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 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.