Making classroom observations more efficient — and effective

By Kelly Gillespie
January 21st, 2016


A custom web-based system is making for more thoughtful classroom observation

Instructional leaders need to know what is happening when the bell rings and the door closes — in every classroom, in every building, every day. And the best way to do that is through careful but effective classroom observation. The challenge, then, is how to design a customizable, user-friendly system to observe classroom teaching that doesn’t seem like a top-down affair.

Just over five years ago, my organization, the Southwest Plains Regional Service Center in Kansas, set out to do just that, and to date, 13,572 teachers have been observed in 726 schools. This includes over 150,000 observations and over 6.5 million data points.

First, here’s what we know: Quality of teaching is the number one factor affecting student learning; collaborative dialogue is the number one factor affecting quality of teaching; and collaborative dialogue requires data.

We seized the opportunity. Grassroots and locally designed, the Digital eWalkThrough System was born. Because it is web-based, the eWalkThrough continually delivers data as classroom observations are completed. Naturally, we collect a lot of data through each classroom interaction, and the data collected corresponds to our goals. In short, we’re collecting and recording data to transform instructional leadership, to nurture self-reflection and collaborative conversation, to metamorphose professional learning into differentiated (and personalized) support, and to provide targeted feedback for growth.

Via the online eWalkThrough system, instructional leaders (such as district leaders, building leaders, coaches, and consultants) can now access an affordable and efficient method to: collect, disaggregate, analyze, and archive classroom observation data; and deliver instantaneous feedback to teachers. (Since Southwest Plains, like all educational service centers in Kansas, does not receive state funding, there is a small fee for districts using the system.)

This is instructional leadership at its best.  Quality of teaching improves. Student achievement increases.

What is classroom observation?

Ideally, observations are brief (3-5 minutes), unannounced, unobtrusive, and routinely conducted. Instructional leaders gain respect and teachers are well-served when eWalkThrough is focused on district priorities and initiatives, and when that focus is transparent and consistent. As the challenge grows to deliver high-quality instruction that results in high-levels of student achievement, eWalkThrough is gaining recognition as an effective classroom observation model to support excellent teaching.

How does the system help?

The approach is simple. Using a tablet or phone, the Digital eWalkThrough System allows instructional leaders to observe teaching in action, in real-time.

The driving question behind every eWalkThrough observation is, “what should we see in every classroom that makes a difference in student success.” Across time, eWalkThrough snapshots work together to form a panoramic picture of the state of instruction in a district or school.

A district design team identifies the look-fors which are subsequently programmed to become the customized tool face. Look-fors should collectively make-up the whole of instructional expectations. They typically include research-based best practice or state and national expectations. An example can be found within the Dodge City School District in southwest Kansas. There, administrators report significant gains in quality of teaching as a result of implementing the Digital eWalkThrough System. Their observer team completed 1,574 walkthroughs during the Fall 2015 semester. Customized look-fors include:

  • Use of cues, questions, and advanced organizers to increase cognition and content relevance
  • Clear learning objectives and continuous feedback to maximize student learning
  • Application of multiple methods to extend and apply knowledge
  • Implementation of the SAMR model to enhance teaching and learning via technology

The next step is observer training. This step includes observer calibration, the on-going work of refining exactly, “what each look-for, should look like” in the classroom. This process ensures that the data is valid and reliable. The goal is for observers to become uniform and consistent in their marking of the customized look-fors.

The Digital eWalkThrough System is resource efficient.  Data is stored directly within the tool.  This data can be immediately sent to the teacher upon completion of an observation. The eWalkThrough also functions as an electronic file cabinet for each individual observation organized by teacher, by building, and by grade level and/or content area. Users can also generate and send summary reports.

Data can be sorted and disaggregated as desired. Instructional leaders and teachers now receive feedback for growth, for decision-making, and for continuous improvement. Visionary districts are utilizing eWalkThrough data as evidence for accreditation, school improvement, and other mandatory state and federal reporting.

What are the results?

  • High Fives! – The number one reason to conduct eWalkThrough observations is to catch teachers in the act of delivering excellent instruction. Give teachers positive feedback.
  • Visible Leadership – Instructional leaders hit the target of visible leadership each and every time they are present in classrooms. Commitment to excellent instruction is most effectively accomplished by observing teachers as they perform their daily work.
  • Professional Learning Decisions – Data are available instantaneously. These data provide the evidence needed to ensure sound decision-making. Teachers can now receive the differentiated support they need.
  • Self-Reflection – Feedback is immediate. Teachers can self-reflect at any moment. What worked? What will I do differently next time? Self-reflection is the foundational element of authentic change in professional practice.
  • Instructional Conversations – Instructional leaders having conversations with teachers is the most effective strategy for ensuring excellent instruction. These conversations can be conducted across the academic year as observations are completed and data accumulates.
  • Coaching and Mentoring – The instructional leader now has classroom data to coach each individual teacher. Coaching and mentoring can be refined to meet the precise needs of a particular educator or team of educators.

About the Author:

Dr. Kelly Gillespie, CEO, Southwest Plains Regional Service Center, Sublette, Kansas, conceptualized The Digital eWalkThrough System just over five years ago. Currently serving 80+ districts and universities, implementation is expanding across Kansas.