Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Why are we doing this?"

"Why are we doing this?"

The more I think about this, the more I am starting to believe that this is a question that we should endeavor to avoid being asked at all costs.  More specifically, if we are doing what we need to do in terms of engaging learners, it is a question that should never NEED to be asked. I think this applies to our students in our classrooms.  I think this applies to our teachers in our faculty meetings.  In fact, I think this applies to nearly every participator (administrators, parents, the public, whoever) in the education system.

Perhaps this seems lofty and ethereal.  And to this end, I can tell you without equivocation that I have had to explain 'why we are doing this' on dozens and dozens of occasions to students and to my staff.  And I can also tell you that the need for this explanation did not originate in any way, shape or form with the party that was asking "Why?" in these situations.  It was because I was trying to provide the right solutions rather than reframing my approach to ask the right questions.

As a leader in your school, perhaps you are looking at the math results at your school and they are not up to par.  Maybe you should look into the latest math remediation program coming out of a place like Alberta or Finland?

I might suggest there would be better ways to go about this.

You notice that your staff is struggling with differentiating instruction and assessment.  Perhaps you should bring in an expert on differentiation to do a set of threaded professional development sessions over the course of a year?

I wouldn't.

Maybe your success rates are high in certain classrooms and low in other ones.  How about implementing collaboration time so that teachers can get together and work on effective pedagogies, or starting Instructional Rounds so that teachers can observe themselves and each other in other classes?

Don't do it.

As much as a highly-regarded education system such as those in Alberta or Finland might have some tremendous math remediation program, or that having threaded and frequent professional development is highly effective, or that creating time for teachers to collaborate is research-based promising practice, I believe that these and other tried and true strategies will struggle to reach their maximum level of effectiveness if they are "brought in" as a silver bullet that will slay a problem.

The reason I feel this way is because in the past, I have made this mistake with initiatives.  I examined data at the schools I have been at.  I saw what I thought to be some of the areas for improvement.  I  read the books, blogs and the articles of those who have had similar issues.  And I attempted to implement many of the solutions that were suggested.

And as a result I also got a heavy dose of "Why are we doing this?".

Recently, I was accepted to attend Harvard University at the end of April to study Instructional Rounds.  One of the key ideas behind Instructional Rounds is the development of a "problem of practice". After reading this book, I have realized that the most important thing that I can do as a Principal is to help our school and our departments discover and develop "problems of practice".  Lee Teitel, one of the authors of Instructional Rounds in Education, characterizes the problem of practice in this way:

* it focuses on the instructional core.
* it is directly observable.
* it is actionable (is within the school/district's control and can be improved in real time).
* connects to a broader strategy of improvement (school, system).
* it is high-leverage (if you acted on it, it would make a significant difference for student learning).

But perhaps more importantly, the problem of practice is something that the school or departments  "are already working on or think they might need to work on".  It is "not a whim and does not emerge out of thin air.  It comes from data, dialogue, and current work" (City et. al, 2009).  So rather than jump straight in to some sort of 'math program', or bring in some sort of expert on differentiation, or create a new timetable that allows teachers to collaborate during the work week, it is much more effective to start by engaging the people who are working with the students in that learning situation to develop this problem of practice.

For example, starting with a couple of key questions to a given department such as 
  • What do you find is a major struggle point that students have in your area?
  • What makes you believe that this is an issue in your department?
  • Why are you interested in looking into this issue further?
  • What do you know about this issue?  Is there a historical context to this? Have you seen it before?
After considering these questions, brainstorming and looking at results (both quantitative and qualitative) a math department might come up with a problem of practice that looks something like this:

"When trying to solve word problems in junior math, not all of our students are able to apply what they have learned in their math lessons.  Some of the students are able to make connections between the lesson and the task they are to solve on their own, but more of them are not.  Teachers are not differentiating for the varying abilities of their students in their classes.
  • How do teachers determine what strategies will work with the different learners in their class?
  • What would all students know and be able to demonstrate from the math lesson that you see?"
From where I sit, by asking engagement-type questions such as those above and the subsequent collaborative development of a problem of practice, the examination of different strategies to ameliorate the issue suddenly takes on new meaning.  Instead of "Why are we doing this?", we have re-framed the question to be "If we want each of our students (regardless of ability) to demonstrate skill X after our lessons in math, how do we create differentiated lessons and assessments to ensure that this occurs?".

Now, perhaps one of the team members suggests that one of the pieces here could be increasing the capacity of the department in differentiation.  And if we don't have that capacity within our building or district, maybe we need to bring in someone to help us out over the course over the next couple of years.

Instead of "Why are we doing this?", we have re-framed the question to be, "When can we find some time to work on this as a collective?".

Maybe now, another team member suggests that we could look at something like creating time for learning teams to collaborate on their problem of practice, or find a way to have teachers observe other teachers and classes to see what is working in this area.

Instead of "Why are we doing this", we have re-framed the question to be. "Are there other jurisdictions who are having success with students in this area that we might be able to collaborate with?"

At this point, perhaps a team member has a connection or is aware of another school, district or jurisdiction that has positive math results (maybe a neighbouring district, or Alberta or somewhere we hear is doing well in this area) to see if they have anything to offer to our conversation?

In each of our schools we have bright and talented teachers.  These people have many good ideas, and are they are acutely aware of struggle points for students, and the areas where they need assistance as teachers.  By engaging them in the conversation and re-framing problems rather than looking right away to solutions, I believe we can dramatically reduce (and maybe nearly eliminate???) the question

"Why are we doing this?".

City, Elizabeth A. (Eds.) (2009) Instructional rounds in education: a network approach to improving teaching and learning Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard Education Press,

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

More Value For Your Tech Dollar?

We spend a significant amount of money on technology at our school.  We are weeks away from having digital projectors in every classroom.  We have pods of android tablets for each of our departments, we have a couple of classrooms with interactive whiteboards. We are transforming our library into a learning commons that will be rich with opportunities for technological access for our staff and students.  We have created a Learning Coach to grow the culture of our faculty and students using technology to augment teaching and learning.  We have wi-fi access in nearly every part of our building.  We are moving in this direction because we believe that it will make a difference in creating teachers and learners who are both highly engaged and better prepared to meet the rapidly changing world around us.  It is positive. 

But does come at a cost.  

And yet if someone asked me whether it was really making a positive difference to student achievement, at this point, my honest answer would be “I think so, but I’m not sure.”.  I just don’t have the research or data to qualify or quantify positive or negative effects on any level at this point.

Two weeks ago, I was in Phoenix at the Professional Learning Communities Summit, and I was pleased to see that one of my all time favorite educational reads, Visible Learning by John Hattie#, was referenced on dozens of occasions throughout a number of different sessions.  A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about this amazing synthesis of research on factors relating to student achievement:  I referred to this book as educational “B.S. repellent” because it allows the reader to access endless amounts of research on the effects of different educational strategies rather than solely relying upon the “what works for me” style of endorsement.

After the conference, I decided to re-read Visible Learning through the lens of searching for high-yield strategies to improve pedagogical practice.  If you have not read the book, Hattie 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.  Hattie goes on to say that we need to find strategies that go beyond these typical effects at the hinge point:  high-yield practices that move into the “zone of desired effects.  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.  

After re-reading much of the book, several strategies jumped out at me:

Teacher Education Programs
Description:  The teacher training that occurs at colleges and universities.

What the research says:  Of the 138 factors of the meta-analyses done, this was ranked as #124 in terms of effectiveness (low), and had a impact factor of 0.11, well below the hinge point of showing notable positive impacts in student achievement.  This is based on the meta-analyses of more than 50 studies.

My thoughts: While they might be potentially effective, I should not be solely reliant upon teacher training programs to create teachers who are effective in improving student achievement in their classes right out of the gate.  This does not come as a complete surprise:  my own experiences with teacher training in university were quite limited in scope.  In speaking to colleagues, the common phrase that I come across is “my teacher training did nothing to prepare me for the classroom”.  In talking to our student teachers who do practicums at our school, th#ese sentiments are echoed.  Perhaps this might be harsh, however, the ineffectiveness of teacher education programs seems to be a common perception.

Description: Hattie describes the process of micro-teaching in more detail: ”Micro-teaching typically involves student-teachers conducting  (mini-) lessons to a small group of students, and then engaging in a post-discussion about the lessons.”#.

What the research says:
Of the 138 factors, this strategy ranks #4 (high) in effectiveness for improving student achievement according to the analysis of more than 400 studies.  

My thoughts:  This doesn’t surprise me at all, and to me, this can apply to all members of the educational community, not just student teachers.  Newer teachers, master teachers, even administrators could all benefit from this sort of intensive look at their practices.

Providing Formative Evaluation

Description: Giving feedback to teachers on the purposes of innovations, fostering a willingness to find evidence on where all students are doing well and not so well, and cultivating a curiosity and openness to provide new experiences for their students.

What the research says:  Out of 138 effects, this ranks as #3 (high) over meta-analyses of 30 studies of more than 3800 people.

My thoughts:  Again, this doesn’t surprise me.  But how can we give quality, consistent, rapid and formative feedback to our teachers within the school day?  We have our collaborative time, and in the last six years since we have placed this time for teachers to work together in our timetable along with our intervention strategies, we have seen a consistent drop in our failure rates.  

Failure rates continue to drop!

Yet in terms of our groups being able to drill down to the pedagogical practices that most effectively lead to the learning of the skills that we want for our students, we still struggle to provide those authentic opportunities.  Hmmm....

So what if we created a mechanism that allowed teachers to get this rapid feedback?  That made allowances for those staff members who were very comfortable being observed teaching their lessons as well as those who were a bit more unsure about having peers observe them?  And considering what we spend on technology, what if we invested some of our technology dollars in a different way that allowed for these research-based, high-yield strategies to occur? 

What if we gave teachers the opportunity to see themselves teach?  What if we equipped a classroom with three or four closed-circuit cameras from various vantage points that could show the actions of the students and the teachers?   With microphones that would allow teachers to hear what they are saying to students, and remember what students were saying in response?  What if we equipped this space with an interactive whiteboard that would allow teachers to recall the points that they might have put on the board, the multimedia pieces that they utilized to emphasize points, and the methods by which they engaged students?  

And once we created this space that we called a Learning Lab (or something way cooler), what if the teacher was able to book into this Learning Lab, record their lessons for themselves, and then go home and reflect upon their practice through the lens of a problem of practice (like that in the Instructional Rounds process described here)  that they wanted to pursue.  And once they became comfortable with that, they could share their lesson(s) with a colleague to look at through a similar lens.  Then with their department if they became even more comfortable.  And what if these sorts of observations became the topic for collaborative team meetings?


I am going to investigate this concept of a Learning Lab.  I am certain these spaces exist already, and I think such a space has the potential to bring together all of the pieces for our school around our collaborative teams and reflecting on positive practices.

And I think this might be a way to invest some of our tech dollars in a highly effective, research-based set of strategies that actually can change the learning environment for kids and teachers.

If you know of such a space, or have other ideas about this type of a space and what could be included, please comment!  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Guilt From Blogging Less

This week, I read a post by colleague and friend George Couros that really struck a chord with me.  In his blog, George wrote:

"Sometimes I wish that I had more great ideas. I wonder when an awesome idea will pop into my head or I will be inspired and I can share it with our staff and get them really excited about some new learning that can happen in their classrooms. Lately though, it just doesn’t seem the wheel are turning and I am starting to wonder why. I know that I have helped to push some great learning initiatives within our school division, but it doesn’t seem that there have been any new ones coming from my office lately."

For me, this hit the nail on the head.  I do my best to stay current with what is going on in the educational world:  I read articles each day, comment on blogs, try to collaborate with colleagues as often as I can, and put on PD sessions and attend conferences every few months.  But lately, much like George has alluded to, I feel like I have 'run out' of things to share.

Several months ago, I wrote a post called "Do What Should Done THEN tell" in which I wrote about my need to provide more practical applications in my blog:

"Each day, I read countless newspaper articles, impassioned posts, and convincing studies that shout out "we are failing children", "change the system", or "do something different".  These excellent resources are written by talented, skilled educators who work in the system today and clearly care deeply about students and student learning.  And to this end, I agree with all of them (or at least almost all of them) that I have read.  But then I think about Mom's comment in the Detroit Public Schools investigative report--"I know you care, now what are you doing to show it?".

This year, I am going to focus less on TELLING people how much I care about students, education and the need for educational reform to better meet the needs of student and teacher learners.  Instead, I am going to focus more on DOING things to make our school and current system of education better and then share with others."

And as much as we have been "doing things to make our school" better, I find myself feeling guilty that my blog has been relatively silent lately.  That according to the metric that I quoted for my blog above, that I am not being creative and innovative enough at our school that I feel like there is something new and practical to share.  Rather than blogging excitedly twice per week about the new and exciting things that we are doing at our school, I find that I am blogging once every couple of weeks, and reaching to do even that.

After beating myself up about this for quite a while, I am coming to grips with the fact that it's OK just to try to make what it is that you are doing BETTER.  That everything that you do doesn't have to be new.  That reflecting on what you are doing is likely not as 'glamourous' and 'share-worthy' as when you begin implementing something new and innovative. But while not as 'glamourous', reflection on what you are doing and tweaking things to make them more functional and effective in improving student and educator achievement is likely just as (if not more) important.

This year we have changed our staff meeting format and are constantly looking for ways to make staff meetings more interactive for our staff by altering our collegial conversation topic voting format.  One of the topics that we will be discussing in the near future is the effective use of cell phones for learning in classrooms:  some of our staff members are expressing some concerns with how they are currently being used.  We sent a team to the Professional Learning Communities Summit in February to create more eyes to critically examine our collaboration and intervention strategies along with surveying our staff so that we can tweak them at our next staff meeting. We changed the format of our SMART goal template so it more accurately describes the progress that our departments are making towards their goals.  Our library looks like a construction zone because we are coming close to our its being transformed into a Learning Hub.  Our student wifi capacity has been increased and changed to a more 'hotel-like' feel so more students can use it. And I am hopeful that our District's application to Instructional Rounds at Harvard will be successful.

However, none of these things are particularly 'new'.  Yet we continuously tinker.

I still struggle with this odd feeling of guilt for blogging less, but I hope that it is because we are reflecting more.

Do others struggle with this feeling?