Interdisciplinary peer observation as an approach to share best practice across the arts and sciences in design/project-based learning

Mark Clements

The aim of the project is to develop, pilot and evaluate a framework for cross-college Peer Observation of Teaching. The project will focus on sharing of best practice in design/project-based learning across the art and science disciplines. The objectives are to:
– Develop a framework for cross-college Peer of Observation of Teaching between the Colleges of Art and Science;
– Recruit and support participants to undertake a series of Peer Observation of Teaching sessions across the art and science disciplines focusing on design/project-based learning;
– Evaluate the new model of cross-college Peer Observation of Teaching framework and assess the impact on design/project-based learning practices within both Colleges.
Peer Observation of Teaching often refers to a range of reflective activities between colleagues designed to enhance the quality of learning & teaching (Blackwell & McLean 1996; Cosh, 1998; Hammersely-Fletcher & Orsmond, 2004; Bell & Cooper 2013). Peer Observation of Teaching has become an established part of institutional quality assurance processes as a means of examining the effectiveness of the educational provision and disseminating best practice (Hendry and Dean, 2002; Shortland, 2004; McMahon, Barrett and O‟Neill, 2007). Different models of Peer Observation of Teaching have been developed with most focusing on the observation of teaching between close colleagues within the same department (Gosling & D’Andrea, 2001; Bell & Cooper, 2013; Gosling & O’Connor, 2006). This can lead to a criticism of the model as being to be ‘overly introspective’, too ‘self-congratulatory’ or just a ‘tick-box’ exercise (Bingham & Ottewill, 2001; Byrne et al., 2010, p. 225). Peer Observation of Teaching may also unintentionally lead to the reinforcement of established institutional teaching practices, rather than a being a developmental process, as colleagues are likely to have similar views regarding personal approaches to the curriculum, teaching styles and subject understanding (Lomas & Kinchin 2006; Weller, 2009).

This project aims to overcome some of the limitations of established Peer Observation of Teaching models by developing, piloting and evaluating a cross-disciplinary framework that will facilitate the sharing best practice between the Colleges of Art and Science. The new model of Peer Observation of Teaching will involve participants who are likely to be unknown to each other and will expose the them to disciplinary differences in the way the curriculum is designed and delivered between the two Colleges. An extensive literature search failed to identify published examples of cross-disciplinary peer observation and hence the project has the potential to contribute new knowledge in this area.

The pilot will specifically focus observation on design/project-based learning (Barron et al., 1998) which is closely aligned to the University’s ‘student-as-producer’ ethos (Neary et al., 2010). Design/project-based learning is a form of inquiry and research based learning focusing on the principles of active participation and construction of knowledge i.e. ‘learning through doing’. Design/project based learning is a well-established and accepted pedagogy within art based disciplines such as design and architecture (Waller, 2016), but less so in the sciences, although there is a growing body of evidence that design/project-based learning approaches are effective method of learning within engineering (Goldberg and Somerville, 2016). Providing students with opportunities to engage with design/project-based learning can support the development of a wide range of soft skills desired by employers in the 21st century including creativity, problem solving, resilience and the ability to work as member of a team to solve real-world problems (Price, 2017; Schwarb, 2017).

The government commissioned ‘Wakeham Review of STEM Degree Provision and Graduate Employability’ in 2016 highlighted the need to expand opportunities for science students to develop ‘softer skills’ within the curriculum as it is still traditionally centred around the didactic lecture format supplemented by ‘protocol/recipe’ driven laboratory sessions (Wakeham, 2016). Jenny Waller recently highlighted the need to bring art and science disciplines closer together when trying to solve 21st century world problems (Waller, 2016). To achieve this within the curriculum will require a greater understanding about the similarity and differences between how art and science disciplines are taught. The project aims to address this by providing opportunities for participants to observe pedagogic practices between the art and science disciplines, opening up a dialogue about how we can enhance and expand the range of opportunities for students to engage with design/project based learning.

Research questions:

– Can existing models of Peer Observation of Teaching be adapted to support sharing of pedagogical practices between the art and science disciplines?
– Will a focus on design/project based-learning influence the practice of participants leading to enhanced/expanded range of opportunities for students to engage with ‘student as producer’ within the curriculum?

Five participants will be recruited from each College enabling a total of 10 cross-disciplinary art/science Peer Observations of Teaching to take place during the duration of the project. Participant guidance materials will be developed based on Peer Observation of Teaching best practice identified from the literature and Lincoln’s Peer Review of Practice scheme. Individual Peer Observations of Teaching sessions will focus on a specific aspect of design/project-based learning identified by the observer/observee with approval from their respective Head of School ensuring an alignment with strategic priorities of the University. Participants will spend the equivalent of one-day (spread over semester B) observing a range of different practices including the design of learning activities, facilitation of teaching sessions and formative/summative assessment practices. An observation plan will be agreed between the observer and the observee facilitated by the College Directors of Education. The observation process will include an opportunity for participants to meet with students informally over lunch to explore in more detail the experience of design/project-based learning from the students’ perspective. The participants will produce a brief post-observation report reflecting on the good practice observed. They will also be asked to make recommendations about the potential ways the observed learning and teaching approaches can be used to inform their own practice or become more widely embedded across the School or College. The report will be shared with the Heads of School in the respective Colleges.
This project will specifically address the theme of ‘interdisciplinarity’ by encouraging the sharing of best practice and providing an opportunity to open-up a dialogue that explores the pedagogic similarity and differences between the art and science disciplines. The focus on design/project based learning aligns with the institutional ethos of ‘student as producer’ and addresses key priorities within the University Strategic Plan 2016-2021.
This project aims evaluate a new cross-college Peer Observation of Teaching framework providing participants with an opportunity to share best practice beyond their own discipline area. The project also explores different disciplinary approaches to design/project-based learning and will contribute new insights the value to this approach within higher education. The new model of cross-disciplinary peer observations could be expanded to explore other areas of learning and teaching practice beyond design/project based learning in the future and thus have wider applicability across the University.