Friday, November 25, 2011

Move from the Common to the Diverse

It has been more than a year since I entered the Twitterverse.  After attending the 21st Century Learning Conference in Chicago in October of 2010, I threw myself into the social media mix, and I could not be happier for it.  I tell anyone who will listen that developing a Personal Learning Network on Twitter is perennial professional development at your finger tips, 365 days per year.

Last week, I participated in #edchat like I usually try to do for at least a few minutes on Tuesday mornings (depending on what is coming through my door).  I really enjoy connecting with fellow learners in education, and I have a great deal of respect for each of the individuals who is willing to make public their thoughts and opinions on educational matters.  Last Tuesday's chat was a philosophical one on 'the skills that we want to our children to have' when they leave the K-12 system.  But as the chat progressed, I found myself beginning to get a bit frustrated with the ethereal comments that we (and I include myself in this--I made a few nebulous comments as well) were making as a group.

We say it all...

"we need to teach students to be lifelong learners"
"we need our children to be lovers of learning"
"students must be hungry for knowledge"
"our children need to be positive contributors in a connected society"

As these sorts of tweets were speeding by, I found myself beginning to wonder whether these comments are becoming esoteric.  I came to this revelation because I feel like I am completely immersed in the field of education, and I don't know what some of these comments actually mean.  Perhaps to be more fair, I find myself being one of the many that are starting to say "That sounds great! I am totally in!", followed by a long pause and then "Hmmm. OK, how we do this?".

Without a great deal of empirical data, I feel as though I am starting to see a trend on Twitter.  When I first started with my Twitter account, I found myself spending hours each night watching perspectives on what needs to change in education, listening to philosophies around motivation, teaching pedagogy and closing achievement gaps, and finding snippets describing the types of learners that we need to create here in the 21st Century.  I would share these clips with our teachers, with fellow administrators, and my PLN with verve and alacrity. I enjoyed (and still enjoy revisiting) these clips, and they have shaped my vision of education as I move forward with our school.

But over the last 14 months, I find myself yearning for the practical aspects of some of these constructs for education.  For the first steps.  For some promising practices that will lead us where we want and need to go.  For stories of both 'we tried this and it worked', as well as 'we tried this and we blew it' (I have an infinite amount of respect those who can be vulnerable and admit that what they did was a total flop).  Not a magic bullet, but maybe a holster and some gunpowder.  A start.

I find that I don't open the links of educational philosophers as much as I used to.  I still like the 'big picture' ideas, but I find myself more interested in that teacher, that Principal, or that Superintendent who is telling me how it is going in their class, in their school, or in their district.

I have spoken to a number of fellow PLNers about this trend that I am seeing in my own Twitter use, and I found that many of them are feeling the same way.  They are "totally in" to the ideas of educational reform, but are finding that they really want to connect with people who are "doing it".  They too are following the 'big names' less and the 'people on the ground' more.  I wonder if this is in fact a trend for tweeters in educator circles.

Back to my #edchat last Tuesday.  Armed with my 'esoteric' revelation, I tweeted that I thought we needed to get more concrete in what we were talking about.  At that point, one of my mentors (and someone you should absolutely follow) Bruce Beairsto (@bbeairsto) responded:

As usual, Bruce found the eloquent and sensible way to say what I was trying to describe during #edchat.  It's not that we shouldn't always remember and be refreshed with the WHY, we need to follow that up with the HOW.

In my estimation, the value in creating a Professional Learning Network comes from tapping into your PLN's diverse set of experiences, skills and knowledge.  While at certain points it is important for me to get reaffirmation that what I am doing is the 'right thing' to do, I am finding that it is more important to be challenged and pushed by my peers.  Challenged not only through discourse on educational topics and philosophy, but through the actions of others and turning those actions, possibilities and start points into actions which can be implemented into my own learning situation.

Right now, there are three things in education that are making me insatiably curious and wanting to move from the (as Bruce would say) common 'WHY we should do this' to the diverse 'HOW we can make this work in our own situation':

1) The West Vancouver School District and their latest initiative to improve digital literacy --the student dashboard.

They created an in-district portal for students in grades 4 to 12:  students have their own internal instant messaging, access to district email, personal blog space, digital storage, calendar, announcements feed, and other tools. Very cool--we need this.

2) New Report Card Format - Parkland School Division (Alberta)- I have looked at our current method of formal reporting to parents, and I believe there are many things that we can do to better inform students and parents of progress in their classes.  PSD has taken a big step forward with their template, and I believe that we have an opportunity to learn a great deal from their approach to reporting to improve communication with our educational partners.

3) Finland.  In the last several months, there seems to a be a flood of information about Finland and they amazing education system that they have created.  As a result, I have connected with a number of Finnish Principals, including Timo Ilomaki (@ilotimo), Aki Puustinen (@apuustin), and Kari Rajala (@KariRajala).  There is so much talk about what's happening in Finland with education that I thought why not just ask them?  Connecting with educators world wide and getting ideas--that is as good as it gets!

I am looking forward to continuing to connect with other educators that are diverse and of 'the HOW'.  From my position as a Principal, I am realizing that I need to make sure that while I read research and theory and talk to many about the WHY, and I need to maintain and dig in to the logistics and practicalities of HOW for our staff.

I need to continue to move from the common to the diverse.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Moneyball and Education

Like many of my colleagues in education, I tend to do a lot of professional reading during the school year.  At breakfast, I usually load up Tweetdeck and peruse articles and blogs over coffee and a bowl of cereal.  I try to participate in at least one online education chat over the course of the week.  Most evenings I will find a few more posts on blogs that I follow.  And before bed, I usually thumb through a few pages (sometimes 'pages' turns to 'page', depending on whether my little ones got up during the previous night) of a book that I have on the go.  During the summer, my evening book might be a John Grisham, a Tom Clancy, or a Robert Ludlum, however, I tend to move to more academic titles from late-August to June.

In the past few weeks, I have had less of this academic focus for my reading, as my latest two books on the go are Scorecasting and Moneyball.  Being an avid sports fan and a lover of trivia, statistics, and numbers, each of these books have satiated my appetite for the quantification of talent in sport.

As baseball fans know, there are statistics kept on EVERY aspect of baseball.  Hits, runs and errors.  Batting averages, fielding percentages, and earned run averages. Pitch counts, home runs, and RBIs.  Batting averages during the day, at night, in domes, and outdoors.  Batting success against left handed pitchers versus right handed pitchers. And the list goes on and on and on.

Moneyball details the surprising success of the Oakland Athletics in the 2002 using less conventional and more analytical scouting techniques to pick players for their team.  More specifically, it describes how their general manager used oft-overlooked statistics as a predictor of success for a batter in Major League Baseball.  Prior to the A's in the 1990s, major league scouts would go to little league games, college games and minor league games to watch prospects coming through the system. While a few statistics like batting average, home runs, stolen bases might be a part of the process of evaluating a player, a great deal more weight was put on the impressions of the scout. As a result, the players that would garner the highest recommendations (and subsequent salaries) would be those players who met criteria that were based upon the scout's own knowledge, wisdom and experience in scouting players.  In the face of this 'conventional' scouting, the Oakland A's found that two statistics (on-base percentage and slugging percentage) were often overlooked yet highly effective in predicting offensive success for a hitter in baseball.

This use of data and metrics to predict success helped Oakland have a tremendously successful year in 2002 (which included 20 straight victories) with one of the lowest payrolls of any major league team.  So successful was this concept that the lexicon phrase "the team plays 'Moneyball'" has been coined by baseball pundits to refer to those teams who rely heavily on these metrics in making organizational decisions.

Education is not baseball, of that there is no doubt (I would notice the hotdogs here at the school for certain).  Regardless, I began thinking about how elements this book could apply in education, specifically in teaching and education administration.  Data-driven improvement has been a popular concept for many years, but I am not thinking so much about that as I am trying to determine in my own mind THE characteristics of administrators that lead to school success.  THE characteristics of teachers that lead to student success.   To use the Moneyball analogy, what is that "On Base Percentage" equivalent that can help predict success for administrators?  What is that "Slugging Percentage" equivalent that can help predict success for teachers?

When we visit a classroom, we might observe the teacher and their students for a few minutes and walk out saying "That was good teaching!".  Someone could walk into a school and chat with an Administrator for a half hour and say "She really has it going on, what a great Principal."  But how do we REALLY know?  How are we determining this?  Is it by 'feel' (much like the traditional scouts in Moneyball)?  Is it by 'the numbers', like Billy Beane and the Oakland A's?   Or is it a combination of both, and if so, what should weigh heavier in terms of determining our success in our classrooms and schools?

Several months ago, I wrote a post called "Research: The Educational BS Repellent" about the work of John Hattie in his book Visible Learning.  It is an incredible collection of meta-analyses of the research on over 100 factors that influence student achievement in our schools.  After reading the book (and re-reading it a couple of times), I realized that much like the traditional scouts described in Moneyball, I had preconceived notions of what comprises effective educational practice in classrooms and schools.  Yet after reading the meta-analyses of the meta-analyses (yes, Hattie's book is that comprehensive), I came to the conclusion that in many instances, I have to check some of my beliefs at the door and open my mind when I walk into classes at our school.

In light of the talk of teacher evaluation that is making its way around education circles (and administrator evaluation, I would hope),  it is important for us to work with educators and partner groups to collectively  find those key characteristics that translate into student and school success.  However, when working with our partner groups, it is important to make sure that we temper our feelings and beliefs about teaching and administration with some Moneyball/Hattie-like data that helps us determine effective practices that will truly benefit our students.

If we can work some of the concepts from Moneyball into schools, I can only hope that the hotdogs aren't far behind!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Like Little Kids

Hallowe'en is always a neat time of year for me.  It brings back my own memories of costumes and candy and cold weather, running from house to house with a pillow case full of treats, and getting home and dumping out the bounty on the kitchen floor and making trades with my older brother for the 'good candy'. (Loved those Charleston Chews...).  With my two young children, getting them all dressed up in their costumes, taking them around and hearing them say "Trick or Treat" (and 'thank you' afterwards...very cool), and watching their eyes bug out at the amount of candy in their little pumpkin-shaped buckets makes my heart swell with pride.  Great Dad moments...

But aside from my own children, one of the neatest things for me to see as the Principal of our school is catching kids being 'kids'.  At our school, a huge group of students came in on the Sunday prior to and early Monday morning of Hallowe'en to decorate our hallways (and the Principal's Office!) with ghouls, goblins, blood, body parts, webs and witches.  We had our annual costume parade with staff members dressed like Jimi Hendrix and Gene Simmons, and students in every costume imaginable.  The Hallowe'en Relay followed, and students were bobbing for apples, running through obstacle courses, and shrieking with laughter like little kids.

Like little kids.

As a coach, some of my greatest memories were not on the court, but rather on the bus with my teams.  Singing "Dancing Queen" as loud as we could in downtown Vancouver.  Having the "best animal sound" contest (my donkey was solid).  Making up rap songs. Listening to the team giggle like little kids when we would dress up the rookies (often the seniors would dress up too) would make me laugh so hard that I would have tears rolling down my cheeks. 

Like little kids.

At the end of the day on Hallowe'en, I reflected on how society wants to make our youth grow up so quickly:  we want students to be literate, numerate, highly involved, polite, hard-working, conscientious, socially responsible "mini-adults", and the sooner the better.  I find that I can fall into this mode of thinking far too frequently.  And yet a day like Hallowe'en makes me realize that we need to give kids time to breathe, to play, to let loose, and to be able to laugh. 

Like little kids.

And yet as I left the office at the end of the day, there were two unbelievable Grade 12 students who stayed behind to clean up the blood and webs and body parts and candy wrappers from a successful Hallowe'en celebration so that our custodians would not have an additional burden on their busy afternoon.  And as they were finishing, one of them turned to me and said "Thanks for letting us decorate the halls and your office today Mr. Birk!".

Like the adults they have grown up to be. 

It's Friday!