Tuesday, September 9, 2014

'Control' Does Not Equal Learning

About 18 months ago, I wrote a post about my fascination with the idea of Self-Organized Learning Environments, (SOLE), an concept that came from the work of Sugata Mitra as a result of his "Hole in the Wall" Project.  I talked about my own experience with the type of learning that Sugata suggests--learning based in broadband connectivity, collaboration, and encouragement (although my 'granny cloud' seems to consist of guys like Chris Wejr, Pete Jory, Bill Ferriter and Tom Hierck, who collectively would be considered the oddest looking grannies on earth).  And I have also used a SOLE approach with our teachers to create our school's collaborative groups not only because I believe in SOLE as a learner, but because I felt it was important for me to experience what that felt like as a teacher and co-learner.

As a learner...being a part of a SOLE feels fantastic.  As the 'teacher' in our faculty meetings or in a classroom with students, well....the idea of SOLE seems not so great.  Why is that?

As a learner, I love the idea of being able to pursue questions that captivate me.  I enjoy being a involved with a collective that I want to be a part of, and being able move along when I feel that I have more to contribute to another group.  I like connecting with others, to find articles, to question research, to exchange ideas of how to design and implement a concept for our schools, or to simply shoot the breeze about something that we are working on.  When I am in this sort of learning environment, it is incredibly relaxed, highly productive, and oddly self regulating--we absolutely get off task sometimes, but one of us always brings the group back to the task at hand.   These less focused moments are essential--a kind of pressure release that allows the learning system to re-calibrate itself--but we always get back to it.    

My feelings fit well with data I have collected from workshops that I have done where we consider the results of a typical 'They Learn Best When'; an exercise that I got from the Instructional Rounds program at Harvard and now use with teachers and administrators.

So why do I get so nervous about letting my learners engage in SOLE when I know they are the very environment that my best learning occurs?  Is it because I don't trust the participants?

In thinking about this a great deal, I have come to realize that my discomfort with SOLE is mostly because I don't trust ME.  I don't trust that I have asked a question that is compelling enough for the learners in the room.   I don't always trust that the task that I have set up is one that will require the learning and participation of each student in the room.  And as a result, I am often reluctant to relinquish control in the way that a true SOLE requires, even if I KNOW that I am likely not creating a very dynamic learning situation.  Pathetic, I know.

I think I am getting better with letting go, and letting the SOLE take its course.  And one of the things that has allowed me to do become more comfortable with leading SOLE is to co-create questions, and co-create the activities that we will be doing as a larger group.  I think the High Tech High Project Tuning Protocol is an excellent tool/model that can be adapted to formatively assess whether a question is truly a driving question, and whether the task and potential learning products are ones that the group will find meaningful--meaningful enough to bring them back from those moments of off-task, 'pressure release' that I alluded to above.

This year, I want to model SOLE more, and use the HTH Tuning Protocol to help guide my questions, my faculty meetings, and my presentations.  And while there are some pieces that make me nervous, I need to accept that 'control' does not equal learning.

Here is an excellent video describing SOLE:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Better Is Not Easier - #LeadershipDay14

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." - Thomas Edison

In early 2010, I was in tenth year in administration and my seventh year as a high school principal.  To that point in my career, I had spent a great deal of time focused on understanding curriculum, instruction, assessment and intervention through the lens of the Professional Learning Community.  In different schools, we had created collaborative time for teachers, determined essential learning outcomes for our students, created intervention strategies for those students who didn't learn those outcomes, and additional opportunities for those that did.  And while no where near perfect, we had seen a distinct and notable increase in success rates for our students. For the most part, things seemed to be going pretty well.

However, like many schools, we noticed that in the hyper-stimulating digital environment that we call the 21st century, students were (for the most part) being forced to power down and slow down when they entered our classrooms. We asked ourselves a question:  "Our students are being successful in school, but are they engaged in their learning?".  And as the Principal of our school, I was doing absolutely nothing to model the use of web tools or social media for learning.

Not good.

As a result, I took took a team to the 21st Century Learning conference Chicago in 2010 so that as a group we could get an understanding of how we could better meet the needs of today's learner and how I personally could lead by example by integrating digital tools into teaching and administration.  The conference blew me away:  witnessing the power of a digitally enhanced learning environment shook my entire foundation, and changed my thinking about teaching and learning from that point forward.

Four years later, after a few thousand tweets, a couple hundred blog posts, experimenting with dozens of web tools and applications, trying a multitude of different bits of hardware, attending numerous professional development sessions on technology (and eventually giving a few on my own), and enduring a whole host of failures along with a number of successes, I find that I am comfortable working in and around a digital environment.

There was a time when I found myself being a technological evangelist.  I would talk to people about the benefits of Twitter ("24/7 professional development!"), about collaborative projects using Google docs, about digital bookmarking, screencasts, podcasts, wikis, blogs, and virtually everything that I came across during my evenings experimenting with different web tools.  I would implore people around me just to 'give technology a try', and I would attempt to 'sell' people on the idea that technology "makes life easier" and, after some front end work, saves time on the back end.  I would try to place a digital pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for neophyte tech users.

Bad idea.

I don't do that anymore.  I use technology, but don't really think about it because it is just a part of my day.  I try to model the use of digital applications when they are better for engaging learners, and when they enhance and maximize interactions between the learner, the teacher, the content, and the task.  I try to share what it is that we are doing as a school, and I love talking about the uses of technology in classrooms and in administration.  I hope that I am the biggest cheerleader when people want to try new things, especially with technology because I get excited about that sort of stuff.  But I do not 'sell' the use of technology with the idea that it makes life easier, even though for me personally, digital solutions do in fact make my life much simpler and more efficient.  I don't sell it this way because I no longer buy what it I was previously selling.

From where I stand, the truth of the matter is plain:  like anything worth doing, integrating technology to increase the individual ownership of learning for students and adults takes time.  It takes a willingness to experiment.  It takes networking with other people using social media to hear the pros and pitfalls.  It takes crowd sourcing of ideas using collaborative tools and applications.  It means enduring sketchy wifi and fly-by-night applications that crash and sometimes even disappear from the internet.  It means confronting the way that funds have been traditionally spent rather than wistfully dreaming of bags of technology-labelled funding that will never come. Ultimately, integrating technology takes work.  And while I don't find this experimentation to be 'work' per se because I enjoy tinkering with web tools, others will find it to be laborious, arduous, and frustrating.

However, the worm that I will dangle at the end of the fishing pole is this:  if one is willing to put in this work, integrating technology has the potential to engage learners in a multi-sensory way that was not possible twenty years ago.  This is not a certainty, as many use technology as a more expensive substitute for what can be done with an overhead projector.  But used well, technology can captivate students in a way that is so rich and interactive that it will allow them and their teachers to work together to ask compelling questions that have multiple answers or (gasp!) no answers at all.  In a way that will make students, teachers and administrators stay up at night trying new things and sharing their successes and failures with friends, colleagues and others they have never met.  Integrating technology has the potential to make learning better.

But 'better' is not necessarily 'easier'.  And that's ok.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Working With High Tech High - Part 1

Several months ago, we hatched the idea of a school of unique and innovative teaching and learning.  The driving vision for this school is “Sa-Hali Secondary School will be an exemplary learning environment for students, teachers, and future teachers. Through innovative educational practices, we will design and implement meaningful, problem-based learning tasks that, through their real-life application, require learners to demonstrate and apply our collaboratively-developed attributes that will prepare them for an ever-changing future.”  As a staff, we have been working towards realizing this vision on a variety of fronts:  we examined the importance of deeper learning, we have been crafting our attributes, and have begun the process of increasing our understanding of task analysis, ‘learning to see and unlearning to judge’ and the collection of descriptive observational data to allow us to scale up innovative deeper learning practices in our building and our district.

Inasmuch as we have made great strides, naturally there have been many questions and concerns about what our journey to create this environment of deeper learning could look like.  To help us along this pathway, our professional development committee determined that we needed some exemplars of learning environments that modeled deeper learning.  After a great deal of planning, we were able to bring High Tech High teachers Chris Wakefield and Anthony Conwright to our school this past week for our May Professional Development day to introduce us to the practicalities of PBL.  And if there was one word to describe the session that our staff had with Chris and Anthony, it would be ‘outstanding’.  

The session was incredibly dynamic.  There were ice-breakers, followed by short instructional bursts and demonstrations interspersed with small and large group activities.  There were exemplars of projects and ‘beautiful work’ throughout the library for each of us to touch, pick up, and examine.  There were multiple opportunities for reflection.  And ultimately, small groups were taken through the process of creating and tuning projects that we will use in our classrooms.  We learned the work by doing the work.

Personally, I had several takeaways from our session, including:

  1. We need to give students training in giving critique and multiple opportunities for revision.
  2. Our collaboration model needs to evolve to utilize the expertise of multiple departments.
  3. The tuning protocol used by HTH has multiple applications, especially for administrators.
  4. We have numerous artificial constructs that inhibit creativity.
  5. We are limited only by our imagination when it comes to PBL.

Over the next couple of weeks I need to unpack each of these separately.   But I am going to start with the first one.

We need to give students training in giving/receiving critique along with multiple opportunities for revision

When I was a teaching senior biology on the Copernican timetable, we did a lab nearly every day.  Within those labs, students would have to do a practical, hands-on piece such as a dissection, document the process they used, and explain their findings using a combination of drawings and written description.  The students would do these lab write-ups using a template that I had given to them at the start of the year.  Armed with a big new red pen, I would pick a night during the week and strap myself in with a big pile of student work and begin marking.  And much to my chagrin, I would often see work that was messy, inaccurate, and often times incomplete.  I would find myself making the same comments over and over--’where is your evidence?’, or ‘you labelled this incorrectly’, or ‘it’s “gizzard”, not “blizzard”’.  

I would return the work with a big “10 out of 15” on the front, and to my surprise, a large percentage of students would look at that big red mark on the front, shrug their shoulders, fire it in their binder (or the trash), and move on to the next lab.

And make the same mistakes again.  And again.  And again.  And guess who was to blame?  


Guess who was getting better at giving specific feedback?  Guess who was getting the benefit of looking at great (and sometimes not so great) drawings and insightful answers?  Truthfully, guess who was getting better at doing labs?


One of the things that Chris and Anthony from High Tech High stressed was the importance of public critique and providing students with multiple opportunities for revision.

They began by showing a video called “Austin’s Butterfly”:  this video shows Ron Berger (Chief Program Officer of Expeditionary Learning Schools and a leading advocate for ‘beautiful work’, working with primary and intermediate students on the concept of kind, specific, helpful feedback and multiple revisions.  Take 6 minutes and watch this (if you haven’t seen it already).

Then, Chris and Anthony gave our staff multiple progressions of a project, and had our staff practice giving kind, specific, helpful feedback that would make the project better and better.  The small groups discussed each progression and saw first hand how their feedback could make the project better and better.

This process was powerful in a few different ways.  The small groups saw the project getting better as a result of the feedback, as one might expect.  But these critique groups learned together--they learned about giving kind and helpful feedback, they learned from each other’s comments, they saw their comments build on themselves and get even more specific and meaningful, and they learned that by giving students multiple opportunities for feedback in a public setting, the products and producers improved immensely.

I look back now on my time as a biology teacher and shake my head at myself.  Wow, could I have done things differently.  I could have had the students working in small groups (and then larger ones) to give each other this kind, specific and helpful feedback.  They would have been able to improve each other’s work in a kind and non-threatening manner, and would be able to look at their own work more critically at the same time.  And in the end, when their work came to me, it would have gone through multiple revisions and a couple of dozen different sets of eyes.  

If we compared the consistent quality of work that students would produce using this approach to the work from the “one and done” (set of eyes AND opportunity) approach that I used, well, there would likely be no comparison.

As a staff, we need to design and implement activities that utilize multiple revisions and public, kind, specific and helpful feedback for our students.  As an administrator, I need to use a similar approach to the things that I do with staff.  We have great collaborative team leaders and a very knowledgeable faculty.  Like our teachers, I need to ensure that I use the collective knowledge of the group to give me kind, specific and helpful feedback on multiple iterations of projects that we will undertake as a staff so that in the end, we have ‘beautiful work’ of our own.

Part 2 Next Week - Our collaboration model needs to evolve to utilize the expertise of multiple departments.

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.