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Instructional Vision: What Practice Is Like, Not What It Looks Like

Too often, we make a critical mistake when trying to articulate a vision for improvement:

We specify what it looks like…

…instead of what it is like, from the insider's perspective

Like you, I've been trained in supervision—I even have a textbook on my shelf called SuperVision (pun intended). 

As administrators, we often say things like “I want to be clear about what I'm looking for.

We develop observation tools with “look-fors” and “indicators” and other forms of evidence that would give us a sense of our progress in achieving our vision. 

We develop checklists and rating forms, based on what we're “looking for.” 

But we forget that what we're looking for…and what teachers are doing…are two different things.

Imagine going to the doctor for your annual physical exam. 

What it looks like is pretty straightforward—even as non-experts, we can identify things like:

  • Asking about symptoms
  • Checking vitals
  • Examining ears, nose, and throat
  • Giving health advice
  • Writing prescriptions

…but that's not really what practice is for a physician conducting an annual exam. 

That's just our “outsider's view” of medical practice. 

When we allow our outsider's perspective to warp our understanding of practice, we suffer from what I call observability bias. 

Observability Bias is the tendency of instructional leaders to focus on what is easiest for them to observe, rather than the key decisions teachers are making.

Your physician isn't just a question-asker or ear-examiner. 

You go to a medical doctor for medical expertise—for the doctor's professional judgment

In the same way, teaching isn't just question-asking or instruction-giving or test-grading. 

It's professional practice, which entails professional judgment.

Improving teacher practice requires a specific vision for improvement…

…but if that vision is warped by observability bias—if we're too focused on our “look-fors” rather than deeply understanding the thinking and decision-making teachers are doing—that vision will never be realized. 

So it's time to get rid of the checklists.

There is no “manual” for teaching.

There is no step-by-step protocol for great teaching, because great teaching is mostly about professional judgment. 

Caution: I'm NOT saying that teaching is so complex and mysterious that we can't do anything to improve it. 

I'm saying that to improve something as complex as teaching, we need to respect its complexity. 

Your vision for improvement can change teacher practice—if it's specific enough, and takes the insider's perspective enough, to give teachers real guidance in how to improve their practice. 

But it can't be reduced to a checklist. 


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