Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Administrators Must Model Deeper Learning

Right now in British Columbia and a number of other provinces and states, the concepts of deeper learning are moving to to a higher level of consciousness for educators. And while inquiry-based and problem-based learning ideas are common in some schools and jurisdictions, I don't believe this to be the norm.  After participating in the #DLMOOC and following the traffic on Twitter it is my perception that for the most part (for a variety of reasons), many of us are still in the investigative or design phases rather than in full implementation of these sorts of approaches to our courses. Furthermore, many of us are still looking for ways to get started, or at least to find multiple entry points for teachers in our schools.

Recently, Ross Cooper (@RossCoops31) wrote a very useful post called "Project-Based Learning: The Easiest Way to Get Started".  The thrust behind the post was to provide a bridge for educators between what they already do in their classes and lessons that are founded in the principles of Problem Based Learning (see the graphic from Ross' post).  Yet as I was reading the post and the examples given in the graphic, it struck me that we should be thinking the same thing for administrators. While I believe it is essential for teachers to use strategies and tasks that require deeper learning such as PBL, I also believe that in general (and there are some notable exceptions), administrators do a poor job of modelling activities that require the deep learning that they hope to see in the classrooms in their schools.  If are an administrator and you don't believe me, here is a quick self-test, and it is one simple question.

If a staff member did everything that you asked them to do in each of your faculty meetings of the course of a year, upon the completion of the last meeting of the year, what would they be able to do as a result?

From a personal perspective, if you stand at the front of me at your staff meeting and talk?  I would have learned how to sit passively.

If you asked for volunteers to answer questions that you ask?  I would have learned to wait, and someone else will answer the question.

If you put up a Powerpoint?  Again, I would l have learned to sit passively, and I that if I waited long enough, I could watch you to do all of the work.

If you ask a question and then provide a solution that you have already created that you believe will work, and simply want my approval?  Thumbs up.  Send me a memo that I will try to remember to read.

The list goes on.  And these examples are not criticisms of the participants.  They are a result of the tasks that the faculty has been asked to do.

When studying the Instructional Rounds course at Harvard last year and again earlier this spring, we were asked to do a task, and then share our results with a partner, and then with the rest of the small group that we were with.  It was called "They learn best when...", and it was to share and compare our responses to three stems, "Students learn best when...", "Teachers learn best when..." and "Administrators learn best when...".  I have done this exercise with participants at Rounds sessions as well as my own staff, and here is an example of the responses that I have gotten.

"Teachers learn best when...." responses
Are these the characteristics that typify the learning environments administrators deliberately create and model during faculty meetings, team leader meetings, collaborative sessions, professional development days, and other gatherings of educated professionals?  Without question, some Principals do....and some do not. Regardless, I believe administrators at every level (myself very much included) can get better at creating an interesting, meaningful and appropriately challenging learning situation for faculty members and for themselves.  If we truly believe in our 'learn best whens', why not apply some of the principles from the graphic that Ross created to what administrators do in their meetings?

In faculty or district level meetings, we frequently need to deal with issues and solve 'problems'.  Often times, we put these problems into the form of a question, such as

  • How do we get students to adhere to the attendance policy?
  • How do we implement the new math curriculum?
  • How best do we enforce the dress code?
  • Where can we trim costs to meet next year's budget?
  • What are effective ways to deal with students that are failing?
  • How do we create time within the timetable for teachers to collaborate using the existing structures in the school?

To model the first example in Ross' graphic, if we considered the last example of 'creating time within the timetable for teachers to collaborate', an administrator could choose to approach it in the following way:

Approach A: "In small groups, create a model that gives teachers time with their departments to collaborate using either our Friday morning independent reading block or our Tuesday study hall time."

This approach seems sensible enough, and would not be entirely uncommon (I used a similar approach several years ago).  Yet upon close examination, by setting the problem up this way, we would have made several pre-suppositions.  The first one would be that we only need teachers to collaborate, or to solve this problem.  Secondly, we assume teachers need to work in their departments.  Third, we postulate that this collaboration has to take place during Friday morning reading or on Tuesday afternoon, without exploring other possibilities.  And finally (and perhaps most importantly), we have made the broad assumption that we have any reason to collaborate in the first place!  As a result of this task, one could predict that a couple of slightly different models might be suggested by a group or two, one of the times would be selected, the departmental groups would be set, and beginning next year, we would have collaborative time for the faculty. And once this time was embedded, teachers would start to look at curriculum, instruction, assessment, and other pieces around student achievement.

But what skills would a faculty have learned from doing this? By laying out the task in this way, we artificially set very clear limits on the level of thinking and the subsequent engagement that will be required by the group. The times are already laid out.  The groups have basically been set--we already know for the most part who is in each department.  Really, it is a matter of creating a schedule and perhaps a vote.   Typically there are a couple of people who like creating schedules (bless those logical folks), and if one so chooses to be ambivalent about Tuesday or Friday, a simple hand up at the right time and the investment in this process has ended.  What we will do during this time?  Well, let's figure that out when we get there.

But what if the Principal went about it a different way?  What if the Principal used the principles of PBL and, with the help of the faculty, co-created a driving question (using tools like the PBL Tubric to help), such as...

Approach B: "How can we as educators engage students to deeply learn outcomes across content areas and demonstrate their learning in interesting and unique ways?"

Hmm.  That's a bit different.  But what about collaborative time?  The short answer is YOU DON'T NEED COLLABORATIVE TIME.  Well, that's not the complete thought--you don't need collaborative time UNTIL YOU HAVE A PURPOSE FOR COLLABORATIVE TIME, which may or may not come out of the driving question that has been framed for (or more ideally BY) the group.  Think of all the different facets to this problem...
  • What is new in the curriculum?  How is it different than the old one in each of the content areas? Is there crossover?  Who can help us figure this out?
  • What does it mean to learn deeply?  How do we define deep learning?  What types of tasks require deep learning versus more surface learning?
  • Do we look at lesson design?  Do we look at teaching strategies?  Who can we talk to/observe? What might groups look like if we are looking for learning from students across content areas? Might there be different groups for different tasks?
  • How do students currently demonstrate their knowledge?  Do these assessments truly reflect what students know?  How else might students demonstrate their learning in a more authentic way that gives them flexibility and choice?  What platforms can we use to support students presenting their learning?
  • How will we organize ourselves to work through these questions?
  • Wow, this sounds like a lot of work, and there is no more time in the day.  How can we find time within the day to get together to do this work together?
By working with the group to create a driving question and then subsequently posing this question without what the product might look like, the Principal will have created a task that requires the collective expertise of the group. The task requires the group to think deeply, to ask more questions, and to organize in ways that make sense. The group will have to research, look for exemplars, collaborate with each other and with others outside of the school.  They will have to present ideas, evaluate them, and re-tool them.  They will have to come to consensus.  And in the end, they will have implemented a product that will make a difference for the educators and for the students in the school.  

They will have come up with a solution to an authentic question, not a 'question' to which we already have an answer--something that I believe we pose to learners far too often.  

Approaching a problem in this manner is often challenging, messy, and requires time (much like it did when we created our Inclusive Staff Meetings and Staff Meeting Commitments).  It requires scaffolding and multiple entry points for peoples interests and different skill sets.  It needs to be in a supportive environment where there are a variety of activities that require individual and group participation.  People need to be relaxed and in flow.  And sometimes, the products that come out of a process such as this will need small modifications and refinements, wholesale changes, or to be completely re-vamped.  But in each instance, the learning that will take place by the faculty will be deep.  Far deeper than if we limit the level of thinking, challenge and engagement required by asking questions to which we pre-suppose the answer.

If administrators want to see deeper learning in their districts and in their schools, they need to model the use of tasks that require deeper learning and co-create driving questions.  Each of the 'problem' questions above can be tweaked ways that do not pre-suppose answers or limit creative thought.  However, this requires a commitment by Administrators to ask questions without 'answers', and to be comfortable with the idea that the solutions that a large and diverse group of educators come up with may be different than what they would have come up with on their own.  

And that's a good thing.


  1. So freaking awesome, Cale.

    The simple truth is that it's hard to take many principals seriously when they call themselves "instructional leaders" and yet their primary instructional style in faculty meetings is "stand and deliver-ers."

    I can count the number of times that I left a professional development session or a faculty meeting feeling "engaged" or "motivated" or "challenged" on one hand -- and I've been teaching for 21 years under a TON of different school leaders.

    Can we REALLY be surprised that instruction doesn't change in classrooms when teachers rarely see models of the kind of instruction that we say they should be embracing?

    Finally -- if YOU can't do it, you can't hold ME accountable for doing it.


    Rock on,

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