Saturday, January 29, 2011

Giving them Wings

Have you ever had to crawl into a gymnasium filled with laughing students, teachers, and principals while you were dressed only in a diaper? Have you ever been tied to another Grade 8 and have to walk through the halls? Did you ever have to be a slave to a senior? Do you know what a swirly is? Ah yes, I remember Initiation Day, the most dreaded day in the my high school career.

Perhaps you have other stories that may or may not be fit for print about Initiation Day or Freshman Day or any such a hazing day that you might remember as an eighth grader.  It was horrible, wasn't it?  The only thing that got me through that humiliation and discomfort was the twisted thought that some how I was going to be able to exact my revenge the following year when the new crop of Grade 8s came into our high school.  I am so glad that those days are a distant memory.  I don't know that there could have been a worse welcome to high school, especially when the legend of the atrocities of that day started when I was in Grade 6 and grew to unbearable, nerve-wracking, Exorcist-like proportions right up until the moment we slightly chubby, knock-kneed adolescents toddled into the gym that day.

"What would happen at a school if children were given permission to care about each other?"

If you have heard this question before and know the answer to it, then very likely you have a LINK Crew at your school, just like we do.  LINK Crew is the outstanding, research-based school to school transition program that we (and numerous other schools) use to welcome our freshmen Grade 8s to SKSS.  It is an unbelievable opportunity for our Senior Students to bond with our Grade 8 students, and we have received an outstanding response over the last 4 years since we brought it to our school.  There are a variety of incredible interactive activities that day designed to allow our Grade 8s to get to know each other (all 275 of them) and to get to know a wonderful and dedicated group of our seniors (usually 80 of them).  As well, they tour the school, get their timetables, visit their classes, have lunch together, and plan numerous follow up activities for later on in the semester.  The parents love it, and the kids love it more.  It is the diametric opposite of what I went through as a student entering high school.

At our school, we have put in numerous structures to support students and keep them connected to our schools.  Outside of the classroom, we have 30 teams in our athletics program, an excellent band and choir, a terrific performing arts and fine arts program, Global Awareness, Gay-Straight Alliance, Science Club..the list goes on.  For our each of our academic courses, we have multiple structures that range from invitational to directive to ensure success for our students, and we have changed our assessment practices to ensure that we are assessing what students and using that knowledge to help alter our practices.  As a result, a our course failure rates continue to drop.  Students are being successful, graduation rates are high, and we continue to work hard to try find new ways to engage each of our learners.

But this week it hit me...we spend a great deal of time getting students comfortable coming into our school in transition activities, but have a huge chasm that we make our students jump across with what I believe to be very little support.  The leap from high school to college or university is massive.  And according to the first-year dropout statistics that indicate that 33% quit, and that 64% of those who begin a four-year degree do not complete it, it seems that students are plummeting to their educational demise.

I would have been one of these casualties. I attended SFU in my first year, and I just didn't connect.  I was there on scholarship and I still didn't want to stay.  And I felt as though no one cared, that I was a number, and that I could have just walked away, and not one person would have noticed.  I didn't quit, I transferred to UVIC, and found my way.  But it was close. VERY close.  We need to change this, and I think there are a couple of things that we could investigate at our school that might help.  These are not academic supports, I am thinking that these are LIFE supports.

Here are a few thoughts that I am having right now, but they have not yet taken shape...not an exhaustive list, and if you have ideas, please comment.

Things we could do at our school

1) Flexible Timetabling - When seniors go off to university, they can pick their courses and set up their schedule, including when they take courses.  How can we work this into what we do for senior high school students?  To this end, why does school have to go from 8:30-3:00?

2) Drop In Tutorials - We have this, but only once per week.  We have mandatory study blocks connected to student's classes

3) Provide the opportunity to take university courses - again, we have this, but we only have a few kids that access these courses, not because they don't want to, it's because our high achieving students are often in numerous extracurricular activities, volunteering, or working--there just isn't time!  Maybe we need to make the senior year less structured to allow this.

4) Create collaborative study groups for senior students - Either physically, within the building, or by using social media tools, or perhaps a combination of both.

Things that the University Could Do

1) Create social connections for students: I think that universities are getting better for this, but I wonder if this is more localized to students that live on residence.  There are a number that live off campus that don't get involved.  There needs to be a LINK Crew at the U (and I am sure there are some examples out there)

2) Identify at-risk students:  In high school, we ask our teachers to identify these students so that we can intervene either academically or socially.  Why don't we do this at university?  Carleton University is trying.
This would involve...

3) Profs re-thinking assessment practices: I truly believe that there needs to be more checkpoints for students in their first year to 'see how they are doing' as opposed to a midterm, a big project, and a final that is common in many first year courses

4) Create mandatory small group tutorial sessions: to augment #2, and to give students a chance to connect with other students.  It's too easy to blow these off, and there needs to be a check-in system.

5) Celebrate student successes: We do at elementary, and at secondary, but how do we do this at university (and I am not meaning at the pub)?

This week, myself and each of the high school Principals had the privilege of meeting with the each of the Deans, the Vice-Provost and the Provost of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC.  TRU is a great university, so great in fact that 83% of our graduates in School District #73 that go on to tertiary education choose Thompson Rivers.  We had an opportunity to discuss what our roles were, which programs our students tended to take advantage of at the University, and some means by which TRU can be marketed to our students.  However, we didn't get down to the real meat.

With our seniors, do we figuratively 'dress them in diapers' and send them to university, much like that day I remember when I came into high school?

Or when they jump, do we give them wings?

Saturday, January 22, 2011


"American stunt men are smart.  They think about safety.  When they do a jump in a car, they calculate everything:  the speed, the distance...Everything we do is a guess.  If you've got the guts you do it.  All of my stunt men have gotten hurt."   - Jackie Chan

There are certain times in our life when we come to a fork in the road and have to make a decision.  Do we head down the traditional, beaten path that is clearly marked and know where we are going to end up?  Do we hike down the less conventional trail which has twists and turns, but that we still believe will take us where we would like to go?  There are pros and cons to following each of these.  The traditional path is easier, it's comfortable, and the results are tried and true.  Most people are going to go that way anyway, aren't they? The trail less traveled is going to guarantee that we are going to get a good workout, that we would have really flexed our muscles along the way, and it likely would have break us out of the rut we might have been in. Yet even by choosing this more challenging pathway, we often know that we are going to end up pretty close to where we thought we would get, but with some slight modifications.  Definitely more adventuresome is the latter, and those who have this willingness to take on the additional challenges are to be commended.

However, the people who are really changing my thinking today seem to ignore both of these paths and create their own.  These individuals are not the type who follow a pathway anyway, they blaze a trail which is often in a completely different direction than most people are going.  And these people have one thing in common that propels them through these uncharted waters:  each of them has GUTS.

"Gold medals aren't really made of gold.  They're made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts." - Dan Gable, US Olympic Wrestling Gold Medallist

I like people with guts.  Being around people with guts makes me feel 10 feet tall, and able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound.  And in the last few weeks, there have been a few people that have done exactly what they always do, they inspire me (and many others) with their guts.  While there are so many people like this out there, and I hate to exclude any of the people who shape my thoughts, these are a few examples GUTS for me in the past few weeks:

1)  Chris Wejr - Principal of Kent Elementary Bucking the trend with his post called The Death of an Awards Ceremony subsequent radio interview about Awards = GUTS

2)  Chris Kennedy - Superintendent of West Van changing the way that Superintendents do business by making himself completely accessible to the public at all times, as outlined in this article in the Vancouver Sun = GUTS

3) Brad Epp and Blake Buemann - Teachers at my school who are using this survey to have their students evaluate their teaching so that they can get formative feedback and improve their methods of instruction = GUTS.

4) Joe Bower - Teacher in Red Deer, Alberta, who continuously challenges our thinking of assessing student learning first rather than assigning students grades in his blog "For the Love of Learning" = GUTS.

5) Jonathan Martin and Patrick Larkin, (via Karl Fisch and Daniel Pink) - Through their introduction to their staffs and implementation of the "Fisch Flip" of instruction, where students get the content at home and get the benefit of teacher instruction during class time = GUTS

6) Suanne Wallin - Teacher at Westsyde Secondary in Kamloops, BC who is completely committed to making connections to students in her classes, and believes that EVERY LAST STUDENT in her 'Strive' Program can be successful.  My visit to her classroom last week has truly inspired me to think of students and the services that we provide in a completely different way = GUTS

These people all inspire me in very different ways.  Through their actions, they have challenged conventional thinking, and have bared their values for all to see and critique.  These individuals know that the worst thing that we can do is stay put, and have made some pathways that might have been thought of as 'risky' in the past not only safe but possible.  And as much as each of them is incredibly talented, I would argue that the characteristic that sets them apart from others is the very reason why they are to be admired: each of them has GUTS. 

If you have examples of people in education that have GUTS, please feel free to add to this list above with your comments, and to share what it is they are doing with your Personal Learning Network.  The more that we hear about people with guts, the more it inspires each of us to be courageous in our own situation.

We all know people that are good at what they do.  We sometimes look with envy at those with raw talent.  And we all admire those with guts.  But if I had the choice to take someone with more talent than guts, or someone with more guts than talent, I'll take the one with more guts every time.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Least Expensive Method for Improving Student Achievement

Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to listen to Dr. Douglas Reeves speak at a conference that I was attending in Phoenix.  I have always admired Dr. Reeves, and I find him to be one of the most compelling and well-researched speakers that I have ever listened to.  I have read most of his books and dozens of his articles.  Needless to say, when he speaks, I feel it's pretty important for me to listen.

He took the group of 600 or so people that were in the large theatre at the conference through an activity that I encourage you to try.  He instructed each of us to take a piece of paper and fold it “hot dog” (if you don’t know what this means, likely you are not a nerdy educator like I am).  In the left hand column, he then asked us to list each of the initiatives that we have started doing at our schools in the last 10 years.  I eagerly wrote down as many of these things as I possibly could, ranging from Professional Learning Communities, to Assessment for Learning, to Literacy Initiatives, to PBS/EBS, to Roots of Empathy, and many others.  One of my colleagues did the same thing beside me, as did a number of people sitting around us.  Needless to say, we were filled with a sense of self-importance: we were quite proud of the length of our lists.

He then asked us to write another list in the right hand column:  he asked us to write all of the initiatives that we had stopped doing.  Well, you can imagine, there was a growing roar of laughter.  Of course, very few of us stopped anything.  Many (if not most) initiatives just faded to oblivion, and became another one of those large, coiled binders that sit on our shelves in our offices like so many badges of courage that we tend to bear.

Dr. Reeves moved on to another topic, but I sat there and looked at my lengthy list:  I thought about all of the time and money that we had spent on these initiatives.  Clearly, this was not money well spent because there were only a couple of initiatives that we are still doing today.  If the initiative was worth it, we would still have been doing it.  I was suitably depressed.

In my last post, I cracked the book Visual Learning, by John Hattie, to help me avoid repeating history and chasing after educational rainbows.  But with my endless spare time between finishing “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, I have also found the opportunity to read another excellent book called Bringing out the Best in Teachers by Blase and Kirby.   This book has a strong research base, and has a number of very reasonable and do-able strategies that can help students to be successful.  And within this book I found one of the cheapest and easiest methods for improving achievement ever.  PRAISE.
Did you know that giving teachers praise increases student achievement?  In Chapter Two, which is entitled "The Power of Praise", the authors cite dozens of studies that underscore the impact that sincere praise from the Principal can have on teachers.  Not surprisingly, personal praise (ie. "That's a nice sweater") is far less impactful than praise that is job-specific.  The authors suggest seven tips for Principals in praising their teachers (Blase and Kirby, 2009):

1. Praise sincerely
2. Maximize the use of nonverbal communication (smiles, nods and touches)
3. Schedule time for teacher recognition
4. Write brief personal notes or emails to compliment individuals
5. Show pride in teachers by boasting to others about them
6. Praise briefly
7. Target praise to teachers work

I think about all of the initiatives and all of the time and all of the resources and all of the money, and here is something that costs absolutely nothing but really makes a difference.  Praising our teachers is something that all of us can and should do.  I need to do more of it. And not just because it's good for student achievement. 

It's the right thing to do, and it feels good.

Do you praise your teachers enough?

Blase, J. and Kirby, P. (2009) Bringing out the best in teachers: what effective Principals Do.  Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks CA.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Research - It should be called BS Repellent

I don't like BS.  I don't like it when people make bold, loud claims about different aspects of education, about what works and what doesn't.  What is even more troublesome for me than these controversial statements is when I don't have the research backing to quantitatively and qualitatively refute the BS.  After many negative experiences challenging people on their beliefs without backing of my own, I have determined that people cling strongly to these thoughts (whether they are BS or not) unless you can provide research to them that might change their mind.  And really, if you are questioning a set of beliefs with nothing more than your own beliefs, then you are a BSer just as much as the next person.

As a result, over the past several years, I have become a research junkie. I love reading studies about pretty much anything educational.  Homework--does it make a difference?  How about class size?  Failing a student?   But the one thing that I find with reading research is that it takes a great deal of time, and it seems that for each study you find that supports one side of an argument, there are two or three that support the other side of the argument: often, you end up walking away wondering which study to believe. 

However, I have found a new educational Bible for me.  It is called "Visible Learning", by John Hattie, and it is a compilation of more than 800 meta-analyses of different factors that influence student achievement.  And remembering that meta-analyses are the studies of all of the studies, they tend to remove some of the bias that may come from individual studies. And as far as I am concerned, this book represents what I am going to call educational BS Repellent, and it is something that I feel that all educators should read. 

We all have our beliefs about educational reform and about strategies that improve student achievement.  Some of these notions are based on experience, others are founded in research, and even more are based on what we tend to believe through our peers and those that we respect.  This is not to de-value the importance of what we have experienced, and in many cases, these experiences are in fact what is borne out by research.  But the question is, how do you know if a claim to the success or failure of an idea or initiative really is true, or simply BS? In times of the shrinking buying power of budgets and increased demands on public education, don't we think it might be important to do some research into the high-yield strategies that are research proven to work so that we can use those resources as efficiently as we possibly can?  And within that context, I believe that it is important to make sure that we quash some of the BS that tends to cloud our judgment when we are making critical decisions for educational reform and improving student achievement. 

Hattie's book defines a term called the "hinge point"--this is the point at which it can be said that a factor or innovation has a significant impact on student achievement, and is the average impact of all of the factors/innovations in the six categories of student, home, school, teacher, curricula, and teaching.  The numerical value of this "hinge point" is 0.4.  As a frame of reference, the factor with the highest impact on student had a value of 1.44, and the factor with the lowest (and in fact deleterious) effect was -0.34.

I encourage you to read this book and draw your own conclusions.  However, here is some of the research findings on six interesting educational thoughts that I had, and have now given me pause for thought.  Again, this is all from Hattie (2009), and all credit goes to him and the meta-analyses that he compiled in his book. These are simply a few of my reflections on his book.

1. Class Size

My initial thought: Decreasing Class Size from 25 to 15 could significantly improve student achievement.

The bold, loud claim I hear:  "Decreasing class sizes is a key to student success!"

What the research says:  Of the 138 factors of the meta-analyses done, this was ranked as number 106, and had a impact factor of 0.21, well below the hinge point of showing notable change.  This is based on studies of more than 40000 classes, and nearly 950000 students worldwide. Perhaps not surprisingly, "quality teaching" has nearly double the impact on student achievement than this factor.

My new thought:  Not the high-yield strategy that I believed.

2.  Retaining/failing students

My initial thought:  Holding a student back or failing them is not effective.

The loud, bold claim I hear: "Kids don't fail enough these days, they just get passed on.  They need to be held back if they don't have the skills!"

What the research says:  Of the 138 factors, this is ranked 136, and in fact has a negative effect on student achievement at -0.16.  This is based on 207 studies and more than 13000 students worldwide.  This effect gets worse over time, and retained students lose more and more ground on students as the years pass.  Students that are promoted do better on the same outcomes than those who are retained.  As well, those who are retained did poorer across the board, whether it was reading, language arts or math!

My new thought:  The same as my old one, retaining students is not effective, even in a sequentially building course such as math.

3. Ability grouping of students

My initial thought:  Very mixed. It might have some benefits for certain subject areas, maybe math?

The loud, bold claim that I hear:  "Kids need to be grouped by ability so the teacher can focus on their specific needs."

What the research says:  This factor ranks 121st out of 138, with 500 studies done over hundreds of schools.  It has an average effect of .14, and mostly for higher achieving students.  In specific subject areas, it has almost no impact: in English, .02, and in Math ZERO effect.  But it has "profoundly negative effects" on student's feelings of equity.

My new thought:  There is no benefit to 'streaming' students in schools, and with the changes in the current Math curriculum in British Columbia, the idea of creating adapted classes for students will have more cost than benefit.

4. The relationship between the teacher and the student

My initial thought:  This is a very important factor for student success.

What the research says:  Of the 138 factors, this ranked #11, with an impact factor of .72.  This is based on nearly 230 studies and more than 350000 students.  Some behaviours that are particularly important for teachers are empathy, warmth, and 'non-directivity': allowing students more student-initiated or student-directed activities for learning.

My new thought:  This is even more important than I initially believed (and I believed relationships to be tremendously important), and something that I want to emphasize at our school.

5.  The effect of Principals and School Leaders

My initial thought:  This is a very important factor for student success, especially transformational leadership--not because I am a Principal, but because I have read and heard so much about how important school leadership is supposed to be. 

What the research says:  This ranked 74th out of 138 factors, and came from nearly 500 studies spanning over 1.1 million students.  A quote from the book: "Instructional leadership refers to those principals who have their major focus on creating a learning environment free from disruption, a system of clear teaching objectives, and high teacher expectations for teachers and students.  Transformational leadership refers to those principals who engage with their teaching staff new in ways that inspire them to new levels of energy, commitment, and moral purpose to collaboratively overcome challenges and reach ambitious goals...the evidence supports the former (instructional) over the latter (transformational)." (Hattie, 2009).

My new thought: Not quite as important as I thought, and I need to spend more time and focus on setting clear teaching objectives and high standards for my staff and students.

6.  Formative Evaluation of programs

My initial thought:  Extremely important for teachers to adapt and change their methodologies in response to student learning. Using student data to guide instruction and reflection through collaboration with their peers is something that we have been focussing on in our school through our change in structures.

Loud, bold claim I hear:  "I know what works in my class!"

What the research says:  This ranks as #3 of 138, with an effect of 0.9 over nearly 4000 students and 38 studies.  Teachers being purposeful to innovations in that they are looking to see "what works" and "why it works" as well as looking for reasons why students do not do well lead to improvement in instruction and student achievement.

My new thought:  This is the high-yield strategy that can really make a difference at our school, and through the Professional Learning Community Model of providing time for teachers to collaborate and reflect on teaching practices, we have seen a marked increase in the success of our students.

Again, these are just a very few of the highlights of this very important book, and if you are interested in challenging your own beliefs about education with the research that is out there, I think Hattie's "Visible Learning" is a must-read.  Furthermore, if you are interested in finding out "what works" in terms of high-yield strategies to maximize your staff development, I think this is an excellent beginning. Or, if you just want to be able to call BS on people who make loud, bold statements about education without having done the research, the research here is your BS repellent.

And that is no BS.

Hattie, J., (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses relating to achievement. Routledge, Oxon.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

No Us vs.Them. Just Us.

As it is 2011 and it is the time for New Year's Resolutions.  While I may have a few other resolutions like eating less red meat and limiting my consumption of ice cream (I would say "eliminating", but it's ice cream...come on), I also have an educational resolution that I hope to follow through upon, and I hope that others will to.  I want to get rid of the "us versus them" on every level of education.

You know what I mean.  Teachers versus their Principals and Vice Principals.  The school versus the board office.  The parents versus the school.  The community versus the trustees. The students versus the teachers.  Elementary versus Secondary.  K-12 versus post-secondary.  All of these adversarial relationships MUST go.  None of them are productive, and even when they are said in jest, they still leave a bitter taste in peoples' mouths, and evoke memories of stereotypical relationships that were likely very strained at some point in time. 

Some of these references are thought to be ok, like when teachers refer to administration as "The Dark Side".  Or when administration refers to the school board office as "The Star Chamber". Or when people talk about things that are "top-down".  Or when parents say that schools are not "real world" like the world that society acutally lives in.  Often, comments like these are is glossed over with "it's just a joke", or "we're only kidding".  Really?  Imagine if a Principal referred to teaching as "the dark side", or if the district office referred to their administrators as "just middle management".  Would this be considered funny?  Or the school said their parents were "out of touch" with what is necessary for students to be successful.  Comments like these would incite all sorts of criticism and hard feelings.  Oddly, society has always considered it to be somewhat acceptable to criticize "up the chain", but decidedly gauche and unacceptable to criticize "down the chain".  I would argue that any negative comments, joking or not, are demeaning and incredibly unproductive.

I am a Principal.  I was a high school Biology and PE teacher.  I was a Vice-Principal, and have been in three very different school districts.  I am a parent of two young girls. I think each of these experiences gives me a certain perspective, but not THE perspective.  I haven't taught for 10 years, and I would argue that as a result, I have a slightly antiquated point of view relative to teachers and students in the classroom of today.  But I have never been a support worker, Director of Instruction, an Assistant Superintendent, Superintendent, or Trustee.  So as a result, I am very limited in my ability to identify solutions to the challgenges that each of these people face in their positions.

Students, teachers, parents, support workers, Vice Principals, Principals, Superintendents, Trustees, and the community are all vital stakeholders in education.  For students to be as successful as they possibly can, each of these parties needs to be treated with equal respect.  No one party is better or worse, no more or less valuable, and no more or less culpable.  Responsibility, successes and failures need to be shared equally, as a team. If there are challenges that arise, they can best be met if each of our stakeholders work together, as a team. 

Teammates recognize that they must work together interdependently towards a common goal. .  Teammates don't blame other teammates.  Teammates meet the public unified as one, even when behind closed doors they might disagree.   And the one thing that teammates NEVER do is call another teammate down (just ask John Wooden on TED talks - thanks to @Nunavut_Teacher).  Never.

If the stakeholders in education are truly going to be a team that functions together, then let's stop perpetuating the adversarial relationships in education.  And let's start by making a resolution.  No more negative or derisive comments towards one of our teammates.  There is no "Us versus Them".  There's just Us.