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!