Why I’m Placing Learning Walks in Room 101

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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(July 2021) Reflecting on this blog post from 2013, I look back on how far the teaching profession has moved forward.

I have left much of the details below for a historical record for readers; much of what is included I now disagree with. Feel to ask what and why in the comments below.

There are aspects of some of the approaches outlined below I would still use, but with several definitions and disclaimers – get in touch if you would like to know what I would do differently.

This academic year, we have shelved Learning Walks. This is nothing to do with fashion or fad. It is purely a localised issue, dependent on the needs of our own school. So please, do not take this blogpost as verbatim.

Slightly short of 3 years, I first arrived at my current school as assistant principal, with overall responsibility for teaching and learning, initial teacher training and staff development. From what I could decipher, over the course of the first month, observations and appraisal were almost zero! Standards of teaching were ‘good’ and the school and teaching staff were in need of ‘teaching’ leadership. My role was simply to add capacity to the team in order to do this.

Now, please note, I am no breakdown recovery service flying in to save the day! Far from it. It just needs to be stressed here, that there was no clear leadership role in place to drive this vital area for the school. It was now my responsibility.


I started this position on the ‘day after‘ an Ofsted inspection. How on earth could I visit teachers to support them and the school shifting forward after such a milestone? Everyone was knackered! The last thing any teacher would want – including me – would be another round of observations, or a new set whims to be put in motion after an Ofsted inspection.

So, I waited half a term. More on that later …

Phase 1 (1st half-term):

The first thing I accomplished, was to introduce myself to each of the teachers that were not observed by any of the inspection team. My only aim was to say hello and hear their views on teaching and learning. This was necessary, as neither had these members of staff received any informal or informal types of observation or feedback, since any of them could remember. If truth be told, one teacher’s response comes to my mind right now: “In 8 years of working here, I have never had a formal observation.”

The reason? This was mainly circumstantial. Some staff having just arrived 1 or 2 years ago; poor line-management; absence issues and so forth. The vast majority of cases, were all down to appraisal and observational procedures, systems and accountability, which I now believe are resolved.

My own initial action plan, was to act methodically, carefully pitching my movements based on the context of the situation. For example: an open door; a closed door; a wet and windy day; examinations; teachers gesturing for me to come in and so forth. At no time was anything obligatory.

I’d like to hazard-a-guess, that I managed to visit 75% of the teaching staff within my first two weeks. This would equate to approximately 60-70 teachers in total, which would mean that I managed to visit about 40 classrooms in the space of two weeks. (About 30 teachers were observed during Ofsted Nov. 2011)

Early visits and discussions confirmed that appraisal observations were not commonplace. Learning walks and book-looks were unheard of and that (CPD) continued professional development was virtually zero!

I had the perfect starting point. Upwards!

Phase 2 (1st half-term):

One of the most-effective tools I have used for a number of years, is ‘Open Classroom’. Teachers are hungry to share good practice in any school and most will be keen to invite others into their classroom if given a chance; or eager to observe their peers. Open Classroom is the simplest way to go about this. If you’d like to consider this, I would suggest:

'Opening the classroom door can be as liberating as it is daunting...'
‘Opening the classroom door can be as liberating as it is daunting…’
  • Share the concept of Open Classroom.
  • Plan a series of Open Classroom Focus Weeks – one per half-term – throughout the academic calendar.
  • Ask staff to sign up.
  • Map the teacher, the location, the showcase (for example, AfL; questioning; plenaries).
  • Promote Open Classroom in staff briefings; open days and teacher-training visits.
  • Provide an initial batch of staff with an Open Classroom sign for their classroom door.
  • Longer term: provide ALL teaching staff with an ‘Open Classroom’ sign at the back of their teacher-planner.

Phase 3 (2nd half-term):

After the first half-term, I set about working with each Head of Department, planning a sequence of Learning Walks for each department. This was paired and included every TLR (Teaching and Learning Responsibility) holder. The focus was tailored and specific and varied from 8 to 35 short observations for each faculty (dependant on size) over the course of the week. At the end of the week, the department was provided with a detailed report and action plan, co-written by myself and the Head of Department. The feedback to the group was anonymous and each individual teacher was encouraged to meet for individual feedback.

The formal Learning Walk proforma is shown below. (Reflecting on this document 8 years later, a) there is too much to be evaluated here b) keywords need defined)

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 17.13.36

This was lengthy, time-consuming and the impact was clear. In the long-term, this proved fruitless if there was no coherent follow-up or action on the part of the department. Again, this was down to accountability, consistency and priorities.

Book Reviews were also introduced. With marking and feedback one of our key targets for improvement, book reviews didn’t get off the ground for at least two terms after my arrival. They were laboured, simply due to lack of observations (still not) taking place.

Phase 4 (3rd and 4th half-terms):

Book Reviews continued to try and get off the mark, using a slightly adapted and dumbed-down version from the formal Learning Walks template shown above. We introduced @IRIS_Connect to our team, purchasing 25 user licences. Our aim in 2013-14 is to share the footage with the whole staff in our teaching and learning meeting that we have each term.

Using IRIS Connect in class
Using IRIS Connect in class – see me under the arrow


We then moved onto informal Learning Walks, with the aim to observe teachers on a more voluntary basis. All departments were included and Heads of Department were expected to lead and communicate the outcomes. The response was patchy, but there was now the option to observe from afar, using IRIS Connect. The allowed the observer(s) to observe from, for example, my office, or pop into the class to speak with students and look in students books …

Using IRIS dramatically provided us with many new outcomes and possibilities. Our informal Learning Walk was now less time-consuming and the template is shown below. Click the image to download.

Informal Learning Walks - click to download
Informal Learning Walks – click to download

Phase 5 (5th-8th terms):

Over the course of 2012-13, we were now in a position to crank up teaching and learning standards to another level. Heads of Department were very receptive and engaged with a 4-phase programme that I initiated to have all senior and middle-leaders accurate in their assessment of lesson judgements.

Over the course of 8 days, staggered across two half-terms, we led staff in teaching and learning sessions and paired up with individuals on learning walks across the school.

Our school proforma was used for these observations and a total of 55 observations were completed in total, involving over 35 staff. The document shown below, was tweaked six times and shared with staff after each consultation.

Staff now have their finger on the pulse and were very appreciative of the intensive training they received in making formal judgements and providing verbal feedback. Initial feedback was very positive and the long-terms implications of this CPD has shown, that our entire senior and middle leadership teams can act and make judgements accordingly.

An example of working with Lorna Cork, using paired-Ofsted-observations, can be found here and is probably where the legendary 5 Minute Lesson Plan went viral.

Changes to Appraisal:

We also modified our Appraisal policy in light of DfE changes for September 2012. Rather than being restricted to union-guidance with 3 observations per academic year. We removed the quantity and replace this with ‘according to the needs of the individuals‘. This has been successful on many levels.

Firstly, if you are judged ‘Good or Outstanding’, then you no longer needed a formal observation, unless your appraiser raised concerns with your performance. The chances are, of course, remote. Secondly, with staff who are judged ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’, the removal of 3 observations per year allowed us to put in place, our own tailored ‘Good in Ten’ CPD programme to support the individual outside of appraisal cycle. Our success stories are varied and after an initial cohort (2012-13), I can report a 66% improvement for participants on the programme.

We also made clear, the various CPD pathways available to all teaching staff with this document below …

Click the image to download this document
Click the image to download this document

I am happy to share this information with you privately if you contact me through my website.

Phase 6 (9th term):

On arrival in 2011, this group were a hand-picked bunch of AfL preachers who thoroughly loved teaching. My affable headteacher, nicknamed them, the ‘glee-club!’ This was all fine-and-dandy and served it’s purpose, but offered no real meaningful whole-school impact and transparency.

The teaching staff had to earn their stripes and we set about putting in place a rigorous programme tailored for each individual. We now have approximately 20 teachers on the programme.

Good to Outstanding:

To enrol on Good to Outstanding CPD programme, teachers now have to prove their worth. Appraisal observations and continued-performance are all now part of the enrolment process. A range of options are offered in return, as well as a plethora of expectations for the individual and as part of a transparent team of individuals shared with the school. If you’d like further details, please get in touch.

Good in Ten:

Good in Ten was a CPD programme we put in place for staff stuck on ‘Requires Improvement’. As we all know, after the goalposts shifted and made lesson observations ‘good or better’ and nothing else, as the benchmark, we acted as a school and consulted staff on our lesson observation proforma.

The wheels were put in motion as quickly as possible, as we felt that our bottom-end had been lacking in quality CPD for years …

Download here.

You can download the details and templates here and read the full journey for Requires Improvement teaching here.

An incredibly powerful document was shared by @LeadingLearner in this simple grid shown below. This made totally sense for our staff when discussing planning, learning and judgements. I cannot recommend it enough.

Tight learning gains; loose learning structure by @LeadingLearner
Tight learning gains; loose learning structure by @LeadingLearner

Feedback so far:

Having used the Good In Ten programme internally for one year, I can report very successful outcomes, one that I will not share here, but will happily do so over the phone. Make sure you download the templates for yourself and have a read through beforehand.

Having modified our Ofsted lesson proforma for the 7th time, we continued to provide optional Learning Walks to staff, but with ‘teeth’. What I mean by this, is that feedback from staff in the 5th-8th terms, suggested that Learning Walks offered no substance. If they provided no feedback, no judgement and indication of how to improve, what was the benefit? Although I agree with this, the key issue here, is again consistency across the school. Are all those that are conducting Learning Walks on the right page and doing what they should be doing to support staff? Have I not communicated the process or supported staff in training?

Do not under-estimate how many staff in your school have never formally observed a colleague and provided feedback. Do all that you can to ensure staff are fully equipped to support colleagues, as well as themselves.

So, what now?

Standards of teaching and learning have now risen to 74% (July 2013) and we are not stopping there. We want to achieve 80% ‘Good or Outstanding’ by January 2014 and eliminate all ‘Requires Improvement’ teaching by July 2014. It is a big ask, but one that will be a team effort; one that is transparent, supportive and beneficial to all.

You can view my full presentation on this story, at the @SLTeachMeet video below, filmed in Edinburgh on 13th July 2013 at the BELMAS conference below. (Scroll to 22mins 15 seconds or so…)

Click to view
Click to view

More teeth:

This year we have already introduced our new Teaching and Learning Policy. There was nothing in place prior to my arrival! We have updated our Marking Policy and introduced a school-wide ‘marking for accuracy’ policy to focus on improving literacy and quality of feedback for students.

Usborne Guide to Better English: Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation
Usborne Guide to Better English: Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation

We have trained our staff (very hard) with countless literacy training days and have purchased (on their request after an internally led English department INSET), a copy of ‘Usborne Guide to Better English: Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation’ book to aid their own confidence in grammar, spelling and punctuation; as well as improve quality of written feedback. We have also provided all our teachers with their very own @IPEVO visualiser camera!

Click to buy an @IPEVO camera for your classroom
Click to buy an @IPEVO camera for your classroom

And finally:

So this academic year, our staff have asked for feedback. They DO NOT want Learning Walks. They DO NOT want drop-ins. They want quality observations with quality feedback. So, we have binned them!

No more Learning Walks. They have served their purpose …


WE DO NOT intend on conducting anymore heavy-handed learning walks. WE DO NOT intend on carrying out any fluffy book-reviews; book-looks or work scrutiny in order to catch staff out to see if they haven’t been marking!

We have listened to our staff.

Our aim is to be supportive as possible, but we are not complacent. We must turn the gas up and start to reduce ‘Requires Improvement’ teaching in our school (full stop). The process will not be to catch staff under-performing. Simon Warburton describes this method accurately in his blogpost ‘Challenges for Senior Leadership – The danger of a GOTcha culture.’ We aim to get straight to the point regarding our school priorities. Written feedback; literacy and quality of teaching and learning.

Therefore, we need to place paramount focus on student books and written feedback. This does not have to be achieved in a Learning Walk!

This may require tough-love at times and may be in the form of formal observations, or a simple conversation, but we aim to ensure that we know our teaching staff, day-in-day-out, regardless on appraisal and review. This will, I’m sure, all resort back to consistency once more … Kev Bartle captures this nicely his blogpost Mosquito Moments. We aim to listen to the needs of our teaching staff and our school.

No matter what, Learning Walks have been binned and we move forward!

13 thoughts on “Why I’m Placing Learning Walks in Room 101

  1. An open classroom is always a good idea. I had loads of formal observations and informal feedback during my training year and as a result I felt a lot clearer on what was working and what needed to be improved. Observations should be a chance to improve and be supported rather than a way of picking fault. After all teaching is a continuous development. If every establishment could embrace them in this way I think it would be much more effective than the absolute panic that is induced to those who have observations occasionally and feel judged by them. Sharing is the way forward!

  2. Some interesting points here. Learning walks, our end, have started really positively but there is a general feel that the rationale is not clear. I think it is really important to a) communicate with the staff about the purpose and b) make it fair. My experience tells me that learning walks usually occur in the early mornings as opposed to the latter lessons near the end of the week. There is sometimes a corporate “pushy” feel to the whole approach.

    Love the use of video technology for phase 4!

  3. A thorough and in-depth look at cpd leadership and what works for your school. Lovely to see personalised approaches, discovering what works and what doesn’t to move CPD forward.

    Thanks for sharing Ross!

  4. We are now where you were then! Thank you for sharing this, it is comforting to see SLT listening and responding to staff as well as taking the tough decisions when needed. this is incredibly helpful.

  5. Pingback: #Pygmalion teacher expectancy-effect by @TeacherToolkit | @ TeacherToolkit

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