Friday, August 25, 2017

Leading the Day One Experience in School

As a school Principal, I remember feeling like the night before Day One was not dissimilar to New Year’s Eve. I would always be filled with resolutions about how I was going to make the first day, first week, and first month special for our learners--our students, teachers, and parents. Two weeks prior to school before anyone came back, I would begin to plan that first day experience for the kids, the opening staff meeting activities for the staff, and picture how I was going to make parents (both new and returning) feel special at our school. My whiteboard would be filled with ideas, I would be checking YouTube for the funniest and most inspirational videos, and I would be scouring Twitter to see the cool ideas that others in my PLN were going to try in their schools and districts around the world. And while I had the best of intentions about that first day of school, each year I was making the same notable mistake.

I wasn’t using the people who were going to experience Day One in our school to design Day One in our school.

Day One is an experience. We all remember it, don’t we? As students we all remember running to the front door of the school to see “The List”--the long sheets of paper that told us which teacher we were going to have, and who was going to be in our class.  We looked forward to reconnecting with friends and reminiscing about barbecues, camping trips, and the occasional summer job mishap that made us a little happier to be coming back to our classes. And as educators, while we might not want to admit it, we still didn’t sleep all that well night before the first day of school: even as the most seasoned of veterans, we couldn’t  help but feel a few jitters just like we did when we first started teaching. Day One can be a special time.

So how could we make a Day One experience that surprises our students? One that has our parents raving in the coffee shops and on the sidelines of the soccer fields? And one that inspires our teachers to feel that same excitement on Day Two, Day Three, and even Day 180?

#1 - Appreciate the Current Learner Experience

As school leaders, we have our experiences with Day One,but what does that first day feel like for a new student or new parent?  One thing that school leaders can do is reach out to students and parents who went through the experience in the last year or two and ask a basic question:

“What was the first day of school like for you?”

How about the opening staff meeting? School leaders often design this on their own, yet why not get a team of staff members together to ask them this same question? Doing our educational ethnography is key--we need to listen, and to find those ‘pain points’ that people might have so that we can turn them into opportunities. It is also vital to get multiple and varied perspectives: we can’t just ask those staff members who we might like, or who are our “go-to” staff members, we need to get an authentic cross-section of perspectives (Yes, that means listening to people you might not normally ask!)

At a conference a couple of years ago, a colleague said something that has resonated with me to this day--”If you want to know the experience that people are having at your schools, why don’t you ask THEM?”. Seems simple, yet it is something that we often overlook.

#2 - Co-create an illustration of the ideal Learning Experience (LX).

A quick off-ramp that we can take as leaders is to get a whole host of perspectives and information through our ethnography and then run back to our office and try to make learning experiences all by ourselves.  Designing the LX is a team sport! When you have all of that valuable ‘Day One Dirt’, bring it to a small team of ‘experts’ (that would be students, teachers, and or parents), and work together to create the vision!  As a basic question like

“What are the things we’ve experienced in the past that continue to inspire us today?

and then...listen!  Ask people to talk about lasting inspirational experiences that they have had, and not just in schools! Each of us has had an experience that has deeply impacted us, and inspired us to action. What were the elements that inspired us? Which of those elements could we borrow from outside of education that we could bring back INTO education? And as a result, what would we want people to be saying or producing during this experience? These pieces help us form our criteria for success.

#3 - Come up with dozens of ideas that bring your illustration the LX to life.

Remember, this is not just YOU coming up with ideas. I’m just going to say it, you haven’t cornered the market on good ideas: no matter how creative you might be, you alone are no match for a group of people who had already HAD the experience, and are GOING TO EXPERIENCE the LX.  Get it? Ask the team a question like

“How might we create a kick-off activity that inspires us and we are talking about for the whole year?”

and see what people come up with. Volume is key here--don’t stop at what seems like a great idea, go for dozens of ideas, even hundreds of ideas! The first good idea is rarely the best idea. When your group is slowing down, you are entering fertile ground; this is where the craziest thoughts tend to come to the surface, the ones you think are not possible (but are VERY possible). When people are starting to giggle from ‘absurd idea’-fatigue, you are getting close.

#4 - Test the best

Now that you’ve got a few ideas that have some potential to inspire the whole year through, it’s tempting to just pick one and go with it. Don’t do it. As Saul Kaplan from the Business Innovation Factor says “Get off the whiteboard and get into the real world!”. It’s time to grab some of your ideas and have OTHERS take them for a test drive! Do they work? What needs tweaking? What do we need more of? What do we need to let go of? We must get feedback we get from ACTUAL consumers of the Learning Experience--not from the people in our design team.

Our design team should be seen as conduits to others--have parents take the idea to other parents, kids to try it with other kids, and staff members to go to even the most reluctant of our colleagues to find out what they think. They will get the real dirt for you! If it doesn’t work with others, don’t stop--ask, “What could make this better!”. As Ronald Heifetz reminds us, in adaptive leadership we cannot see things as “immovable stakes in the ground”, but rather as experiments where we seek to learn more about what is working and what is not. Our measuring stick for success is how close we get to the criteria we created when we co-created our vision for an inspiring experience.

#5 - Get it out there

Once you have battle-tested the pieces of your Day One experience, it’s time to put them together and execute! At this point, you know you have hit the mark if your B to E ratio is high--your “barf to excitement ratio”! You know those butterflies that you get before you do something that is really exciting? If you and your team have those feelings, it is because you care a great deal about those who are going to have this experience--that’s exactly what you should be doing! But because you have worked with a team of learners right from the start and have involved other learners the whole way through, enjoy the moment.

We often choose to celebrate the completion of the project, but remember, it’s not just about the end product. Firstly, our success is in the experience that others have, not in ‘finishing the job’. While you and your team have done a great deal of work, the Learner-Experience is KEY! You should be constantly collecting feedback to make the best even better. But right alongside of the experience you and the team have created for Day One is the experience you and your team have HAD. We create relationships through the time we spend and the things we do with each other--we develop our collective efficacy through doing things that are important and that make a difference to the learners in our schools. (Hattie says that’s pretty important, I hear).

I know, I know. This sounds like it might take a lot of time. But think about those experiences in your life that have made a difference to you, that have TRULY inspired you to do something different. Were they worth it for you? And imagine that you can co-create a Day One experience for your students, your parents, and your teachers that is truly memorable, and develop collective efficacy at the same time. Does that sound like leadership?

This year, lead the creation of the Day One experience WITH your learners. I think you will be surprised by where it takes you and your school.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Cross Industry Innovation in K-12 Education

I don't like speeding tickets all that much.  In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to find many people that do. The whole experience from the initial gasp when you see the red and blue lights in the rearview mirror right up until the moment you realize that you are not escaping with a stern warning is both maddening and embarrassing all at once.  Yes, I might have been going a bit quickly, but I was running late and the kids needed to be picked up, and I was only 10 m.p.h.....ok maybe 15 m.p.h. over the limit, officer.  Sigh...just give me the ticket.  Head shake on cue.

For years, we have used the same few methods to stop people from speeding--signs, stern warnings, photo radar, and of course, the threat of getting a fine for being a bit of a lead foot.  Yet despite efforts to change people's driving habits, in a study in 2008 of a thousand random drivers, 100% of them thought that it was fine to exceed the posted limit by 5 mph, and 36% felt that it was ok to drive at 20 mph over the limit.   Hmm.  Another head shake.

What if we took a different approach?  Typically, we lock ourselves into a traditional means of solving problems, where we try to take what we currently do and do it just a little bit better. Or we do what we have always done, but just a little bit differently.  "We'll find a faster horse!", we shout with vigor.  But what if we looked into other, completely different sectors to see if there were practices that we could borrow and apply to our own situation?  What if we decided that we weren't going to look for a 'faster horse', like bigger speed signs or more stringent ticket fines,  but rather would adopt a completely different approach that we could adapt from a different situation altogether?

What if it were FUN to obey the speed limit?  And a tiny bit of 'fun', even when we got caught?

Well, that sounds like a different approach.

In a new and thought-provoking book called "Cross-Industry Innovation -- Not Invented Here", Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleven describe "The Speed Camera Lottery", created as part of The Fun Project by Volkswagen.  In Copenhagen, there was a particular section of road that was known to be a place where people ignored the posted speed signs.  In "The Speed Camera Lottery",  a speed camera was used to photograph and measure the speed of all of the drivers on this stretch of road.  Using a camera to photograph drivers in itself was not revolutionary, of course.  Nor was the fact that those drivers who were speeding were levied a fine for their traffic violation.  But what was truly unique was that the fines collected from the speeders were put into a pot, and those who were not speeding were out into a draw for the money that was collected!  "The Speed Camera Lottery" was born, drivers slowed down an average of 22% while having a totally speed enforcement experience.

Sometimes I feel as though I am annoying friends and colleagues with my constant questions around the "the delight factor", or absence thereof.  Too often we find reasons not to look for that unique 'something' in the experiences at our schools that makes them meaningful for our students, our parents, and our educators.  "When did we decide we have to be boring?", I often wonder, many times with regret when I ponder some of my lessons as a classroom teacher.  As a result, one of the pieces that our learning experience design team takes pride in is ensuring that we find an element of "surprise and delight" for the participants in the inservice or professional development days that we create so they remember the experience that we created.

Recently, one of our district schools came to our team with a project--they wanted us to create a learning experience that would immerse their teachers in project-based learning.   Typically, when such a request is made, professional development providers pull out a tried and true, one-day lesson template that they have in their lesson bank, modify a couple of bits to suit the age bracket that the teachers work with, and get ready to go.  While convenient for the PD provider, planning such as this often misses the mark for the educators for one simple reason--the PD provider doesn't take the time to do the research to find out who their audience is, and more importantly, how they learn best and what their current struggles with professional learning might be.  The result is an uneducated guess as to what the needs of the group might be and a subsequently ineffective inservice day.  Yes, I said 'uneducated'--simply focusing on the content of a PD day represents a small part of the equation, the real artistry is in the design of the learning experience.

Earlier this year, I visited Continuum, the internationally recognized design firm in Boston that created iconic items such as the Reebok Pump, the Swiffer, and numerous other product and service solutions across the globe.  Ken Gordon, colleague and friend at Continuum talked to me about 'pain points':  he said "You really need to turn up the 'emotional hearing aid' when you are listening to your clients.  You need to find the the pleasure points and the pain points.  Once you find those, that's the gold.  Pain points are opportunities."

Fortunately, much like Continuum and their focus on human-centred design, our team has adopted the process of Learner-Centred Design: the team is disciplined in considering the needs of the learner first.  Not only does the team spend an inordinate amount of time getting to know the wants, wishes and pain points of the group they are serving, they co-design a vision of the ideal, and go wild with ideas of a 'surprise and delight' factor that will make the day memorable.

During our process of educational ethnography (where we spend time interviewing the group we are designing for), we found out a few things about the school.  They were a fun-loving bunch who liked to be social, who liked competition, and who really needed hands on activities--they wanted to learn by doing.  But because the team was able to quickly develop a positive relationship with the school, we also found out something that was interesting:  one of the teachers we interviewed smiled and said "Sometimes we aren't always on task.".  The other teachers from the school agreed, "We are like our kids!  We might need to be held accountable.".  Ahhhh, the pain point.  Ken Gordon would be smiling.

So we now had our opportunity!  Much like the speeding ticket scenario in Copenhagen where they found a way to surprise and delight people in holding them accountable to the speed limit, we needed to find a way to surprise and delight the school in holding them accountable to learning about professional development.  One of our designers asked a key question that was phrased in just such a way to make us think differently.  She could have asked, "How can we hold people accountable?", but instead she said "Who is one person no one can say "no" to?".  Our project team laughed, and another one of the designers yelled "Grandma!".

The room got quiet, and suddenly we all began to smile.  Seniors!

So while we designed a professional development day that was immersive, hands-on, competitive, and had people learn the work by doing the work, we also surprised the staff by giving them the opportunity to connect to our local seniors community through the PBL design challenge that we had
created.  And by having them design something for an authentic (and loving) audience, the team found a way to hold people 'accountable' in a way that delighted rather than dictated.  No policy.  No rule.  Just Grandma.  And Grandpa.  And a lot of smiles and memories.

Schools don't have to be boring.  By choosing to get to know our school communities, and developing an understanding of their 'pain points' in a process that is so commonly used by industries outside of education, we can 'surprise and delight' the students, parents and teachers in our school communities.

And if it can be done with speeding tickets, it certainly can be done in our classrooms.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Are You Committed To Feedback?

In 1994, Proctor and Gamble approached Continuum, a design consulting firm, in search of a new cleaning product.  Together, they felt that the method of filling up a bucket with soap and water, soaking, squeezing, and mopping floors could be improved.  Continuum took an approach to this problem that was beautiful in it’s simplicity:  they went into people’s homes and watched them mop.  Amongst their observations, they found that people spent nearly as much time cleaning their mop as they did cleaning their floor!  By observing and developing empathy for the user and understanding their challenges, Continuum developed a prototype that was called “Fast Clean”, which evolved into the Swiffer that has become a mainstay in household cleaning around the world.

Proctor and Gamble could have chosen to make different modifications to their current selection of mops.  Their designers might have hypothesized that by creating a mop with a more ergonomically correct handle, they would have helped the average person by reducing the strain that mopping puts on on us when we are cleaning floors.  Or they could have assumed that a better spring-loaded squeezing mechanism would help people by more thoroughly wringing out the mop itself.  They might have guessed that a change in packaging and appearance to capture the attention of the shopper with a sleek, modern looking mop  would have boosted sales over their competitors.  But through observation and empathy for the end-user in human-centered design, Proctor and Gamble created something that is a now lexicon (“I just need to Swiffer the floor before our company comes over for dinner!”) and to date nets more than $500 million dollar per year in sales.

Not unlike Proctor and Gamble, with their suite of products they offer to consumers, schools have their current selection of classes, courses, educators, extracurricular activities, communication tools, services, and facilities that they provide to their school community. Collectively, these different points comprise the spaces where schools interact with their learner community.   IDEO uses the term “touch-point”, and considers “every product touch-point as an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users.”  If we think of a learner in the community as the user that IDEO refers to, we too have opportunities in education:  we can take the different “touch-points” that we have with students, parents and teachers and turn them into experiences that “surprise, delight, and deliver benefit”.   But these points of contact are opportunities, and opportunities alone: how we choose to approach these opportunities in our schools is very much up to us.

So how do we get started on getting a better understanding of these interactions that take place with our school or district?  While there are dozens of face-to-face, personal experiences that take place each day, and even more examples of abstract experiences such as those that visitors get when they walk in through the front entrance of our school or read our newsletter, we need to have a narrower focus:  a useful way to start might be to consider three experiences that our each of our students, parents, and educators have with our school or district. But not just any three experiences, let’s pick three ‘high impact’ or “HI” experiences.   

For our purposes, let’s define a HI experience as one which has the potential to significantly impact the culture and/or learning environment of our school.  

In other words, if these HI experiences were exceptionally effective, and we ‘delighted’ this group with these experiences, the learning environment would change significantly for the better.  For example, while ensuring that our school grounds are neat and free of litter is important, it is unlikely that having a litter-free playground will result in a dramatic change to the learning in classrooms.  And although having a litter-free school property might be a challenge that would benefit from a Learner-Centered Design approach at some point, we must prioritize the learning environment first--as we know, with finite amounts of time and stretched budgets, we can only focus on what is truly going to make a difference to teaching and learning.  We can use the chart below to determine three HI experiences for students, for parents, and for educators.


HI Experience

Figure 1 Determining HI experiences.

For example, a school leader might choose to fill out the chart like this:


HI Experience
Classroom Learning
Communication of learning
Faculty meetings
Teacher Relationships
Parent-Teacher Conferences
Professional Development
Extracurricular Opportunities
Front Office
Collaboration Time
Figure 2 Sample of HI experiences.

Once we have brainstormed some ideas of HI experiences, it is important to stop and reflect:  if our school had a process that transformed each of these touch-points into experiences that were not just satisfactory, they were truly exceptional for these learner groups, would we believe that we were changing the school experience?  

A way to assess your responses to this question might be to examine each column in Figure 2 in a vertical fashion.  In the 'Educators' column, for example, if a newly hired teacher was talking to a veteran faculty member at your school, and your staff member told them that this school was known across the school district for its outstanding faculty meetings, engaging professional development opportunities, and meaningful collaboration time with colleagues, do you believe that new teacher would be excited to be a member of your staff?  Under 'Students', if a new student was moving to town, and when they came to your school for orientation, one of your current students told them “The learning we do in our classrooms is wicked, our teachers care about us SO much, and we have a sick sports program!”, do you think that new student would want to come to your school?  Conversely, do you think a parent’s ears might perk up when they overhear another parent in the Starbucks lineup say “Wow, last night I went to the worst Parent-Teacher interviews I have ever attended.  We couldn’t find his teachers, the front office told us we should have been more prepared, and when we finally got to the interviews, the teacher kept calling our son “Jack” instead of Jake.  The night was horrible.”  If the items that you listed in Figure 2 have the potential to elicit responses such as these, you likely are on the right track.  

But here's the rub: we likely will not be present when people are describing their take on our high-impact experiences. For example, while we might assume that the large turnout at Parent-Teacher conferences is a sign of success, attendance and satisfaction are two different things:  the experiences that people have at those Parent-Teacher conferences will fuel the conversations in the coffee shop, on the sidelines at the soccer game, and across social media channels. Our perception of an experience is one very small piece of the overall experience puzzle. Yet if we are not typically part of the conversations that our people are having about these HI experiences, what is our process for understanding their perspectives?   How do we demonstrate our commitment to ‘gathering intel’ and getting feedback?

In truth, I believe we do a lousy job of seeking feedback in education. And while we can speculate as to why we seek so little feedback about HI experiences and do even less with the input that we do actually collect, at the end of the day most of us are not truly committed to gathering and using feedback to improve the experience of school. And while some school leaders demonstrate their commitment to responding to what they hear from their communities, we can do better. Much better. To help us get started in assessing our current commitment to feedback, we can use something like the Learning Experience Inventory Tool below:

Uploaded by Awesome Screenshot Extension

Let's see an example of how we might have filled tool out considering our 'parent' group:
Uploaded by Awesome Screenshot Extension

If we de-construct the highlighted example and read it (roughly) from right to left--while we consider this particular experience to be one that has the potential to have significant impact, not only do we fail to collect feedback, we don't even have a feedback tool developed, and our current prediction of that user's experience would be fair at best? And what if we take out 'Parent Teacher Nights' and substitute 'Faculty Meetings' for our educators, or 'Classroom Experience' for students?


Unlike the example of Continuum going out to watch, listen, and be empathetic with those who were doing the mopping so they create a floor cleaning system that better met the needs of the end user, I realized that I wasn't collecting nearly enough feedback to created any sort of positive experience, never mind one that 'delighted' the people in my school.

If you use the Learning Experience Inventory tool to consider the experiences in your own school, you may discover the same thing that I did:

If you have an experience that you predicted would be 'HIGH' in terms of importance, but 'FAIR' or 'POOR' in terms of the experience you feel a group at your school would have AND you don't collect any feedback, then at best you have left the way that group will characterize this experience completely and totally to chance. At worst? Well, by continuing to approach this particular experience, you might not only be alienating this group by not understanding their experience and changing to better meet their needs, you might actually be inviting them to experience something that is going to be truly unsatisfying for them at your school.

As we start the school year, we must commit to understanding the experiences that students, parents, and educators are having in our schools and districts, especially in those High Impact areas. The question is, are we willing to do it? If we take this first step, we are beginning the process of Learner-Centered Design, and I believe that we can transform the school experience for our communities.

This post is based on an excerpt from "Re-Designing the School Experience", due to be published in 2017.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cracking The C.O.D.E of Teacher Learning

Professional Learning Communities.
Response To Intervention.
Instructional Rounds.
Flipped Learning.

Sigh.  Have you ever taken five minutes to jot down the initiatives that you have going in your school or district?  Or the ones that you have had going at some point in the past?  Or even those programs that, if you squinted, you might still see remnants of them--you know, the ones that no one can quite determine when they started or ended--they just seemed to fade into the background, much like the once-splashy posters on our Counselling Office billboards or the rotating messages on our electronic signs.  If you are anything like me, you likely find it difficult to recall and much harder to reconcile the amount of time and money each of us has spent chasing after the next 'holy grail'-like program that came our way when we know that the resources required to make them successful are so woefully scarce in supply.

Earlier this month, as a member of the Agile Schools Faculty, I had the chance to work along side Dr. Simon Breakspear at the summer Educational Leadership Academy (#ataleads16) put on by Jeff Johnson and the Alberta Teachers' Association in Edmonton.  It was both inspiring and challenging to take a deep dive into designing research-based, high-impact projects with classroom, school and district leaders for five intense, immersive and practical days.  During one of the early sessions, Simon asked each of the participants to do a "stock-take" (on this side of the Pacific, we would say "inventory") of the initiatives they had done or were currently doing in their schools.  Many generated lists similar to the one above, and even more created ones that were much longer.  But then Simon asked the group to examine their lists to determine which ones they felt were actually making a tangible difference to student learning in the classroom. After a number of people began ruefully shaking their heads, Simon said something that truly resonated with the entire group (including me):

But here's the thing: no one was saying that it was 'wrong' for schools and districts to look for promising new approaches to improving classroom practice, nor was anyone saying it was 'wrong' to attempt organize our time, efforts and resources around practices that are research-based and genuinely improve classroom practice and student learning.  But before we jump headlong into 'the next big thing', we need to have a laser-like focus on the actual impact that the initiative has on student learning and the type of learning that educators will need in order to help them effectively implement the initiative in a way that makes a visible difference at the classroom level.  As we know, the goal of an educational initiative is not to be 'doing' a program, it is to improve teaching and learning.  Does it matter if we have become a professional learning community if we don't see a change to teaching and learning in our classrooms?  Does it matter if we "do" Instructional Rounds in our schools if we continuously have the same problem of practice?  Nope.  Not a bit.

In preparation for the Education Leadership Academy, Simon and I spent a great deal of time pushing each other about the composite pieces that we felt were important for teacher learning.  Simon spoke from his experiences as a teacher and as a researcher in seeing and working with dozens of educational jurisdictions around the globe, who use a multitude of methods to engage teachers in professional learning.  I came at it from the point of view of a Principal who has attempted to implement the approaches listed in the "stock-take" at the beginning of this post with subsequent results that ranged from moderate success to complete and abject failure.  In the end, our thinking led us to a lens through which school leaders could look critically at their own "stock-take" of initiatives to determine whether those ideas had real potential to have a deep and lasting impact on the learning in their classrooms and with their educators.

We can determine whether the initiative can crack the C.O.D.E of teacher learning.  

If the initiative, approach, or professional development is Connected, Observable, Developmental, and Embedded for teachers, it can significantly impact teaching and learning at the classroom level.

Uploaded by Awesome Screenshot Extension the classroom, learning, and to each other 
Do you enjoy being electrocuted?  Being immersed in water so cold that the ice in it doesn't melt? Having your clothes and skin torn by barbed wire?  Sounds like a barrel of monkeys, doesn't it?  So why do thousands of people around the globe voluntarily do these things to themselves in events like the Tough Mudder?  Doing something challenging with a group of like-minded people connects us to the task, but more importantly, it connects us to each other.  Learning is social, and while learning about new approaches to teaching and learning is not the same as being immersed in an ice bath, changing classroom practices can represent a significant shock to the system.  As a result, it is vital that the learning experiences that come from initiatives or pro-d connect our teachers to one another: we must create a supportive, encouraging, and laterally accountable environment (much like a Tough Mudder team) to deal with obstacles that they will encounter along the way.  

Earlier this year, I sat across from Dylan Wiliam at dinner after learning from him earlier in the day at a conference session.  He looked at me and said something that has resonated with me ever since.  He said "I don't know why Principals would spend one second trying to implement something that isn't proven by research to improve learning."  If there is no research to connect the initiative to improvement in student learning, he said, schools and districts don't have the money or time to waste on it.  Period.  I listened.  I learned.  While we all have ideas about what we think 'works' and 'doesn't
work' in classrooms, if there is no foundation of research to the initiative we are considering, Dylan is right, we don't have the time to bother.

Dr. Richard Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes the importance of professional development being directly connected to the classroom.  In one of his "laws" of professional development, he says "the impact of professional development is inverse to the square of its distance from the classroom".  Professional development that requires educators to really chew on meaty instructional issues with each other and grapple with approaches in their own setting is professional development that is worth doing.  Inasmuch as there can be value to offsite professional development, the more connected that educators are to their own classroom situation when they are learning, the higher the likelihood that the initiative will make a visible difference in their own classroom. all of us, BY all of us
The products of any professional development that we do should be readily and plainly observable. When facilitating Instructional Rounds in schools, I ask educators to focus on what students are saying, doing, writing, and producing as a result of the tasks they have been assigned and the instruction they have been given.  But how often do we consider what our educators saying, doing, writing and producing at an inservice or conference that they are attending?  If educators are sitting passively in a large conference listening to a witty and charming 'edutainer' show pictures and YouTube clips while telling amusing anecdotes, what is the evidence that our educators have learned a single thing?  The age-old proclamation of "If you get one good thing out of a conference, it was a good conference" doesn't fly anymore:  with shrinking PD budgets and more demands on our time, the educational return on a $2000 investment needs to be better than that.  WAY better.  When we are considering any initiative, we should be able to clearly articulate what an observer would see in our classrooms as a result.  

But who is observing?  One of the saddest revelations that I had as a Principal happened when I was doing teacher observations.  Not because of what I was observing in the classroom, but because I was the only one who was doing the observing!  Far too often, the people who are doing the bulk of teacher observations are not teachers--this is wrong.   More of our professional development needs to be directly connected to the classroom, with teachers observing and working with other teachers.   And if we are to use the excuse that there isn't enough money, consider that $2000 conference bill to send one teacher to a conference to get "one good thing", as we have all done far too often in the past. That same $2000 is the cost of five or six release days--or 10 or 12 half days.  How much could be done by releasing four teachers for three half days to observe and work with other teachers? meets us where we are at
Would we ask a new swimmer to jump off of the high diving board?  A novice skier to head down a double-black diamond run?  Or would we tell someone that the only car they should buy is a new Mercedes Benz when we know they only have a $10000 budget?  While each of these scenarios seems absurd, imagine what it feels like for an educator to be asked to "do Project-Based Learning" in their classes, or to "welcome observers into their classroom" when they are used to being left on their own behind a closed classroom door to teach the way that they have found to be successful for themselves and their students.  While there may be a research-base to an educational initiative that supports a positive change in classroom practice, research does not automatically open classroom doors: having a colleague or a team come to observe their classroom can truly be a 'double-black diamond' moment for many educators.  And rightfully so!  In most cases, we have not taken them down a 'green run' with ideas like PBL or classroom observation.

Educational initiatives and professional development must provide multiple entry points for our educators, and provide the appropriate level of challenge at each level.  In his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience", Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "mee-hi, cheek-sent-me-hi" if you're curious) talks about the importance of "flow" when we are considering whether the activities we design allow participants to get into "the zone".  However, we must not only acknowledge the challenge level of the activity, we have to ensure a certain skill level of our educators so we help them move from a state of anxiety or boredom to a place where they are optimally engaged.

With something like classroom observation, we might create multiple entry points for our educators like this:

  • Level 1: examining sample classroom tasks to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of those tasks
  • Level 2: examining our own classroom tasks to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks
  • Level 3: video observation of sample classes to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of the tasks and activities in the lessons we see
  • Level 4: individual video observation of our own class to describe and reflect upon our own practices using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities
  • Level 5: small group/department video observation of our own classes to describe and reflect upon our own practices using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities
  • Level 6: external colleague/group live observations using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities across our school
Whether it is peer observation, formative assessment, collaboration, or any other approach or initiative, it needs to meet people where they are at and engage them to move forward. what we do, in our context
In what we do.
Every day. 
With the people that we have.
With the money that we have.
With the time that we have.

Education conferences and workshops can have tremendous value, as can visits to other schools, jurisdictions and countries:  having scholars and practitioners synthesize their research and experiences can save us huge amounts of time and effort.  There is no doubt that it is difficult to see what others are doing when we are in the 'trenches' of everyday school business!  It is important for us to 'get to the hilltops' to see what is possible for us from a different perspective: to understand new ideas, to be inspired, and to get outside of ourselves and our own learning situations.  However, before we leave our own schools and districts, we not only need to have a very clear vision of our own context, we need to imagine how we can re-combine the people and talents that exist in OUR contexts and in OUR classrooms given the information that we are learning about.   

As much as there is no more time, and there will never be more money, we DO have the time and the money that we currently spend on things that do not crack the C.O.D.E. of teacher learning. We just have to find them, name them, and file them in the appropriate place.

So, as each of us comes off of a refreshing and recharging summer filled with excitement and ideas about how we can impact student and educator learning, we need to ask ourselves one question before we jump at the next promising practice or idea that comes our way:

"Does this crack the C.O.D.E of teacher learning?"