Friday, October 23, 2015

What language do you speak? Instructional rounds to build common language

I read a leadership book about 10 years ago about the importance of developing a common language within your organization.  Not only to move forward, but move forward as a unit together.  I read this book, agreed, and then packed it away not thinking about it too much for the next 8 years or so.

Then I became the principal of a great school, Carrie Downie Elementary School.  I realized right away that we needed to share a vocabulary in order to effectively communicate with each other in order to really understand each other.  We were trying to change our direction and reach a focus around blended learning.  Because of this, the importance of a common language and why it is necessary was tested and proven over and over.  It was tested and practiced again this week.

We did instructional rounds with all of our homeroom teachers, eighteen teachers in all.  These were short rounds (45 min) where we spent (10-15) minutes observing a fellow Carrie Downie teacher. There were 6 different groups in all, taking all day.  After the observation the rest of the time was spent identifying tasks, both from the student and teacher perspective.  These ranged from questions asked, to those written, to student collaborative conversations, to so many other things that were seen and heard.

The problem of practice was Increase the cognitive lifting of students and tasks from teachers.  That basically means, figure out how to take lessons from being solidly in a retrieval/comprehension state to analysis/reasoning/metacognition/creating/etc.  We had tools (flip chart), had conducted a short training exercise, and had up to 12 eyes all focused on one goal.  By doing this we were developing a common language. We went for it.

I believe you learn best by doing, and this was definitely doing.  We scripted everything we saw in teams of 5-6 and returned to debrief.  The level of conversation and debate with each grade level was professional, without making inferences, and based on similar context.  It was also clear right away that we were developing a common language together.  Words were being used that needed explanation, but after discussion, and short reflections, we began to see things similarly.  We have more work to do, but this was the first step.  This did not mean that we always agreed, which is great! The debate pushed the thinking and being challenged by my staff, and challenging them, ranks up there as one of the most rewarding parts of my job!
Bottom line is that teachers do not generally open up their classrooms to peers to allow them to script out what they see.  On top of that, they usually don't meet afterwards with their supervisor to debrief on what they saw.  It was practice in identifying tasks and applying cognitive growth targets to those tasks that were observed.  All of this was done to exercise their own muscle to improve their own practice.  I found it incredible!   

This was an exercise in reflection which helped build a common language.  This was a huge risk, needing trust, and certainly would not have been attempted had I thought that my staff could not handle this activity.  I am proud to say that I not only think they handled it, but based on feedback from a survey, they felt like they needed a little more time to reflect and debrief.  This I will have to figure out for the next round.  And I will need to figure out how to get our related arts teachers involved. 

We pushed our common language.  We pushed each other with words and thoughts.  We pushed each other to be better.  The power of common language is alive again in me, 10 years later.  We don't have to always agree, but we do have to be speaking the same language.  If not, we can't move forward and improve.  It is so important.  I am glad that I realize this again.      


  1. I have to say this opportunity was exciting and informative. Visiting my colleague's classroom was exciting because usually I stay in my own bubble. I was reenergized and fell in love with this career all over again. The debriefing session was enlightening and pushed me to think about those tasks and levels beyond the warm & fuzzy feelings I had for the visit. I really learned and I have to honestly say that the coaching model we use should be shown off as much as our other areas because we are becoming so strong with our coaches working with us. I can't wait to do the instructional rounds again!

  2. Thanks Chrissie, could not agree more. I think the level of transparency and commitment to wanting to improve together is apparent and energizing in itself. We will get exponentially better in a much shorter time with the level of support we are trying to give each other. Trust me, I need that feedback too!