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March 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 6

How the Tuning Protocol Works

The tuning protocol is an effective way to structure a group's close examination of student work and to foster professional dialogue.

The tuning protocol is a process through which educators can hone their skills by examining student work in a supportive, problem-solving group. Initially developed by the Coalition of Essential Schools (Allen, 1995), the tuning protocol is a form of collective inquiry that allows participants to work together on improving student learning. Here is an example of how the tuning protocol works.

The Problem

Dave, a science teacher at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado, wanted help improving the portfolio assignment that he required of his high school students to show competencies in important science literacy skills. He was most concerned about the lack of critical analysis in his students' portfolios.


Dave prepared for the tuning protocol by carefully selecting a representative chapter from a student's portfolio. He photocopied the chapter and the guidelines for the portfolio. He also jotted down some background information that he wanted to share about his science class and devised some key questions that he wanted the group to answer.
The facilitator arranged just over an hour for the session. Meeting at regular intervals, the group tried to keep the same members so that each could take a turn presenting material or facilitating if an outside facilitator was not available. Each member was expected to make a substantial contribution to the discussion (Cushman, 1996).

Opening (5 minutes)

The group gathered in an area where participants would not be interrupted for the hour. Because the group members had already worked together, they did not have to introduce themselves, but they greeted one another and passed around a snack. Although they had used the tuning protocol before, the facilitator opened the session by reviewing the steps of the protocol and its attributes. The size of the group—six, plus Dave and the facilitator—was large enough to encourage diverse perspectives and small enough to allow everyone plenty of air time. Throughout the session, the facilitator made sure that the group kept to the schedule and did not skip steps.

Presentation (15 minutes)

Dave shared with the group everything he could to help the group fine-tune his work and improve his portfolio process. While he spoke, everyone else was silent, taking copious notes. Dave reminded the group that this school's students must document their mastery of required competencies to get credit toward graduation and explained how he had designed the portfolio to reflect the school's competency-based approach. He shared the guidelines he used to evaluate the portfolios.
Finally, he distributed copies of a chapter from Darren's portfolio, explaining that although it met the requirements for an accomplished portfolio, he had two questions: “How can this student better demonstrate critical analytic skills? How can I, as the instructor, help students improve their understanding and use of critical analysis?” During the rest of his presentation time, participants examined the sample portfolio chapter.

Clarifying Questions (5 minutes)

When 15 minutes had passed, the facilitator asked group members whether they had any questions before proceeding. Clarifying questions simply seek more information and should not probe or make evaluative statements cast as questions. Instead of asking, “Why didn't you do X?” they should ask, “Did you do X?” For example, Lisa asked, “Do you hand out the guidelines at the beginning of the course and discuss the scientific literacy skills with students?”

Individual Writing (5 minutes)

The facilitator reviewed Dave's key questions and asked the group and Dave to write for five minutes on those questions or any other aspect of Dave's presentation.

Participant Discussion (15 minutes)

The facilitator brought the writing session to a close and asked Dave to back out of the circle, physically. “Be a fly on the wall, listening to your colleagues work with an issue you care about.” Dave moved his chair back and sat so that he would not make eye contact with the participants. He had asked the group to wrestle with certain questions; they needed to take them on as their own without addressing their comments to Dave. This strategy prevents an offense-defense discussion that can limit the depth of the examination. Dave was silent, but he took notes.
Participant comments should be both “warm” and “cool.” Warm feedback pinpoints what works well and what should be continued. Cool feedback is more critical—though not criticizing—and suggests through “what ifs” or questions what could be improved (Cushman, 1996). Christian acknowledged Dave's concern that, of all the scientific literacy skills that students needed, critical analysis was the “one that seems to be lacking in this chapter and is probably the most difficult one for students to grasp.” Linda wondered whether “critical response would come more easily if students could focus on what they were learning, not just on what they were doing.” The group brainstormed some ways for Dave to ensure that students became aware of the skills they had used and could describe them in their portfolios.

Presenter Reflection (10 minutes)

The group listened as Dave used his notes to reflect aloud on what he had heard; he said “I hadn't thought of that” and “I wonder whether I could do that” in response to specific suggestions. Dave also commented,When Paola mentioned that it looked as if the students had addressed some of the skills without being aware of it, I realized that the portfolios do show evidence of learning. But I need to have students stop and reflect on the skills they learned at the end of activities so that students recognize these and can present them in their portfolios.He reviewed several possible strategies for helping students become aware of the skills that they had used.

Debriefing (10 minutes)

The facilitator thanked Dave for bringing a topic to the group, and the group applauded him. He, in turn, thanked them for their contributions. He said with a laugh,I definitely didn't get enough warm feedback. But, then again, I was looking for cool feedback. I have been dissatisfied with the scientific literacy piece of the portfolio, especially the critical analysis skills. You gave me some great ideas for how to address the problem.
Participants also noted what they had learned from the tuning protocol. Linda, for example, commented,As an administrator, I can visit your classroom and talk with you about what you are doing. But looking at this portfolio with others gives me a clearer understanding of what you are requiring of students and what you are doing as an instructor.
As they left the room and made their way toward their classrooms, participants continued the conversation about helping students think critically.

Variations and Adaptations

Educators can use the tuning protocol to examine many different artifacts of their practice. Instead of using student work, for example, teachers can bring unit designs, assessments, rubrics, homework policies, motivational strategies, or classroom management plans. Administrators can bring staff development ideas, plans for a parent newsletter, evaluation processes, the school calendar, the intramural program, or even the budget process.
Participants can adapt the protocol to fit specific needs. Presenters may ask to spend more time on open discussion during the debriefing, for example. All tuning protocol groups should honor the crucial steps in the process, however. The presenter must have time to talk without interruption, both to present the artifact and to reflect on the feedback. Participants should talk without being interrupted and address their comments to one another rather than to the presenter. And participants need time to write and to ask direct questions.


Directly examining student work begins with real artifacts and an immediate need to know, and it brings about companionable follow-up. As a result of this tuning protocol, Dave decided to include small-group discussions after each class activity so that students could become aware of the analytic skills they had used. He knew his colleagues would ask about the changes he made: “Have you been able to reserve the last 10 minutes in your science classes for discussions?” As a member of this group of learners, Dave experienced a subtle but effective form of accountability to his peers.
In a learning community, the conversation changes. It revolves around student learning and classroom practice. Teachers seek out one another for advice and feedback, and not just in the formal processes of the tuning protocol. Best of all, students see their teachers and administrators learning.

Allen, D. (1995). The tuning protocol: A process for reflection. (Studies on Exhibitions, No. 15). Providence, RI: Coalition of Essential Schools, Brown University.

Cushman, K. (Ed.). (1996, November). Looking collaboratively at student work: An essential toolkit. Horace, 13(2). Available:www.essentialschools.org/pubs/horace/13/v13n02.html

Lois Brown Easton works as a consultant, coach, and author. She is particularly interested in learning designs for adults and for students. She recently retired as director of professional development at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado. Easton was also director of Re:Learning Systems, a partnership between the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Education Commission of the States, from 1992 to 1994. Prior to that, Easton served in the Arizona Department of Education as English/Language Arts coordinator, director of curriculum and instruction, and director of curriculum and assessment planning.

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