(This is a post about ‘learning walks’…I have tried to section it so for those reading who aren’t English teachers, or aren’t interested in the background, you can skip to the point!)

I can’t imagine not teaching – ‘just because’ and @dowise’s post here:

Blog: Just a teacher

really resonated with me this weekend.  It has also prompted me to finally get round to sharing the following experience which happened *because* I was teaching.  For a short moment, I was the recipient of one of the processes which as a school leader, I had been a part of developing.

The Context Of My Lesson Visit

Colleagues were undertaking a ‘learning walk’ – specifically visiting English lessons.  I was teaching my year 12 class at the time and I was in the middle of a lesson on genre and intertextuality.  At the moment colleagues entered my classroom, I had just started to take feedback on the transformation task that I had asked students to undertake.  Students were sharing their transformed texts and we were considering what this might tell us about genre, but more specifically what this suggests about the ways in which meanings were created by writers and readers, and how it was in this negotiated space that ‘language’ existed.

Colleagues remained in my lesson for about 10 minutes and the majority of this time was spent exploring, as a whole class, responses to the sharing of ideas – this involved to all intents and purposes to an observer, teacher questioning, student think-pair-share, and student response to both teacher questioning and other students’ responses.  One colleague spent a few minutes talking to two of my students about the work in their folders.

My Response

As the lesson ended, I was barely able to contain my excitement about the direction the lesson had taken in terms of the part which had been observed.  The off the cuff response from one student along the lines of “It’s funny because we all know the apple is poisoned”  had led to a really interesting discussion about how shared knowledge forms such an important part of ‘reading’ a text.  I had simply asked the question “Do we all know this?” to the class following this comment, and this led to further student discussion about whether they did or didn’t know this.  If they didn’t (as some students did not), how did this impact on their reading of the text?  Were they still able to find the text humorous?  What was the difference for those students who did have that knowledge?  How did this add to the richness of the reading experience for those readers?  And if they did have this knowledge, did they all respond in the same way?  For those of you reading this who are not English teachers, you may be a little perplexed as to why I was so excited by this turn of events.  But for me, this one throw-away comment and what we were able to discuss following this, and how we then used this to shape the rest of the lesson was what had prompted me to be so excited as I left the lesson.  Later that night as I was recounting the lesson to @mmgiovanelli, he not only appreciated why I was so animated, but more importantly was able to develop my thinking further by giving me some more subject content to think about, and point me in the direction of some further reading I might like to do by @Droflet Jess.  This conversation led me to further refine my teaching practice when I taught the same lesson to my other year 12 class a couple of days later.

My Colleagues’ Response…And My Reaction

Later that day, I had also spoken with those colleagues who had visited my lesson.  Naturally I was interested, and let’s be honest a little nervous, about what they had thought (and this was a timely reminder that if as Acting Principal I was feeling this way about someone being in my lesson, how did colleagues very new to the profession feel when people dropped in).  Comments about the high quality of my questioning were made, the challenge that had been evident in the lesson, and also a comment that the students who had been spoken to were a little unsure about what they were learning and that there didn’t appear to be much in their files.

In absolute honesty, my natural reaction to this feedback was that I, internally, got defensive.  I am a reflective practitioner and leader, and always welcome feedback, but there were a couple of things which ‘got’ to me:

  • Despite the fact there was no intention to draw any conclusions about me as teacher from such a short visit, my inference from the comment about my students’ work was that I wasn’t doing a good enough job in this regard. In reality, I knew that we were only a few lessons in, much of the work we had undertaken so far had been exploratory text work, and the work we had done simply did not have copious ‘notes’ attached to it.  I also know the two students who had been spoken to were students who I knew needed further support both in terms of a subject perspective, but also from a work ethic point of view – both needed support with the transition from GCSE to A level study.
  • The best part of the lesson from my perspective had been completely missed because neither of my colleagues were subject specialists. The conversation which developed me most as a subject specialist came from my discussion with @mmgiovanelli at the dinner table later that evening.

So What’s The Point Of ‘Learning Walks’?

As a school, we don’t grade teachers, we don’t weigh the pig, we are absolutely aware of the limitations of observations in all their guises, and we at all times prioritise developmental work which impacts in the classroom on adapting teaching practice to make a difference to the students.  This short experience though and the subsequent discussions have led me to the following conclusions about something which has bothered me for a long time about the term “learning walk” and its impact / use in departments and schools:

  • The development of practice takes time and any meaningful feedback in relation to this requires consideration and discussion of multiple evidence bases.
  • Short visits do not lend themselves to meaningful comments on pedagogy.
  • Short visits, which in effect are climate checks, can give a good indication of the ‘base’ conditions for learning. It is possible in a short amount of time to establish whether the teacher’s classroom is likely to be one, in its broadest sense, where effective learning can take place.
  • Where a practitioner operates a classroom which is conducive to learning, the development of subject pedagogy needs to come from a subject specialist.

Rapid Assessment Of Teacher Effectiveness

This thinking reminded me of an article I had read several years ago now by Robert Marzano on the difference between measuring and developing teacher expertise.  The article which can be found in the November 2012, Vol 70, Number 3 edition of Educational Leadership magazine had really helped me define my thinking on leading learning and teaching at the time, and for a while (prior to the inception of the evaluating teaching cycle), I had experimented with two mechanisms within the school I worked at – one which measured, and one which developed.  My experience of my classroom observation reminded me of the rubric Marzano talked about in this article – the Rapid Assessment of Teacher Effectiveness (Strong, 2011).

I have also always been of the viewpoint that all students deserve access to teaching which enables them to make good progress and despite my polemics on the necessity of development over measurement, the importance of evaluating teachING not teachERS, I am (and always have been) clear that one of my roles as a leader of a school is to ensure that students get a good deal.

A Moment Of Clarity

And so this whole episode suddenly helped me become clear  – ‘learning walks’ or the much more helpfully termed ‘walk-throughs’ as Marzano describes them, do serve a purpose for Heads of Departments, and leaders within the school.  They enable a leader to ascertain whether a teacher is likely to create a climate which is conducive to learning.  There are, regardless of all the debates about checklists / frameworks, some base conditions which relate very broadly to aspects of pedagogy which need to be in place for this to happen.  If you are interested, I cannot recommend reading both the Marzano article and considering Strong’s RATE model highly enough.  It is not that there is prescription about what these 10 aspects look like in terms of how specifically teachers or schools undertake them.  However, it does sit comfortably with me, and the experience I have had as a teacher and a leader within a school, that there are certain broad aspects of pedagogy which all effective teachers demonstrate – and this is not at odds with my belief that what’s good is what works.

This is where Strong’s RATE scale is, in my view, really helpful.  If on a walk-though, these conditions do not appear to be in place, this would merit further walk-throughs to establish whether this is typical of all classes, which particular base condition appears to need some development and so on.  Any effective teacher can help a colleague work on these aspects, and these ‘base’ conditions are not dependent upon a subject specialist.  Short, more frequent visits to a range of classes are appropriate in this situation.  If walk-throughs suggest the climate is conducive, then it would seem to me that the development of practice looks very different.  In these cases, the further development of teaching is best met by a subject specialist over a much longer period of time.

@benbainessle, as he so often does, has diagrammatised this and thought about how and what this looks like for both leaders and teachers in our school and I am sure he will share this at some point.  But just as I felt a sense of cohesion with the evaluating teaching cycle, I now feel the same about this process within our school – it is now fit for purpose.