Friday, May 31, 2013

Self-Organized Learning

It has been nearly three years since I decided to become a "connected Principal" -- an educator using social media for the purpose of improving my own practice as a school-based administrator.  I wrote a post a couple of years ago called "The Evolution of a Twitter User", and since that time, I feel like I have continued to evolve in my use of social media to learn.  I used to evaluate new applications on a nightly basis and see which ones I might be able to recommend or pass along to others.  However, over the last 18 months or so, I have streamlined my approach to new programs and apps:  I find myself gravitating to tools that allow for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration on projects large and small with people that have similar interests to me.

Recently, I watched the latest Sugata Mitra TED Talk called "Build a School in the Cloud".  I had seen his "Hole in the Wall Project" TED Talk back in 2010, and enjoyed it tremendously. This was an extension of his project which also included a piece on Self Organized Learning Environments, a concept that seems to capture where I am going with my own professional learning, and where I think we could be moving with both student learning and professional development.  Sugata Mitra uses a graphic to illustrate three elements he feels are key to creating these Self-Organized Learning Environments:

The first two pieces of this equation are relatively self-explanatory--connectivity to the internet and some sort of mechanism than enables individuals to assemble in collaborative groups are things that we can understand.  However, the piece that struck me as unique was around what Sugata Mitra calls "encouragement and admiration".  If you have seen the TED talks, you will recall Mitra's reference to what he affectionately calls "the Granny Cloud":  he enlisted 200 volunteer grandmothers to act as 'tutors' to assist students on whatever topic they were working on.  But there was one important feature about the grannies in "granny cloud":

They didn't know anything about the topics that the kids were studying.


All they did was sincerely encourage the students, and continuously ask the students to tell them more about what it was they were learning about.

And the kids learned. And learned. And learned some more.


After watching "Build a School in The Cloud" I began reflecting on my approach to my own professional learning through the lens of a Self-Organized Learning Environment.  Twitter allows me to connect to people with common interests.  Facebook lets me learn a little bit more about them (I am starting to look at LinkedIn, but am not completely immersed in this technology yet).  Diigo allows me to bookmark and catalog their ideas.  I use different Google applications and Drive to share and to work on things collaboratively with them. I am starting to use Google Hangouts to set up synchronous meetings, and will look forward to making a YouTube channel as a repository for some of these meetings. Jing and Screenr help me to capture authentic artifacts that I can share with those that are and are not connected.  Dipity lets me to keep a running timeline of the project that we work on (albeit Dipity seems to be degrading a bit).  Blogger allows me to share my reflections, get feedback and grow personally and professionally with different projects that I may be working on with them.   And while I know that many people use more, different and better applications for to accomplish these and other tasks (and I am always eager to find out what might be more functional for me, so please share your ideas if you wish), these are the tools that I am currently using.

Yet these are sort of the "hows" for me, and I starting thinking about the motivation behind the "whys"--why do I even bother doing this self-organized learning?  I would suspect that I'm as busy as the next person---my school fills my day, my family fills my evenings (a three and a five year old can certainly keep you on the move), my hobbies and interests fill my early mornings, and all of the above fill my weekends in various amounts. But what gets me back to my laptop at night, after the kids go to bed and before I slump over into my keyboard?

It's a bit of a shout-out from my peers:

It's a kick in the pants to be a part of a group:

It's a comment on a post from an expert like Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) that makes me stretch my thinking and links me to other resources:

Each of these falls under that 'encouragement' piece that is suggested in Mitra's model for Self-Organized Learning.  It's my 'granny cloud'.  And like the kids from the "School in the Cloud", I keep learning, and I keep going back to find out more.  Even when I don't have time.

This is the type of learning that I want for my own children.  I want them to self-organize and connect to others who have similar interests (not necessarily similar points of view) and to provide them with as much encouragement as I possibly can to keep learning and to tell me what they have learned.

And extrapolating from that, I am going to spend some time seeing how I can work with our staff and other educators integrate ideas around this concept of Self Organized Learning to parts of our own Professional Learning Communities model.  George Couros (@gcouros) wrote a post on Blended PLCs, and I think this could dovetail nicely into the SOLE idea.

Broadband.  Collaboration.  Encouragement.  It seems too simple.

Yet it seems to have worked for me, and I wonder if it can work for others.

So either I am simple (highly probable) or we may be on to something here....

Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Technology and the Bowflex Collide

Right now, many schools and school districts are under a great deal of pressure to have their students learn (and their teachers teach) '21st Century Skills'.  We can all sing along here...collaboration, communication, critical thinking, you know...give me the 7 "C"s and all that.  For the record, I agree, and endorse these skills wholeheartedly.  I'm not sure these skills are so different from that which we have wanted for our students in the 20th century, but nonetheless, it is hard to deny that these skills are vitally important for the success of our students now and in the future.  Unfortunately, this pressure comes at a time when many would say budgets for education have never been tighter.  And yet it is not uncommon for us to hear things like:

"We need a 1:1 program"

"We need to have a smartboard in each classroom in our school"

"Everyone of our teachers and administrators needs a laptop"

"Should we be getting iPads or android tablets for all of our kids?"

"What kinds of pro-d do we need to get for our staff and administration to use technology more in their classes?"

But I can't help but think that, in some instances, we may be looking at technology use and implementation in a manner that is at best somewhat backwards, and at worst a potentially frightful use of precious educational budgets.

I need to qualify something: I am a huge believer in the importance of implementing technology in education. We have made it a priority in our building.  We have free and open wifi at our school.  By the end of this year, we will have projectors in every classroom.  Some teachers have smartboards, others have tablets and laptops, and we have pods of tablets floating around the building.  We have completely re-tasked our library to become a learning commons that is tech-rich and conducive to collaborative learning.  Most of our students have some permutation of a smartphone, and we have policies that support the use of technology for learning.  We welcome the use of social media.

However, my concern about tech budgets and tech spending are most aptly summarized with a question:

"Why are you buying that?"

I say this because there seems to be a prevailing "Field of Dreams"-themed logic out there with technology:  this is the "if you build it they will come" logic, or more specifically the "if you buy it, they will use it" approach with the promise that an infusion of technology will lead our students promised land of 21st century skills.

This thought pattern seems odd to me.  And according to this logic, every person who buys a Bowflex should be in good shape.  Yet if one spends about 30 seconds on Kijiji, there are more than a few fitness items for sale.  And I'm just taking a flyer that most people aren't selling their fitness equipment because they are now "too fit".


Making widespread tech purchases to ensure that each classroom in a school or district is kitted out with a bright and shiny technological suite is (to my way of thinking) quite analogous to the Field of Dreams concept, or buying every student or educator a Bowflex.

Maybe they don't want a Bowflex.  Perhaps they need a stairclimber.  Or maybe they need just want a pair of runners.  Or a yoga mat.

Perhaps a different tact that we might take towards our tech purchases could be based in the tenets of  Instructional Rounds.

  • tasks predict performance
  • the real accountability system is in the tasks that the students are asked to do

If we look at our technology purchases through the lens of the TASKS that we want students or teachers to accomplish, then suddenly the rationale for a technology purchase becomes infinitely more evident.

"I need my students to be able to have instant access to the internet so they can compare and contrast the validity of different websites."  Maybe a set of tablets for that classroom to enhance "side of the desk" technology could help you out.

"I want to be able to upload problems to my website from my math lessons that I have solved with students in class".  Hmmm, maybe a tablet PC or Smartboard could work.

"My students need quick access to a repository of literary terms that they can use to analyze pieces of prose".  Have them pop their smartphones out.

"I want my students to be able to brainstorm and display their ideas when they work in collaborative groups."  Well, maybe you don't need technology.  Maybe you just need some chart paper.

Of course these are just raw and rudimentary examples.  And of course, I support the idea of spending money (and sometimes a great deal of money) on technology.  However, before we spend our modest budgets that serve many important causes in our schools, it seems prudent that we can base a significant portion of our rationale for technological purchases on the TASKS we want our students and teachers to accomplish.

Because I can't afford another Bowflex.   

I learned that the hard way.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Beyond Educational Thin Slicing

Here’s a task for you:

If I gave you a morning to walk through a school with the goal of creating an accurate sketch of the teaching and learning that is taking place, how might you approach this? If I asked you to create a checklist of things that you would suggest someone should look for to describe the learning that is occurring in a number of classrooms, what might you include?  If I said that subsequently I wanted you to use the information that you found to make recommendations for the improvement of the school in a way that was both welcomed and meaningful for the school, how would you sort that out?

Perhaps you think it is impossible to determine such a sketch by observing what takes place in a morning at a school.  Maybe you think you would be unable to get a sufficiently accurate ‘slice’ of the learning that takes place in a mere half of a day.  And if that was the case, you might contend that the feedback that you could give to the faculty and administration at a school would be so superficial that it would be of little or no value.


In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the concept of ‘thin slicing’:

“A critical part of rapid cognition is known as “thin slicing.” Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our
unconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. In the theory of thin slices, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. Thin-slicing is part of what makes the unconscious so dazzling....We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person, have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation.”

Whether you have strong feelings about the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of thin-slicing (or something similar), I wonder how many of us are currently engaged in the process of ‘educational thin-slicing’?  Right now, I would guess that there are teacher leaders and administrators all across North America that spend countless hours walking through classrooms each day observing teachers teach and students learn.  And without inference, I wonder how much of this well-intentioned work is making real difference to student learning.

I can think of numerous occasions as a Principal when I walked into a classroom with the intention of finding the antecedents of good teaching and engaging learning.  When I would look at kids notebooks, talk to them about what they were doing, ask them about how they were being evaluated and what they did when they were struggling with an assignment.  When I would watch a teacher give a passionate and captivating lesson (at least it was to me), and think that the students were really lucky to have them.  When I would look at the level of student engagement (I’m really not totally sure how I thought I was determining that) and use that as some sort of mental measure of effectiveness.

I was looking at a veritable scatter plot of different things that had varying levels of impact on student learning with little or no connectivity from classroom to classroom in the school.



So given my admitted level of ineffectiveness, let’s go back to the task I assigned you at the start of this post.  While you might already have started to put some constraints around this assignment, I really just need the task done, and therefore it’s wide open.  Here are a couple of ‘what ifs’ that might change your optic on the situation:

  • What if prior to visiting the school, the staff had collaboratively determined an area of focus that they felt was important to improve the teaching and learning in the school and had invited you to come to work alongside them to give them formative feedback?
  • What if you could take a team along with you to observe a large number of classes at a variety of points during the lessons?
  • What if you had already observed numerous classes in other schools and were very comfortable giving descriptive feedback (without making inferences) about the tasks that the students were be asked to do and what they were doing as a result?
  • What if you and your team could base recommendations for the on collectively observed and agreed upon patterns that were found in each of the classrooms?
  • What if you could be re-invited to the school a few months later to observe progress and to see whether the strategies that were designed and implemented had an impact on that target area?

If these “What ifs” make this task more manageable for you, well, good, they should.  These “What ifs” are some of the elements of Instructional Rounds, a process that I watched happen in two different schools over the time we were in Boston a few weeks ago.  We were invited to schools we had never been to as a team.  We met wonderful groups of teachers and administrators at each school.  We observed numerous classes for a short period of time.  We made descriptive observations focused on an area that the teachers had asked us to look for without judgement or inference.  We found some patterns that we presented to the staff, and made suggestions based on the observations that we saw that day.  And at one point, when we were providing some positive feedback to one of the schools, a teacher stopped us and said “as much as we appreciate the positive feedback, we asked you to come so that you could tell us what we can do better!”


The reality is that we will never have enough time to get into all of the classrooms that we want to so that we can work alongside of all of the students and teachers to improve the learning for our kids.  Therefore, when we do go into classes it needs to be highly focused and incredibly formative for everyone involved.  Instructional Rounds does this in a way that I have not seen before and I watched it happen before my own eyes.

Check out Instructional Rounds.  I think it will change the way that you approach classrooms in your building or your district in a way that is truly (trans)formative for teaching and learning.

1. Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books, 2007.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Writing on Beaches with Sticks

When I reflect on these last seven years at my school, I realize that we have begun and implemented a number of different initiatives.  Whether it has been around assessment practices, collaborative mechanisms, intervention strategies, staff and student engagement, or technology and 21st century skills, we have taken numerous steps in attempts move us forward on the continuum of promising practice on a variety of fronts.  I’m sure this is no different than any other administrator or team leader in any school:  when coming to a new learning situation, it is natural to examine the strengths to build upon and the areas for growth that we want to support in order to improve student and adult achievement and capacity.  But there are several questions that I need to ask myself, the first one being:

“Have these initiatives made a difference?”

Since we have created time within our timetable for teachers to work with other teachers on curriculum, instruction, and assessment in their curricular areas, have teachers seen a change in their practice and a change in the achievement of their students?  Well, we have anecdotal survey data from staff members that supports this notion.

In our continued acknowledgement (both philosophically and with our structures) that students learn at different rates through provision of both invitational and directed times for students to get additional support in their learning, have we seen increased success in our core courses?  And to that end, as a result of us examining our own assessment practices, getting rid of late marks, and giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning, have we seen an increase in student success?  Our decreasing failure rates would indicate positive trending in this area:

With our digital school improvement plan, literacy strategy-based staff meetings, increased access to technology and wifi, and modelling the use of web tools for collaborative learning for our faculty, have we created an increased sense of ownership and engagement to our own professional learning that is evident in our classroom practices and demonstrated in the form of 21st century skills by our students?  I am looking forward to further examination of the Instructional Rounds principles to help us determine growth through a collaboratively developed, inquiry-based problem of practice in these areas.

But there is another piece to all of this, and perhaps a more important question to consider:

Have these initiatives and the work around them become a part of our culture?  

Or, in the words of Dr. Richard Elmore from the Harvard Graduate School of Education:

“Is your strategy in the heads, hearts, and hands of all of the people in your organization?”

I think our collaborative structures are solid, and they will continue to get better and more focused.  I think our assessment practices are becoming more crystalline in terms of their clarity to our students, our staff and our communityI feel like we are engaging our staff and our students more than ever, and our reflection on pedagogy is steadily improving to better meet the needs of each of our learners. But....

But as much as I don't want to cop out, I really believe that only time will tell.  The structures that last and the philosophies that endure are the ones that will comprise the culture that has evolved over the past seven years.  That is the legacy piece that I feel everyone needs to consider when they begin at a new school--"After I leave, what is it that I want to leave behind?" or maybe a different question:

"What can I do to make sure I am not just writing on the beach with a stick?"

In your tenure as a school or team leader, how do you determine whether initiatives or ideas are just going to get "washed away with the tide"?   What are those high-yield strategies that you are doing in your building that, through your experiences, you know have the potential to be a part of any school culture?  And what have you done to embed them in your culture?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Going In (To A New School)

One of the realities for most school-based administrators is mobility between schools.  While not always the case in smaller districts, Principals and Vice-Principals tend to move after a period of time. Sometimes it's two or three years, sometimes a little longer at five years, and some longer, maybe even ten or eleven years.  However, it seems inevitable that there is a point in time at which administrators either make the call and apply for other positions, or get the call and are asked to move on to a new situation.

This has happened to me in the last few weeks:  after seven years, I will be leaving my current school to become the Principal of another high school here in our district.  There are many feelings that come with moving schools: excitement, angst, and yes, even some grieving due to the investment that each of us puts in to our schools in trying to make a difference for students.  But after the initial cavalcade of emotions, I find myself vacillating between feelings of anticipation of my new situation and reflection on what has happened at my school over the last seven years.

When coming into a school as the new Principal, we are often bombarded with thoughts and phrases that shape the way we approach a new setting:
  • How fast is too fast, and how slow is too slow?  We don't want to be pushy, but conversely, we don't want to seem wishy-washy and perhaps miss out on an opportunity when people might be ready for change.  
  • "Just go in and listen!", you say...listen to what?  To who?  
  • "Go in and get a feel for the culture."  What does this mean?  Will it just jump out at me?  
  • "Honor what people are doing and have done."  OK, I agree, but what is "honor-able"?  How do you determine what needs your support and further augmentation?  What if there is something that needs to be confronted, do we just let it go until enough time goes by that we are able to 'put our stamp on things'?  And how long is that period of time, exactly?
  • "Find out who your key players are!"  What defines a key player?  The overt person that has a great deal of 'influence'?  The person who is a tremendous teacher that quietly goes about their business?  In Kurt Lewin parlance, do we "maintain the equilibrium of the school", or do we disrupt it?
Who is to know? And even for those who believe they do have the skeleton key that correctly "opens any door" of a new school with all of its complexities, trying to describe that knowledge can come across as patriarchical to those that are entering the new context.

Outside of some of these indicators of culture, of "how we do things around here", we also have to consider the educational agenda. Where is the new school at in terms of:
  • creating connections and shared experiences for students, staff and parents?
  • assessment?
  • collaboration for peer observation, reflection and improving instructional practice?
  • academic interventions for students that need more time and support?
  • instructional leadership, current initiatives and future directions?
  • engaging student and adult learning?
just to name a few.

And of course, what cannot be lost in all of this is the human element. When a new Principal comes, it's natural for the people in the school community to be a bit nervous. What's the new person going to be like? Are they going to come with guns blazing and try to change the world in a week? And moreover, as much as I hope people think I am reasonably calm in the face of change and I am competent in (or at the very least, willing to learn) most things I do as a Principal, I can tell you I will be nervous too. I am excited to meet a new group of educators, students, parents and alumni, and I am eager to serve them in my new position. But make no mistake the butterflies will be there.

How great it would be to have a road map to help administrators new and experienced in their transition to a new school. A set of guidelines that described multiple entry points for both the administrator and the school with pieces such as how to better understand a school's culture, how to develop or increase the capacity of collaborative learning teams that examine and change pedagogical practices, how to design and implement interventions that keep students connected, and how to create a student body and faculty that is truly engaged and invested in their own learning.  Perhaps all of these ideas against a backdrop of the skills that we want our school community to have in an ever-changing world around us.


For those of you who have moved to new schools as administrators, what are some of the things that you feel are important to consider when you are "Going In"?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Do Your Tasks REQUIRE Learning?

This week, I was fortunate enough to be asked to represent my school district and attend Harvard University to take part in the Instructional Rounds Program presented by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  And now, as I sit on the plane on the way home (via Chicago and Calgary…groan) reflecting on the week, my mind is in a state of both mental exhaustion and tremendous intellectual stimulation in every recollection.  The program was incredibly intense:  there was no figurative dipping of the toe in the IR pool, but rather an intellectual shove off of a rocky cliff into a frothing ocean with your individual educational values feeling like a set of water wings there to save you.  The Harvard professors and facilitators pushed the thinking, challenged your statements, thrust you into interdependent collaboration, and demanded commitments from the 104 teachers, administrators and district staff from places ranging from Boston, Texas, Ontario, British Columbia, Germany, and Australia, Brazil and many other places.  And they did it through a simple lens:

The way to learn the work is to do the work.  And the performance on that work and accountability to that work is predicted by the tasks you are required to do.


When tasks were put before us, there were supports, but they weren’t supports in the form of answers:  there were more and deeper questions.  There weren’t supports in the form of constructs or manuals or formalized structures, instead, there were scenarios presented which made us think of the nature of the questions we might ask people we are working with in the future to help THEM clarify the work they were doing.  There were not pontificating lectures telling us to change our thinking.  We were challenged to provide the evidence for our thoughts, and if that evidence didn’t support that train of thought, then we needed to look critically at what the evidence did in fact support to shape our further thinking.
We worked in groups with teams comprised of members from all over the world.  We worked with our own teams.  We spent entire days in schools practicing.  We then spent evenings working with our teams again.  We worked with our professors who were very quick to ask why we thought certain things and why we made the statements that we did.  At almost every break, we had to write reflections, and share those reflections with someone who would ask questions of clarity.  We went back to schools and practiced some more. We listened to and critiqued the commitments from other groups knowing that they would be doing the same for us. We had to open up our thoughts and values to the larger group. 
We had no choice.  We were DOING the work.  The task didn't just make us accountable to our facilitators, it made us accountable to ourselves AND our peers. And we LEARNED.

I will tell you, it was exhausting.  And just when you thought you couldn’t push your thinking any farther, another question came that scaffolded us to the next task.  Just enough scaffolding to keep us in that zone of proximal development.  Groan.  More learning.

It was messy.

Learning is messy.

At the end of the first day, I felt like my brain just went 15 rounds with a heavyweight boxer and I got KO’d in the ninth round but kept going.  But because the task was within that zone of challenge, and because I received just enough scaffolding to move on, and because I was working interdependently with my teams, the next morning I was absolutely excited to step into the ring again.  And each day I lasted longer in the fight.  I started to fight back.

You might be thinking “Ummm…NO KIDDING.”  The whole notion of learning by doing the work seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?  And of course the task predicts performance right?  Hmmm.  Not so fast.

When I reflect upon my own practice, I wonder if the tasks that I asked students to do in my classroom were structured in a way that gave them no other option to be engaged.  I wonder if the supports that I gave to my students were clarifying questions so they could make their own meaning, or whether the students were learning through MY filter and mine alone.  I wonder if the great and the not-so-great performance that I got out of my students was because of the task I assigned to them, not because of their own capabilities.  I wonder whether I spent enough time having them learn by doing the work rather than watching me do the work.

I wonder if the staff and professional development activities that I do and have done with my staff have engaged them like I was engaged.  If it had them doing the real work that needed to be done to learn and augment our knowledge about new tasks. Because this week, I was not professionally developed, my capacity was increased in a way that is difficult to describe.  

And as a side note, we did not touch a piece of technology.  Not once.  And I love technology.  But I was too way too engaged to notice we weren’t using it.  The only time I noticed that we didn’t use technology or web tools was when I was walking back to the hotel—my bag felt so heavy with my laptop and tablet that after the second day I finally left them in the hotel and didn’t miss them a bit.  I was engaged by doing the work.  Doing higher order tasks that elicited higher order work from the entire group.

As a point of reflection, if you examine the tasks that you ask other adults or students to do, do the tasks require the participants to do the desired work?  Or is doing the work optional?  As an example, are you upset that students are not demonstrating higher order learning skills in your classes, but demanding them to work independently, answer fill in the blank questions, do vocabulary crosswords, or copy definitions out of the textbook? Have you ever asked yourself the simple question “What will the student know and have been required to demonstrate after doing this work?”

The way to learn the work is to do the work.  And the performance on that work and accountability to that work is predicted by the tasks you are required to do.

Over the next few weeks and months, I am going to continue to reflect and blog about my experiences with Instructional Rounds.  There is too much to write in a single post, and I feel this sense of responsibility to my colleagues who were and were not a part of IR to do rounds justice.

Create the task that makes them do the work.  A seemingly simple concept, but have we really looked at the tasks we have created to see what students will have been required to learn and demonstrate to us and their peers?