Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Drilling Down to The Skill


A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called "Can You Really Describe Good Teaching?", in which I highlighted the book Instructional Rounds in Education by City and Elmore.  I am just finishing this book, and am starting to see the principles of this book tie a number of initiatives together for me in our school.

The Instructional Rounds concept is based in seven principles, two of which have truly impacted my thinking about classrooms, teaching and learning:
  1. Increases in student learning occur only as a consequence of improvements in the level of content, teacher’s knowledge and skill, and student engagement.
  2. If you change any single element of the instructional core, you have to change the other two.
  3. If you can’t see it in the core, it’s not there.
  4. Tasks predict performance.
  5. The real accountability system is in the tasks that students are asked to do.
  6. We learn to do things by doing the work.
  7. Description before analysis, analysis before prediction, prediction before evaluation.
I find that #4 and #5 work for me on many levels.

There are many educators (teachers, administrators, district coordinators and leaders) that have charisma.  They make tremendous relationships with the people that they work with, whether they are students or colleagues.  The room lights up when they walk in, and we follow them wherever they want to take us--through the Kreb's Cycle in Biology, on board the ship in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or along the journey of understanding logarithms in mathematics.  They bring to life subjects that may often seem lifeless in the hands of others.  They have this ability to draw us in to nearly any topic in their classes, meetings or professional development sessions.  We even want to hang out with them.

I sincerely believe that some (many?) of these 'soft' skills that help to engage students can be learned.  We can strive to learn more about our students and the way the learn, to treat them with respect, to show humility and even vulnerability ourselves as learners, and to have high expectations that students will succeed.

However, there are many teachers who have skills that are a function of the personality that they bring to the classroom each day--many of which are very difficult for one teacher to adopt from another.  We all have our own identities, and I can tell you with certainty that there are educators and administrators out there that make me say "Wow, I wish I could be more like them." or "They just have this knack for....".  The ones that when they walk in the room and pause for thought the rest of us collectively hold our breath waiting for them to let us in on it.

But why #4 and #5 seem to make a great deal of sense is that in some ways, they can be 'personality-proofed'.

Please don't hear that I am devaluing the relationship piece between educators and learners.  Relationships are vitally important.  However, the relationship piece can often be a challenging one to change from person to person because we often think that we are good relationships already.

But we can determine skills that are important for students to acquire.

And we can change the task.

And if the task predicts performance, and creates a situation where we can be accountable to our learning, an effectively designed and well-planned task can allow us drill all the way down to the actions that develop the skills we want for our students.

I don't want this to sound like I wish to de-personalize teaching and learning--quite the contrary.  What I mean to discover are ways to make lessons that are more about the skills we wish students to acquire and the tasks that lead to their being developed rather than their success being dependent upon their being performed by some permutation of Bill Nye the Science Guy/Jerry Seinfeld.

At our school, I have often written about key initiatives we have adopted that I feel are high-yield strategies to improving student achievement. We have created collaborative time for teachers, embedded staff development within a staff meeting model that has provided authentic ownership of our meeting time by our teachers.  We have made assessment a central focus of this embedded staff development and collaboratively developed areas for us to further investigate to increase the number and style of assessment tools in our tool cases.  I think we are doing good work that is making a difference in the learning of our students.

I think.

But as much as we have seen a consistent drop in our failure rates in core and overall courses over the last six years (something that makes me very proud of our teachers and our students), is this because of our initiatives?  Are we sure that we are graduating students with the skills that society values?  Students that are critical thinkers?  That are creative?  That are learners capable of being independent and collaborative?   That are going to lead us through the 21st Century?

Hmmm.  Now I'm not so sure.  Please read that we MAY actually be doing this.  But as the Principal of our school, if we are, I'm really not sure of the 'how' behind this. Nor am I sure that I have been looking for the some of the predicates of that successfully create these sorts of learners in our classes that we may be able to replicate in other classes. 

When I was reading Instructional Rounds a few days ago before I went to sleep, I began doodling at the end of Chapter 6 about how all of this might come together for us (Check out this low-tech infographic!).

While I am sure this is not a complete (nor tremendously attractive or artistic) representation of the direction I feel our school needs to go, I am starting to have a clearer vision of where I would like us to go.

Against a backdrop of continuous reflection, we need to work with students, staff and community to determine the skills that we feel students must have attained by the time they leave us.  Once we have determined this set of skills (which likely will be ever-evolving) we must be highly committed to the process of creating engaging activities and tasks that develop these skills.  While this sounds simple, I think that this is an area that bears a great deal of examination.  How many times in education have we said that we want to develop collaborative thinkers but continue to have our students seated in rows and working independently?  Or that we want problem-discoverers but give students a set of problems to solve?  Are we doing the work of developing creative thinkers by offering learners a fill-in the blank worksheet and a crossword puzzle?  Do we facilitate knowledgeable gatherers and consumers of information that are able to articulate their points of view when we give a reading from a chapter in a textbook and questions at the end of the chapter? (Please note that I have done each and every one of these things when I taught).

We need to make sure that the skills that we want students to learn are supported by the activities that actually allow them to (get ready for it)....learn, practice, demonstrate and apply that skill!  We then need to be able to assess it in a way that provides meaningful guidance and feedback to both the learner and the teacher.  And through collaborating with our peers about the appropriate pedagogical theories of learning, differentiation, engagement, we create a rich process of drilling down to the teaching of the skill in the classroom.

Which is where I want us to be (and what my diagram is supposed to depict)

Instructional Rounds suggests a mechanism that allows District Staff, Administrators, Teacher Leaders and fellow teachers to see this all in action.  To bring everyone back to the classroom where it all happens.  Where we are able to see the teacher in action, and the students in action, and the activities and tasks that actually lead to learning the skills that we want them to acquire.

In the new year, I look forward to working with other educators and administrators at all levels in our district so that we can all see what it takes to "drill down to the skill".

Thursday, December 13, 2012

When a Plan Comes Together

"I love it when a plan comes together" 
 - Hannibal Smith, "The A-Team"

I loved "The A Team" when I was a kid.  I wasn't buying the Mr. T starter kit or anything (even though I saw this at Sophie's Cosmic Cafe in Kitsilano this weekend, as seen in the photo), but it was a favorite on Thursday nights.  And whether it was serendipitous or not, much like Hannibal's famous line above, I really saw "a plan come together" over the past couple of weeks.

More than a year ago, my good pal Gino Bondi (@gmbondi, a must follow) wrote a tremendous post about his "Learning Commons" concept that was transforming his library into a center for 21st Century Learning.  With Gino's permission, I shamelessly plundered the idea and created a proposal for our SKSS Learning Hub.  The vision for this space was adapted from many of the points that Gino made in his post to fit our context:
  • A welcoming, service-oriented, tech-rich environment that is inviting to all learners, both student and adult
  • A spot where students and teachers are able to engage in the workings of the Learning Hub and to co-develop the design of the space and the vision for how it operates
  • Comfortable areas with easily moveable and configurable furnishings that allow learners to work independently, collaboratively, and in large groups
  • Areas for learners to practice presenting and showcase their presentations to their peers
  • Wifi, tablets, netbooks, and connectivity to projectors to promote "side of the desk" access to unlimited digital resources
  • A dynamic collection of print resources
  • Access to our Learning Coach, an infinitely curious learner, leader, and support structure for kids and for teachers alike in all matters of innovation, technology, presentation, curriculum and instruction
  • A peer support network area for matters curricular and technological
  • A place "WHERE WE WANT TO BE"
We have moved very slowly with this project, and to be honest, the pace (or lack thereof) has been frustrating at times.  Not to mention that once this idea began to catch fire, the demand for this rethinking in and reconfiguring of the more traditional library structure grew (as it should!), potentially pushing our plan to the side.  Groan...what was going on here????

This is when another Principal (Walt Kirschner at Valleyview) brought myself, another Principal (who is a real mover in this Learning Hub idea, Sheryl Lindquist at NorKam) and our maintenance department together to figure out how we could collectively move on this for the betterment of all of our schools.  And in this meeting, I saw true collaboration occur:
  1. Each of us came to a common understanding and goal for creating our Learning Hubs--to create inviting, comfortable and flexible spaces that encouraged individual and collaborative learning.
  2. Each of us brought our own strengths and contexts to the table--from our experience with creating learning spaces, to our differing needs and uses of technology, to our different sizes of schools and libraries, to our practical perspectives such as construction issues, wiring challenges, millwork options, and maintenance timetables.
  3. Each of us came to a better understanding of our contexts (I had no idea about how long it takes to produce custom millwork, and I do now)--this was enlightening and so important.  And as soon as we understood eachothers contexts, it was amazing how we worked interdependently to come up with potential solutions for EACHOTHER, not just for ourselves.
  4. We set timelines that both pushed us and allowed us to be realistic given our current realities.
  5. We left acknowledging the collaborative process and wanting to meet again!
As we get closer to putting hammer to nail, roller to paint, and wifi to tablet, we are going to involve even more stakeholders because


“There is no one of us that is smarter than all of us”.

By tapping into the expertise and experiences of students, teachers, IT staff, and maintenance staff we can develop a common understanding of the varied needs and contexts of each of these groups so that we can continue co-create the Learning Hub using
a ‘collective compass’ that can guide us now and in the future.  


We can truly put the WE in the Learning Hub, the place "WHERE WE WANT TO BE".

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Getting Beat Up and Liking It

On Monday, I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to world-renowned educational reformer Alfie Kohn.  Working in partnership with another one of our high schools and their tremendous Principal Sheryl Lindquist, we were able to bring our staff together with 350 other members of the district and work with Mr. Kohn for the entire day.

If you haven't seen him before, know that Alfie Kohn unplugged has no filter.  He is in your face.  He is kicking in your classroom door.  He is thumbing his nose at your rules, yawning through your lessons, tearing your rubrics in half and crumpling up your homework.  He is throwing your new textbooks out the window, laughing at your grading practices, drawing funny faces on your multiple choice tests, and not picking up his report card at the end of the term.  He is yelling in the Principal's office, stamping his feet in front of the School Board, and mocking the Ministry of Education and government.  All in an undying effort to find a way to shake the foundation of a traditional education system.

And in the end, in a room full of teachers, administrators and trustees whose collective lapels he was mercilessly grabbing and shaking for more than four hours, Mr. Kohn got exactly what he deserved.

A standing ovation.

It's not often you get the daylights beaten out of you out on the playground by the guy with glasses and get up afterward and thank him.  But that's what we did.

I had several takeaways from Mr. Kohn's presentation (trying to think back to when I was a teacher and now how this still applies to me as a Principal):
1.  We must continuously ask ourselves "How does this affect the learner's INTEREST in learning?"  Reflecting on my own experiences as a teacher, I recall starting many units in science with my primary focus being on what it was that I wanted students to know.  And while I planned some exciting (in my own mind) lessons, I was completely cognizant of the fact that I was creating a few lessons that "we would just have to get through" to cover the material.  I think that I have a better understanding of the importance of this now, but it took me quite a while.
    • Implications for me as a teacher:  I needed to get to know my students much better, to have had a better understand their interests, contstantly tried to find ways to take the skills and concepts I wanted them to learn put them into a context that allowed them opportunities to construct their own meaning.
    • Implications for me as a Principal:  How many times in the past have I gone into a staff meeting focused on 'the material we needed to get through' rather than trying to continuously try to get a better understanding our staff, how they learn best, and to find ways to pique their interest in staff development?  Too many.  This year we have made significant changes in trying to create this ownership for our faculty but I know that I still have a long way to go.  
2.  We enter into problem-solving with more and better questions
    • Implications for me as a teacher:  When I asked students questions, too often I asked them in such a way that there was only one answer, and that answer was the one that I was looking for.  Or my questions were at such a superficial level that they actually inhibited the students thinking deeply about a problem and and perhaps coming up with their own questions or discovering their own problems. 
    • Implications for me as a Principal:  Much like I was at the start of my teaching career, too often in the past I would go into staff meetings with a preconceived notion or solution that met my needs as opposed to entering the discussion being comfortable not knowing where we were going to end up.  This year, we are going to be re-examining our collaborative time model and methods, our Connections Tutorials, our Academic Intervention program, and our mandatory study block.  In the past, I might have come in with a couple of models with a few tweaks, but in March I will be asking our staff questions instead, such as
      • How can we create a timetable that collectively
        • allows for teachers to differentiate instruction?
        • has built in time so teachers can collaborate with other teachers?
        • provides targeted support and intervention for students?
        • allows maximum choice and flexibility for students?
        • gradually and appropriately releases responsibility to the student for their own learning?
3.  We need to let go of practices that are designed to control the learner or the learning environment.  Guilty as charged when I was a teacher and now as a Principal.  When I wanted to make sure that kids did their homework?  Ahhh, the good old pop quiz gets 'em every time.  Get that project in by my deadline or we'll take off a few late marks! (How many marks taken off depended on things so arbitrary I cannot even begin to mention them).  Need you to do that reading, so here's a fill in the blank worksheet.  Ugh.  I shudder at some of these things I did in the first couple of years of teaching when I look back now.
  • Implications for me as a teacher:  Finding entry points for students that reflected their interests within the context of the skills that I was teaching.  Providing choice to the student in how to tackle a problem and how to demonstrate their learning.  Developing a community of values, and a community of practice.  Being flexible with deadlines, and being committed to discovering what a student knows as opposed to when they know it and a single tool to assess their knowledge.  While not an exhaustive list, certainly several things that I got better at as a teacher, and still needed to improve in my own practice.
  • Implications for me as a Principal:  It is vital that I find multiple entry points that reflect our staff's interests within the context of the concepts that we are learning together.  Much like with tie timetable questions above, I must provide our staff with as much opportunity to shape their learning.  As a group, we need to think less in terms of policies that direct us and more to practices that support those values which we collectively have developed (as we did in 2011).

4. We need to look very carefully at the message that a grade sends to the learner as opposed to feedback.  There is much debate about grades in education.  Motivator or de-motivator?  Accurate or arbitrary?  Reflective of standards or 'select and sorters'?  For me as a student, I can say with honesty that I was hungry to know "how to get an A"  and "how well am I doing compared to Joey" in many classes as opposed to being focused on what I was actually doing.  Grades motivated me to get better grades, but they didn't motivate me to learn, nor did they motivate me to work harder.  I would often try to find the 'path of least resistance' to the mark that I wanted, and sometimes didn't try more challenging things because it might 'hurt my GPA'.  If there was a grade and some comments, and the grade was what I wanted I didn't even read the comment.  And heaven forbid if the work wasn't for marks...well, just forget it.
  • Implications for me as a teacher:  It wasn't until later in my career that I realized that grades motivated those students who were motivated by grades.  Unfortunately for me, I also realized that there were many students who were not motivated by grades at all.  But it was amazing how much a student would come back to me if I only gave them feedback.  Over and over again this meaningful dialogue would take place as the student and I would discuss and even debate what they were turning in to me.  
  • Implications for me as a Principal: Grades are not going away tomorrow.  The Ministry asks us to provide a summative letter grade at the end of a semester or year, and we must do that.  However, I think there is a great deal of latitude that we have in terms of the constant feedback that we can give leading up to that grade, and even more rich discussion and debate that can take place about the grade itself.  While the situation may not be ideal, there are many possibilities here that we need to explore with feedback rather than grades.
Overall, Alfie Kohn 'beat me up'.  But with ideas that I took away, I can honestly say "I liked it!" .  He is a must see for any educator who wants to broaden their horizons and challenge their own beliefs about this great thing we call education.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Can You Really Describe Good Teaching?

Do you have a great teacher in your school?  Several great teachers?   Teachers whose classes students can't wait to get into?   I think we all have those teachers.  Teachers who get the strongest endorsement that we can give--the "I want my own child to be in his/her class" endorsement.

But now you get asked "What makes Mrs. Smith a great Math teacher?".  What do you say?  

What really makes a 'great' teacher?  And at this point, I want to fully acknowledge that the antecedents of the craft of excellent teaching are multivariate and as a result there are many answers to this question.  But if you were asked by a Principal of another school that question--"What makes Mrs. Smith such a great Math teacher?"--words and phrases such as relationships, engagement, interactions, classroom management, flow-based challenge, feedback and formative assessment bounce around in our brains.  And while these may be things that we observe in Mrs. Smith's classes, I am wondering if we all make the same two mistakes (which I have on numerous occasions) when we answer this sort of question:
  • We attempt to answer through a poetic waxing and decidedly unquantifiable description that includes many of the aforementioned attributes (and perhaps many others) of that teacher through our own lens of what we believe is important in good teaching.
  • We fail to answer the question from the evidence-based perspective of the skills and attributes demonstrated by learner developed as a result of the tasks the teacher utilizes in their classes. 
Perhaps you do classroom walkthroughs as I try to do (and wish I did more often).  When we walk into our classrooms, are we really sure we know what we should be looking for?  Are we confident that we know these predicates of 'great' teaching?  Of 'great' learning?  And when we walk out of that classroom, what do we do with that information?  Do we tell the teacher "Great lesson!"?  Do we tell our colleagues that we have a crackerjack teacher down in Room 11 and continue the cycle of vague descriptions that prevent any form of replication for other teachers or other schools?

In April of last year, I connected with Jamie Robinson (@_jrobinson), Principal of Glenrosa Middle School in our neighbouring of Kelowna at a Ministry of Education Curriculum workshop.  He was excited to share the work he and his district had done around a book called Instructional Rounds in Education by Harvard researchers Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman and Lee Teitel.  Jamie has an excellent track record of taking what is written and turning it into action, and as a result, I bought the book immediately.  And after seeing Jamie and members of his district present at the BCSSA Conference last week about Instructional Rounds (IR), I was and continue to be blown away by the concepts laid out in this book and how the Kelowna School District is implementing them to positively impact student learning in their district.

To quote the jacket description on the back cover...

"Inspired by the medical-rounds model used by physicians, the authors of Instructional Rounds in Education have pioneered a new form of professional learning known as Instructional Rounds networks.  Through this process, education leaders and practitioners develop a shared understanding of what high quality instruction looks like and what schools and districts need to support it."

The Instructional Rounds concept is based in seven principles:

  1. Increases in student learning occur only as a consequence of improvements in the level of content, teacher’s knowledge and skill, and student engagement.
  2. If you change any single element of the instructional core, you have to change the other two.
  3. If you can’t see it in the core, it’s not there.
  4. Tasks predict performance.
  5. The real accountability system is in the tasks that students are asked to do.
  6. We learn to do things by doing the work.
  7. Description before analysis, analysis before prediction, prediction before evaluation.
Through observation, teams comprised of district leaders, school-based administration, teachers and teacher leaders use evidence-based observation to draw correlates of effective practice as they relate to the tasks that the students are doing and the resultant skills being demonstrated.  And what's more, this is NOT an evaluative process, it is a LEARNING process for all of those involved in education from the teacher right on to the Superintendent.

I specifically highlighted two of the Principles of Instructional Rounds in the list above because they truly resonate with me.  From Instructional Rounds:

"In our experience working with teachers, principals. and system level administrators around problems of large-scale improvement, people tend to be much more specific about what they expect by way of student performance than they are about what in classrooms would lead to the performance that they desire." (p. 32)

How many times have we said that we want our students to be collaborative, to be creative thinkers, to be critical consumers of information and then hand out worksheets, assign problems, or assess using matching and multiple choice questions that require few or any of these skills?

The South Lane School District has adopted Instructional Rounds as a means to improve student and educator learning, and describes the process like this:

There is a lot of work that takes place before the team goes out to observe in classrooms. The team practiced the instructional rounds protocol with videos of classroom lessons. Identifying the “Problem of Practice” is essential to maximize the effectiveness of instructional rounds. The principal, with the help of a district team (superintendent, assistant superintendent and director), identifies their “problem of practice” and clearly describes that problem to the team before instructional rounds begin. The rounds process has teams of 3-4 staff observing in four classrooms for about 20 minutes per observation collecting evidence related to the problem of practice.  

Sample “Problems of Practice”:
  • Are students being asked to do something more than remembering or literal recall?
  • Are students doing more than “sit and get?” What kinds of student engagement, participation, and equity are observed?
At our school, we have created collaborative time for teachers.  We have created intervention strategies for our students.  We have worked to engage our staff, students and community in the development of our dynamic School Improvement Plan.  We have embedded staff development within a staff meeting model that has provided authentic ownership of our meeting time by our teachers.  And yet I am so excited to contact the South Lane School District and continue to work closely with Jamie and the Kelowna School District here in BC on this concept of Instructional Rounds. 

A concept such as this that allows us to qualitatively describe and replicate elements of good teaching in all of our classrooms through the optic of the skills that we want students to achieve is intriguing to me:  this looks to be an inclusive and high-yield process that engages learning at every level.

It is my hope that as we work our way along the Instructional Rounds pathway, when asked the question "What makes Mrs. Smith such a great Math teacher?" by a colleague, I will be able to more adequately describe the correlates of good teaching so that they can be spread beyond the walls of a single classroom.

Friday, November 2, 2012

You Do Not Have My Full Attention

This morning, I read yet another piece about the commonly held believe that 'young people are more distracted by technology'.

"...There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks, according to two surveys of teachers being released on Thursday.
The researchers note that their findings represent the subjective views of teachers and should not be seen as definitive proof that widespread use of computers, phones and video games affects students’ capability to focus.
Even so, the researchers who performed the studies, as well as scholars who study technology’s impact on behavior and the brain, say the studies are significant because of the vantage points of teachers, who spend hours a day observing students...."
This article was nested in another article asking for students to comment on whether they were distracted by technology.

This dialogue reminds me of a scene from The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg is asked by a lawyer whether or not the lawyer "has the attention" of the Facebook mogul:



I don't find this question of whether people are more distracted by technology to be very difficult.  THEY ARE MORE DISTRACTED.  But more specifically, we are all more likely to be distracted by things that are changing, dynamic, or more interesting and engaging than what we are currently doing.

At the most basic level, as a former PE teacher, when I was addressing my class in the gym to show them a new skill, I made sure that I stood against a solid wall and the class faced me while I was speaking.  This was instead of them sitting against the wall and looking  right past me at the other PE classes that were in the weight room or on the mezzanine.  It is natural to be distracted!

We need to stop judging 'young people' and their being distracted, having short attention spans, or whatever other denigrating phraseology we can come up with about them being less engaged in classrooms across North America.

Why?  I am an educator, and I love to learn.  Like most of us, I read hundreds of articles and blogs every month, go to dozens of PD sessions, and gaggles of meetings and presentations--an education geek to say the least.  However, you do not have my (nor many of my colleagues, I would guess) full attention at a meeting or presentation if:
  • you are minimally prepared (and we can tell)
  • you are reading from a Powerpoint
  • you are giving me information that I could have read in an email or a memo
  • you are lecturing for more than 3-5 minutes at a time
  • you are not maximizing the number of interactions that I can have in the room, either with you, my peers, the material that we are working with
If you aren't doing some, many or all of these things (depending on the context) I have a great smartphone, and I am going to be checking my email, looking at my Google Reader, having a peek at a chat on Twitter, looking at my calendar to see what else I have on the go, checking the weather....on and on and on.  And I am an education geek who wants to learn from you.

So my question is, why would we EXPECT the full attention of our students?  To that end, as a Principal, if I have the most boring and least engaging staff meeting prepared for my teachers (and we are working hard NOT to do this), why would I expect the full attention of my staff?  And it doesn't matter about technology.  Before, it was doodling, passing notes, daydreaming.  Now we (and by 'we', I include adults and students) just have a different distractor.

But regardless of my great smartphone, if you
  • are over-prepared (and we can tell)
  • have a Powerpoint with pictures and videos and interesting dialogue
  • are giving me information that I need to have
  • are lecturing for more than 3-5 minutes at a time but have different bits of multimedia (sights, sounds, pictures, things to touch and manipulate) that stimulate a number of my senses
  • you are maximizing the number of interactions that I can have in the room, either with you, my peers, or the material that we are working with through things such as literacy strategies like Bank On It, Socratic Circles, GOSSIP, and others 
I am engaged.  My phone is in my pocket.  And if you are into it, and using interactive technologies that allow me to contribute (like a Google Doc), vote or give feedback (like Polleverywhere, or Socrative), or find songs or take pictures to tell a story....well, I am SO in, and my phone is now a tool for learning.  And kids will be in as well.  They won't seem 'more distracted', and it will be because of what WE do or don't do, not because of their access to technology.

Collectively, we have an obligation to engage those that we are teaching or working with.  To simply blame technology for students being 'more distracted' is both limp and counterproductive.  And by adopting this mindset, we will never succeed in getting the 'full attention' of anyone.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Innovation and a Hard Head

Last night, I was flipping through the channels and happened across the movie Moneyball.  I had seen the movie before, and in fact had written a blog about it several months ago called Moneyball and Education. However, I tend to watch movies more than once, and even though it was about half way through, I decided to tune in for the last 45 minutes.

Near the conclusion of the movie, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is being interviewed by Tom Werner, one of the owners of the Boston RedSox. Werner is trying to woo Beane to Boston:  he believed that the revolutionary (and highly controversial and opposed) way that Billy Beane was using statistical research rather the more traditional 'eye of the talent scout' and 'gut feeling' approach taken in the past. While the clip starts out with a bit of a tour of Fenway Park (which is of special interest to me), the part that really struck me begins right around the two minute mark:



Specifically, the piece where Tom Werner refers to the struggles that Beane was having with the traditionalists in Baseball and says:

"I know you're taking it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall....he ALWAYS gets bloody.  It's a threat.  Not only to the way of doing business, but a threat to the game.  Which ultimately is a threat to their livelihood.  Their jobs.  They way that they do things."

Over the past six years that I have been at my school, we have made numerous changes.  We have changed our timetable.  We have introduced collaborative time for our teachers.  We have created invitational tutorial time.  We have made directive intervention time. We have confronted and changed grading practices, and provide students with multiple opportunities to meet learning outcomes.  We have changed the way we approach school improvement plans.  We have created free wi-fi.  We have unblocked social media sites.  We encourage BYOD.  We are changing faculty and leadership team meetings.  We are changing our library to a learning hub.  And there are still more things that we will look at in the future.

Some would believe that these changes are for the better.  Some would think that the changes have had little impact on our school.  And some would think that these changes have made our school sub-standard in comparison to what it was in the past.  But regardless of the perceptions of the impact of these changes, one thing is for sure: change is not easy, especially if there are not instant results to help ameliorate some of the challenges come with change. Examining and confronting 'the way we do things around here' can cause a great deal of angst and dyspepsia, even for highly supportive people in our organization. And I have seen it first hand.

As much as I am proud of the changes that we have made, I look back at the way that I went about engineering some of those changes early on in my time at our school with regret.  I could have done things differently, and more specifically, I could have done things better.  I could have went slower.  I could have done a more thorough job of creating meaning and a sense of urgency.  I could have involved more people.  I could have listened more and spoken less.  Hindsight has provided me endless opportunities to fret about and reflect upon what I could have done better.  To borrow from Tom Werner, I might not have went 'first', but I went through the wall early with some of the things we did.  I took it in the teeth whenever there was a negative that could be attributed to the changes that were made.  I definitely got bloody. 

But that's change, isn't it?  I have read more books and articles on change than I care to remember.  Different ideas from theoreticians and practitioners, from colleagues and from my PLN.  Building trust.  Developing relationships.  Engaging stakeholders.  Creating urgency.  Pressure and support.  There are so many phrases that go along with change.

But at the end of the day, I find change to be challenging.  Messy.  Controversial.  But then it happens, and we adapt. And as much as I wish that I could have done a number of things differently, over the last 6 years we have changed.  And I believe in the changes that we have made, because our students are more successful than they ever have been.  Our high achieving students still achieve at a high level, and our promising learners are more engaged and successful than they ever have been.  And I believe that as a staff, we have grown together through the changes.  I know that I have learned much from our teachers--I always learn from our teachers.

In the end, I guess what I appreciate about Billy Beane and the concepts of sabermetrics that he took from Bill James and adopted for his team is that he knew it would be challenging.  Messy.  Controversial.  He got bloody.  But in the end, he stuck with it, his team adapted, and now, so has all of baseball.  Because it was the right thing to do.

Change is difficult, but if we stay focused on the idea that the innovation that we are advancing is sound in its rationale and research and ultimately the right thing to do, I think it makes our collective foreheads a little bit harder for when we hit that wall similar to the one that Beane did in Moneyball.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Don't Get In To Classrooms Enough? Create 'Windows'!

"I wish I could get into classrooms more than I do right now".

While likely not a hundred percent of administrators, I am sure that most Principals and Vice-Principals have had this phrase pass through their lips at one point or another during the course of their career.  With the demands of student dealings, teacher questions, parent conferences, meetings with district personnel, break and lunch supervision, and the seemingly endless avalanche of paperwork that falls on to their desks, administrators can easily be crushed under the weight of day-to-day operations in their schools.  I am not complaining--it's just a reality sometimes.  Like many teachers and administrators in education, I often find myself creating a 'to-do list' before the day starts, and by the time the day ends, I not only have accomplished exactly none of my must-do tasks for the day, I actually have a few new ones tacked on.  And suddenly getting into classrooms, one of my favourite and most important pieces of my job as an administrator, falls off of the side of my desk.

But there are some different ways that I try to 'get into the classroom' that don't involve my physically being there.  I can do some things later in the evening, once my kids have gone to bed.  One of these ways I try to create a 'window' into the classrooms of our 80 teachers is through reading and providing feedback on the syllabus for their courses, or course outlines.  "Course outlines?", you say, "Aren't they those boring one sheeters that tend to be the first thing to rip out of a student's binder?  No one pays attention to those.".  I grant you that in the past, I might have agreed with that.  However, that was my fault.  I rarely looked at them unless there was some sort of issue in the classroom, and I certainly never discussed them with the teacher.  But four years ago, I decided that if I was going to request them, and teachers were going to go through the effort of doing them, they deserved my feedback.

I believe that course outlines need to serve a number of purposes for students and parents:
  • They need to inform the student and the parent, in student-friendly language
    • the specific skills and outcomes that they will have learned by the end of the course
    • the methods by which the outcomes will be evaluated
    • the supports and interventions that will be in place should they struggle with learning those outcomes
    • the means by which students can accelerate should they master the outcomes
  • They need to detail a communication protocol with the student and the parent that demonstrates frequent, two-way dialogue
    • with the teacher's email provided, and the parent's email sought so that asynchronous communication can take place, rather than the dreaded 'telephone tag'
    • with an indication of regular progress updates to regularly inform students and parents about how a student is meeting the learning outcomes of the course
    • with suggestions about how parents can be positively involved in supporting their student.
  • They need to get the student and the parent excited about the course!  I like to think that we never see our courses as 'mandatory'.  We should approach our courses as electives, where we are 'marketing' our course to students in a way that gets them pumped up and engaged before they even start the class!
But course outlines also serve several purposes for me in terms of starting a conversation with the teacher in a number of areas:
  • Learning Outcomes:  By looking at the outline and outlines of other members of a department, I can start the conversation with the teacher about whether they have used collaboratively agreed upon outcomes for their course that will prepare students for success at subsequent levels of that subject area.  We can talk about designing down and scaffolding.  We can discuss the concept of assignments versus outcomes.  We can look at how the outcomes that they have listed match up with not only the department, but with the curriculum guidelines laid out by the provincial government.  We can look at the number of outcomes that the teacher is trying to cover.  We can discuss resources that will help them engage their students.  We can dialogue about 'struggle points'--those outcomes that students tend to struggle with and ways to ameliorate those problem areas to ensure student success.
  • Assessment Practices:  The course outline indicates how students will be assessed.  When reading the outline, I can start a conversation about assessing by outcome/skill rather than assessment tool.  It is always a lively discussion when we chat about 'tests worth 60%' rather than 'oral expression skills worth 40%, written language expression worth 40%, etc' in a language course.  Or to talk about the '40% Term 1, 40% for Term 2, 20% Final Exam' model versus a model that recognizes that students learn at different rates.  Or about toxic grading practices such as late marks.  We can also talk about how the staff member uses the assessments that they give to students to inform their practice.  These are just a few of the endless rich conversations that can take place around assessment.
  • Interventions and Accommodations:  By looking at the course outlines, I can get a sense of how our teachers ensure student success.  Whether it is through methods that they have created to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate outcomes, or if it is utilizing one the many mechanisms in our timetable, I can work with the teacher to help them support the students who learn at different rates in their classrooms.
And these are just some of the conversations we can have!

Much like our staff does with our students, I like to give guidelines for our teachers to work with each June when they are preparing their course outlines for the following year.  I use this Course Outline Checklist as a set of statements for teachers to reflect upon their outlines and modify them for the next school year.  At the beginning of our semesters in September and February, I collect the outlines, and try to give feedback on them in the first few weeks of the year.  I use the same form to give feedback (here is a sample), as well as making comments and using colors to indicate strengths and areas for improvement. 

With 80 teachers, many of whom teach different courses in multiple departments, this process can take a long time. Furthermore, many of our staff members have created their own blogs, which takes the course outline to another level, and I love giving feedback on those as well, but not all of our teachers are there yet.  But the conversations that I can have with our staff as a result of their course outlines can be incredibly rich and worthwhile.  Not a visit to the classroom, I grant you, but certainly meaningful nonetheless.

In the final analysis, if you (like me) feel like you are not in classrooms as much as you like, take the opportunity to create your own 'windows' into classrooms.  You will be pleasantly surprised at what you see!


Monday, October 15, 2012

Being Connected Doesn't Matter

It is coming up to the two year anniversary of when I decided to 'get connected'.  In October of 2010, I attended the 21st Century Learning Conference in Chicago.  Two weekends after I returned, I decided to go "all in".  I got on to Twitter.  I began a personal blog. I created a LiveBinder account.  I began to use Diigo.  I found an application that synced all of my stuff to my Google Drive in the cloud. I was using Screenr and Jing.   I tried other things such as Gett and Dropbox.  Polleverywhere seemed like a cool thing. I began to create all sorts of different things in Google Docs. I'm on Facebook.  I connect to people with Google Plus.  I host chats.  I give Elluminate sessions.  And now, let's be honest, I am hooked UP.  (Drip, drip...sarcasm). 

With my decidedly Canadian accent (or at least that's what I have been told--I don't believe it), I could puff my chest out and say..."Pretty impressive, eh?".  I could, I guess.  But I won't.

I think that we need to be cautious when we "get connected".  I believe that it is pretty easy to feel an air of superiority, of being 'more enlightened' than our colleagues who have yet to connect.  In fact, I find that the tone of some chats on Twitter, a number of blog posts, and other online spaces can have a pontificating and even condescending tenor surrounding them because of their being 'hooked up'.  A teacher who is not connected is becoming less relevant.  An administrator who is not connected can't possibly innovate in this exponentially-changing society.  An @ in front of your last name means more than the letters that come after it.  It's as though they have seen the light, and those who are less or disconnected are completely in the dark.

Well, I am a person who is somewhat 'connected'.  Not nearly as 'connected' as others, but definitely connected.  And as 'connected' as I am, I firmly believe in one thing:

I believe that being connected doesn't matter.*

There are outstanding teachers that develop positive relationships with their students and parents, create engaging lessons that maximize interactions between students, and have tremendous skills in developing creativity, critical thinking, collaborative skills, and any number of 'c's that we can think of.  And they don't know a Twitter account from a Blockbuster membership.

There are excellent administrators that create dynamic cultures of inquiry and reflection in their buildings, that engage partners in the process of student learning, that flatten out hierarchies and demonstrably support teachers and students in all facets curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  And to them, a Google circle is something that Mrs. James used for reading in the Kindergarten class.

They are certainly better than I am at what they do.  They may even be better than you.  And we need to be very careful when we begin to judge educators on their degree of 'connectedness'.  If you are on your high horse because you are more connected than someone else you know, I cordially invite you to get off.

Because being connected doesn't matter as an educator.  Not one bit.  There are many 'disconnected' educators that are continuously reflecting upon and finding new ways to meet the needs of their students and teachers simply because they want to do so.  They are introspective, and have the humility to admit that they don't know all of the answers.  They are courageous, and are willing to start things that need to be started, and perhaps more challenging, they are willing to confront and stop practices that need to be stopped.  They consistently ensure that they have the student at the center of the work that they do.  You don't get that from having a Twitter account.

Back to my asterisk...

*Where being connected absolutely matters is when you DO something with the knowledge that you have gained from your Personal Learning Network.  If you think that being simply being on Twitter makes you a better administrator, a better teacher, I disagree.  It is my feeling that is you are connected to a PLN,  you should be able to demonstrate HOW it has made you better.  Others should be able to articulate how you have become better at what you do.  Your students, your parents, your teachers, your colleagues--each of them should have seen some tangible difference in your practices or the way things are done in your school.  Whether it is something that you have learned from a colleague about altering the way you assess a lesson, or using a web tool to do something more efficiently, having a PLN makes you better when you actually do something differently.  Simply having a Facebook account and being on Google Plus does not make any of us better than anyone else.

For people who are connected:

  1. Being connected affords us access to an infinite number of ideas about all things education. We have a responsibility to use this knowledge to make positive changes for the learners in our schools. If we are reading and collaborating and learning about different pieces of assessment, instruction, and curriculum, we need to take the bits that fit and apply them in our own learning situation.  DO something, don't just talk about it.
  2. Looking down upon people who are not connected is both rude and counterproductive.  It is about what you DO, not what you are connected to.  And what is worse, someone who is disconnected and is not changing their practice, or someone who IS connected and is not changing their practice? Something to consider.
One day in the not too distant future, Twitter will be gone and Facebook will be a thing of the past, replaced by the next thing that kids find cool and we adults later occupy.  Regardless of the platform or technology, for me it will never be about how or what we are connected to, it will be how we USE this connectivity to make us better at improving learning in our schools.

At the point at which we move from knowing to doing, only then does our being connected truly matter.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Co-Creating Staff Development

Recently, I wrote a post called "Owning Staff Meetings" in which I detailed the process by which we are trying to increase the engagement of our staff in our faculty meetings.  From that process, we determined the format of our staff meetings for 2012-2013.

Pre-Meeting:  We ensure that any information that can be communicated through email is put into a Google Doc for staff meeting information (we call this SMINFO) to be read prior to the meeting or at another time.

Good News: We chose to make sure that we start with a staff member collecting good news from around the school over the previous month.  (This month, our School Improvement Leader also took the time to introduce Wallwisher to our staff so that teachers can add notes of encouragement or congratulations to each of us in real time at staff meetings).

Collegial Conversations:  This is second to last piece of our meeting in which staff votes on a topic (this month with a show of hands, next month using Google Forms so that staff can again touch technology) for a whole-group discussion governed by meeting norms created by all staff members and in a circular format derived from our work with socratic circles .

Reflection: We then chose to finish each staff meeting by reflecting on what we have learned and our conduct towards another so that we can improve for the next meeting.

But one of the largest pieces that we make sure that we include in our staff meetings is Staff Development. We get into Staff Development right after Good News so that people are fresh and energized for the activities that we want to work through.   Staff development during staff meetings can often be seen as a departure from the norm of 'traditional' staff meetings.  People are tired at the end of their day of teaching, and without proper planning and a concentrated effort to make the improvement of teaching and learning a co-created endeavor, staff development can be seen as a disconnected add-on to an already busy schedule for staff members and administrators.

At our school, we have a School Improvement Leader and Learning Coach (who is the same person - @edubuemann - a must follow) who works directly with me to find and implement methods to improve teacher achievement and student learning.  It is my belief that we will improve student achievement through our collective, continuous improvement as educators.  However, if I truly believe in this improvement, I know I need to tangibly demonstrate that I value continuous educator improvement.  Through the creation of the SIL/Learning Coach, and dedicated time to Staff Development (along with our Collaboration Time Model), I feel that we are moving in a positive direction.  Each month, the SIL spend hours together planning our staff activities so that they are meaningful and match the demands of departmental and school-wide goals.  But one thing we knew for sure, if the Staff Development portion of the staff meeting was going to be successful
  • it needed to be 'threaded' to be effective--the research is clear that any sort of teacher or staff development must be at least 14 hours in order to effect change--this meant 'one off', one-time 'flavor of the month' staff development was out
  • it needed to have the staff's footprints all over it in terms engagement through co-authorship and ownership.
One of the cornerstones to effective teacher practice is good assessment.  It is my belief that if we find creative ways to assess to help us learn students' strengths and areas for improvement while using student feedback to inform our practice, we will become better in our curriculum design and instruction.  As a result, the area for Staff Development for this year is going to be around Assessment.  However, we have teachers of differing strengths and areas of interest when it comes to learning about varied types of assessment.  So, in order to tailor-make Staff Development in Assessment for this year, we began by reading an article on 8 Big Ideas of Assessment by Damian Cooper.  However, we didn't just want staff to read it, we wanted to introduce them to a literacy strategy while they were reading it.  So, we used "Bank on It", a literacy exercise that staff could use not only read the article, but to have an immediate 'take away' to use in their classrooms.  We then started brainstorming topics that we wanted to learn about around assessment by using a small groups, a Google Doc, and a basic focus question:

"If you were walking in the front door of a conference on Assessment, which topics would you want to go and see"

I used Jing to capture a screencast of the group collaborating on the Google Doc.  I was really happy to see the level of engagement in the activity, the comfort level with using a Google Doc, and ultimately, the tremendous number of ideas that staff generated for areas of focus for assessment.  But the ownership piece will not stop there.  This group of ideas will be taken to our leadership unit: the Coordinators from each department, our School Improvement Leader and our admin team will use Coordinators Meetings to develop mini-lessons on assessment that are applicable to staff in each subject area. 

I know that people are busy.  I know that people are tired at the end of a day of working with students and giving their all to their lessons.  But by valuing teacher achievement and student learning through the creation of time during faculty meetings to work together on staff development and co-creating threaded staff development units, I believe that we will continue to be successful in modeling learning and improving the success of our staff and our students.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Do You "Better the Ball"?

I don't try to hide it, I am a huge sports fan.  I like to play, I love to go to sports events, and our PVR is glowing red hot with games that I still need to watch.  I like watching almost any sport, but really love watching golf, college basketball and football, and Big 10 volleyball.

Recently, I was watching Nebraska play Penn State in volleyball, and the commentator kept using a phrase that stuck with me.  She kept talking about how the setter for Nebraska would "better the ball" that was given to her: if the pass to her was bad, she would turn the pass into a good play with her set.  If the pass was good, she would turn the play into something great, even spectacular, with her set.  She consistently made every effort to 'better the ball'.

I love this phrase because I think it has all sorts of applicability in education.  In each of our schools, I would guess that there are things about our job that are not ideal.  Maybe we envision a newer school.  Perhaps it is more visionary leadership from a Principal.  Maybe it is more money for better technology, more spacious classrooms, and to provide more choices for kids.  It could be for more committed students, teachers, administrators, or district staff.  We might see a less bloated curriculum.  It could be a combination of a few of these, or perhaps we are hoping or waiting for all of them.

But back to the analogy, in each instance that the setter for Nebraska gets a pass from one of her teammates, they are giving her the best pass they could have given at the time. The moment that pass leaves the arms of her teammate on a less than desirable trajectory, she has a choice. She can kind of jog after it, slop it up somewhere high in the air and hope that one of her hitters does something with it:  the pass was junky anyhow, so who would fault her?  Let's just try to get the ball over and hope the other team makes a mistake.

Or she could do something special.  She could sprint to the ball, get her feet set underneath it, square up and snap a laser out to one of her hitters, who now can surprise the other team. The opponents were expecting something sloppy and out of system, but now must deal with something precise and very much 'in' system.  They likely were not expecting someone to "better the ball".

I think it is very important for us to take a step back and realize that our situation is very much what we make of it.  If we choose to get mired down in all the things that are wrong in what we do and turn those in to barriers for us moving forward, I think the days would get very long and unsatisfying for each of is.  But if we try to "better the ball" ourselves, and find ways to empower those around us to see each "pass" (challenge posed to us by our students, staffs, facilities, resources, district staff, etc) as an opportunity to "better the ball", we can make the experience for ourselves and our partners something special.

So, "bettering the ball" is something I must continue to work to do.  How do you "better the ball" and empower others to do so with you?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Owning" Staff Meetings

I have been to a lot of meetings in my career.  Some of them have been good:  they were well run, followed an agenda, gave authentic opportunities for multi-directional interaction, had a finite finish point, and left off with plans for future action.  Others have been not so good:  they seemed aimless, were dominated by a few speakers, provided little chance for dialogue, and gave excessive amounts of information that could have been communicated asynchronously for people to read at their leisure.  Try as I might have to come out of those sorts of meetings with a positive attitude, often times I struggled mightily to find any redeemable bits that I could take back to my own learning situation.

As a result, I have made a commitment to our staff to change our staff meetings now and in the future.  I had to think about how I wanted to approach this, and to do so, I brought our School Improvement Leader and one of our new Vice Principals (who has endured some of my staff meetings in the past) to help design an activity not to figure out how to make staff meetings more engaging, but rather to create an inquiry activity that would allow our staff collaborate together to collectively come up with ideas on how to increase staff engagement.  There were a few reasons for us to do it this way:
  • We want to continue to have or staff learn different techniques to effectively engage their students in class discussions
  • We want to continue to expose our staff to collaborative technologies that maximize engagement and interactions between participants
  • We want to get authentic staff input
  • We really don't know the answers to the questions that we were asking our staff about making effective staff meetings for our staff.
As the Principal, there are certain things that I need to have in a staff meeting.  But I want to make sure that our staff is an integral part of each of these elements so that they find our staff meetings meaningful and worthwhile.  In our staff meetings, I want
  1. A mechanism for disseminating information that can be read rather than taking time to read/announce items to the whole staff.  We created a Google Doc for SMINFO (Staff Meeting Info) that the staff can contribute to at their leisure.  I collate this just prior to the meeting and distribute it electronically for people to read on their own time.
  2. As a school of more than 1300 students with a relatively large faculty and two campuses, I want our staff to have a sense of community when they come to our staff meetings.  We bring food in, and have some time at the start of the meeting for us to socialize.
  3. With many external interests and a diverse collection of teams and clubs at our school, I want the staff to have a chance to socialize and share good news. Each year, we ask a staff member to be "Good News Girl" or "Good News Guy", and they poll the staff on a monthly basis for positive things that are going on around the campus.
  4. I want the staff to pass along good practices and new ideas that they are trying in their classrooms.  This month, one of our tech leaders discussed her use of Remind 101 to send homework and assignment notices to students and parents.
  5. I want to make sure that we have extensive blocks of time for us to reflect upon student achievement and improve our practices in teaching, learning, engagement and assessment.  With our Department Coordinators and Learning Coach, we will look at our next 9 staff meetings as an opportunity to create a staff development thread for continual teaching and learning growth.  This will be done through the lens our collaboratively developed dynamic School Improvement Plan blog.

But I have also recognized that our staff (and I would venture to guess the staffs of many schools) wants the opportunity to have an open forum to discuss day-to-day issues and solve problems that people are having around the school.  In the past, I have been reluctant to have these sorts of discussions.  In meetings that I have been to in past schools where issues are brought up in 'Town Hall' fashion, often times the discussions can get long-winded, be dominated by a vocal few, turn finger-pointy, and be unproductive.  But I know they are important conversations, and we needed to find a way to have our staff have their stamp on this part of the meeting that we are currently calling "Collegial Conversations".

For our activity, we came up with was a collaborative Google Document that asked three basic questions:
  1. How will we select and/or identify the topic for the Collegial Conversations portion of each staff meeting?
  2. How will we end the conversation?  What types of exit strategies do we need to have in place?
  3. How do we ensure that we leave each staff meeting on a positive note?   
It is always exciting to watch the staff collaborate in real time.  With laptops at each table, our staff was able to have their ideas from small group discussions recorded and projected on to a large screen so that other groups could build on those thoughts.  

In the end, we got some additional clarity on where we need to go with staff meetings for the future.  And while we still have a long way to go, we were able to give a voice to each of our staff members, to have them be active participants in both face-to-face and virtual discussions, to have them utilize technology to collaborate, and to take ownership over the opportunity to learn as a group in our monthly staff meetings.  

Overall, by providing ways to have our staff 'own' the elements of staff meetings, we believe we can make a more productive and engaging environment for all of us!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Eliminate Failure with "Flow"

As we are getting ramped up for the start of another school year in British Columbia, I have now shelved my John Grisham novels and Sports Illustrated magazines until next July.  Like many educators at this time of year, I have re-engaged in professional reading to get myself amped up for Day 1.  Last night, I finished Five Disciplines of PLC Leaders by Timothy Kanold, and found a number of parts that resonated with me, especially around the concepts of failure and engaging students through appropriate level of challenge.

Earlier this week, BC Principal John Tyler (@mrjtyler) sent out a tweet indicating that "Failure is not only OK, it is a necessary part of learning..." .  This evoked a number of comments from different educators (including myself) about the use of the term 'failure'.  I have long opposed the idea that 'failure' teaches students:  as a result, I have written a few posts about it ("If you could not fail" and "Failure doesn't teach kids, we do!") and truly believe that we need to teach kids resiliency skills through the use of appropriate levels of challenge rather than posthumously saying that failure is a necessary evil when students are unsuccessful in doing something for us. 

I like downhill skiing.  However, downhill skiing can be particularly intimidating for a novice.  As a new skier, had someone pointed me down a run with two large black diamonds and a name like "The Washing Machine" or "Cliffhanger" and said, "You are going to have to learn to ski moguls at some point!  Falling is just part of the process.",  I likely would have taken my skis off, walked down the mountain, and never attempted to ski again.  My exposure to skiing would have ended in abject failure. Even if they would have taken me to a steep blue run without moguls, I probably would have done the same thing.  But as a new skier, if they had taken me to a green run with a wide and gradual slope, and were there guiding me along the way, I would have found a level of challenge that would have suited me.  I would have been IN. (This is exactly what happened for me as a kid, and now The Washing Machine is not too bad). 

Adapted from "The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In Kanold's book, I found an image that helped me better visualize (and should help me better articulate) what I mean when I am speaking of the importance of an appropriate level of challenge for learners when it comes to developing a new skill.  This can apply to students in our classrooms, and for me as a building administrator, it can also apply to sessions when I am working with our staff on professional development.

Kanold states "to keep your teams (students) at a level of optimal performance, you must achieve the proper balance between their current knowledge and skill level and the level of complexity for the new task actions or challenges".  This makes so much sense to me.  We cannot put learners in a situation that is too difficult without the prerequisite skills.   They will struggle, feel that the task is beyond their ability level, become anxious, and once that anxiety level has gotten to a certain level of intolerance, learners will give up.  To me, this 'giving up' defines failure--failure occurs when we make learners quit.  Similarly, if we put learners into a situation that is not challenging to them, they will likely become bored and disengage in a relatively short period of time.  In this case, we also may have caused the learner to quit: this represents a different type of failure, but a failure nonetheless.

However, if we can get learners into the "Flow Channel' that Csikszentmihalyi and Kanold illustrate, we can truly engage them in the process of learning and executing the skill that we are teaching.   To me, getting into this Flow Channel requires a few things:

1)  A clear understanding of the skill that we want the learner to master, broken down into manageable checkpoints
2)  Understanding the ability level that the learner brings to the table (so we know the appropriate entry point to the skill)
3)  Frequent monitoring (so we keep the level of challenge in the flow channel)
4)  Constant feedback (so that we keep them moving toward the target)
5)  Freedom for the learner to develop their own meaning and explore their own ways to master the skill

Granted, looking at tasks in this way takes work.  But it is good work, and it is our responsibility to do so.  By considering the concepts around the Flow Channel, we can move learners through the skill acquisition process in a way that engages them fully, limits their anxiety and boredom, and ultimately reduces (and hopefully eliminates the 'need' for) failure.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Hot Tub" PLCs - Get out of the Way!

Several months ago, I wrote a post called The Pink PLC.  The purpose of this post was for me to try to find a way to marry Daniel Pink's concepts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that came from 'The Surprising Science of Motivation" with the tenets of the Dufour model of the Professional Learning Community.  An excerpt:

"Pink talks about a variety of things in this clip, but what truly resonated with me was his description of how a software company (Atlassian) gives their employees time to innovate and come up with different ideas.  To quote Daniel Pink on this concept-- "You probably want to do something interesting, let me get out of the way".  As Pink describes his own challenges with accepting this, I struggled with my not having a finger in all of the pies.  To completely 'get out of the way' was a challenge for me, mostly because I want to believe that I am not 'in anyone's way'.  I want to feel as though I am just an actively interested member of the team.  But looking at how things were going at that time with our Learning Community, I have to admit that I likely was 'getting in the way'.  As a result, I have made some changes to the way I approach collaborative time, and how we work together in our learning community.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Victoria vacationing with my family.  I love going to Victoria in the summer--it's a beautiful city with temperate weather, great restaurants, and great golf courses (the things near and dear to my heart).  We get to visit family, take the kids to Beacon Hill Park and the beach--it's just a great time and we do it every year.

On our last full day in Victoria, some very dear friends invited us to their cabin at Shawnigan Lake.  We loaded up the car, packed up the kids, and off we went.  When we got there, the weather was gorgeous and we took the kids down to the beach.  As our children are still very young, I was wondering how we could occupy the kids and keep them safe so near to the water.  We had their life jackets on of course, but our kids would love nothing more than to go diving in; fear is not really a part of their psyche at this point.  I had visions of Dad standing waist deep in the not-so-warm lake for most of the afternoon preventing minor disasters.

Our host (who has two children a few years older than ours) quickly grabbed a shovel, and began creating a game that he called "hot tub".  He dug a trench, made a small pit downstream of the trench, and told my four year old daughter, his six year old son, and his son's friend that they needed to make sure that when he poured water down the trench that none of it would flow over the top.  He told them he would come by every three or four minutes with a bucket of water.

As my daughter has little experience with "hot tub", I felt a compulsion to help get her started.  Give her a few fatherly tips, you know.  Our host quickly stopped me, and said "Just watch."

With very few words exchanged, the three of them began working on the structure.  My daughter began grabbing wet sand and putting it around the edge of the pit.  Sterling's son began digging the hole so that it was deeper.  And the friend began digging another pit farther up the trench, so that the effects of the bucket of water would be lessened.  After a while, my daughter went and grabbed a bucket, went down to the water, filled it up, and brought it back up to the trench to see what a bucket of water would do to their "hot tub".  When it made water flow over the walls, Sterling's son went and grabbed some more mud to make the walls taller, and his friend took over digging the pit out so that it was deeper.

With very little direction (but a very clear objective), the three of them worked interdependently toward the common goal of preventing water from spilling over the top of their hot tub.  They took the structure (the hot tub), tried some new modifications (building up the walls, digging out the hot tub, and making a smaller reservoir upstream), they collected their own brand of formative data (through seeing the effects of the water on their structure), and then went back and adapted their hot tub to make it better by ameliorating the weaknesses that they saw as a result of their trials with the water.

A couple of other points:
  • They were completely engaged.
  • They did this for 45 minutes without taking a break.  
  • They did it without any supervision or direction
  • The structure that they created withstood the "water test" four times
But maybe most importantly, when the water went over the edge and collapsed their structure after the fifth bucket, the three of them eagerly started all over again, and implemented parts (not all) of the original design that worked for them in the first place.

It made me realize that as a school leader (and as a father), it is important to clearly outline the objective for a collaborative group and parameters that surround the project (in this case, keeping the water in the structure and the five minute checkpoints).  However, once the project is in motion, it is likely just as important to back up and watch the flow of the creative juices that are brought to the project by the group. 

The strength of collaborative groups comes from the diverse knowledge and skill set that each group member brings.  If leaders (or dads) get over-involved with the project, the organic and creative dynamic of group can quickly be lost.  The leader (or dad) needs to be in the background ready to provide support, but needs to trust that the group that she or he has brought together is competent and will come up with solutions to the problem at hand.  Ultimately, there are times when I need to remember to get out of the way of my collaborative groups

It is truly amazing what one can learn from a kids' game of "hot tub" on the beach!