Sunday, October 23, 2016

Connecting the Work of School Leaders and Classroom Teachers

For us, learning is in large part about listening, asking questions, and making connections.   As we listen to the leaders whom we serve and support, here are a couple of the questions that we have been hearing.

Question: What does research show to have the most significant impact on student learning of anything ever documented?

If you have spent any time with us at all – in person, through our writing, or on our blogs – you know our response to this question. What we do as educators is built on the foundation of assessment and the seven actions that are collectively known as assessment in the service of learning or assessment for learning (William & Black, 1998).  By this we mean that all students, no matter how much they struggle will:

       Have a clear learning destination.
       Use samples to understand quality and 
       Participate in the co-construction of criteria.
       Be involved in self- and peer assessment.
       Collect, select, reflect, and project (set goals) based on evidence of their learning.
       Communicate their learning to others, both 
formally and informally.

Connection: School leaders facilitate the learning of teachers and support staff. These actions or big ideas are equally effective with adult learners. Just as teachers use these strategies to build self-monitoring and self-regulating learners, leaders use these strategies to build a culture of learning and collaboration where teachers own the learning and change is sustainable.  Examples include:

·      One principal of a K – 8 school modeled writing a letter for Grade Two students, making her thinking visible by talking about it as she wrote.  Her goal was to support teachers in their professional inquiry into the teaching of writing as a co-learner, leading the way by taking risks herself, so as to encourage teachers to take risks alongside her.
·      A principal co-taught with a teacher, modeling what it means to solve a math problem completely while colleagues observed and recorded data as requested by the co-teachers.
·      A secondary principal modeled, along with the classroom teacher and one of the assistant principals, what was important in a class discussion that leads to learning.  The students observed that demonstration and analyzed what the adults were doing, in order to establish criteria in that regard.

Question:  What if the school is too large for me to reasonably model in classrooms or I just don’t know enough about the subject matter or current teaching practices to model with students?

In a research study (Davies, Busick, Herbst, & Sherman, 2014) into the effectiveness of using assessment for learning as a leadership tool, the authors reported three key findings. One of them speaks directly to the ideas in this post:

“Leaders take action and move beyond words to deeds.”

The leaders in this study used the principles and strategies of assessment for learning in their leadership practice, modeling for teachers the big ideas they were looking for in teachers’ classroom practice.

Connection: When we work in alignment with teachers we implicitly and explicitly communicate a powerful message:

You are not alone in this change we are making as a school. We are all working toward this goal.

Examples from our colleagues include:

·      Principals and vice-principals in a community of practice wrote clear and specific descriptions of what success would look like in relation to their school improvement plan goals in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. After considering the possible conversations, observations, and conversations to collect as evidence, the leaders gave each other feedback on the plans.
·      A principal, whose school’s literacy goal included the importance of providing samples of proficiency and quality, began a session on writing report card comments with exemplars provided by the province. Together, the staff deconstructed the samples and co-constructed criteria on what makes an effective report card comment.
·      A secondary principal and the school’s three assistant principals talked through the triangulated evidence that they were collecting in relation to their school improvement plan.  They shared this evidence during the staff meetings that coincided with each of the four reporting periods. They described the challenges that they were facing, in particular, with the collection of evidence from observations and conversations that “outlasted” the event.

As you consider these examples, you might ask yourself the following questions:

In what ways do these connections remind me of my leadership practice?
In what ways might these examples provide opportunities for me and my leadership practice?
What other examples could I add to the illustrative ones offered here?

As you respond to these questions, you are invited into a deeper reflection of the actions of an instructional leader. And you move, “lead teacher” to “lead learner” or “principal teacher” to “principal learner”.

This blog post was co-written with my colleague Brenda Augusta.

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. 1998. Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan 80(2): pp. 1-20.

Davies, A., Busick, K., Herbst, S. & Sherman, A. 2014. System leaders using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process: Developing theory from practice. The Curriculum Journal, Vol.25(4): pp. 567-592.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What We’ve Learned About Being a Teacher This Year… From You

We were recently driving several hours through a rural region of Ontario to catch a flight out of Toronto Pearson Airport.  Because of our schedule, we were solely focused on the unfamiliar road ahead – the traffic, the highway signs, and the incessant directions of our GPS.  Something caught our attention and we both checked the car’s side mirrors at the same time.  What surprised us were the scenic vistas that the mirror reflected – gently rolling hills, trees in bloom, the darkening sky backlit by the setting sun.  Quite frankly, we had been concentrating so hard on what was in front of us, that we were missing the beauty of the landscape through which we had just travelled.

This reminds us of this time of year.  It’s June.  Even though none of us can believe it, the year has gone by in the blink of an eye.  Again. We seem to have a clear focus on “the end”…graduation ceremonies, farewell assemblies, final sets of report cards, retirement celebrations, and the list continues.  And yet, as we quickly move to the final day of school, we can forget that the closing of another school year is enhanced by pausing – even if for just a moment – and recalling what has come before.  Without this opportunity to look back, we can miss some of the successes, the learning, and the experiences that have propelled us throughout the year and influenced the professionals that we continue to  become.

So, we take our own advice.  We shine the flashlight backwards over the past year and mark five things that we have learned about being teachers and leaders because you have invited us to work alongside you.

·      There is much that connects us across the grades.
As teachers, we have more in common than we think we do.  As we worked in residence in Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms this past year, we used the gradual release of responsibility, moving from modelling to shared practice to independent practice in very similar ways. The big picture was the same, what varied was the instruction required before releasing to independence, the complexity of the shared practice, and the needs of the students in front of us. In Kindergarten and in Grade 12, all students knew the learning destination – where they were going – and what quality and proficiency looked like.

·      We can learn from each other across levels – early elementary to middle years to high school… if we are open to it.
During our time in schools this year, teachers of our youngest learners observed teaching and learning in middle years and high school classrooms, and an hour later led us down the hall or across the field to their Kindergarten or Grade 1 classroom. We are not describing a one-time only event. In all instances, teachers were deeply interested and respectful of the development at another level. They reported seeing the connection between teaching and learning at all levels.

·      Turn and Talk is an incredibly powerful strategy… everywhere.
In Kindergarten, we wrote a letter and paused for students to turn and talk about what they had noticed that might help them write their own letters. We took Grade 11 students to observe in a Grade 12 chemistry class and every four to five minutes asked them to turn and talk with a partner about what they had noticed and jot their ideas on a sticky note. When we ask learners to turn and talk, we are really asking them to notice and name the learning.

·      Modelling plus metacognition is an unbeatable combination.
When people of all ages are asked to think about how they learn something new, they often describe watching someone or having a more skilled other show them. Think back to learning how to drive a car.  We remember carefully watching our parents in the year before we would actually get our own hands on the wheel. Some of the things we “learned” were partial understandings at best and total misconceptions at worst. When our parents began to actively “teach” us to drive, the modelling was now accompanied by a “think aloud”, telling us what they were doing and why. There was far less left to figure out on our own.

And so it is with modelling writing, reading with comprehension, oral presentations, lab reports, or solving a math problem completely. Students need to hear and see your thinking. Without the metacognition, learners are left to guess about what was important in the demonstration. For those students who cannot read between the lines, in fact, cannot read our minds, this leaves too much to chance.

·      The language we use matters.
In our workshops and sessions, as well as in our classroom-based work, you, the teachers, comment on the precision and intent of our language. This is no accident. We intentionally begin with invitational stems, use tentative language, and embed positive presuppositions.  We also deliberately connect the language of the learning destination to the language of quality and proficiency, to the language of specific feedback, to the language of evaluation.  Like Carol Dweck and Peter Johnston, we believe you can use language to not only increase student success, but to change lives.

And before we turn to the school year ahead, we wonder what your list might be.

Friday, February 5, 2016

What might someone have learned because you were in the room today?

  • What is one idea or strategy that you are taking away with you back into your school?
  • In what ways might you apply one of the strategies to your next instructional sequence?
  • What is a word or a phrase that continues to resonate with you from today’s session?
  • In what ways has the content and processes of the day informed your current role?

These questions, or ones like them, seem very familiar to us. We often pose them at the end of a meeting or a professional learning session. Participants may be asked to share their thinking with a valued colleague or to write about it on an exit slip. In some instances, there is time set aside to reflect and respond and at other times, they are offered as a “take away.” In any case, these questions call us to consider what we might have learned from the content and/or the processes presented and used.

What if we would end our time in professional renewal by also proposing this question: What might someone have learned because you were in the room today? That is, at the end of these gatherings, we pause to also think about the ways in which our words and actions might have impacted upon the learning of those beside whom we have been working. And what if, as facilitators, we pose this question at the very beginning of our time together. We signal that, as we close, we all will be thinking and talking about our responses to that very question.

The question itself presumes a stance of positive presupposition and a sense of community. It suggests that we are all responsible for the learning in the room. Oftentimes, norms of collaboration state this very notion. We may even review those norms before we begin; but before we know it, we forget about this shared obligation.

Instead, when we begin in this way, we ask both others and ourselves to think about the ways that we will “be” in this learning space today. In other words, I am reminded that my actions, my words, my inactivity, my silence, and my behaviour can be the very thing(s) that provocates someone else to deeper thought, that causes someone else to pause and rethink a previously held position, or that presents to someone else a new strategy or idea.

Over the past several months, I have started my sessions with this question. Educators have provided me with feedback that they have appreciated the reminder that they are all responsible to the community of learners gathered. Some have reported that they believe others may have learned something not as favourable, such as “It is hard for me to not check my phone for texts and emails.” or “I noticed that I interrupted several people today.”

Nevertheless, when we are reminded that we are not only responsible for our own learning, but that of others, it can call us to be our best selves. And then when we reflect at the end of the learning session, we not only think about what others have done with and for us, but we are afforded an opportunity to reflect on our performance, words, behaviour and interactions. In this way, we turn the mirror back to ourselves to reflect upon our impact on others, not just what others have done for and to us.   

Perhaps a powerful question such as, “What might someone have learned because you were in the room today?” can, in fact, help us and others to close the knowing and doing gap.