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Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning

reviewed by Lauren M. Shea - September 22, 2009

coverTitle: Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning
Author(s): Elizabeth A. City, Richard F. Elmore, Sarah E. Fiarman, and Lee Teitel
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1934742163, Pages: 230, Year: 2009
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Teaching differs from other professions in the United States in that much of its work takes place behind closed doors, outside the gaze of colleagues. Critical reflection on practice among educators is thus rarely found in K-12 schools. This culture of isolation has drawn growing attention, and research suggests that an emphasis on teacher collaboration is an important characteristic of effective in-service professional development (Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman & Yoon, 2001). However, much of the discussion about this issue has focused on teachers’ and practitioners’ participation in collaborative reflection. Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning shifts the professional learning community focus to administrators, thereby pushing district leaders to network with colleagues to improve practice and rethink the instructional evaluation process. By amalgamating and enhancing three recent approaches, walkthroughs, networks, and district improvement strategies, the authors promote a new approach, which they called instructional rounds (rounds, for short), to move from individual practice to a collective process to examine teaching and learning. This book describes the lengthy and challenging requirements to successfully implement the rounds practice and thus create a more open door, critical, and collaborative teaching and learning environment in schools.

As doctors use medical rounds to develop knowledge to build and propagate their norms of practice, the authors designed instructional rounds to engage district level staff members in the practice of defining, describing, and reflecting upon instruction in a constructive and critical environment to lead to better informed educational decisions. The rounds process, as described by the authors, involves a group of district leaders, called a network, who collectively observe classrooms, examine evidence, and discuss possible solutions after thorough analyses. Based on a review of successful implementation in several districts, the book walks potential participants through the conceptual understandings, practicalities, and potential results of forming a network of rounds.

The fundamental principle of rounds, that discussion about instruction should be a part of school improvement, fits into any district practice quite easily. Throughout the process, the network systematically operationalizes the educational jargon most educators use in their practice. Once network members form a collaborative, critical, and nonjudgmental culture, they visit host schools, conduct classroom observations, and discuss what they saw in a descriptive and objective fashion.

The book outlines seven principles of an instructional core, which serve as the framework under which their work will be guided. The principles are detailed in the book and include points such as the important relationships between task to performance and teacher practice to student learning.  

Once a network unites around the core, members expend a great deal of time creating a testable, clearly written, cause and effect hypothesis, called a theory of action, which will be the central focus of the round’s work. In this lengthy step, a network develops a coherent foundation and operationalizes their vocabulary to help them navigate through the next stage of the rounds process.

One principle of the instructional core dictates that network members must do the work, not just tell others to do the work. In other words, members must engage in, discuss, and unpack instructional practices by providing detailed evidence in every classroom examination. As they carry out this task through classroom observations, network members are to follow another principle: “Description before analysis, analysis before prediction, prediction before evaluation” (p. 23). Members aim to unlearn judgmental tendencies to learn more descriptive habits. These practices push members to evaluate teaching, not the teacher, to improve students’ learning.  Through the critical discussions of these observations, the network has the potential to increase its knowledge of both the rounds practice and the qualities of good instruction. Finally, the network provides recommendations and feedback to the host, in relation to the theory of action, with the help of a facilitator. Throughout the book’s description of these stages, the authors share helpful examples from the pioneer districts’ implementation.  

The authors claim systemic improvement is possible in a group with “shared practices and a shared understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between teaching and learning” (p. 160). Through rounds’ iterative and sustained process of observing, debriefing, and redefining theories of action and providing feedback, members learn both individually and collectively how to discuss instruction. As the authors themselves claim, rounds are a specialized process that takes time and energy to develop. This practice requires unlearning, rethinking, and restructuring of current instructional processes and decision-making tools. Network members can expect to build a collaborative learning culture and begin to shape district level understanding of teaching and learning. But, to do so, each and every member of a rounds network must abide by the commonly held principles. Therefore, educators who have an interest in beginning this process must view it as a practice to increase their own learning in a collaborative, collective, and anti-traditional “land of nice” school culture forum.  

“Rounds” is an extensive and complex process; however the book allows for easy reading due to the section and chapters set-up, designed to walk the reader through each phase at a comfortable length and pace. The examples are well timed and helpful to reiterate the concepts of the chapters. Concise chapter reviews explicitly pinpoint key tips and takeaways. All potential participants in instructional rounds should be required to master this book to guide their knowledge of the process.  

A shortcoming of the book is that the relationship of the rounds practice to improving student outcomes is not clear, either theoretically or empirically. The book does not attempt to demonstrate what administrators can or should do following rounds to improve teaching or learning outcomes, and no evidence is provided that this occurs or what the impact is. Administrators may thus have a hard time convincing themselves and others that the rounds process is worth the considerable time it demands. For the rounds approach to gain broader impact, empirical research will have to demonstrate its effects on participant learning, as well as on any consequential student outcomes.

As this book makes clear, implementing a process of instructional rounds is an immense undertaking, requiring a restructuring of current educational practices and the unlearning of common instructional principles and century-old traditions. Redefining teaching not as a craft but as a skill, separating people from practice, changing the culture of observation, and bringing administrators to the classroom level in a cooperative network all have important potential, as this book demonstrates, but without more evidence of the value of such efforts, these objectives will not be easy to achieve in these present days of educational accountability and test scores.  


Garet, M., Porter, A., Desimone, L. Birman, B., & Yoon, K. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a nation sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal.  38(4), 915-945.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 22, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15773, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:31:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Lauren Shea
    University of California, Irvine
    E-mail Author
    LAUREN M. SHEA is a second-year doctoral student in the University of California, Irvine’s Department of Education in Language, Literacy, and Technology. She is a former elementary school teacher and administrator. Currently, Lauren is a professional development provider and researcher for the Center for Educational Partnerships at UCI, where she works with K-2 teachers in a local urban district on integrating language and content learning strategies. Her research is currently focusing on how mainstream teachers learn to incorporate language learning strategies into content lessons and how participation in online professional learning communities can increase teacher learning.
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