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Volume VI Issue VIII

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The Power of Walk-Throughs!

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

 

In the Volume VI Issue VIII of Just for the ASKing! entitled “Just Ask the Kids,” I wrote that administrators could learn a great deal about student learning in their buildings by engaging students in conversations during walk-throughs. Since that time I have participated in walk-throughs with hundreds of administrators as part of the Just ASK workshop series Leading the Learning. I have become even more convinced that walk-throughs are a powerful supervision and evaluation tool that should be embraced by all instructional leaders. It is important, however, to conduct walk-throughs in an organized and careful manner. Simply stopping by classrooms, engaging in friendly and light banter with students and teachers, and moving on to the next classroom does not unleash the potential power of walk-throughs. What should educators do to discover the power of the walk-through process? The suggestions below represent the experiences and insights of administrators who have found the practice to be exciting and worthwhile.

Start with a Definition
Walk-throughs are defined as informal, brief classroom observations used for generic data gathering or focused on specific teaching and learning behaviors. Writers and researchers differ on the amount of time observers should spend in a classroom during walk-throughs. The recommended time ranges from three to ten minutes per visit. The amount of time spent is not as critical as how the time is used by the observers.

Change the Focus
Walk-throughs are not a new educational practice. Administrators have been using the walk-through process for a number of years. In many instances, when central office or building level administrators carry out their walk-through visits, their focus has been almost exclusively on teacher behavior. Many “walkers” have used checklists with “look fors” for data gathering purposes during their visits. These observers code teacher behaviors they see in practice. In many walk-through practices, students are rarely consulted or asked about their learning. More and more administrators are changing the way they complete their walk-through visits to classrooms. Instead of focusing on teacher behavior, the administrators are interacting with students. In short, they are going to the source to determine what students know and can do as a result of the instruction that has occurred in the class. In more traditional observation practices, the observer often concluded that effective instruction was occurring as long as the teacher was implementing certain practices during the observed lesson. Knowledge of content, clear learning objectives, occasional teacher checks for understanding, time for students to practice new learning, perceived student engagement, and an orderly classroom were the primary indicators that the teacher was doing a good job and that students were learning. The missing piece of the puzzle that was often neglected was to find out what was going on inside the students’ heads. Friendly, non-threatening discourses between administrators and students are resulting in newly-found sources of achievement data. Some administrators who have adopted a focus on student learning are asking themselves, “Why haven’t I thought of this before?”

Make the Practice Uncomplicated
Interaction with students should not be complicated, intellectual processes full of educational jargon. Conversations with students should be sensible, uncluttered, and to the point. Possible questions one might ask a student include the following:

  • What are you currently learning? • How is what you are working on helping you to learn that?
  • Can you show me what you have learned so far?
  • What previous learning did you do that is helping you with what you are currently learning? 
  • How will you know that you are successful?
  • Are there any supports for learning around the classroom to help you if you get stuck?
  • Are there any models you can look at to see what excellent work looks like?

The longer and more comfortable administrators become interacting with students, the more natural and free flowing the conversations become. Administrators have discovered that they can often casually move around the classroom and talk with multiple students in a relatively short period of time. Another insight gained by many observers is how eager and excited students are to talk to adults who inquire about their leaning.

Take in the Surroundings
In addition to talking with students, another important component of the walk-through experience is taking the time to look around the classroom to see what kind of scaffolding or supports for learning are in evidence. Some administrators find themselves singling out charts, bulletin boards, displays, or items on blackboards/white boards/Smart boards and asking students how this information supports their learning. In some situations, students can make instant connections and tell with great specificity how the displayed item helps them learn. Conversely, students may be unaware of the purpose of displayed items in the classroom or how they are supposed to support learning.

Another beneficial practice during walk-throughs is to determine if learning outcomes are posted somewhere in the room in kid friendly language. Asking students to explain their understanding of a standard or benchmark may add additional information gained during a walk-through visit. The visitor may discover that students can clearly discuss what they are supposed to know or be able to do as a result of their work, or that they have little or no idea what some of the lofty phrases or complicated standards language really means.

Collect Achievement Data
The overall purpose of a walk-through is to determine if student learning is truly occurring from room to room throughout the school. As administrators interact with students, it is important not to rush to judgment based on these conversations. If students seem to be inconclusive about what they are learning, the administrator should make a mental note to return to the class in the near future to determine if the lack of responsiveness by the students formulates a pattern or if it was a temporary aberration. Likewise, the administrator should not conclude that excellent instruction is happening in a given class if the student responses indicate that they are clear on what they should be learning and know precisely how their learning will be assessed. These are good initial indicators; when subsequent follow-up visits confirm these first impressions, the administrator may begin to reach preliminary positive conclusions about the status of learning in that particular classroom. Howard Pitler, an educational researcher, suggests that ten walk-throughs a year in a given classroom can provide an accurate picture of instruction and learning. He compares walk-throughs to a mosaic with one tile telling very little while many tiles forming a complete picture.

Some educational writers feel that data gathered during walk-throughs should be used exclusively to coach teachers rather than as part of the evaluation process. Others feel that when data is gathered over time, it can provide a clear picture of instruction in a teacher’s classroom and can become valuable data which can be used as part of the supervision and evaluation process.

Provide Feedback to Teachers
Feedback to teachers on the student learning data that is gathered during walk-through visits acknowledges the efforts that teachers are making, and lets them know that their work with students is effective and worthwhile. The feedback may be through a note left on the teacher’s desk or podium or through timely, face-to-face conversations. This practice should be followed especially when the feedback being shared with the teacher is positive. If data on student learning is inconclusive or nonexistent, the administrator should reserve judgment and return to the class for further data gathering opportunities to see if the situation has improved or if learning is still not occurring. When the administrator finds that student responses to their inquiries indicate that learning may not be occurring, it may require a more private conference between administrator and teacher to discuss the pattern which has emerged from the administrator’s walk-through experiences.

Make the Process Public
Administrators who have made walk-throughs a regular part of their role as instructional leaders have gained a number of insights about the process. Since observers do not want the teaching staff to view walk-throughs as a mysterious or secretive process, they tell teachers exactly what they are doing when they interact with students as well as the specific questions they ask students during their visits. Several principals have learned that as a result of making the walk-through questions public, their teachers are using the walk-through questions as a tool to improve their own teaching. Student responses are helping teachers make the learning outcomes more explicit and clarify the connections between the classroom activities and the eventual learning that should occur. In short, the walk-through questions are serving a dual purpose.

The following comments from administrators who have adopted walk-throughs as a regular part of their instructional leadership practice and the supervision and evaluation process are offered as supporting evidence for the amazing power of walk-throughs. I am hopeful that their insights and personal experiences will encourage other educators to their professional practice.

To put it bluntly, I feel much more like an instructional leader because I honestly know more about the state of learning in my building.

High School Principal

The thing I discovered about walk-throughs is how fast you can pick up on things. It became clear to me that what I was looking for in the past wasn’t really what I needed to be looking for.

Middle School Assistant Principal 

I’m finding that the more I talk with students, the deeper my questions can go about what they are learning. I have learned that there is a great deal of deep thinking going on in our classrooms. 

High School Principal 

I now find that I look forward to my visits to schools more than ever. I get excited anticipating what I may learn about how our curriculum is working from a student’s point of view. 

Central Office Curriculum Specialist 

I felt confident in doing walk-throughs and talking with students but my confidence level was truly raised when I did walk-throughs with a fellow administrator. Being able to compare our insights about student learning has excited us both since we found we were in agreement in so many areas.

Elementary School Principal 

Looking at the classroom and seeing what the student sees give you an eye view of the support, resources, and expectations for what the student is learning.

Middle School Principal  

I have shared student responses to the questions I asked during the walk-throughs when I give feedback to teachers. It has caused me to not simply write a report but to think about how I can assist them in being more effective teachers. 

Middle School Assistant Principal 

At the end of a day when I have had the chance to complete a series of walk-throughs in my building, I find my drive home to be a little more exhilarating as I review all that I learned during my classroom visits.

Elementary School Assistant Principal 

Prior to doing walk-throughs, my data gathering consisted of me sitting in the back of the room taking detailed notes about everything the teacher was saying or doing. It almost became a mechanical process. I found myself putting off observations since I knew it meant hours of analyzing my notes and writing a lengthy report. Now I find myself getting excited about what I may learn when I enter a classroom since I’ll be talking directly to students.

High School Assistant Principal 

Our school culture has been completely changed. On a weekly basis, our administrators are blocking out time when they are devoting time exclusively to walk-throughs with no interruptions. Our teachers have become very comfortable with administrators talking with students about what they are learning. 

Middle School Principal 

Conversations with students have opened up a whole new world for us. In addition to administrators engaging in walk-throughs, I have now organized teachers into pairs who are visiting classrooms and interacting with students. They are not only gaining an expanded knowledge of the different kinds of learning that students are experiencing but they are also seeing the different instructional approaches their peers are using.

Elementary School Assistant Principal 

As a result of studying with the walk-through process, I am making a concerted effort to visit schools more frequently. Not only am I learning more about how well teachers are doing, I am finding that the building level administrators are very grateful for the interest I am taking in the state of instruction and the support I can bring to the teachers in their building. 

Central Office Supervisor 

During my walk-through training, I had the chance to visit an elementary school and carry out the process with administrators from different levels. I concluded that my high school teachers can learn a great deal from visiting elementary classrooms and seeing exciting learning experiences elementary teachers are providing for their kids. I think our high school teachers can apply many of the same techniques to their own classes.

High School Principal 

One of the most powerful things I learned from my walk-through training was the importance of being completely transparent with my teachers about what I was doing when I came to their classrooms. The trust level between administrators and teachers has increased significantly.

Elementary School Principal 

The walk-through experience has helped our school to reinforce our school’s goals. One of our goals was to move from a teacher-centered environment to a student-centered environment. During our walk-throughs, we are keeping data on the variety of student-centered learning activities we are seeing and sharing that data with the staff.

Middle School Principal 

I am in my 35th year in education. I only wish I had known about this practice long ago. It would have made my years as an administrator much more fulfilling.

Elementary School Principal 

I was hesitant at first to go into classrooms and try to engage students in conversations about their learning. I wasn’t sure the students would be very forthcoming in talking with me. Once I began I quickly learned how excited and animated the students become when they are able to talk about what they are doing.

Central Office Administrator 

I am excited that our district is adding walk-throughs as a method of data gathering the in evaluation process. Realistically, I am finding that I know so much more about what is really happening in my teachers’ classrooms since I am seeing them more often.

Elementary School Principal 

The walk-through process has benefitted our school in so many ways. In addition to increasing the visibility of administrators and the amount of feedback each administrator is able to provide for teachers, we are better able to plan our staff development initiatives because we have so much more data about what teachers need to increase student learning.

Elementary School Principal 

I have found so many positive learning experiences going on in my building. I have also learned that the data I get from students has helped me structure my conversations with teachers who may need more assistance.

Middle School Assistant Principal

 

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “The Power of Walk-Throughs.” Just for the ASKing! August 2009. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2009 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.