Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Instructional Rounds -- What are they?

*Note - this is not the standard '1000 words or less' blog post--Rounds are much too difficult to describe in 1000 words :)

Last week, our school hosted 24 teachers, administrators, and district staff to do Instructional Rounds at our school.  Over the past two years, I have been fortunate enough to have be trained to do Rounds at Harvard and facilitate the Rounds process in schools in Canada and the US.  However, last Thursday was different: for the first time, I was on the 'other side' of Rounds as the host Principal. Over the course of the weekend, I had a chance to reflect on Rounds at our school.   As well, I received some questions about Rounds from the great group of administrators that I worked with in Langley on Saturday. As a result, I thought I might try to give a picture of what Rounds looks like and feels like from the perspective of an 'insider'.

Before Getting Started: Don't DO Rounds.
The process of Instructional Rounds is not something schools or districts should "do".  When people ask "How can we get Rounds into our school/district?", I usually answer with another question like "Why would you bother with Rounds?".  The answers usually involve phrases such as "it would be good for our staff", or "we are looking for some way to see what is going on in our classes", or, "we need something to bring meaning to collaborative conversations".  And while ideas like these these may constitute some of the positive side-effects of a school going through the rounds process, they are not reasons to "do" Rounds.  Schools and districts need to "use" Rounds because the end goal of Rounds is not to "do Rounds": the end goal of Rounds is to help a school or a district adopt a learning stance to solve an instructional issue they have been unable to solve.  In Rounds, this is called the Problem of Practice (POP).

Developing the Problem of Practice
Our Attributes Assembly - Kicking off CCR!
Our school began this process more than 15 months ago. We began by using 'the shortest question possible', which for us was "Are we preparing our students for life beyond Sa-Hali Secondary?". From that discussion (and dozens more), our staff found that we needed to determine, define, and develop our Attributes of a Graduate, which culminated in our co-created Sa-Hali Attributes Assembly and resultant Attributes Survey of our students and staff.  From these surveys, our students and staff told us that the of the three attributes of creativity, collaboration, and resilience we needed 'to work on right now' was resilience. And so, the driver came for our Problem of Practice, which looked like this:

"Anecdotal data from staff indicates that resilience, particularly academic resilience, is the area where our students struggle:  when faced with tasks that involve multiple-steps or skills, students frequently look to the teacher for help rather than overcoming challenges to solve the problem themselves.   Survey data showed that nearly 70% of our staff were neutral or felt less confident that they were intentionally teaching resilience, or whether the tasks they were assigning to students required them to demonstrate resilience.  
At Sa-Hali, we have defined ‘academic resilience’ as persevering, advocating, taking risks, and utilizing resources to overcome adversity, stress, challenge and/or pressure to successfully meet outcomes in an academic setting."

From that point, we needed to define resiliency in each of our content areas in terms of what students and staff would be doing, saying and writing, as well as to describe the types of tasks that required students to be resilient.  And as a result, we co-created a POP with definitions and examples that would tell an external Rounds team where we were at and what we wanted them to focus on when we invited them to our school.

The week before Rounds:
The Principal of the school does not typically facilitate the Rounds day of their own school--the host school works with an external facilitator (in this case, another Kamloops Principal, Jake Schmidt, who had been trained in Rounds).  During the week prior to hosting the visit, I chatted with Jake a great deal about the make up of our groups, classrooms, length of observation times, and any other details for which I might have needed a sounding board or some different thoughts.  In developing a schedule for observations at our school, I had asked for volunteers who would be willing to have their classes observed by a group of educators from other schools.  I was amazed at the positive response--we had more than enough volunteers who were wanting to have our external Rounds team come in to a diverse cross-section of classes.  Junior classes.  Senior classes. Core academics. Electives.  And seeing that we had 24 educators coming to do 80 minutes of observations at our school, we knew we would get a great snapshot.

It was important to ensure that our group of 24 observers was trained in classroom observation, so I gave a 90 minute session in the week leading up to our visit on things such as 'learning to see, unlearning to judge' and the 'ladder of inference' (from Rounds training).  We also did some video observations to hone our ability to look for observation data specific to our Problem of Practice.

In order to do a final check on Problem of Practices created by schools using Rounds, our district created a 'Problem of Practice Tuning Protocol' (inspired by and loosely-based on the High Tech High Tuning Protocol) so that schools could bring their POP to a large group to 'tune' it.  This process was designed not to change the POP for the school, but rather to modify or deflect it so the POP gives the host school the best data possible.  This was powerful for me--we got specific feedback and helpful questions from the tuning group that concentrated our POP in to a much tighter lens to help our external team examine resiliency for us.

I also felt it was important to send a welcome out to the team who was coming to help us: we wanted to give them information about our POP and our context, as well as logistical things such as parking, start times, where they would be working for the day, lunch, and answers to whatever other questions they might have.  But most importantly, we wanted to let them know how excited we were to have them come to Sa-Hali!

The night before Rounds:
Wednesday night involved a lot of running around--I was gathering post it notes, markers, chart paper, tables, chairs, projector, laptop, school maps, groups, and whatever else the team might need to observe, make patterns, predictions, and provide us with direction about the next level of work. Having learned from the outstanding organization of logistics at Richland Middle School in Fort Worth, I have seen the importance of making sure this 'little stuff' is taken care of prior to the day--it just makes the process run much more smoothly.
The Rounds "table toolkit" from RMS - a good exemplar! 

The day of Rounds:
The team arrived at 7:30, and after a quick meet and greet, we got started at 7:45.  Our facilitator talked for a bit about the day, and then I reviewed our POP.  I talked about the process our school used in developing our POP, our definition of resilience, and some 'look-for' focus questions for the group.  I also described the structures that we have in place at our school to support student and educator learning for their reference. After a few quick bits of organization and some norms for observation, the groups were off!

Each of the six groups did four 20 minute observations in four different classes.  So, just over 90 minutes later, the group came back, took a quick break, and started going through their observation data to find points that were clear, descriptive, non-judgmental, and relative to our Problem of Practice.  Using post-it notes, they presented those data points to the other members of their group to vet them, and then they began to organize their observation post-its on chart paper in a way that would allow them to develop some patterns.
Making patterns from observation data

At this point, at the suggestion of Sarah Bruhn (one of the authors of Instructional Rounds who was with us on Thursday), we did something a bit different.  We brought an internal team of seven teachers from our school into the process: they came in to help the external team make some predictions based on the question "If students did everything that they were asked today in the classes that you observed, what would students have learned?".  Our teachers were also there to help the external team to create the 'Next Level of Work'-- a set of plans that our school could design and implement going to help us with our Problem of Practice.

I have a hard time describing the dialogue that took place between our staff member and the external team.  I was actually shaking my head in amazement at the extraordinary depth of the conversations, the talk about pedagogy, the analysis of tasks that were observed, and the level of professional curiosity that each of the educators in the room had about the practice in our school and their own practice back home.  There were teachers, administrators and district staff working side by side, asking questions and respectfully challenging each other with things like (and these are a very thin slice of the examples)
Grinding through the data--rich dialogue!
  • "What did the student do that made you think that?", or 
  • "Did that task require resilience?  What was our evidence of that?", or
  • "I agree with you, but how is that related to the school's Problem of Practice?"
  • "If we asked the school to design and implement this, would they find it useful?", or
  • "Wow, I really want to go back to my class and look at what I'm doing in my classes."
And in the end, our internal team saw the creation of thoughtful, evidence-based patterns and cross-pollinated ideas that we can work on with our staff to move us towards our goal of solving our Problem of Practice.  All of this carefully and thoughtfully prepared by 24 professional volunteers through an accumulated 30-plus hours of observation.


After a lot of thank yous, hand-shakes, laughter, and pats on the back that I find comes from a day collective hard work and struggle, our facilitator (Jake), Sarah and I debriefed on the day.  We chatted about things that we could have changed, timing, groupings, and anything that we could think of.  I also shared the feedback that I had already received from a couple of our staff members who were observed that day:

"Nervous at first but then settled in. My students (Grade 12s) also said at first it felt a bit weird (like they were being judged) but then they hardly noticed. I liked that the observers talked with my students...kind of wished they talked to me a bit more :) "

'The students really weren't phased by having the observers in the class.  I would say they were better behaved, though.  :)  As for myself, even though I wasn't being marked or judged, it still felt stressful.  Maybe after a few more observations that will subside and I can teach more naturally, but it felt a little forced at times.  The observers were excellent as well - very respectful."

"It was a great experience. Some students felt intimidated at first, but gradually warmed up to the process. They said it was cool and would do it again."

We chatted for a bit longer, I made a pile of notes, and the day was done.  And everyone was exhausted (or at least I was)! 

Looking forward to our upcoming faculty meeting this Monday, we are going to try a different method of working through the data with our staff, and we are confident that a number of the suggestions we got from our Rounds volunteers will help to shape where we want to go relative to our vision.  I will post about that next week, so stay tuned.

In summary:
Rounds continues to be the most powerful learning experience that I engage in as a Principal, and I only wish I would have been able to do it when I was teaching.  As a participant, as a facilitator, and now as a host administrator, I have seen the learning that has taken place by the observation team, the internal team, and the host school.  I find the process of Rounds to be unique and transformational in its ability to focus people on a specific problem.  If you have an instructional challenge in your school that you would like a new set of eyes to look at, Rounds might just be a mechanism that works for you!

Cross-posted at the Sa-Hali Educational Sandbox