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Teacher 'Learning Walks' Encourage 'Stealing' and Positivity

So admittedly I'm now back in Washington, D.C., but there are a few more conference takeaways I had to share.

I popped into a session on "teacher learning walks" (mostly out of curiosity about what the heck a learning walk was), led by teachers and administrators from three districts in North Carolina.

It turns out a learning walk is a simple but potentially game-changing idea that some say can weed out ineffective teachers and help great teachers spread their best practices.

As the presenters explained, a learning walk is a time during the school day when a small group of teachers go from classroom to classroom to observe other teachers in action. The purpose is to observe—not evaluate—and to "steal" practices and methods that work. At first, one administrator said, the walks are scheduled and teachers being observed can prepare for them. Eventually, they become sporadic. Teachers and students get to a point where they aren't distracted by visitors and continue working unfazed. The administrators recommended conducting learning walks about once a month.

The possibility that observers could walk in at any time changes the school environment, according to the North Carolina teachers. Learning walks foster both collaboration and positive peer pressure. Teachers have to "up their game," and those who are unenthused about it tend to self-select out (i.e., quit).

As one attendee commented, "If something's working in one teacher's classroom, we should all be doing it."

A principal in the audience said she'd attempted learning walks in her school but refrained from following up with a debriefing session (a process the presenters suggested), for fear that teachers would make disparaging remarks about their colleagues. The presenters responded that it's critical to set a hard and fast ground rule before the walks—that teachers should only look for the positives in every room. And during a debriefing session—a necessary time to reflect together, they said—the teachers should only remark on good things they viewed in classrooms.

I've long been a proponent of an open-door school policy. As a presenter pointed out, it promotes the idea that the students are not your students, they're our students. And learning walks raise the instructional bar for every day, not just teacher evaluation days. But clearly there are risks involved, as the principal pointed out. Perhaps a culture of positivity should not so much be the outcome of a learning walk, but the prerequisite for one to take place.

As always, it would be great to get some reader comments about their own experiences in this realm.

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