Classroom Visitations Done Well: Walk-Throughs Can Result in Thoughtful Discussions about Teaching Practice, Or-If a School Isn't Clear about the Purpose or Process-In Mountains of Unused Data

By Bloom, Gary | Leadership, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Classroom Visitations Done Well: Walk-Throughs Can Result in Thoughtful Discussions about Teaching Practice, Or-If a School Isn't Clear about the Purpose or Process-In Mountains of Unused Data


Bloom, Gary, Leadership


In a California school district central office, staff members conduct "learning walks," briefly visiting school classrooms and entering data into PDAs. A principal in Tennessee schedules what she calls "learning walks" as well, this time conducted by grade-level teams visiting their own classrooms and examining the success of a particular teaching strategy that they have all agreed to try. In a Pennsylvania school district, "walkthroughs" consist of structured interviews of students in the school's hallways.

A large urban district in Illinois requires all sites to conduct what it calls "learning visits," allowing each site to design its own process. Implementation of this mandate ranges from a high school where a few administrators walk through classrooms with a 52-item checklist to an elementary school where all teachers visit each others' classrooms to observe for a teaching strategy and engage in an open conversation guided by three reflective questions.

Learning walks, walk-throughs and the like are being conducted around the country, and the results range from thoughtful discussions among practitioners about teaching practice, to the compilation of mountains of unused data gathered by self-appointed inspectors.

Teachers have traditionally worked in relative isolation, as "independent artisans" exercising their craft behind closed doors. The '80s and '90s saw rising interest in mentoring and peer coaching, interactions that were primarily one-to-one.

Popularizers of visitations

Informed by Peter Senge's work on learning organizations and Etienne Wenger's work on communities of practice, group classroom visitations have grown in popularity in recent years. Among the key popularizers of the concept are Tony Alvarado and Elaine Fink, formerly of New York City's District 2, who organized principals and teachers as professional learning communities that frequently conducted group classroom visitations.

Lauren Resnick has built upon this approach and is now helping districts across the country implement what she calls "Learning Walks" through her Institute for Learning. Other organizations and consultants promote similar practices. Doug Reeves and the Center for Performance Assessment support districts to implement walk-throughs for the purpose of data gathering.

Carolyn Downey trains principals to conduct "Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Throughs." The Lesson Study model has engaged teachers in crafting, testing and analyzing teaching in a public process.

Through multiple pathways, teaching is becoming a public professional practice; classroom doors are opening to principals and colleagues.

Clear expectations needed

As school sites and districts hop onto this bandwagon, there is a lot of unnecessary fumbling going on because of a lack of clarity around purpose, participants and process.

Done well, classroom visitations tied to professional learning communities and continuous improvement processes have transformative power. Done poorly, they can produce hostility and distrust, and will become one more passing fad in the long and disappointing history of school reform.

There are lots of valid reasons for visiting classrooms, many possible participants, and many processes that can be tied to those visits. No one model is sufficient to support a systemic school improvement process. It is essential that before a school or district begins a classroom visitation program, everybody is clear about what to expect and what their role is to be in the process.

The purpose of this article is to establish a typology of classroom visitations that might help schools and districts to achieve that clarity. The suggested categories and processes I share here are not meant to be exclusive. It is easy to imagine dozens of variations on these models. Instead, think of this typology as a place to start, subject to the interests and inventiveness of your own professional community. …

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