Identifying Critical “Look-fors” in Classroom Observations - Steve Barkley

Identifying Critical “Look-fors” in Classroom Observations

I was recently prepping for a Skype consultation that I was conducting with a curriculum team in the midst of exploring a strategic plan for improving their students’ current math achievement. One of several areas under exploration was the use of classroom walkthroughs to gain information concerning current teaching and learning experiences.

In a recent Education World blog tips for walkthroughs, taken from Classroom Walkthroughs to Improve Teaching and Learning, by Donald S. Kachur, Judith A. Stout and Claudia L. Edwards are shared.

They identify these common elements of a classroom walkthrough:

*Informal and brief

*Involving the principal and/or other administrators, other instructional leaders and teachers

*Quick snapshots of classroom activities (particularly instructional and curricular practices)

*NOT intended for formal teacher evaluation purposes

*Focused on “look-fors” that emphasize improvement in teaching and learning

*An opportunity to give feedback to teachers for reflection on their practice

*Having the improvement of student achievement as its ultimate goal

april 3 quote

Quite often when I am consulting in schools with coaches and principals, I am asked to join them on some walkthroughs and handed their district walkthrough form.  Frequently I find myself frustrated at the number of items being considered and the often need for the observer to make a “conclusion or judgement” from too little observational data.

Examples I’ve seen:

Teacher was asking higher order questions.

Teacher provided effective feedback.

Students were engaged in higher order problem-solving.

My finding is that too little is observed in five minutes for it to be recorded as a conclusion. Therefore my suggestion to most school leaders is that the data from walkthroughs be used to raise questions for the administrator that lead to more in-depth observations or data collecting activities. “After looking at the data from this month’s walkthroughs, I recognize that there were very few times that we observed students engaged in collaborative problem-solving. I wonder “what opportunities students are getting?”  Because of the question, the principal asks teachers to bring to the next faculty meeting a sample of collaborative problem solving they have used with students. At the meeting he asks teachers to invite him to observe an upcoming collaborative problem solving lesson. The principal now has information that can be used to give teachers feedback and to assess any need for change in teaching and learning.

Because of the limited time observing in walkthroughs and the tendency for forms to require “conclusions” on the part of the observer, I most often suggest that teachers not be given feedback from the walkthrough as it is mostly designed for overall patterns and the first impact the data should have is on the behaviors of leadership. I have suggested to central office staff that   they might ask principals, “What new pattern has emerged from your walkthroughs and how will you change because of it?”

Teacher In Classroom

The above thoughts were present when I viewed the draft of the curriculum team’s walkthrough form for math classes.

Information from Teacher Observations:

______ Encourages curiosity, interest, and skill-building

______ Challenges students’ thinking

______ Demonstrates confidence/competence in mathematical ability

______ Uses gradual release model:  I do, We do, You do

______ Listens to students’ explanations

______ Listens to students’ discussions in collaborative groups

______ Demonstrates positive attitude toward mathematics


Information from Student Observations:

______ Uses mathematical vocabulary

______ Engages in problem solving

______ Collaborates and participates in mathematical discussions

______Uses traditional or non-traditional methods to solve problems

______ Uses manipulatives, pictures, draws representations to solve problems


I suggested looking at fifteen minute observations and designing “look fors” along this line:

Math Observation Form:

Student Observations: (Actions/Behaviors believed to enhance student math performance/success)
Teacher Observations: (Actions/Behaviors believed to promote desired student behaviors)

#1 Students use mathematical vocabulary

Vocabulary observer heard—

% of students heard using this vocabulary during the observation


Teacher behaviors observed to encourage student use of vocabulary.
(Example: anchor chart of vocabulary reviewed and referenced, teacher used vocabulary, teacher probed students to use vocabulary)

#2 Students engage in problem solving

Record some of the problems you observed students addressing.

List strategies you observed students using. Identify numbers of students observed using the strategy.


Using manipulatives, pictures, draws representations


Persevering with a second or third strategy when first isn’t successful.


Teacher behaviors observed to promote student problem-solving:
(Example: sparked interest/curiosity in presentation of the problem such as an authentic problem, provides sufficient time for problem-solving, encouraged ongoing struggle rather than provide clues to solutions)

#3 Students collaborate and participate in mathematical discussions with peers.

Describe the collaborative structures you observed; (Examples: turn and talk, partners working together with single worksheet/individual worksheet, groups of 4 with assigned roles)

Record some comments/questions you heard students sharing with each other.

How much student voice occurred during the observed collaboration?


What did you observe that indicated that the collaboration increased student critical thinking? (Example: students questioned each other, disagreement and debate, new questions emerged, extended attempts made at problem solving)

Teacher behaviors observed to increase collaboration and discussion: (Examples: Teacher’s questions when she engaged with groups, teacher’s limited interference with engaged groups, provided adequate time, modeled expected collaborative behaviors, coached and debriefed collaborative behaviors with students)

My thinking is that teachers could be involved in the design of such a form. Agreement between teachers, curriculum staff, and principals around the desired learning behaviors would be team building. Teachers individually and in PLCs could use the data for coaching and planning. I believe the specificity of what was observed (questions, problems, student statements and questions) can lead to increased thinking and continuous improvement.

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