Thursday, April 3, 2014

Teachers, Innovation and the Evolution of Schools

Last Friday afternoon at the Business Innovation Factory, four teams of teachers, including a team from my network, shared their stories of collaborative design thinking.  This “storytelling” event was the culmination of a six week project called TD4ED, in which teachers were given the space and time to consider a problem of practice and design their own solution.

While the four teams’ projects differed, a common thread appeared.  Each team had clearly been energized by the autonomy given them and came out of the experience not only with a sense of empowerment and enthusiasm, but with a tangible product to improve their schools.

Their enthusiasm was catching; I can honestly say that I teared up more than once, overwhelmed by this reminder of the collective power of teachers--and perhaps saddened by the realization that I’m not doing enough in my role to create the necessary space for such sparks to catch fire. After all, when I explored the concept of “change-mindedness” many years ago for my dissertation, I found partnership with colleagues as a key factor in that mindset. And the empowerment of teachers as a key lever for change guided my work in building professional learning communities?

Yet, I know that I have not empowered this team as much as this experience did.  I wonder, have my core values changed? Or is there simply an incompatibility between the structure of school and the nature of innovation?  What can we collectively do to give teachers the space, time and freedom to not only solve the problems in front of them but also to devise solutions before they even arise and to allow for the free-flow of ideas as Steven Johnson artfully discusses in his phenomenal book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  

In describing the impact his team’s work can have on his school, one teacher used the term “evolutionize”.  Indeed, thinking differently about teachers’ work and support their sense of purpose, power and partnership can both revolutionize and evolutionize both the profession and the field.  For my part, I thank the teams for powerfully reconnecting me with and reinforcing my values and beliefs about teachers’ capacity for innovation.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Teachers' Messages and Student Engagement

I spent an hour recently visiting classrooms.  First day after a break, with an anticipated snow day to follow, it could have been easy to lose the student engagement fight.  Indeed, a few kids seemed to be moving a bit slowly, going through the motions.  Yet I saw students ready to go--hands waving in the air to give an answer and exclamations of excitement when arriving at correct responses during a  math review, for example.

By far, though, the greatest levels of engagement with the work was happening when students were arranged in peer groups and given the opportunity to construct their learning together.  In an Algebra class, students were working in groups of their choosing to reviewing a test and making corrections.  By designing this activity, the teacher was sending very clear messages to his students:

1) Learning is not static.
2) Mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities.
3) Learning is a social construct--use your peers, engage with one another.
4) I believe in your ability to own your learning.
5) I have high expectations for you.

In an ELA class, the teacher arranged her students into literature circle groups for a focused conversation on the book they just began, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  Groups of students were given envelopes containing four roles: the Quizzical Questioner, Character Creeper, Fancy Facilitator and Word Wizard. She further provided each student with a bookmark containing the tasks aligned to the objective.

Her messages to them:

1) I trust you to learn.
2) I trust you to cooperate with your peers in order to learn.
3) Learning is fun.
4) I believe in your ability to own your learning.
5) I have high expectations for you.

In contrast, I have visited classrooms that were not as vibrant, where the sound of the teacher's voice dominated and in which some students raised hands, many did not and a sense of boredom was palpable. In others, I witnessed a lack of direction, no clear objective and students off task (even telling me they didn't know what they were supposed to be doing) To be fair, I've witnessed more inspired teaching in those same classrooms, but on this day very different messages were being sent to students about teaching and learning.

What would it have taken for every classroom to be one where students own their learning every day?


Gorillas and Teacher Evaluation

Let me just say this at the start--I'm in favor of systematized teacher evaluation systems.  Here in Rhode Island, we have taken elements of the Danielson framework and built a rubric for professonal practice from it. In our network, we've spent considerable time focusing on the various sub-domains via Instructional Rounds and other forms of professional development and have conducted numerous partnered observations to norm our process.

The system itself has a number of imperfections.  First, a teacher's effectiveness level in any domain is calculated using a simple average.  That means that a teacher who becomes more and more effective in one sub-domain over time is not rewarded for growth. (maybe reward is the wrong term--it's better to note that the final rating may simply be inaccuarate.  As a fan of standards-based grading using complete or weighted replacement in which a student's mastery in one area is determined by his most recent grade, the practice of averaging these teacher ratings perturbs me.

Second, while the process has forced some of us to observe and give feedback more frequently, it has also become another bureacratic exercise--so much so that where I work we've actually separated the observation/evaluation process and our coaching and peer feedback process.  I'd love a world where the elements of coaching, support, real feedback and self reflection were companionable elements of a constructive and meaningful evaluation system.

However, what really concerns me is the possibility that focusing on the elements of the rubric could cause us to miss --or misunderstand--other events in the classroom.  If  radiologists--highly trained viewers--can miss a picture of a gorilla superimposed on slides they look at when searching for cancer, then it's certainly not a stretch to think that educators might miss important classroom events, teaching practices or student actions when framing the observation in terms of a (very good) rubric only. What's the solution? Observe with an open mind.  Use partners who can observe with little or no preconceived notion of what to look for.  Leave the rubric behind from time to time. Try video which allows the teacher --alone or with colleagues--to view and debrief by starting with what they noticed, staying low on the ladder of inference.  Let's just look, rather than looking for something.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Want to improve your PLC? Act like children.

During Instructional Rounds recently, I had the pleasure of joining a triad of 7 year old students engaged in conversation on the rug.  The three had just read a book about tsunamis and had filled out a corresponding KWL chart (in full sentences, not bullets!)  One student, I'll call him Joe, shared his "what I want to learn" section.
Rather than simply nodding and moving on to share her own written response, one of Joe's partners, Shana, asked Joe if he had found the answers to what he wanted to know and written about those in the "what I learned" section.
When Joe said, "no", Shana pressed.  "You should have found the answers in the text," she said. "They are in there.  Did you at least learn what a tsunami is?"
Joe paused for just a moment and answered, "Oh, yeah, I learned that. A tsunami is" (and he proceeded to share the exact and precise definition.
Shana then pressed about some of the other items, and the trio together looked to the text to help Joe find his answers.(Most of which, it turns out, he had learned after all.)
The students went on like this for a while, sharing and pushing each other in what felt like a truly collegial conversation.
I interrupted to ask them about the nature of their conversation.
First, I asked what they thought of working together versus working alone.  Kristen, the third member of the group, told me she loved it.  "When we come together, we help each other learn more because we each share details and evidence that someone else might have missed and it helps us all understand better."
I told them I noticed that they challenged each other and didn't let each other get away with anything.
"How did you feel, Joe, when Shana challenged your response that you had not found the answers to what you wanted to know. Did it bother you that she didn't accept your answer and just move on?"
"No," he replied, "that helped me to think better."

Later that day, I recounted this story during a conversation about adult collaboration, particularly in the context of professional learning communities.  I've worked in schools where collaboration was new and teachers bristled at the notion of sharing data in common planning time.  It makes sense.  Imagine a CPT devoted to looking at one another's recent unit assessments. It's clear that one colleague's students have underperfomed their peers in classes taught by other teachers.  Too often, if we even get to the point of really calling that out, the teacher in question might respond vaguely or blame responses on the kids, parents, etc. and her colleagues will let it go at that.  It's just too uncomfortable to push.

What if, like Shana, the teachers said, "Come on, there's more to it than that.  Let's look closely at the evidence. What's the issue.  It looks like these kids didn't understand gerunds."
And what if the teacher responded, "Ugh. Yes, that's true. Truth is--I've never really gotten them either.  I'm a bit embarrassed to say I just didn't know how to teach this."
Like Joe and his peers, the team could use this as a starting point to help their colleague find resources, to offer to team-teach, etc.  Imagine the benefit to all.

The difference between these two scenarios? Trust.  The students trusted each other enough to be open and honest, knowing they could depend on one another.

 In our best PLCs, maybe we should sound like children.