Recent twitter chatter (“chitter” or “twatter”, you decide?) has suggested to me that the idea of Learning Walks is about as welcome as, well, something unwelcome. I’m surprised, but not massively as I’ve been aware for a while of the fact that other schools carry out Learning Walks differently to the way that I do.
If you’ve been for interview and, instead of a tour of the school, been taken on a “learning walk” and then asked about what you’ve learned about learning in that time. Really, you’ve learned very little. You may have seen the odd student outside a lesson, textbooks on desks, styles of seating, proportions of teachers at the front of the room and some amongst students, perhaps even group work. In short, you’ve gained a bit of an idea about teaching, not learning.
This is what puzzles me about the way that some of my Twitter colleagues and others describe learning walks at their schools. Instead of a focus on learning, they are largely used as a monitoring visit. For me, the two purposes are very very different.
Due to work that I did a couple of years ago with a truly outstanding LA consultant (I could bemoan the loss of the LAs here but no time!) I began to use a set of questions that he had developed in working in some rapidly improving but, challenging schools. The process is simple and, most importantly, non invasive! After identifying the time period in which the walks will take place (the questions having already been shared with colleagues) I ask for a team of staff at all levels to take either a specific subject area or even area of the school to cover during their frees. When carrying out a walk, we arrive around two-thirds of the way through the lesson, towards the last ten minutes and ask, if its convenient (it isn’t always) if we can talk to two or three students. The students are then asked the questions, and only these questions, with no more prompting, and their answers are written down parrot fashion. Students are returned to the lesson, the form is copied to me and the teacher is given the original for immediate feedback.
What we found out rather quickly was that the first three questions can be answered with the same thing! e.g. “Macbeth”, “Macbeth” and “Macbeth” with ever increasing levels of odd looks for you the questioner. Even worse, I did encounter the answer, “Maths”, “Maths” and “Maths”, followed by the question, are you listening Sir? Once shared with Curriculum Leaders this began to be a more powerful way of allowing teachers to consider the language they were using with students.
It also let us know that, if we were good at anything, it was in making sure students knew “what” they were doing. We were brilliant at that!
The important point in the delivery of these Learning Walks was in the flexibility to change the wording of questions because of feedback from students and colleagues or indeed cut down the number of questions to one or two in order to focus on the area we were targeting. This quickly became the “Success Criteria” question after having been inundated with responses from students that focused almost solely on teacher validation, with the notable exception of practical subjects. PE, Dance and Food Tech being outstanding examples of areas where students knew to a pinpoint extent what they needed to be doing to be successful.
Once the period of time we have identified is over and the forms are returned to me, I can begin the process of developing an evaluation of where, particularly the AfL practice, of colleagues is at and consider what the next steps are for me, in terms of training for all staff. (Click here LW Breakdown Example for a copy of one of my evaluations to see what can be gleaned from learning walks) In short, Learning Walks at my school, unless they indicate any particularly worrying patterns, are completely formative. A summary is shared with staff and Curriculum Leaders discuss individual targets for their departments in the time before the next set of walks are carried out. Ofsted were pleased (under the previous framework admittedly) with this process.
It’s not perfect, and union action is really threatening to curtail how many of them we are able to do, with the weight of the responsibility falling to Curriculum Leaders, potentially the busiest group of people in school anyway. But we’ll find a way.
My method does come from somewhere interesting. The work of Geoff Southworth on “Learning Centred Leadership” was a really clichéd lightbulb moment. (Southworth Learning Centred Leadership)
“Students’ perceptions permit us access to the “received” curriculum, which in many ways is the only curriculum that really matters. At any one time in classrooms and schools there are always three curricula running simultaneously:
1. the planned curriculum — that which teachers intend to do;
2. the taught curriculum — that which actually is taught; and
3. the received curriculum — that which students experience.
As we know, there is also considerable potential for these three curricula to become disentangled and divorced from one another. Unless we explore the third of these, we will never know if they have or have not been synchronised.”
Learning Walks, carried out in the way I describe, coupled with effective AfL allow us to begin to see how effectively we begin to bring the taught and received curriculums closer together, resulting in more powerful learning experiences.
Concerns have been raised regarding the basic trust that we, as teachers, put in the perceptions of our students regarding our practice. My response to these concerns centred on the importance of the students and their perceptions, firstly, because the only parts of what we, as teachers, are completely in control of is the planning and actions of teaching. Therefore the students are invaluable to us as sources of evaluation because they can build a detailed picture of how effectively we do plan and teach.
Secondly, if AfL is deployed effectively, students are involved in the process and are, as a result of this, able to articulate better how they can improve their own progress in relation to the actions of teachers.
If teaching can be looked upon as whatever a teacher does in a classroom to organise and monitor learning the teaching can, does and should impact on the learning of students. If there is a shift towards the cognitive process of learning being pushed to the fore as opposed to the actions taken by teachers to achieve this then it must be viewed in the continuum of AfL. In this way it can be presented as a way of finding out or assessing where the issues that need to be resolved exist and used formatively to make a difference to learning through the practice of teachers therefore becoming less judgmental and more informative within a culture of evaluation.
So let’s go for a Learning Walk, not a teaching walk, a Learning Walk.