Why is Effective Learning Observation revolutionizing how schools assess and improve the quality of learning?

The most common observational methods used in schools tend to focus on teaching rather than learning and so often fall short of measuring the impact of the teachers’ hard work. This article discusses the discipline of Effective Learning Observation (ELO), which is expanding in popularity and usage across the US as school leaders seek better ways to measure the quality of learning in their schools, and to inform more impactful improvement strategies.

The process and purpose of observing teaching varies from school to school. Many schools observe, formally and informally, how teachers teach students as part of annual evaluation process, much like businesses evaluate the performance of employees. In these cases, some teachers are observed once or twice a year a year as part of a formal evaluation process.

Other schools have more highly developed observation processes that go beyond the standard compliance process of teacher evaluation, but these are limited by staffing and time limitations. Commonly called Learning Walks, these may take various forms.

What is the purpose of learning walks in schools and how does ELO differ?

The purpose of the observations that aren’t part of formal observation is to gather information about whether the instructional strategies used by teachers work. For example, in some cases, the school leader may decide they want to observe whether teachers are effectively teaching English learners. Observation teams may be developed to randomly visit classes and focus on the use of English development strategies, such as observing Sheltered English Immersion, a discipline used in some schools. The formality of teams varies - some use protocols and rubrics, the walks are timed, notes are taken, and time is scheduled for reflection.
While the observational methods described above are common and mostly well-intentioned, the focus is on teaching not learning. That is where the Effective Learning Observation (ELO) process can change the culture of observation in a school. ELO focuses on looking for tangible evidence of student learning.

What is Effective Learning Observation?

Class Measures gave us a new way to look at student learning in the classroom. For the first time the emphasis was on evidence of student learning and not necessarily on the teacher in the front of the room or other factors commonly found on state accountability rubrics. Teachers could now have meaningful conversations about what was happening in their classrooms in a way that could translate into effective reflection and development of practice.

- Jennifer Gray, Instructional Coach, Esperanza Charter School  (Full case study: Increasing English Language Arts proficiency by 50%.)

The ELO protocol is revolutionizing the way that schools and districts measure the impact of their work and changing how schools improve the quality of teaching and learning. Created from observation processes used in multiple review projects internationally and across the US, Class Measures’ ELO process is now a core improvement strategy in all support projects. ELO provides a common language for educators to reflect on and respond to the vital aspect of our work: student learning.

How does Effective Learning Observation work?

ELO assesses student learning as it is happening in a lesson, in-person or virtually – it focuses on the collection of and discussion about the tangible evidence of student learning in any observation context. The process assumes that it is possible to gather information about the quality of student learning at all times and in all schools. The ELO process relies upon evidence collected as a direct result of discussing what students are doing, saying, demonstrating or physically representing as an indication that learning is or is not happening.

ELO does not rely on a predetermined focus for observing; there are no stipulations, for example, to look for displayed learning objectives or the use of a particular resource etc. The ELO process focuses only on the tangible evidence of learning as demonstrated by students and discussion about why learning is like it is. The process engages observers in the collection of, and discussion about, the tangible evidence of student learning in any observation context. It focuses on gathering evidence to explain why learning is like it is as a direct consequence of the quality of teaching inputs and student outcomes. ELO is built on the premise that the primary evidence for the quality of teaching is the impact it has on the outcomes for the learners in terms of their progress, achievement, personal development, and well-being. ELO helps document the amount of learning in a classroom by capturing:

  • Progress – evidence that students are moving forward, gaining new knowledge, skills and understanding.
  • Achievement – ascertaining if students have met their interim targets and end goal.
  • Personal development – determining if students have developed personal or social skills or understand the positive impacts of their learning (they can they listen actively over long periods, concentrate, work with others etc).
  • Well-being – finding out if students feel that they are in a safe-learning environment (this relates to the impact of the learning environment, equity, and cultural relevance).

Class Measures has been conducting lesson observations across the United States for many years and has developed a robust protocol and clearly defined roles for ELO. Long-term, productive relationships with school districts across the US gives us great confidence in our ability to gather and disseminate accurate data on classroom instruction and provide clear pathways to improvement.

The ELO process follows a clear feedback protocol ensuring consistency and focus on essential aspects of student learning. The specific ELO feedback enables the teacher to use findings to improve teaching delivery and student outcomes immediately. Feedback centers on evidence collected as a direct result of discussing what students are doing, saying, demonstrating or physically representing as part of their learning.

Our classroom observation tool is designed around four steps:

  1. Preparation – planning schedules to ensure adequate coverage and quality processing time for all participants.
  2. Observations – observers conduct a 10-20 minute observation focused on the collection of tangible evidence of student learning using the ELO observation form.
  3. Debrief – observers meet for approximately 20 minutes immediately after the observation to debrief and establish a consensus on feedback and prepare for delivery.
  4. Feedback – the ELO feedback / reflection form is used to provide concise feedback. Feedback lasts around 10 minutes.

ELO complements existing teacher evaluation processes, but also represents a cultural change for a schools’ developmental observation cycles. Those schools that adopt ELO find it helps cultivate a culture of quality peer-to-peer learning, enables them to better respond to the cultural needs of their communities, and embeds the conditions for continuous improvement.

Find out more about ELO and Improvement Cycles