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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

The Case for Protocols

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A clear set of guidelines provides a structure for deeper conversations about teaching and learning.

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The facilitator of the team of 7th grade English language arts teachers addresses the group: "Let's move from discussing content to debriefing the process. What went well? What could we do better next time? Did this process accomplish our goal of helping Lissa's work get better?"
Lissa, whose work has been the subject of their discussion for the past 45 minutes, speaks first: "I can't believe we just spent the past 45 minutes discussing my writing assignment and rubric. I got so much from your feedback." She leans over to the colleague sitting on her right and continues, "This would never have happened if I had just said, "Hey Tony, could you look over this and tell me what you think.'" She goes on to list some of the ideas she's gotten from the discussion.
Tony turns to Lissa and adds, "And it's not like only your work got better. I feel like we couldn't help but reflect on our own assignments and rubrics and how we might use peer editing more. Everybody's stuff gets better by doing this."
The team has just experienced its very first Tuning Protocol, a protocol developed by Joe McDonald and David Allen for looking at student and teacher work. A protocol is a set of guidelines for having a focused, structured conversation about some aspect of teaching and learning. Teacher teams use them for a wide range of applications. There are protocols for looking at student work, looking at teacher work, having discussions centered on an article or piece of text, reviewing student data, analyzing a dilemma a teacher might be having, and many other purposes. The School Reform Initiative has a storehouse of free protocols for every imaginable use.

Why Protocols?

Protocols can do what teacher meetings often fail to do: enable teachers to have meaningful, sustained conversations about teaching and learning without getting derailed by peripheral issues like the angry parent in the office, the crying child in Mrs. Lucy's room, the assembly on Friday, and so on. The structure that specifies who speaks when and about what—as well as the strict time limits for each segment of the protocol—all but eliminates 99 percent of these extraneous conversations. Some teachers think protocols stifle "natural conversation," but the initial awkwardness of protocol use often leads to really meaningful dialogue that trumps those natural conversations that often go off track.
In addition to keeping teacher teams focused, protocols also protect the teachers who present their work or the work of their students. Because feedback must follow the ground rules of the protocol, teachers are insulated from attack or undue criticism. Instead, teachers get honest but respectful feedback about their work or the work of their students.
Protocols also make it easy for teachers to give one another constructive critical feedback. For many teachers, when looking at a colleague's work in the absence of a protocol, it's simply easier to say, "everything looks great, nice lesson" than to say, "I'm wondering whether there might be a more engaging way to do X." Yet cool feedback is arguably the "lifeblood of looking at teacher and student work" (Venables, 2011, p. 46) and the driving impetus behind improvement. Teachers are more likely to offer such feedback when they are engaged in a protocol that contains a segment specifically calling for it.

Anatomy of a Typical Protocol

As mentioned, there are a variety of protocols suited for a variety of conversations. Protocols that are suited for looking at student or teacher work tend to follow a common structure:
1. Context for the work. The teacher or teachers who have brought work for discussion present the context for the work while the rest of the team silently takes notes.
2. Clarifying questions. The team asks clarifying questions to provide additional context.
3. Presentation of the work. The team reviews the work quietly and—individually.
4. Warm and cool feedback. The team offers warm and cool feedback and suggestions for improving the work while the presenting teacher silently takes notes.
5. Teacher reflection. The presenting teacher reflects on what he or she has heard. The rest of the team is silent.
6. The debrief. The team debriefs the experience and discusses the process.
Delaying the presenting teacher's response to the feedback until all the feedback has been shared greatly reduces the tendency for the presenting teacher to be defensive. By the time the teacher reflects on the feedback in Step 5, any knee-jerk defensive reaction has dissipated and the reflection is more likely to be just that—a reflection on the feedback. When this is the case, feedback and suggestions from the team are more likely to translate into changes in the classroom.

Notice and Wonder: A Good Starter Protocol

Looking at a colleague's work is tough stuff, and giving feedback is even harder. A protocol like the Tuning Protocol, although field-tested and extremely effective, requires participants to offer cool feedback; it can result in hurt feelings and resistance to future protocol work if the groundwork hasn't been carefully laid. To preemptively address this, I developed the Notice and Wonder protocol (Venables, 2011) to give teams new to using protocols an easier and safer way to present work and give feedback. These are the steps of the protocol, with time limits:
  1. The presenting teacher briefly provides the context for the work being presented. This might include the grade level of students, a description of the unit, students' prior knowledge, and how long the students were given to complete the work. Participants are silent and take notes (5 minutes).
  2. The participants ask clarifying questions of the presenting teacher. These questions seek information that the participants feel they need to better understand the context. Questions like, How long did your kids have to work on this? Or Is this the first time your kids have worked with simulations? are clarifying questions. The presenting teacher answers each question briefly, in a sentence or two (5 minutes).
  3. Quietly and individually, participants write three or four Notice Statements about what they see in the work. These statements are factual observations of what is present in the work (not what is missing); they should be free of inference or speculation. Each Notice Statement starts with the phrase "I notice that …" (5 minutes).
  4. In turn, each participant reads aloud a Notice Statement that no one else in the group has shared. This continues without discussion until all Notice Statements have been shared. The presenting teacher is quiet and takes notes (5 minutes).
  5. Each participant writes three or four Wonder Statements. These comments offer possible suggestions or pose questions for the presenting teacher to think about. No attempt should be made to evaluate the work or the assignment; the intent is for the presenting teacher to gain insights into how to strengthen the work. Each comment starts with I wonder if … , I wonder how … , I wonder why …, or I wonder whether … (5 minutes).
  6. In turn, each participant reads aloud a Wonder Statement that no one else in the group has shared. This process continues until all statements have been shared aloud, without discussion. The presenting teacher is quiet and takes notes (10 minutes).
  7. The presenting teacher quietly reviews his or her notes and then reflects aloud to the group about the comments she heard. The participants are silent (5 minutes).
  8. The team now debriefs the process, refraining from additional comments pertaining to the work the teacher presented (5 minutes).
In working with schools across the United States, I hear teachers consistently report that it is harder for them to offer feedback than to receive it. But anybody can notice, and anybody can wonder. Noticing and wondering are nonthreatening, both for the teachers doing the noticing and wondering and for the teacher hearing the comments. Yet significant things are revealed. Notice Statements tend to reflect the basic facts of an assignment or lesson, and Wonder Statements force the presenting teacher to think more expansively about the assignment or lesson.

An Illustration of the Notice and Wonder Protocol

A high school biology teacher voluntarily brought an assessment she'd designed to her science professional learning community (PLC) with the intention of getting feedback. The assessment required students to create a comic strip to illustrate the synthesis of a protein. The teacher included a rubric indicating what content the comic strips needed to include and requirements for format, accuracy, and neatness. The PLC facilitator, Ms. Owens, led the team through the Notice and Wonder Protocol.
Ms. Evans began by giving her team the context for her work as the teachers in the team took notes:
This assessment is for my Applied Biology 1 class, which is composed of kids who take high school biology over two courses. The students are generally below-level students who have not done well on their middle school standardized subject tests or have failed biology last year. This assessment is the only culminating assessment of this two-week unit on the parts and functions of a cell. Students will work in teacher-chosen pairs. The rubric will be fully explained to the kids before they begin the assignment, which they will have two class periods to complete.
Ms. Owens moved the group to the next step, in which team members asked clarifying questions:
T<EMPH TYPE="5">eam M<EMPH TYPE="5">ember 1: How will you assign the student pairs? M<EMPH TYPE="5">s. E<EMPH TYPE="5">vans: Probably randomly, but I will avoid known dysfunctional pairs. T<EMPH TYPE="5">eam M<EMPH TYPE="5">ember 2: How large is this class? M<EMPH TYPE="5">s. E<EMPH TYPE="5">vans: 27 kids, if they're all there. T<EMPH TYPE="5">eam M<EMPH TYPE="5">ember 3: Will you give them other, smaller assessments, leading to this? M<EMPH TYPE="5">s. E<EMPH TYPE="5">vans: Yes, maybe a short quiz or socrative.com quiz.
Participants ask clarifying questions to better their understanding of the context of the work. Sometimes, questions are not really clarifying questions but instead are thinly disguised suggestions or opinion statements. These kinds of questions are not permitted during this phase, and it is the job of the facilitator to jump in and redirect such questions.
Ms. Owens did just that when group members asked these non-clarifying questions: "Just wondering, why did you choose not to also give them a written test on this topic?" And "Will students be allowed to do this digitally, rather than in 'pen and ink' as you specified?" It's not that either point raised is not valid; these points can (and should) be offered during the Wonder Statements segment. But if they are permitted in the clarifying questions segment, defensiveness on the part of the presenting teacher may result.
Next, Ms. Owens led the team to write their Notice Statements quietly and individually. They then shared these statements as Ms. Evans silently took notes.
I notice that three of the four dimensions of the rubric relate to content.I notice that the rubric descriptors are quantifiable, as in "Two frames' captions are inaccurate or irrelevant."I notice that the grade assigned (percentage) did not equal the fraction of points earned, mathematically. She probably did this to have a built-in curve in the grading.
The facilitator, Ms. Owens, responded to this last Notice Statement:
The first half of your Notice Statement is a factual observation, but the second half moves to an inference about Ms. Evans's intention. Let's remember to save these kinds of speculations for the Wonder Statements.
The team offered a few more Notice Statements, and then Ms. Owens switched gears to Wonder Statements. Team members wrote out their statements, and then took turns sharing them. Ms. Owens reminded the presenting teacher, Ms. Evans, to silently take notes as her colleagues offered their Wonder Statements:
I wonder if Ms. Evans should allow students to do this digitally and even offer that option in the directions.I wonder if Ms. Evans might consider making this a weighted rubric because in its present form Neatness counts the same as Content: Organelle Use.I wonder if "1/12 = 30% and 1/12 = 0%" is a typo.I wonder whether her and her students' idea of "sloppy" are the same.I wonder whether some sort of culminating written test on this topic would be appropriate in addition to the project.I wonder if a mid-project peer scoring of another pair's work using the rubric would be helpful in producing better quality final work and also in getting students to really internalize the rubric.I wonder how Ms. Evans plans to assign grades to the pairs of students. Individually? A collaborative grade? Both?
The last Wonder Statement could have been a clarifying question, but teachers inevitably think of questions they neglected to ask during the clarifying questions segment, and these questions sometimes emerge later as Wonder Statements. Such comments are not ideal Wonder Statements, but they are acceptable.
Notice that the team refers to Ms. Evans in the third person during both the Notice and Wonder Statements. This makes the statements easier for the presenting teacher to hear and easier for the team to offer. Moreover, it encourages the team to make contributions to one another and not directly to the presenting teacher. This not only eases the tension in doing the tricky work of analyzing and discussing a colleague's work, but also fosters deeper, more thoughtful contributions. Clearly, not all Wonder Statements are of equal value. The Wonder Statements that most benefit the teacher tend to either offer a useful suggestion or push the teacher to think more deeply about the assignment.
After the Wonder Statements section of the protocol was concluded, Ms. Owens asked Ms. Evans to review her notes and reflect aloud about what she had heard. Ms. Evans spoke without interruption while the team was silent:
I really like the idea of giving them the option to do this digitally. I don't know why that didn't occur to me.I'm not sure I want to give them a written test in addition to this because I want them to experience assessments that are alternatives to a written test. I'll have to think more about it.I'm definitely going to use the suggestion to have pairs score each other's work midway or even at the end. I think this will really help them understand the rubric better, and I agree that the quality of final projects stands to be better if I try that.
After Ms. Evans exhausted all the points she chose to make during the reflection segment, Ms. Owens transitioned the team to the debrief. The debrief phase is when participants discuss the process—how it worked, how it could be better, what the team did well, and what the team needs to work on. This discussion helps improve the next experience with the protocol (or any future protocol). Joe McDonald, creator of the Tuning Protocol and author of The Power of Protocols (2007), told me more than 20 years ago that "if you haven't got time to debrief, you haven't got time to do the protocol." My experience in doing this work all these years since is that he was right.

Trust the Process

Protocols can be tremendous tools for helping collaborative teacher teams conduct focused, candid conversations about their work and the work of their students. Whatever initial awkwardness the team may experience in using protocols is far outweighed by the benefits. It is not uncommon for teachers new to the experience of using protocols to report that their first meeting using a protocol was "one of the best meetings we've had."
John Dewey is credited with having said, "We don't learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience." The protocol forces teacher reflection on a particular piece of work, and the debrief forces team reflection on a particular experience of using the protocol. My advice to PLCs is to trust the process, follow the protocol with fidelity, and only discuss a colleague's work if he or she has volunteered to present it to the team. Few things can strengthen a teacher team as much as sharing the experience of a powerful, well-facilitated protocol.

McDonald, J. (2007). The power of protocols: An educator's guide to better practice (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Venables, D. (2011). The practice of authentic PLCs: A guide to effective teacher teams. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Daniel R. Venables is founder and executive director of the Center for Authentic PLCs, an independent consulting firm committed to assisting schools in building, leading, and sustaining authentic professional learning communities (PLCs). 

During his career of more than 30 years in education, Venables has been a classroom teacher in both public and independent schools in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Connecticut for 24 years, serving as a math department chair for 18 of those years. He was a professional development coordinator with the nation's 18th-largest district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Daniel holds a master's degree in mathematics from Wesleyan University. In 1994, he was trained as a Math/Science Fellow with the Coalition of Essential Schools, where he began his working experience with PLCs. In 2002, he was named South Carolina Independent School Teacher of the Year.

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