Learning Walks: How can school leaders make them purposeful and ultimately, focused on the learning progress?
What is a Learning Walk?
A Learning Walk is a brief visit to the classroom using a researched-based tool that allows the principals and teachers to reflect on what pupils are learning, current learning strategies, student engagement and interaction with the content.
Learning walks are used by the teachers to give constructive feedback and collaborate to share ideas about best-fit practices of teaching and classroom environments. In this article, we will explore this popular topic and present a new perspective on this school improvement activity. At Structural Learning, we are interested in how to develop a school culture of thinking and learning. This is not just about facilitating appraisals in schools, this is about the DNA of the classroom.
As opposed to a traditional inspector who has a clear focus on school improvement, we are interested in the development of the learning behaviours of the child. This is not about accountability measures, but making sure we can see education in action. The traditional classroom observation protocol can fill an early career teacher with dread. Often, the class teacher can end up performing for the senior team which skews the goal of lesson observations. These performance management observations can sometimes cause disruption to teachers and cause a great deal of anxiety.
If we pivot the purpose of these visits onto the act of learning and what the child is doing (as opposed to just the teacher) then we might have a more significant impact on the quality of the learners school experience, they are learning walks and not teaching walks...
What is the main purpose of Learning Walks?
There is no better data source than watching the learning process in the classroom. District Leadership may perform tours of classrooms or learning walks, to know what is happening in the classrooms. Performing an initial learning walk furnishes baseline data that helps to understand specific requirements and assess education strategies and successful learning over time.
The primary purpose of Learning Walks for the observing teachers is to compare their teaching approach in school with the teachers they observe. The dialogue after the Learning Walks and the successive self-reflection performed by the observing teachers are the most significant benefits of this collaboration. Below is the list of main advantages of engaging in the process of Learning Walks.
- Creating a culture of research and inquiry, characterised by reflective practice and collaboration for teachers;
- More emphasis on instruction, classroom practices, and students learning support;
- Identification of opportunities for professional development and class coaching;
- Promote useful conversations with teachers about different circumstances through classroom observations.
- Observation of individual teachers classroom practices leads to informed discussions with teachers about curriculum delivery and everyday experiences.
What are the main areas of focus in a learning walk?
A learning walk is a short and informal visit to a classroom, in which senior leaders focus and observe any specific area of education and then offer detailed feedback. Some of the main focuses of Learning Walks are:
1. Lesson Content
This pays attention to the content being taught in the classroom. Some important questions to ask include:
- What is the main topic?
- Does the content fulfil curriculum standards?
- Are students finding the lesson easy to understand?
2. Student Behaviour
This pays attention to the student behaviour in the class. We all have pupils who want to do the bare minimum, sometimes it's difficult to spot when a child is really engaged. Some important questions to ask include:
- Are students actively engaged in learning?
- Are students focused?
- Is there any student who stands out behaviourally?
3. Classroom Environment
This pays more emphasis on the classroom setup rather than the content being taught. Some important questions to ask include:
- Is classroom seating appropriate for learning?
- Are there any samples of student work displayed in the classroom?
4. Measurable Objectives
This pays more attention to assessing measurable objectives in classroom learning. Some important questions to ask include: Are the learning objectives for the day posted? Does the content relate to the learning objectives for the day?
5. Collect Evidence of Progress
During regular learning walks, each member of the team collects specific evidence about teaching and observes different objectives. These things are then analysed and discussed to support classroom learning. While visiting a classroom, the team must keep their focus on questions like:
- What were the students doing in the classroom?
- What did the students and teacher say in the classroom?
- Were the students engaged in the learning process?
- What instructional practices did the teacher in the classroom?
- What education resources (related to the content being taught) are evident in the classroom?
6. Teachers Meeting and Debriefing the Observation
After the Learning Walks, members of the group sit together to discuss and debrief. It is the most significant part of the programme of Learning Walks in which each observer comments on each piece of evidence. The main goal of this discussion must not be to evaluate the teaching of the observed teacher. The debriefing session must have discussion norms, which must be agreed to and observed during and after the session.
After the meeting and debriefing session, the members of the observing team summarise the conclusions by responding to the following detailed questions:
- After my learning walk today, which elements of my teaching practice do I feel were verified?
- After my learning walk today, which questions do I have about my teaching practice?
- After my learning walk today, what new ideas do I intend to apply in my teaching practice?
What are student-centred learning walks?
One may also provide an effective practice of a student-centred approach to learning walks and put the learner experience at the heart of this process while engaging in conversations with the students to discuss learning over time. In this approach, the members of learning walks would go into the classrooms, and sit with the students rather than standing at the back of the classroom.
Students would share their experience of the learning. Following are some of the common questions learning walks team members may ask the students:
- What is the topic of the lesson?
- Do you have any prior knowledge about this topic?
- Why are you learning about this particularly?
- What did you learn in the last class?
What are the benefits of Learning Walks?
Learning walks are advantageous for each party involved. The main purpose of a learning walk is to make formal observations of learning practices rather than evaluation or appreciation of teachers performance. Evaluation leads to pressure, due to learning walks teachers can make a collaborative community without any pressure of evaluation.
As part of the school improvement plan, the Learning walk is considered as a welcome visit rather than a stressor. Due to learning walks, teachers can observe best practices in action and learn the best practices through dialogue with teachers. Also, a learning walk can occur at any time, that's why teachers continue to show their best practices in case a learning walk happens.
Research evidence about teaching approaches in schools suggests that before creating a learning objective, a classroom teacher must identify the levels of initial learning and current learning of the target group of students. There are several examples from schools to find out about students' current level of learning.
An effective method is to participate in learning walks with the relevant staff. Attending professional development for the education programme of learning walks, allows teachers and school leaders to carry out a brief classroom visit utilizing a researched-based tool that provides principals and teachers with the opportunities to reflect on what students are learning, what learning strategies have been used, what is student interaction with the content, and student engagement?
The main approach to learning walks is through paying a brief visit in a single classroom alongside senior leaders using a researched-based tool, offering teachers individual feedback and the opportunity to reflect on students' learning, learning strategies, student engagement and their current level of interaction with the content. Through learning walks, the senior leadership team may assess the capacity of the school and collect evidence about learning, school development, teaching, students' progress and areas for development.
The gathered evidence during learning walks are mostly constructive and developmental, rather than judgemental, and offer an improvement activity for a primary and secondary school. Regular learning walks must not be used as part of capability protocols or for appraisal purposes.
Purposeful approaches to regular learning walks
The benefits of learning walks are perceived to be for one of three purposes:
- For Ethos and Behaviour Support
Here, leaders visit multiple lessons for a short period of time with a clear focus on building a picture of behaviours and work ethic. They check to see how things are going and try and build the idea that teachers are being supported rather than scrutinised, and that leaders have an interest in what is going on in class. These in many schools take place daily and routinely. Teachers expect support not feedback
- For Teaching and Learning Check-Ins
These are typically longer and leaders possibly visit ¾ lessons within an hour. They take place to build a picture of how teaching and learning plans are being implemented, and the extent to which learners are effectively learning what is expected. They look to identify successes and barriers, often so that these can be followed up by coaches, and in more formal performance management. Ideally the information generated from such visits leads to and informs feedback into wider CPD processes.
- For Accountability/compliance-focused
In these, lessons are visited specifically to check that things are happening as they are expected to be as a result of established policy and practice, and with a view to giving direct feedback about the degree of compliance. This is an approach that often reinforces a judgemental ethos, and a top-down approach. They are often regarded as unfair by the observed, because they are so short and relatively infrequent.
The second purpose, Teaching and Learning Check-Ins, supports a coaching model of observation and feedback. It is based upon a problem-solving approach, where listening, learning and problem-solving is the focus. Thus, this type of Learning Walk does not automatically lead to individual feedback, and is more likely to be part of, and used to inform, a wider process of observations undertaken by the leaders who act as coaches. This form of Learning walk is explicitly unannounced, although any observation undertaken by a coach is more broadly planned with and anticipated by the teacher. They should not be confused with those observations and drop-ins associated with accountability or compliance, and any follow-up dialogue that refers to them must not result in the teacher feeling judged on the basis of a snapshot visit.
As Tom Sherrington in particular advocates:
THE TEST OF A HEALTHY LEARNING WALK CULTURE IS THAT TEACHERS WANT MORE OF THEM NOT FEWER!
Developing your approach to learning walks
Ten minutes in the classroom is probably enough and gives a leader plenty of information so that it is simple to visit up to four lessons within an hour. It is important that no teacher feels over scrutinised, and that a programme of leader-planned visits, spread over time, is acceptable.
Regular learning walks are a useful strategy for information gathering, should be perceived as part of a learning process the school as an organisation, and as such, can be used to inform wider decision-making, based upon effective self-evaluation and understanding of the issues that may exist.
There is no need for there to be direct actions following such a drop-in. No feedback should be expected or given to individuals, but rather there should be a planned opportunity for dialogue with teachers through feedback discussions at a subsequent staff meeting. There should be precise praise as well as questions that probe and challenge practice and problems to be solved, as illustrated so well in Tom Sherrington’s Walk Thru Guides.
Some teachers may well have specific problems and need specific support, but it is important that learning walks are viewed separately from any ad hoc, critical, individual feedback to a few, and certainly no feedback from such an activity should ever be given by e-mail rather than be part of a professional conversation!
Where a teacher already has a coach or a mentor, it would be unhelpful for them to receive feedback from multiple sources. It would be better for a leader to give feedback on information from any learning walk to the coach, who can then address the issue as part of their ongoing, agreed professional development process. If no coach is engaged, then a simple chat about the lesson might feel less burdensome for a leader less involved with daily teaching.
Ideally, frequent, routine, learning walks, undertaken by people close to those they are observing, that feedback into coaching loops, are most productive. If we deviate from that model too much, the tensions between the support v. scrutiny cultures become much more apparent.
Collecting evidence during lesson observations
Collect information on your travels informally and ask the following questions about what you see, as these are part of a wider picture of key concerns of leadership. These key questions can be used as part of your program of learning walks.
1. Is what the pupils are doing relevant and meaningful to them and do they know why they are being asked to do it? Are they able to make links with previous experience and are they given opportunities to do so explicitly?
……..or is an aspect of this a problem to be solved?
2. Is the environment organized in a way that really supports and enables the learning that is going on or is there more that could be done to improve this?
……..or is an aspect of this a problem to be solved?
3. Are the pupils able to demonstrate that they know how to operate as independent and effective learners or are they over dependent on the adults in the environment?
What are the problems in this context that exist in this classroom?
4. Is there anything here that is really supporting and enhancing the learning that needs to be shared more widely? Is there anything I have heard or seen that is not helpful to learners and learning and needs to be minimized or discussed with SLT as a concern?
5. Are the adults in the room teaching in ways that please an observer or in ways that really meet the needs of the learner? Is there evidence that within the learning sequences, they are specifically planning and providing opportunities for pupils to regularly RECAP, for them to PROVIDE NEW INPUT, for pupils to APPLY NEW LEARNING, for FEEDBACK to be exchanged?
Jenny Short coaches leadership teams in schools around the UK and sections of this article were extracted from her Inspir.ed Leader handbook.