Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wondering about Intellectual Rigour and Engagement

The 2nd Asia-Pacific EducationalAssessment Conference held early in September 2015 in Singapore was intellectually engaging. The conference proceedings were international in scope. I appreciated being able to listen to four other experts in the field of educational assessment as they gave their keynotes on a variety of topics.

Audience members listened attentively and asked thoughtful questions. During the ‘between’ session times, participants were deep in conversation. And, the presenters also had the opportunity to share ideas and perspectives with each other. We were a varied group and the conversation was wide-ranging.

For two packed days, I witnessed educators – teachers and school leaders - engaged in listening and learning about the ‘big picture’ of theory, research and practice in the area of educational assessment for two days.

After the final keynote session was completed and the last thank you’s and good-bye’s said, I found myself wondering about intellectual rigour and engagement.

As I reflected on the conferences I had been attending in North America designed for a similar audience – teachers and school leaders - I wondered if the differences I had noted were substantive in nature.

I wondered…

  • Are we challenging ourselves to look beyond our context or do we just want to be affirmed that we are doing it the ‘right way?’
  • Are we ‘North American centric’ or are we open to learning about educational assessment – theory, practice and research – from elsewhere?
  • Have we become consumers of the “fast food version” of theory, practice and research limited to 140 characters-worth of content? Or are we engaging in the kind of dialog that allows nuances to surface and complexity to be acknowledged?

I continue to reflect now that I’m home.

  • Is my professional reading is more limited than it used to be?
  • Are ‘Google preferences’ seducing me into thinking that I’m right after all my internet searches turn up lots of agreeable information?
  • Am I really challenging myself to be a learner in the complex field of classroom assessment?

It is true that Canadians have passed a ‘tipping point’ when it comes to classroom assessment. There is huge agreement on the importance of using assessment in the service of learning, on triangulating evidence of learning overtime so it is more reliable and valid and of the importance of leaders ‘walking the talk’ and using assessment in the service of adult, school and system learning.

The classroom assessment conversation is moving to a greater focus on ideas related to continuous reporting – How to do it? Who should do it?  How to make technology invisible as we place students and their learning in the center?

These are good questions. They are interesting questions. And yet, I wonder, are they the questions that will help us meet the challenges the future holds?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Leading is a Learning Person's Job

“In other words, teaching is a thinking person’s job.”  With that statement, Charlotte Danielson argues that professional conversations should be about cognition and sharing perspectives about the hundreds of decisions that teachers make each day (Framing Discussions about Teaching, Educational Leadership, April 2015, Volume 72, Number 7).  I have thought about this nine-word sentence a lot since I read it a few months ago.  Not only did its simplicity strike me and the possibilities that it offers are endless.  But what might a parallel statement be for leaders?  Leading is most definitely a “thinking person’s job” and yet that does not quite capture our most recent work, writing, and research about impactful leadership (see January 2015 blog posting). 

Leading is a learning person’s job.   This six-word statement, for me, summarizes the essence of leading.  In my past work as an assistant superintendent, school leader, and district consultant, I was often asked for advice.  “What is the most important characteristic of a leader?” or “What advice do you have for me as I begin my new leadership position?”  And for me, the response came simply.  The only way that I know how to lead is to learn. 

The phrase “instructional leadership” is tossed about like candy at Halloween.  The title of “principal” came from the term “principal teacher.”  Our work as leaders has always presupposed a core of learning and that is why people may respond to the phrase “Leading is a learning person’s job” with the sentiment that it is a “no-brainer.”  And yet, it calls us to reflect and ask ourselves questions such as, “In what ways am I making my learning visible to others?” or “In what ways might I engage in my learning so that it is clear that my work is not only administrative and managerial?” or “How might I share evidence of my learning with my colleagues?” 

Several school districts with whom I am working are examining these questions closely.  In one school board, principals, during their classroom walkthroughs, share with staff and students what they are learning about as a result of their personal, professional inquiry.  This does not happen each day or every second day, but, from time-to-time, these leaders state out loud that which they have learned.  They no longer only ask the students what they are learning as they enter classrooms.  They situate themselves very publicly as learners.

In another school district, a catchment area of about 35 K-12 principals have committed to model classroom instructional strategies through their leadership practice.  For example, in the first three months of school, they agreed to co-construct criteria with a group of adults – whether it was a secondary department, the entire faculty, the parent council, etc.  These principals brought evidence of that work to their principal’s meeting and talked about the experience, but they did so only after sharing that very evidence with their colleagues back in their buildings.

In each of these two examples, the leaders are deliberately, consciously, and publicly taking the stance of learner.  Of course leaders are learners.  What principal or superintendent or director would say that they don’t learn each and every day?  However, these learners are communicating their learning to others, just as we ask students to do so in multiple ways each and every day.

I am certain that the work that we are planning to do alongside one other, as I travel across Canada and the United States, will assist me to think more deeply about that statement “Leading is a learning person’s job” and to better respond to the questions of the third paragraph.  I look forward to the opportunities that our conversations and our learning will present.