Why We Are Committed to Doing Learning Walks
By James G. Merrill
Superintendent, Virginia Beach City Public Schools
More than 20 years ago, business gurus Tom Peters and Robert Waterman hit the best seller list and captured the public psyche with their book, In Search of Excellence. One of the many points they made was that in successful companies, leadership involved itself in day-to-day operations, was in touch with customers and its employees, and, in short, was informed. The concept was derived from Hewlett-Packard executives who stayed current by practicing what they called “management by wandering around.”
Thanks to the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh and its development of “learning walks,” this technique for staying informed has been transmuted from business to education. Across the country, principals, teachers, central office administrators, all have been visiting school class rooms in order to get a snapshot of the teaching and learning occurring that day. The visits can be very brief, five or 10 minutes, or they can extend to 45 minutes to an hour. The bottom line is that learning walks offer administrators and teachers a systematic and efficient way to gather data. This information, if used effectively, can paint a picture to inform and shape improvement efforts for children.
Cabinet Learning Walks and What They Mean to Schools
In Virginia Beach, our leadership team - known internally as the superintendent’s cabinet – works in teams of two to conduct learning walks for assigned schools throughout the school year. The learning walks are always conducted in concert with the school principal and/or assistant principal. They are not meant as a “gotcha” for individual school personnel. The goal is simple: The leadership of this school system needs to be connected to what goes on in classrooms. We want to encourage substantive conversations about instruction, at both the district and the school level because it is based on the belief that meaningful dialogue will drive the progress that is the aim of our new strategic plan, Compass to 2015.
As a reminder the strategic plan has identified the attributes we want to foster in our students. We want them to be:
• Academically proficient
• Effective communicators and collaborators
• Globally aware, independent, responsible learners and citizens
• Critical thinkers, innovators
What Are We Looking For When We Visit Classrooms?
Last school year, we concentrated on looking for critical thinking skills, attempting to see how these skills were manifested in student engagement, questioning and work products. This school year, the leadership learning walks will still be looking for the hallmarks of critical thinking, but we will ask principals to specifically point out their areas of focus as the result of the Compass to 2015 strategic plan. The goal is to support schools as they work on the needs inherent in their schools. All learning walks are followed by a conversation with the school leadership.
In the meantime, we anticipate that stakeholders may ask us: How do we know when we have encountered critical thinking in classrooms? Below is a list of attributes identified collectively by the principals of Virginia Beach City Public Schools:
- Students successfully grapple with higher-order questions asked by teacher.
- Students articulate meaningful response to "so what" (what if, why).
- Students generate higher-level questions.
- Students engage in authentic learning activities and/or create authentic work.
- Students defend positions with justification based on factual evidence and data.
- Students analyze and solve new problems by generating a variety of ideas and solutions.
- Students recognize and pose problems inherent in a given situation.
- Students adapt learned knowledge to more complex/ ambiguous situations.
- Students use and explain the right method of thinking (reasoning, decision making, problem solving, making judgments).
- Students evaluate and communicate their own thinking.
- Students make connections and predictions using prior knowledge.
- Students select, create, use and communicate effectiveness of a variety of tools, such as graphic organizers or grid paper.
Education is no longer just about teaching Johnny (or Juan) to read. It’s about teaching him to think critically about what he reads, interpret what he reads, and relate what he reads to his own life. If we are asking students for critical examination and reflection, we must be willing to do the same. These learning walks are our common journey to better understand the needs of the children, to improve how we teach and to more clearly define what we expect of our students and ourselves.