How to do a learning walk

We’ve had a couple of people on the CogSciSci forum ask for advice about learning walks and good ways to do them. We asked a few of our regular contributors for their brief thoughts on different aspects of observing learning and delivering feedback and we hope that you find their ideas helpful. As ever, if you would like to write for us about how you do them or think they could be improved, please be in touch.

~ Editors

On delivering feedback: Adam Robbins – Head of Science, The Regis School

As the person delivering the feedback there is one irreconcilable problem you face: you have no control in how your feedback is received. A teacher can do many things to try and get students to pay attention, but they can’t physically force a student to think. Similarly, you can set your conversation up as well as possible, but that doesn’t mean the teacher will hear your feedback.

The word feedback can mean three different things. When someone asks for feedback they could be asking for:

  • Appreciation; some words of encouragement
  • Appraisal; to know how they are performing
  • Coaching; to know how to improve

Triggers

Triggers are barriers that can be in place that prevent the feedback being heard. There are three kinds of triggers that might stop a teacher listening to your feedback.

  • Relationship triggers: The feedback might be spot on, but they don’t respect your opinion so won’t listen.
  • Truth triggers: The feedback just seems false from their point of view.
  • Identity triggers: The feedback makes them question something they hold as part of their core persona. If the feedback is right, it will make them question who they really are.

All three triggers are common in teaching. School politics, policies and personalities make them inevitable. It is in an observer’s best interest to try and be wary of them when giving feedback. How to remove them is a complex issue with too many factors to consider here, but some simple suggestions are:

  • If it is an issue that might seem hard to be believed find some proof. Might they agree to video a couple of lessons so they can see for themselves?
  • Give areas of improvement as suggestions and then get them to commit to give it a try and see how it goes. This removes issues of identity triggers in some cases.

I’ve written about this issue with feedback in more detail in my blog here.

Finding a focus: Adam Boxer – Head of Science, The Totteridge Academy

I’ve been doing a lot of learning walks this year and I think the process that I’ve come to looks a bit like the following:

1) Go into as many lessons as you can
2) Try and find commonalities between them in terms of things that can be improved
3) Discuss with the team in an abstract sense (e.g. I saw this, what do we think the problem is? In my own lessons, I did this, what do we think the problem is?)
4) Formulate things people could do in the classroom to remedy the above as a kind of departmental action step (e.g. if the problem is students are frequently responding to low challenge questions with “I don’t know”, the solution might be No Opt Out)
5) Do another learning walk, focused on step 4
6) Start feedback with some general stuff, but the main thrust of the conversation is on your step 4
7) More learning walks, all focused on perfecting the departmental action step given that you have delivered feedback already once on it
8) Once you’re happy with that, go back to step 2

I also have a form for observing expert teaching here that might give you an idea of something that would be suitable for point 2 above. The key is to trim the feedback to focus on just a couple of things and have shared language and success criteria over what those things look like. 

One thing at a time: Rebecca Flint – Head of Science at South Dartmoor Community College

Learning walks, Learning Ambles, Learning Drop-ins, whatever you call them you will likely have mixed views on them. My experiences have also been mixed. We have been through all sorts of different models. Some have involved very generalised paperwork heavy activities that tended to make the teacher feel very under pressure whilst making the observer feel either: guilty for listing things that needed tweaking or weren’t quite right, or making them feel like they were doing a disservice by listing things that were good practice but ignoring things that really needed developing. As a department we really didn’t enjoy it and it wasn’t moving anyone on and more importantly not helping the students at all. We decided to explore other strategies and developed a tick list that was focused on key areas of practice. Now this approach worked a little better. It gave instant specific feedback, but feedback was limited to things on the list which reduced the professional dialogue between staff.

As a school we have experienced some very quite big changes. Thankfully one of these is the introduction of Developmental Drop-in’s. These focus on a very specific area of practice and the observer spends no more than 10 minutes in a lesson. It might be looking at the use of modelling in a lesson. If that particular lesson at that moment doesn’t include it, that doesn’t matter.  The observer can come back when advised to by the teacher. After the drop in the observer discusses the key focus with the teacher, offering very specific coaching. We are not talking about wishy-washy “guess what’s in my head” coaching. We are talking about coaching more in the style of a sports coach, specific and direct. Sometimes this coaching might even happen live and discreetly in the lesson. This approach has been really powerful and has involved much more open and well received feedback with the staff that have experienced it so far. We are very excited to be rolling it out school wide. Fingers crossed it continues to be so positive, it has the capacity to really impact our students and engage our practice in a way that Learning walks never did!

Student-centred studies: James Bullous – Vice Principal and Director of Science at a MAT across Stoke-on-Trent

Do learning walks accurately assess learning? Using The Hidden Lives of Learners I developed a new style of learning walk we call a Student Centred Study (SCS).

A SCS engages the learners in dialogue about their learning, how it fits in with previous schema and how the students experience in the classroom translates into changes in long term changes memory.  This is a whole school approach and is used to look at the learning across departments, not individual teachers.

The process involves engaging the students in the lesson in dialogue prompted by questions such as:

  • What are you learning about and why?
  • What did you learn about last lesson/week/term/year?
  • Can you link this lesson to anything you have learnt before?
  • Can you show me a piece of your learning you’re proud of?
  • Inviting staff to share their views on the curriculum) and how their teaching promotes changes in long term memory.
  • Feeding back the findings of the day to staff on that same day.

SCSs can be done by leaders at all levels and can give some information on how the curriculum is accessed by students and how it relates to learning.  You can look at trends or teacher behaviours and see if there are common themes that you can develop during CPD. The ideal process becomes a cycle of monitoring, CPD, development and improved learning.Please find more at https://link.medium.com/i0PDQ7Nxc4.

More reading:

Never forget the dangers associated with observing learning, for which we direct you to Professor Coe’s seminal work.

David Didau has also written extensively about lesson observations and you can see all his work on that here.

For the more policy-minded reader, Ofsted wrote a really interesting paper on six different models of lesson observation which is definitely worth a read.

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