Monday, November 13, 2017

Re-Thinking the High School Schedule

Recently, someone shared a report with me, entitled The Student-Centered, Data-Driven Master Schedule. During my first read, I gleaned several nuggets:
"...redesigning the school day to improve how instructional time is used."
"...the needs of the student should determine the scope of the master schedule."
"The use of multiple data points to accurately describe a learner's needs will empower the school leader to schedule students in a way that ensures all students reach their highest potential."
"...all decisions are based on student needs."
This all seemed quite different from what I have previously read about rethinking the high school schedule, which was squarely based on moving the starting time back. It made me realize that if we don't review and improve how instructional time is used, all directly 
related to learner needs, changing the starting time is likely irrelevant.

As the authors note, this type of systemic change takes time, and input from all stakeholders. I recently heard Julia Putnam say something to the effect that our misconception that systemic change can happen fast is what exhausts and disillusions us as educators. While within the system, how might we make change that is not "of" the system? If all schedule decisions are made based on student needs, what about the teacher whose teaching assignment drastically changes? Are we ready for the potential of making some adults uncomfortable? This quote resonated:
"Teachers are already encouraged to work in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in order to ensure the needs of students are being met....The change process has a similar aim in mind -- the student's welfare. Initially, teachers may feel worried or even apathetic to change....Keeping discussions focused on the school's mission and vision is the key to easing these concerns."
While I don't endorse the authors' change process as the only one possible, or that its goals are identical to the goals of every school or district, it is steeped in the work of both Michael Fullan and Richard Elmore. And it does encourage us to ask ourselves if our current master schedule mirrors our vision, mission, and instructional focus on meeting the individual needs of all students.

Join the conversation...
What are your thoughts about entering into a change process around the high school master schedule? What might be some of the challenges?

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hard Conversations That Lead To Innovation

"We need to speak up for the field, advocate for the democratic ideals upon which our profession was based, speak for students who don't have a voice, for the best teaching possible for all students, for the professional cultures we deserve to work in and for the next generation of educators."

These words are found in the preface of Jennifer Abrams' book Hard Conversations Unpacked. Although the book is not written with education innovation in mind, her premise -- "We all need to learn how to speak up skillfully around what matters" -- is key to moving the work forward.

Of course, there must first be a foundation of trust. As Megan Tschannen-Moran writes: "Trust is one's willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent." And trust begins with each one of us asking ourselves questions such as:
  • Am I fully invested in the work of our PLC?
  • Do I adhere, in spirit and in practice, to the agreements our PLC makes?
  • Do I embody our district guiding principles in my interactions?
  • Am I willing to embrace feedback with a student-centered lens?
Once we have answered those questions for ourselves, and shared our thinking with our colleagues in a norms-based environment, we can begin to build a culture that elevates hard conversations as a means of educational innovation.

Abrams' book provides templates and practical ideas for most of the "what ifs" that can deter us from starting a hard conversation. They're called "hard" conversations for the obvious reason -- they are hard. And, I would offer, our students are worth it.

Image result for not easy but worth it quote

Join the conversation...
Are we having enough hard conversations to move teaching and learning forward? What's helping us? What's in our way?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Building a Culture of Evidence-Based Inquiry

"[H]igh-quality teaching maximizes the time that learners are engaged with and successful in the learning of important outcomes."

The past few blog posts have explored the cycle of inquiry as a key component of education innovation. This post dives in deeper, around building a culture of evidence-based inquiry. The quote above is from Viviane Robinson's book, Student-Centered Leadership.

We would be hard-pressed to find a school that lacks evidence of student learning. From teacher observations to homework to test scores to class work and beyond, our schools are full of evidence. As Robinson points out:
"Quality teaching is developed through cycles of inquiry and action designed to increase the impact of teaching on the engagement and success of students. Although evidence about student achievement is an essential resource for such inquiry, the challenge for most school leaders is not the availability of such evidence but creating a culture in which it is used for the purpose of improvement."
As we look at evidence of student learning in an inquiry cycle, what lens are we using? Are we looking to confirm what we already believe, or are we willing to use the evidence to critically challenge ourselves?

Many principals and teachers are not yet steeped in critical analysis of evidence of student learning for improvement. One *free* resource that can help is the Introduction to Data Wise MOOC from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is a self-paced, eight-hour learning that is best done in teams.

One example in both Robinson's book and the MOOC that help shift from confirmation to disruption is the use of the ladder of inference:

How we interpret evidence, and then use it to make decisions, is a critical part of the inquiry cycle. As we innovate for improvement, we can use this process to disrupt traditional confirmation patterns that are normal in human interactions.

Join the conversation...
How does your teacher team approach analysis of evidence in the cycle of inquiry?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Teacher Voice and Agency, Part III

"Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling."
and this... 
and this...
Students of high-ability teachers outperformed those of low-ability teachers, but gains were highest among students whose teachers were both high ability (high human capital) and had stronger ties with their colleagues (strong social capital). Importantly, this work also found that even lower-ability teachers could perform as well as teachers of average ability if they had strong social capital.

and finally, this... 
"How do these highly effective teachers do it?  How do they manage these daunting tasks in a context where high-stakes testing and accountability have many educators frustrated and panicked?  They do it by staying focused on the things that they can control.  They know that fragmented learning and missing skills must be addressed before moving students on to the next skill....They understand that every positive instructional experience moves every student one step closer to graduation." Cathy Buryn

These findings support both collaboration and strong instruction as the keys to student achievement.

As teacher teams work together in an inquiry cycle or other improvement venue, at some point each teacher is back in their own room, teaching the students in front of them. It is time to implement the hunch or the plan, and this is the time that teachers are on their own. Using the art of teaching to deliver effective instruction that results in bell-to-bell learning, this is where each teacher employs his or her professional expertise to move every student forward, every day, no matter the size of the increment. And then, these teachers meet back together in their collaborative team, to review evidence of learning, and continue the cycle of inquiry.

This individual classroom agency, built on collaborative foundation, is crucial. As each team comes to macro decisions, it is up to each teacher to make micro decisions, based on the uniqueness of their own students. What might that look like? On a macro level, let's say the math team decides that everyone will use the Notice and Wonder protocol to determine its impact on the problem-solving abilities of students. On the micro level, each individual teacher will decide how to group students, and will also respond to students during the learning in different ways, depending on each situation. No one is teaching exactly the same way as anyone else, but certain aspects of instruction have become common based on consensus. When the team reconvenes, a discussion of those artful moves ensues as the team reviews evidence of student learning. 

Collaborative inquiry boosts teacher voice, teacher agency, and teacher effectiveness. As teachers innovate and try out new ideas in their classrooms, their team has their back.

Join the conversation...
What are your experiences experimenting with team decisions in your individual classroom? How does the inquiry cycle blend the art and science of teaching and learning?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Formative Assessment For Innovation

Any time teachers seek to innovate an aspect of education, professionalism compels them to be sure that it actually enhances learning in the intended way. Collaborative teams spend an inordinate amount of time planning, and once implementation occurs, an intentional, well-designed formative assessment process that actively includes students is the next step.

Think about it in terms of buying a new car. The items we believe are crucial for a good driving experience are akin to essential learning standards: automatic transmission, power windows, all-wheel drive, leather seats, etc. There are many cars that might make the first cut. However, until you actually go take the car for a test drive, in different conditions and at different speeds, you don't know how it's actually going to feel or perform. You might drive two different sedans from two different manufacturers, with nearly identical accessory packages. Chances are, one is going to just going to be a better fit, and you only know it from the test drives. You may also realize that something you believed was crucial in the car is now just not as important.

That's the way the formative assessment process works: it gives teachers real time information about and from students and their learning that can be used right now. With evidence of student learning in hand from an on-going formative assessment process, teacher teams are able to collectively check in with each other and figure out if the team is making the intended difference. "Looking back brings intellectual discipline to our inquiry work." Is it enough? If not, what has the team learned? In either case, what is the next step? 

And how might a team bring their learners into the process, to obtain evidence and plan the next step? Consider this thought:
"In many schools, learning how to give learners agency through formative assessment can be transformational for those who previously thought their main job was to deliver content."
Teacher voice and student voice, combined, is a powerful force! 

Checking in with students is not only vital to the inquiry cycle, but it also models curiosity for them. And curiosity is key for innovation.

Join the conversation...
How does your team use the formative assessment process? 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Essential Learning Standards -- The Gateway to Innovation

How do we move away from Carnegie Units or other methods of equating the quantity of time spent with learning content? Even the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching now asserts that
"at best, the Carnegie Unit is a crude proxy for student learning." 
State content standards are based on the Carnegie Unit, in that teachers are expected to teach (and students are expected to learn) "X" amount of content within "X" amount of time. Variables such as learning levels, class size, and resources are irrelevant. All standards are created equal.

Enter essential learning standards. These are the skills and knowledge that are essential for a student's progression to the next level of learning. They are derived from the state content standards and identified by teacher teams through a sustained collaborative effort. Instead of each standard receiving the same amount of time, teacher teams, using their professional expertise, determine which standards are essential. This then allows teachers to zoom in and ensure that every single student learns and is able to demonstrate proficiency in the essential standards, thus readying them for the next level of learning. It doesn't mean the other standards are ignored, but rather, actually sets students up for long-term success.

Identifying essential learning standards is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a team dedicated to success for each and every student, and a willingness to engage in uncomfortable or protracted discussion about differing views on the standards. What one teacher views as essential, another may not. It requires a deep, sustained dive into the standards, and probing meaning. It absolutely needs a principal dedicated to support, professional learning, and allocation of resources. Sometimes, it means a teacher has to compromise and relent on spending a week teaching his or her favorite topic, because the consensus is that it is not essential for the next level of learning. That is hard, because we are so invested in our content. It also means that when we leave the collaborative sessions, I carry out the work of the team with my students, and bring evidence of learning back to our next session. Even though it is hard, it is the right work. And in the end, when we see student success, it is satisfying work.

Once teacher teams have identified essential learning standards, and taken them for a test drive through the cycle of inquiry one or more times, the learning begins to become portable. We can begin to imagine a world where combining portions of the biology and history essential learning standards to create a real-world experience in disease migration is possible, and students still are meeting state graduation requirements. We can free up time during the tight master schedule to allow all students to discover and pursue their passions. Heck, we might even be able to lose the hourly bells that theoretically signal the beginning and end of learning! The possibilities are immense.

Join the conversation...
What are your experiences with the identification of essential learning standards? What possibilities for innovation do you see with them?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

How Professional Learning Communities Can Innovate Through Inquiry

Professional Learning Communities -- or PLCs -- are structures through which teacher teams collaboratively learn and work to improve practice and increase student achievement. While we use the term "PLC" in our district, it's not the name but the teamwork that defines us.

When school starts in a few weeks, FHPS teachers will be re-engaging in our inquiry cycle:

Across our district, all teacher teams formally began using this inquiry cycle during 2016-17, although many had already used some variation in prior years.

So, how does this work lead to innovation? Here are a few excerpts from the research of Timperley, Kaser & Halbert (A Framework for Transforming Learning in Schools: Innovation and the Spiral of Inquiry, 2014):

"Although reformers like to argue the relative merits of improvement, innovation and accountability, these distinctions are not relevant to practitioners struggling to make learning more engaging at this moment in their particular context."
*          *          * 
"What works in one setting does not always work in another. There are nearly always competing demands -- creativity or strong basic skills -- sometimes set up as dichotomies when they are best integrated because both are important. This is why we are inviting educators to engage in a process of systematic and disciplined inquiry that results in real changes to practice that helps address these challenges. As educators we all want to engage with ideas and work that makes a big difference."
*          *          * 
"[A]s teachers become more confident with the inquiry process, and with co-creating their own learning, they become increasingly curious about other strategies and approaches to meet the needs of their learners more effectively. From new learning comes new action -- and innovative practices begin to multiply."

As we begin year two as a collective whole, the experience and confidence of each of our PLCs within the inquiry cycle continues to grow. And, as our teachers progress with exploring the impact of changes in practice on student learning, their collective expertise and successive iterations will lead to more and more innovative practices that are real and contextualized for learners. As the authors note, once educators "experience the power of inquiry to change their learning environments and make education a more rewarding experience, it is impossible to stop. Inquiry is not a 'project', an 'initiative' or an 'innovation' but a professional way of being."

Join the conversation...
How has the inquiry cycle led to innovative practices in your teacher team?