Learning-Walk Continuum

A school district moves from a simplistic checklist to meaningful dialogue about the qualities observed in an effective classroom by PETER DALLAS FINCH

“I need to use more juicy words,” the student said.

“What are juicy words?” I asked.

The 4th grader gave me an exasperated look. “Juicy words are descriptive words … like adjectives and adverbs,” she explained.

I was in the middle of an administrative team learning walk in Mrs. Olden’s classroom at Summitview Elementary School in Yakima, Wash. I had asked the student what she was working on today. It was apparent the student had a plan to improve her writing.

Peter Finch and Sherry AdamsPeter Finch, assistant superintendent in West Valley School District in Yakima, Wash., conducts a learning walk with Sherry Adams, principal of Cottonwood Elementary School.

Another student was sitting nearby. I asked her what she was studying. She told me she wanted to improve the introduction to her essay. “I need to have a good hook,” she said.

As I moved throughout the classroom, talking with students about their learning, it was clear all students had an individual goal to improve their writing. All students could explain to me their learning target. They could tell me where they were in their progression of learning, and they could explain how they used various resources to reach their learning goal.

The student in search of juicy words showed me her notebook where she collected interesting, descriptive words. Then she pointed to a wall in the classroom. “We have a word wall where we can share the juicy words that we find.”

I knew that this teacher’s classes had writing scores each year that ranked above the state average on the statewide assessment. When I checked the results for this class after the state testing was completed, the results were outstanding: 87 percent of the students in the class met the state standard for writing, with 70 percent scoring at the highest level. The state average that year was 21 percent for the highest level.

The next year, when we were forming a district team of teacher-leaders to provide professional development in writing, I asked Mrs. Olden whether she would be interested in serving as the teacher-leader for our 4th-grade teachers. She said yes.

A Checklist at First
Our school district’s journey with learning walks began in 2002 with a presentation at the annual fall conference run by the Washington Association of School Administrators. Anthony Alvarado and Elaine Fink, in a presentation on the successes they had as instructional leaders in District 2 in New York City, pointed to a key component of getting principals and other site administrators out of their offices and into the classrooms.

In the West Valley School District in Yakima, Wash., with its 4,900 students, we began the practice in the following year with a commitment by our 13 principals to spend one hour a day in the classroom. We’ve learned a lot since then.

During the first year, our district leadership team of administrators and teacher-leaders identified best practices for classroom instruction. We created a form with a long list of what we called “look-fors.” The list included little boxes for the principal to check off.

It took a few years before we realized the form was not facilitating constructive conversations about teaching and learning. Principals would observe a classroom, check some boxes, leave a copy in the teacher’s mailbox and send a copy to the district office. We had no instructional framework to align our work. Conversations about teaching and learning were less of a dialogue between principal and teacher and more of a dispute.

Teachers emphasized the brevity of the classroom visit, while principals found themselves spending most of their time defending the rationale for why they checked a box — or didn’t check a box. In retrospect, we had put the cart before the horse. We had started the practice of learning walks without having a coherent instructional model in place.

One superintendent, a strong proponent of learning walks, emphasizes the adoption of an instructional framework is an essential antecedent to effective practice. Richard Jones, superintendent of the North Kitsap School District on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, says, “That’s a huge piece of the puzzle. Huge. In fact, you don’t have it together until you’ve got that going. You’ve got to have something that’s common ground for everybody.”

Desired Qualities
In West Valley, we chose to use The Art and Science of Professional Teaching: A Developmental Model for Demonstrating Positive Impact on Student Learning by Marilyn Simpson as the foundation for our instructional framework. In the summer of 2006, our teacher-leaders used Simpson’s work to identify four look-fors they believed were vital for every lesson:

•  students know the learning target; 

•  students activate their prior knowledge; 

•  students are provided think time; and 

•  students actively participate in their learning.

We modified our learning-walk form and created four columns for a person to write their observations in prose as they viewed the classroom through the framework of the district look-fors. No longer did the conversation between principal and teacher focus on whether a box was checked or not checked.

Our principals also came to the agreement they would debrief, personally, with teachers after every learning walk. Instead of dropping the learning-walk form in the teacher’s mailbox, principals committed to dialogue with teachers about the classroom visits.

As we progressed in our understanding of the instructional framework, our district’s leadership team of administrators and teacher-leaders focused on one aspect of the framework — learning targets. We arranged our district professional development to be taught by the teacher-leaders to emphasize this topic, digging deeper rather than addressing something new.

We added a flipside to our learning-walk form, which provided space for principals to record student comments, verbatim, based on Component 1 of the The Art and Science of Professional Teaching: All students know the learning target, they understand the progression of learning, and they access resources to support their learning.

We focused more on what students said about their learning. A teacher might post a learning target on the board, but does that mean every student knows the learning target or understands it? Principals could discover this important information only by asking students about their learning.

When teachers were provided information that their students did not know the learning target, we found many teachers developed ways to check for understanding. Now, we often see teachers check midway through a lesson and refer back to the learning target to see whether students understand how their task relates to the target. Teachers use exit slips to assess student understanding of the lesson’s objective. In professional learning community team meetings, teachers analyze the exit slips to determine the extent to which students understood the learning target and the progression of learning.

All of this work developed after we had identified an instructional framework for our school district and narrowed the focus. With a common instructional framework, instructional practices can be compared to a standard for quality.

Joint Walks
Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters and Brian McNulty, all affiliated at one time with McREL, have proposed the most important leadership activity a principal can do to support incremental improvement is to monitor the instructional practice in the school. As a part of my doctoral studies at Washington State University, I talked with every superintendent in the state who led a medium to large district, 112 in all. I found the majority of superintendents either encouraged the practice of principal learning walks or required it.

In our regional superintendent meetings, improving the instructional core has been an ongoing topic. Superintendents hope learning walks will improve instructional practice. West Valley’s superintendent, Peter Ansingh, says, “If we spend our time focused on helping teachers improve their practice, then that’s how we’re going to impact the student learning.”

Richard Cole, superintendent of the Sunnyside School District in the Yakima Valley, emphasizes that learning walks must be viewed as a collaborative process with principal and teacher working together to improve instruction. If it is viewed as evaluative, he says, teachers will not be willing to participate.

“I tell my principals if they see something in a classroom that concerns them — stop. I tell them, ‘Stop doing walk-throughs in that classroom and only do formal observations,’” Cole says.

In my doctoral study, I had in-depth conversations with 12 superintendents who required their principals to participate in learning walks. Nearly all of the superintendents reported they themselves participated periodically in learning walks with the principal. The purpose of these joint learning walks was to ensure the principals were following through with the superintendent’s expectation.

While the superintendents reported various ways to hold their building leaders accountable, such as requiring principals to submit logs or forms, I believe the face-to-face accountability of the superintendent-principal learning walk is most effective. In my experience, it is easy to determine whether a principal has been following-through. If you quietly go into a classroom with a principal and a student raises his hand and says, “Teacher, why are they in here?”, you have an indication the students in the school do not see an administrator in the classroom on a regular basis.

On the other hand, I have entered classrooms where students continue with their work as if nothing is out of the ordinary with an observer on the sideline. This suggests to me that in this school it is routine to see an administrator in the classroom. In these classrooms, I’ve also found students prepared to answer my question, “What are you learning today?”

Team Walks
Administrative-team learning walks focus on developing a common vision for effective instruction and increasing team learning about the knowledge and skills needed to improve the instructional core.

In my conversations with superintendents, I found a wide range of practices. In our school district, we have an administrative-team learning walk once a month that is hosted at a different school at all grade levels in the district.

Other school districts split their administrative-team learning walks so they focus on the level where the principal is an administrator. In other words, elementary principals visit elementary schools and secondary principals visit secondary schools.

A more recent development in our region has been superintendent professional learning communities, or networks, that have been formed across district boundaries based on the work of superintendents in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and Ohio as described in the book Instructional Rounds in Education by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman and Lee Teitel. Each month, superintendents from our Upper Valley Superintendent’s Network meet at a school in a neighboring district and participate in learning walks to collect information on a colleague’s identified “problem of practice.” Superintendents from the Lower Valley Superintendent’s Network do the same. We all meet together in a monthly regional WASA meeting at our local educational service district to share what we are learning.

The districts where learning walks have been implemented the longest have begun to invite teachers to participate in the classroom visits. Superintendents from these districts report that when teachers participate in learning walks alongside administrators, the superintendents see a change in the culture in their schools. These superintendents told me that including teachers in the learning walks has helped to build a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement.

In the West Valley School District, during the past school year we included teachers in the administrative-team learning walks. A 2nd-grade teacher from Ahtanum Valley Elementary School, Deandra Turley, said, “It was eye-opening to see what goes on. We always wondered what happened when you left the room. The principals were discussing their own observation skills; they weren’t being critical of the teacher.”

Participating in a learning walk with administrators increased trust between this teacher and her principal. “It demystified the whole process,” she said.

Range of Options
In their book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. highlighted a management practice that was labeled “management by walking around” at United Airlines and “management by wandering around” at Hewlett-Packard. The practice of learning walks has evolved in our school district to have a greater focus than a walk or a wander. The continuum of learning walks can be viewed in stages with various dimensions including frequency, participants, purpose and the presence of an instructional framework within which the instructional practice is viewed.

At one end of the continuum, the learning walk is conducted by only the principal, infrequently, without an instructional framework. Steps in the continuum progress as the learning walks are conducted more frequently. One way to ensure this is accomplished is for the administrator to schedule the learning walk into the workday as if the walk were an essential appointment.

The purpose of the principal learning walk is to monitor instruction to ensure the principal knows what is happening in classrooms. By adopting an instructional framework, either within a school or across a school district, participants develop a common vocabulary for conversations about teaching and learning.

Additional purposes for learning walks lead to additional participants. Superintendent-principal learning walks provide the opportunity for face-to-face accountability in instructional leadership. Administrative team walks provide the opportunity to develop a common vision for instructional practice and the knowledge and skills needed to improve the instructional core.

The addition of teachers to the practice enables greater collaboration between teachers and administrators and builds a culture that values continuous improvement. This collaborative culture shifts the principal from directing change to facilitating teacher self-reflection. In our district, learning walks helped us identify our next level of work.

While some superintendents may be wary about placing such emphasis on getting administrators into the classroom, I believe the greatest impact we can make to improve student learning is to support improvements in instructional practice. If we believe children deserve high-quality instruction, then we must focus on what happens daily in the classroom. The superintendent of the nearby Grandview School District, Kevin Chase, said it best when he told me, “It’s a balancing act. There’s no doubt about it. The secret to me is: You talk about how important it is that we learn to improve instruction. Because they can’t argue with improving instruction.”

Peter Finch is assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in West Valley School District in Yakima, Wash. E-mail: finchp@wvsd208.org