By | Jaclyn B. Stevens
“When professionals share their talents and skills, they help the whole school develop a collective wisdom.”
~ Robert Marzano
Today’s educators work hard to balance both the increasing demands of blended and digital learning and the best curriculum and instruction for their students. Research shows that current models of professional development calls for collaboration, active engagement, and collective culture-building during such a transition. One such district, Alamance-Burlington Schools, a North Carolina district which serves more than 23,000 students in grades PreK-12, has just begun their roll out of devices in a 1:1 setting after extensive professional capacity building since 2014 with the Friday Institute.
And now that the devices are in the hands of students in all of their 32 schools, the Alamance-Burlington Schools district has turned to a researched practice that not only makes a tremendous impact on the culture of our public schools, but expounds upon collaboration, increases rigor, and propels the capacity of all stakeholders at twice the expected rate of return: they have begun implementing instructional rounds, or Learning Walks.
This collaborative practice is based on the medical model or rounds. The practice has been further developed for school administrators to observe and discuss best practices in the classroom, and modified to enable educators to conduct their own instructional rounds focused on self reflection and growth designed to begin discussions of instruction directly into the process of school improvement. In other words, this simple process creates a common language, common discipline, common focus, common purpose, and common problems.
You can talk about Learning Walks, but to truly understand this experience and it’s associated benefits, you have to experience it – you have to ‘walk the walk’. It is important that all involved understand the purpose of the walks and that they are introduced in a non-threatening way. Although schools and districts will initiate learning walks in various ways, several strategies are critical to gain buy-in: In this case, Alamance Burlington committed all it’s leadership to experience a full day of learning walks spanning schools across their district. Leaders had the opportunity to sign up for one of four days of instructional rounds, each with their own area of focus aligned with district expectations for digital learning and teaching – Management of a Digital Learning Classroom, Content & Instruction, Using Technology to Differentiate Learning, and The 4 C’s.
Along with these focus areas, each with criteria and questions, Leadership was also asked to observe student engagement, learning goals and progress tracking, student understanding of new knowledge practices and /or deepened, and how expectations are communicated to all students, etc..
During instructional rounds, small groups of three to five people make relatively brief observations of educators in action. These observations are longer than a typical “walkthrough” (i.e., longer than a few minutes), but usually shorter than an entire class period. When engaged in rounds, groups conduct as many substantive observations of classrooms as possible within part of a day or the entire day.
These rounds are a non-evaluative, structured approach to get educators into each other’s classrooms to see the teaching and learning that is taking place. Cultivating a meaningful professional learning process for improving teaching and learning, and promoting a truly collaborative learning community, requires ongoing effort from all stakeholders involved.
The primary purpose is for those making the observations to compare their practices with those observed in the classrooms they visit, and it is the discussion at the end of a set of instructional rounds and the subsequent self‐reflection by observers that is their chief benefit.
PROTOCOL | How it works
Remember, during an instructional round rotation you are only going to get a snapshot of teachers and students in action, the goal is focusing on what you observe during a specific interval of time. Consider the context of the environment, content, pedagogical practices, and the decision to use digital tools and resources to enhance student-centered learning.
Before Entering: Briefly check in as a group and redress the key focus of the Instructional round observation and purpose. Knock at the door and then quietly move to an area of the room that does not disrupt the flow of instruction.
In the Classroom: Observe. Participants actively observe both the educator(s) and students in action: noting not only the focus of the learning walks that day, but also engagement, progress tracking, collaboration, how expectations are communicated, etc. Participants are not just a fly on the wall, however, and are encouraged to ask students questions and clarify understanding.
Exiting Classroom: IMMEDIATELY take a moment in the hallway to synthesise your observation into learning notes.
Debrief: As a group we will convene to reflect, synthesize on our experiences through collaborative activities to answer the following: what did you see? What could this mean for your schools? How will you bring it back to your schools? What are key components you gained insights on based on the day’s specific focus area?
Below is a sampling of principals’ comments made during post-walk conversations:
- We are able to see how the curriculum spirals as the age of the child increases, thereby reinforcing the importance of mastering foundational skills.
- We have an increased level of professional awareness regarding the complexity of instruction at all grade levels. A first grade classroom is often more complex to run than a high school classroom.
- Our relationships develop with each other because of the walks, and this deepens the school-wide conversation about the learning environment.
- We are modeling what a learning community means, and the students benefit from this model.
- Now, more than ever, a classroom needs to be protected from distractions while still embracing the new tools and information we have at our fingertips. We find out who can help us with this challenge when we are on a walk.
With adequate professional capacity building in instructional rounds and proper implementation, this process can positively impact collaboration and team decision making concerning instructional design, classroom management, the implementation of digital tools and resources to support curriculum and instruction, as well as support data-driven decision making. The reaction and energy shared in Alamance-Burlington in these first few instructional round experiences was one of overwhelming success with plans to make learning walks an expectational norm in every school!
Learn more about instructional rounds and learning walks on our Learning Walks At-A-Glance post by Lisa Hervey.
Kachur, D., Stout, J., & Edwards, C. (2013). Engaging teachers in classroom walkthroughs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Feeney, E. (2014). Design Principles for Learning to Guide Teacher Walk Throughs. Clearing House, 87(1), 21-29.
Allen, A. S., & Topolka-Jorissen, K. (2014). Using teacher learning walks to build capacity in a rural elementary school: repurposing a supervisory tool. Professional Development In Education, 40(5), 822-837
Jaclyn B. Stevens coaches and assists K-12 educators, ITFs, and Administrators to adapt, not adopt – fostering digital initiatives to transform professional learning through changes in pedagogical shifts and meeting the needs of all learners to champion creativity and innovation as a Digital Learning Coach and Research Associate with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation with the College of Education at North Carolina State University. @jaclynbstevens