Walkthroughs are powerful—but not in the ways we’ve been led to expect. Done right, they provide school leaders the chance to become the “lead learners” in their organizations.
Over the past nine months, the Instructional Leadership Challenge has shown us how transformative classroom walkthroughs can be. However, the two ways in which most administrators assume walkthroughs make a difference—by providing data and creating coaching opportunities—may not be significant at all.
Many districts require walkthroughs that focus on data collection—which makes sense from a central office perspective. Data can help district administrators monitor new initiatives, identify teacher PD needs, and ensure that principals are spending enough time in classrooms.
But there’s a problem with data-focused walkthroughs: they’re a waste of time.
This is a harsh conclusion to draw, but it’s based on two sources of evidence:
A recent study by Vanderbilt and Stanford researchers found that walkthroughs aren’t associated with better student learning outcomes, perhaps because “principals often do not use walkthroughs as part of a broader school improvement strategy.” The “focus” achieved by data-focused walkthroughs is a double-edged sword: by looking only for what’s on the walkthrough form, such as the use of specific strategies, administrators may get detailed data, but they also miss the big picture.
This is admittedly anecdotal, but still quite compelling: teachers hate data-focused walkthroughs. In our work with thousands of administrators across 24 countries, we’ve never heard a single report of a teacher saying “Thanks for the data!” Teachers appreciate feedback on their lessons, but they don’t like to be used as data points—especially when the data being collected has nothing to do with the lesson. For too many teachers, data-focused walkthroughs are an exercise in missing the point of their teaching.
If data collection isn’t the right approach, what about coaching-focused walkthroughs? By spending time in classrooms coaching and giving feedback, principals reason that they’re helping to improve instruction.
While there’s great promise in coaching, the reality is that time constraints make it hard for principals to serve as effective coaches. Walkthroughs are typically just a few minutes each, and may not happen on a regular basis. So, although there may be value in coaching via short classroom visits, their brevity makes it tough to provide in-depth support, especially without a face-to-face debrief.
But what if the true power of classroom walkthroughs lies elsewhere? As part of the 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge, we encouraged administrators to get into classrooms not to collect data or provide intensive coaching, but for a simpler reason: to learn.
Given the many other duties resting on administrators’ shoulders, data collection and coaching may need to be delegated to other staff. But the one function leaders can’t fully delegate is decision-making. Even within shared governance structures, administrators play a crucial role in knowing what’s taking place in the organization and guiding their team in the right direction.
Nowhere is there a better source of information—about how students are progressing, about teacher practice, and about what needs to be done—than in the classroom.
Rather than specify a certain form or type of feedback, walkthroughs that facilitate leader and teacher learning have a few basic characteristics:
Frequency: Teachers are visited at least once every other week, which means administrators need to visit about 10% of their classrooms each day.
“Noticing” feedback: Leaders base their comments on what the teacher intended to accomplish in the lesson, not a preconceived checklist, so teachers get feedback on what they’re doing, not what they’re not doing.
Framework language: Rather than share miscellaneous suggestions, leaders provide feedback in the common language of their shared instructional framework, which makes it easier to identify opportunities for growth.
This type of walkthrough stands in stark contrast to the classroom visits most teachers are accustomed to.
What happens when administrators get into classrooms regularly, pay attention to what’s really going on, and provide rich, framework-linked feedback? It turns out that coaching and data collection still happen, but they become side benefits; when leaders go into classrooms with open eyes and share their learning, everyone learns more. Leaders learn how to be better decision-makers and support-providers; teachers learn how they can take their practice to the next level; and students learn more of what their teachers are striving to teach them.