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Ed. Magazine

Round & Round

Illustration by Cathy Gendron

Borrowing a page from the medical school world, educators at the Ed School are showing teachers and school leaders how to find common ground when it comes to learning and instruction.


Sarah Fiarman, Ed.M.'05, Ed.D.'09, remembers being with a group of educators as they sat in a classroom observing a reading lesson. The teacher was asking lots of questions and students were constantly raising their hands. All of the textbooks were open. Afterwards, the group of principals, superintendents, and union leaders gathered to talk about what they saw. As Fiarman remembers it, the comments were all over the map.

"Some left feeling like, Wow! Did you see how engaged the students were? Others thought the text wasn't useful," she says. Other comments were directed at the teacher's performance. Fiarman herself felt like no real learning had taken place.

Now a principal at a K-8 school in Cambridge, Mass., this former teacher realizes that everyone was on different pages when it came to describing the scene and evaluating the classroom. "We didn't have a shared practice," she says. "As educators, we have such different ideas of what effective teaching and learning is."

Now imagine that the educators are medical students and instead of observing a class, they are in a hospital room with an experienced doctor visiting a patient. Later, huddled outside in the hallway, the group talks about what they saw. Their comments are factual and based on evidence: I noticed this; the patient did that. Questions get asked. Eventually, a diagnosis is offered, as well as potential treatments. Everyone is on the same page before they move on to the next patient.

Could this same medical training model -- one that includes a shared language and a common sense of what's effective -- work for educators?

Common Ground
According to Fiarman, the answer is yes. In fact, as she explains in the recently published book from Harvard Education Press, Instructional Rounds in Education, written with Professor Richard Elmore, C.A.S.'72, Ed.D.'76; Lecturer Lee Teitel, Ed.D.'88; and Lecturer Elizabeth City, Ed.M.'04, Ed.D.'07, this model is already working in several school districts across the county, as well as in Australia.

Called instructional rounds, the model is fairly straightforward: Initially a group of educators (referred to in the book as a network) is formed. In some cases, the group is rolespecific -- in Connecticut, where a network has been in place since 2001, only superintendents. Some networks are more diverse and also include principals, teachers, staff members, and local union leaders. These networks can be formed in one school or one district (as is the case with Cambridge, which formed in 2006), multiple districts (Connecticut), or statewide (like Ohio and Iowa, which both started in the past two years). Once the group forms, they identify a problem that the school or district is struggling with, observe classrooms, debrief, and then focus on what needs to be done next.

In some ways, this doesn't sound all that new or innovative. Across the country, principals and superintendents visit classrooms every day and then meet to discuss solutions. The problem, say the authors, is that what typically happens is these educators, no matter how motivated or well meaning, "do not have a common definition of what they are looking for."

In one case described in the book, a school knew that when it came to reading and writing, the students were doing fairly well on decoding, vocabulary, and simple writing tasks, but not as well on comprehension. Even after teachers started working with students in small groups, the school found that there was no consistency in how the groups operated. Despite best efforts, school administrators were at a loss when it came to moving forward.

Teitel hears similar stories all the time when he and the other Harvard facilitators start working with networks. "Often people don't know what high-quality teaching and learning is," he says. "We'll show a video of a class to district leaders and ask them to describe it or rate it. There's usually no common understanding of what 'good' looks like."

Another problem with traditional class visits (called walkthroughs or learning walks) is that the focus is often on style, not substance.

"Administrators descend on classrooms with clipboards and checklists, caucus briefly in the hallway, and then deliver a set of simplistic messages about what needs fixing," the authors write, and the fixing is usually the teacher. (It's no wonder some teachers refer to these visits as "drive-bys.")

In contrast, the rounds model stresses separating the personal from the practice -- something Elmore says medical professionals do well, but not educators. "Educators . . . tend to confound and confuse the practice with the person," he writes. "Indeed, for most educators, their practice is who they are."

Teitel says he's not entirely convinced that doctors have an easier time being impersonal compared to teachers, but agrees that "in the education world, there's definitely a tendency to use language such as 'good teachers,' not 'good teaching.' It's so pervasive."

As a result, teachers can become guarded about their work.

"Teachers are justifiably skeptical about opening up their classrooms to outsiders, because it often results in conflicting and vague advice that has little practical value to them or their students," the authors write.

Tom Fowler-Finn, a rounds participant in Cambridge who is now helping to expand the model in Australia, experienced this privacy barrier when he was superintendent.




"It is more a function of the cellular classroom and the fact that education has not developed practices adopted long ago by other professions, like the medical rounds that instructional rounds are based upon," he says. "Then too, it does take time for people to be straightforward and question or confront each other when they have not been in each other's classrooms or shared the work."

Which is why Teitel says he and the other facilitators spend a lot of time at the beginning helping rounds participants understand that everyone involved -- not just teachers -- is working on their practice.

The authors also stress the importance of collecting meaningful, raw evidence when observing a classroom, and to do it without judgment. "We call this the 'unlearning' part of rounds," Teitel says. "We have to learn to be nonjudgmental." Even one nondescript comment can be harmful. "Once a judgment slips into a conversation," the authors write, "they have a habit of reproducing like rabbits."

The foundation of rounds is based on describing what was observed in the class instead of immediately asking if the teacher held the students' attention or if too much time was spent on a certain activity. (The facilitators value this stage so much that they spent the first year and a half of a two-year process wor
king with one principals group on just the descripeducators to jump to solutions without really understanding the problem.

"There's tremendous value in slowing down. We go in and watch a reading lesson. Normally the observers want right away to say, Wasn't her approach fabulous? or, Oh! We use that book, too, instead of, What went on in there? How did that student learn?" she says. "Rounds is stopping to really try to understand those interactions. It's a leap of faith for any people that taking the time will bear fruit for understanding the issues."

Without this understanding, the authors write, solving problems in education is "a bit like doctors discussing whether a patient is healthy without identifying vital signs, or like lawyers discussing whether someone is guilty without assembling facts, or like carpenters discussing whether a house looks sturdy without describing the construction materials and joints. Such discussions generate lots of heat without much light."

Andrew Lachman, executive director of the Connecticut Center for School Change, the nonprofit that organized the rounds group in Connecticut, says Elmore made it very clear when he first started working with the group that their language needed to be strictly descriptive.

"The standard was set at the first visit. Some of the supers talked about 'good teaching,' 'warm climate,' and 'engaging teaching,' while Richard clinically described what he saw: a paraprofessional working on the initial consonant B sound with three students," Lachman says. "We've done video observations several times to help calibrate our skills. I mention staying at the bottom of the ladder of inference at every debrief, and people either call each other out or note when they're moving to judgment. We also review the transcripts to keep us on our toes."

Network Model
At some point -- maybe after a year of class visits and debriefings -- the final stage of rounds begins. Here, a basic question is asked: What is the next level of work? The network meets to explore strategies and discuss resources needed to address the initial problem they identified. A plan of action is created and follow-up visits are scheduled to gauge how well the plan is working.

The ultimate goal, say the authors, is for the protocols and practices learned doing instructional rounds to become as much a part of the culture of education as they are a part of the culture in medicine. If rounds is seen as just "another activity," the authors write, "then it will probably go the way of most good ideas about school improvement."

Teitel says he's very optimistic that this model will not fade into oblivion, but could be taken to scale. In November, for example, a brand new instructional rounds executive program will take place, introducing a new crop of educators to the model. "I feel hopeful," he says. "There's been a lot of interest in expanding the work into other places."

In April 2008, a group of principals and regional staff from the Gippsland region in Australia observed rounds groups in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

"We visited schools and classrooms and spoke with principals, leadership teams, and superintendents to learn about the application and outcomes of instructional rounds, and in particular, to learn about the change in culture one could expect from such experiences," says Karen Cain, assistant regional director of the Gippsland region for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

The group liked what they saw and decided to try out the instructional rounds model in Latrobe Valley, a region with 39 schools. They based their model on the Cambridge model, which focuses on principals, but includes the superintendent and central office staff. Knowing that having a skilled facilitator was key (with the initial networks, the Harvard team served as facilitators), they invited Fowler-Finn to advise them. When he retired as Cambridge's superintendent in February 2009, he joined the existing Australian team with the goal of expanding the network.

Cain says the feedback collected so far has been extremely positive, "with principals indicating a significant change in their view of classroom practice and their roles as instructional leaders."

Another reason why the instructional rounds model has been viewed so positively by those involved, says Teitel, is because it is collaborative.

"The process is about the individual learning, but also about organizations learning," he says. In the medical world, rounds is the major way that doctors in training learn, but "more importantly," the authors write, it is "the major way in which the profession builds and propagates its norms of practice."

Teitel stresses, however, that medical and instructional rounds are not entirely mirror images of one another.

"We spring off of medical rounds but don't take all of it. There are some aspects of the culture that we don't try to export," he says, mentioning the tendency in medicine toward hierarchy and the senior-doctor-knows-best mantra. "We feel like we're all learning from the instructional rounds model, regardless of rank. We've done a few debriefings and at one, a teacher from Ohio told us that she couldn't believe she was sitting with a team of teachers, superintendents, union leaders, and principals, all as peers."

Teachers, he says, often spend their careers being told what to do, including "mysterious compliances" that filter down. "With rounds, it's pretty energizing for teachers to have an opportunity that says we're jointly constructing what this should look like," he says. "That's a dramatically different way to work for people within a district."

Fiarman says this group-learning mentality -- which centers on the idea that everyone involved is working on their practice -- helps especially with superintendents and principals who, having achieved a certain level in their career, are reluctant to admit they don't have all of the answers. "This is a network of people learning from one another and being honest with what they don't know," she says. "They come to understand this as a strength. That's very countercultural to leaders, maybe especially with education leaders. A lot of school leaders are afraid to look like they don't have all the answers. We want the network to be proud to be learning and not have all of the answers."

She says this "network model" has been particularly helpful in Cambridge. "School leaders started looking at each other as resources to learn and share ideas," she says. "I was there as a teacher for isolated days of professional development that never went anywhere. Now the teachers and principals are part of a network where they can discuss what they saw and learned."

Fiarman says she would love to one day see this model played out across the country with all educators speaking the same language and following shared practices.

"It would be great if we had a coherent, national model of what effective teaching is. Even if all the schools of education were teaching the same practices, that would be a miraculous feat," she says. "But we would still need to get folks to talk about the real practices they see in front of them. It's a practice, not a theory. You need to see it in action. It's also not a formula. Teaching, like medicine, is a complex craft that requires a deep conceptual understanding of what you're doing. You can't follow a formula if you teach something and the students aren't following you. As much as anything gets documented in textbooks, you still need to have discussions about how you make decisions."

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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