Thursday, 5 January 2017

Connecting and Reflecting

As we begin the New Year, we continue to reflect on the connections that we made during our session at the Learning Forward 2016 Annual Conference held in Vancouver, BC, in December.  We were struck by your level of engagement at 8:00 am on the final day of that conference and were so pleased to speak to many of you both during the session and after it had finished.  For us, what outlasts the event is the feedback we received.  A theme in your feedback was that you noted not only what was said (content), but also how it was said (design and method).  This brings to mind the opportunities we have as leaders to intentionally and purposefully design the learning process for adult learners.

We appreciate this level of “noticing.”  We are intentional and purposeful in the work we do with schools and systems.  Often, what brings us to you is a request for content – assessment, writing, reporting, instructional leadership, evaluation, strategic planning, etc.  And yet, each time we choose to “deliver” this content through a well-designed framework, because we know, just as classroom teachers know, that content cannot stand alone. 

In order to be clear, we would like to illuminate hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time: 

·      We are responsive to the learners and the system within which they work.
·      We use the principles of assessment for learning as a structure for adult learning.
·      We plan for both leader and teacher learning.
·      We build in opportunities to learn in the presence of students, by risking our own significance and demonstrating instructional cycles.
·      We use the gradual release of responsibility model not only with student learners, but with adult learners as well.
·      We identify what we want the learners to notice as we teach and facilitate.
·      We provide time for learners to practice and we provide them with feedback.

This structure allows us to move between adult learning sessions and classroom demonstrations/observations and back again in a seamless manner.  In fact, this is, for us, a ‘coaching’ stance, allowing adult learners to access their internal resources, experience, and expertise.

Over the course of the next several months, we will elaborate on each of these statements.  We will use examples and accounts to reveal how the intentionality of our design leads to deep adult learning and change in practice.  Just as Kevin Fahey and Jacy Ippolito state in their article, How to Build Schools Where Adults Learn, we believe that “School improvement is built on adult learning, which changes over time and can be encouraged and supported by savvy school leaders. Moreover, a learning practice, like a teaching practice, develops in complex ways as teachers grow and learn…” (Journal of Staff Development, Vol. 35, No. 2, April 2014).

Brenda and Sandra

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Learning Destinations and Making Dinner

I have been thinking about Carol Ann Tomlinson's column in the October 2016 issue of Educational Leadership for weeks. I know October wasn't that long ago, but I usually read Tomlinson's column the day the magazine arrives and then work my way through the rest of the articles as the month unfolds. I can't stop thinking about these two quotes:

"To create real learners, teachers have to reach the hearts, souls, and minds of students. Teaching a list of standards won't get us there."

"Right now, we often dish out raw ingredients when we should be making dinner."

Making dinner. Never have I heard a metaphor so perfectly describe what we do as teachers when we create an authentic and meaningful learning destination. When I create learning destinations for my students and think of myself as "making dinner",  I accept these things to be true:

  • Pre-packaged meals are never as tasty as those made from scratch. They're just quick and easy. They can't possibly meet all of the individual needs and preferences at my table.When I carefully craft learning destinations to meet the needs of my students, the learning is robust. Fine dining, not fast food.
  • If all you are serving is carrots, it doesn't matter how fancy those carrots are, how much fun we had curling them into strips, or even if they are organic and pesticide free... they are still just carrots and would make a better meal in a stew. A learning destination is more than one outcome taught in isolation. I need to thoughtfully select outcomes and group them together in ways that will nourish my learners. 
  • Everybody is coming to the table and we are all going to eat. The learning destination is for all learners. It's my job to clearly identify the learning destination and provide the samples, criteria, and feedback necessary for all learners to be successful.
  • Children can be picky eaters. Our learning destinations must engage our learners in meaningful ways. We need them to run to the table and pull up a chair.
  • The recipe is just the starting point; every good chef puts his or her own spin on macaroni and cheese. As teachers we use our professional judgment to enhance the curriculum - grouping curricular outcomes into big ideas, including the competencies, beliefs, and learning approaches found in the front matter of the curriculum documents, incorporating the ideas of noted experts, reflecting on past practice, and considering student needs and interests - all to create learning destinations that engage students at the highest levels of Bloom's taxonomy. 
Making dinner is always more fun, less work, and even more likely to be great when you share the work with others. My friend, colleague, and co-author (Lesson Study: Powerful Assessment and Professional Practice and this post!) Ruth Gaurvreau and I could have made this a very long post, extending the metaphor and appreciating the truth (and the humour!) in the connections. Instead, we decided to invite you into the conversation. 

In what ways are you "making dinner"?

Brenda and Ruth


Augusta, B., Gauvreau, R., and Hector, G. 2013. Lesson Study: Powerful Assessment and Professional Practice. Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing.

Bloom, B. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Tomlinson, C.A. 2016Lesson Plans Well Served. Educational Leadership, 74(2), pp. 89-90.

Wednesday, 19 October 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 modelled 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, modelling what it means to solve a math problem completely while colleagues observed and recorded data as requested by the co-teachers.
·      A secondary principal modelled, 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”.

Brenda and Sandra

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.