How Do Teachers Learn To Be Professionals? Insights from Richard Elmore’s Work and Its Compatibility with Reading Recovery Practices

by  Eva Konstantellou

Reading Recovery Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative


“The idea behind instructional rounds is that everyone involved is working on their practice, everyone is obliged to be knowledgeable about the common task of instructional improvement, and everyone’s practice should be subject to scrutiny, critique, and improvement.”  Instructional Rounds in Education (2009)

At a Leadership Institute last June, Reading Recovery professionals had the opportunity to hear from Richard Elmore, Professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard University, on how educators can create professional cultures in their schools that will improve teaching and learning.  Professor Elmore shared with the audience that Reading Recovery had a hugely formative effect on his thinking because:

  • It is a highly intense practice focused on the learning of children
  • It is based on a sound theory of learning
  • It is grounded in continuous research, and
  • It is organized in networks of professionals who constantly reflect on their practice in order to improve it.

All of these elements according to Professor Elmore contribute to the creation of a professional culture whose members share a common language about teaching and learning that leads to improved instructional practices.

Professor Elmore shared how in his quest for the professionalization of teaching he studied medical interns and the ways in which they learn to be professionals.  These interns are members of a professional culture that values evidence; they have shed any preconceived notions as they make their rounds examining their patients in teams with their peers and mentors.

The question he posed is this: how can teachers learn from physicians about establishing professional, caring cultures whose participants don’t shy away from professional critique and intense scrutiny of each other’s work?

Instructional Rounds in Education:  Lessons from the Medical Model

The lessons from the medical model led Professor Elmore and his colleagues to develop the concept of instructional rounds in education.  They reported on their research findings after implementing this model in many school systems around the county in their book Instructional Rounds in Education:  A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning.  The instructional rounds process is an adaptation and extension of the medical rounds model, which as mentioned above is used routinely in medical schools to support the learning of physicians.    In the same way that “groups of medical interns visit patients, observe and discuss the evidence for diagnoses, and, after a thorough analysis of the evidence, discuss possible treatments” (p.3), groups of school leaders (administrators and teachers) visit classrooms, suspend their judgment while collecting data about instructional practices and then engage in reflection and evaluation of the work.

Professor Elmore and his colleagues lay out five principles that govern the inquiry-based work that is at the heart of their instructional rounds model (pp. 157-166):

  • We Learn to Do the Work by Doing the Work, Reflecting on the Work, and Critiquing the Work.  Instruction is at the center of school improvement and practitioners need to engage in constant evaluation of their own practice.
  • Separate the Person from the Practice. Your practice is not who you are.If you’re a professional your practice changes as you acquire greater knowledge and expertise at what you do.
  • Learning is an Individual and a Collective Activity.  Individual learning is important but people must construct a common language to reflect and act on instructional issues.
  • Trust Enhances Individual and Collective Learning.  Individuals need a safe place in which to share their practices and understandings and also develop relational trust that allows them to collaborate with others.
  • Learning Enhances Individual and Collective Efficacy.  In addition to acquiring a sense of one’s individual ability to influence student learning, people need toshare their ideas about instructional improvement with others.

Reading Recovery and the Quest for Continuous Instructional Improvement

The Reading Recovery professional model meets the qualifications for a professional culture that has instituted “practices of improvement.” Reading Recovery promotes the goal of collaborative learning.  Teachers observe each other teaching, ask for help on their teaching and engage in ongoing constructive evaluation of each other’s practices.  In the process of collaborating they create a common language, ways of observing their work carefully and a shared practice of improvement.  Let’s consider the weekly training sessions during which a group of teachers gets together to observe live lessons behind the one-way mirror under the guidance of a more experienced colleague.  During the session, teachers and teacher leaders:

  • Suspend judgment and gather data
  • Describe and analyze what they observe
  • Formulate hypotheses about possible teaching moves
  • Following the observation they engage in rich discussion about teaching decisions and their underlying theoretical rationales
  • Engage in inquiry that leads to continuous update of their practices

The outcome of such collaborative practices is the replacement of a culture of isolation with a shared learning culture that promotes ongoing inquiry among its members.

As Professor Elmore’s research has shown, a powerful inquiry-based model similar to the one that has been guiding the practice of Reading Recovery, could be adopted and expanded to inform the work of school leaders who are seeking to transform instructional practices across the school curriculum.


City, E. A., Elmore, R. F., Fiarman, S. E., and Teitel, L. (2009).  Instructional Rounds in Education:  A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Educational Press.

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