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Chapter 5
Monitoring or Observing?
Managing Classroom
Peerwork
Rita Elaine Silver
Peerwork, with students working in pairs or groups, has become a staple of language classes. Rationales for using peerwork include educational principles such
as building rapport, developing social skills, and collaborative learning (see, e.g.,
Dörnyei, 1997; Hird, 1996; Oxford, 1997). Peerwork is also used for reasons
specific to second language acquisition such as providing comprehensible input,
creating opportunities for comprehensible output, and encouraging negotiation
for meaning (see, e.g., Curran, 2003; Long & Porter, 1985; Swain & Lapkin,
1998). Despite the theoretical and pedagogical rationales supporting peerwork,
teachers continue to have mixed feelings about its “success.” Specifically, they
find that peerwork can be a classroom management challenge. For example,
McDonough (2004) reports that in the adult English as a foreign language (EFL)
context of a Thai university, teachers found it difficult to monitor student learning
and provide feedback. They also had reservations about whether learner interactions were congruent with teaching purposes. Similarly, in a case study of three
primary-level EFL classes in Hong Kong, even experienced teachers found it
difficult to manage peerwork, especially with large class sizes (Carless, 2002).
Carrying out communicative tasks while maintaining reasonable noise levels
and keeping students on task is often seen as a tricky balancing act. Some common suggestions for peerwork management include the following:
1. Have a clear understanding of the purpose, and share that purpose with
learners.
2. Set tasks that are doable yet challenging to maintain student interest.
3. Encourage cooperation by setting tasks that require interdependence.
4. Facilitate development of the social skills necessary for working together.
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Classroom Management
5. Adjust expectations to the local environment (e.g., more or less authoritarian models of teaching, linguistically homogeneous or heterogeneous
students).
In my work with preservice teacher trainees and experienced classroom teachers in professional development workshops and research projects, I have found
that a list of management suggestions is not always easy to implement in the
hurly-burly classroom setting. As Wright (2005) reminds us, “classrooms are
complex because so much is happening at any one time, and because so much is
interconnected. The potential for disorder is thus always present, even in the most
simple or routine activity” (p. 118). Having peers work together may seem a
simple task, but careful planning is needed. Part of that planning relates to effective classroom management.
In the list above, Suggestions 1–3 rely, at least partially, on planning. Suggestion 4 also requires planning because teachers have to consider what the
necessary social skills might be and how to teach them. Suggestion 5 encourages
teachers to make adjustments to their expectations, something that must begin
outside of the classroom (e.g., as planning) before the lesson begins. On the
other hand, Bailey (1996) cautions that good teaching does not rely solely on
good planning—adjustments during the lesson can be crucial to student language
learning because these adjustments respond to student needs that are perceived
on the spot (Richards, 1998). This is why teacher observation is a crucial part of
peerwork management: As teachers observe learner interactions, they can make
on-the-spot adjustments, prepare feedback, and revise plans.
Teachers often feel that their role during peerwork is to monitor students.
In my work with classroom teachers at the primary level in Singapore, out of a
corpus of 110 English language (EL) lessons that included peerwork, in every lesson—without exception—the teachers walked around the room to continuously
monitor student activity. In postobservation interviews, teachers consistently
said that they monitored to see if students were “on the right track,” “following
instructions,” and “not talking about other things.” This indicates the importance
teachers place on checking that students are on task. Yet teachers are concerned
about their ability to monitor students during peerwork, even though they feel
that this is their primary responsibility during that time (Jacobs & Ratmanida,
1996; Li, 2001).
In this chapter, I propose that we teachers rethink “monitoring,” with its
overtones of warning and admonishment, and instead consider peerwork as an
observational opportunity: a chance to observe how students interact and to use
the information we gain for more effective classroom management (Wajnryb,
1992). Wright (2005) notes that “there has been a tendency to reduce classroom
management to a series of procedures and techniques teachers use for ‘managing’ their classroom groups and lessons” (p. 1). Instead of proposing procedures
46
Monitoring or Observing? Managing Classroom Peerwork
and techniques, I present an example of a teacher who observes, and manages, a
lesson with several peer activities in the context of a Singaporean primary school.
Context
Singapore is considered to be an English as a second language (ESL) environment
due to a long-standing policy that emphasizes English in the public sphere for
multiethnic and international communication (Silver, 2005). English is prevalent
in the public domain but may or may not be the home language of an individual
child. English is one of four national languages, the others being Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. At home, Singaporean children might use any of these languages,
a combination of them, localized varieties (e.g., “Singlish”), or other languages
that have played a part in Singapore’s development as an immigrant nation (Aman
& Bokhorst-Heng, 2006; Singapore Department of Statistics, 2000; Vaish,
2007). In schools, children study English in EL classes, which emphasize literacy
and language skill development. They also use English to study other academic
subjects (e.g., math, physical education). They also study one other national language, usually based on their ethnicity. For example, ethnically Chinese Singaporeans study Mandarin. Because study of two national languages (English plus one
other) is required, Singapore’s educational system is considered to be bilingual.
In Singapore, primary school education is mandatory. In Grades 3–6, there
are usually 38–40 students per class, whereas Grades 1–2 have fewer than 30 per
class. Students sit at desks and chairs that can be pushed together to form clusters.
However, classrooms tend to be filled front to back and wall to wall with desks,
chairs, students, and cabinets, with little room for moving around during lessons. Because the climate is tropical, windows are open and overhead fans rotate
constantly. Classrooms are quite noisy. Some teachers use microphones so that
their voices carry throughout the classroom.
Examples for this chapter were drawn from a series of studies on peerwork
undertaken in this context. Data collection included classroom observations and
recordings, collaborative meeting with teachers for lesson planning and materials
development, interviews about the teachers’ pedagogical practices and beliefs,
and professional development workshops. Although the language and education
policy setting in Singapore is unique (especially in the definition and implementation of bilingual education), the issues of working with young learners at different
levels of English proficiency, with different home languages, will be familiar to
ESL and EFL teachers in other parts of the world.
Curriculum, Tasks, Materials
Across 110 lessons observed over the course of 2 years, the format has been
fairly standard: The class begins with students greeting the teacher, followed by a
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Classroom Management
“teacher exposition” portion of the lesson, then peerwork, and a closing by the
teacher. There are some variations, for example, with multiple peerwork activities
interspersed with teacher explanations or instructions.
During the teacher exposition, the lesson topic is introduced. In most cases
the students are seated at their desks while the teacher is at the front using the
overhead projector or, in some cases, the textbook that the students also hold.
Next, instructions for peerwork are given, and students move into their pairs or
groups. Because students work in predetermined groups to match their seating
assignments, getting into groups is usually done quite efficiently. If there are
materials to distribute (e.g., worksheets, readings), either the teacher goes from
group to group with them or a group representative comes to the front to get
them from the teacher. This routine procedure is also accomplished quickly and
easily. Activities move smoothly from one to another. Students are given enough
time to complete their work as long as they stay on task. This standard format
illustrates many of the basics of good classroom management: use of routine
procedures for clarity and efficiency, effective use of space, variety in participation
patterns for different types of tasks, good pacing, and reasonable time allocation
for different activities.
For the next stage of the lesson, students sit in groups with their materials and
instructions. It would seem that they should be able to immediately begin their
work with minimal assistance from the teacher. However, in almost all observations, the teacher immediately begins scurrying from group to group as quickly
as possible to answer student questions, ensure that students are on task, and
encourage them to complete their work. From the moment the peerwork starts,
the teacher seems to be in a race, trying to get to as many groups as quickly as
possible. When I ask teachers about their actions in postobservation interviews,
they report that they rush in order to monitor student behavior. In other words,
the teachers are most immediately concerned with managing the students even
though every effort has been made to set up the task so that students can proceed
to work in groups.
When I present the scenario of the scurrying teacher in workshops, teachers laugh, look embarrassed, and nod their heads in agreement. As one teacher
exclaimed, “Yes, I do that! But what else can I do? I have to monitor my children!” I admit that I sometimes have the same impulse to scurry about when
working with teacher trainees. I want to make sure I check on all the groups
as quickly as possible. There is a sense not only of time pressure, but also of
responsibility. I have a responsibility to “establish and maintain order; to provide
learning opportunity; to create a context of care” (Wright, 2005, p. 115). Though
teaching styles vary, these three concerns are central to classroom management
for all teachers (see Wright, 2005). When I find that I am becoming the scurrying
teacher, I try to pause and ask myself a few questions: Am I trying to answer all
their questions and resolve all their difficulties for them? Is that my role? Can I
use this time more effectively to facilitate and encourage language learning?
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Monitoring or Observing? Managing Classroom Peerwork
As a counterexample, I describe an EL lesson I observed in a Grade 5 classroom. There were 20 students in class, although the normal class size at this
grade level is 38–40. Students sat in clusters of 5–7. There were six of these
clusters around the room, with some empty desks. The teacher had a computer
and a visualizer on her desk at the front, both connected to a projector. The
lesson focused on writing picture stories, and lesson materials included a set of
three pictures showing a series of events and a large question mark to indicate
an open ending to be determined by the student-writers. These students were
familiar with picture stories from practice in prior years and from a previous lesson
in which the class had discussed a similar picture story.
The format for the lesson fit with the standard lesson structure described
earlier. The teacher used a whole-class/teacher-fronted (WCTF) presentation to
show the pictures on the projector and discuss the sequence and characters. The
students then worked in groups to restate the sequence of events, describe characters, and determine an ending. The lesson differed somewhat from the standard
format in that three peer activities were included, each with its own focus. The
first had groups of 3–4 students working together to discuss the pictures. The
focus was on telling what happened (i.e., sequence of events). The second activity
was done in pairs (subsets of the earlier groupings). The students used a worksheet to describe the character, setting, and time. In the third peer activity, each
group used a large sheet of white paper folded into three columns on which they
were to write the helping words. In this case, helping words seemed to mean any
words that would be useful for telling the story (names of characters and places,
actions that took place, descriptive adjectives and adverbs). This activity was the
final planning activity before the children moved on to writing out the story—an
activity done in a subsequent lesson.
The lesson moved back and forth between a WCTF interaction pattern, when
the teacher provided examples, gave instructions, and explained crucial points of
the composition, and peer interactions, when students talked about the pictures
and the narrative that they were crafting. The teacher ended the lesson with a
WCTF activity: discussing the students’ ideas, which were now posted on the
whiteboard with magnets. The teacher went through each group’s work orally,
pointing out useful information that other groups might want to include in
their writing and discussing possible problems such as lack of detail or inaccurate
information.
The lesson proceeded smoothly, with students quickly adjusting to the
shift from WCTF to peerwork. There was no visible evidence of arguments,
and groups were able to complete each activity. Very little time was lost to the
mechanics of the lesson (e.g., checking attendance). The teacher had established
useful routines for dealing with distributing materials and posting the work for
feedback (both done by group representatives). The class was orderly by any standard. Even when a visitor came into the room to check some equipment, students
remained at their desks and, except for looking to see what the visitor was doing,
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Classroom Management
continued with their tasks. There was little need for disciplinary measures. In one
instance the teacher told a student who had been standing and looking out of a
nearby window to go back to his seat and help his group. When students asked
questions of the teacher, she answered promptly but rarely got bogged down in
extended discussions with any one group.
The teacher moved about the room regularly, talking to all groups during each
peer activity. This was probably made easier by the relatively small class size on
this day. However, after observing the lesson, watching the video, and reading
the transcript, I had the impression that this lesson would have been very much
the same with a larger class size for two reasons. First, the teacher was able to
make multiple visits to all groups in the time given. Second, there were moments
of stillness when the teacher was able to observe the class as a whole as well as
individual groups and individual students. The teacher spent more time in observation than in monitoring.
Monitoring and Observing During Peer Activity
In this lesson, the teacher did not jump from one group to the next as quickly as
possible, monitoring student behavior. Instead, after talking to one group, she
paused, looking around the whole class to see what was happening. She addressed
any immediate questions, paused again to look around the room at different
groups of students, and only then moved on to a new group she had not yet
visited. This sounds easy enough, but in videos of other lessons, I rarely see this
observational pause. In my own teaching, I sometimes think, “What am I doing
here? I should be doing something.” Somehow, standing and observing does not
feel like “doing something.” However, I believe that the teacher’s moments of
observation were a key factor in her effective classroom management. In repeatedly watching this example on video, I saw that even when there were questions,
the teacher did not rush from group to group. In those cases, she acknowledged
the students who had questions with eye contact and a nod or a hand gesture,
then addressed the question closest to her and moved on to the next group.
She always looked carefully at each group as she passed. In addition, during the
observational pauses, she carefully looked around the room at all groups, rather
than anticipating where problems might occur and looking only for those potential trouble spots.
Another feature of her observation was that she consistently acknowledged
her students’ work even if she did not talk to the group or stop beside them.
She usually did this by nodding to show that she saw and approved of what they
were doing. If she saw a problem or question, she stepped up and spoke to the
group. Students seemed to have developed the understanding that if the teacher
nodded and passed on, the group was on the right track. This can be done more
explicitly, for example, by handing out plastic chips for good progress, but in this
class a nod was sufficient. After the teacher nodded at a group, the students often
nodded at each other and then continued their work. There was an unmistakable
50
Monitoring or Observing? Managing Classroom Peerwork
rhythm to the nonverbal interactions that complemented the verbal. Notably,
groups that continued to work well received acknowledgment as much as those
who needed assistance.
The teacher’s visits to groups were quite short. I was curious about how
she managed to revisit all groups in the short time given for each activity, so I
checked the timing of the video recording. Out of 70 “episodes”—when the
teacher paused and then moved to a new location in the room—only 45 involved
comments to students. In 14 episodes the teacher observed the group, provided
nonverbal feedback, and then moved on. In 21 episodes, she quickly took care
of other classroom business such as setting up a worksheet on the visualizer for
the next activity or placing magnets on the board for the final class sharing while
the students continued their work. The teacher was always involved in the lesson, but that did not mean she was always participating in the students’ peer
conversations.
When she did stop and talk to a group, her visits were brief. In the majority of
cases, she stayed with a group for less than 20 seconds. In that time she managed
to convey information that confirmed what the group was doing (see Figure 1)
or helped the group carry out its work (see Figure 2). The students continued
talking to each other while the teacher talked to them, reflecting the fact that she
did not take over the task.
In Figure 2, the teacher noticed that the group was writing information
related to a story they had read previously. She immediately corrected them and
guided their writing in a different direction without telling them exactly what
they should write. There was a clear sense that the responsibility for the content
belonged to the students, in keeping with the purpose the teacher had set.
I do not mean to imply that a brief discussion is always the best option.
Obviously in some cases, students have questions that require longer answers.
However, in this class the teacher used the peerwork time to answer student questions and make brief comments, not to reiterate what had been said previously
or expound on teaching points that could be covered when she had the attention
of all students. She also asked questions to direct the group members to the task
at hand or encourage them to generate ideas, rather than telling them what they
should write.
Student 1 to Group
The bus stop crowded.
Teacher
Student 2 to Group
I correct crowded
already.
Figure 1. Teacher Checking on Group Work
51
[passing by] That’s good.
Somebody must keep checking the
helping words given. [continues
walking]
Classroom Management
Teacher to Group
Teacher to Group
Teacher to Student 2
[stopping at the group]
You do not write down
what you remember
that you have read!
You write down what
you see on the picture,
at the picture.
Student 1 to Teacher
[unclear]
Student 2 to Group
[X] you cancel
this.
Student 2 to Teacher
Ah, cancel the
word.
Student 2 to Group
And then write
this again. Ah.
Yeah, so write down.
[XX] can fly off and [X]
somebody’s eyes. . . .
Yeah.
Yes.
[Teacher walks away.]
Note: [X] indicates one or more words that were unintelligible from the audiorecording. Multiple Xs indicate
approximately how many words were spoken.
Figure 2. Teacher Helping With Group Work
Reflections
In this lesson, the teacher implemented most of the suggestions listed at the
beginning of this chapter. She had a clear purpose for the peerwork, and the
students knew what that purpose was. She set a task that was doable and challenging. She adjusted her expectations to local circumstances in terms of the students’
linguistic and writing abilities as well as the story content. The final product was
jointly prepared on one sheet of paper to encourage collaborative work, even
though interdependence was not absolutely required. But what makes this lesson
exemplary in terms of classroom management? Several key points in the teacher’s
behavior contrast with the scurrying of groupwork monitoring that I often see:
• She regularly paused to visually survey the class as a whole, each group, and
individual students.
• She observed when students were on track as well as when they were off
track, and she gave students feedback to show that she noticed both.
52
Monitoring or Observing? Managing Classroom Peerwork
• When students seemed to be going in the wrong direction, she looked and
listened to see what they were doing before jumping in.
• When she did intervene, her comments were intended to guide students
back to the point at which they could do the work themselves.
• She kept her visits brief, allowing her to continually observe.
Despite my belief that this type of observation is useful for peerwork management, I find that it is not always easy to implement when I am the classroom
teacher. For my own teaching, I challenge myself to observe with my eyes and
ears and from different physical positions in relation to the room and the students. I have developed a simple rubric for observing students in action to help
me keep this challenge in mind (see Figure 3). The main idea is to intentionally
do things a little differently than I might naturally do them. For example, I try to
use my eyes (row 1) by mentally turning off the sound in the room and focusing
on what I can see. I focus in on individual groups or students one by one. I force
myself to pause and observe what is happening without jumping to action. I skim
the room with my eyes, trying to look around the whole room—including areas
where students are not sitting. In particular, I try to check eight different points
in the room: front, back, right side, left side, and each corner. Similarly, I push
1. Use eyes
2. Use ears
3. Use
perspective
4. Use
proximity
a. Mentally turn off the sound. Just see.
b. Focus in: one group, one individual,
one group again.
c. Visually skim. Look around the whole
room.
d. Check the eight points of the
classroom: front, back, right, left,
each corner.
a. Mentally turn off the visual. Listen to the
sound of the class as a whole.
b. Focus in. Listen to one group, one
individual, one group again.
c. Listen for individual voices that stand out.
d. Eavesdrop—without eye contact or
directly facing a group.
a. Move front to back.
b. Look from the corner of the eye.
c. Move side to side.
d. Look in the corner of the group.
a. Stand close enough: conversational
distance.
b. Stand way too close: impositional
distance.
c. Stand off: look for the wide-angle view.
d. Stand by: observe without
participating.
Figure 3. Rubric for Observing Students in Action
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Classroom Management
myself to use my ears in different ways (row 2) and use different perspectives by
not only looking at all parts of the room but also by moving myself to different
positions in the room (row 3).
I try to consciously use proximity to the students as well (row 4, Figure 3).
For example, it seems clear that looking at or standing close to one group or
individual usually influences the interaction. The reaction is usually, “Teacher is
watching!” For this reason, standing “way too close,” without saying a word, can
be a great way to encourage better behavior or divert possible trouble. In contrast, by standing off, looking over the whole room, or viewing from the corner
of my eye, I get a better chance to see how the students are interacting with each
other (instead of with me) and with the designated task. Similarly, by tempering
initial concerns about noise and instead listening for the overall sound of the class,
I get a better idea of whether this is “work” noise or just noise. Finally, by focusing in with my ears or by eavesdropping, I gain a better understanding of not
only who talks but also who is directing the group, who is offering suggestions,
and who is making jokes. This information can help me reconsider my groupings
to introduce more effective combinations.
Though the rubric for observing students in action is simple, I learn more
about my students and my teaching as I use it. For example, I have discovered
that my personal preference is to stand in the front, middle, or back of the room
but almost never at the side. This influences what I see. Similarly, I usually view
groups straight on and rarely from an angle, unless I remind myself to do so. I
also tend to stand by (point 4d, Figure 3), as if not wishing to intrude. I sometimes sit and join in, but I rarely stand at a conversational distance (point 4a). In
this I seem to be somewhat different from most of the teachers I observe, who
usually stand at a conversational distance but never observe from afar or sit down
and join the group. All of these positions and perspectives have their uses; they
can be used intentionally to see more and see differently.
As all teachers know, not all groups are effective all the time; conflicts and apathy can develop. However, “the weight of evidence seems to support the idea that
students are most likely to be engaged actively during whole-class teaching and
closely supervised collaborative work in small groups” (Wright, 2005, p. 296).
When students are actively engaged, it is a sign of balancing order, opportunity,
and care. This balance is the essence of classroom management. In the lesson
described in this chapter, the teacher’s observational pauses allowed her to maintain order and look for opportunities to guide students. Her careful observation
also showed care for the students and their work. As Charles-Damian Boulogne
is reported to have said, “to linger in the observation of things other than the self
implies a profound conviction of their worth.”
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Monitoring or Observing? Managing Classroom Peerwork
Acknowledgments
The research discussed in this chapter was sponsored by the Centre for Research
in Pedagogy and Practice at the National Institute for Education, Singapore.
Information is available at http://www.crpp.nie.edu.sg/. My thanks to Tom
Farrell and Barbara Spilchuk for helpful comments on this chapter and especially
to the teachers who shared their time and expertise.
Rita Elaine Silver is an associate professor of English language and literature at
the National Institute of Education, in Singapore. Her research interests are second
language acquisition and classroom language learning. Her current research is on
the use of peer work to enhance language learning in the context of Singaporean
primary schools.
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