Thanks to some great discussion with readers of last week's article, How Instructional Leaders Can Develop Shared Expectations, In 3 Steps, my co-author and I had some great clarifying discussions on when it's appropriate to use a walkthrough checklist (not the subject of our book) and when a fully developed instructional framework is warranted.
Here's where checklists are useful: when there's a “binary” expectation.
A checklist is essentially a binary TRUE/FALSE. Did the teacher meet the expectation?
With binary expectations, quality doesn't matter.
As long as the teacher meets the literal expectation, there's no reason to talk about how well or how poorly.
There's no reason to worry about skill or professional judgment. Meeting the expectation is purely about compliance.
Some examples where quality may not matter, at least not for the purposes of your walkthrough:
- Classroom rules are posted
- Objective for the lesson is written on the board
- Teacher takes attendance
- All students are able to see the screen/board
- Teacher is using the assigned curriculum
Now, sometimes you might do walkthroughs to collect data on expectations like this.
But I think this barely counts as instructional leadership. It's exceedingly boring, and doesn't really address teacher practice at all. Think of it as basic building management. It can catch problems, but it's not going to result in excellence.
Because when it comes to professional practice, quality always matters!
So a checklist usually won't be of much use.
For example, if you were making a walkthrough checklist for “High Expectations for Student Learning,” it might have “look-fors” such as:
- Has high expectations linked to standard(s)
- Communicates high expectations to students
- Has high expectations for ALL students
- Expectations are rigorous
- Big projects/units are broken into milestones
- Scaffolding is provided to help students reach high expectations
Now, the typical way to use such a list would be to visit classrooms, hoping to see each of these elements, and give feedback based on whether each look-for was present.
But here's the problem…
First, quality matters, and this checklist says nothing about the difference between poor and excellent practice.
Second, a lot of these are complex, nuanced, and frankly, not very observable—especially not in a 10-minute walkthrough.
Teaching practice is deep and complex. What we see in a walkthrough is just the tip of the iceberg.
Ignoring or oversimplifying an aspect of practice, simply because it's hard to observe, is a distortion I call observability bias.
To do justice to each of the look-fors in the above list, we need more than a list. We need a rubric, or what I call an instructional framework.
And we need to recognize that while we may be “looking for” them, calling them “look-fors” misses the mark, because they're not directly observable.
I originally thought this would fit on one page, but it quickly filled three pages.
Getting specific is more work, but when you do that work, you've given teachers a roadmap for their growth.
On the other hand, when you give teachers a checklist, you've just given them more to worry about.
Because checklists are “binary” expectations, they can't really help teachers improve their practice.
They can only help teachers remember things they might otherwise forget (like, say, taking attendance).
That's not where most of our improvement opportunities are, though.
If you want to see improvement, don't use a checklist. Get more specific.