- Learning walks can bring the school to life and help SBMs to be a visible presence around school which can, in turn, improve communication.
- The NUT advises that schools publish a planned programme of learning walks that has been agreed with teachers.
- Learning walks require some thought to ensure their effectiveness. Consider best practice before, during and after the walk to maximise its usefulness.
As a school business manager, you are responsible for managing many aspects of the organisation including, in most cases, the school site and health and safety. One of the best ways of staying on top of this significant and complex remit is to ‘walk the floor’ as often as possible. ‘Learning walks’ are a great way to see the school as others do, and to observe education in action.
Documentary data, such as reports from colleagues, are useful but they can only tell you so much. Being desk-bound is limiting; learning walks can bring the school to life and help SBMs to be a visible presence around school which can, in turn, win respect and improve communication.
What is a learning walk?
In 2005, the National College for School Leadership, as it was then known, provided this definition of a learning walk:
‘[an] organised and highly structured collaborative enquiry through the classrooms of a school by colleagues … in order to identify evidence of progress and areas for development. [Learning walks may include] short visits to classrooms by a team of people who work together to collect evidence, learn about what is happening and ask questions. They are intended to be constructive rather than judgmental and aim to help the school understand [what’s happening].’
The key phrase here, I think, is ‘constructive rather than judgmental’. Learning walks, unlike more formal observations and inspections, are regarded as a means of supporting a teacher’s, department’s and school’s improvement planning (for example, by highlighting areas for development) and are not linked to appraisal or capability procedures.
In 2011, the National Unions of Teachers (now known as the National Education Union) provided a model learning walks policy that echoed the above sentiment. It said that:
‘learning walks may take place in order to collect evidence about teaching and learning, evidence of progress and areas for school development. They are intended to be developmental and constructive rather than judgmental and are a whole-school improvement activity.’
The NUT, in its model policy, advises that schools publish a planned programme of learning walks that has been agreed with teachers. This means that they will know the date, time and focus of the learning walk and who will be conducting it, so they can organise their classes accordingly. The NUT also advises that the purpose or focus of the walk should not relate to the performance of an individual, and that leaders should explain the purpose or focus of the walk to all relevant staff beforehand.
If, as SBM, you wish to carry out a learning walk to audit the school’s health and safety arrangements, for example, you should inform teachers in advance and provide a copy of the audit checklist so that there are no surprises. The ‘next steps’ should also be outlined, for example, how the results of the audit will be used, and whether individual teachers or classrooms will be mentioned in any feedback or report.
The NUT’s model policy makes clear that it expects learning walks to be conducted with minimum disruption to teachers and pupils, and should be undertaken in a supportive and professional manner. The NUT advises that a maximum of two colleagues be involved at any time. For example, in the case of health and safety, the SBM may conduct the learning walk with the site manager, or the site manager might do it with a local authority representative, but it is best not to have all three doing it at the same time as this can be more disruptive to lessons.
Before the learning walk
Here are some questions you may wish to consider before carrying out a learning walk, in order to ensure that it is a professional and productive experience for all involved:
- What will you have to do to gain other leaders’ support for learning walks and make them eager to take part?
- Who will participate and why? What training will they require and who will deliver it?
- How will you select which classrooms to visit?
- What are the timing and resource implications before, during and after the learning walk?
- How and when will teachers be notified?
- How will teachers and other staff be involved?
- What will be the focus of the learning walk? Why is this important?
- How and when will you feed back the data collected during the learning walk to the staff who have been visited? Who else will receive data?
After the learning walk
After you or your colleagues have carried out a learning walk, it is important to feed back to staff and other key stakeholders as soon as possible. When agreeing the protocols for the learning walk, it is best also to agree the protocols for feeding back to staff, which will ideally be done in person rather than in writing
As a starting point, you may find it helpful to consider the following questions:
- What information will be fed back to staff? When will this happen? Where will it happen? Will it be as individuals or, if several learning walks were conducted along the same theme or within a department, as a whole group?
- How will the evidence be shared with other stakeholders, including the headteacher/principal? How will the evidence be shared with all staff? How will next steps be identified with staff?
- How will you share best practice and celebrate achievement?
Five top tips
To conclude this instalment, here are five top tips to help you make a success of learning walks:
- Feedback: always give feedback to staff, as the evidence gathered during a learning walk can prove to be an invaluable source of professional development.
- Focus: always have a clear agenda for the learning walk before it takes place (what you’re looking for and why it matters) and communicate this to teachers and other staff. Ensure that this focus is tight – you can’t observe everything, and you can’t improve everything overnight. Decide what matters most and what ‘tweaks’ will lead to the greatest impact.
- Collaboration: learning walks can be a collaborative exercise and the findings are likely to be more useful if you involve subject experts and other teachers in the process rather than taking a top-down approach. For example, when conducting a health and safety audit in a science classroom, ask the head of science to support the process, because they will know more about what represents best practice.
- Frequency: try to do learning walks often and at different times of the day/week/year. You should aim to create a culture where learning walks are part of everyday life and teachers and others operate an open-door policy.
- Best practice: ensure that learning walks lead to the sharing of best practice and a celebration of excellence, as well as identifying areas for improvement and training needs that feed into the school improvement plan.
One of the toolkits that accompanies this article is a self-evaluation checklist to help you review your current learning walks practice.
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
- Checklist – Self-assessment of current practice: learning walks
- Handout – Five top tips for successful learning walks
About the author
Matt Bromley is an education writer and consultant with over eighteen years’ experience in teaching and leadership including as a secondary school headteacher. He is the author of numerous best-selling books for teachers, including How to Become a School Leader, Making Key Stage 3 Count and How to Learn. You can find out more about Matt at www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley.