This was a thoroughly enjoyable experience – and a memorable one too, as it involved me being physically accosted and manoeuvred away from the teacher I was speaking with and taken aboard a pirate ship by marauding nursery pupils enjoying their learning.
They explained to me that the blue area was the sea and to watch out for the sharks that swam unchallenged below.
Some children had anticipated a long voyage ahead, too, and were hunkered down in boxes covered up with blankets.
Insights across the board
On the professional side, it also enabled me to get a sense of the school and its ethos, as well as insights into its geography teaching and learning across the year groups.
Both were important as this was my first in-person learning walk, and my first as the geography link governor, due to Covid-19 restrictions.
These restrictions have forced schools to move much of their business online, including governors’ meetings and learning walks for the past two years.
This has had benefits, allowing for meetings to go ahead despite social distancing restrictions and facilitating convenience for busy governors juggling multiple demands during the school day.
However, as life begins to return to normal, it is important schools begin to consider which aspects of school life worked well online and should remain there, and which operate better in person – and this should include learning walks.
After all, the richness and vibrancy of being present to witness, and spontaneously be involved in, learning cannot be replicated in reports or even captured in multimedia.
For instance, it was powerful to witness a child, supported by a TA and so motivated by the topic, raise their hand to contribute independently; or the giddiness of the Year 1 class when they saw their village on screen; or the beaming pride with which a child named the capital cities of the UK.
These may seem like inconsequential, trivial occurrences but each one comes back to the decisions the school and individual teachers made, to make that learning enjoyable and memorable, and that helps us as governors understand how important our roles are in a school community.
Getting it right
So how do you ensure your learning walk provides the necessary insights?
The key is in the planning of the learning walk, so that staff and governors understand what is (and perhaps what is not) the intended outcome of their time in school and ensure there is clarity between the head and governors about what will be seen and why.
This could be done with a learning walk proforma, which asks the governor to co-create the focus of the walk with the subject leader.
This can link to the school improvement plan or previous Ofsted inspection. The form suggests planning what open questions to ask the children about their learning.
Finally, the proforma scaffolds the report, which is submitted following the learning walk, with tips such as ”don’t be afraid to clarify any terms or acronyms you’re not familiar with”, ”using neutral language” and “not naming individual teachers”.
It also reminds governors that they are not there to pass judgement on staff or inspect them. Indeed it is important to be clear that a governor learning walk is slightly different to that of a spontaneous drop-in from a headteacher or peer and sits outside of the model of surveillance.
On the day itself, we started with a professional conversation, following on from the email discussions.
The subject leader outlined the long-term plans: where these had been adapted and changed, and where the school was also planning to go with the subject in the future.
I was put at ease to ask questions, eg, how geography translated into the early years foundation stage, and how this might look different to in key stage 1.
We then walked around the school, into lessons and observed teaching. Finally, we discussed, with some very proud little geographers, their work.
A two-way street
All of these sorts of insights are incredibly important for governors, many of whom may not have had previous experience in the daily life of a school but are being invited to join their school’s professional learning community.
After all, governors can bring a vast array of skills and expertise to a school, it is important this is not a one-way street and schools look to develop their governors as well, and learning walks provide just this opportunity in a cost-effective, enjoyable experience.
Inviting governors into school can help to foster relationships between the teaching staff and the governing body. Particularly, as it is the teaching staff “in the position of power” and the governors who are there to learn.
Many governors may not come from an education background and, as such, have little concept of what the daily teaching and learning look like and how their policy committee decisions are translated.
Conversely, some governors may come from an educational background and it is perhaps these governors who would benefit from learning walks more as they are able to witness, first-hand, what happens in their specific school rather than operating on assumptions or bias brought with them from other settings.
However, as noted earlier, teachers work in a high-stakes accountability context where observations and learning walks can be tools used to intensively performance manage teachers. As such, even non-judgemental watching of teaching may worry some.
Therefore, it can be worthwhile exploring, as a governing body, how these learning walks are presented to staff and considering if they could be a co-constructed event, rather than something that is imposed on staff. For example, staff opting to share their expertise or to ask for “a fresh set of eyes” to help develop their subject.
Avoiding the abstract
If governors do not do these kinds of things, and fail to develop real relationships with staff and leaders, then the risk is they become an abstract board of individuals unknown to those in the school – something that could become more common given how multi-academy trusts run their governance structure.
Learning walks are not a panacea to do this and require careful thought and planning, as well as “buy-in” and trust from both governors and schools.
However, if constructed carefully, there is much to be gained for both parties – and who knows, you may be kidnapped aboard a pirate ship as you walk around too.
Dr Elizabeth Malone is head of primary programmes at John Moores University. She previously taught primary school children in England, France and Taiwan