By Cory A. Bennett
Effective instructional leaders realise the power of regular non-evaluative classroom observations to informally collect information about teaching, learning, or implementing school initiatives. Yet, feedback from these walkthroughs is often about general interpretations of teaching (e.g., engagement, asking questions, and/or using different instructional techniques) or a checklist of artefacts (e.g. learning objective posted, standard on the board, and/or school mission/vision visible) rather than on thoughtful and specific evidence of learning. By not capturing actual evidence of student thinking and learning, instructional leaders are missing opportunities to focus feedback on instructional practices that lead to the intended learning outcomes. One way to do this is by attending to student learning rather than teaching.
Attending to Learning
Attending to learning means carefully focusing on the evidence of student learning. In doing so, instructional leaders have the opportunity to specifically identify what is important about a classroom situation, make connections between classroom interactions and principles of teaching and learning, and then facilitate a pointed professional conversation with the teacher, so that the teacher and administrator, alike, can better understand the implication of the classroom events. Such practices allow for more responsive instructional leadership practices and teaching that deliberately connects pedagogical moves to specifics of students’ understanding.
Learning to Attend to Students’ Thinking
When observing a classroom, notes often include such things as:
Teacher was able to overcome technical difficulties with the smartboard
Teacher guided students to develop key concepts
Not sure [the teacher] should have gone in that direction with the discussion
Teacher would only call on certain students
Teacher asked good questions
Students were/were not actively learning
Lots of noise/quite and focused classroom
Notice how these kinds of responses, while important in some aspects of supporting teaching and learning, do not focus on pedagogy, student and teacher behaviours, and general impressions of the classroom. For some, shifting away from observations of this nature is hard as administrators are not necessarily trained to focus on learning during walkthroughs.
Shifting Observations to Student Learning
When beginning the student learning observation, spend about 15-25 minutes to observe students, recording what you hear from students and see in their work without interviewing or talking to them or the teacher. You want to try and capture students’ thinking and learning in as natural of a setting as possible. If you are unfamiliar with the content, listen for the complexity of responses or the details they provide in their work; you do not have to be a content expert you just need to be able to look with intention and listen carefully. It may also be helpful to anticipate what you might see or hear if the students were “assuming the role of the expert.” Meaning, in a science class, how are the students learning how to think and behave like a scientist? In a humanities class, how are they learning to think and behave like an author, speaker, or historian? Look and listen for how students are learning to think and behave like an expert in that content area.
Then, analyze your notes and determine what themes are popping up; use these themes to generate non-evaluative questions for the teacher. These questions should be about providing clarity and understanding the teaching-learning relationship and not about defending their decisions or practice.
Taking Your First Steps
It should be noted that attending to pedagogical moves, teacher and student behaviours, and other compliance items are still important. But these are not the only kinds of feedback that should be captured to support learning in the classroom, and may not be the most useful in making more immediate improvements in student learning. To take your first steps with attending to student learning, here are some recommendations to get started.
1. Start small
Whether you address the entire building or just a few teachers with your plan, begin yours with only one to two teachers with whom you are comfortable working with and being vulnerable. For administrators, teachers are used to you critiquing their teaching practices, so they may be unfamiliar with what you are trying to accomplish.
2. Keep the notes objective
Maintain the focus on students by recording objective evidence of student learning. What is the actual work students are creating, how are they interacting with each other, what is the nature of their discourse, and how are they assuming the role of the expert? Making interpretations of learning is acceptable, but it needs to be grounded in specific and objective evidence; otherwise, it will be difficult to facilitate a non-evaluative and non-threatening conversation around the teacher’s practice.
3. Work with a colleague
Learning how to attend to student thinking is a process and working with a colleague who also wants to develop their observational skills in this area will help keep both of you focused on the specific evidence of learning and the intended outcomes and not just the process. It will also help prevent both of you from reverting back to attending to teacher moves, general impressions, or assumptions about learning.
4. Share your notes and wonderings with the teacher
Be willing to share your notes. By attending to evidence of student learning, conversations about improving instruction are less threatening and will naturally occur. Teachers are highly reflective of their practice and will naturally question their practice even if you are talking about the students. For administrators, be ready for this conversation to be challenging for some teachers at first as many have not previously had this kind of in-depth conversation with their supervisor. By sharing your notes, you can help put them at ease.
5. Practice with intention
Deliberately and regularly practice and do not skip having the conversation with the teacher afterwards. It may be a new experience for both you and your teachers at first, but the deliberate practice, patience, and outcomes are worth it!
Using walkthroughs to help transform effective practices in schools also means transforming the ways in which we understand the learning in classrooms. By understanding how students are learning to assume the roles of the expert, more specific and grounded evidence of learning can be obtained. Walkthroughs need not and should not always focus on the teacher or teaching practices. Learning begins and ends with the students, so attend to students’ ways of thinking to understand how else you can support your teachers.
Dr Bennett is a passionate educator who strives for equity in learning for all students. As a global consultant and an Associate Professor of Education specialising in curriculum and instruction, he has worked with educators throughout the United States and across the Middle East, Europe, Australia, and Asia.