Directing Thinking Traffic: A Protocol for Professional Learning

Whether I’m facilitating professional learning around mentor texts, grammar in context, or book clubs, something that has been especially impactful is sharing in classroom observations together. Whether we’re watching videos of ourselves, others, or we’re stepping into classrooms in real time, observations give us a chance to see the work in action, to breathe life into the research-based practices we’ve been studying.

This is not as easy as just turning the camera on or walking into a classroom together, though. In order for the professional learning to be purposeful and safe, you need to establish norms and protocols for: 

  • Connecting to other learning and research
  • Engaging in the observation itself
  • Debriefing what we saw
  • Calibrating our observations
  • Applying our thinking to move forward in learning

This can be as complex as directing traffic during rush hour – maybe more so, because that traffic is happening deep within our neurons. You want to establish a focused goal going into the observation as well as firm norms for how to interact within the observation and while unpacking it together. And you want to focus participants’ attention while prompting analytical thinking. 

To help organize this process, I’ve been playing with a 3-column protocol for engaging in thinking around what participants observe in the lesson. We use the colors of a stoplight to tell us what kind of thinking we should engage in and when during the observation and debrief. 

Proceed With ThinkingGreen: Observe 

Green means go. Do this in the moment; jot as you observe. This is the space where you should feel free to keep moving throughout the observation. Keep your observations objective; write down what you hear and see.  Notice and write down as much as you can. 

Yellow: Identify

Proceed with caution. Spending too much mental energy on this in the moment can distract you, and you may miss key moments in your observation. If it feels safe (and not too distracting), you may slow down to attach some labels to what you’ve seen at some points in the lesson, but this should not be where you spend most of your time or energy. 

Red: Analyze. 

Stop. This takes too much mental energy that would take you outside of the observation headspace. We’ll continue with this part together when we’re ready outside of the observation itself. Even though we don’t do this part during the observation, I like for participants to know that this is where the conversation is heading. 

Applying the Protocol

An example or two might be helpful, here. These are from some sessions in which we’ve been unpacking the productive struggle that’s involved with writing workshop. I’ve wanted to shift the conversation away from “these kids can’t” to instead focus on the importance of providing opportunities for productive struggle and then supporting our students throughout. So, to study this in action, we may use two different types of observation: an exemplar or a lab.  


These are the lessons you watch when you want to analyze how it’s done. When you want to learn what the moves are. For these, my preference is always to use teachers we’re working with as exemplars. Whether we visit their classroom or study a video of one of their lessons, it’s a powerful experience to lift up their leadership and for teachers to learn from each other. If this isn’t possible, though, we watch a video from a leader I trust. Using the video resources that come with a book study can be a good bet, and the Vimeo resources from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project are another of my go-to’s in a pinch. 

Observe Identify Analyze Teacher

Inquiry Lab 

In a lab-style observation, we’re engaged in inquiry of what the work looks like right now. Going into these with a student-centered focus is crucial. Equally crucial to me is having an asset-based approach to that student-centered focus. Having the traffic light directions helps us to focus our energy where it’s most important: what the students can do. Then, later, in a structured discussion, we can strategize how to best support them from there. 

Observe Identify Analyze Student

Having clearly defined norms and routines helps everyone involved in the observation to feel safe and ready to engage in the learning. And it pays off after the observation itself, too, because we’re able to have discussions that are focused on how everyday instruction is connected to the research and practice we’re studying.

How do you make connections between research, professional learning, and practice? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on Twitter @megankortlandt

– Megan 

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