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Learning walks: What have they become?

Deborah McVey, Managing Director, Deborah McVey Ltd

Learning walks are full of potential to support awareness of the quality of learners’ experiences, provide opportunities for reflection, and get teams excitedly making the improvements they seek. Yes, full of potential, but are they really achieving this? This might be the intention, but I have to ask, what have learning walks become?

It’s worth noting that the term ‘learning walks’ is one adopted by providers to describe quite different things. Often they’re a collection of visits to many different classrooms one after the other, but some use the term to refer to something that isn’t really ‘walking’ at all but visiting just one class at a time. In some cases, these are followed by discussions with the teaching team, and for others the teacher gets some form of individual feedback. It seems the only common denominator is the duration of the visit to a single classroom not exceeding 20 minutes.

We might debate about the different methods and which is superior, but really, there isn’t necessarily a single best way. What is important is that the way we walk meets our purpose, so that’s what we need to be clear about. And this is what I have to question.

Many providers talk about how they’d like learning walks to create more of an open door policy, helping teachers feel less pressure to perform, or to identity what learning is like on a day-to-day basis. But if that’s the case, we really have to question how they are sometimes carried out. Although providers usually seek something that’s more informal and distinctly different to those traditional observations, the reality is they sometimes become just ‘miniature observations’.

Let’s break down these common aims for more clarity and to challenge what we do:

Purpose: Learning walks to get a more accurate picture of the quality of learners’ day-to-day experiences.

Ok so going to classes more often might give you a more thorough picture than just one or two observations a year but is it anymore real?

Ask yourself:

  • Do we tell teachers when we will be walking?
  • If we do, are we sure we are seeing sessions in their natural, usual state?
  • Do we walk at lots of different times of the year, days of the week and times of the day?
  • If we don’t, what else are we doing to get a well-rounded picture of the learners’ experiences?
  • Do we pounce when we notice something that isn’t quite as we would like it to be or take time to find out more about how typical this thing is for that group of learners, and for others?
  • Do we actually decide where to look based on finding out about learners’ experiences or do we decide which teachers’ classes to visit?

Purpose: To help teachers feel they are not being judged and that learning walks are an opportunity to begin sharing.

Ask yourself:

  • Who does the learning walks?
  • Is it only or mostly managers?
  • If so, what message does that give?
  • Is there anything teachers are missing out on?
  • Are you feeding back to individual teachers?
  • What does this create?
  • If so, how does this differ to observations in terms of how it feels for teachers?
  • Do you make judgements about what you see in those short spaces of time?
  • If so, is it at all possible you are making any assumptions?
  • Are you ensuring that what is found during learning walks is used to aid teaching team sharing and reflection?
  • When and how does this happen, and what is the impact of it?

Purpose: To create a culture where learners welcome other educators into their classroom (the ‘open door’ policy).

Ask yourself:

  • Do you take a clipboard or computer in with you and / or take notes in the room where the session is taking place?
  • If so, how does this feel to teachers?
  • How does this differentiate from the note taking because of the need to capture evidence in full observations (Just to be clear, I’m not saying there is a need to capture evidence in full observations, but that is often how they are carried out)
  • To what extent does this support the culture you are trying to create?
  • How pleasant do you make the experience?
  • What efforts do you make to ensure the teacher feels more at ease?
  • How do you stay open-minded and demonstrate to teachers that you are learning too?
  • Do you walk in the room and say ‘I’m on a learning walk?”

I have to ask about explaining the entry to the lesson as “I’m on a learning walk’.   If we use this term to describe this thing we are doing and we then surround it with clipboards; individual feedback (telling the teacher what went well and what didn’t); punitive knee jerk reactions when we see something we didn’t believe to be good enough; entering the room and somehow failing to even talk to the teacher; and making up our minds about things with little evidence, what do we expect will happen?

When we do this, could we simply be saying ‘I’m on a learning walk. It is something to be wary about. I am the authority here and you dear teacher, are at risk’. You might not intend that but could it be that’s how it’s perceived? Is that at all possible? Countless times I have heard those carrying out learning walks enter a room saying ‘I’m on a learning walk’ (always against my advice). Where this happens, it often goes hand in hand with hearing teachers nervously saying ‘Are you on a learning walk?’ It’s become a thing. A negative thing. A thing filled with fear. It’s become a miniature observation. Something that teachers feel is done to them rather than with them. And if that’s what it’s become, good luck in using it to get that meaningful sustainable improvement we are seeking.

It isn’t always this way of course, but we do need to question the extent our ways of working support our intentions. We need to be consistent through and through.

Improvement does not simply occur by identifying the quality of learners’ experiences in different sessions and then feeding back to teachers about it. We know this, right? It has a chance to occur when we create a culture in which improvement can thrive. So, we should be asking the question, how could we create a positive improvement culture? This is where learning walks, carried out with real consideration, can play an important role.

As culture changes, the way in which you interact with teachers and the strategies you use to support improvement can change. But, if it’s getting that positive improvement culture you are after, you might start by carefully thinking through your intentions. These might be to:

  • Let teachers know you’re genuinely interested and passionate about learning and the learners
  • Let teachers know you are there to help
  • Make teachers feel valued
  • To find out about some good experiences learners have
  • To find positive or inspiring things to share
  • To find things to start a dialogue with teachers
  • To find out about, and explore the positive experiences of a particular ‘type’ of learner?

The idea here is that if you are aiming for a positive, enthusiastic, and inquisitive teaching team, you simply demonstrate positivity, enthusiasm and an inquisitive mind.

It really helps to develop some guiding principles such as trust, empowerment, kindness and humility. Once you have really explored the principles to support the culture you seek this will help you answer some of the detailed questions and possible conflicts that arise as you go about your walks.

So often, we forget our guiding principles and intentions. That’s one way of getting things horribly wrong. If we say to teachers that dropping into classrooms is to help us learn more and work together, we need to ensure that our actions match our words. Knee jerk reactions, assumptions, and ego are often our biggest downfalls.

There’s a lot to consider in order to really get it right. If you want to explore developing a positive culture of improvement, using learning walks more effectively, or dealing with some of the challenges along the way, I am always happy to chat.

Deborah McVey, Managing Director, Deborah McVey Ltd

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