My school, traditionally high performing and with a historic reputation for innovation, has been experiencing some aches and pains. The District data reveal that we have a constant 10% of students who leave to the continuation school or elsewhere. We have wonderful attendance, but a quarter of the students are on the D, F or I list. African American kids are over represented in referrals, bad grades and special education, but represent such a small percent of the overall population that they don’t show up on and external evaluation of our statistics. And as for innovation, we were one of the first high schools in the country to build small learning communities within the larger comprehensive school, and that got us a lot of attention. In a way, however, it has also made it difficult to move beyond, as the innovative programs of the past have become the balls and chains of the future.
To address this invisible “disease” of stagnation and opportunity gap, our fearless teacher leaders (fearless because, among other things, they volunteered for this new position this year to the dismay of staff who loudly protested the change) have proposed the idea of learning rounds as a systematic way to look at how individual students experience school, the ways in which students are engaged in learning content and skills, and the ways in which students are successful learners. It is our hope that this first-hand information will give us insight that will help us address the needs of all students.
The title and idea of learning rounds comes from the medical field, where teams of doctors and residents visit patients together, talking through and solving diagnoses by sharing ideas and knowledge. A McREL blog cites research in the book Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning to describe learning rounds as follows:
The basic idea is to put all educators – principals and central office administrators as well as teachers – into common practice disciplined by protocols and routines and organized around the core functions of schooling in order to create common language, ways of seeing, and a shared practice of improvement (City, Elmore, Fiarman, and Teitel 2009).
The idea of learning rounds has been widely embraced by our staff with widely disparate ideas about how a school should operate. Of course, agreeing in principle doesn’t mean agreeing in practice. There are some who think we should take a researched-based practical approach such as with the UCLA School Management Program, while others asked specifically for a “gentle” approach, whereby they visit with no specific focus and share a discussion on what they saw. When we introduced possible tools to use to manage the rounds, one teacher appreciated the ideas it made him think about, while another called them “repulsive.”
I know that by the end of the year we will see teachers visiting each others’ classrooms and talking about learning to a degree that will allow us to find answers to the questions that, though cliche, continue perplex us: What do we want students to know and be able to do; how will we know when they know and can do; and what do we do when they don’t? This will happen in a variety of ways, and little by little we will find the way that suits us and best serves the needs of the students. And by making rounds together, we will learn from each other in a way that allows our collective knowledge to surpass our individual expertise.
Do you use learning rounds or formal peer observations at your school? In what way? How are they working to help you solve problems?
(Ironically, the Source of photo above is a New York Times article discussing the demise of the medical round due to specialization of doctors and other innovations that have rendered the long discussions obsolete in many cases.)