Instructional Rounds practitioner sharing and support.

Instructional Rounds Plus 
Thomas Fowler-Finn, Ed.D. 
112 Grover Road Extension Medford, MA 02155 

Office: (781) 391-2172 Mobile: (339) 221-2922  [email protected]
Copyright 2016 Instructional Rounds: Lesson Observation & Analysis. All Rights Reserved.

Instructional Rounds practitioner sharing and support.

Improving Instruction & Learning in a Primary School

by Thomas Fowler-Finn on 06/19/17

Instructional rounds in the primary school (in this example, a PreK - 2 school in Passaic, New Jersey) presents a range of grade levels and age appropriate teaching and learning elements unique in many ways.  From grade level standards, teacher skill and knowledge, and the young student as a learner, the challenges to improving instruction are different than in other schools.  The network of educators who conducted instructional rounds in this early childhood school was carefully constructed to ensure that the membership was composed of a variety of expertise necessary to help the school improve.  The efforts of the network and the school are showing results. 

The primary school in question knew they had a problem with teaching and learning that failed to challenge students in their thinking. The school's goal to improve the level of challenge in student thinking became the basis for seeking help from the network of colleagues engaged in instructional rounds in the district.  An instructional rounds session was conducted by district colleagues in May of 2016 and revealed school-wide teaching and learning patterns that the school staff found to be quite discouraging.  Key descriptors of the school at that time included such patterns as: 1.)  All questions were asked by the teacher; 2.) Nearly 100% of teacher questions were "recall"; 3.)  With few exceptions, students responded with one-word answers;   4.)  During whole group instruction teachers led by giving continuous procedures and directions for doing activities; 5.)  Regardless of the grouping (whole group, small group, or individual student interactions) teachers asked a question, took one student response, and moved on without comment; 6.)  Teachers accepted all student responses regardless of the accuracy of the response.

Given these findings, it was clear to the network observers that students were not being challenged in their thinking.  This confirmed what the school recognized as a problem, and the network offered several pathways for improving instruction and learning in a network document called The Next Level of Work.  The principal and staff took these to heart and began a concerted effort to improve teaching and learning.

In May of 2017, last month, the network returned to this primary school to conduct a follow-up instructional rounds session, again observing in classrooms across the school.  The patterns of teaching and learning revealed significant change.  We saw such patterns as: 1.)  Teachers introduced academically elevated vocabulary that was then used by many students during the lessons;  2.)  Students were able to monitor their own work and describe the activity they were doing;  3.)  Teachers often asked follow-up questions of the same student before moving on.  These follow-up questions asked for additional information/explanation, and most scaffolded student learning;  4.)  Teachers often provided feedback to students before moving on;  5.)  Teachers went beyond "recall" questions to include many questions about "understanding";  6.)  Students offered mostly one-word answers, but many students used phrases and complete sentences to respond to teachers.

The new patterns in 2017 demonstrate huge changes in a short period of time.  The hard work to improve instruction and learning is paying off and encouraging the principal and teachers to continue their efforts.  Both the network and the host principal in this rounds session recognize that there is more work ahead in a continuous improvement effort.  There is a need for restructuring lessons and use of higher order thinking assignments and questions.  Development of language in primary schools is critical and should remain an area of focus in this school.  While it was great to see teachers initiate feedback to students, the use and quality of feedback warrant attention.  

These improvement suggestions were incorporated into the Network's 2017 Next Level of Work suggestions.  The school is making progress and now can build upon successful change efforts from the past year.  I look forward to our rounds session next year.         

NYC High School Improving Instruction and Learning

by Thomas Fowler-Finn on 05/25/17

We had an eye-opening instructional rounds session last week in a small high school in New York City.  The staff's change efforts are paying off.  Improving the interactions between the academic content, students and teachers requires a concerted and persistent effort. Significant change is hard work, and the staff has been buoyed by what is taking place.

In 2014 the school's focus of their problem of practice was centered on student engagement.  Upon visiting the school, the network classroom observations revealed a student body and staff focused on external motivators (Regents grades and diplomas) in classrooms that were teacher-centered and dominated by lecture with procedural directions.  We recorded such patterns of interactions as: all student talk was in response to a teacher; teachers helped students without evidence of student need; state test content and assignments dominated lesson focus/rationale; the pattern of interactions were teacher/student/teacher as students followed teacher directions through activities.  

As a result, the focus of the network's recommendations and the school's focus turned toward internal motivators.  The school began to enhance strategies that supported students as self-directed learners.  Teachers restructured lessons, redefined the student's role in learning, developed greater opportunities for authentic learning, and began conducting internal rounds for all school staff in job-embedded professional development.     

In our rounds session last week, the school's problem of practice had been revised to focus network observations on the level and extent to which students take responsibility for their own learning.  The descriptors observed by the network have changed dramatically from our first visit.  The observation evidence showed that: teachers used a substantial increase of descriptive feedback to comment on student work; students interjected their own content-based ideas during the course of instruction; students began their work without prompting; teacher remains the main source of ideas but elicits some student ideas.
The school recognizes that there is more work to be done.  After each rounds, the host school team and I usually engage in a debrief of the network rounds to review the patterns and the take-aways.  The host school focuses on what they have learned and their next level of work, while I also focus on the network lessons and the network's next level of work.  In this case, the school is planning on developing a school-wide rubric to be implemented next year.  As for the network, we will give increased attention to network-member questioning techniques that elicit more useful information from students while we are observing in classrooms.

The needle at this high school has moved significantly, and the staff is encouraged.  Improving instruction and learning takes a minimum of two to three years to show results school-wide. Due to comprehensive actions implemented by the school, the state test results and the school's state ranking also have risen dramatically.

Just as the staff and students at this school have benefited from the work of instructional rounds, so too have the network members.   Network members learn from every school they visit, taking that learning back to their own schools and using what they learn from each session to reform their own professional practice.  Future learning for both the school and the network members is promising. 

Taking Useful Classroom Observation Notes

by Thomas Fowler-Finn on 03/29/15

The integrity of rounds work is based on objective and specific observation notes, free of personal judgment and full of specific description - low inference.  But what content should these notes include to allow for useful analysis in the debriefing?  The first qualifier is covering all aspects of the school's Problem of Practice (POP).  Some of these aspects are connected directly to the stated POP while others may be no more than contributing factors, but all are useful.  For example, if the POP is about the nature of feedback students and teachers exchange with each other about student learning, examples observed of the various types/forms of feedback would be of special interest in the notes, but so too would descriptions of interactions between the teacher, student, and content that discouraged feedback from taking place.  Notes on the structure of the lesson, teacher assessment techniques, student investment in the content, etc. would be among worthwhile evidence.  Useful notes reveal interactions that encourage and discourage or block progress on resolving the POP.  A well-chosen POP is about help the school wants to attack a problem of student learning, so it stands to reason that productive notes address an inquiry into all aspects of the question raised.

Useful notes, with rare exceptions, fully describe what students make, do, say, or write... the only observable evidence of student learning.  Rounds work is intended to improve student learning, and every observation must contain information about the condition of student learning in the context of the POP.

To obtain productive notes, each and every observer describes the full interactions within the instructional core, not segments of one portion of the core.  For example, capturing in isolation only the questions teachers ask does not inform the debriefing process with adequate information about the teacher - student - content interaction sequence.  It is not until a teacher question is coupled with a student answer and resultant teacher reaction that evidence of the greatest value has been collected.  Observer teams should not divide up note-taking with one member recording teacher actions, another only student actions, and another content.  Such notes are bereft of the more important interactions within the instructional core. 

In the long run, we always want to know about the level of thinking of students regardless of which POP is guiding our note-taking.  It is virtually impossible to create high levels of student engagement without going beyond recalling and understanding.  

We need to know the expectations for student performance in comparison to the work students actually do.  What teachers and students accept as satisfactory outcomes are critical accountability factors that weigh in on every observation.

For a more comprehensive and elaborate discussion of note-taking see pp. 110 - 118 of Leading Instructional Rounds in Education, Thomas Fowler-Finn, Harvard Education Press, 2013.     

We teach students to "do" math, not to understand it.

by Thomas Fowler-Finn on 03/08/15

Conceptual understanding of math is rarely found in American classrooms.  Math is most often taught (regardless of the level of technology used) as content over which students are expected to gain command by applying the correct procedures to get the right answers.  Too many students graduate by scoring well enough to pass tests but with little understanding of math concepts.  Students leave us with a fear of taking math in college because they know they do not understand the content.  

In a recent instructional rounds session I ("tff" in the dialogue below) observed in a 7th grade math class in which each student had their own computer working at their own pace on their own unique math problems. This classroom is in a new school of technology in a school district committed to accelerating learning by using cutting edge hardware and software. I conversed with several students as they worked.  The conversation with one boy in particular (identified as "s" below) was revealing and typical of many observations and conversations I've had in schools across the country in which conceptual understanding is a missing element:

tff: "So what are you working on?"
  s: "My computer is still loading, but it's a worksheet."
[computer screen now shows: "How is the graph of 'g' derived from the graph of 'f ' ? - answer without doing any graphing."  There are 4 multiple choice answers.]
tff: "How will you solve this?"
  s: "I have no idea."
tff: "So what are you going to do?"
  s: "I'm going to guess and see what happens."  [s starts with guessing "A" and the computer message is: "Go back & change your notes. Rework the problem."] 
tff: "So did the computer message help you?"
  s: "No, not at all."
tff: "So now what?"
  s: "I'm going to guess again."
tff: "If you don't know what else to do, guessing is one place to start."
  s: Shakes his head in agreement and guesses "C" [The computer message is: "Nice work!"]
The student and I look at each other.  He laughs, and I can't help but laugh with him.
tff: "So what is your next step?"
  s: "I still don't understand it, so I'm going to pull up a video."  [The computer screen shows written step-by-step directions on a procedure to arrive at the correct answer.  He carefully reads and tries to rework what he has on his paper.]
tff: "So now do you understand it?"
  s: "Not really."
The end of class is now drawing near, and students begin packing up...
tff: "If you are given another one of these problems, what is the likelihood that you will be able to solve it?"
  s: "I think it's about 50-50."

Accomplishing conceptual understanding requires restructured lessons with authentic applications that take more classroom time to teach...time that is often hard to come by because of the pacing and testing schedules. The necessary lessons must be structured and guided by teachers who themselves have a conceptual understanding of the content.  And just as a doctor cannot diagnose a condition and help a patient get well unless the doctor ascertains the patient's symptoms and pains, teachers must seek out misunderstandings and misconceptions of each individual student in order to bring about their understanding and learning.

This is the first of several blogs over the coming months that will explore procedural versus conceptual understanding. 

Students work in Cooperation or Collaboration?

by Thomas Fowler-Finn on 03/02/15

Students are being asked more often in the classroom to work in pairs and small groups.  But how often is the student discussion that takes place simply cooperative versus truly collaborative?  Cooperative discussion occurs when students help each other to get their individual work done by telling one another the answer, showing each other how to do the work, explaining what needs to be done, taking turns or parts in the assignment, or doing the work for each other.  One student often acquiesces or simply accepts what another offers.  Assignments at the recalling or understanding levels of Bloom's Taxonomy make collaborative discussion impossible to achieve.  Collaborative discussion becomes more likely when students are applying knowledge or skills to solve a problem, jointly analyzing or evaluating each other's work (perhaps using a rubric), or creating a product.  Collaborative discussions are characterized by students exchanging points of view, persisting to question each other and understand versus acquiescing, contributing original ideas while knowing their ideas are valued by their peers, extending learning, and completing assignments that reflect the thinking and ownership of all discussants.  Collaborative discussion enables conceptual understanding, deeper learning, and engagement of the mind.