Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Intentional by Design: We Build in Opportunities to Learn in the Presence of Students, by Risking Our Own Significance and Demonstrating Instructional Cycles

In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the fourth of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.
As leaders, we know that the most important relationship in schools and school systems is the instructional relationship between teachers and their students.  We talk and write about the primacy of this relationship and, yet, it can be easy to simply do that – talk and write about it. 

Because the learning that takes place “at the desk of the student” is so critical, we often find ourselves in classrooms teaching a group of students whom we have just met and often at a level or in a subject area that is unfamiliar to us. It certainly would be far simpler to share examples and images of students engaged in learning; however, the potential benefits far outweigh the moments of doubt as one begins a lesson in front of a group of 18 or more educators.  (In a subsequent blog, we will more clearly articulate the role of those educator observers, but for now, let us reflect on some recent experiences.) 

The body of writing in the area of ethical leadership often refers to leaders who “risk their own significance” and we know of no better way than to model a strategy or an instructional sequence for others.  Certainly, this can be done in a learning session where only adult learners are present.  That is, we can engage in a strategy or series of strategies and then discuss classroom adaptations and applications.   Nevertheless, inviting others to observe a strategy in action with a group of student learners allows us to watch intentional instructional design unfold and to mitigate sentiments such as, “Well, this is a good idea, but I can’t imagine how it would work with a group of Grade 10 Science students.”  

A group of 17 teachers gathered in Debbie’s classroom to observe a process of co-constructing criteria with Grade 11 Pre-Calculus students.  In two or three minute chunks, I solved math problems for the students, by not only modelling, but by engaging in metacognitive talk along the way.  Students gave me immediate feedback in the moments between the modelling chunks and identified what they noticed me doing and saying that would inform the criteria.  At the end of approximately 40 minutes, we had, together, created robust and comprehensive criteria to answer this question – What counts, what matters, and what is important when we solve a math problem completely?  The details of the criteria included statements like, “Clear your mind before solving the problem so that you can focus.”, “Think about a problem that you have done before that is similar.”, “Draw on prior mathematical understanding.”, “Take a brain break, if you need it.”, and “Determine what the problem is actually asking you.”  At the end of the lesson, I invited one teacher to meet with a group of two students to discuss what he/she had learned about instruction, as a result of the observation.  The discussion was not about what the students had learned or what the teachers had learned about the students.  Rather, the focus was on that which the teachers took from the demonstration to inform their next instructional steps.  In this way, the teachers are making their learning public to the students and modelling the adage that is often repeated – We are all lifelong learners.  And perhaps more importantly, the teachers are risking their own significance by talking about something that they now know more about than even an hour earlier.

For two years, teams of K-8 teachers observed every day for four days as I taught writing in two classrooms. At 8:30 each morning 25 to 30 of us gathered for half an hour, digging into the learning destination, discussing evidence we might collect, and, after the first day, considering what the evidence suggested as next steps for tomorrow's lesson. During those two years, I did the teaching, simultaneously working with students and teacher learners for an hour twice a morning in classrooms ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 8, with students I did not know, and on topics negotiated with teachers in advance, based on what they were studying at the time and their students were deeply interested in. I did not impose the topic to make it easier for myself. My only requirements were that we find something that would be authentic and meaningful for the students and connected to outcomes, content, topics, genres, or big ideas already under study. After each lesson we met to make sense of our evidence - the conversations, observations, and products from the classroom. At the end of the second year, the divisional Literacy Leadership team asked for pairs of teachers to become hub teachers, each planning a writing lesson study week and inviting four to six teachers from schools new to the project into their classrooms. Fourteen teachers opened their doors and made their practice public, using the structure I had modelled and the big ideas of assessment and instruction in the writing workshop that had been the focus of our two years together. In year three, while I began the work with a new team, fourteen teachers took a leadership role, benefitting colleagues from their own school and other schools in the district and making the learning their own. When they repeat the process next year, the hub teachers have suggested that they would like to include time in the visiting teachers' classrooms. Their feedback has inspired more teachers to volunteer to become hub teachers.

As leaders we deliberately build opportunities to learn in the presence of students and risk our own significance by demonstrating instructional practices. It is our experience that this modelling inspires others to try something that may not have been attempted before.

Risking your own significance is contagious.

In our next post, we will further examine the fifth hallmark that we outlined in January 2017- We use the gradual release of responsibility model not only with student learners, but with adult learners as well.


Written with my colleague Sandra Herbst

Friday, 12 May 2017

Intentional by Design: We Plan for Both Leader and Teacher Learning


In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the third of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.
As people who love words, we appreciate and extend metaphors.
It takes a village to raise a child.
It takes a school to teach a child.
We know that it takes teachers and leaders working in alignment to make a difference in the lives of children. In our planning, we consider the needs and actions of both teachers and leaders, including those at the school and system level. Just as classroom teachers plan for the range of students they find before them each year, leaders of schools and systems plan for diverse and rich professional learning.  As a result, whether in a large district-wide session, or one with many districts represented, we share both classroom and leadership examples to illustrate the application of the principles of assessment regardless of one’s role.  In the absence of considering school and system-based strategies, the promise of assessment for learning is not fully realized.  And, as research clearly indicates, it is this alignment that propels systems into deep implementation and achievement gains.

In a district working on writing over the course of three years, sessions were planned for teachers and leaders together, but also apart. In this way, each could apply the principles and structures of assessment to their own practice in the company of colleagues in a similar role. And so, while teachers were being guided and supported to create rich, meaningful learning destinations for students about what it means to be a writer, school-based leaders considered their school writing goal in terms of a learning destination for students, a learning destination for teachers, and a learning destination for themselves. As teachers identified conversations, observations, and products they and students might collect as evidence of learning, the leaders planned to triangulate the evidence of student and teacher learning, as well as their own. And finally, as teachers considered the modelling, shared writing, and co-constructed criteria students might need to reach these writing goals, principals and vice-principals discussed the descriptions of quality teachers might need – observing during a lesson study week, planning learning destinations as a team, or co-teaching with a colleague -  and how they as leaders could help make that happen. They also discussed the samples of quality they might need to grow their own leadership practice, including visits to a hub school in a nearby district, professional reading, and practicing giving feedback with other school leaders.

 In another district, teachers focused on learning about providing specific and descriptive feedback to their students.  They examined the connection of criteria to feedback and the cycle of gradual release of responsibility that is required so that students build their capacity to give feedback to themselves and their classmates.  These conversations took teachers into classrooms to practise what they were learning and to identify next steps for their practice.  Simultaneously, all of the principals and vice-principals were inquiring into ways to provide feedback to their teachers and, in particular, they were designing structures to keep their teachers at the centre of the feedback cycle.  More specifically, these leaders worked to keep their feedback at very high levels.  Instead of feedback that included suggestions by the school leader, they learned about ways to use what they had noticed in the classroom, along with a mediative question, to allow the teacher to reprocess and identify his/her own next instructional step.  Principals and vice-principals first practiced creating this type of feedback together…without providing it to the teacher. In other words, the school leaders were doing exactly as the classroom teachers were - they needed to rehearse, make mistakes, adjust and refine. They were co-learners; however these leaders were learning about feedback through the lens of their role and leadership action.




In our next post, we will further examine the fourth hallmark that we outlined in January 2017 - We build in opportunities to learn in the presence of students, by risking our own significance and demonstrating instructional cycles.

 Written with my colleague Sandra Herbst


Monday, 3 April 2017

Intentional by Design: Using the Principles of Assessment for Learning as a Structure for Professional Development

In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the second of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.
“Wow, this must be really different from being a classroom teacher!”
“Working with adult learners is a whole new ball game.”
“You’re going to have a steep learning curve. Working with adults is nothing like working with students!”
These are comments we heard as we first left our classrooms and moved into the world of leading professional learning. The general consensus was that nothing we had done as teachers would serve us, or our learners, in this new role.  As reflective practitioners, we quickly recognized that although there were some differences between learners under 18 and those over 18, there were also many similarities. The similarities became particularly striking when we applied the principles of assessment for learning to the professional learning experiences we designed.

Just as with student learners, our adult learners become actively engaged in their own learning when, together, we identify clear learning destinations, explore quality and proficiency through samples and criteria, provide opportunities for self- and peer assessment, collect triangulated evidence of learning and set goals based on that evidence. And, just as it was with our students, these actions give our adult learners the confidence and the willingness to communicate their learning to others in formal and informal ways.

When we deliberately link classroom practice to the ways in which adults engage in learning, there is another intended positive outcome.  Research shows that when we impact the learning practice of teachers, we also impact their teaching practice.  For example, a teacher who has experienced the power of differentiation is more likely to differentiate in his classroom; a teacher who sees the value of self-assessment through the lens of personal practice is less likely to suggest that it is an “add on” to his instruction.  And so, the following two accounts provide practical examples of assessment for learning principles in action with adult learners.

A group of coaches in a district in Ontario were working alongside teachers as they inquired into the mathematical process of problem solving.  I was invited to, in turn, support the coaches in their facilitation of the inquiry.  As we came to the end of the first term of the school year, I asked the coaches to consider the evidence that they were collecting that would prove their work was making a difference.  When we examined their initial list, we noted that the majority of the artifacts were products.  Because we know that evidence from multiple sources (products, observations, conversations) brings both reliability and validity to the data set, we identified further evidence that could be collected, as the inquiry continued - making certain to include both observations and conversations.  We represented our thinking using a triangle (see photo) that could guide our evidence collection for the next six months.  The quality of these coaches’ leadership could not simply be measured by product alone; a triangulated approach provided the fullness of their impact.




















Teachers at École Howden, a French Immersion school in the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, Manitoba, were guided in co-constructing criteria on what counts in teaching writing in ways that maximize student achievement and joy in the process. Through ongoing work, teachers and leaders were provided with many descriptions of quality through demonstration lessons over the course of several lesson study weeks. These samples were used to co-construct criteria. The criteria was then used by teachers to support each other in co-teaching contexts – collaboratively planning modelling lessons based on criteria – and goal setting contexts - one teaching and a colleague recording all language used to allow the first teacher to compare her language to the intentional use of language described in the criteria. The criteria made it safe for teachers to support each other, to collect evidence for each other, and to provide feedback for each other. Just as it does for students.

In our next post, we will further examine the third hallmark that we outlined in January 2017 - We plan for both leader and teacher learning.




Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Intentional By Design: Being responsive to the learners and the system within which they work

In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the first of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.

Once A Teacher, Always A Teacher

We are educators. It’s not just a job; it’s who we are. Just as elementary and secondary teachers and leaders are responsive to their students, we are responsive to our learners and the system within which they work. We don’t just open the computer and run the slides. Like you, we begin our planning with the provincial curricula (of the province you are in, not the one we are from!) and district documents. Every agenda is custom-designed, based on those local documents and the needs identified by those who know the learners best. It is exactly as teachers plan for each new group of learners, meeting them just where they are.

So what does that mean in practical terms?

It means that when we are invited by, for example, the Wikwemikong Board of Education in Ontario to come and do a writing lesson study week (a week of being the writing teacher in residence who demonstrates the teaching of writing, along with the big ideas of assessment), we must first be familiar with Growing Success to truly understand the context. It means that the learning destinations we create for the students are based on the Ontario language arts curriculum and that the writing we do is driven by the interests and passions of the students and not a canned lesson we have done ten times in other schools, other districts, other jurisdictions, or other provinces.

It means that the learning sequences we prepare are always in draft form. In fact, our published agendas (whether on chart paper or a PowerPoint slide) consistently include the word ‘Proposed.’  


We are deliberately tentative, because we need to continually engage with adult learners in order to determine the very best next instructional step.  We adjust based on our observations and conversations – just as teachers adapt their lessons to best suit their students and just as the tenets of formative assessment demand.  In many cases, we use an electronic back channel, like todaysmeet.com, to collect questions, connections, and comments.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we structure our day’s plan in this way because it is the very thing that teachers are expected to do each and every day in their classrooms – be responsive to their students.  As leaders, it is imperative that we model this in adult learning sessions, so as to both bring alignment and, quite frankly, to not ask teachers to do things in ways we are not prepared to do ourselves.

In our next post, we will further examine the second hallmark that we outlined in January 2017 - We use the principles of assessment for learning as a structure for adult learning.