Friday, January 15, 2016

Innovation at the Core

Today we are bombarded with messages in a variety of formats about what is "wrong" with our schools and perhaps just as many that promise to deliver a myriad of innovative changes that will solve those problems. Perhaps I'm just not enough of a big thinker, but it seems to me that the K.I.S.S. method (keep it simple, stupid) is good advice. I am also wary of a solution that is looking for a problem to solve.

Richard Elmore, one of my educational leadership heroes, reminds us that no matter what the bells and whistles look and sound like, we have to stay focused on the “the core of educational practice.” By this he means how teachers understand the nature of knowledge and the student’s role in learning, and how those ideas about knowledge and learning play out in teaching and student work. It can also include the structures we have in place in schools, such as the physical learning environment, student grouping practices, and collective responsibility, as well as processes we have in place for assessing student learning and communicating it to students and other stakeholders. 

In our work, it is important to remember this from Elmore: 
Much of what passes for “change” in U.S. schooling is not really about changing the core, as defined above. Innovations often embody vague intentions of changing the core through modifications that are weakly related, or not related at all, to the core. U.S. secondary schools, for example, are constantly changing the way they arrange the schedule that students are expected to follow — lengthening or shortening class periods, distributing content in different ways across periods and days, increasing and decreasing class size for certain periods of the day, etc. These changes are often justified as a way to provide space in the day for teachers to do a kind of teaching they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, or to develop a different kind of relationship with students around knowledge.
However, the changes are often not explicitly connected to fundamental changes in the way knowledge is constructed, nor to the division of responsibility between teacher and student, the way students and teachers interact with each other around knowledge, or any of a variety of other stable conditions in the core. Hence, changes in scheduling seldom translate into changes in the fundamental conditions of teaching and learning for students and teachers. Schools, then, might be “changing” all the time — adopting this or that new structure or schedule or textbook series or tracking system — and never change in any fundamental way what teachers and students actually do when they are together in classrooms. 
 So, how do we fundamentally change the conditions of teaching and learning? How do we make meaningful change to the core that will be beneficial for our kids?

This challenge is an adaptive one, which means we are addressing it while we are in the process of working on it. One step our district has taken already is in the adoption of an instructional framework based upon The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction (Marzano, 2007). At the core of the instructional framework is one simple premise: truly effective learning requires that educators examine every component of the teaching process with equal resolve. 

Another step our district has taken is to take the state-mandated evaluation system and transform it into an opportunity to support the critical adult learning and growth that adaptive challenges require. As Eleanor Drago-Severson writes:
We know that a direct link exists between supporting adult learning and enhanced student achievement (DuFour, 2007; Guskey, 1999; Wagner, 2007), and opportunities for improved student learning depend on principal leadership and the quality of teaching (Firestone & Riehl, 2005; Levin, 2006; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005). 
This school year, our principals have moved into less formal, more frequent observations in classrooms that include focused coaching sessions with teachers around the instructional framework and teachers' individual professional growth plans. The process is still a work-in-progress, but that is the nature of adaptive work.

Elmore argues that without meaningful change to the core, innovation in schools will never get to scale, and I tend to agree with him.  Join the conversation...what do you think?


  1. Judy, I agree with your example and Elmore's insight into the need for us to delve deeply into examining, responding, and improving the fundamental way knowledge is constructed by all learners. Thank you!

  2. Judy, I agree with your example and Elmore's insight into the need for us to delve deeply into examining, responding, and improving the fundamental way knowledge is constructed by all learners. Thank you!

  3. Judy, I too love Richard Elmore's work and thinking. It is all about the core - the inner workings of the "classroom" and the interplay between teachers and learners. Our notions about what is possible in the core, and what should and should not take place in the core are ripe for deeper examination. Constructing knowledge and making meaning are too often adult-centered tasks. Creating conditions for the learner to construct knowledge and make meaning and then having the teacher available to expand, push, challenge, and support these constructions is what is necessary. This is the deep learning that ought to be the focus of the instructional core and not simply "student achievement."