Monday, August 1, 2011

The Learning Walk

"Through the talking about goals, and reflecting on observations I think we can improve our craft. We can't be afraid to look at ourselves critically."
Carmen Jorgenson

Learning walks were developed from a business model at Hewlet Packard where management walked around and observed the company workers. The Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh developed and coined the term "Learning Walks" which is one of the new buzz words in education today. Principals, teachers, and superintendents visit classrooms as a team in order to see what students are experiencing at any given time. Some visits can be the whole class time or as brief as 5 to 10 minutes. Learning walks are about observation, reflection and growth, how teachers teach, how students learn, what gets taught to whom and why. NHUSD has adopted this format to develop improvements to instruction by assisting teachers with PLC's (Professional Learning Community). Alvarado has been doing Learning Walks since 2008. This practice also helps to identify best practices and future teacher leaders.

However, the business model presents some challenges for the school environment. If teachers leave the classroom to participate in the walk, then substitute teachers are teaching their students. Substitutes cost money and do not always provide the same quality of instruction as the regular classroom teacher. Team members are not supposed to talk during the visit unless they ask a question of a student and are to be unobtrusive in the classroom. Students are sometimes overwhelmed by having a group of teachers in their classrooms. In March of 2012, fifty teachers and administrators visited Alvarado in one day. Most classrooms in California are already overcrowded with barely enough room for the students. In some cases there may be as many as 6 or 7 teachers in the classroom possibly disrupting the focus of students.

School environments are very complex. Principals and teachers are being pulled in a million directions every day. Often there may not be the time to prepare and debrief teachers as the model requires. This can be very frustrating for the staff. Often teachers are told their class will be visited and then the team runs out of time for all the visits. This leaves the teachers on edge and wondering the age old question, "Am I not good enough for the team to observe?" Also the teams seldom visit the library, the science room, physical education, or the music class making those teachers feel like second class citizens.

For those being visited, Learning Walks can be stressful for teachers especially if they do not know the focus of the observation. For those schools in Program Improvement, the Walkers also look to see if the daily objectives of lessons are posted. Some of the time each teacher in each group is given a specific focus to observe. Before moving to the next classroom the teachers meet for about 5 minutes to debrief by each reporting their observations. Often the classroom teachers being observed are told to do a guided reading lesson during the visit which could mean the focus is reading instruction, but the team could be looking for interactions between students and teachers, classroom organization, independence in student learning, evidence of deep and rigorous thinking, displays, or all the above.

There are a set of steps for the walkers which includes orientation of the staff, instructional focus of the walk, the actual classroom visitation, brief outside the classroom talk, debriefing, and communication with teachers, either oral or written. The walkers may not make judgement statements about what the teachers and students are doing or not doing. Usually schools use a recording sheet for team members to jot down their observations. The teams often look at the walls to see how they support learning and examine student work on those walls. Some team members ask questions of students. The team looks to see what individual help is given to students. After all classrooms have been visited, then the team meets for general debriefing where each person shares what they saw in the classroom citing specific evidence. Then team members make inferences about how they can use their learnings in their own classroom or in the case of best practices the entire school. It is important to communicate the learnings to staff members not on the team and to thank the teachers who have been visited.

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