The Power of Learning With Your Peers: #LearningWalks

Over the last few years we shifted learning in classrooms.  We worked toward a clearly defined goal – more student centered, more student inquiry, more student creativity and critical thinking, and most importantly, more students doing the work.  This is hard work and sometimes even knowing where to get started is challenging.

One strategy we employed that made all the difference is Learning Walks.  Making time to visit other teachers’ classrooms provides a small window of insight into the work they’ve been doing and builds a connection between teachers.  That connection provides an opportunity for ongoing dialogue and learning about strategies, working through challenges, bouncing ideas off one another and more.  Conducting learning walks in a school isn’t new and isn’t something I made up, but I want to share some of what made it work.

Define what matters.

This is what you’re looking for when you visit each classroom.  This might be different for every person or it might be a school wide goal or vision.  During our first year, a group of teacher leaders defined what we hoped people would notice in classrooms, what we wanted them to see.  We started with the premise that naming what we wanted to see would help people notice it and noticing it (and knowing others were noticing it) would help encourage teachers to begin incorporating these ideas in our classrooms.

We developed a school goal around three main categories: Engagement, Meaningful Learning Experiences, and Classroom Space and Setup.  These were the focus areas for our learning walks (and our professional learning through the year).  We provided a list of “look fors” and asked teachers to visit each others’ rooms.   There was an optional comment box under each category and many teachers elaborated on what they saw.

  • Engagement: Student choice of activities or tools or resources, students connecting with others through technology, teacher is available in a variety of ways (face to face and digitally), students freely and responsibly moving around space, students demonstrate digital leadership and or citizenship, students providing solutions for real world problems, resiliency – students persevere with tasks, meaningful interaction between students (digitally or face to face), self paced learning, risk taking and comfortable with the unknown.
  • Meaningful Learning Experiences: Authentic experiences and real word connections, open ended quesitons, a growth mindset, learning through inquiry, learning by doing, students knew routines and procedures, teacher is viewed as a “guide on the side” and freely moves around, teacher met with small group, variety of assessment methods, students receive timely and specific feedback, instruction differentiated through technology
  • Classroom Setup & Learning Space: Flexible space in classroom, stations/zones/other purposeful learning spaces, students were sitting, students were standing, students were laying down, small group areas, large group areas, teacher work area is not focal point of the room, decreased emphasis on the front of the room, student work is projected, students creating multimedia projects (film, video, podcasts, etc.

During the second year, we refined our criteria and again, connected it to the school’s goals.  This meaningful (and explicit connection) means that learning walks aren’t one more thing…they are part of the work we’re doing to improve teaching and learning for all students.  In addition, during year two we made our criteria more specific and our form more quantifiable.

  • Differentiated Instruction Through Technology – did you observe any of the following (yes or no) Are students doing the same or different activities? Do they have a choice as to what they are doing (If you are not sure, ask them or teacher)? Are some students using technology, while others are not, but all are working toward a similar goal/outcome?
  • Specific and Timely Feedback to Students – did you observe any of the following (yes or no) Specific feedback to students may include any of the following: Feedback may be provided to students using technology or with other methods. Feedback should be specific and include more than a grade. Feedback could be peer to peer or from a teacher.
  • Students are creating and sharing products – did you observe any of the following (yes or no) Students may be in the process of creating or presenting. Students are creating (may include music, presentations, artistic creation, solution based on research, collaboration and problem solving, presentations, etc) Students share their product with peers, including questions and answers. Final products may vary in a classroom but demonstrate mastery of the same learning objective.

Think about how you’ll structure note taking and reflection

In addition to seeing what others are doing, taking notes and connecting the noticed ideas to your own practice is what makes this meaningful and leads to change in more classrooms.

Teachers completed a google form that immediately emailed a copy to both the teacher observing and being observed.  These were non evaluative and more than 800 learning walks were completed in the first year.

In addition to the check list we asked them to reflect on two questions.  These became the most meaningful and what teachers looked for in the feedback:

  1.  My takeaway:
  2. One thing I noticed that I will take back to my classroom/classes is…

When we could, we tried to build in time to talk with the person you observed.  This provides opportunities to ask questions and figure out how to do what you just saw.  It’s important to build in reflection (written or verbal) to make the learning walks more meaningful.

Make the time for visits

I recently watched this short video from edutopia that took groups of teachers to each others’ rooms.  They stayed no more than 5 minutes and within an hour visited 5-10 classrooms.  Then they had a conversation and debrief about what they saw, what they wanted to learn more about and what are their next steps.  I know that teachers at a nearby elementary visit each others classrooms and follow the idea of this model.  They bring in subs for a half day and teachers go with their teams to visit each others’ classrooms.  Every 2 hours, the subs release another team to go visit classrooms.

We chose to have teachers visit one classroom per quarter, so four a year, and to visit during their planning period.  We encouraged them to stay no more than 5 minutes and complete the google form while they were there.

We also visited other schools and their classrooms – you can read more about our visit to Lee HS here and a variety of other experiences visiting classrooms in various schools here. 

Whatever time you choose to use, a commitment to respecting the time of the teacher is important.  This might mean using sub coverage to provide the opportunity.  It might also mean spreading out the visits over the year.  Both have trade offs and the same process won’t fit every school.

While we don’t have the entire learning walk process completely perfected, this is a structure that has completely changed learning and teaching and moved us forward much more quickly than we could have done had we just used the PD days and traditional structures built into the calendar.

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