Learning Rounds


Catriona Oates explains the basic principles of Learning Rounds and discusses the findings of her recent research into this popular and innovative CPD activity.

What are Learning Rounds?

Quite simply, Learning Rounds are a new kind of collaborative professional learning. In essence it is an adaptation of the medical practice of clinical rounds, whereby clinical teams of mixed experience and expertise, from veteran to novice, share observations to arrive at an agreed assessment or diagnosis of a patient. 

In a very similar way, learning rounds involve teams of staff observing and learning about and from teaching practice across the school. 

Observers create a base of evidence describing what they have seen. The team then discusses how they, their school or authority will use the data to bring about improvement for learners. 

There are certain protocols and behaviours that need to be observed however. For example, participation should be voluntary, a descriptive voice should be used to record observations, and no evaluative or judgemental language should be used in the process.

Where did the idea come from?

The idea originated in the US and emerged in Scotland after a visit from Professor Richard Elmore, which was part of the government-funded Thought Leaders programme between 2005 and 2008. Through the leadership and facilitation of the National CPD team and the Scottish Centre for School Studies in Administration at the University of Edinburgh, and with the support of the Scottish government, it evolved into Learning Rounds in Scotland.

How can you set one up?

Anyone can set up a learning round and they can be used in many settings, not just mainstream primary or secondary schools. 

Colleagues in additional support needs (SEN) schools and universities have carried out learning rounds, and there has been some interest in the further education sector as well. 

Typically what would happen would be that an interested member or members of staff would explain the process to colleagues and from this gather together a group of volunteers to carry out the Learning Round. All that is required is for someone to act as a facilitator, for volunteers to be observed and to do the observing, and for the time to be able to do it. 

If it is the first time, it is maybe worth thinking about getting someone in who has had experience of doing a Learning Round to help guide you through the process and possibly facilitate it.

What did your research discover?

The research was for my M.Ed dissertation and I sought to find out more about Learning Rounds because there is little available research or evaluative reporting on the approach. I wanted to find out two things – how it compared to other models of professional learning communities and how the theory and protocols of Learning Rounds related to the actual practice in schools.

To answer the first question I needed to trawl the existing literature on professional learning communities – of which there are tomes and tomes! To answer the second question, which I am guessing might be of more interest to readers, I identified four schools that were willing to participate in the research (for which I am extremely grateful). I constructed a survey on surveymonkey.com which was designed to find out what the broad understandings of Learning Rounds were; and I recorded the post-observation discussion in each school to give me an insight into how this part of the process was being conducted.

What did you actually find out?

There does seem to be a lot of genuine enthusiasm for Learning Rounds across the country, but evidence from my study suggests that some important elements of the theory behind this approach are not being enacted in practice. 

There are varying degrees of engagement with the theory and protocols across schools either with some experience or no experience of the process. 

Take, for example, the protocol for ways of participating – this should be voluntary for everyone, but from the survey, there is evidence to suggest that a significant proportion of participants do not volunteer for the process and that the process is being mostly led by staff in promoted positions, raising questions about how far this can be a teacher-owned and teacher-led process.

The process is also being understood primarily by participants as a means for personal professional improvement and very little as a wider collective or system-wide process for improvement.

The most significant divergence from protocols however is with language being used in the process. Although participants acknowledge the non-judgemental protocol, i.e. using the descriptive voice to record their observations in a non-evaluative way, they seem to have difficulty either understanding and/or using it. 

This is crucial because without it, it is difficult to reach a consensus on a coherent, shared evidence base from which to proceed – therefore the formulation of the next steps in the improvement process will be problematic. There is consistent evidence to suggest that in practice this is a problem. Participants are using language in the discussions which is loaded with evaluative judgement, even when they believe themselves not to be doing so.

It appears therefore that the theory of Learning Rounds is not being adequately understood and the basic protocols associated with it are not being enacted in practice. 

This throws into some doubt what our expectations of the practice should be – can we really expect the claimed benefits of school and even system-wide improvement to be guaranteed if there is a disconnect between the theory and the practice involved here? I don’t think so.

Were you surprised by any of this?

I was surprised by this – very much actually. But on reflection I do not really think I should have been surprised about anything I was going to find out because of exactly the reason that led me into researching Learning Rounds in the first place – the fact that we really do not know an awful lot about the practice thus far.

What advice would you give to others?

The most important thing is this: make sure you understand what protocols and behaviours are required in Learning Rounds, and why they are important. Do not start one until you feel comfortable with using them. Familiarise yourself with the Learning Rounds toolkit (see further information) or with the original text on Instructional Rounds. 

It is really important to be aware of what the model is based on and why certain protocols need to be in place if you want to bring about improvement through this process. Once you do this, bear the following in mind:

Don’t wait to be asked – organise one yourself if you fancy it! This is meant to be a teacher-led CPD process, not yet another means of quality assurance, though this is not to say improvement in teaching and learning is not the ultimate aim, it certainly is. 

It is improvement across the whole school you are aiming for, not just for participating teachers. The mix of expertise is important, and it is also important that existing hierarchies are neutralised in learning rounds. 

So it could be that a probationer teacher might observe a faculty leader or vice-versa, and both have the same entitlement to describe honestly what they see, or the NQT might be the one to take the lead in organising the Learning Round and might facilitate and co-ordinate the process.

Keep the focus on how learning is taking place. It is the teaching and not the teacher you want to observe. Whether your chosen theme is questioning, use of technology, pupil participation or whatever, remember it is what is happening in the learners’ experience that matters.

Practise describing learning situations in a non-evaluative way, and become comfortable and confident using the descriptive voice. This might take a few sessions but it will be worth the time and effort. Use video recordings of lessons for practice; ask a colleague who has had experience in this to help you or look up the suggestions in the toolkit and the City et al research text (reference below) to help you with this. It is really important to get this bit right.

Share your experience of Learning Rounds. Tell others about it, reflect on it as a CPD activity and include it in your Professional Review and Development review meeting (if you’re in Scotland!). 

Blog it, tweet it, go to another school and help them set one up. Above all, enjoy it and keep doing it – but make sure you keep the protocols to the fore. When done properly it can bring about real improvement, help build good collegiate relationships in schools and make isolationism a thing of the past.

  • Catriona Oates is primary languages staff tutor for Stirling Council and freelance CPD facilitator. She was formerly a member of the National CPD Team at Education Scotland.

Further information
Learning Rounds Toolkit: http://bit.ly/QE6bDy
Instructional Rounds in Education – A network approach to improving teaching and learning (2nd edition). City, E. A., Elmore, R. F., Fiarman, S. E., & Teitel, L. (2009). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


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