The Power of Visiting Schools –  How to Plan Your Next Visit

One of the best ways to see deeper learning in action is to visit schools. For many policymakers and educators, these visits are transformative, offering them an opportunity to be escorted through the school environment by student guides, visit classrooms, see teachers facilitating student learning, and talk to administrators about their role in creating an engaging learning space for all. Through schools visits, tour participants gain a greater understanding of why it’s important to help young people prepare for college, career and life not only by academic knowledge, but also by mastering skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork.

For 25 years, our organization–the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF)–has been conducting study tours for policymakers, and more specifically for the last seven years the organization has conducted deeper learning study tours, which have been funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Through the tours, small teams of state and federal policy leaders and educators have had the opportunity to see deeper learning in action, with the aim of informing them about what conditions are necessary to provide innovative learning experiences to all students. Ideally, they will then move from contemplating change to taking action. Through conducting these tours and receiving recommendations for improvement from WestEd’s independent evaluation of them, we’ve learned that they remain valuable vehicles for adult learning. Here are some recommendations for you to consider as you organize your own tours of schools, or participate in these experiences.

Consider your goals

Before organizing a study tour, it’s helpful to think about why you’d want to bring people (be they policymakers, business leaders or educators) along on a tour, and what you expect to happen following the tour. You might consider using a framework similar to the one that WestEd evaluators provided us to help us clarify our tour goals and to think about our theory of action. This framework has four stages for understanding behavior change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, and action (this is the Transtheoretical Model of Change). As we organize tours, our goal is that, having heard from policy leaders and having visited schools, participants will move from contemplating change, to a period of preparation, to taking action. Our purpose with these tours is to promote deeper learning opportunities for all students, so we work towards clarifying what actions policymakers and educators will need to take to accomplish this goal.

Select and Prepare Participants Carefully

Study tours work best when the audience is comprised of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and roles. We have typically included representatives from various levels of policy (state and local), from higher education and K-12, from the business community, and from a variety of community organizations. All trip participants receive preparation materials well in advance, including draft agendas and information on the sites they will be visiting. Based on our evaluation’s recommendations, we will spend more time in the future connecting preparatory materials to documents that will be used for reflection on participant learning during the tour. We will also examine ways to conduct pre-trip needs assessments, to help participants better focus their learning. These could include the use of surveys, or a webinar that walks participants through identifying what they most need to learn about.

Provide High-Quality Tours

A high-quality tour includes framing remarks by state- and district-level leaders, site visits to schools, and time for guided reflection and networking. Participants generally appreciate the chance to tour schools, but always want more time to interact with administrators, teachers and students. School visit agendas should maximize this kind of meeting time, offering participants multiple opportunities to engage with the principal (usually at the start and end of the tour), to hear from teachers (through classroom visits, panel discussions, or sitting in on teacher planning meetings), and to interact with students (through guided tours, classroom visits, panel discussions, or shadowing them at their internships). It’s also helpful to hear from students who have graduated from high school, as this provides a window into their experience of how well their high school prepared them for postsecondary options. Having seen deeper learning in action, usually at two school sites, it’s important to provide time and structure for participants to tease out which components of the school models presented they could possibly incorporate into their own work. The evaluation of our tours revealed, unsurprisingly, that our participants want to focus even more on learning about the policies and processes at the teacher and administrator level that enable deeper learning. They also want to figure out how they can implement helpful policies – or quit doing some of the unhelpful ones!

Conduct Follow-Up and Provide Additional Resources!

Following the trip, we provide our participants with resources, including panelist presentations and information on the school sites. Additionally, we mail them a self-addressed postcard on which they have shared the action steps they committed to take, based on what they learned. This activity with the postcards is conducted right at the end of the study tour, and mailing it a few weeks after the trip provides a gentle nudge to action. We are exploring the ideas of conducting follow-up webinars to learn what resources and help participants still need, and possibly even creating toolkits that help them transition from learning on the trip to implementation back at their jobs. Part of this conversation will center on how we help participants tell the story of their experience, as we know they typically share information with colleagues. What story will they tell about deeper learning? About their encounters with students?  About the need to provide this kind of engaging, hands-on learning experience to each and every child?

The Learning Journey is an Iterative Process…

Participating in a tour to a school can be a transformative learning experience for attendees – but only if they continue to grapple with issues raised by the tour, and have a dedicated forum for contemplating possible action. Following our tours, participants continue to explore the intersection between deeper learning and career and technical education. They struggle with how to be more effective in providing deeper learning to diverse student populations. How to recruit, train, and provide ongoing professional development for teachers who facilitate deeper learning remains a topic of profound contemplation.

Organizing an effective tour takes time and effort. Going along on a tour requires dedication to one’s craft and a willingness to be open to new experiences. As you think about participating or organizing a tour, remember that these are iterative learning experiences, moving from precontemplation towards action. Just like the students and teachers we are visiting with, we are always on a learning journey–one we should ideally engage in with curiosity, an open mind, and plenty of zest!

For more, see:

Loretta Goodwin is Deputy Director of the American Youth Policy Forum. Follow her on Twitter: @LearningZest 

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