Game Changer or Paper Weight? – Education Rickshaw

Game Changer or Paper Weight? – Education Rickshaw

Teaching WalkThrus is a series of books by Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli that aims to improve teaching and instructional coaching through text and visuals. After buying the first book (Yellow) back when it first came out, John Catt Educational graciously sent me a copy of the second (Blue) for review here. As a leader with instructional coaching responsibilities, having a high-quality, shared resource to promote professional discussions around teaching would be a game changer for my practice. Does Teaching WalkThrus 1 & 2 get the job done?

Trying out a WalkThru

To see if the WalkThrus books were of any practical use to me, I began by testing them out with teachers. The books recommend an implementation (coaching) cycle of Attempt, Develop, Adapt, Practice, Test (spelling ADAPT) that I found straightforward and easy to use. I recruited a teacher, who agreed to complete the whole cycle from start to finish with one of the 5 step guides that she was interested in practicing. She chose Whole-Class Feedback. I also downloaded the WalkThru Clusters so that I could make a Notes template for her to use. The website and the books detail a slightly different process, but I felt the need to, erm… “ADAPT” the process to fit the constraints of my schedule and my personal preferences. For example, I felt like trying to attempt three 5 step guides in a cluster on our first go around would be overwhelming compared to one.

Notes Template: Whole Class Feedback

I had the teacher try the steps out in a few of her classes (without me there) and then I observed her implementing Whole Class Feedback in one of her classes once she felt confident in performing the moves. Afterwards we had a discussion about what she did and, I have to say, it was a rather fulfilling experience. If you’re a coach trying to get discussions going around teaching, or a teacher who wants to do some self-study, I think these books will do the trick. That being said, it’s easy to imagine a school purchasing fifty WalkThrus books but failing to make any substantive changes to instruction. The rest of this review consists of some of my observations about the WalkThrus books, including some of the things coaches should consider before making a big purchase. I hope you find it useful.

Simple vs. Complex

WalkThrus is primarily a book of 5 step guides for doing stuff in the classroom. As you can imagine, not all teaching “moves” can be perfectly divided into five. Cold Calling, for example, is a move that could be described in one step (call on a student without asking for hands up), two steps (pose a question, call on a student without asking for hands up), three steps, (pose a question, pause for a moment, call on a student without asking for hands up), and so on. For something as simple as Cold Calling, while only one step would suffice, describing it in five steps provides a richness that helps with implementation. It would be difficult to make a “lethal mutation” out of the WalkThrus version of Cold Calling because its lengthy description leaves little room for flawed interpretation.

Other teaching moves are much more complex than Cold Calling. Responsive Lesson Planning (pg. 66, WalkThrus 2), for example, includes the following five steps: Plan and sequence unit-level learning intentions, Break down into multi-lesson series, Design activities and assemble resources, Be agile in real time, adapting to students’ responses, Re-shape the unit plan lesson to lesson. Obviously, you could write an entire book on Responsive Lesson Planning, as many already have, and a short 5 step guide spanning two pages hardly seems sufficient. Is this a limitation to WalkThrus? I’m not sure. A good coach could dedicate 5 weeks of coaching (one week for each step) for a more complex “move” while, for a simpler move, a short one-off might be enough. At the end of the day, the books are a tool that are likely to be useless in the hands of an ineffective coach, but can be powerful when adapted by a skilled coach.

Abstract vs. Concrete

Just as each of the 5 step guides in WalkThrus 1 & 2 varies in complexity, they vary in concreteness and specificity. One of the reasons that a book like Teach Like a Champion seems to resonate with so many teachers is that it tells you exactly what to do to enact its moves. It’s a breath of fresh air for teachers who are fed up with the vague and nebulous advice (e.g. “Relationships matter”; “There’s no one best way to teach”; “One size doesn’t fit all”; “Don’t teach content, teach them how to think”; etc.. ) that plagues this profession. Some of the WalkThrus in the “How” section of each book, such as the Whole Class Feedback example above, are refreshingly specific, but general enough to be applicable across all age levels and subjects.

It’s also clear that the WalkThrus books aspire to be more than “Teach Like a Champion w/ Visuals”. Each book begins with a “Why” section that explains some of the research and theory that form the inclusion criteria for the subsequent 5 step guides. These are much too abstract and theoretical to be copied and pasted into tomorrow’s history lesson, but they seem to be the parts that I keep coming back to. The “Why” pages for Trivium 21C, for example, eloquently describe Martin Robinson’s ambitious vision for a world-class education. While it is one of the best parts of WalkThrus 2, it doesn’t have the same “pick up and play” value as a move in Lemov’s books because it is about the “Why” and not the “How.” Coaches attempting to use the WalkThrus books should be cognizant of the difference between the theoretical basis for the moves, which are more abstract but serve to help teachers understand why a move is likely to work, and the more actionable moves in the “How” sections.

Familiar vs. Unfamiliar

My final comment in this review of the WalkThrus books has to do with the potential for familiarity bias when using the books. When I first cracked open WalkThrus 1 with the teacher (above), we were both immediately drawn to the pages that we each already knew quite a bit about. Maybe this is the natural response; The consequence of thousands of years of evolution keeping us alive and safe in our comfort zones; but I think it’s a response that should be overwritten if these books are to be used to their fullest potential. After all, instructional coaching shouldn’t be an exercise in practicing what you already know how to do. When working with teachers, coaches would be wise to mitigate the potential for familiarity bias by, for example, having the teacher select two moves and the coach selecting the third in a cluster, or suggesting that the teacher selects one in their comfort zone, one outside their comfort zone, and one at random. Whenever a new, unfamiliar move is identified from “How” section, coaches should facilitate discussion around the reasons why it is likely to work by drawing from the “Why” section.

In summary

I think coaches should consider taking a look at WalkThrus 1 (Yellow) and, if they can make it work with a few eager teacher volunteers, consider purchasing WalkThrus 2 (Blue) as well. While I’m a fan of the WalkThrus books, I hope you gleaned from the preceding paragraphs that it takes an intentional problem solver and a knowledgeable coach who can adapt and modify the offerings of WalkThrus 1 & 2 if they’re to make any difference to teachers’ practice. Anything less and they’re destined for paper weight status.

If you’ve used the books with your teachers feel free to leave some of your tips for implementation in the comments below.

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg

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