Thoughts on Peer Observation: Alex Schady

The Exchange is always interested to hear about your experiences of peer observation. This week we spoke to Alex Schady, Programme Director, Art Programme, Central St Martins (CSM).

When and with whom did you do your last peer observation?

I observed my colleague Nick Rhodes (Programme Director, Product Ceramic and Industrial Design, CSM) introducing a new brief to his students.  I specifically wanted to observe this type of session and see how it is done outside of an Art Programme context. We all have a tendency to get used to how we do things in our own teams and I wanted to open up a conversation across the wider institution.

What was it like to observe?

I was worried about the impact of my presence changing classroom behaviours, but it was fine.  Nick introduced me to the group, then I sat at the back and made my notes. I don’t think I affected the outcome of the session.

What did you gain from the observation?

It was intriguing to see how Nick unpacked the brief with his students.  Firstly, the idea of having a client and their set of expectations to respond to is very different to Fine Art, but I could see that those ‘walls’ provide a useful starting point for the students to kick against.  Secondly, the contextualisation of the brief was very clear.  We actively avoid doing that in the Art programme as we don’t want to privilege a particular canon, but it made me reflect on the signposting around contextualisation for our students.   Overall I really enjoyed the experience and fed back positively to Nick.

What will you change as a result of your observation?

We revalidated our course last year and I’ve incorporated some tighter structure into our briefs, not to restrict our students but to try to give them that starting point to work outward from. We’re also now more explicit about students finding contexts for their work: whilst we still won’t direct them we are clearer about our expectations.

I also noticed that the presentation Nick gave was succinct, then there was a lively Q&A.  The size of our cohorts is very different (we have c180 students where Design have c20) but I’ve challenged myself to be more to the point, – maybe signposting parts rather than going into it all in exhaustive detail. I’m hoping that then sets up the pathway groups for more discussion and interaction.

What surprised you most about the observation?

How responsive the students were, and their level of interaction.  The brief was really well prepared, with a wealth of images and key phrases, almost like a pitch. I think we’d resist the word ‘pitch’ in the Art Programme, which is interesting. Culturally I think the new generation of students now receive and absorb information differently and we need to adapt to this.  We need our students to understand and take in key information, which isn’t necessarily information they like. I’m taking the challenge back to my colleagues to make our briefing sessions more appealing.

What advice would you give to colleagues who are about to do/have their own observations?

The logistics are a challenge as a Programme Director, as our teaching can be quite ad-hoc if we have to step in at the last minute. That aside, it’s worth really considering what you want out of the observation. Taking that time means it can then be so valuable: even just small tweaks can really refresh your own teaching practice.

Do you have a peer observation experience you’d like to share? Drop us a line or on Twitter @UALTLE.

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