Professional Learning Communities.
Response To Intervention.
Sigh. Have you ever taken five minutes to jot down the initiatives that you have going in your school or district? Or the ones that you have had going at some point in the past? Or even those programs that, if you squinted, you might still see remnants of them--you know, the ones that no one can quite determine when they started or ended--they just seemed to fade into the background, much like the once-splashy posters on our Counselling Office billboards or the rotating messages on our electronic signs. If you are anything like me, you likely find it difficult to recall and much harder to reconcile the amount of time and money each of us has spent chasing after the next 'holy grail'-like program that came our way when we know that the resources required to make them successful are so woefully scarce in supply.
Earlier this year, as a member of the Agile Schools Faculty, I had the chance to work along side Dr. Simon Breakspear at the summer Educational Leadership Academy (#ataleads16) put on by Jeff Johnson and the Alberta Teachers' Association in Edmonton. It was both inspiring and challenging to take a deep dive into designing research-based, high-impact projects with classroom, school and district leaders for five intense, immersive and practical days. During one of the early sessions, Simon asked each of the participants to do a "stock-take" (on this side of the Pacific, we would say "inventory") of the initiatives they had done or were currently doing in their schools. Many generated lists similar to the one above, and even more created ones that were much longer. But then Simon asked the group to examine their lists to determine which ones they felt were actually making a tangible difference to student learning in the classroom. After a number of people began ruefully shaking their heads, Simon said something that truly resonated with the entire group (including me):
But here's the thing: no one was saying that it was 'wrong' for schools and districts to look for promising new approaches to improving classroom practice, nor was anyone saying it was 'wrong' to attempt organize our time, efforts and resources around practices that are research-based and genuinely improve classroom practice and student learning. But before we jump headlong into 'the next big thing', we need to have a laser-like focus on the actual impact that the initiative has on student learning and the type of learning that educators will need in order to help them effectively implement the initiative in a way that makes a visible difference at the classroom level. As we know, the goal of an educational initiative is not to be 'doing' a program, it is to improve teaching and learning. Does it matter if we have become a professional learning community if we don't see a change to teaching and learning in our classrooms? Does it matter if we "do" Instructional Rounds in our schools if we continuously have the same problem of practice? Nope. Not a bit.
In preparation for the Education Leadership Academy, Simon and I spent a great deal of time pushing each other about the composite pieces that we felt were important for teacher learning. Simon spoke from his experiences as a teacher and as a researcher in seeing and working with dozens of educational jurisdictions around the globe, who use a multitude of methods to engage teachers in professional learning. I came at it from the point of view of a Principal who has attempted to implement the approaches listed in the "stock-take" at the beginning of this post with subsequent results that ranged from moderate success to complete and abject failure. In the end, our thinking led us to a lens through which school leaders could look critically at their own "stock-take" of initiatives to determine whether those ideas had real potential to have a deep and lasting impact on the learning in their classrooms and with their educators.
We can determine whether the initiative can crack the C.O.D.E of teacher learning.
If the initiative, approach, or professional development is Connected, Observable, Developmental, and Embedded for teachers, it can significantly impact teaching and learning at the classroom level.
CONNECTED...to the classroom, learning, and to each other
Do you enjoy being electrocuted? Being immersed in water so cold that the ice in it doesn't melt? Having your clothes and skin torn by barbed wire? Sounds like a barrel of monkeys, doesn't it? So why do thousands of people around the globe voluntarily do these things to themselves in events like the Tough Mudder? Doing something challenging with a group of like-minded people connects us to the task, but more importantly, it connects us to each other. Learning is social, and while learning about new approaches to teaching and learning is not the same as being immersed in an ice bath, changing classroom practices can represent a significant shock to the system. As a result, it is vital that the learning experiences that come from initiatives or pro-d connect our teachers to one another: we must create a supportive, encouraging, and laterally accountable environment (much like a Tough Mudder team) to deal with obstacles that they will encounter along the way.
Earlier this year, I sat across from Dylan Wiliam at dinner after learning from him earlier in the day at a conference session. He looked at me and said something that has resonated with me ever since. He said "I don't know why Principals would spend one second trying to implement something that isn't proven by research to improve learning." If there is no research to connect the initiative to improvement in student learning, he said, schools and districts don't have the money or time to waste on it. Period. I listened. I learned. While we all have ideas about what we think 'works' and 'doesn't
work' in classrooms, if there is no foundation of research to the initiative we are considering, Dylan is right, we don't have the time to bother.
Dr. Richard Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes the importance of professional development being directly connected to the classroom. In one of his "laws" of professional development, he says "the impact of professional development is inverse to the square of its distance from the classroom". Professional development that requires educators to really chew on meaty instructional issues with each other and grapple with approaches in their own setting is professional development that is worth doing. Inasmuch as there can be value to offsite professional development, the more connected that educators are to their own classroom situation when they are learning, the higher the likelihood that the initiative will make a visible difference in their own classroom.
OBSERVABLE...to all of us, BY all of us
The products of any professional development that we do should be readily and plainly observable. When facilitating Instructional Rounds in schools, I ask educators to focus on what students are saying, doing, writing, and producing as a result of the tasks they have been assigned and the instruction they have been given. But how often do we consider what our educators saying, doing, writing and producing at an inservice or conference that they are attending? If educators are sitting passively in a large conference listening to a witty and charming 'edutainer' show pictures and YouTube clips while telling amusing anecdotes, what is the evidence that our educators have learned a single thing? The age-old proclamation of "If you get one good thing out of a conference, it was a good conference" doesn't fly anymore: with shrinking PD budgets and more demands on our time, the educational return on a $2000 investment needs to be better than that. WAY better. When we are considering any initiative, we should be able to clearly articulate what an observer would see in our classrooms as a result.
But who is observing? One of the saddest revelations that I had as a Principal happened when I was doing teacher observations. Not because of what I was observing in the classroom, but because I was the only one who was doing the observing! Far too often, the people who are doing the bulk of teacher observations are not teachers--this is wrong. More of our professional development needs to be directly connected to the classroom, with teachers observing and working with other teachers. And if we are to use the excuse that there isn't enough money, consider that $2000 conference bill to send one teacher to a conference to get "one good thing", as we have all done far too often in the past. That same $2000 is the cost of five or six release days--or 10 or 12 half days. How much could be done by releasing four teachers for three half days to observe and work with other teachers?
DEVELOPMENTAL...it meets us where we are at
Would we ask a new swimmer to jump off of the high diving board? A novice skier to head down a double-black diamond run? Or would we tell someone that the only car they should buy is a new Mercedes Benz when we know they only have a $10000 budget? While each of these scenarios seems absurd, imagine what it feels like for an educator to be asked to "do Project-Based Learning" in their classes, or to "welcome observers into their classroom" when they are used to being left on their own behind a closed classroom door to teach the way that they have found to be successful for themselves and their students. While there may be a research-base to an educational initiative that supports a positive change in classroom practice, research does not automatically open classroom doors: having a colleague or a team come to observe their classroom can truly be a 'double-black diamond' moment for many educators. And rightfully so! In most cases, we have not taken them down a 'green run' with ideas like PBL or classroom observation.
Educational initiatives and professional development must provide multiple entry points for our educators, and provide the appropriate level of challenge at each level. In his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience", Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "mee-hi, cheek-sent-me-hi" if you're curious) talks about the importance of "flow" when we are considering whether the activities we design allow participants to get into "the zone". However, we must not only acknowledge the challenge level of the activity, we have to ensure a certain skill level of our educators so we help them move from a state of anxiety or boredom to a place where they are optimally engaged.
With something like classroom observation, we might create multiple entry points for our educators like this:
EMBEDDED...in what we do, in our context
In what we do.
With the people that we have.
With the money that we have.
With the time that we have.
Education conferences and workshops can have tremendous value, as can visits to other schools, jurisdictions and countries: having scholars and practitioners synthesize their research and experiences can save us huge amounts of time and effort. There is no doubt that it is difficult to see what others are doing when we are in the 'trenches' of everyday school business! It is important for us to 'get to the hilltops' to see what is possible for us from a different perspective: to understand new ideas, to be inspired, and to get outside of ourselves and our own learning situations. However, before we leave our own schools and districts, we not only need to have a very clear vision of our own context, we need to imagine how we can re-combine the people and talents that exist in OUR contexts and in OUR classrooms given the information that we are learning about.
As much as there is no more time, and there will never be more money, we DO have the time and the money that we currently spend on things that do not crack the C.O.D.E. of teacher learning. We just have to find them, name them, and file them in the appropriate place.
So, as each of us comes off of a refreshing and recharging summer filled with excitement and ideas about how we can impact student and educator learning, we need to ask ourselves one question before we jump at the next promising practice or idea that comes our way:
"Does this crack the C.O.D.E of teacher learning?"
I don't like speeding tickets all that much. In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to find many people that do. The whole experience from the initial gasp when you see the red and blue lights in the rearview mirror right up until the moment you realize that you are not escaping with a stern warning is both maddening and embarrassing all at once. Yes, I might have been going a bit quickly, but I was running late and the kids needed to be picked up, and I was only 10 m.p.h.....ok maybe 15 m.p.h. over the limit, officer. Sigh...just give me the ticket. Head shake on cue.
For years, we have used the same few methods to stop people from speeding--signs, stern warnings, photo radar, and of course, the threat of getting a fine for being a bit of a lead foot. Yet despite efforts to change people's driving habits, in a study in 2008 of a thousand random drivers, 100% of them thought that it was fine to exceed the posted limit by 5 mph, and 36% felt that it was ok to drive at 20 mph over the limit. Hmm. Another head shake.
What if we took a different approach? Typically, we lock ourselves into a traditional means of solving problems, where we try to take what we currently do and do it just a little bit better. Or we do what we have always done, but just a little bit differently. "We'll find a faster horse!", we shout with vigor. But what if we looked into other, completely different sectors to see if there were practices that we could borrow and apply to our own situation? What if we decided that we weren't going to look for a 'faster horse', like bigger speed signs or more stringent ticket fines, but rather would adopt a completely different approach that we could adapt from a different situation altogether?
What if it were FUN to obey the speed limit? And a tiny bit of 'fun', even when we got caught?
Well, that sounds like a different approach.
In a new and thought-provoking book called "Cross-Industry Innovation -- Not Invented Here", Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleven describe "The Speed Camera Lottery", created as part of The Fun Project by Volkswagen. In Copenhagen, there was a particular section of road that was known to be a place where people ignored the posted speed signs. In "The Speed Camera Lottery", a speed camera was used to photograph and measure the speed of all of the drivers on this stretch of road. Using a camera to photograph drivers in itself was not revolutionary, of course. Nor was the fact that those drivers who were speeding were levied a fine for their traffic violation. But what was truly unique was that the fines collected from the speeders were put into a pot, and those who were not speeding were out into a draw for the money that was collected! "The Speed Camera Lottery" was born, drivers slowed down an average of 22% while having a totally speed enforcement experience.
Sometimes I feel as though I am annoying friends and colleagues with my constant questions around the "the delight factor", or absence thereof. Too often we find reasons not to look for that unique 'something' in the experiences at our schools that makes them meaningful for our students, our parents, and our educators. "When did we decide we have to be boring?", I often wonder, many times with regret when I ponder some of my lessons as a classroom teacher. As a result, one of the pieces that our learning experience design team takes pride in is ensuring that we find an element of "surprise and delight" for the participants in the inservice or professional development days that we create so they remember the experience that we created.
Recently, one of our district schools came to our team with a project--they wanted us to create a learning experience that would immerse their teachers in project-based learning. Typically, when such a request is made, professional development providers pull out a tried and true, one-day lesson template that they have in their lesson bank, modify a couple of bits to suit the age bracket that the teachers work with, and get ready to go. While convenient for the PD provider, planning such as this often misses the mark for the educators for one simple reason--the PD provider doesn't take the time to do the research to find out who their audience is, and more importantly, how they learn best and what their current struggles with professional learning might be. The result is an uneducated guess as to what the needs of the group might be and a subsequently ineffective inservice day. Yes, I said 'uneducated'--simply focusing on the content of a PD day represents a small part of the equation, the real artistry is in the design of the learning experience.
Earlier this year, I visited Continuum, the internationally recognized design firm in Boston that created iconic items such as the Reebok Pump, the Swiffer, and numerous other product and service solutions across the globe. Ken Gordon, colleague and friend at Continuum talked to me about 'pain points': he said "You really need to turn up the 'emotional hearing aid' when you are listening to your clients. You need to find the the pleasure points and the pain points. Once you find those, that's the gold. Pain points are opportunities."
Fortunately, much like Continuum and their focus on human-centred design, our team has adopted the process of Learner-Centred Design: the team is disciplined in considering the needs of the learner first. Not only does the team spend an inordinate amount of time getting to know the wants, wishes and pain points of the group they are serving, they co-design a vision of the ideal, and go wild with ideas of a 'surprise and delight' factor that will make the day memorable.
During our process of educational ethnography (where we spend time interviewing the group we are designing for), we found out a few things about the school. They were a fun-loving bunch who liked to be social, who liked competition, and who really needed hands on activities--they wanted to learn by doing. But because the team was able to quickly develop a positive relationship with the school, we also found out something that was interesting: one of the teachers we interviewed smiled and said "Sometimes we aren't always on task.". The other teachers from the school agreed, "We are like our kids! We might need to be held accountable.". Ahhhh, the pain point. Ken Gordon would be smiling.
So we now had our opportunity! Much like the speeding ticket scenario in Copenhagen where they found a way to surprise and delight people in holding them accountable to the speed limit, we needed to find a way to surprise and delight the school in holding them accountable to learning about professional development. One of our designers asked a key question that was phrased in just such a way to make us think differently. She could have asked, "How can we hold people accountable?", but instead she said "Who is one person no one can say "no" to?". Our project team laughed, and another one of the designers yelled "Grandma!".
The room got quiet, and suddenly we all began to smile. Seniors!
So while we designed a professional development day that was immersive, hands-on, competitive, and had people learn the work by doing the work, we also surprised the staff by giving them the opportunity to connect to our local seniors community through the PBL design challenge that we had
created. And by having them design something for an authentic (and loving) audience, the team found a way to hold people 'accountable' in a way that delighted rather than dictated. No policy. No rule. Just Grandma. And Grandpa. And a lot of smiles and memories.
Schools don't have to be boring. By choosing to get to know our school communities, and developing an understanding of their 'pain points' in a process that is so commonly used by industries outside of education, we can 'surprise and delight' the students, parents and teachers in our school communities.
And if we can surprise and delight people with speeding tickets, it certainly can be done in our classrooms.
from the desk of an educator:
It's education: there is no more time, but we DO have time. There is no more money, but we DO have money. So let's put the learner at the center, and conduct ourselves accordingly.