Mona Toncheff

Mona Toncheff, an education consultant and author, is project manager for the Arizona Mathematics Partnership (a National Science Foundation-funded grant). She is a former mathematics content specialist.

Opening Doors Leads to Greater Learning

This past month I have been working with collaborative teams to answer the second question of a professional learning community, “How will we know when they have learned the content?” (DuFour, Eacker, & DuFour, 2008). The teachers are analyzing more than how many students got the correct answer on a common assessment; they are focused on students’ depth of understanding of the content. Teams are analyzing student thinking and the habits of mind aligned to the essential learning standards.  These often come from the process standards in content areas that describe the habits of mind teachers must develop in their students (e.g., ELA Capacities, Mathematical Practices, and Science Practices). (CCSS0, 2010 & NGSS, 2013). 


As we analyze student work and complexities of thinking, teams begin to question each other, “So what did you do differently to get those result?”  Not only are the teams focused on student learning, they are beginning to articulate specific teacher actions that promote a deeper understanding of the content. In order for collaborative teams to explore high-impact instructional strategies, the teams need to analyze student thinking that occurs during each lesson.  One strategy for teams to more deeply learn from one another about the nature of the instruction and pedagogy is to have teams engage in instructional rounds.  Instructional rounds are a great way to involve teachers in meaningful instructional conversations and make teaching and learning visible to all team members.


Instructional Round Process


Choose a research question 

Before a team begins instructional rounds, they have to start with a purpose, what are the teachers going to be looking for during the instructional rounds?  Once the teams decide the focus, they articulate what they should be observing by describing what they might see and hear during the instructional round.  Below is an example from a mathematics team focusing on Mathematical Practice #6: Attending to Precision.   

What would this look like?

What would this sound like?

  • Teachers use academic language to develop precision and understanding of the content. 
  • Students use rich academic language to articulate their thinking and the majority of the conversations are student-to-student
  • Students presenting their work will use appropriate vocabulary to describe their thinking. 

Student might say…

  • When I created this function, I paid attention to the input values and the output values…
  • Students share the meaning of the words and describe them in their own way 
  • Avoid the use of “it” or other pronouns



It is also important to set clear norms during the observations.  Observers need to focus on what the students are doing and thinking, not what the teachers are doing.  Observers can take notes about specific teaching strategies that promote more complex thinking.  This level of analysis adds to the debrief at the end of the rounds.


Collect Evidence

Once the teams have developed their research question, they select a class period or time frame to observe a group of teachers.  The participants rotate through 4-5 classes during a class period (I suggest 8-10 minutes in a class) and collect evidence to support the research question. 



At the end of the instructional rounds, allow 5-8 minutes for individual reflection to describe the evidence they collected and how it related to the research question.  Then, have the teachers share the evidence and sort it into two categories:  strengths and opportunities for revision.

Questions to consider

Evidence of MP 6

How do we build students’ Mathematical Practice 6: Attend to Precision?

Evidence strengths

  • Meaningful tasks required students to use academic language
  • Good questions that modeled the use of the academic language (teacher to student)
  • Students used the academic language when the words were on the word wall
  • When structures (requirements) for discussions were employed, there was better use of academic language

Opportunities for lesson revision

  • When the word and definition was given to the student before context, the students didn’t make sense of the meaning
  • Not all student groups were engaged in the academic language when there was no requirement to use the academic language
  • Students would answer a question using the academic language and the teacher provided a summary of the academic language instead of the student.


The debrief is the critical element of instructional rounds as teams make teaching public.  Too often collaborative teams answering critical question 2 only look at paper/pencil common assessments and data.  While analyzing evidence of learning from these common assessments impacts practice, it is not the only practice that does so. Similarly, while conversations about instruction are important and sharing artifacts are a great start, I have found that collaborative teams learn more from each other as they open up their doors and are truly reflective about specific teacher actions that promote complex levels of thinking. 



DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, B. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for mathematics. Washington, DC: Authors. Accessed at on February 11, 2016


NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.  Accessed at on February 11, 2016




Shannon Galloway

I really like how you explain the "Instructional Rounds" process. I think this would be beneficial for teachers to see what other teachers are doing and not doing well, so they can help each other improve their instruction. I am in a district that does not allow this because of our teacher's union. Do you suggest any strategies that can be used instead in order to get a similar effect?

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