In 2006 and 2007, two groups of Scottish educators were sponsored to attend the Harvard Summer School as part of the Scottish Government’s International Thought-Leaders’ Programme. Their mission was to engage with leading American educationalists and to soak up ideas, perceptions, strategies and innovative practice.
As a direct result of this initiative, Professor Richard Elmore was invited to Scotland in 2007 to share his work in the area of System-Wide Improvement, and specifically to demonstrate and illustrate the Instructional Rounds Programme which he was then trialling in the Boston and Philadelphia areas. Throughout his visit Professor Elmore led a number of presentations and workshops across Scotland, in which he focused on his central message of the need to develop the teaching profession through a core practice, with a clear and shared core language. He described Instructional Rounds as a way to ensure and develop accountability as teachers select courses of action by adopting common norms, and by making claims and taking action based on evidence. He concluded his visit by leading an Instructional Rounds in a high school in Fife.
The response to this visit was extraordinarily positive, and the Scottish Government commissioned the National CPD Team and SCSSA to take forward the development of a Scottish model, based on Elmore’s key theories, and which became known locally as Learning Rounds. This development was intended to support schools and authorities in developing internal accountability, and to create a powerful form of professional learning aimed at helping schools and systems develop the capacity to educate all children to high levels.
In developing the Scottish model, the team was careful to maintain a focus on the key characteristics that had led to the success of the Instructional Rounds model in the States. These included a commitment to observation in groups, clear and established protocols for observation, analysis of the observations on site, and a focus on the key question, “What is the next level of work?”
Several years later, and it is clear that the Instructional Rounds model continues to deliver in the States. A veritable flurry of publications by the Harvard Education Press have explored the protocols, practice and impact of the model. It is perhaps a good time to reflect on the experience across Scotland in the last few years.
There is little doubt that Learning Rounds is popular with educators, who like the personal ownership of their learning offered by the programme. Many talk positively about the opportunity it offers to talk to colleagues about pupil learning in a structured and non-judgmental group, and of the powerful insights and new understanding which can emerge as a consequence.
There is however some evidence that we have yet to see the full potential of the programme realized. A group of three Edinburgh schools worked together over the Spring term, in partnership with a team of local authority officers and consultants, to try to identify how the positive outcomes of the Learning Rounds programme could become more firmly embedded in practice, in order to achieve a more significant improvement in the impact of the experience. This was Learning Rounds+. Although the programme has not yet been fully evaluated, key issues emerged which are of some significance for those establishments planning Learning Rounds in the year ahead.
Where the impact of involvement in Learning Rounds had been less clear, it seemed to be related to a pick ‘n’ mix approach to the protocols. The programme is best when it is followed as a whole. While each individual element can offer a valuable learning experience (lesson observation, table mat discussion, non-judgmental discussion, etc.) it is the totality of the programme that delivers success. For this reason, the Learning Rounds + team agreed that it was helpful to have an experienced facilitator for the first go at Learning Rounds in any school.
The Harvard publications mentioned to above also refer to the need to see Learning Rounds (or Instructional Rounds) as a process, part of the way the school develops and improves rather than an event. In the most recent publication the author Thomas Fowler-Finn says:
“It will be two to three years before what participants learn from rounds shows up in the classroom.”
This time scale seems equally appropriate for the Scottish version. In the Learning Rounds + programme, the establishment of a Learning Circle by the school leadership teams was a very positive way to co-coach and build inter-school collaboration.
The third significant theme to emerge from the Learning Rounds + programme was the need to link the discussion on next steps with other school improvement processes such as Professional Review and Development, school improvement planning, in-school in-service, etc. This helped to build the Learning Rounds culture within the school, and ensured that there was a sustained commitment to next steps of learning.
Finally, and importantly, Learning Rounds + taught us that the programme has the greatest chance of making a real difference in those which have created a culture of shared learning and trust. As with all the very best CPD, the best outcomes emerge when teachers are positive and engaged.