Professional Learning

Using Instructional Rounds to Improve Learning Outcomes

Learning walks provide a way to identify and remedy issues that may be hindering student learning.

March 21, 2024
ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy

Instructional innovation involves developing and implementing new instructional methodologies and strategies (including technology) to improve student learning outcomes. I was introduced to this concept while working as an instructional specialist in the central office of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) in Virginia. Our director of curriculum and instruction, Victoria Oakley, led our team in quarterly classroom visits to assist school leaders in developing professional development interventions for the 50 district schools.

We utilized the instructional rounds process to identify and remedy instructional problems in schools, employing action research to meet the district’s instructional innovation goals. Instructional rounds include strategically utilizing three essential components: classroom observations, improvement plans, and a team approach to solving problems of practice. Given that we had a dynamic team partnering effectively with schools, RPS saw results and became fully accredited by the state of Virginia in 2010.

Coupling my knowledge of visiting classrooms to personalize teacher development, which I learned at RPS, with expert teaching, I have helped some superintendents and school leaders strengthen instructional innovation efforts in their school systems in recent years using what I learned about instructional rounds.

Learning Walks

Instructional rounds can be a powerful addition to any school teaching team’s instructional innovation efforts. Conducting rounds is not evaluative of the teaching staff. Instead, it’s a process of teams engaging in learning walks to visit classrooms to observe teaching and learning. For this reason, we purposefully inform the teachers we’re visiting, do not put their names on any documentation, and do not spend more than 10 minutes observing them. During learning walks, the team gains the necessary insight to identify areas needing improvement, collect the proper data to provide teachers with timely feedback, and plan interventions for in-service days and collaborative work time.

If instructional rounds and learning walks are not currently practiced in your school, it’s crucial to begin cultivating the trust of your teaching staff before proceeding. If this is not carried out appropriately, the learning walks portion of the process will appear to be evaluative and not for its intended purpose of support. First, it’s important to explain the process. I suggest showing them this Edutopia video and discussing the team’s objectives. Ask them about their perceptions, answer clarifying questions, and ease concerns, if any.

You are ready to begin the instructional rounds process after assembling your teaching team, which should include anyone in your school responsible for supporting instruction (e.g., administrators, coaches, and lead teachers). Here are six steps to get you started to conduct instructional rounds soundly. Feel free to adapt these to meet your school’s needs.

6 Steps to Implementing Instructional Rounds

1. Begin team facilitator preparation: Assign a team facilitator to help guide the process. With the teaching team, identify an instructional area of focus for the upcoming learning walk. Examples of instructional focus may include student engagement and differentiation. Ensure that everyone understands the structured learning walk process (see step two for examples) and how it guides data collection. Create a schedule with timings, and assign team members the classrooms they will visit. Also, inform the teachers being observed.

2. Conduct a team briefing: Facilitate a pre-round briefing meeting with the entire teaching team. Articulate the objectives of the instructional round to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Assign a classroom visitation schedule, roles, and responsibilities to the teaching team members (e.g., classroom observers, date-debrief note-takers). Review a team-agreed-upon well-structured learning walk protocol document aligned with the instructional focus area, and provide guidance on what to look for during the classroom visits.

Note: You can create your own or download an adaptable version here. I created it by drawing inspiration from the Leadership Capacity Toolkit, with differentiation as the instructional focus. Using ChatGPT, I defined each differentiation method on page one. (To the best of my ability, I edited the items to remove inaccurate material.)

3. Begin data collection: Conduct the learning walks by visiting classrooms in groups of two to three team members. Adhere to the observation protocol, and take notes on observations in the classroom. Document objectively and honestly.

4. Debrief following the learning walk: Facilitate shared observations, preferably using a structured protocol. Begin discussions by highlighting positive practices observed. Do not name specific teachers. Instead, focus on how students receive instruction, and identify common instructional challenges across the observed classrooms. Conjure up solutions to the instructional problems observed and discussed.

5. Conduct analysis and reflect on your findings: Analyze the collected data to pinpoint the causes of the instructional challenges. Reflect on the implications of the findings to student learning and teaching practice. Specify the desired improvement outcomes as a result of a professional development (PD) intervention. Consider potential PD interventions for producing the desired outcomes.

6. Decide how to move forward: Have the team develop improvement plans to address the instructional issues identified. Collaboratively define goals and outcomes, strategies, and realistic implementation timelines. Assign the teaching team members duties and responsibilities for action plan execution.

Instructional innovation isn’t confined to a series of steps—it involves dedication, team building and collaboration, patience, and methods for collecting relevant data to grow teachers and instructional practice. Instructional rounds and observing teaching and learning in classrooms are a means to help teaching teams innovate using a data-driven process.

The recommendations and steps prescribed in this article are a portion of the process. For many, these items might become a key element of their overall instructional innovation school plan. After engaging in instructional rounds, teams must commit to following up, monitoring, and continuously reflecting on the entire process. Instructional innovation needs to be ongoing.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Victoria Oakley. I sincerely thank Superintendent Serbrenia Sims for helping me improve this process. Our book on cultivating instructional innovation through action research is forthcoming from Solution Tree.

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