their teaching leads to better identification of their colleagues', and by extension, their own strengths. Observing and being observed is likely to lead teachers to become 'students of their own teaching' (Henderson, 1992), by interrogating their own teaching practices, in search of further improvement. Joyce and Showers (1988, pp.119, 120) noted that collaboration between teachers led to the adoption of new approaches more frequently, more appropriately, more permanently, and with greater understanding. Such teachers were also more likely to pass on their new-found learning to their students.

Identifying best practice

The concept of best practice is an elusive one. Studies of success in teaching appear to centre on teacher qualities, skills and behaviours, as well as the establishment of optimal classroom conditions for learning. Favourable teacher qualities include fairness, open-mindedness, confidence, enthusiasm, a positive attitude and sense of humour (Batten, 1993, Khamis, 1993, Ogden, 1994). Desirable behaviours and skills include efficiency and diligence, the ability to elicit inductive reasoning in students and to vary approaches to learning, extensive content knowledge, clear communication, clarity of goals, knowledge of students, observation and reflective analysis (Lang, 1991, Dawson, 1994, Jensen & Templeton, 1993, Ziechner and Liston, 1996; Hopkins, Ainscow & West, 1994; Sternberg & Horvath, 1995). Conditions needed for effective learning include the establishment of an environment conducive to risk-taking (education being "an adventure of the self" (Goodlad, 1997, p.155)), the establishment of authentic relationships with students, the maintenance of appropriate boundaries and expectations, a range of teaching approaches, self evaluation of teaching, discussions with other teachers, the unconditional valuing of students' backgrounds, and purposeful collaboration (NSW DSE, 1994; Batten; 1993; Khamis, 1993; West, 1998).

Some researchers have developed schemata based on teacher attributes. For the purpose of brevity, the structures of each schema will not be explored here. Such schemata include integrated curricula, thoughtful instruction, active learning, reflective transfer and authentic assessment (Fogarty, 1995), knowledge, analysis, action and reflection (Maryland State Department of Education, 1994), instructional modes, strategies, methods and skills (Lang, 1991) and planning and preparation, the classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities (Danielson, 1996). These intersect with themes common to most or all of the domains, including equity, cultural sensitivity, high expectations and appropriate use of technology. In the Australian context, Louden and Wallace (1996, p.x) refer to a model which groups teacher attributes under five headings: using and developing professional knowledge and values; communicating, interacting and working with students and others; planning and managing the teaching and learning process; monitoring and assessing student progress and learning outcomes, and; reflecting, evaluating and planning for continuous improvement. The attributes nominated by Evans (1992) include teaching and learning, interaction, and personal characteristics. As can be seen from the preceding paragraphs, many of these models are characterised more by commonality than by divergence, with depth of knowledge, positive interrelationships and teacher reflection, among others, being common to many.

In a schema similar to that of McGaw et al (1992), Khamis (1993) discerned 13 attributes of effective teachers, categorised under the headings of: personal qualities; development of the learning environment; teacher expectations, and; catering for individuals. These are discussed in further detail below.

Conduct of the study

Twenty-five teachers from four schools in Sydney's west participated in this study. Schools and teachers volunteered to take part. The schools are all in relatively low socio-economic suburbs, including some of Sydney's most disadvantaged areas. Each school caters for students from a range of ethnic and language backgrounds. All of the participating teachers agreed to be observed by a colleague on four occasions. The lessons covered a range of subjects, across a variety of contexts.

Following each observation, a conversation took place between the observed and observing teachers, focusing on the observed strengths of the previous lesson. In an effort to avoid masking diversity of responses, no interview schedule was used, but to give the responses some 'structure', interview transcripts were codified according to a framework developed from Khamis (1993). These are: Personal attributes (positive attitude to pupils, fair dealings with pupils, respect for pupils, enthusiasm); Learning environment (praise of pupils' work, structured lesson plans, variety in teaching strategies, effective management, maximising learning); Teacher expectations (high expectations of pupils, awareness of aims of lessons, long term goals), and: Catering for individuals (awareness of personal development, catering for individual needs).

Lesson content was not under investigation here. While such matters are important (Hopkins, Ainscow & West, 1994), it was presumed that teachers were working within the constraints of curriculum guidelines.

Subsequent to the data collection, the process was evaluated (Sargent, 1996). Teachers were asked to reflect on their participation in the program, and on its impact on their teaching. This evaluation employed a questionnaire containing open ended and Likert scale questions, in five conceptual groups: previous reflective practices; program-related experiences; opinions on the value of the program; outcomes and; resulting colleague relationships. Two years after the initial observations, three of the four teachers remaining at one of the schools were interviewed, giving them opportunity to express their reflections on the process, and the extent to which the practice was being maintained.


Observations and interviews

In all, 468 comments were codified from the interview transcripts. The table below illustrates the dispersion of these.

Criterion group No of entries% of total
Personal attributes 5912.6
Learning environment 29262.4
Teacher expectations 347.3
(attention to) Individuals 8317.7

As can be seen from the above data, the learning environment constitutes the most important aspect of teaching according to participants' responses. The next most important component was considered to be attention to individuals. This is not surprising, as these are more 'visible' characteristics than personal attributes and teacher expectations, and are therefore more evident in classroom observations. A brief outline of the four criterion groupings follows, illustrated, where appropriate, with teacher comments.

In terms of personal attributes, the most commonly observed quality was the unconditional acceptance of student responses and contributions. One teacher commented that as a result, her students "are never worried about being made fools of". Beyond this, students' contributions are a valuable resource in their own right. One teacher observed "I think it's great to take their ideas on board and run with them". This is true in matters of management as well as academic contributions, particularly since children's sense of fairness is so acute. "It's important to let them know we're not infallible either" said one teacher, reflecting on her admission to a child that she had wrongly accused her. Similarly, acknowledgment of students' backgrounds is useful both in boosting confidence and enriching learning opportunities. Teachers drew on their students' ethnicity, parents' professional backgrounds, and, in one instance, a student's predilection for reading the newspaper.

Emphasising children's worth and building their self confidence enhances the learning environment, and, in particular, the creation of an academically risk-friendly milieu. "I have really been trying to improve their self esteem and self confidence ... because I really want to start taking risks" commented one teacher. While perhaps not as infectious as criticism, praise will tend to be 'caught' by the students, as they model teacher behaviour. Praise of students was one of the most commonly noted teacher behaviours during the observations.

Structured, logically sequenced and manageable steps in lessons were found to make learning more effective, as was variety in teaching strategies. Approaching the one concept from a number of angles served as a reinforcement, while catering for students' differing preferred learning styles, "providing not only variety to the lesson, but excitement as well" observed one teacher. These approaches assist in maximising the students' learning. The main themes which emerged in terms of enhancing learning were those of student ownership of, and responsibility for, learning. Teachers also observed that their peers were aware of constraints such as interruptions, the weather, time of day etc, and the effects these had on students' capacity to learn; the observers reported that their peers demonstrated a capacity to respond sensitively and appropriately to the resulting cognitive ebb and flow.

Classroom management was seen to be essential for safety, order, and effective learning. In the experience of these teachers, effective management consisted more in broadening, rather than constricting student choice and responsibility. This includes according students responsibility for devising and solving research questions, as well as classroom set-up and procedures. Nevertheless, several teachers commented that expectations, once set or negotiated, need to be consistently reinforced, for the sake of fairness and to maximise compliance. Discipline problems were rare in the observed classrooms. This may be partly due to the presence of another teacher in the room, but it is clear that not all the children are consistently compliant. One teacher remarked on a child who kicks holes in the walls at home, whereas, "he'd never do that in class". She attributed the children's good behaviour to the positive reinforcement they receive at school.

Much of the above assumes high teacher expectations of students. Teachers spoke of students 'growing into' the responsibilities and expectations put on them. "In the long run, they become more accountable and use better strategies for their learning" commented one teacher. Another teacher illustrated long-term outcome in saying "if we're going to have good communicators in the future, it needs to start from a very young age". Naturally, while expectations need to be high, they also need to be realistic. This necessitates an awareness of personal development, at a corporate and an individual level. Teachers observed influencing factors such as ethnic background, gender and learning preference.

In summary, the findings seem to underscore the classroom as a 'learning community' (Kemmis, 1994), one which is friendly to learners and learning.


In response to the evaluation questionnaire, most respondents indicated that although reflective practice was not new to them, the program gave them new opportunities for interrogating their teaching. Many agreed strongly with the statement, "Articulating my reflections to a colleague was beneficial to my understanding what really happens in the classroom".

On the other hand, there seem to have been fewer ongoing effects. The statement "I am more likely to collaborate with colleagues and share ideas now" met with only moderate agreement. One respondent felt that there was insufficient time for profound 'second order' changes to occur. The program does appear to have facilitated changes in classroom practice, however. Respondents spoke of being armed with more strategies, and with "activities that relate to my understanding of how children learn". Another teacher said that the program "allowed me to explore my philosophical beliefs/values and also the theories I include in my teaching". Other observations included the positive nature of the observations gave at least one teacher a greater freedom and confidence to "speak positively about my teaching practices". Other respondents spoke of the resulting increase in variety of teaching strategies, and more informed decisions leading to their choice, as well as reflection on their own practice.

Reflections two years on ...

One of the three teachers interviewed two years after the initial observations was still involved in a team of observers. She indicated that about one third of the staff were so involved. Peer observations and discussions take place on a voluntary basis. The school sets aside 'mentor time', for teachers who wish to reflect on their teaching in this way. "It's something you don't often do if it's left in your own time" said one of the teachers.

As the teachers reflected on the process of the peer observations (past and present), a number of outcomes emerged. These impacted on the relationships among staff, as well as between staff and students. The observations were beneficial for host and guest teachers alike. One teacher recalled, "reflecting back on your own teaching even when somebody's observing you - you learn so much". Another said, "we were talking about the different ways teachers were doing things in their classrooms ... it helped us, too". The process stimulated discussion among teachers, beyond the structured post-observation conversations. One teacher recalled, "There was one infants teacher I hadn't spoken to a lot before [the observations]. I got to chatting to her after school about lesson plans etc".

The observations gave teachers access to new strategies, content material and resources. In addition, some teachers witnessed the successful use of strategies that they themselves would previously have rejected. The observations also allowed the teachers to view a range of school grades, which helped them place their own students' personal development in context. The teachers found themselves using a wider range of strategies after the observations.

The observations drew teachers closer together through an enhanced sense of empathy: "You understand better what they're going through in the classroom, you can empathise more". The process also facilitated a sense of solidarity among the teachers. Said one, "People you observed, you trusted anyway, but the bond was made a little bit stronger", suggesting the importance of a pre-existing bond of trust. One of the teachers observed, "I felt comfortable with the other [observing] teachers, because we get along very well". In short, the observations served to dispel some of the sense of isolation experienced by teachers. According to one, "They're reflecting on their own teaching ... they're not teaching on their own".

Teachers recalled that the observations served as a motivation to ensure thorough preparation prior to lessons. "When someone is observing you, you become more aware of your own teaching practices, and it encourages that accountability factor" said one. This not only contributed to high levels of teacher confidence, but freed to teacher to "get beyond [classroom] management" and concentrate on issues such as clarification of outcomes with students. One of the teachers reported being more self conscious than would otherwise be the case. Of others, he said, "at first some were a bit apprehensive", but added that they felt more relaxed after several minutes into the lesson.

An important facet of the post-observation discussions was that they were limited to observations of the lessons' strengths. "Often you don't get many positive comments. You always find you're your own harshest critic, too" said one teacher. Moreover, some teachers found themselves being praised for elements of their teaching they had taken for granted. Apart from boosting their self esteem, such comments allowed these teachers to employ these strategies more deliberately. Concentrating on positives flowed over into teachers' classroom practice, where they found themselves observing and affirming previously subliminal virtues of their students. By the same token, post-lesson discussions gave teachers scope to discuss what they would do differently in lessons, a valuable process, according to those interviewed.

The realistic context was also valued by the teachers. "It's happening in the real classroom", said one teacher, "as opposed to some videos, where you have 'perfect students' - that just ends up alienating you". It was more beneficial and practical than much of the other inservice material they had encountered. Comments included "some [inservices] you walk out of half asleep", and "you learn more in 30 minutes observing somebody else's lesson than you would in three full days of an inservice".

The presence of observers had a positive effect on the students. This was partly attributed to an already positive rapport between staff and students. Having an observer made the students feel important. It was explained to them that the process was to help them, by helping to find out more about how we learn.

The outcomes were well illustrated by one teacher, who said,

It makes you change your strategies. It makes you reflect, instead of just going home thinking it's fine, but you become more conscious of what you do and how you'd change it - what are the benefits and what are the negatives, and building up on them and working out what's best for your classroom.
The one teacher still engaged in peer observations is part of a team of several teachers. She outlined some of the benefits for her. The observations enable her to "Sit down and allowed time in our programming format to discuss things we've done". The team of which she is a part consists of various grade teachers, which, "Helps you to better understand what other teachers are doing with their classes, and what to expect of each age group. It also helps you to be more consistent as a staff". Overall, the peer observations appear to have drawn from a combination of the commonality and solidarity among staff, as well as their varying viewpoints and differing strengths.

In the light of these positive comments, it would seem regrettable that the practice of peer observations of this kind was not more widespread. Time was the major constraining factor in implementing the observations. At the school, release time is consumed by other teaching and administrative responsibilities. A particular disappointment for these teachers was that older and more experienced teachers were cynical and hesitant to become involved. The teachers suggested that this may be due to fear of, for example, not using computers. But "older teachers can help the young ones, and if they're not willing to get involved, they're shutting the door on something". While the observations are seen as having particular benefit for neophyte teachers, all can benefit. "The best learning is what goes on here", said one teacher, indicating the classroom in which we were sitting. One teacher underscored the abundance of expertise in the school, observing, "There are teachers in the school, and you walk past their room and everybody's perfect and you see this great work they're putting in. I'd like to see how they do that". He added that one teacher "had fantastic art work. I'd just like to see how she organises it, but she wouldn't have anyone in the class". Another problem is the high teacher attrition rate through transfers. Nonetheless, other schools and students stand to benefit from the experience thus gained.

Conclusions and implications for further research

Teaching need not be the psychologically lonely profession that it often is. Without sufficient time for reflection, teachers may regress to a minimalism of practice and attitude. The model outlined in this study is a relatively cost effective form of teacher inservice, requiring little equipment and virtually no outside expertise. It does involve teachers being present in each other's classes, necessitating an increase in release from face to face teaching, with its inherent costs.

Such collaboration is a public declaration of the teachers' membership of the learning community. Another positive aspect of this method of inservice is its grass-roots nature. Teacher ownership of change is crucial (Hargreaves, 1994; Joyce & Showers, 1988). The process undertaken in this research project gave teachers not only a sense of ownership, but empowered them with a sense of agency, as they became facilitators of change in their colleagues' and in their own teaching. This is particularly important in an age where teachers are being seen as technicians, employed to implement the educational visions of others (FitzGerald, 1997; NSW DE, 1998). An approach such as this enables teachers to situate their new-found knowledge and experiences in the context of their classrooms (Smylie, 1995).

This approach has other benefits. It is 'divergent' in that it does not lead to a predetermined set of outcomes (Hattam & Smyth, 1995). It is also communal and reciprocal. There is scope for the observer to later be the observed. It does not employ the 'imported expert'. It focuses on classroom procedures, which may otherwise remain a hidden part of the school improvement equation.

Some teachers may feel more threatened by the presence of a colleague than that of a stranger, but the colleague-observer has no power of hiring and firing (Billing, 1994). McRae (1994, p.154) speaks of those who seek to "control, if not punish, the teaching profession for its alleged failures and who see appraisal as a means to do so". Moreover, the task of those observing was to report only on elements of excellence in teaching. Observed teachers reported being motivated to perform their best. While the extent of change among teachers appears to be incremental, it may be that some of these changes have been incorporated subliminally into their teaching.

This is not to dismiss other forms of inservice. While much professional development has disregarded the classroom as the epicentre of educational exchange, there is a risk that a process such as this, in the absence of other sources of professional development, could create a self-contained school unit, overlooking educational theory, and its potential for interface with classroom practice. Nevertheless, as stated earlier, teacher renewal is a central precondition for school renewal. "It is good teachers who make good schools, much more than the reverse" (Ingvarson, 1997, p.32).

The need for and benefits of such an approach, however, are clear. Nias (1998, pp.1258, 1259) describes the teachers with whom she worked: "Anxious, exhausted and guilty, they felt themselves becoming narrow-minded and petty, self-conceptions which compounded their lack of technical self-confidence". On the other hand, Measor and Sikes (1992, p.210) affirm the value in uncovering "evidence from the lives of others that we are not alone in our difficulties, pains, pleasures and needs", through working with sympathetic others.


This paper reports essentially on a project funded by the (then) Sydney Metropolitan West Region of the NSW Department of School Education. Its success is due in no small way to the assistance of principals, staff, students and parents of four schools in the region.


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Authors: John Buchanan is a part-time lecturer and research assistant in the school of Lifelong Learning and Educational Change, at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean. His research interests include curricular change and intercultural education.

Dr Mon Khamis is a retired lecturer in Education from University of Western Sydney, Nepean. His research interests include preservice and inservice professional development.

Please cite as: Buchanan, J. & Khamis, M. (1999). Teacher renewal, peer observations and the pursuit of best practice. Issues in Educational Research, 9(1), 1-14.

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