There are huge opportunities for sharing practice and reflecting on learning within the learning walk model. Yet many colleges are limiting the model to its incarnation as a policing tool, the long arm of management checking on what is happening in class. In many contexts I hear of managers conducting regular, brief drop in observations in their subject area or across college. These are mainly used to track whether key strategic drivers are being implemented in practice, e.g. Are teachers embedding numeracy? Are AfL approaches being deployed?
In more rigorous colleges, the evidence from these mini observations is documented, summarised, analysed and fed back into wider quality reports. One benefit of this can be a bigger snapshot of authentic classroom practice than the more orchestrated graded observation process can supply. Arguably it is also a good way of capturing evaluation data on the impact of CPD, as it gives some response to the question Are people implementing what they have been trained on and how is that affecting learners?
However there are some major limitations and drawbacks to this model of learning walks. Anecdotal conversations with teachers in around twenty colleges suggest to me that many staff view this as surveillance and feel it shows implicit lack of trust in their professional expertise. They feel the learning walkers, typically managers, are typically walking to check, not to learn and share. In this context, learning walks become part of a mounting alienation between classroom practitioners and managers who are felt to be piling on the pressure to implement strategic drivers. In many situations I suspect that managers do not intend to create this feeling through learning walks and have more positive intentions at heart. However, the feeling of strain and building pressure within the sector means teachers can simply view this as just another pressure, with few benefits for them but added ammunition for the new performance management regimes. This feeling is strengthened if they receive no feedback on what the managers saw as individuals and the team.
So, how can learning walks be harnessed as more collaborative practice, to foster peer sharing, dialogue and reflection?
Teaching and learning coaches/ Advanced Teachers/ Learning Practitioners etc are vital here. They can carry out learning walks for a range of purposes, with a focus on sharing practice and collaborative development. Here are a few ways this can be organised:
ATs/LPs/Coaches conduct ungraded learning walks, initially in an area where they have links, relationships and credibility, explicitly focusing on spotting effective practice. Teachers are told that they might drop in, with no requirement to produce any paperwork and no need to jump through any criteria hoops. It is just another pair of eyes looking at how learning is happening in a peer’s professional context, and spotting the good stuff.
Try it! It can be a hugely energising, thought-provoking and positive experience for walkers and those visited. The fear of criticism is reduced, although never entirely removed maybe, as many people are scarred by experiences of undermining, badly handled graded observation visits.
Examples of practice from the walks can be summarised in written form or a short video diary or group discussion can be held or filmed with the walkers and those visited. The benefit of the group discussion is the chance the grapple with underpinning ideas about what makes for effective learning experiences and the potential consolidations or disputes that will occur in that dialogue. I think it’s stimulating to debate such core issues, don’t you? It encourages an enquiring mind, develops reflection on practice, helps us to consider how we do what we do, the choices we make and the effects on others. It opens up options for future direction of exploration. Points should be discussed with those visited and with the wider teaching community as part of a T&L agenda item at a team meeting or maybe a think tank style event on a CPD day. What is effective learning? could be a very engrossing discussion prompt…. I think that thoughts are always shifting around what effective learning is, but that colleges spend far too little time debating that in reflective ways and far too much time jumping in knee jerk fashion and with a tick list mentality to create “outstanding lessons” to the Ofsted recipe.
Another model can involve coaches/ ATs,/LPs doing ungraded learning walks within a curriculum area on their request as a diagnostic tool. A curriculum team might ask for a walk related to the ways they use target setting and give learners feedback, for example, if they want to develop and enhance this aspect of their work. The visitors can go in looking for how that is done and comment on the effects they see on learners. This walker as witness model can lead to analysis of the evidence by the team afterwards, and identification of areas for sharing, tweaking or changing. AT/LP/coach could facilitate that discussion to identify future training needs, follow on work with individuals and the team, be that sharing or development.
This model appeals as it puts ownership firmly with the teaching team and has a strong developmental thread running through it. The purpose is for the practitioners to reflect on and enhance their own practice through collaboration and professional dialogue.
In both models the coach role is pivotal. I think this builds visibility for that role in college, it helps the coach gain a broad picture of T&L approaches in context, it separates learning walks from managerial surveillance, reducing feelings of strain and pressure on teachers and encouraging better follow up after the walks.
A model that I don’t think is being commonly used yet is one where teachers carry out learning walks, i.e. learning walk week or fortnight. In this model, a calendar window is identified in which staff can drop into any lesson for a 10-15 minute slot, for example. There are operational guidelines, to prevent classes getting overloaded with visitors and the specific goal is to identify interesting and effective practice and to see how things are done differently in other classes/areas. It can be very thought provoking to have a T&L agenda item on what teachers picked up and found interesting from this process, through team meetings.
This model can be liberating, if the pressure to fill in paperwork is removed, and the process is repeated several times in the year, to build that “open door” culture. In some institutions, it will take time to get to a place where this is comfortable and workable, but moving towards it in small ways could be very fruitful, .e.g. starting with learning walks in an academy or curriculum area maybe? Teaching can actually be very isolating, with few opportunities to see other practitioners in action, and there is much to ponder when you get that chance.
I don’t think it is impossible for managers to lead learning walks in supportive, developmental ways and work with their teams on the findings. I think that quality assurance pressures mitigate against this joined up developmental approach in many contexts and often skew a well-intended learning walk. I also note that the findings from managerial learning walks do not always feed smoothly into wider messages to teachers and reflective developmental dialogue. They often get stuck within the curriculum team and just passed onto quality for logging. I think learning walks can do a lot more for us than provide tracking data. They could foster wider sharing of practice and collaborative problem solving and development among and between teams.
It could be helpful for many colleges to debate this issue and look again at purposes and practices around learning walks, so that intention and process align better and we get the maximum professional benefit from the model, for both teachers and learners. If you would like help or support with this process, I hope you will contact me: