Robyn Jackson

President

Washington, DC

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Want an Alternative to Traditional Walk-throughs? Try Micro-Slicing

I was visiting a school recently and taking the instructional leaders on classroom walkthroughs as a part of the leadership training we were doing in the district. The purpose of the walkthrough was to help the leaders learn how to distinguish rigorous instruction and provide teachers with effective feedback that would significantly improve their practice. At the beginning of the day, I started by explaining the purpose of the walkthrough and outlining the Mindsteps rules for the walkthrough process which are a little different from traditional walkthroughs.

First, the leaders were not allowed to take notes in the classroom. They were only allowed to jot down notes once they were safely down the hall. Second, as they observed, they were to look for information that would help them answer three questions:

1. What was the teacher trying to do?
2. Was the teacher successful?
3. What was the ONE thing that either made the teacher successful or could make the teacher successful?

The third rule was that we could not stay for longer than 5-7 minutes.

At first the team bristled at the idea that they couldn’t write anything down. They were used to using their iPads and district-provided checklists during walkthroughs. They worried that they wouldn’t remember everything or would miss something by not being able to write their observations down.

But I insisted. I wanted them to sit in the classroom and pay attention. I didn’t want them so consumed with checking off behaviors on a checklist that they failed to absorb what was happening in the classroom. I wanted them to focus on what was happening. I wanted them to sit in the classroom and absorb whatever they saw. They should pay attention to what the teacher is doing, what the students are doing, what is written on the board, whatever catches their attention.

They were also concerned that they wouldn’t be able to answer my three questions with only a five-minute observation. But again, I insisted. We have found at Mindsteps that observing what we call a “micro-slice” of instruction actually helps leaders hone their observations. Longer observations have their place, but they can tend to muddy observer’s lenses. By observing a short slice of instruction, you can tell much of what you need to know about a teacher through a five minute observation.

As we began the walkthrough, I could tell that the team was uncomfortable. We walked into the first classroom and stayed for about five minutes. They fidgeted nervously as they tried to take the entire classroom in and remember what they saw. At the end of five minutes, we left the classroom and took two to three minutes in the hall to jot down notes that captured our observations. Then I took them to an empty classroom to discuss what we’d just observed.

During the discussion, I asked the team to focus on the three questions:

1. What was the teacher trying to do?
2. Was the teacher successful?
3. What was the ONE thing that either made the teacher successful or could make the teacher successful?

It’s that ONE THING question that always stumps the observers at first. If the lesson is unsuccessful, they want to try to suggest alternate strategies or rewrite the teacher’s lesson plans. If the lesson was successful it gets even harder. They offer nebulous explanations for why the lesson work and fail to get at the ONE THING that the teacher is doing that made the entire lesson hang together.

But it is the discipline of the ONE THING is what makes the discussion so rich. So we spent our time there, really trying to get down to the ONE THING in the lesson we just observed. Together, the team and I dug deeper in our discussion. Suddenly, things that we dismissed during our observation achieved more significance. And, as we reached for that ONE THING, we started to notice patterns among the information we collected. It’s a highly rigorous way to observe because the value isn’t in the information we collected but in how we interpret it. We ended up having a 20-minute discussions from that one 5 minute slice of instruction. But, that one discussion helped the leadership team closely examine their beliefs about teaching and learning, upgrade the quality of their feedback to teachers, and develop more internal consistency in the kind of feedback teachers receive from the team.

At the end of the discussion, we agreed as a team what the ONE THING is. From there, we crafted that feedback into the appropriate strategic conversation that will help the teacher act on it given the teacher’s will and skill. It was a powerful learning experience for both the teacher and the team of observers.

If you conduct walk-throughs in your school, I urge you to try using micro-slicing as a way to help you get to the root of a teacher’s practice, deepen your own leadership practice, and provide more targeted and useful support. If you’d like to learn more about how to conduct effective walkthroughs in general, check out our book The Instructional Leader’s Guide to Strategic Conversations with Teachers. And, if you’d like to learn more about how you can schedule this kind of coaching for your leadership team, contact us here.

4 Comments

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Ryan_Thomas1

26 Jul 2012, 03:24 PM

What a great post, Robyn. Thank you for sharing.

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Michael_Marzano

18 Jul 2012, 05:39 PM

Especially if you want the observer to focus on learning in the classroom, and not worry so much about content they themselves haven't mastered, a pre-observation brief is very helpful.  Teaching science, there are many concepts our administrators or other school leaders have no concept or recollection of, and monitoring student progress when they themselves can't see the endgoal of understanding is almost impossible.  In a pre-observation meeting, I can explain the concepts, learning objectives, and strategies I hope to employ throughout the lesson prior to implementation.  This provides a mutual understanding with where the lesson should go, and how students can access the material to encourage true learning.

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Michael_Rulon

13 Jul 2012, 11:54 AM

I like some of the strategies, but from working in a turnaround school where improvement needs to be accelerated I think a more focused view is needed. First the observation should look at learning not teaching, there should be a focus like :how the practice part of the lesson is aligned to the learning target?, and there should be supporting evidence like a copy of what students are working on. 

I like the idea of no note taking while in the room, and the focus on feedback, but I would sacrafice the honest reaction by letting notes be taken and extend the observation. I thik we cheat teachers with observations that are less than 20 min. and do not cover more than one learning section of the lesson.

When we used these tools at the Burke our improvement accelerated.

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Tiffany_Della_Vedova

11 Jul 2012, 08:11 PM

I love this approach, at least the three questions and the ONE thing. I have to play around with it to see if the microslice of time works as well as you indicate it does. I do have a question, though. Do you think this would work well in a peer observation & learning climate with peer teachers providing the feedback?

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