Making the most of Learning Walks.

What is a learning walk?

To start with, it’s important to have a shared understanding of what we mean by the term ‘learning walk’. I take the term to mean a process whereby someone, typically (but not exclusively) a middle or senior school leader, visits multiple lessons one after the other, each for about 5-10 minutes. I don’t know the origin of the term but I like the implication that it’s the walker, out and about in the school, doing the learning about what is going on. Of course it also means they are looking at students engaged in learning.

Learning Walks for Different Purposes

Broadly there are three common purposes or interpretations of the concept that I see.

Ethos and Behaviour Support:

Here the purpose of the walk is to visit multiple lessons with a focus on student behaviour and work ethic, not only checking to see how things are going but also communicating a sense that teachers are being supported by a wider system and that leaders are interested in what goes on in class. Typically each drop-in can be short – even just long enough to ask the teacher how things are going and then leave.

This type of learning walk is a daily routine; some schools have someone on SLT doing this every period of every day. The person doing the learning walk is gathering incidental information about wider issues but their prime focus is to support the learning in that moment, that period. Teachers are expecting support, not feedback. Some schools call these ‘climate walks’ or some such term to distinguish them from the next type:

Teaching and Learning check-ins:

Here the leader will spend longer in each lesson, perhaps visiting 4-5 lessons in an hour. They are there to see how teaching strategies and curriculum plans are being implemented, looking to identify where things are going well in terms of classroom dynamics and pedagogy, and where teachers and/or students experience difficulties. The aim is to inform the leader of what is happening in the detail of everyday school life, to inform various aspects of CPD planning, coaching follow-ups and line management.

This type of learning walk is the kind that I’m mostly involved in. The purpose is explicitly linked to the ongoing professional development processes at whole school or team level. Ideally it’s about gathering information that will lead to feedback into developmental PD processes although in some schools, teachers will receive direct feedback via email or a digital platform – or their pigeonhole – blurring the lines with the next type of learning walk:

Accountability/compliance focused:

Here leaders are visiting lessons to check that the things they’ve asked teachers and students to do are being done with a view to giving them direct feedback on the degree of compliance. This is not the type of learning walk I ever do nowadays as, in my view, it usually generates speed-camera behaviours and a general fear of being judged by anyone who walks in the door. Often this approach risks reinforcing all the worst aspects and delusions of top-down lesson judgement, made worse because the drop-ins are so short.

Schools that use this approach might talk in terms of ‘non-negotiables’ and are using learning walk drop-ins to check that the various items on that list are being delivered. Registers, reading protocols, seating plans, line-up routines, no-hands up, five-a-day quizzing – whatever it is.

So – given that there’s possible confusion about the purposes, a key job is decide why you’re doing it and make sure that everyone understands what it means in your school when you say ‘learning walk’. My main focus from here on is on Teaching and Learning check-ins.

Getting the Spirit Right

The ideal scenario is that teachers and students welcome people dropping into their lessons at any time. Senior Leaders’ presence is felt across the whole school; middle leaders’ presence is felt in their departments or year groups because they are known to drop in regularly and it’s not a big deal when they do. Leaders know what’s going on in detail because they witness it close at hand day in day out.

The shared understanding includes the idea that the visitor will be gathering information for multiple purposes, seeing what the students’ learning problems are; finding out where teachers find things challenging. They are there to find out; to listen and learn; to empathise and problem-solve. They are not their to judge. This means that learning walk visits do not automatically serve as the basis for individual feedback. It’s understood that any visit is part of a wider long-run process and feedback discussions will be informed by multiple visits over time.

Lesson observations that form part of a one-to-one coaching process or a formal observation process (where this is still used) are different to learning walk drop-ins and should be regarded as such. Learning walks are explicitly unannounced, routine drop-ins; observations are planned and anticipated. For that to feel real to teachers, they need to happen often enough to become part of normal school life week to week, not some big announced drama. The follow-up must also honour the purpose and not result in teachers being judged on the basis of snap-shots. If the judging happens a lot – nobody wants you back; the defences go up – with justification. The acid test of a healthy learning walk culture is that teachers want more of them, not fewer.

Doing a Learning Walk:

For ethos and behaviour support, it is natural to enter the room asking the teacher how things are going and checking if they need any support to get students on track. Then, as the lesson progresses, it’s worth staying a few minutes to see what the general learning climate is like – and how expectations are maintained from room to room. You want to get around as many lessons as you can to reinforce that sense of presence. If you have specific strategies on the go in whole school CPD, it’s helpful to focus on the specific elements.

For teaching and learning check-ins, I would generally follow the same process outlined in detail in this post:

I usually say something like ‘hello, it is ok if I drop in for few minutes… ‘ then walk to the back of the room from where it’s easier to get an overview of what the lesson is all about. If the lesson structure allows – when the teacher is guiding practice – I’ll move around amongst students, asking them questions about the learning in hand.

I take a lap-top to write notes. I try to make it explicit that these notes are for me to help me remember details of things to discuss in future CPD processes. But there is explicitly no check-list. A learning walk is an information gathering process and that it helps to record it. Where learning walks have a particular theme – e.g . where a team has been working on a set of scaffolding resources or some questioning techniques – then that is what you want to focus on during the drop-ins. My mental lesson observation grid still applies – for each of the three typical lesson modes (Explaining, questioning, practice) I’m filtering out issues that are broadly curriculum based, individual to the teacher or shared collectively by many teachers:

I find that after 10 minutes, I’ve got plenty of information and it’s better to sample more lessons than stay around longer in each one – hence 4 in an hour period feels about right to me.

At a practical level it pays to record where leaders have been on their learning walks to ensure that there are no blind spots and the no one teacher feels over scrutinised, with multiple visits by different people in a way that feels excessive. Some planned spreading over time and across the whole staff is helpful.

Using the Information for CPD/Coaching Loops

What do you do with all the information? There are several common approaches and I think it’s helpful for everyone to be clear about the nature of the follow-up for learning walks that involve them. The first two are especially helpful.

Info gathering: It’s perfectly legitimate – and probably essential – for leaders to have a good handle on what’s going on in their department, year group, school. Learning walks are useful for gathering information that then informs wider decision making, based on a very broad evaluation of standards and issues to address. There is no need for there to be direct action from a specific learning walk – and this should be widely understood. Teachers should learn to appreciate this – that leaders might drop in routinely, so that they, the leader, can better understand what goes on. No feedback is expected or given. I know some SLTs where they head out on learning walks at the same time to different parts of their school and then return to discuss what they’ve seen. This shared knowledge helps their evaluation and planning.

Team Feedback: The most useful outcome from learning walks, in my view, is that there is a planned opportunity for a feedback discussion at a team meeting – or wider whole school session. The leader will relay back to the team some precise praise, sharing specific instances of excellent practice, and offer some questions that probe the problems that remain to be solved. This follows the team coaching concept explored here:

The collective aspect of this takes the pressure off any one lesson drop-in on the learning walks because, invariably, many of the issues are shared and it helps to reinforce that sense.

Individual feedback: Of course, it can be the case that individual teachers have specific problems to address and might need specific individual support. However, we need to be very careful to keep the wider spirit of learning walks right. If leaders start giving ad hoc critical individual feedback to a few teachers but not the others, this is soon well known and its hard to maintain a commonly understood approach. The practice I find the least satisfactory is where leaders email feedback to teachers or add comments via a platform based on their short drop ins. Nowadays I just find it deeply weird that feedback can be merely conveyed to a person in written form, when they are not there engaged in a conversation.

Where teachers have a coach or mentor involved in an ongoing coaching process with them, it can be unhelpful for that teacher to also receive ad hoc individual feedback from multiple other people. Very often the advice given can be contradictory or simply create a feeling of overload – teachers can only work on so many things at once. It’s better then that any major issues revealed in a learning walk are fed through to a specific coach who can then look into that issue as part of their ongoing process.

If an individual teacher does not have a coach then it always possible and sensible to follow-up with a one-to-one conversation about the issues that have been raised in the learning walk. Ideally the person doing this will have a role where they will have seen the teacher multiple times so they are known in a wider sense. Here a low stakes ‘can we have chat about the lesson…’ discussion can morph into an ongoing supportive process, linked with the overall team process, without it feeling heavy handed. One-off learning walks by senior people, quite removed from daily contact with a teacher, are not generally a good basis for individual feedback because the observer’s knowledge of the teacher is weak and the power dynamics are not conducive to a supportive conversation – as if any one-off feedback conversation can ever make much difference anyway.

Final thoughts – generally, I think the optimum scenario is where there are frequent, routine learning walks by people who are already close to the teachers they are observing, looping their insights back into ongoing team coaching processes. This is supportive, developmental and focused on specific problems and solutions. The more we deviate from that, the more thought is needed to consider the use of the information, the power dynamics and the general support vs scrutiny culture. A powerful additional activity is for members of SLT to undertake periodical joint learning walks with middle leaders so that they can triangulate their understanding of the issues at hand with the lessons they see together and then agree a strategy for taking things forward.

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