Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Why are we doing this?"

"Why are we doing this?"

The more I think about this, the more I am starting to believe that this is a question that we should endeavor to avoid being asked at all costs.  More specifically, if we are doing what we need to do in terms of engaging learners, it is a question that should never NEED to be asked. I think this applies to our students in our classrooms.  I think this applies to our teachers in our faculty meetings.  In fact, I think this applies to nearly every participator (administrators, parents, the public, whoever) in the education system.

Perhaps this seems lofty and ethereal.  And to this end, I can tell you without equivocation that I have had to explain 'why we are doing this' on dozens and dozens of occasions to students and to my staff.  And I can also tell you that the need for this explanation did not originate in any way, shape or form with the party that was asking "Why?" in these situations.  It was because I was trying to provide the right solutions rather than reframing my approach to ask the right questions.

As a leader in your school, perhaps you are looking at the math results at your school and they are not up to par.  Maybe you should look into the latest math remediation program coming out of a place like Alberta or Finland?

I might suggest there would be better ways to go about this.

You notice that your staff is struggling with differentiating instruction and assessment.  Perhaps you should bring in an expert on differentiation to do a set of threaded professional development sessions over the course of a year?

I wouldn't.

Maybe your success rates are high in certain classrooms and low in other ones.  How about implementing collaboration time so that teachers can get together and work on effective pedagogies, or starting Instructional Rounds so that teachers can observe themselves and each other in other classes?

Don't do it.

As much as a highly-regarded education system such as those in Alberta or Finland might have some tremendous math remediation program, or that having threaded and frequent professional development is highly effective, or that creating time for teachers to collaborate is research-based promising practice, I believe that these and other tried and true strategies will struggle to reach their maximum level of effectiveness if they are "brought in" as a silver bullet that will slay a problem.

The reason I feel this way is because in the past, I have made this mistake with initiatives.  I examined data at the schools I have been at.  I saw what I thought to be some of the areas for improvement.  I  read the books, blogs and the articles of those who have had similar issues.  And I attempted to implement many of the solutions that were suggested.

And as a result I also got a heavy dose of "Why are we doing this?".

Recently, I was accepted to attend Harvard University at the end of April to study Instructional Rounds.  One of the key ideas behind Instructional Rounds is the development of a "problem of practice". After reading this book, I have realized that the most important thing that I can do as a Principal is to help our school and our departments discover and develop "problems of practice".  Lee Teitel, one of the authors of Instructional Rounds in Education, characterizes the problem of practice in this way:

* it focuses on the instructional core.
* it is directly observable.
* it is actionable (is within the school/district's control and can be improved in real time).
* connects to a broader strategy of improvement (school, system).
* it is high-leverage (if you acted on it, it would make a significant difference for student learning).

But perhaps more importantly, the problem of practice is something that the school or departments  "are already working on or think they might need to work on".  It is "not a whim and does not emerge out of thin air.  It comes from data, dialogue, and current work" (City et. al, 2009).  So rather than jump straight in to some sort of 'math program', or bring in some sort of expert on differentiation, or create a new timetable that allows teachers to collaborate during the work week, it is much more effective to start by engaging the people who are working with the students in that learning situation to develop this problem of practice.

For example, starting with a couple of key questions to a given department such as 
  • What do you find is a major struggle point that students have in your area?
  • What makes you believe that this is an issue in your department?
  • Why are you interested in looking into this issue further?
  • What do you know about this issue?  Is there a historical context to this? Have you seen it before?
After considering these questions, brainstorming and looking at results (both quantitative and qualitative) a math department might come up with a problem of practice that looks something like this:

"When trying to solve word problems in junior math, not all of our students are able to apply what they have learned in their math lessons.  Some of the students are able to make connections between the lesson and the task they are to solve on their own, but more of them are not.  Teachers are not differentiating for the varying abilities of their students in their classes.
  • How do teachers determine what strategies will work with the different learners in their class?
  • What would all students know and be able to demonstrate from the math lesson that you see?"
From where I sit, by asking engagement-type questions such as those above and the subsequent collaborative development of a problem of practice, the examination of different strategies to ameliorate the issue suddenly takes on new meaning.  Instead of "Why are we doing this?", we have re-framed the question to be "If we want each of our students (regardless of ability) to demonstrate skill X after our lessons in math, how do we create differentiated lessons and assessments to ensure that this occurs?".

Now, perhaps one of the team members suggests that one of the pieces here could be increasing the capacity of the department in differentiation.  And if we don't have that capacity within our building or district, maybe we need to bring in someone to help us out over the course over the next couple of years.

Instead of "Why are we doing this?", we have re-framed the question to be, "When can we find some time to work on this as a collective?".

Maybe now, another team member suggests that we could look at something like creating time for learning teams to collaborate on their problem of practice, or find a way to have teachers observe other teachers and classes to see what is working in this area.

Instead of "Why are we doing this", we have re-framed the question to be. "Are there other jurisdictions who are having success with students in this area that we might be able to collaborate with?"

At this point, perhaps a team member has a connection or is aware of another school, district or jurisdiction that has positive math results (maybe a neighbouring district, or Alberta or somewhere we hear is doing well in this area) to see if they have anything to offer to our conversation?

In each of our schools we have bright and talented teachers.  These people have many good ideas, and are they are acutely aware of struggle points for students, and the areas where they need assistance as teachers.  By engaging them in the conversation and re-framing problems rather than looking right away to solutions, I believe we can dramatically reduce (and maybe nearly eliminate???) the question

"Why are we doing this?".

City, Elizabeth A. (Eds.) (2009) Instructional rounds in education: a network approach to improving teaching and learning Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard Education Press,


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