Sunday, December 17, 2017

Learning Walks

Successful change and consistent improvement rely on many interconnected factors. I mention this, as it is important to note that it isn’t one particular action or person that ultimately moves an idea or initiative into something that positively impacts school culture.  This applies to the success that my staff and I were able to be a part of during our digital transformation a few years back.  The focus might have been on digital, and I was the initial catalyst that got the ball rolling, but it was the collective action of my teachers, students, and other administrators who embraced different and better while showing evidence of improvement that resulted in improved outcomes.  

What many people also don’t realize is that even though all eyes were on the digital aspects of our transformation, it was the continuous focus on improving teaching and learning that ultimately led to results. I have routinely written and spoken about the concept of a Return on Instruction (ROI), which states that when integrating technology or implementing innovative ideas the result should be evidence of improved student learning outcomes. This makes sense on many fronts, as we are accountable first and foremost to our learners as well as our other stakeholders.  To help achieve an ROI we increased the number of formal observations and evaluations, collected learning artifacts (lesson plans, assessments, student work, etc.) and had staff create portfolios to show growth and changes to practice.  Additionally, my admin team and I conducted learning walks every day.

The process of learning walks or walk-throughs as many schools refer to them is to get a glimpse of what is happening in classrooms to then provide non-evaluative feedback for improvement.  They serve an integral role as “soft” accountability mechanisms to spark conversations and reflections on practice.  The more we observe and talk about practice the better equipped we are to make and lead change.  Another positive outcome of learning walks is the building of better relationships since the non-evaluative nature of the process focuses on meaningful growth around targeted look fors. We developed look fors that aligned to both our McREL observation/evaluation tool to prepare teachers for these in the future and the purposeful use of technology to improve student learning. 

It’s been a few years now since I left the principalship to pursue my new career as a Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).  In addition to keynote presentations and workshops I typically facilitate, I have also been engaged in job-embedded coaching with districts across the country.  One district, in particular, is the Downingtown Area School District (DASD) in Pennsylvania.  Their leadership team, comprised of building and district administrators as well as instructional coaches, has worked face to face with me on a deep dive into the Pillars of Digital Leadership.  They have also been completing job-embedded tasks after these sessions and completed a reflective questionnaire as part of ICLE’s Digital Practice Assessment (DPA) process.   Our collective goal is to create an immersive experience that moves beyond the typical one and done professional development.

Under the leadership of Matt Friedman and Jonathan Blow from Downingtown, coaching days with me were added so that we could all get into classrooms and conduct learning walks.  The inherent value of this exercise was to observe and collect evidence to determine instructional areas that needed the most focus.  After our first session, which was very successful based on the feedback received, they pushed me to think about targeted look fors that could be integrated into our next set of learning walks to support their digital transformation efforts across the district further.  Challenge accepted! 

Below are the look fors I developed that would later be integrated into a learning walk form:

  • Learning targets (objective/concept what are students expected to learn/do)
  • Standard alignment 
  • What are learners doing?
  • What is the teacher doing? (direct instruction, modeling, monitoring, facilitation, etc.)
  • Authentic context – Do the students know how their learning aligns to or how it can be applied to a real-world context? Do they understand why they are learning what they are and how they will use it?
  • Level of questioning (Rigor Relevance Framework – creating, evaluating, analyzing, applying, understanding, remembering)
  • Means of assessment (formative, summative)
  • Reflection - Is there an opportunity for students to reflect on their learning at some point?
  • Rigor Relevance Quad alignment (Which quad does the lesson or activity align to?)
  • Device Use (passive or active learning) - Passive (note taking, digital worksheet, consuming content) vs. Active (creating, applying, collaborating, synthesizing, etc.)
  • Student agency (voice, choice, advocacy) – Are students empowered to own their learning (blended/personalized/virtual learning options, they select tool to be used, etc.)
  • Use of classroom/school space (arrangement, furniture, choice, flexibility, comfort, lighting, temperature, mobility, acoustics, etc.) – Are desks in rows or arranged in a way to foster collaboration? Are there flexible/comfortable seating options? Does the room offer an appropriate level of stimulation? Would you want to learn in this space?

After sharing the areas of focus above, Jonathan created a Google Form for the Downingtown leaders to use as we all engaged in learning walks across the district.  You can access and download the form HERE if you wish.  The group conversations and reflection that ensued after the walks were conducted was terrific!  My role was to act as a facilitator to engage the group in critical discussions on what they saw. As you see from the form, the primary focus is on learning, not technology.  The two elements should go hand in hand, not treated as separate entities.  It is also important to note that not every lesson should or will incorporate technology. 

With any learning walk form or tool, there has to be a great deal of flexibility regarding how you use it. You would be hard pressed to see all of the look fors listed above as a learning walk is brief and only gives you a snapshot of what is (or isn’t) taking place. This is why I encouraged DASD leaders to take pictures of learning artifacts and ask questions of both the students and learners to develop a more holistic view.  Another way to use it would be to just focus on 3-4 look fors during a walking cycle. However, the most critical aspect of the learning walk process is what is done afterward to improve practice.  Collaborative discussion as a leadership team about what can be improved as well as timely feedback to teachers is both crucial for success.  

If you have any feedback on the look fors or the learning walk form please share in the comments below. 

1 comment:

  1. Eric, thank you so much for writing about this. I shared this blog post with my Academic Leadership Team to reflect on our current walk-through process. We are in our second year of this model, shifting from the more traditional model of one or two 45-min observations throughout the year. You shared some great insights and ideas that we are going to consider implementing for next year. We are searching for more ways to collect meaningful data to measure growth in teaching and learning at our school, and this blog post was very helpful.