Let's learn from each other

1st February 2008 at 00:00

Is learning from each other an effective method of inservice training for teachers? Helen Ward assesses the latest trend of peer coaching.

Peer coaching is one of those management buzz phrases being mocked on The TES website. But unlike other gobbledegook you might come across on training days, this one is here to stay: primary heads are getting pound;150 million over the next three years to develop it.

In its simplest form, peer coaching means staff working together to plan and develop their own ways of improving an aspect of their teaching. And it is growing in popularity. It is already widely used in further education, and will be one of the main ways of training teachers in assessing pupils' progress under the Primary National Strategy.

Sally Walsh introduced peer coaching to Mayespark Primary in Ilford, north-east London, in 2004, when she was deputy headteacher.

Two teachers work together to plan three research lessons aimed at improving a particular aspect of their teaching. One teaches, the other observes and afterwards they analyse the results together. After three lessons, their findings are disseminated to the rest of the staff.

"It takes resourceful management," says Mrs Walsh, now associate headteacher. "You need to release teachers to plan together and, after the lesson, to have quality dialogue. That is the key to any peer learning - that quality discussion. That's where the learning takes place."

The main advantage of peer coaching is that it involves staff directly in what they are learning. They are far more likely to remember something they have discovered for themselves than something they were taught on a course, which can very easily stay remote from their classroom practice.

In the 1970s, evaluations of staff training found that as few as 10 per cent of those who went on courses implemented what they had learnt.

Pete Dudley, director of the Primary National Strategy, agrees: "Leadership of professional learning is more complex than sending people on a course. The challenge is creating time for it to happen."

Mayespark gets round this by using floating teachers to cover for staff involved in peer coaching.

Once the logistical problems have been sorted, there are other challenges for heads to deal with.

"The most important thing before you begin peer coaching," says Chris Haines, a coach from Essex who specialises in education, "is to remember `I'm not giving advice.'

"It's very hard for teachers because that's what they do all the time. They have to learn to manage that instinct because every time you give advice, you take away a learning opportunity."

Not only do some people find it hard to stop giving advice; others may not wish to receive it - at least not from their colleagues.

"It helps if you have staff who are receptive to peer coaching," says one anonymous teacher on The TES website. "We have at least two who believe that their peers are beneath their dignity."

Even among people who seem to work well together, there may be a fear of sneaks or slackers.

"In my school," says one TES website contributor, "it will be yet another opportunity for people to lie to help each other."

At Mayespark, Mrs Walsh overcame this by making it clear from the start that teachers would have to give a joint presentation about what they had learnt, to introduce an element of accountability.

Another solution might be to sit in on peer coaching, but Mrs Walsh thinks this would not be conducive to progress. "To observe it would ruin the whole thing because it's not something to be judged on," she says. "The teachers working together learn because it feels safe; they trust each other."

Mayespark is now working on Assessment for Learning, which means using assessments of pupils' work to raise their achievement. It is based on the idea that pupils will improve most if they understand the aim of their learning, how they are progressing and what they have to do to achieve the aim or close the gap in their knowledge.

In the past, Mrs Walsh let staff decide what they needed to work on and made it clear that any peer coaching would be separate from their performance management.

"Teachers chose areas they found difficult," she says. One pair looked at mental arithmetic exercises. "That was part of classroom practice they felt they were not doing very well.

"If I had been doing an observation, they wouldn't have done that because they'd want to show me something they do really well.

"Teachers need to take risks to improve practice. They know what they do well and what they don't. The plus point of peer coaching is that they are really motivated to improve by working with a colleague on an equal footing."

But the technique is not suitable for everyone or every situation.

"There is nothing wrong with mentoring and mentors," says Mr Haines. "With newly qualified teachers, you don't use peer coaching because they do need advice."

So why are primary heads now getting the cash to implement it?

It is all part of Assessment for Learning. The assessment area of the primary framework website was relaunched this week and teachers are to be trained in how to make accurate assessments of children's progress, first at key stage 2 and next year in key stage 1.

Already schools have been told that pound;50 million is being pumped into the project each year for three years. Teachers will be trained, not on courses but through classroom-based learning, by leading teachers, coaching teachers and by teachers working together to plan lessons and coach each other.

"It is clear that peer coaching has the most dramatic impact on classroom practice," says Mr Dudley. "If you have CPD without collaborative classroom practice, you might as well not bother."

- www.standards.dcsf.gov.ukprimaryframeworksassessment; www.tes.co.uk


- Be careful of personality clashes.

- Ask for volunteers. Their enthusiasm is likely to be infectious.

- You must budget for covering not just the coached lessons, but for the planning before and the assessment afterwards.

- Ensure that performance management is kept separate from the coaching process.

- Set up a system of disseminating the end result to the rest of your staff so that everyone benefits from what has been learnt.


- In 1980, Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers, US academics, proposed peer coaching as a method of teacher training.

- In 1996, they wrote a paper, "The Evolution of Peer Coaching", which said: "Many believe that the essence of the coaching transaction is to offer advice to teachers following observations. Not so. Rather, teachers learn from one another while planning, developing support materials, watching one another work with students, and thinking together about the impact of their behaviour on their students' learning."

- By 2002, they found that coached teachers practise new strategies more often and with greater skill, adapting them more appropriately and retaining their skills over time.

- In 2001, HM inspectors found that most in-service training involved going on a course.

- In 2002, three academics at Manchester University surveyed 718 primary and 645 secondary teachers. Peer coaching was mentioned by 9 per cent. This rose to 11 per cent in 2003. By 2004, it was 20 per cent. The researchers found that secondaries were three times less likely to have in-school development than primaries.

- On the tricky subject of getting reluctant colleagues involved in peer coaching, a 2005 study at the Institute of Education had this to say: "Schools working with colleagues who have little or no inclination to work with others should consider creating and resourcing opportunities for teachers to participate in continuing professional development in partnership with one or more colleagues. Schools should consider paying attention to the potential benefits of collaboration when trying to meet the needs of disaffected or demotivated colleagues."

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