Sunday, December 22, 2013

Someone Gave Me Homework...Now It's My Turn

So my Boston-based pal, Patrick Larkin has me all tied up in a chain-blogging task which obligates me to share 11 random facts about myself and then to answer 11 questions that he has asked. Not to mention, just the day before, my 'brother from another mother' Bill Ferriter did the same thing!  So, I need to do my homework, and get to work.  For me, it will be 11 Random Facts, and 22 Responses to questions from Patrick and Bill, followed by an invite to 11 bloggers to keep the madness alive--all in the name to get to know each of us a little bit better. Here goes!

My 11 Random Facts
  1. My real last name is Croatian and decidedly defunct of vowels - Brkjlacic (changed by my grandfather to 'Birk' about 65 years ago).
  2. My mom was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, hence my affinity for the Red Sox.
  3. I played and watched hockey for most of my young life, but now barely watch or play hockey at all, except if friends are playing.
  4. My wife and I watch "Love Actually" every Christmas holiday.
  5. I am a fine singer.
  6. My family would disagree with #5.
  7. I wake up at night thinking of cereal for breakfast at least four or five nights per week.
  8. I had hip replacement surgery last year, and likely will have the other replaced in the next five years.
  9. I've had a brief conversation with the #1 ranked golfer in the world in 2011 (Luke Donald).
  10. I get really excited to go to the United States, and hope to live there at some point in the future (for part of the year, at least).
  11. When the Masters Golf Tournament is on, everything else in my world stops.

Here are the questions from Patrick...
  1. Have you ever been to Massachusetts? When I was very young, and again last year when I was at Harvard and Fenway Park. Luckily, I will be back there twice in 2014. I actually believe I was meant to live in MA.
  2. What is your favorite sports team (college or pro)? The Red Sox
  3. Besides you, name a blogger that you would recommend to others.  David Culberhouse.  In New England parlance, "he's wicked smaat".  Jeff Delp would be a close second.
  4. When you were little, what did you dream of becoming?  True story, I actually thought I would be a rock star.  
  5. How far away do you live from where you grew up?  400 miles.
  6. What is your favorite meal?  Steak, but I have an affinity for smoky flavored ribs.
  7. If you were offered a free trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go?  Maui--got married there and can't wait to go back.
  8. Do you prefer Macs or PC's?  I like Big Macs, does that count?
  9. Other than the birth of your children and/or the day you were married or met your soulmate, what was the best day of your life?  December 20th, 2003.
  10. What is the best movie you've seen in the last year? Tough movies but none so great this year -- really looking forward to Lone Survivor in January!
  11. What is the last live concert that you've attended? U2 in 2010.

Here are the questions from Bill...
  1. Grande Soy Green Tea Frappuccino with Extra Whip or House Blend Black?  House blend black for sure--maybe a dash of cream.
  2. If you were going to write a book, what would its title be?  The Perks of Being A Principal
  3. Rate graphic novels on a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing “useless” and 10 representing “simply amazing.” If these are the Archie and Jughead variety, I would say "10".
  4. What member of your digital network has had the greatest impact on your professional growth?  Honestly, I'd have to say Bill Ferriter.  Chris Wejr would be right there as well, as would George Couros.  I think Simon Breakspear is going to have a huge impact on my thinking in the near future.
  5. How do you feel about the holidays?  Tremendous!  Love Christmas.
  6. Rate the following movies in order from best to worst:  Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated version).  Christmas Vacation is the only one of consequence for me, but my kids love the Grinch.
  7. What is the best gift that you’ve ever gotten?  When I was six I got a huge Death Star play set from Star Wars--loved the trash compactor with the foam bricks in it.
  8. If you had an extra $100 to give away to charity, who would you give it to?  Children's Hospital--seeing children hurting is heartbreaking.
  9. What are you the proudest of?  My family--they have really made the best of the shallow gene pool that I contributed to them :)
  10. What was the worst trouble that you ever got into as a child?  When my halo slipped off.
  11. What was the last blog entry that you left a comment on?  What motivated you to leave a comment on that entry?  One linked to my post "You're Just Not That Interesting"--I am passionate about the need to examine the way we teach and learn at conferences.

My 11 Questions for 11 others...
  1. Ketchup, salsa, or hot sauce?
  2. What is one thing that you are a part of (or believe in) that is 'bigger than you'?
  3. What do you do that is great?  Not 'good', GREAT.
  4. If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
  5. If you were a breakfast cereal, which one would it be?  How come?
  6. What is the one thing (outside of your family) that you absolutely make time for--no matter what?
  7. If ________ could be eliminated from your life, you would be stress-free.
  8. What is a talent that you have that would surprise those that think they know you well?
  9. If you were to give yourself a cool pen name or pseudonym, what would it be?
  10. Your favorite movie is?
  11. "If schools closed tomorrow, I would go and be a ____________?"
I will link to my 12 (one more because I can) people on Twitter, and hope they have not been tagged yet!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Do We Have Time To Be Cautious?

The improvised carbon dioxide scrubber aboard Apollo 13.
This morning, I stumbled across a very compelling video, called "Future Learning - A Short Documentary" (embedded at the bottom of this post).  Every couple of weeks, I find myself needing to see a clip like this to get re-calibrated and to take me 'outside of my school' in terms of my own thinking.

Within this quick movie, there were a number of snippets that resonated with me.  One of the most poignant bits was from Ntiedo Etuk, CEO at DimensionU, who described our current education system as having a "prove it before we put it out there" mentality in terms of what works or what does not in schools for kids.   This really made me think.  In a time when we are asking people to innovate, discover problems, and find divergent and sustainable solutions, I agree that often times we take on an arm-chair quarterback, "prove it to me, THEN (maybe) I will believe it" approach to new ideas.

I am guilty of this as well:  I have always felt that part of my position is to (as I call it) "see around corners" in terms of anticipating possible problems prior to their occurring.  As a result, there are times when I am more tentative and cautious than perhaps I should be when it comes to innovative solutions to issues that we might have in our school.  Yet each of has and will continue to encounter problems to which we don't have the solution.  Furthermore, the answer may just be something that is something so distal to our comfort zone it is nearly inconceivable for us to imagine.

Last Thursday evening, I watched the movie Apollo 13 for the first time.  Although I am a movie buff, this was one that I had simply missed for all of these years.  What a great film, and of course, one of the most gripping scenes in the movie was when the crew aboard Apollo was in danger of dying from toxic levels of carbon dioxide.  With only a very short period of time and three lives hanging in the balance, a group of engineers at NASA had to find a way to create a square-shaped carbon dioxide scrubber fit into a round hole using only the materials the astronauts could access on a space ship.  There were no other options.

While not nearly as dire but perhaps easier to relate to, the evening following my screening of Apollo 13, I was travelling with my family by car to Penticton.  Along the way about an hour into our journey, the engine light in our car lit up and the vehicle started to hesitate.  As luck would have it, this happened at 4:45PM on a Friday, just the perfect time for any tired and hard-working mechanic who was ready to go home to their family on the weekend.  Groan.  Two hungry kids, a car full of stuff, and my wife and I limping the car to the nearest mechanic;  we were in full problem-solving mode.

Of course these examples were very different in terms of the magnitude of the stakes (life or death versus the family being on time for dinner with friends), but in each of these situations the participants had an urgent situation where there was an immediate need to generate ideas that could lead to a solution.  Some of the ideas might be 'way out there' and zany, but the situation dictated that (to quote the movie) 'failure was not an option'. The more ideas, the better, and right now is not soon enough.

In Apollo 13, they gathered all the material that would be available to the astronauts on the space shuttle, bounced ideas all over the place, and finally came up with a solution that worked.  It had to work.  In 'Birk 13', we quickly thought of who we might need to call, where we might need to stay, which of the things in our car were essential and not-so-essential to take with us, and what we would do should we not make it to the automotive shop.  We brainstormed ideas, thought about who could help us best, made a couple of crazy suggestions, and landed on a solution--just like anyone would.  We problem-solved, and in the end it all worked out.  It had to work out.

Bearing these examples in mind, when I reflect upon why we tend to be more of cautious when it comes to innovation, or worse, be the arm-chair innovator that sits back and fires shots at the innovation balloons that pass by, I think the answer might be quite simple.  We are cautious and critical when we have TIME to be cautious and critical.  When time is of the essence and when the situation is urgent, we tend to welcome any and all ideas en route to a solution.

In my own position, I want to make the best decisions that I possibly can for our school given the information that I have available to me at any given time.  However, if I want to model and create and environment that doesn't require us to "prove it before we put it out there", I have to try and balance 'making the best decision with the given information' with an urgency to look at things in new ways because I may not HAVE all of the given information from down the road.  There are times when I have to compress timelines, get everyone together, ask the shortest question possible, and trust the idea that we will solve the problem.  We have to solve the problem.

And taking that to a macro level, in education, do we have time to be cautious?  Or is it time for us to implement some radically different approaches the learner, the curriculum, the tasks that we ask children to do, and all of the people that educate our young people?

Take 12 minutes and watch this video.  I am betting it will challenge your thinking much like it challenges mine. And I am thinking that we don't have time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Educating Educators

The backbone of the book "Instructional Rounds in Education” by City, Elmore, Teitel and Fiarmen what they call “The Instructional Core”.  The instructional core is defined as ‘the essential interaction between the teacher and the student in the presence of content”.  Within this instructional core is the task, which, when properly created, can tightly align that which we intend students to learn and what they actually learn as a result of doing this work.

Evidence-based based or not, we would be hard pressed to find an educator who doesn't feel that the learner has changed in the last 15 years.  Since the advent of the internet, mobile devices and the ability for students to connect to whatever they wish whenever they wish to, most educators would say that it has become increasingly challenging to engage students with the content in their classrooms.  This is somewhat debatable--we are making a broad assumption that, prior to this ‘instant connectivity’, students were truly engaged in their subject content in the first place.  However, without doubt, there are an abundance of readily available, highly-personalized learning opportunities and distractions to our students of today:  these often make the environment for the learner outside of the school markedly different than their experiences inside of the classroom.  Whether we like it or not, there are many differences in the students of today versus those in the 1990s.

In response and concurrently with the changes in our students, numerous educational jurisdictions are attempting to change their approach to curriculum to provide students and teachers with more choice and opportunities for individualization.  Consider the following:
  • In Finland: Finland’s use of school-based, student-centered, open-ended tasks embedded in the curriculum is often touted as an important reason for the nation’s success on the international exams. The national core curriculum provides teachers with recommended assessment criteria for specific grades in each subject and in the overall final assessment of student progress each year. Local schools and teachers then use those guidelines to craft a more detailed curriculum and set of learning outcomes at each school, as well as approaches to assessing benchmarks in the curriculum. According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students’ own reflection and self-assessment.
  • In British Columbia:   BC’s Education Plan states “while a solid knowledge base in the basic skills will be maintained, to better prepare students for the future there will be more emphasis on key competencies like self-reliance, critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, problem solving, innovation, teamwork and collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and technological literacy. We can also connect students more directly with the world outside of school, with increased focus on learning these skills across topic areas.
  • In Alberta: “Inspiring Education and Curriculum Redesign are pointing the way to a reimagined system that will empower Alberta’s young people to become the leaders of tomorrow in our communities, workplaces and society. It is about being innovative and creative about the ways we are using existing curriculum today and bringing the best parts of Alberta’s proud education legacy into a 21st-century context with our future curriculum to ensure that all learners have access to an excellent education that prepares them for a bright future.
And these are but three samples of dozens of cases of curriculum reform across North America and the world.  Curricula are changing to reflect the changing needs of students and demands of society.

So we see changes in the learner, and we see changes in the curriculum--but what about the other piece of this instructional core?   What about the educator?  In the seven principles of Instructional Rounds, City et al state “If you change any single element of the instructional core, you have to change the other two to affect student learning.”  This makes sense to me--if the learner changes, and the curriculum changes, we have to ensure that the skill set and in some cases even the mindset of educators (at all levels--teachers, administrators, and support services) changes commensurately.  If we have a new curriculum which calls for students to develop an understanding of the role of technologies in shaping and influencing society, clearly we would have to work with educators so they could learn some of these technologies and be able to apply this knowledge to use them to shape and influence society themselves.  If we expect the students to be able to demonstrate this skill, clearly someone needs to demonstrate it to them.  Clearly.

Or maybe not so clearly. Are we actually helping educators learn?  Are we creating mechanisms that deliberately and consistently allow educators to themselves become the experts that we want them to be?   And most importantly, are we creating the environments that are conducive to learning and teaching in ways that we know are best for adult learning?

If I look at this wordle that was recently created by a hundred or so educators at a PD session I hosted, I have some questions. From the prompt “Teachers learn best when…”,  the group responses were summarized here:

in combination with the idea that “we learn by doing”, and then subsequently reflect upon the learning opportunities we have with educators such as staff meetings, team leader meetings, collaborative meetings, district meetings, professional development days and conferences, I really don’t know.  I really don’t know if we are doing all that should help each of the educators at every level in our school systems move in a way or at a pace that is commensurate with the changes that we see in curricula and the students of today.  

But we have the chance to change the way we educate educators.  We know that the tiny push off of the dock that teacher training programs at colleges and universities is not enough to last us a career.  We know that we have the chance to approach the aforementioned educator learning opportunities differently.  We just have to do things differently.  And I believe that it starts with a simple question:

"Are we educating the educators in ways that optimize their learning?" 

And if we aren't...why not, and how can we do it?

Sounds like something I need to look into more.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Receiving AND Giving Feedback is Hard

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend Richland Middle School in the Birdville Independent School District in Fort Worth, Texas to introduce a network of educators to Instructional Rounds.  RMS invited a group of 17 teachers, learning coaches, district staff and administrators to to be introduced to the Rounds process, and to co-learn with the school through the lens of the school’s problem of practice.  After studying Rounds and beginning to work with rounds in my own district, I was excited to work with this dynamic group:  the chance for each of us to experience team-based, focused and intentional classroom observation to provide feedback, make predictions, and provide the school with strategies to design and implement in addressing their problem of practice promised to be a rich and authentic opportunity for each of the participants.  
The afternoon session on the first day was a whirlwind--as a group we examined Rounds from a philosophical, practical, and logistical standpoint, including discussions of the instructional core and the seven principles of Instructional Rounds.  After that, we used both high-tech and low-tech solutions to engage as participants in determining what we typically look for in classes, what the research says about factors that influence achievement, descriptive feedback, and ‘learning to see, unlearning to judge’.  Finally, we did some sample classroom video observations to allow us to practice collecting and selecting data through the lens of a problem of practice because ‘you learn the work by doing the work’.  It was a packed afternoon, and the observation network was tired, but excited to get into classes the following morning to learn with the school.  

The day began early, and Principal Dr. Leeann Bartee gave the observational network a concise picture of the school, the structures that the school had to enable learning and support for their students and teachers, and the process that they had gone through leading up to this day in developing their problem of practice.  The network not only had a detailed snapshot of the educational ecosystem that they were working within, but in the true spirit of co-learning, they also had the opportunity to understand and ask questions of Leeann about the model of preparation that RMS had used for the process of rounds so they might be able to apply it to their own learning situations should they do Rounds in the future.  

The observation teams then headed into classrooms, collecting non-judgmental feedback through the lens of the school’s problem of practice, and ninety minutes later, they came back grinning and eager to share their data with eachother.  The groups vetted and re-vetted their data to ensure that it was specific, descriptive, non-judgmental and relevant to the problem of practice.  After squeezing in a few mouthfuls of lunch (which was some of the most delicious Mexican food I have tasted, by the way), each team found patterns, made predictions about student learning, and then used those predictions to design high-leverage strategies for the school to implement to propel RMS forward in addressing their problem of practice.  Gasping for breath as the day rocketed by, the teams finally invited the Instructional Learning Team from RMS in to the meeting area to receive feedback and ask questions so the school could move forward in their next level of work.

In the few minutes prior to bringing the host school back to the room, I noticed the observation network beginning to mentally “fidget”.  Some of the group members suddenly became a bit uneasy, and began to say things such as...

  • “I’m worried that it will sound like we are being too negative”
  • “There are so many great things going on at this school, I really want to tell the internal team about those pieces as well”
  • “It took a lot of courage for them to have us here, I don’t want to seem as though I was just looking at the problems”

In truth, the feedback that the observational team was preparing to give was not negative.  However, in the ‘culture of nice’ in which we so often tend to want to reside, the predictions that they were making in terms of student learning could seem blunt and direct.  Yet the group was right--opening up your school for examination and critique certainly does require courage.  It also requires vulnerability, and a high level of system self-actualization.  But what I assured the team that it required most was an unending desire to GET BETTER.   This school invited the observation team for a reason; having a network-sized set of eyes to examine a ‘stuck point’ demonstrates the school’s belief that “no one of us is smarter than all of us”, and because there could be no one better to trust in helping a school filled with educators than a group of fellow educators--fellow professionals who would be looking at classrooms through the lens the school had provided.  

But at that moment, I realized that I had primarily been thinking about the group RECEIVING the feedback.  Specifically, I had been focused on the high level of vulnerability that the school had shown by inviting this team in to its classrooms, and how critical feedback can sometimes be difficult to hear.  What I had not considered to this point was that the observation group GIVING the feedback was also showing a high level of vulnerability, and the act of providing critical feedback can sometimes be difficult to articulate to the host school.  While I had spent a great deal of time with the observation team on the importance of their conduct in classrooms with teachers and students, and on the importance of ‘learning to see and unlearning to judge’ from the perspective of the host school, I had not spent time with the host school talking about how important their response to the feedback would be to the observation network.

Because both receiving AND giving critical feedback are difficult.

In order for the observation team to feel valued for their thoughtful suggestions for the next level of work, their diligence to the process, for the time they were spending out of their own schools, they needed to be assured their feedback was important to the host school.  Furthermore, Instructional Rounds is a continuous process in which, through the lateral accountability mechanism, observation teams re-visit a few months later to help the school assess their progress in addressing their problem of practice.   We wanted this team to come back and work with the host school in the future!  If the host school were to respond in a visibly unfavorable way, what incentive would there be for any other network to come back to assist the school later during the next set of Rounds?

The internal team entered the meeting area, and the room became quite quiet.   I congratulated the school and the team for their work today, and made sure that before we did anything, we acknowledged that this school was indeed doing great things (to which the observation group vigourously agreed).  However, in the true spirit of improvement and critical feedback, we were invited into the school because they were committed to improvement, and we as an observation team wanted to honour that commitment with our feedback.  And so each group began to present their predictions and next level of work.

So how did the hosts respond to the feedback?  Well, given the high level of preparedness that I had seen from Principal Bartee and her team, I should not have been surprised when the time came for the internal leadership team to hear the feedback.  They were spot on; each team member was leaning forward, listening intently, and nodding.  They were asking questions for clarification.  They encouraged dialogue, and they teased out more details from the observers.  They commented on some of the data.  And the observervation team quickly reciprocated, providing more information and insight as they had seen it in the class.  and I watched a professional synergy grow and blossom right before my eyes.  I can tell you without equivocation that I was incredibly moved when I saw this happen.  It was compelling and inspirational to see two groups of educators from different learning situations come together through a bond based in true collaboration and problem-solving. One member of the group referred to this as a “watershed moment”, and I could not agree more.  Leeann finished the session by saying that she and her school were honored to work with a group that was so dedicated and determined to do a great job for Richland Middle School, and that she and her staff looked forward to working for any of them in the future.  She also provided each member of the observation network with the book “Instructional Rounds In Education”--a very thoughtful and appropriate finish to the day.

In the future, I will make sure that I recognize that feedback is difficult both to receive AND to give, and clearly articulate this to both the hosts and the visitors.  That Principal Bartee and her staff were so open to the information given to them was fortunate, and not something to be taken for granted:  they clearly had done the work that needed to be done in preparing themselves to receive and utilize constructive feedback. As a result of their willing introspection that they demonstrated throughout this Rounds visit and the conversations after, I know that Richland Middle will connect the suggestions for the next level of work to their existing resources and move forward on their problem of practice.  I also know that the observation network experienced positive modeling (in terms of school preparedness, efficient logistics and a willingness to utilize observation-based feedback) that will provide them an excellent framework for using Rounds in their own learning situations in the future.

I would like to thank Leeann, Staci, Ann, Nikki, John, Kecia, Stephanie, Flor, Melinda and the entire RMS staff along with the observational network from Birdville ISD for allowing me to be a part of their learning this past week.  They are eager, committed, and gracious hosts who are rightfully proud of their students, their faculty, their school, their district, and their community.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Intended vs. Actual Learning

"Task predicts performance"

"You learn the work by doing the work"

Over the past few months, I have read these phrases dozens of times, used them in some form of sentence a few hundred more, and tried to 'live my educational life' by them (not always successfully) ever since I was exposed to them when I attended the Instructional Rounds session last April.  Yet the other day, while preparing a presentation on Rounds for our school district,  I stopped our group and proposed a scenario to them--I asked them what we would as Principals if a teacher came to us and said the following:

"Hey, I am all in.  I totally get it, I need to make sure that there is a tangible and direct 'through line' from the assignments I design to the tasks that students actually do to meet the specific learning outcome I am teaching....but HOW DO I DO IT?"

Well that's pretty easy, isn't it?  I mean, you just take that outcome and create a set of activities that get students to learn that outcome, right?

Hmmm.  Now let me think about that one for a minute or two.

As a former Biology and Science teacher, I might be confronted with an outcome such as the one from the BC Science 10 Curriculum below:

"Differentiate between atoms, ions and molecules using knowledge of their structure and components"

How might I have approached that one in the past?  Well, for better or for worse, I probably would have lit up the overhead projector and given students some notes to copy with a definition of atoms, ions and molecules for starters.  I would have used some different coloured pens (not the permanent ones, of course) to draw a couple of examples of each one.  I would likely have spun a couple of thought-provoking analogies and witty anecdotes to solidify their memory of the morning's lesson.  Perhaps I might have created a chart for students that compared and contrasted some of the characteristics of each, and invited students to help me fill in the blanks.  Wait time for sure, but not too long, because we have to keep moving through this stuff.  At that point, I might have found a short video clip from a dvd (YouTube now) that appealed to the 'visual learner', and even paused a couple of times to describe what was going on in the video.  If it was longer, I might have had some guided notes to ensure that the students were following along, and checked them afterwards.  And once that was over, I would have found a few questions from that section of the textbook and assigned them to the students to reinforce what we did in the class.  I would have used the "you have enough time to do this in class, otherwise, it is for homework" line for motivation.  Bell rings, and Bob's your uncle.

I am not here to judge my performance in this instance.  If you have done lessons/do lessons like this, this is not a condemnation.  Rather in the 'learning to see, and unlearning to judge' parlance of Instructional Rounds, I wonder how I might have responded if someone were to ask me to do the following:   

"Predict what you think the student would be able to do as a result of this lesson"

Well, clearly my students would have learned about atoms, ions and molecules...right?  

Not so fast.  Let's look at what actually happened in the class (in NON-judgmental, observational terms):
  • the teacher was at the front of the class, writing on the overhead projector and speaking about atoms, ions, and molecules
  • the students sat in their chairs in pairs and worked individually
  • 17 of the 22 students copied notes from the overhead--three students took a picture with their phone, and two sat in their chairs with their notebooks open
  • the students watched the teacher draw a chart that more than half of the class copied down
  • two students gave responses to the question "What words would we use to fill in the blank here?"
    • three other students had put their hands up to respond
  • when the teacher asked a question and received no response, he waited, and then filled in the response
  • a number of students filled in the blank chart with the answers they had heard from the teacher or the class
  • the students saw a video clip, and several filled in answers from the video on fill-in the blank-style guided notes
  • several students left their sheets blank
  • at the end of the video, the teacher went through the guided notes--he read the sentence and then paused
    • the first four questions were answered by the students
    • the next nine questions were answered by the teacher - most students copied the answer down
  • the teacher assigned seven questions to do in class or for homework
    • the first three were definitions of atom, ion and molecule
    • a student called out "what page are those definitions on?"
    • another student said "Page 93"
    • most students flipped to the page which had the definitions and copied the definitions on to a piece of paper
    • one of the questions asked the students to compare and contrast atoms, ions and molecules
      • several students copied the chart from the notes the teacher had given
  • three pairs of students sat quietly with their books open and talked about a game on Saturday
  • two pairs of students did all of the questions in class
No judgement--that's what happened in the class.  If you watched the class on video, I would guess that if you used non-judgmental language, you might have penned a similar description.

So bearing this observational data in mind, what would you predict that students would be able to do as a result of the lesson?

Make no mistake, several of the students might have been able to define a couple of terms.  A few others might have done a couple of the questions 'without looking'.  But at the end of it all, I would be making a huge assumption that students in my class were actually learning much other than things such as

  • how to copy down text (if they didn't take a picture of the notes)
  • how to copy down answers by others, whether in the chart, the guided notes, or even the questions
  • if they wait long enough, someone will provide the answer
  • if they choose not to (and sit quietly and look as though they are paying attention), they really don't have to do any of these tasks.
Now some might argue that, for example, the very act of copying things down requires some level of processing by the learner. While not actually going into the neurology of the concept, I urge you to think back to your first year of post-secondary education, or just imagine mine:  I was quite capable of copying down copious amounts of notes in Calculus 102 without understanding a single word.  Moreover, if you pulled my notes away from me more than 5 seconds after I wrote them down, I likely would not have been able to remember a single thing I had written.  And I was a good student!

OK, so now I am that teacher I described above.  I have realized that I am not totally convinced that the intended learning I had hoped for my students was what they actually learned.  And now, I have come to the Principal's office and said "Hey, I am all in.  I totally get it, I need to make sure that there is a tangible and direct 'through line' from the assignments I design to the tasks that students actually do to meet the specific learning outcome I am teaching....but HOW DO I DO IT?"

In my previous post ("I'm Just Not That Interesting") I paraphrased Douglas Fisher, author of Productive Group Work--How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork and Promote Understanding and I think his thoughts (among others) also apply to how we can design lessons:  
  • From Doug Fisher - "we can maximize the interactions in the room.  We can maximize the interactions between the participants themselves, and maximize the interactions between the participants and the content and ideas that we are presenting."  Sitting in pairs or groups of three or four does not mean that students are working together, they are simply working near each other! We have to create activities that require co-creation, co-learning and interdependence for true group work to occur.
  • We can build in lateral accountability mechanisms for learners, where students have to report their learning out to their peers or to us as teachers (verbally, through demonstrations, through their own writing, through a blog post or shared editable document, etc.)
  • We can make our lessons product-driven--but an original product! Questions that can simply be copied from the textbook SHOULD be copied from the textbook. If someone gave you the option to do something faster and with less effort, it would take a dedicated learner to say "Nope, I have got to figure this out on my own"
  • We can help students to become teachers, to become experts on skills or pieces of content that they have to share with others so that they can be co-contributors and learn from others.
just to name a few. And I know that there are dozens and dozens of other ideas that perhaps I might not have myself, but other teachers will. Enter the collaborative mechanisms and web tools that are prevalent in so many of our schools today. What an engrossing collaborative topic, how will we design and implement tasks that ensure the learning of concept X or skill Y or content Z by our students?

In the final analysis, developing activities that require the creation of products through maximizing interactions and lateral accountability mechanisms is challenging. But what has been even more challenging to me as both a teacher and a Principal is trying to provide evidence that people have actually learned something from me without utilizing these types of activities in my classes or my faculty meetings.  I believe that by analyzing the non-judgmental observational data of the student learning that is the result of the tasks we assign, and by incorporating some of the strategies above (and please include more in the comments!), we can bridge the gap between the learning that we intend and the actual learning that occurs.

OK, the pressure is on -- I guess I better get to designing our next faculty meeting!

Monday, October 28, 2013

You're Just Not That Interesting

Think of someone that you feel is (or would be) incredibly interesting to hear speak.  Picture that person being tremendously knowledgeable, and someone who does things that are incredibly germane to your current situation--where you are at in your career, where you are at in your school, or your classroom.  Imagine that each example they gave and each story they told ended in you vigorously nodding your head in agreement and scribbling down notes at a furious pace.  Pretend that you are shushing even your best friend sitting beside you so that you can catch every last sound bite and syllable before you jump up to give them a raucous ovation.  Do you have that person in mind? Does that person exist for you?
If that person does exist (and they certainly could, as I have one or two in mind), for how long could you sit and listen?  An hour? Two or three hours?  An entire day?  And to that end, how long could you LEARN from them?

Because when I look in the mirror each morning, I come to the same conclusion about myself:  "You know what, you just aren't that interesting."

Now don't get me wrong, I find myself to be quite amusing.  Personally, I really enjoy my stories.  I feel as though I am reasonably well read.  I can doctor up one heck of a Powerpoint slide, and have a couple of really cool YouTube videos that will dazzle the few people in the room that have not seen them before.  I am pretty sure that several people have snorted and guffawed during my sessions.  But really and truly, I can probably keep a group of adults on task for about as many minutes as I have fingers before they are thinking about the blinking light on their phones or what they need to do later that day.  Because the truth of the matter is, the likelihood of me satisfying more than one or two conditions from the first paragraph of this post are actually quite low.

And I am fine with that.  Because I truly believe that "you learn the work by doing the work."
This phrase would be a familiar refrain to anyone.  And I am not just referring to educators--I would guess that in occupations ranging from a steelworker, to a doctor, to a chef in a restaurant, even to a parent--you need to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in order for deep learning to occur (and as a relatively new parent, I certainly have learned that the hard way!).

So what if we made it a primary objective in education to spend as little time as possible talking to our learners and as much time available out getting them to DO the work?  And when I am speaking about learners, I am referring to students AND adults.  To our kids, and our teachers, administrators, and senior staff.

This is not to say that direct instruction does not have its place--it does, and when done well, this method can be quite effective.  If you don't believe me, read this presentation of Visible Learning by John Hattie:  you will see that direct instruction ranks 24th out of 130 factors that influence students achievement in terms of effectiveness.  And when I am at a conference or attending a professional development session, there are times that I really want to tune in to the great minds and educational visionaries and listen to how they think.  I sincerely find those sessions fascinating, and tend to walk away feeling invigorated.

On Friday and Saturday, I had the pleasure of listening to some great keynotes and panel discussions from educational futurist Simon Breakspear and from Connected Principal George Couros.  From knowing George through Twitter and from previous presentations and as well as from reading Simon's bio, I was equally excited to see both speakers.

Simon had a number of key ideas that resonated with me.  He reinforced the idea that we get better not by doing more, but by doing things differently.  He encouraged us as school administrators to encourage wild ideas, risk-taking and curiosity from our students and our faculties.  He talked about the "equity imperative"--how we need to keep every student on our agenda all of the time.  And perhaps most important for me, he described "educational ecosystems", in which need to construct learning situations that are specific to our students, our teachers, our parents, and our communities, (he even mentioned our budgets!) because we do have differing ecosystems from school to school.

George also pushed my thinking, but more on an emotional level.  He illustrated the power that social media can have on creating positive and deep interpersonal connections:  his message spoke to me as an educator, but also as a human being and as a father to my children.

But coming back to my initial point, Simon and George certainly engaged me as a listener.  But I do think it is exceedingly difficult for anyone (especially yours truly) to keep a group of learners "locked in" for a very long period of time or evoke meaningful and deep learning without

  • deliberate strategies to engage those learners, along with
  • lateral accountability mechanisms to require (yes, require) their participation and require the learning of the concepts and skills being presented.

And furthermore, I think any presenter can do this with any audience of any size.  I believe this because of the idea of lateral accountability--the accountability to the people around you.  If I am speaking to five hundred people, of course each of those people can't be accountable to me, and moreover, why would they?  But they certainly can be accountable to the five or six people around them.  They can certainly do an activity with the two people beside them.  The person beside them can report the results of that activity to a third party, thus ensuring that they had to listen in the first place.  Two small groups can compare their thoughts on a case study with each other.  People can (gasp!) turn to someone they don't know, talk to them, and learn from them.  It just takes a very conscious and highly purposeful effort to construct the activities and the time within a presentation to do so.

To paraphrase Douglas Fisher, author of Productive Group Work--How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork and Promote Understanding, we can maximize the interactions in the room.  We can maximize the interactions between the participants themselves, and maximize the interactions between the participants and the content and ideas that we are presenting.  Because the assumption that we must make is that we are presenting ideas and information that we want people to learn.  And if we want people to learn, should we not utilize practices that we know require learning?  Maybe I am crazy.  But one thing is for sure.

I'm just not that interesting.  

And I need every one of those strategies I can get.  If you have strategies that you feel are particularly engaging for presentations, please share--I truly want to make my presentations better.