Book encourages school-wide improvement through instructional rounds

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — John Roberts, assistant professor of education, drew on his years of experience and research on the introduction and implementation of instructional rounds to write “Instructional Rounds in Action,” a comprehensive book on the subject. Roberts documents the instructional improvement efforts of Lakeside Public Schools (a pseudonym for an actual school system) as it implements the instructional rounds process in its high schools.

Instructional rounds is a process in which groups of teachers and administrators observe other teachers and students across four or five classrooms. This is followed by conversation that analyzes any patterns the group has observed across classrooms. The group then makes a set of recommendations.

“I spent a full school year with the district — observing rounds in a school about once per week, on average. I visited more than 20 high schools in the system, usually for about 4-6 hours a visit. I also conducted interviews with teachers, principals, and system administrators about their experiences with instructional rounds,” Roberts said.

“This book tries to extend what we know about instructional rounds and what educators actually think they’re doing when they use the process. But it was also meant to help other people understand why this learning stance, having educators learn in groups, is such a difficult process to implement in the traditional culture of schools.”

In conducting instructional rounds, the process is designed in such a way as to avoid talk about “good” or “bad” teaching – rather, the focus is on instructional patterns across classrooms. Protocols are used to make sure the focus of the conversation is about the link between instruction and learning. After an extended period of observing classrooms, the focus turns to making predictions about what is going on in the classroom that could explain the patterns that the educators have observed.

Roberts’ analysis was based in his experience facilitating instructional rounds at a charter school where he served as assistant director. He also drew on his interactions and conversations with Richard Elmore, Liz City, and Lee Teitel of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the three authors of the first book on the topic, “Instructional Rounds in Education.”

Elmore was Roberts’ advisor at Harvard and invited him on school visits as a doctoral student. Roberts then helped other school systems when they attended the Instructional Rounds Institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

All of those experiences, he said, helped shape his research and his writing in the book.

Roberts learned that educators don’t have a lot of experience spending time in each other’s classrooms learning about instruction together. Often instructional rounds dredged up past negative feelings of being evaluated. Others felt like leaving their classroom to go visit other people’s classrooms or schools was a waste of their time.

“What they are focusing on is a problem of practice, something that the school is struggling with and wants help with. In instructional rounds, you look at all the data in a general sense and patterns across classrooms. It’s not an evaluation of individual teachers. It’s an opportunity to look for commonalities and differences across classrooms related to this problem of practice,” he said.

A problem of practice could be students struggling on long, extended writing assignments. Another could be students who do well on multiple-choice questions but struggle with open-ended-response type of questions.

“Once teachers got on board, the experiences eventually turned positive for them,” Roberts observed.

“What we find when people do this regularly, though, is that they begin to understand that they are part of a larger system. In order to really get any sort of large-scale improvement across a school system, there’s got to be some kind of common understanding about what good instruction looks like,” he said. “That requires spending time in other people’s classrooms or other people’s schools in order to generate that definition.”

Over time, Roberts said the teachers and administrators in the district in which he was immersed came to that realization.

“One of the great successes of the time that I spent in this school district was when the question of ‘Why should we be doing rounds?’ didn’t come up anymore. They finally trusted the process,” he said.

“They trusted that it’s about the learning of adults, not the evaluation of individual teachers. I think that’s a testament to really high-quality facilitation and trying to communicate the message that this is about the collective learning of lots of educators in the system rather than the evaluation of anyone in particular.”

Through an agreement he reached with the school district in which he was immersed, Roberts is donating all of his author’s royalties back to the district to support professional learning.

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Last Updated November 14, 2013