When classroom observations make sense

observations

 Shared on flickr by Ralph Hockens

People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture—to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in.
~Chip and Dan Heath

Full disclosure: I am no Instructional Rounds expert. The majority of my exposure to Instructional Rounds has been experiential and in context of the work I do as part of our district’s Instructional Leadership Team (6 teachers who work on site with teachers in an iterative cycle of co-planning, co-teaching and co-learning). As such I would rate my knowledge of the theory behind instructional rounds as low (I just want to make that part very clear 🙂 ). I also have to admit I did not “get” the Instructional Rounds concept. At all. That is before I saw it and experienced it in practice and on site. This made 2 aspects of professional learning and change evident to me:
1. Telling someone about a practice is not an effective way for them to understand it (i.e. as most Pro-D in the past has been).
2. When an initiative (practice) is presented in isolation, it does not always make sense or seem relevant.

The majority of our work happens on site with a school based group of teachers.  Our first steps on site are usually to co-construct criteria for collaborative work. This can feel like a laborious process but as with any new process you often don’t feel the benefits until well into it or till even after. Next steps are to identify an area of need (what are they seeing in their students) and establish a collective rational for the why of the work to reveal a common pathway (5 why protocol can be used to drill down). As well the creation of “if…then” statements can be useful to determine the why of the work we are about to undertake.  I really like this stage as it provides the opportunity to create a prediction and predictions invite us to wonder if they will be true! So for example we might say: “if we design lessons with voice and choice then our students will take more ownership over their learning” or “if we build stamina (using Daily 5) then our students will become independent learners.”

Onto co-planning

The co-planning stage sets up the tension for the underlying why of classroom observations (in my limited experience!).
If we do this…then this will happen…ok let’s find out if it’s true. Observations rather than inferences allow us to find patterns and trends instead of making judgments and opinions. After the observations is when the magic happens!  Through the process of sharing and sorting the observations as a group is when the co-learning happens. I have to admit I did not really get the co-learning part until I experienced it IRL. The moment we come out of a classroom observation (based on a lesson we co-planned) the connections between our observations happen. We saw similar things (observations are neutral, they are not opinions) the patterns begin to emerge; it becomes immediately evident the changes we might need to make to the co-planned lesson. But also evident are the successes and details that paint a full picture of what is actually going on in the class. The meaningful nods occur all without judgment or value statements. At this moment everyone is keen and ready to change, tweak and celebrate the lesson; it becomes obvious what needs to be slightly adjusted or added. Teachers are eager to get at it right at it and often want to co-teach the same lesson again that afternoon or next day. The natural progression to co-plan again emerges organically and does not feel forced.
This process connects the causal relationship between planning to the specifics of what happens in the classroom (yes we all know this…but when we experience it followed by observations it has a different impact). This process reveals teaching as experimentation. It also moves the focuses from what the teacher is doing and to what students are doing. The process also makes evident how useful observations can be in general and opens the door to observations as a way to provide students with useful feedback (as opposed to judgments or evaluations).

Why this kind of classroom observation makes sense:

1. Creates permission to tinker on teaching practice.
2. Moves us out of silos (beyond grade partners, subject specialties, schools).
3. Moves us away from widget making mindset: it is not to create as many lessons as possible but rather to see the lesson plan as always in process.
4. No one person is perceived as THE expert; together we co-create understanding of quality and a “nose for quality.”
5. Shows small changes are possible (creates belief change is possible).
6. Topples belief that Pro-D should be like a fast acting cold medication with a one-time dose.

But more than anything else this process helps remind us:

We learn to do the work by doing the work, not by telling other people to do the work, not by having done the work at some time in the past, and not by hiring experts who can act as proxies for our knowledge about how to do the work.
~Richard Elmore

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