Why we don’t recommend using the 4 Shifts Protocol as a classroom observation tool

Harnessing Technology for Deeper LearningJulie Graber and I often get asked if the 4 Shifts Protocol can be used as a comprehensive walkthrough or observation tool. While the protocol is open source and people can do whatever they want with it, we do NOT recommend using it in this manner. Here’s why…

The protocol is made up of numerous sections and discussion items. Unless a teacher is creating a many-week, interdisciplinary, group project for her students, it’s nearly impossible for her to address all of the items on the protocol in a short lesson or unit. If the protocol is used as an observation or walkthrough instrument, the teacher inevitably will not be doing many of the items. It seems unfair to penalize the teacher for not doing the impossible. The last thing we want is for principals, coaches, or mentors to walk into a teacher’s classroom with a big list from the protocol saying ‘nope, nope, nope!’

The protocol is designed to honor instructor purpose. In our workshops and new book – and as the #1 suggestion on the protocol itself – we emphasize that it’s much better if a teacher identifies a protocol section or a few bullet points to focus on. The goal of the protocol is to help educators gradually shift their instructional practice and build new skill sets, mindsets, and competencies. If we force teachers to work on areas that they’re not ready for or comfortable with yet because it’s on a walkthrough template, we risk alienating them from the important work that we want them to do. We encourage giving teachers as much choice as possible regarding which sections to work on, which items to work on within a section, and how deep to go on any particular item. If we use the protocol in this manner, it can be very accommodating of teachers’ different instructional orientations, skill sets, and comfort levels.

The protocol is designed to be as nonjudgmental as possible. One of the problems with SAMR and the Arizona / Florida Technology Integration Matrices, for instance, is that there is inherent judgment when we place teachers’ instructional practice into levels. As soon as we tell a teacher that she’s at the Substitution level on SAMR, for example, she’s going to feel at least a little bit judged and perhaps a lot defensive. That is not the stance with which we want to approach instructional redesign conversations. We frame the protocol as a discussion tool that hopefully can help us accomplish the goals that we set for a particular instructional activity. We’re not interested in judging anyone. We ARE interested in helping educators identify what they want to work on and then using the protocol to help them get there.

As we say in the book, we encourage educators to think about the protocol sections as sets of experiences that we want students to have multiple times each school year. Do we want students to have multiple opportunities for deeper learning this year? To have multiple opportunities for agency over their own learning this year? To have multiple opportunities to engage in authentic, real world work this year? To have multiple opportunities to use technology in meaningful ways and boost their communication and collaboration skills this year? A big YES to all of those. But today or this week – for this particular lesson or unit – we’re just hitting a few bullet points. Don’t bug us about the other ones – those happen at other times during the year. It would be okay to ask us about our plans to cover each of the sections multiple times over the course of this year. But please don’t mark us down for only focusing on one section or a few items in this lesson or unit. That’s exactly what we should be doing. Give us some feedback and suggestions in a pre- and post-conversation about what you see regarding the few questions that we’re focusing on, but please honor our intentionality.

I hope all of this makes sense. The only way I might be comfortable using the protocol as a walkthrough or observation device was if it was used occasionally as an environmental scan, just to take a pulse of what’s happening – or not – within a school across classrooms. Otherwise, we encourage everyone to use the protocol as a conversation sparker and redesign tool, not a mechanism for judgment.

Thanks. Let me know your thoughts!

2 Responses to “Why we don’t recommend using the 4 Shifts Protocol as a classroom observation tool”

  1. I have been thinking about this blog post since you wrote it. While I find it appropriate to not use it as solely an evaluation or walk-through tool, I do not find that it will be adopted widely in practice which is what I want to happen. Perhaps creating a dynamic tool to look at all of these areas will help? I also found in practice and research that motivation and evaluation within an innovative culture go hand-in-hand, which is what you write about in your articles all of the time. Without all teachers being held accountable to integrate tools, we will continue to have disparity in our schools. This is a great idea; however, what is the strategy for getting this to mold with current practice for widespread use? Thank you!

    • Hi Jennifer, thanks for reaching out!

      We are finding that the protocol is being implemented quite rapidly across schools and districts. It’s spreading FAST, both because it’s pretty concrete and specific but also because it’s nonjudgmental. And it’s that latter part that Julie and I don’t want to lose.

      The 2nd and 3rd paragraphs in the above post really capture our concerns in this area. I’m a strong believer in internal organizational accountability a la Richard Elmore. But not by treating the protocol as a checklist for teachers’ practice. I think you could set some expectations around how many lessons/units got redesigned rather than how many protocol boxes teachers can tick off?

      Drop me a note at dr.scott.mcleod@gmail.com. Happy to set up a time to chat further and brainstorm possibilities!

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