Thursday, June 27, 2013

Do You Enable or Ensure ADULT Learning?

"Using recognized assessment measures and a support system that ensures positive outcomes, we will provide a student-focused learning environment." - excerpt from the SKSS Mission Statement

When I attended professional development sessions as a teacher of biology and PE, I used to have a highly student-centered focus on how I would apply what I was learning to my classroom.  Yet since I have been in administration, more often than not I find myself thinking about how I can apply the principles to my staff through the lens of adult learning, even if the session could be entirely focused on changing pedagogy for kids.  Since becoming a Principal, I have held firm to the belief that a focus on engaging educators (teachers AND administrators) in their learning is as important as (and arguably MORE important than) a focus on engaging students in their learning.  Without considering and expending notable amounts of time on the former, any efforts to the latter become much less effective.

Thanks to my colleague and friend Leeann Bartee (follow her, one of the most well-read and researched administrators that I have ever met) who introduced me to it, I have begun yet another educational read for the summer called "Instructional Rounds in Action", the sequel to "Instructional Rounds in Education" that I have written so much about over the last few months.  Even though I am only a couple of dozen pages into the book, it already has me hooked because of the emphasis on the importance of the learning of the adults in education.  From the Prologue, by Dr. Richard Elmore:

“The deepest irony of American education is that the institutions that are responsible for learning in our society do the worst job of enabling the learning of the people who work in them” 

He also states that:
"School reform, if it works at all, works systematically by increasing the capacity of individuals and the organizations in which they work...students learn best when adults are working and learning at the outer edge of their own practice."

This made me think about what we do as a system to ensure that we are systematically increasing the capacity of the individuals in education.  In our school's mission statement above, we emphasize the idea of ensuring student what about educator (teachers and administrators) learning?  How about the structures that we have in place to enable the learning of the people that work in our organizations?  What about the effectiveness of these structures?  Are we ensuring that adult learning is actually occurring, and that this learning is transformed into the changes in practice and the changes in the tasks that we have students do to elicit the learning that each of us wants for our students?


This uncertainty is not a condemnation of those that work within the system, it is more a question about the system itself.  Schools pride themselves on recognizing the differences in students as learners, differentiating instruction and assessment for them, and providing multiple and varied opportunities for their success within a blanket of wraparound support.  Yet if educator learning is so critical to student learning, perhaps it's time for us to take a really good look at how we ensure that WE are the lead learners.

So how do we change this?  Professional development days?  Send people to conferences?  Bring in guest speakers?  Put time for collaboration within the timetable?  Create peer coaches?  Skyped-in mentorship?  Adopt Google's 20% model?  Have educators get connected and develop PLNs?  Make faculty meetings about staff development rather than the technical managerial pieces of school operations?   

Yes.  Absolutely.  Do some of these things.  Do all of these things.  In fact, most of us do some or all of these activities for and with our faculties already.  More and more, however, I am starting to consider whether the things that we do to increase the capacity of ourselves as educators actually ensure learning rather than just enable the possibility of learning.  My thinking right now is leaning far more towards the latter rather than the former.  And I know that were we speaking about enabling rather than ensuring student learning, most educators would agree that such a premise would be less than acceptable.

Over the next few weeks, I want to design a model that ensures the learning of the educators in our school system.  If you have any ideas about this, I would love to hear them!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Do You SEE or JUDGE?

"What a great lesson!"

"The teacher seemed unprepared."

"The kids were really working hard."

"I wouldn't have taught the concept that way."

"I'm not sure how kids could be excited about that topic when even I was bored."

"Boy, they just nailed that one--that was great pedagogy!"

Have you ever gone into a classroom to observe a lesson had any of these thoughts after you left the class?  I'm sure that any number of people who watched me teach biology or PE could have said one or all of these things on a given day.  Over the last thirteen years, I have been in numerous classrooms and I know that at varying times I have had these types of phrases run through my head as I did walk-throughs around my schools.

How meaningless for me, and even more importantly, how meaningless for anyone to whom I was going to describe what I saw in the class.  Whether I was speaking to that teacher, another educator or administrator, these normative-based bits of feedback were almost entirely useless in describing the learning environment that I had observed.

In each of these instances, I was unclear as to what I was actually looking for, and moreover I was quickly jumping to conclusions that were based on my own biases and experiences as both a learner and a teacher.

Imagine that you were taking a piano lesson and the teacher said "Good one!  You really nailed it!".  Or you swung your golf club and your golf pro said "Well, clearly you didn't prepare for today.".  Or perhaps in your evening art class, your professor says "I wouldn't have done it that way.".  Would any of this be meaningful?


One of the pieces that truly challenged my thinking when studying the concepts of Instructional Rounds was learning and practicing the discipline of description.   More specifically, I found it difficult to begin by determining an area of focus for feedback, and then to describe the EVIDENCE of what I saw in classrooms from the students, the teachers, and the tasks they were doing as opposed to stating my OPINION of what I saw.  City, Elmore, Fiarman and Teitel (2009) call this "learning to see" and "unlearning to judge".  I imagine being in the middle of teaching a science lesson and my Principal coming to my class, doing an observation, and giving me this feedback:
  • "the pace was too fast"
  • "you assigned a highly complex lab to the students"
  • "the students were actively engaged with their groups during the lesson"
or....a different scenario, such as me asking the Principal to come to my class to look at something that my department and I had collectively determined as an area of focus, such as "when doing labs with our students, we find that they struggle with following instructions and using higher level thinking skills to connect the lab to the concept we are doing in class."  If he then gave the following feedback:
  • "when you moved from the first task to the second task, eight of the students had not completed the first task"
  • "you assigned the students a task that required them to collect, plot, and analyze and draw conclusions from data"  
  • "the students used a rubric to provide feedback to their peers on the structure of the conclusions they had drawn and the strength of the evidence to find those conclusions."  
The first set of feedback has limited use for me, as the terms "too fast", "highly complex" and"actively engaged" are judgement statements.  As the teacher, I might respond to this feedback..."What do you mean too fast? I thought it was fine."  Or maybe "The lab actually wasn't complex, the students just didn't get it.". Or "Glad to hear they were engaged, I worked hard to put this lab together."  And PS, "Why were you here in the first place?"

The second set of feedback lets me slow down and do some thinking.  Hmmm...if eight students had not completed the first step, should I have circled back?  Was my instruction not clear enough?  The assignment did involve some higher order thinking skills, as did the peer evaluation tool at the end--this is what the department and I wanted to examine in more detail.  Cool.

At some point in the process of examining our practice, there will be judgement.  Make no doubt, if we collectively are looking at an area of focus in what we are doing in the classroom, given enough descriptive feedback, we will start to note patterns and draw some conclusions.  But by giving descriptive feedback without judgement, or learning to SEE rather than jumping to OPINION, we can slow the process down and approach classrooms in a more meaningful and productive manner that can truly impact teaching practice.

Now THAT would be cool.  Wait a sec, that's a judgement...

City, Elizabeth A et al. Instructional rounds in education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2009.