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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

The Myth of Walkthroughs: 8 Unobserved Practices in Classrooms

By Peter DeWitt — April 19, 2016 5 min read
Nikki Hudson, left, the academic coordinator at Lida Hooe Elementary School in Dallas, compares notes with Principal Linda Saenz during a principal-evaluation session.
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Walkthroughs are pretty popular these days. A principal, or a team of administrators and teacher leaders, walk through a group of classrooms and look for certain instructional practices. After they’re completed, the team provides feedback to the teacher. In schools where walkthroughs are done correctly, teachers and leaders work together, have agreed upon or co-constructed the “look for” that should be taking place in the classrooms, and have dialogue around the feedback.

In other cases ... walkthroughs aren’t so popular or positive.

This may happen because the school leader and teachers do not work collaboratively. The principal never co-constructed what to look for with teachers, and the teachers are not told beforehand. The walkthroughs are more about compliance, and therefore the success of walkthroughs is more of a myth than a reality.

There are leaders who say they are doing walkthroughs, when in actuality, they have never shared the focus, or the form, they’re using with the teacher ... and the teacher doesn’t receive any effective feedback.

When completing a Visible Learning (Hattie) capability assessment in Melbourne, Australia in February, there was a school leader who co-constructed the walkthrough goals with teachers, and every week hung up a regular-sized gold sign in the faculty room, main office, and the main hallway near his office. The sign provided the walkthrough focus of the week so everyone was aware of what it was, and there had been a team involved who established each focus area.

Relational Trust

Unfortunately, walkthroughs have not been done in the spirit for which they were inspired, so teachers don’t feel that they can trust the process. Leaders often feel as though the practice is more successful than teachers do. That’s where the important work of Bryk and Schneider that centers around relational trust comes into the equation.

In Trust In Schools: A Core Resource for School Reform (Educational Leadership. ASCD), Brik and Schneider write,

Distinct role relationships characterize the social exchanges of schooling: teachers with students, teachers with other teachers, teachers with parents, and all groups with the school principal. Each party in a relationship maintains an understanding of his or her role’s obligations and holds some expectations about the obligations of the other parties. For a school community to work well, it must achieve agreement in each role relationship in terms of the understandings held about these personal obligations and expectations of others.

In order for all of us to move on and work effectively, especially if leaders continue to use walkthroughs as way to gauge what is happening in classrooms around the school, we must all have a common understanding of what works and what may need to be tweaked in our classrooms. We need the myth often related to the success of walkthroughs become more of a reality.

There are at least 8 areas that leaders don’t often look for in their walkthroughs, or if they do, it’s at a very surface level. It’s one of the reasons why John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has research that shows some of our favorite strategies to use in the classroom don’t have the positive effect we think they do. We often don’t approach these strategies as deeply as we could.

The 8 practices are:

Cooperative learning vs. Cooperative seating - Leaders and teachers talk about it. We know it’s important for students to work cooperatively. However, professor and researcher Rob Coe found that we put students in cooperative groups over 70% of the time they are in our classrooms, but they are spending 80% of that time working on individual activities. We have to be careful that when we provide the myth that students are engaging in cooperative learning, doesn’t actually mean they are just participating in cooperative seating.

Authentic engagement vs. compliant engagement - I just wrote about this a few days ago in the post Student Engagement: Is It Authentic Or Compliant? Just because students are following the speaker or answering a question, doesn’t mean they are actively and authentically engaged.

Surface level vs. Deep level questioning - Instructional coaching (IC) expert Jim Knight uses this as one area that coaches can track with teachers. A teacher may establish a goal with a coach to look at whether their questions are more surface level than deep. Do we scaffold our questions, or do we spend most of our time asking questions most of the students already know the answers to?

Teacher talk vs. Student talk - University of Melbourne researcher Janet Clinton found that on average, teachers asked about 200 questions per day and students asked 2 questions per student per week.

Teacher-student relationships - Hattie’s research found that positive teacher-student relationships can have an effect size of .72, which is almost double the hinge point of .40 which means a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. In walkthroughs or our collaborative conversations, do we talk enough about the enormous impact that our relationships have on our students?

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset - I’m a fan of Dweck’s work, but even she believes that too many schools say they’re a growth mindset school when they aren’t. I’ve written before here that Hattie’s research shows that the growth vs. fixed mindset has an effect size of .19. The myth is that school leaders say they are a growth mindset school when their still treating students in fixed ways.

One-to-one initiatives - There is a commercial in Albany, NY, where I live. It’s of a K-8 school, and one of the highlights of paying to have your children attend this school, is that they will get their own tablet, because the school has a one-to-one initiative. I’m not against one-to-one initiatives, but I have visited far too many schools where students are using tablets to complete a worksheet. Instead of using a pencil, they can type on their tablet. That’s not really all the more engaging than using a pencil. It’s supposed to be about curation and not just consumption.

Walkthroughs - Walkthroughs are not always as deep as we want people to think they are. In schools, teachers do not always know what the walkthroughs are focusing on, and the leaders don’t always offer effective feedback after they are completed. Too many times the success of walkthroughs is a myth because they focus on compliant behavior, and making sure teachers are covering curriculum. Walkthroughs will be much more successful if they bring about deep learning on the part of students, teachers and the leaders who are doing them.

In the End

We should not be overly concerned with the methods we use in the classroom, as much as we should be concerned with how much of an impact they are having on student learning. Buzz words and phrases happen in every profession, but we are spending too much time creating myths that may not be true. Let’s start spending more time scratching the surface to see if we really do what we say we do.

Walkthroughs may be a good way to help bring that to light, but they will only be beneficial if the relationships we have in place with our teacher colleagues, the school climate, listening to students, and the feedback we give and get from each other are authentic and not compliant.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.