Learning Walks: The Power of Teacher to Teacher PD

Learn and Lead
Learn and Lead

It’s always a pleasure to work with the school district that “gets it.”
Lebanon Community Schools in Lebanon, Oregon is that sort of place.

“This creates teacher leadership opportunities. It turns visits to the classroom into teacher to teacher professional development – transforming the notion of what happens when people visit your classroom.”

I was first introduced to LCS in May through their work with Oregon’s Class / Chalkboard Project. In August, I gave an opening-day faculty presentation focused on looking at learning from the students’ perspective. Since then I’ve assisted LCS in training a group of six “learning walk leaders” who will lead their peers on reflective learning walks through the classroom. As one of the leaders neatly summarized our goals, “This creates teacher leadership opportunities. It turn visits to the classroom into teacher to teacher professional development – transforming the notion of what happens when people visit your classroom.”

I have worked with many districts leading teachers and administrators on “classroom walkthroughs” (the term I generally use for the process) and conducting sessions designed to train-the-trainer. But Lebanon’s approach topped them all – their initiative with solid administrative support and a teacher-centric focus worth replicating. Ryan Noss, the district assistant superintendent attended all the training sessions, but consistently deferred to “let’s let the teachers decide how they want to do this.” Here’s how it went. (All quotes are from the six participants’ reflective journals.)

The district is supporting six teachers with stipends to lead their peers on reflective classroom walks. This week I completed three days of training with the “Learning Walk Leaders.” We first met as a whole group to discuss the opportunities and challenges of learning walks, but soon got into the classroom to try it out. Over the course of two days, I led pairs of teachers on visits to K-12 classrooms across the district. During that time, they had the chance to both experience the power of reflective discussion and see how to best focus our conversations on the students in the classroom, not the teacher.

We used a similar approach for each classroom visit. After checking with the teacher to see if it’s a good time to enter, we typically spent about 5-8 minutes in each class. While there we did not talk among ourselves or take any notes. (Visitors with clipboards make me nervous.) If appropriate, we might speak briefly with the teacher to get some background to the lesson or chat up a student who wanted to share what they were working on. But we weren’t there to try and “understand” the lesson. You can’t do that in 5 minutes. We wanted to see students in action and use that experience as a catalyst for a discussion. Think of learning walks as moving professional development from the lecture to the lab.

Think of learning walks as moving professional development from the lecture to the lab.

After exiting class we traveled down the hall for a brief discussion. What tasks were the students engaged in? What types of thinking did the students need to use to complete the task? What sort of choices did students need to make to complete the task? Can we find consensus about what level of Bloom’s Taxonomy best describes the student task? As Sarah Haley put it, “I love the idea of honing our reflective skills – what’s learning look like when compared to Bloom’s?” As Chrissy Shanks observed, “Learning walks gave me a fresh perspective on the ways students think.”

Often the time spent in class proved to be a jumping off point to more hypothetical discussions about student learning. “We just saw students making maps – what are the essential elements of a map? How do people use maps? What could students learn by making a real-life map for their peers to use?” Some of our best discussion about our own practice as teachers came from these extensions of what we saw in the classroom. “Teacher learning walks inspired me to become a better teacher! I learned so much about what students are doing in our district and was able to reflect on my teaching practice.” Melissa Johnson

On the third day learning walk leaders took turns “guiding” each other on visits. After each visit,  they came back to central location and one leader “led” the reflective discussion in a “Fishbowl,” while the rest listened, and then offered feedback. Finally, we met to develop a protocol for how to conduct visits in the future. We want to make sure, that learning walks are seen as productive, not interruptions in the classroom. As Erica Cooper wrote “We are students of instruction in a lab setting. A trust has to be built to make it work. I want to be able to guide teachers in observing student learning to help their teaching practice.”

Next week the learning walk leaders will promote the process to their peers and begin leading reflective visits to district classrooms. We decided they needed an “elevator pitch.”

  1. Focus on the students (not the teacher) in a quick visit to the classroom (snapshot of learning)
  2. Discuss the tasks students are doing. Do we agree on what level of Bloom’s we see?
  3. Result – Teacher To Teacher Professional Development. Shall we call it “T3PD?”
  4. Best way administrators can support the effort. Ask, “Have you had interesting discussions today?” Note: don’t ask “have you seen good lessons today?” You can’t judge a lesson in 5 minutes – besides we’re watching the student. 

Image credit: iStockphoto

Eight Look 4s When Observing a Classroom: What the Teacher Teaches – What the Students Learn

School desk I rarely quote at length from a blog or news article, but I think this time I’ll break my rule. I first met Mel Riddile a few years ago when we co-presented at a conference. Since then we stay in touch via Twitter and by following each others’ blogs. Mel blogs on policy and practice for NAASP at The Principal Difference and tweets at @PrincipalDiff

His recent blog post “Tests: Will they improve learning?” is a thoughtful response to the recent Science Journal study that concluded that “practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying.”

Mel does a good job of putting the research into the context of the classroom, but the segment I wanted to quote is his closing section –  ”Look 4s for School Leaders.” It’s a succinct guide for principals, instructional leaders and can be used as reflective prompts by teachers.  Put these in your toolkit and don’t forget they are all critical aspects to Common Core mastery.

(Note: They’re also a great companion to my post “Observing a Classroom? Watch the Students, Not the Teacher“) 

Look 4s for School Leaders

    • Closure and Learning – The focus of instruction is not what teacher teaches but what the students learn. The close of every lesson should focus on what the learner has learned not what the teacher has taught. The question is how does the teacher know that the students have learned and mastered the lesson unless there is some type of formative assessment–quiz, test, or activity.
    • Remembering – The only evidence of learning is remembering. When observing a lesson ask yourself how does the teacher know that students will remember what they just learned?
    • Checks for Understanding – Teachers should pause frequently during a lesson to check for understanding. How frequently? As a rule of thumb, teachers should check students understanding approximately every fifteen minutes, which approximates the attention span of the average adolescent. According to the Science study, one of the most effective checks for understanding is the quiz used as a formative assessment. Teachers can pause and ask students to write a summary or take a brief quiz on what they just learned. Immediately re-teaching a concept to a classmate may also be used to test practice retrieval.
    • Timing is critical - When it comes to recall, tomorrow is too late. Teachers need to check for student understanding before students leave the classroom each day.
    • Feedback – “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Unless students practice recall (retrieval) and get immediate feedback they will not remember.
    • Defined Instructional Practices – Some students absolutely need a highly structured classroom room environment characterized by identifiable instructional practices, smaller units of instruction, more frequent assessments, coupled with frequent and immediate feedback. However, students who can function equally as well in low or highly structured classrooms are not penalized in any way by the use of structure. In other words, when in doubt, use a more structured approach.
    • Formative Assessments – How often should students be assessed? How frequently students are assessed or asked to practice retrieval depends on their familiarity with the content and the student’s level of mastery. When students are introduced to new content or when they are struggling with a particular concept, they should be assessed more frequently. For example, the skills of proficient and advanced readers need only be assessed annually, while students reading at the basic level or below basic need to be assessed regularly. Frequent assessments mean more feedback. A quiz or summary essay at the close of a lesson will do more for student recall than extensive homework assignments.
    • Mapping – Instructional strategies like “concept mapping” are effective, but they work better if they are used as part of “practice retrieval.” The act of creating a “concept map” in and of itself does not improve learning unless the student makes use of the map as a part of the “practice retrieval” process. Teachers should show students how to use the concept maps to review for a test and not assume that the students know how to do so.

Image credit flickr/mecredis

The Four Negotiables of Student Centered Learning

I spent most of last week guiding teachers on classroom walkthroughs. (Here’s links to my protocol and some recent participant responses.) It’s an effective approach to professional development – one that focuses on the students, not the teacher. Think of it as a roving Socratic seminar that provokes reflections on teaching and learning.

One of the subjects that often comes up during walk throughs is how to recognize a student-centered approach. I tell participants to watch the students and try to decide the extent to which they are being asked to manage the four central elements of any lesson – content, process, product and assessment. Any or all can be decided by the teacher, by the students, or some of both. As I often said to my own students when introducing a lesson – “Which elements do you want to be in charge of? Which do you want me to decide? Remember you don’t  all have to take the same approach.”

You can’t simply “throw students in the deep end” and expect them to take responsibility for all their learning decisions. But with scaffolding and support, students will increasingly take more responsibility for their learning. The reward is the increase in student motivation that comes with greater student choice. And as students take more ownership of the learning process, they are better able to monitor their own progress and reflect on themselves as learners. See my Taxonomy of Reflection for useful prompts.

Observing a Classroom? Watch the Students, Not the Teacher

Classroom Figures Lavern Kelley
As a rookie teacher, I frequently had sleepless Sunday nights, worried about my lesson plans for the week ahead. I would second guess my teaching by asking myself – "what will I be doing, why am I doing it, how do I know it would work?"

It took me years to realize I was focussed on the wrong person in my classroom – the teacher. The real question was – "what will the students be doing?" The learning wasn't "emanating" from the teacher. My job was to design a learning situation that will cause the students to reflect on themselves as learners.

I frequently guide teachers and administrators on reflective classroom walkthroughs with a focus on observing the students by a focusing on two essential questions: 

  1. "What kinds of thinking did student need to use in the lesson segment we just saw?"  
  2. "What choice did students (appear to) have in making decisions about the product, process or evaluation of the learning?"

Think of it as roving Socratic seminar. For more on the process see my post: "Teacher-Led Professional Development: Eleven Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs"

I just returned from a week of guiding teachers and administrator on classroom walkthroughs. As I browsed through their evaluations, I was reminded of the power of reflective CWT's. 

Teachers' comments:

  • You're right – it's not about what I'm doing, it's about what the kids will be able to do.
  • I'm going to work harder to encourage my students to take ownership of their learning. 
  • It really made me think about the variety of ways students can demonstrate their thinking. 
  • I'm going to give students more chances to reflect on their learning. 
  • Today reaffirms my asking kids to think outside the box.

Principals' comments:

  • I really enjoyed the risk-free learning environment that makes me think and gives me the chance to network. We are so stressed for time and results that we don't have time to think deeply.
  • This will change my conversations with teacher, I now have a better idea how to get them to reflect honestly on their work. I also have learned how to better dissect a learning activity and see its components.
  • As I go into classrooms, I will have a better understanding about what "engagement" really looks like.


Interested in more reflective and teacher-centered staff development? See my posts:

Lesson Study: Reflective PD That Works

The Reflective Teacher: The Taxonomy of Reflection

A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer 


Image: Flickr/cliff1066™
Folk Art: Classroom with Three Figures by Lavern Kelley

Watch Problem Based Learning in Action: Apollo 13

This fall I’ve had the opportunity to lead many teachers on classroom walkthroughs in schools across the country. My approach is a “roving Socratic seminar” that uses brief glimpses of learning as a discussion starter for educators to reflect on their craft. For more on my walk through technique see my blog post  ”Teacher-Led Professional Development: Using Classroom Walk Throughs


One topic that always comes up on walkthroughs is something to the effect “… but don’t you have to teach the basics first,  before you can expect students to be able to think at higher levels?” There’s a persistent assumption that Bloom’s taxonomy is a one-way street. Analysis, evaluation and creation can only take place after a solid foundation of basics have been “installed” into the student’s knowledge base.

While our students have been conditioned to “learn the basics – then solve the problem,” that’s not how life always works. Most often we are confronted with problems that force us to go back and discover underlying foundational elements. Car won’t start… now what? 

Watch an infant getting into everything in the kitchen and you’ll realize that  kids are flexible learners, capable of moving fluidly between the basics and the problem. Every time our students play a new video game they confront a new environment with a unique set of interactions constrained by rules. Most often they have to discover how the game is played in a manner that mimics the scientific method – developing and testing hypothesis against their growing understanding of rules, functions, obstacles, rewards that underly the process of the game. Problem first, then basics.

When designing a lesson, teachers need remember that Bloom’s taxonomy is not a one-way street. It has multiple pathways and entry points – knowledge can be put into practice in a problem and a problem can be used to generate a body of knowledge. 

Need a good example of problem-based learning in action? Use this scene from “Apollo 13” as your walkthrough discussion starter. As you watch the clip think about the interaction of the problem and the basics.

  • Situation: An explosion forced the crew to shut down the command module and use the lunar module as a “lifeboat.” 
  • Problem: They needed to jury-rig a carbon dioxide filtering system for the lunar module.
  • Understanding the basics: What’s available aboard the space craft and how can it be used to modify the filtering system?