The Power of Teacher-to-Teacher Observations: A Formative Assessment Field Trip

By Nancy Gerzon and Mary Ryerse

A group of teachers set out on an adventure (aka field trip!) to conduct classroom observations and to seek out answers to some of their key questions about formative assessment. What better way to learn than a field trip? Here were some of their guiding questions:

  • What does formative assessment practice look like in action?
  • What are ways that teachers learn formative assessment?
  • Where do they get stuck?
  • What does day-by-day, minute-by-minute assessment look like in action?
  • How do teachers begin their learning in formative assessment?
  • What systems or structures best support teachers to learn formative assessment?

Teachers and leaders from the Austin ISD (all of whom are participating in the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation How I Know initiative) team visited Summit View Elementary School in Sunnyside, Tucson to explore these questions – both to deepen their understanding of formative assessment generally, and also to inform their own learning goals as they enter their second year of the How I Know formative assessment pilot.

About the Visit

Sunnyside’s Summit View has had a small cadre of teachers and leaders who have been learning about formative assessment over the past four years, and they have worked internally and with colleagues across the district to spread this work. Last year they worked on core formative assessment elements – peer feedback and self-assessment – with all faculty, and this year they have begun professional learning for all faculty that includes the FARROP dimensions.

Examples of peer feedback resources for students. Photo by Nancy Gerzon.

While in Sunnyside, Austin teachers observed four of the FARROP dimensions in routine use across all classrooms: Learning Goals, Success Criteria, Culture of Learning, Peer Feedback.

Teachers used a range of ways to help students understand the Learning Goals and Success Criteria, including discussion, co-creation, and the use of models.

Further Summit View teachers have done significant work on developing a Culture of Learning in which students feel safe to know or not yet know. Classroom norms and routines allow for students to listen carefully to one another, share ideas, and support one another in learning. Nearly all of the classrooms had structures in place for Peer Feedback – even this early in the year, the kindergarten students were learning the foundational skills to work together to share and critique one another’s work.

Examples of learning targets and success criteria. Photos by Lauren Fox.

Even more exciting was having time to observe students who are confident in their identity as learners, actively engaged in learning, supporting peers to move their learning forward, and able to independently use a range of classroom resources to support their learning.

Classroom Teachers Reflect on the Observation Process

Sunnyside and Austin teachers shared their observations and reflections based on the Austin teachers’ visit to Summit View.

On Student Independence

Independence in students is exciting to the Sunnyside teachers. Ms. Shay, a 5th grade teacher at Summit View, told the Austin teachers how different it is in her classroom, and how exciting it is to see students own their learning.

“I feel like students start becoming more independent in their own work, because not only are they giving each other feedback, but they have to reflect on the feedback that they get and figure out how are they going to use that in the future. My students who are quiet, I’ve noticed are building more confidence. They feel very excited that they can help other people and share what they know. And so you can see their attitude about being a student kind of switch to where they’re like, ‘oh I can help people, and it makes them feel really good about learning as well.’”

Example of students helping one another. Photo by Lauren Fox.

On Agency and Modeling

Austin teachers observed agency in action, both at the student learning level and in regards to learning among adults at Summit View. Kevin Rawlins, a 6th grade English Language Arts teacher, stated:

“I was particularly inspired by the 5th grade math lesson I saw on multiplying. I noticed that the students all had a sense of agency and were helping each other out with their work in a respectful way. It was clear to me that this had been modeled.”

On Colleague Collaboration

And at the teacher level, Austin teachers were delighted by the opportunity to learn from peers. As 2nd grade teacher Jacqueline Triece shared:

“You can learn so much about your practice just through collaborating and talking with other colleagues. Observing other classrooms in addition to recording yourself and talking with your colleagues about the positives and negatives in your teaching can help to change your own practice.”  (For source, and for more, see this reflection video, 45:05-48:32)

More on Summit View and Sunnyside

Summit View Elementary, part of the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, has a high English Learner population. While they use many strategies to improve outcomes for this population, formative assessment practices, in particular student discourse, peer feedback, and teacher conferencing, have had a positive outcome on English Learners. These practices provide safe structures and scaffolding for students to converse in English. As Principal Mary Montano shared as she introduced their work, Summit View has seen significant improvements in their English Learner reclassification rates, and they attribute this to their steady focus on deepening formative assessment practice.

Classroom norms created by students. Photo by Nancy Gerzon.

At Sunnyside School District, learning formative assessment is a districtwide effort. Carmen Castro, the Director of Literacy and Language Acquisition, highlighted the importance of leader learning: “The central role of administrators is to learn alongside, to be knowledgeable about formative assessment, how it aligns in the district, but also to support teachers as they learn.”

Pam Betten, Assistant Superintendent, offered this closing reflection for Austin teachers, “What this work does for you in your room matters greatly. You are creating agency for the kids in your room. Kids see that they can be a creator, not just a consumer, of knowledge. Through formative assessment we provide them with more than a skill set, they gain the propensity to act.”

Words of Wisdom

The host teachers and leaders took time to share advice and reflections on incorporating formative assessment into the school culture.

Teacher-to-Teacher Advice

Here’s some advice from a 5th grade, 1st grade and two kindergarten Summit View teachers to Austin teachers as they are learning formative assessment:

  • “Don’t give up.”
  • “Have patience; you can do it; it takes time.”
  • “Take it slow; take it slow to go fast”
  • “Just pick one thing, pick something, and give it a try. It might go horribly wrong, but if you keep trying, and keep trying to figure it out and how it works for you, you’ll get there.”

A Principal’s Advice

Austin teachers took away that leadership – both school and district – plays a significant role in developing consistent practices. At Summit View, the principal and other school leaders are learning right alongside teachers, taking the formative assessment coursework together, and navigating how to improve practice given their specific context, curriculum, and community.

Summit View Principal Mary Montano shared her strong belief in the power of teamwork and hard work amongst teachers and staff:

“I don’t know what your spaces for learning are like, but if I could offer anything, it’s invest in one another. I know that every teacher has teacher identity. Every teacher owns that too so we tap into each other. There is enough expertise on your campus to really learn this work by doing the work. That is one of the principles of instructional core: you learn the work by doing the work. Be engaged in it, and be vulnerable enough to fail, and be okay with it.” (Source: Reflection Video, 36:34-37:04)

Examples of teachers “doing the work.” Photos by Lauren Fox.

While they are proud of the work they’ve done, they know they have much more to do to establish daily learning routines for other FARROP dimensions, and to continue to think through what it means to move away from more teacher-directed instruction, towards more student-driven learning. As Ms. Atkins, a Summit View Kindergarten teacher, said, “Letting go of control is hard!” However, Summit View Elementary is proving both that it’s possible, and that it’s the key to producing positive student outcomes.

For more, see:

Nancy Gerzon works with WestEd providing national leadership in formative assessment, helping educators reconsider how they support students to learn. Hear students talking about this work here, and follow Nancy on Twitter @NancyGerzon.

This post is a part of a series focused on the “How I Know: Designing Meaningful Formative Assessment” initiative sponsored by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. See the How I Know website ( and join the conversation on Twitter using #HowIKnow or #FormativeAssessment

Stay in-the-know with all things edtech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.