Looking for Learning as a Middle Leader

As a Head of Department, your days can be filled with unexpected tasks and last minute requests. Whilst the operational side of managing your subject can fill your days, you still need to have an eye on the quality of learning that is happening across your subject. The primary job of any Head of Department is to be an instructional leader and an important part of this is understanding the challenges that your teachers face in the classroom.

A personal goal this year was to get a better feel for the diversity and quality of learning that was occurring across my team. I lead a group of 10 teachers at a large International School. My biggest takeaway was I need to used a range of data and use these data points to triangulate and look for patterns in student learning as any one observation will never tell you the full story. At our school this involves leveraging existing assessment data, student perception surveys and establishing a culture of classroom learning walks. The following post outlines these approaches in more detail.

Walkthroughs or Learning Walks:

By being visible and present in your teachers classrooms, it can make their efforts feel valued but it can also open up a complex range of emotions. Even in the most progressive and open schools, classroom walkthroughs by leaders are not something teachers consistently experience and are therefore understandably anxious and uncomfortable.

What may seem like an innocent 10 minute walkthrough can quickly turn evaluative and critical. If you see something either positive or negative should you leave feedback and followup? The key lesson from experienced principals is to make the visits a common enough occurrence that they become part of the culture and a less intrusive experience for all involved.

By walking into a colleagues classroom, you need to understand that you lack the context and individual knowledge of each student to make valid assumptions. If you are going to leave feedback and debrief with the teacher (which I think you must !) you need to carefully ask why they did or did not do specific things in the flow of the lesson. When you can begin to make observations based on the teachers intentions and the resultant learning you get a better feel for the hazy concept of ‘effective learning’.

Through watching the lesson you may feel that the grouping of chatty students at the back of the classroom was odd, or feel that the questioning could have been rotated more quickly between students. Only by speaking to the teacher and asking ‘Why?’ do you really understand the quality of instruction, the nature of decisions made by the teacher and how students are responding. The risks of walkthroughs is making premature judgements without understanding the wider context of learning and the students in the classroom. Whilst your notes are important they should only be one part of the picture.

Student Perception Surveys:

Student voice is an important piece of data to include when assessing the quality of learning that is occurring. In the past I have used my own questions to elicit student feedback. Asking the three simple questions below can be especially powerful to ask and distill strategies that students both love and hate.

  1. What is one approach I should continue doing in class?
  2. What is one approach I should begin doing in class?
  3. What is one approach I could do less of in class?

Over last 5 years, my school has formalised and centralised how we collect student feedback. Every student has the opportunity to provide feedback on each teacher once per year at about the midway point of the course. The survey covers seven specific questions plus some open responses. Of all of the things we do, it is one of the most powerful catalysts for teacher reflection. Whilst as a teacher you naturally are drawn into negative comments, the positives can be a great celebration of how things are going in the lessons.

A sample from one of my classes is below which each teacher receives.

As a Head of Department, the Student Perception Survey provides an opportunity for a focused 1:1 meeting with each teacher to unpack the results. In my team we asked each teacher to summarise the feedback highlighting overall trends, positives and areas for growth. We also asked teachers to share the key takeaways back to the students in each class so that students feel that the feedback is being acknowledged and used. (2nd screenshot below)

Formal observations:

Like many middle leaders, I find the use of the formal observations incredibly tricky and often ineffective. Similar to a learning walk it is impossible to know the context of the learning and decisions the teacher has made. Any judgements on a one off lesson are unlikely to capture the fuller picture of a teachers efforts and effectiveness.

Longer classroom observations can be useful when they follow a three part process.

  1. Pre-Meeting – Firstly you set up a pre-meeting with a teacher and ask them to suggest a focus where they would like to gain some feedback. For instance this might be focused on questioning techniques or trialing more explicit instruction. It could also be focused on the learning of one or two students in the classroom where the observer focuses on how they are working in the lesson.
  2. Lesson Observation – Secondly, you set up a time to observe a lesson and to talk with students. You can focus on noting both what the teacher is doing but more importantly how the students are responding to each of the tasks. Untangling the difference between the teaching strategies used and the learning that is occurring is a key focus. I often take copious and detailed notes and use the Looking for Learning questions below as a support. They are incredibly useful to use to help tease out students feedback. During the lesson you can rotate and sit beside a few different students and start a conversation when there is a lull.
  3. Debrief and Coaching Conversation – as soon as possible after the lesson you can find a time to debrief and share your observations. I find the coaching prompts on this template useful to lead a reflective conversation and to help reserve your judgement. Questions such as “What are your hunches about what caused (…..) ?” can be useful to open a conversation.

The brilliance of the three part process is that it can be focused on the teachers goals, and free from judgement. Despite this you still need to be cognisant that the teacher might still see this coaching conversation as more evaluative as you are still their line manager. Overtime colleagues can become more open and reflective with you as their ‘boss’ but you should also try set up opportunities for your team members to coach and run three part observations with their each other so they are less evaluative in nature.

Looking for Learning Questions:

  • What are you learning today? What are you learning about? What are you learning to do?
  • Is this learning challenging you? Too easy? Too hard? Just right?
  • Why do you think you are learning this? Is it connected to something that you have learned before?Are you learning something new or practicing something you already know?
  • How do you find the pace of the lesson? Too fast, too slow, just right?
  • Are you learning something new or practicing something you already know?
  • What activities help you learn in this class? What activities get in the way of your learning?
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