Monday, 11 September 2017

Intentional by Design: We use the gradual release of responsibility model not only with student learners, but with adult learners as well.

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

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 
                                                                                        - Anton Chekov
“Show, don’t just tell.”

We’ve all heard this adage, and in particular referring to the area of writing.  Great writers create images for us that extend beyond the written word.  And yet, like many truly profound ideas, it applies to so much more than the teaching of writing.

“Show, don’t just tell” could also be the tagline for the gradual release of responsibility model of instruction (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). In this model, learners develop an understanding of quality as they watch a teacher or classmate demonstrate or model how to do something, describing his or her thinking as they proceed. During shared practice, the student assumes more of the responsibility for the learning and yet is still supported by the teacher and other learners in the community. Further responsibility is given over to the student when he or she moves into independent practice. Using the gradual release of responsibility with students is a key strategy in our work with students.

We believe in “Show, don’t just tell” when it comes to adult learners as well. Working as a community of learners and truly digging into questions of practice benefits greatly from the gradual release of responsibility.

Consider the account of a K-8 school where the goal was to write authentic and meaningful learning destinations so that students would know where they were going, and indeed, would be motivated to actually go there. Initially I shared with a group of teachers some learning destinations I had created and then modelled my process for bringing curriculum outcomes, big ideas, and competencies together. I shared samples from others and we discussed the various formats and what seemed important in writing effective learning destinations that could truly guide our teaching and inspire our students to learn. Next we wrote learning destinations with grade level partners and shared them across teams, engaging in feedback cycles and conversations. At this point, some teachers began writing their own learning destinations and others continued to work with a partner or group. After three months of practice and exploration we came together again to share examples, ask questions, and talk about our learning.

Now let’s reflect on the use of the gradual release of responsibility with leaders.  A group of 32 school principals wanted to learn more about the coaching stance as a learning-focussed interaction.  While many of them thought that they notionally knew what it meant to be both leader and coach, they were uncertain of what it looked like practically. Over the course of several opportunities to come together, we followed this approach to learning:
·      I modelled several coaching conversations with teachers. Leaders were not simply passive observers, but scripted what I was saying. Each time, we unpacked what they had noticed and discussed the ways in which the demonstrations increased their understanding of coaching from the position of leader.
·      Next, we practiced together. In these instances (three in total), I began to coach a teacher. Approximately every four minutes or so, I would pause and turn to the group and ask them to write down what they might say next to this individual. We shared those ideas aloud in the group, I selected the one with which to continue, and the conversation unfolded in these deliberate chunks.
·      After that, leaders met in groups of three to practice. One leader coached the other, while the third scripted what the coach had said. In this way, the leader-coach could later reflect on his/her words.  A body of evidence was also being created that could demonstrate growth and progress over time. As the leaders practiced, my role was to listen carefully, re-direct when required, and re-teach when patterns across the room emerged.

The principals agreed that this would be the focus of their learning for the year and would precede coaching teachers in their own schools. The deliberate and conscious use of the gradual release of responsibility permitted the principals to take risks, while at the same time increasing their competence, capacity, and confidence.  (It is important to note that all of the teachers who were involved knew that they were assisting us in refining our instructional leadership and that this was not part of their supervisory cycle.)

As leaders, we leverage the powerful structures of classroom pedagogy. The gradual release of responsibility is one such structure. Just like we may hear students ask us to show them what we mean, we also hear those words from the adult learners whom we support and supervise.  And so why wouldn’t we use the gradual release of responsibility as an opportunity to strengthen our instructional leadership, as we “Show, don’t just tell.”

In our next post, we will further examine the sixth hallmark that we outlined in January 2017- We identify what we want the learners to notice as we teach and facilitate.

Written with my colleague Sandra Herbst


Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M. 1983. The instruction of reading apprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, Vol. 8(3):317-344.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Reflections on Professional Learning

Engaged in the summer task of going through the word documents, power points, usb drives, photos, filing cabinets, book shelves, and boxes (a career in teaching is messy – it does not all fit neatly into my laptop or iPad), I found a chart I wrote about ten years ago. At first glance, the age of the chart alone might be reason enough to recycle it. I, however, am incapable of stopping at first glance, and when presented with a chart I am compelled to read it. (This may explain why I am still engaged in this task on August 29th.)

The chart was one of two that I created in my best Grade 1 Teacher printing after seeing Carl Glickman at the Distinguished Lecturer series hosted by Manitoba ASCD.  This copy hung in my office as a daily reminder and vision statement of what I believed about professional learning for the educators I worked alongside and myself.  The second copy I took with me to schools and sessions across our district, often leaving it behind for teachers to post in their staff rooms to serve as a reminder, a conversation, a nudge, an inspiration, and yes, a challenge. I rewrote those words many times and left the chart behind because I believed then, and still do, in the power of anchor charts to serve as a constant and ever-present reminder for learners of what we as a community hold to be true.

The educator I am today might choose to reframe these ideas, preferring to make an explicitly positive presupposition and to create a beginning list of possibilities or criteria that we as learners might explore and add to together:

I begin this school year with a new chart in my office. One that reflects what I believe now about professional learning and that echoes the words of Lorri Nielsen who has written that professional learning is not something done to us as educators, but rather is something we do for ourselves.


Glickman, Carl. 2002. Leadership for Learning: How to Help Teachers Succeed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Nielsen, Lorri. 1994. A Stone In My Shoe: Teaching Literacy in Times of Change. Winnipeg, MB: Peguis Publishers.

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