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Volume IV Issue XII

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Just ASK the Kids

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


As we approach the end of 2007, our thoughts turn to the beginning of a new calendar year. January derives its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. Drawings and statues of Janus picture him with two heads facing in opposite directions. Symbolically, he represents the practice of reflecting backward and looking forward. As schools approach the halfway point in the year, Janus reminds us of the importance of reviewing accomplishments from the first part of the year and making plans for the remainder of the school year.

As we look back on the school year thus far, the most important question we can ask ourselves is:

What data do we have that shows student learning is occurring?
Data related to student achievement can be derived from a number of sources. Many schools disaggregate data from the previous year’s standardized tests and establish instructional initiatives that will improve the scores during the next administration of the tests. Other districts require students to take periodic tests (often quarterly) throughout the year in order to measure student progress. With the advent of the professional learning community initiative, some teachers create and administer common assessments, analyze the results, and determine which instructional approaches have the greatest impact on student learning. A common approach to measuring student achievement are the individual assessments each teacher creates and uses in his or her classroom.

Administrators are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that learning is occurring in their schools. As they gather student achievement data, they work with individual teachers, departments and grade level groups. In addition, they visit classrooms and observe teachers to better understand how instruction is being played out across the school. In many instances, an administrator will conduct full period teacher observations, capture data by taking notes, write detailed observation reports, and present their findings to the teacher who was observed. The data from these observations are often used as determinants of student learning. Carrying out these observations can be time consuming and labor intensive, and although some administrators and teachers find the practice to be productive, others have concluded that it does not reveal much valid data about student learning.

An alternative data gathering process that has gained momentum in schools across many districts is the walk-through. A walk-through is defined as informal, brief classroom visits that may be used for generic data gathering or focused on particular teaching and learning behavior. Some schools (or entire districts) have developed walk-through protocols that observers use in their visits to classrooms. An analysis of six of these walk-through forms used by a variety of districts reveal a consistent pattern: The vast majority of the items on the form focus on teacher behaviors; very few of the indicators focus on student behavior or student learning.

In recent work with teachers and administrators, I had the opportunity to participate in a series of walk-through visits to classes across all grade levels and disciplines. In our visits we shifted our focus from teacher behavior to student learning. In small groups, we spent five to seven minutes in each classroom. When appropriate, we interacted with individual students or students who were working in pairs or small groups. As we talked with the students we asked questions such as:

What are you supposed to be learning?

How is what you are doing helping you learn?

How will you know that you are successful?

What have you learned so far that is helping you with new learning?

What are the next steps for you?

How do you know what excellent work looks like??

In what ways do you self-assess your efforts and your work?

The reaction from educators who have not traditionally carried out walk-throughs with a focus on students is exciting. Again and again, the observers find that they learn much more about student learning by talking to students than they do from focusing primarily on teacher behavior.

Some administrators have begun using student-centered walk-throughs as a source of data. They have concluded that by carrying out more frequent, briefer visits to classes, a clearer picture of student learning emerges. They not only see a more valid picture of the effectiveness of teaching practices, but they have concluded, with greater certainty, whether or not learning is taking place. In addition, administrators are finding that walk-throughs are less time consuming because they are not spending so much time “scripting” entire lessons, identifying teacher behaviors and writing long, detailed observation reports which may have a limited impact on teacher behavior and which may have very few indicators of student learning.

The first hand comments of administrators reveal the insights they have gained from participating in this new practice. Below are some reflections administrators shared:

One principal wrote, “So much insight is gained by listening to students talk about what is happening. They reveal their understandings but also their own struggles, concerns and questions. One leaves feeling invigorated by the connections and excited by the learning.”

A second administrator concluded, “By doing frequent walk-throughs and asking students questions about their learning, I can come away with valuable and insightful data to share with the teacher.”

A central office administrator said, “To me, it was extremely informative to look at what students were doing, how they were completing their tasks, what they understood the relevance of the tasks to be, and what they could tell me about what their learning was leading to next.”

Finally, a high school principal wrote, “Walk-throughs give meaning to the supervisory practice without relying on simply a one-time, 45-minute visit to a classroom once every semester to determine a teacher’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness.”

We have all heard the idea that “everything old is new again.” Over a quarter of a century ago, educator Ralph Tyler recommended that educators should focus on student behavior during classroom observations rather than concentrate on the content of the lesson. I think Dr. Tyler was right. If we really want to know if student learning is occurring, just ask the kids!


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Just ASK the Kids.” Just for the ASKing! December 2007. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2007 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.