This week our featured writer is Conrad Heyns, who shares some very elegant thoughts on peer observation, feedback and the complex question of quality assurance. Happy reading!

Peer Observations 

Conrad Heyns

I have been a teacher and a teacher trainer for over 30 years’ and realize I have now taught and trained in more places and countries than I should probably admit to. From High Schools (South Africa), to training centres (Peru), from private language schools (Australia and USA) to Higher Education (UK), this means that I don’t have the answers to all the questions, but at least I have some relevant experience to back up whatever suggestions I may make…

I currently work at the University of the Arts London (UAL) where I manage the Presessional and the Modern Language Programmes, as well as overseeing teacher development. Of these, the main challenge is the Presessional – our intake being in the region of about 700 future art, design and fashion students. We’ve put a lot of work into creating a programme that reflects the particular needs and desires of this university, hence the course has classes on similar content of comparable Presessionals, but we’ve created tasks (e.g. the London Art Project with an emphasis on presentation skills) that hopefully motivates and prepares these particular students for the academic langage and degree expectations of UAL.conrad_portrait

On both the Presessional and Modern Language programmes, I’m responsible for the observation schemes and for making sure that these schemes are meaningful and motivational as much as ticking the Quality Assurance Box.


It is this well-meaning but often bungled area of quality assurance and teacher development that I am most interested in, and in particular the unintended tensions that often arise. Any top class institution will incorporate observations into their teaching process and indeed they are almost always emphasized (or perhaps justified) as a necessity by institutions for quality assurance purpose. However, within what is initially a well-meaning impetus, the result is that teachers often see the process as an unnecessary evil.


There are those teachers that value observations as a tool for self-reflection and a starting point for further development, but often the ‘everyday’ gets in the way and teachers are caught up in administration, assessments and lesson planning. The challenge for us as managers and trainers is to harness enthusiasm from those who are keen to learn and channel it in such a way as to enthuse others in a way that the observations become a part of the development process.


Last summer we found that a peer observation scheme provided a real opportunity for teachers to get more involved. Where traditional classroom observations often focus on judgement (whatever their rubric), the result can undermine the confidence of even the most apparently self-assured. In addition, they often limit opportunities to reflect in great depth. Peer observations provide a truly useful alternative for teachers to safely let down their guard and focus on what they deep down know (because we do know…) can be improved upon.


The feedback from this peer observation scheme was overwhelmingly and reassuringly positive. We’re keen to explore the format we adopted in greater depth, to see how it can be developed further as well as being rolled out on other programmes.