Monday, November 23, 2015

Collective Identity In An Innovative Culture

Last week about 30 of us, including our superintendent and all principals, participated in professional learning with Carolyn McKanders and other Adaptive Schools facilitators. Just like classroom teachers, principals are loathe to be away from schools even when the professional learning is top-notch. However, we know that the greatest impact on student achievement occurs when we couple highly-effective teachers with a highly-effective school (Edmonds, 1979; Waters, et al., 2004; Marzano, 2007). I believe that our entire team found the learning to be valuable and immediately usable, and are looking forward to continuing the learning in a few weeks.

One of the many concepts and strategies that the Adaptive Schools learning focuses on is the concept of identity:
Human organizations and individuals can be adapted to a specific niche or can become adaptive, flexing to meet the challenges of a changing world. To be adaptive means to change form and clarify identity. Form can be the ways we structure our organizations and the ways in which we do our work. New challenges require new and increasingly flexible forms. Identity is about who we believe we are as an organization and as professionals.
This resonated with me. Not only does the 21st century education landscape require us to be more flexible, but it is a system within a larger "change-dependent economy and a culture that celebrates creativity and innovation" (Bridges, 2004, p. 79). Each of  us develops our own identity as an educator, but as we create flexible forms, who do we believe we are as our collective school district, and perhaps, who do we want to be?

Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn have written a new book entitled Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems, and if I had to pick two sentences out of it that sum up the frenetic pace of education today it would be these from page 20:
Even when the goals are the right ones, they may not be experienced as connected ideas by the users. People see them as discrete demands with little or no connection to each other or their daily work; scrambling to implement too many directions and lacking a coherent sense of how they connect results in paralysis and frustration.
Fullan & Quinn call this "fragmentation." I would argue that fragmentation does not lend itself to a clear identity for an organization. We need to first ground ourselves in connecting the dots through our core beliefs as expressed in our vision, mission, and guiding principles. And we need to keep connecting the dots over and over again to crystallize our collective identity.

What might be seen as discrete demands in our district? I'll just throw a few possibilities out there: school improvement, the instructional framework, professional learning communities, positive behavioral interventions and supports, response to instruction, and differentiation. What do these pieces have in common that binds them and us together? Here is my thinking:

  • they establish a norm of learning for all, regardless of age, position, or title
  • they guide us to make thoughtful, research-based decisions centered around students
  • they challenge us to change and adopt practices that help all students learn
  • they inspire us to partner with our community to build strong, supportive relationships
  • they encourage us to be creative and to benchmark our work against the best models in the world

In their book, Fullan & Quinn reference social psychologist Kurt Lewin's somewhat wry, but certainly famous quote: "If you want truly to understand something, try to change it." We have to be sure that we understand our collective identity as part of any innovation that we embark upon. Lewin reminds us that "motivation for change has to be generated before change can occur." We have to know who we are in order to decide where to go.

Join the conversation...
For how many of us might the concept of "fragmentation" resonate? How might we pull together a coherent message of who we are as part of articulating a coherent message of where we want to go? How might you describe our collective identity as a school district?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Past, Present, and Future

Once a history teacher, always a history teacher. But our past does not have to be our future.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there were only 500 public high schools in 1870. At that time, state taxes were only levied to support elementary education, but our great state of Michigan played an important role in the expansion of public high schools. In 1874, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in the Kalamazoo Case that taxes could also be levied to support public high schools. Soon other states followed Michigan's lead and began establishing public-funded high schools.

Twenty years later, the Committee of Ten published its recommendations of academic core subjects
that it considered necessary for those few would go on to college as well as any other student enrolled. Thus, secondary education was designed from the beginning to be content-based. Historically, academic departments were formed because high school was viewed as "the people's college" (Tyack, 1974, p. 74).

To this very day, most 7-12 teachers are typically content specialists in one or two areas, and hired for their expertise and depth in content.  In that structure, secondary teachers spend their day teaching independently in a content area, and spend collaborative time within the content department (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). There is little to no intentional collaboration between teachers of different content areas, and I offer the idea that we do a disservice to both our adult and student learners if we let this continue.

When we organize teachers into such tight compartments, we are reinforcing the old message of the isolated and independent approach to teaching (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). We also impact opportunities for professional learning, collaboration, and instructional practices. (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). We know that the real world is not organized into neat categories. Our students will be learning and working in "messy" environments that will require boundary-crossing competencies in teamwork, communication, perspective, networks, critical thinking, global understanding, and project management, just to name a few.

Even within fairly rigid graduation requirements in Michigan, the content standards are beginning to encourage an interdisciplinary working relationship. For example, no longer is literacy the sole sphere of ELA teachers; social studies, math, and science teachers now have literacy expectations to support reading and writing across content areas. In addition, the rising number of STEM programs also incorporate interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Finally, when we see the new standards in social studies and science later this year, we know that critical thinking, inquiry, and problem-solving skills will be emphasized.

While educational reformers disagree in many areas, one area of general agreement is the need for new structures that allow for collaboration and distributed leadership (Siskin, 1991). Right now, the organizational structure of our secondary schools is inherently intertwined with content areas. This flies in the face of the learning sciences, which are inherently interdisciplinary (Bransford, et al., 2006). Today, as I spend time in an elementary school, I see a dramatic contrast. Our elementary colleagues are already living an interdisciplinary model. They have more flexible blocks of teaching and learning across and between content. There are no hourly bells that signal the start and stop of learning. Walk into any of our elementary classrooms and you will see kids joyfully focused on learning, not grades. You will also see a real love of learning. I used to ask why and when does this change for our kids; now I ask why do we let this change?

So, the question becomes, how do we create a system or structure at the secondary level that encourages and supports all of our learners -- educators and students alike -- to collaborate, learn, and grow? I recognize there are physiological and psychological changes that happen in adolescence that we cannot control, and that there are certain state legal requirements that may require some creativity on our part. But I refuse to accept that we cannot change our current approach to 7-12 teaching and learning to a model that is more beneficial for all. We already have some "small bets" in place across our district, but what else is possible?

Join the conversation...
If you could change just one thing in grades 7-12, what would it be and why? If you are an adult reading this, I also encourage you to ask a student that question, and post their response, too.