Instructional rounds

Instructional rounds is a strategy for engaging teachers, school leaders and system leaders in investigating instructional practices within a school and identifying the impact of these practices on student learning.

A group of leaders or teachers visit multiple classrooms at their own or another school with the aim of spreading practice and supporting scaling systemic improvements of teaching and learning. During this process, instruction is examined in fine detail and precise, non-­judgmental language is used to identify specific strategies used by teachers, to explore student learning and behaviour and to gather evidence about learning and teaching in a particular context, across a school or a network of schools.

Instructional rounds differs from more traditional approaches to classroom visits or observation as the observer is expected to learn something themselves. Rounds requires participants to 'hold up a mirror' (City, 2011) to their own practice as they observe practice in other classrooms with the aim of understanding what is happening in classrooms, and with a view towards identifying how they can get closer to the learning that they (collectively)  would like to see in all classrooms.

The process is heavily descriptive and analytical rather than evaluative and observers note what they see rather than what they think about it. The non-­judgemental aspect of rounds makes it a less daunting prospect for teachers than a more traditional observation process. For these reasons, instructional rounds is a very powerful strategy for professional learning as all involved in the process have a stake in improving the learning outcomes for students.

Why use instructional rounds?

Instructional rounds focuses on school-­wide improvement rather than the improvement of individual teachers and students. This increases a sense of ownership and accountability for the process of change and improved outcomes and builds a collaborative approach to school improvement. This focus on broader, systemic improvement supports the scaling of interventions to address an identified 'problem of practice' across a number of contexts, and potentially the system as a whole. Using non-­judgemental language and being analytical rather than descriptive helps to separate the practice from the person and enables more teachers to feel confident in opening up their classroom, engaging in professional discussions and suggesting ways forward to improve practice.

Key elements

  • Collaborative identification of an aspect of practice or school life to focus on in depth.
  • Sharing practice with a mutual commitment to the improvement of practice.
  • Focusing on describing what is observed in the context of the focus 'problem', not judging or evaluating.
  • Trusting relationships between teachers and a sense of security in the school environment.

How do we implement instructional rounds?

Instructional rounds is a strategy for engaging teachers, school leaders and system leaders in investigating instructional practices within a school and identifying the impact of these practices on student learning. However, you do need to consider a few things in the planning process:

Gather a group of educators –­ this can be all teachers from the one school, a combination of teachers and school leaders from one school or across a number of different schools that meet regularly to develop a common understanding of learning and teaching. Spending time developing this shared understanding will be vital to the success of the rounds process. In order to observe practice effectively, all observers need to understand what they are looking for and how these observations help to inform future practice. Working with teachers from the one school may make this process easier in the initial iterations of rounds.

The school identifies a 'problem of practice' as the focus for the observations. City et al (2009) define this as being 'Something you care about that would make a difference for student learning if you improved it'. The problem of practice is most powerful when it is connected to ongoing, long-­term improvement within the school, such as what is outlined in the school plan, and is underpinned by evidence and  in data. City et al (2009) identify key elements for a rich  problem of practice:

  • focuses on the instructional core (What teachers and students are doing and the content being addressed)
  • is directly observable
  • is actionable (is within the school's/district's control and can be improved in real time)
  • connects to a broader strategy of improvement (school, feeder pattern, system)
  • is high-­leverage (if acted on, it would make a significant difference for student learning)
  • is deep learning (for example, higher levels on Bloom's) promoted by this POP for both teachers and students.

Observation groups collect data related to the identified 'problem of practice'. Groups of 3­ to 6 teachers and school leaders are formed. In the group, each member is allocated a role:

  1. Task –­ describe what the task is
  2. Teacher –­ record what the teacher says and does
  3. Student – ­ record what the students say and do, questioning students
  4. Environment –­ record what is in the environment, how it is organised, what materials students are using/able to access

Each group member focuses on observing the activities that relate to their role as they visit classrooms. The number of classrooms visited will depend on the size of the school and the number of staff. It is important, however, to visit a cross-­section of age groups and subject areas to gather accurate evidence. Again, this will depend on the 'problem of practice'; if it is focused on a specific subject area then lessons should be targeted that will most effectively gather evidence on that aspect. Only 10­-15 minutes should be spent in each classroom, during which time observers make notes describing what they see or hear related to their role.

Groups debrief after observations using an agreed process in order to build a picture of teaching and learning throughout the school, not just of individual classrooms. The process recommended by City et al 2009 follows these steps (for more details please see the links below):

  1. Describe what was observed
  2. Analyse the descriptions
  3. Predict what learning was taking place
  4. The next level of work.

Groups make recommendations for the next stage of work. They revisit the 'problem of practice' in light of patterns observed and make specific recommendations to address the 'problem of practice' based on the evidence gathered. Make suggestions about what the group should do 'next week', 'next month', by the end of the year – short and long term actions.

Things to consider

In a diverse group of observers there may not be a shared, common understanding of effective practices. Allowing time for this to develop prior to observing classes will contribute to a successful and impactful rounds experience. If external visitors are participating in the process, they may be perceived as evaluative by teachers being observed.

Spending time clarifying the purpose of the visit should help all participating teachers feel comfortable and confident with the process. Observed teachers do not receive individual feedback for improvement unless it is specifically requested, which needs to be communicated to staff prior to the observation. Not all teachers will feel comfortable in opening up their classroom for rounds, and should be provided with support to do so when they feel ready.

Further reading and resources

Improving Teaching and Learning through Instructional Rounds Teitel, L. (2009)

Instructional Rounds – How to guide AITSL

Learning from Instructional Rounds (PDF 159KB) City (2011)

Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning (City, Elmore, Fiarman & Teitel, 2009)

Quality Teaching Rounds (staff only)

School-Based Instructional Rounds (PDF 230KB) Teitel, L. (2014)

The Art & Science of Teaching /Making the Most of Instructional Rounds Marzano, R (2011) Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

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