Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Beyond Educational Thin Slicing

Here’s a task for you:

If I gave you a morning to walk through a school with the goal of creating an accurate sketch of the teaching and learning that is taking place, how might you approach this? If I asked you to create a checklist of things that you would suggest someone should look for to describe the learning that is occurring in a number of classrooms, what might you include?  If I said that subsequently I wanted you to use the information that you found to make recommendations for the improvement of the school in a way that was both welcomed and meaningful for the school, how would you sort that out?

Perhaps you think it is impossible to determine such a sketch by observing what takes place in a morning at a school.  Maybe you think you would be unable to get a sufficiently accurate ‘slice’ of the learning that takes place in a mere half of a day.  And if that was the case, you might contend that the feedback that you could give to the faculty and administration at a school would be so superficial that it would be of little or no value.


In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the concept of ‘thin slicing’:

“A critical part of rapid cognition is known as “thin slicing.” Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our
unconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. In the theory of thin slices, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. Thin-slicing is part of what makes the unconscious so dazzling....We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person, have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation.”

Whether you have strong feelings about the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of thin-slicing (or something similar), I wonder how many of us are currently engaged in the process of ‘educational thin-slicing’?  Right now, I would guess that there are teacher leaders and administrators all across North America that spend countless hours walking through classrooms each day observing teachers teach and students learn.  And without inference, I wonder how much of this well-intentioned work is making real difference to student learning.

I can think of numerous occasions as a Principal when I walked into a classroom with the intention of finding the antecedents of good teaching and engaging learning.  When I would look at kids notebooks, talk to them about what they were doing, ask them about how they were being evaluated and what they did when they were struggling with an assignment.  When I would watch a teacher give a passionate and captivating lesson (at least it was to me), and think that the students were really lucky to have them.  When I would look at the level of student engagement (I’m really not totally sure how I thought I was determining that) and use that as some sort of mental measure of effectiveness.

I was looking at a veritable scatter plot of different things that had varying levels of impact on student learning with little or no connectivity from classroom to classroom in the school.



So given my admitted level of ineffectiveness, let’s go back to the task I assigned you at the start of this post.  While you might already have started to put some constraints around this assignment, I really just need the task done, and therefore it’s wide open.  Here are a couple of ‘what ifs’ that might change your optic on the situation:

  • What if prior to visiting the school, the staff had collaboratively determined an area of focus that they felt was important to improve the teaching and learning in the school and had invited you to come to work alongside them to give them formative feedback?
  • What if you could take a team along with you to observe a large number of classes at a variety of points during the lessons?
  • What if you had already observed numerous classes in other schools and were very comfortable giving descriptive feedback (without making inferences) about the tasks that the students were be asked to do and what they were doing as a result?
  • What if you and your team could base recommendations for the on collectively observed and agreed upon patterns that were found in each of the classrooms?
  • What if you could be re-invited to the school a few months later to observe progress and to see whether the strategies that were designed and implemented had an impact on that target area?

If these “What ifs” make this task more manageable for you, well, good, they should.  These “What ifs” are some of the elements of Instructional Rounds, a process that I watched happen in two different schools over the time we were in Boston a few weeks ago.  We were invited to schools we had never been to as a team.  We met wonderful groups of teachers and administrators at each school.  We observed numerous classes for a short period of time.  We made descriptive observations focused on an area that the teachers had asked us to look for without judgement or inference.  We found some patterns that we presented to the staff, and made suggestions based on the observations that we saw that day.  And at one point, when we were providing some positive feedback to one of the schools, a teacher stopped us and said “as much as we appreciate the positive feedback, we asked you to come so that you could tell us what we can do better!”


The reality is that we will never have enough time to get into all of the classrooms that we want to so that we can work alongside of all of the students and teachers to improve the learning for our kids.  Therefore, when we do go into classes it needs to be highly focused and incredibly formative for everyone involved.  Instructional Rounds does this in a way that I have not seen before and I watched it happen before my own eyes.

Check out Instructional Rounds.  I think it will change the way that you approach classrooms in your building or your district in a way that is truly (trans)formative for teaching and learning.

1. Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books, 2007.


  1. ThinSlicing has it's benefits but also has it’s downsides – sometimes fatal!
    Check out this story for more.

  2. I hope you can finish up soon. I admire your enthusiasm though.
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