“Professional development that is most relevant for teachers is focused on teachers’ real work, provides teachers with opportunities to make choices about their own learning, happens over time, and contributes to building a professional culture of collaborative learning.” ~Kathy A. Dunne~
Most of us envision schools as places where adults spend their time teaching children. Regardless of one’s pedagogical beliefs; constructivist, problem-based or old school transmission/bunch-o-facts, our concept of school is a place where only children learn. Though we recognize the need for teachers to be trained, often this training (or professional development) is structured to occur out of school; at workshops, conferences or on training days.This structure does not serve either teachers or their students well.
I’ve been fortunate over my career to have had the chance to work with thousands of teachers in a wide range professional training contexts; from ballrooms filled with hundreds of teachers, to conference sessions and workshops, webinars and small group inquires. I’ve also had the chance to research all manner of professional learning structures and, in synthesizing these two sources of information, can summarize my belief about teacher professional training with the following theory of action:
If we use classrooms as places where both teachers and school leaders learn; then student learning will be richer, deeper and more impactful.
Over the past few weeks our staff have been engaged in some school-based professional learning focused on helping our teachers learn how they can use common assessment tools and practices to help them improve their math instruction. We have put our teachers into small learning teams (3 or 4 members) and provided them with the time to express the challenges and questions they are wrestling with, explore common themes and patterns and connect them with the practices that may help us address these challenges.
It’s not a complex structure and it rests on the simple belief that teachers want to work together to improve their teaching. In her article, Teachers as Learners, educational researcher Kathy Dunne outlines 7 key aspects that all effective professional learning structures share:
- Driven by a vision of the classroom
- Helps teachers develop the knowledge and skills to create vision
- Mirrors methods to be used by students
- Builds a learning community
- Develops teacher leadership
- Links to the system
- Is continuously assessed
Earlier in my career I served as a school-based Adjunct Professor for a teacher education program and upon completion of the program I would congratulate the teacher candidates with the following reminder; you don’t just have a license to teach, you also have a license to learn. It’s folly to assume that all teachers enter the profession with all the knowledge and skills required to be successful. Teaching is a highly complex and specialized field that requires constant learning and that learning is best situated in the place where teachers ply their craft and, with colleagues who can best help them learn and grow.
John Hattie, in his work The Politics of Collaborative Expertise expresses the imperative that; rather than apply external pressures or mandates, school and system leaders focus instead on providing the structures and resources to support teachers to build their collaborative expertise; within and across schools. As a principal, I trust that the teachers I am leading wish to improve their classroom teaching and are eager to work with one another to do so; even if this learning is complex and demanding.
Teachers spend a large amount of their lives in classrooms; first as children and later as adults. It turns out that the best teachers continue to see the classroom as place where they can learn; we need all teachers to see the classroom this way.
“Go down deep enough into anything and you will find mathematics.” ~Dean Schlicter~
It’s common for people to refer to the changes schools are making to the methods we use for teaching math as “the new math’ as if there has been some recent, radical change to the discipline of mathematics. This is actually inaccurate as the ways that people have represented mathematical ideas (number symbols, drawings, models and charts) have not really changed much over the centuries. What has changed is our awareness of how mathematics can be taught and this is a function of both what we know about mathematics and how children learn.
It turns out that children learn best when they are engaged in tasks that are meaningful, authentic and provide just enough struggle to make it worth the effort. The short video from math teacher Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) gives some helpful examples of how real, everyday situations and contexts can be turned into meaningful math learning opportunities for students.
The example above differs from the traditional math instruction that is familiar to most of us and I have had many opportunities over the years to help guide conversations in this area. When working with parents and colleagues I find it’s helpful for them to know about my past experiences in the area of mathematics. Along with having taught math in almost every grade as a K-8 classroom teacher; I also had the opportunity, for several years, to work at the system level developing and leading mathematics professional development sessions for teachers from all over our district.
The ironic part about this, as my own parents would attest, is that my experiences as a math student in elementary and high school could only be described as abysmal. I struggled greatly in my attempts to learn math- the times tables, the procedures, formulae and rules were all too confusing for me to keep track of or apply with any confidence. Upon graduation I refused to even consider taking any math courses when I moved on the university.
So when, as a novice teacher, I found myself in the awkward position of spending my first year having to learn the mathematics curriculum I would be teaching my grade 7 class-I’m happy to report that my second experience learning grade 7 math was much more successful. During that year (and in the years since) I realized that learning math requires the understanding that math is best learned through experiences, communication and the solving of real problems and not just through the memorization of the rules and facts found in textbooks.
I didn’t really learn to appreciate and understand math during my time as a student in school. In fact, everything I have learned about math; both in my teaching and how I use math in my everyday life, I have learned since I began my teaching career- again in the real world.
“The traditional school often functions as a collection of independent contractors united by a common parking lot.” ~Robert Eaker~
After a move to a new school in September and, what could only be described as an interesting fall, I’m starting to feel a little more settled with my (not so) new surroundings. Over the past few months I’ve had the chance to focus on getting to know the school community, the students, families and staff and see, more or less, how the school ‘works’.
It is often noted that there is greater consistency in practice across schools than within a given school. During 24 years in public education, working at 10 schools in various capacities; teacher, mentor and administrator I’ve had the opportunity to observe this phenomenon first hand.
The key challenge many schools and school systems face is one of both complexity and diversity. With so many variables and influences to factor; people, context and resources, trying to enact a change initiative is akin to the iconic cat herding commercial from a few years back. Often, we are feel we need to respond to complex problems with complex solutions; but the more I think, read and reflect upon this, the more it occurs to me that these problems actually demand simple solutions and that require a focus on relationships and doing less, more effectively.
David Kirp, an American public policy researcher and author, wrote about this recently in his book Improbable Scholars. One of Kirp’s main assertions is that successful schools and districts avoid trendy, fancy or complex improvement strategies and instead focus on these three key areas:
- rich early learning opportunities for all children;
- a strong focus on language-rich instruction across the grades, and;
- professional learning for teachers using school-based collaborative structures.
Success, it turns out, is a matter investing more in the collaborative capacities of classroom teachers and less on the external factors and tools that we have come to rely upon in many of our schools.
For me the word that best describes a truly effective school is coherent. A coherent school is one where teachers direct their resources and focus towards the development of logical, well-organized, consistent and effective teaching practices across the school. As a school leader my task is to engage the professionals I’m working with to create this coherence. As an example, collaborative assessment of student learning is one area where digital tools can help immensely as we can use media tools to gather and analyse a wide range of authentic student work samples as our teachers make use of tools like Google Classroom and Dreambox to support both their classroom teaching and professional learning.
Though we may use new tools, technologies and strategies to accomplish this, it is not the intention to add ‘more’ to the work we do in schools but rather to reduce the use of ineffective or inefficient practices and establish the structures necessary for teachers to work together to create coherence and communicate in a meaningful manner with their students and families.
“The principal goal of education in schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.” ~Jean Piaget~
For the first time in almost 20 years, my school, along with the rest of Ontario’s public elementary schools are missing out on the annual ‘conversation’ about the results of the annual grade 3 and 6 provincial EQAO assessments. EQAO opted not administer the assessments after public elementary teachers refused to participate in the testing process as part of the work to rule sanctions imposed in the spring. Whatever one’s opinions are on standardized testing (not the focus of this post) it has made for an interesting fall.
Normally, at this time of the year school and system leaders are responding to the results on multiple fronts. Depending on the numbers, one could be dancing in the hallways and serving cake in the staff room, or sweating through an angry parent meeting trying to articulate the plan that will raise the scores and floating in stream of the annual media hand wringing about the decline of our system and our inability to ‘compete’.
Serendipity being what it is, our school board did engage in some broadly-based data collection last year- we conducted a system-wide student engagement survey. Near the end of the school year students in grades 5 to12 were invited to complete a questionnaire on a few key aspects of their life at school. Over 52,000 students completed the survey (mostly online) representing 72% of our student population- a pretty robust sample size.
One of the key areas the survey focused on was how our students perceived their schools as engaging, modern learning environments. A slice of data in this area of our student survey is represented below:
The percentage values on the left (light blue) represent responses from our gr.5-8 (middle school) students and those on the right (navy) are responses from our gr.9-12 (high school) students. What is noteworthy for me is the quantity of students who feel that their voices, values and interests are not evident in the school they attend and the decline in each category’s percentages from the middle school to high school results.
It reminds me of the results reported from the survey the Gallup organization conducted with a similar aged cohort of over 500 000 American students in 2012. An 80’s themed piece on this report can be found in The Atlantic .
Engagement and motivation are essential for deep learning. Whatever one’s stance or perspective is on what school should be; it’s pretty clear to me our students are telling us in no uncertain terms that school is not what it could be. Do we really wish to be part of a system that gradually erodes the enthusiasm and joy of learning of the majority of the children it is designed to serve?
This past week I had the opportunity to listen to an address by Will Richardson in which he challenged us to consider the beliefs we hold about our own learning and reflect upon whether these beliefs were evident in the actions we take in our schools and classrooms. I think (hope) most of us know that the things we do to children do not reflect what we know we ought to be doing- and yet we persist.
Regardless of your role, if you work in schools now, knowing what our students have told us, how will you respond?
“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.” ~Georg Christoph Litchenberg
The talk linked to this post is powerful, thought provoking and was, for me, disturbing. Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, legal scholar, social justice activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hopefully you will grab a bag of popcorn, dig in and watch the talk before you read this post. That is, after all, why I often ink my posts with media content.
Schools are complex systems; the interactions of children, families and educators are complicated- with moments of joy, outbursts of conflict and a level of intensity that is powerful. So powerful that emotion can, at times, trump reason and a balanced perspective. This is no more true than those times when children harm one another, respond to perceived injustices by acting out or challenge rules that they feel are unfair.
There was a time when we used terms like ‘zero tolerance’ to describe school discipline practices and policies- with the belief that punishment would be enough to ensure that students wouldn’t hurt one another or challenge the existing authority structures of the school. I reject this belief for a simple reason- it doesn’t really work.
Bryan Stevenson explains how and why it doesn’t ‘work’ with much more eloquence, authority and urgency that I ever could-I won’t even try (so watch the video-please).
What I will add is this-only because it is based on my experience as a father and an educator. Punishment doesn’t work because when we punish we are not teaching. As Ross Greene reminds us, children behave the way they can; based upon their experiences, state of mind and well being. Teaching requires that we understand the child’s needs and create the conditions for them to connect, reflect, communicate and learn. Whether it is learning about our number system, the events of our past, the elements of effective narrative writing; or what to do when you have harmed another person.
This is why effective schools -and enlightened youth police outreach programs- focus on restorative justice approaches. When children learn to accept responsibility and repair the harm that they have done we work towards solving two problems- the harm that was caused and the issues and challenges that led to the harm in the first place.
In my experience, the students who are subject to the most disciplinary responses exist on the margins- they have language or learning difficulties, mental health concerns like ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, or live in communities with limited resources, poverty or weak family support structures. Schools are supposed to serve to counter to these influences- not accelerate them- this is what it really means to be ‘fair’.
…there are many committed, forward thinking teachers who will make (inquiry and authentic work) happen despite the barriers. But community members, parents, legislators and lobbyists will resist large-scale transformative change at every turn because they are tied so deeply to their nostalgia for school as they knew it or to the potential windfalls of making traditional schools better.” ~Will Richardson~
It’s been a while since I’ve written a post. After a quiet, blissful summer with family and friends I’ve launched into the start of the school year at a new location with the opportunity to get to know a new team of educators, students and families. September did bring lots of new stuff; but to quote the dearly (and recently) departed dugout linguist Yogi Berra, there is an element of that deja vu all over again in our schools this fall.
Current circumstances and events, along with the some of the reading I’ve been reflecting upon, has got me thinking about where we are in our profession, in our schools and our systems. Specifically, I’ve been reading Will Richardson’s latest book From Master Teacher to Master Learner and hope to weave a narrative over the next few posts to share my thinking, connect with some fellow travelers and, hopefully, provoke others to do likewise.
I’m a tinkerer; a restless soul with a willing disposition to challenge the status quo. As a school principal and prior to that, as a classroom teacher, I’ve tried to meet challenges and solve problems with creativity, imagination and a willingness to try new things, take risks and make mistakes. It helps that I welcome the ideas and perspectives of others; especially when these prompt me to refine and revise my thinking. This is how I learn and, above all, I see myself as a learner.
This is why, I’m sure, that I’ve found Will’s blog posts, talks and books to be so helpful. I can connect with his ideas and perspectives, both as a father and an educator. They give me pause to think, help me reflect upon my work and support me in my advocacy.
To lead public schools today requires degrees of creativity, optimism, resilience and the capacity for what Roger Martin has called, integrative thinking; the ability to incorporate two seemingly opposite ideas simultaneously to create change out of unpleasant or difficult situations.
Right now, and for the past 20 years, the stakeholders in our school system have engaged in fierce conversations and debates about the structures of our system; allocation of resources, organization of schools, reporting processes, class size, standardized testing and sequencing of curriculum standards. These policy points reflect a belief that the imposition incremental adjustments to the structure of schools and systems can effect a change in outcomes for students. This hierarchical stance no longer serves us in our networked, connected world but it remains the dominant mindset that we apply to our classrooms, schools and systems.
Nested within this conversation is an actual problem; at every level of our system (classroom, school, district and and legislative) our structures reflect a scarcity mindset that is based upon one-way transmission. The teacher who limits student learning to content-based worksheet lists and discreet facts that are doled out incrementally in advance of the test is no different than the school administrator who is required to appraise teachers based upon student test scores and classroom look-for checklists; or the policy maker who makes the decision to mandate investments in resources (like school technology) without accounting for the front-line implementation of these resources in schools.
All of these examples reflect the belief that when information, or performance, or resources are transmitted and measured; learning is an outcome. But this is no longer the case.
Learning, Will reminds us, is actually an outcome of learning. And learning is a process that is provoked by the questions of the learner, not the information that is being transmitted by the teacher.
So the questions I want to explore over the next few posts relate to the things we can do as educators to interrupt this ‘deja vu’ and change our conversations (and our systems) to be learning-focused for all; teachers, administrators, parents and most of all, students.
As we engage in re-imagining public education in the coming years, I believe that we must re-think the use of space, the use of time, the structure of the school day and year, the sorting of students by grade, the use of schools within communities and, probably the most significant, the structure and content of curriculum. Not everything will need to change but it is important to ask the question: “is it right for today or are we doing it this way because we always have?” ~Ken Thurston~
This past week the Director of our district school board, Ken Thurston, announced that he will be retiring at the end of July. (For my American cousins, in Ontario the title Director is akin to Superintendent). I’ve had the chance to work with Ken in a variety of roles over the 14 years I have known him. He was one of my school superintendents when I was in the classroom, I had the chance to work with him when I was local union steward and committee member and, for the past 4 years I have been proud to serve as a vice principal and principal under Ken’s leadership. It was Ken who sat across the table and led the conversation that resulted in my appointment to the position of principal.
One of key traits I have observed consistently in the years I have known Ken is the importance he places upon relationships. Whether he is thinking about students, staff, parents, unions, community members, trustees, or policy makers, relationships matter most. The other trait I have observed is the willingness Ken has to question the status quo, imagine alternatives and grant agency to those who wish to do likewise.
At Park Avenue PS our students, staff and parents often tell me that I think “differently’ on many issues, sometimes in little ways, sometimes in more radical ways. I do so because we have had a Director not only granting permission, but actually challenging us to do so- Ken’s question, quoted in bold text above, guides my daily work.
During our short time together working as the principal of our school community we have asked ourselves this question and given ourselves permission to re-think our use of tools, time and curriculum. Over the course of our intensive math professional learning this week I challenged each of our grade teams to rethink our concept of how we teach our math curriculum- both in structure and content- and look more closely at how we can use the Landscape of Learning to provide developmental instruction that challenges and meets the needs of all our students.
As we learn how to do this in math, and gain confidence, I’m sure we will find lots of ways to apply this in other areas of our school community and better inform our parents in this area so they can both support and better trust the work we are doing in our classrooms. Re-imagining our school, and re-shaping it to meet the challenges of the world we live in now, is the work that each of us; staff, parents and students, must do together.
Back at our first staff meeting together I remember saying to our staff that I didn’t want to change everything, just the things that weren’t working, and we would make these changes together. I’m encouraged that, even as he prepares to depart, our Director is giving principals and teachers permission to re-think, re-imagine and re-create our classrooms and schools.
Of course, it’s more than likely I would have continued on this path regardless; but sometimes it is better to have permission rather than have to beg forgiveness.