Instructional Rounds: an organic approach


September 13, 2013 by sz

Fountain Valley High School is embarking on its third year of Instructional Rounds. Every year our network’s numbers have grown. Today we had over 40 teachers participate in our launch lunch where we reviewed our protocol and determined our area of focus.

I suspect we’ll even have more teachers participate in the observations. And we don’t just do rounds at our school. They’re spreading to other campuses in our district, all led by teachers.

Why do instructional rounds go so smoothly for us when other districts seem to struggle to even get started? Two reasons: it’s been an organic process and there’s built-in flexibility.

Teachers have shaped how rounds work since their inception. A handful of teachers have led the charge, but at every step we asked the participants for their input and ideas. It has been a true collaboration, with our administration supporting our efforts. Not dictating, not mandating, not even requesting. They simply give us time and space and encouragement.

One key difference between our style of instructional rounds and that of Elmore, et al. is our focus. Elmore suggests identifying a problem of practice, something that needs to be fixed. We take a more optimistic approach and observe for practices we want to amplify. For the first two years we used the California Standards for the Teaching Profession as our guide.

Here’s where our flexibility helps. Let’s say we choose to observe for the assessment of a variety of sources (CSTP 5.2), but during the observation the teacher only uses one source of assessment? It happens quite often that we don’t observe our area of focus because we don’t ask teachers to do anything different other than what they had planned. But guess what? The methods and practices they do use easily become the subject of our debriefs as we explore the reasons why those practices were effective and how we might adopt them for our students.


We also allow teachers to be as involved in the rounds process as fits their needs. We conduct network meetings before observations to hone in our focus area as well as network-wide debriefs to share snapshots of instruction. All those meetings are optional. So are the cohort observations. Sometimes a teacher’s schedule doesn’t align with the cohort. And even though we find that observing in small groups, and debriefing immediately after, the most beneficial way to do rounds, it’s not the only way. Teachers are welcome to observe on their own, anytime within our two-week observation window. Other teachers simply open their classrooms to observations. We welcome any and all levels of participation in rounds.

The organic nature of our rounds and their flexibility have lead to a healthy culture of collaboration, learning, and sharing. Our students sense it too. They see us learning from each other. They hear us learning from each other. They experience us learning with them.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 9.11.02 PM

Speaking of learning, that’s our new focus for next year. I’m almost tempted to revise the name from instructional rounds to learning rounds and here’s why.

In recent blog post by Grant Wiggins he encourages teachers to think of themselves as designers of learning rather than simply teachers:

The learning is the center of our world, not the teaching. And until we see that we are in the business of designing and causing learning instead of merely in the business of teaching, we will fail to cause optimal learning. We will fail to reach beyond the already-motivated, bright, and dutiful learners who trust adults and delay gratification very well.

This year we’ll be much more focused on the students’ tasks. What are we asking our students to do? And we’ll observe for effective strategies that lead to further depth and complexity in our students’ learning, always keeping our eyes open for any other strategy we find effective. We’ll steal the best strategies, share them with our colleagues, and continue to amplify what we do well at Fountain Valley High School.

Resources for 2013 – 2014

Exploring Cognitive Demand in Instruction and Assessment (Hess 2006)


4 thoughts on “Instructional Rounds: an organic approach

  1. Spot ON Sean. Sean asked us if there was anything we wanted to share about the process before we went back to our classrooms. We ran out of time before everyone could speak. I just wanted to add:

    “Two reasons why this process at FVHS works is TRUST and CURIOSITY.” It takes a huge amount of trust to open your class to your peers on a constant basis. Many teachers in the process tell others that their class is open every period, every day. Some days are better than others, but I have NEVER heard two teachers discussing anything they saw EXCEPT in a positive light. Curiosity is the carrot that drives this. I WANT to see what my fellow teachers are doing in their room, it’s cool and interesting. Thanks again to everyone who is joining this process it’s been an amazing team building experience.

  2. Isaac Pineda says:

    Great post Sean! We’re working on installing a culture of student-centered learning also in our school! You are absolutely right: the learning should be the focus rather than just the teaching. The teaching serves the learning. Good to know that the same battles are being fought in different trenches!

  3. […] They respect teachers by empowering them to solve the issues regarding the schools vision through teacher-led Instructional Rounds. […]

  4. […] Stop curating ideas and watch them in action by participating in Instructional Rounds […]

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