Small Steps

I’m going to tell you something that you already know. Teaching is hard.

Why is it hard? Do you have a few hours… There is so much going on all the time!

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In addition to all the curriculum and activities, it seems like the school is the place where all the other people involved in children’s lives need to meet them as well. This is why I called my podcast Intersection Education. At times it seems as though the school is the intersection of children’s lives. It is the place where the people and influences meet.

Not only do teachers need to be knowledgeable about the topics we traditionally associate with education, like reading, writing, numeracy, and assessment. We are now expected to be experts on a bunch of topics we had no idea that we were going to need to know about when we signed up to be a teacher.

Mental health, inclusion, physical literacy, bullying are examples. We need to have children play on technology and in nature, as much as possible at the same time as we need to increase their stamina in desks to be able to move into the next grade.

I recently attended a conference where one of the keynotes may a great case for including interior design principles in our classroom. A great message, but it seemed like just another thing to add to the list.

In addition, teachers cannot just focus on the things they need to teach. They need to know what social influences are acting on their students as well.

We recently had a group of students who were inexplicably absent for a few days. We were trying to think of all the things that we had done in our class that might have made them not want to come to school. When we finally heard from the parents, they told us that the video game Fortnite had come out and that they had allowed the kids to go on a 4 day bender.

It seems like everything is accelerating and we are along for the ride at times. By the way, I don’t think that this feeling is particular to education. Most other professions seem to think the same thing.

All of this leads to many teachers feeling overwhelmed.

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I see the main problem is that teachers believe they need to be experts on everything… right now. Not only do they think they are behind but they don’t know how to become experts.

The question they should be asking is: “What do my students most need me to learn?” and “What is the first step to becoming better in this area?” We need to focus on one area at a time and concentrate our attention on the areas that we think will have the most impact.

This idea of taking of taking one step at a time is not new. Applications like the fitness program “Couch to 5km” have revolutionized the small steps approach to improvement.

This the reason that I believe that Learning Sprints has the power to revolutionize how we get better at education. This way of approaching professional learning concentrates on small improvements over a period of time. It gets us to focus on the areas where we feel we will have the most impact and it cues us to put in place assessment tools that will let us know if we are “changing for the better” or “changing to be different”. It also leans on research to focus our efforts on the strategies that have the highest chance of having impact.

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No one needs a change for something to do. This is why knowing whether a change we make is truly better is important.

In the end, I think this gives us the sense of hope. The opposite of feeling overwhelmed. We can be what our students need us to be, but in small manageable steps, over a period of time.

We don’t need to be a master tomorrow, but eventually. We can get better everyday.

Take the first step.

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For more information visit the #learningsprints community at LearningSprints.org

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Celebrate Failure

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If you are going to try to get better, you are inevitably going to make mistakes. How you see these mistakes are going to influence your progress and improvement. If you see mistakes as failures, you are not going to get far. If you instead see mistakes as lessons, you can use this missteps to get better.

I believe that instead of shying away from mistakes and trying to forget about them as quickly as possible, we should celebrate our mistakes. We should share our failures so that other may learn.

We should also share the experiences where things do not go as planned so that we create a culture where we see that getting better is not a linear path. Failures are part of the process. If you are not making mistakes, you are not pushing your self to get better.

This year, as a framework to be a better school, we started using Learning Sprints to organize our professional learning. This was hard, but worth it. We wanted to ensure that we were causing learning and wanted to get better at meeting the educational needs of our particular community. We made mistakes.

Below is a list of the biggest mistakes we made this year in implementing Learning Sprints. I hope that this helps others learn from our trials and also creates a culture throughout education where we can experiment and learn.

Failure 1

When we started we wanted to get all of our junior high teachers on board and rolling at the same time. We joined everyone, all 10 teachers into one group. After a time they started having difficult deciding on an area of learning that they could agree on. They also felt that the targets were too general for their needs.

Lesson: Keep groups smaller (2-4 people) and organize them around a unifying theme. This could be grade level or subject.

Failure 2

We created a schedule where we would meet to review our Learning Sprints every 4-5 weeks that was mostly outside of the schedule. We used professional development (PD) days (days when students are not at school), after school sessions, and a few blocks in the schedule. There were a few PD days when something came up and we were not able to meet to discuss our Learning Sprint. There were also some after school sessions where getting all teachers together was impossible because of extra-curricular activities (basketball, band, etc).

Lesson: Try, to the degree most possible, to organize collaboration time inside the schedule of the school day.

Failure 3

The message that we gave to teachers the most was that Learning Sprints was a way to improve student performance and learning. We were organizing this structure so that students could learn better. Teachers focused on the students and what they were doing for the students. They did not see that the actual focus of Learning Sprints is the professional development that they get, the improvement of their own teaching practice.

Lesson: Emphasize that Learning Sprints, and all other professional development, is most effective when teachers become better practitioners. When teacher have more strategies and are better at their craft, student performance improves.

Failure 4

Our focus was literacy this year at our school. To have accessible research I bought a copy of Visible Learning for Literacy (Hattie, et al.) for the teachers who were doing the Learning Sprints. Although most read through the book, we chose to focus on the strategies that were the most effective on Hattie’s list without consideration of the needs of our students. We started at the top of the list of effective practices and moved down.

Lesson: School communities are individual and their needs are different. Balance the effective practices with the needs of your students when choosing your focus.

Celebrate

We have learned a lot this year in implementing Learning Sprints. Ultimately, I believe that because of this way of organizing our learning we have made more progress that previously. We are committed to getting better. Part of this commitment is sharing our failures as lessons and giving ourselves the freedom to make mistakes.

I hope you learn from our failures and make a few yourself.

Rigorous and Human

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A few weeks ago, I encountered a great way of thinking about schools. Simon Breakspear was leading a session about Learning Sprints and shared that our approach to learning should be both rigorous and human. This struck me as so true. We need to be both committed to data and research, at the same time as taking the personal needs of the individuals we are working with into consideration when making decisions.

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Simon Breakspear (@simonbreakspear)

We often see information that leads us to choose one side or the other in this spectrum. We see people espousing the need to base decisions solely on data, evaluation, and the most effective teaching practices according to research. We also see people making arguments for the other side. They would say we need to value the individuals, the local context and the emotions of our students over all else.

I am not here to say these people wrong. I actually think they are both right.

One of the reasons I feel this “rigorous and human” term is so helpful is that it acknowledges that most things about working with people, of which schools are most definitely in this category, are not black or white. They are a shade of grey. When we are faced with complicated decisions, we need to use both research and individual needs. We need both evaluation and feedback. We need both numbers and how the numbers make people feel. We are in a constant juggling act where one influence leads to the other and back.

One of the problems I can see with the “rigorous and human” approach is that we need to define the terms. I think the word rigor has had a certain buzz around it for a while and has lost some of it’s meaning. Also, human is a pretty large category. We should probably have a common understanding about what I feel it means in this context.

Rigor for me means that there is a quantitative piece to an approach. It might be that there is research backing this approach or an evaluation that has been done pre/post. It might also mean that you are using data from different sources to inform a decision. Something that is rigorous means that it applies to your context and it is a real problem that you face, and that you expect to fact over a period of time. As a teacher you are approaching your own learning on this subject from a deep learning perspective.

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For me, the term human mean that you are taking in all the factors that can affect decisions, but can’t always be measured in a group evaluation or in a standard distribution. It might be community factors that affect your school. It might be individual needs of teachers that you work with. It may be related to workload issues, or the fact that one of you teachers just returned from a maternity leave and is getting less sleep. My lived experience tells me that human factors are the reason we need to approach change carefully and with small steps, over time. We also need to take care of ourselves as teachers and take steps to ensure we are well.

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Here is the kicker about using “rigorous and human”, I have caught myself using this term for many aspects of my life that are not related to school. For instance, I was speaking to my wife about a problem we were going to tackle involving one of our children. We were reading parent sites to see what was recommended as an approach. We spoke after reading and felt like the information gave us a piece of the answer, but that what was going to work for our kid was a mix of a few of the suggestions. Our approach needed to be rigorous (using the data we found) and human (using our knowledge of our child to select the correct course of action). I think this shows the power of this perspective.

The next time to catch yourself going down a path that leads you to consider only one side, remember… be both rigorous and human.

Structure Your Collaboration

So you’ve decided collaboration is your priority this year. You’ve set out the time, you have talked about the research on teacher sharing, you are ready to get the teachers in your school working together. Teachers are keen and motivated. And what happens? Not very much.

Has this ever happened to you?

I have lived this experience and hear stories from other schools that are similar to this all the time. Despite our best intentions and despite having great staff, the result of collaboration time is not what we expect. The time we have put aside is not leading to the progress we expect.

So what might you do?

I would argue from experience that what is needed is a plan for the collaboration, a framework that informs the people who are coming together what to talk about and how to do it. Some people might even call this an organizational structure.

I am not alone in thinking that we need to give people more support in how they collaborate. Better minds that I have directed their efforts to this question and come up with solutions that make collaborative time more effective. Educators that I respect and follow such as Simon Breakspear, Dylan William, and Cale Birk have worked on this subject.

In my experience, the tool that has been the most effective for maximizing the impact of teacher collaboration time has been Learning Sprints. The time we have to meet and work collaboratively is precious, using Learning Sprints has helped us to ensure that our time is focused and leads to impact.

This is not some crazy native advertising. I don’t work for Agile Schools. I just find that this works. When we put this in place, we made more progress for our students.

So what is it? It is a structure that we use to tell us:

  • when to meet
  • what to work on
  • how we will know if we were sucessful
  • how we will share what we learned

In addition to defining how and what we work on, it also allows us to change our focus to what is important.  A Learning Sprint is a short cycle that allows different concerns to be addresses, or at least different aspects of the same issue to be worked on.

I have had the opportunity in last few weeks to speak with educational leaders across 3 continents and I found it interesting that most of them had a sense of the pedagogical issues they needed to address, but they were all struggling with how to ensure the changes were made. They knew that their students needed support with: reading, emotional regulation, numeracy, writing, etc. What they needed was a structure to allow them to work on these issues with their teachers that would cause learning.

When builders go into a construction project, they not only have a blueprint, they are also have structures that let them meet to ensure safety and that the different trades have what they need. They same should go for our work at a school. Build in the structure of the meetings so that all are focused on the goal and everyone has what they need to improve the learning in their class.

Are you thinking about making time for teacher collaboration? Great work, it can be a positive addition to the professional learning at your school. If you already have this time set aside and are looking to get more, try using this organizational structure that will increase your efficacy.

Check out the Agile Schools website for much more that a way to structure your collaboration time. Investigate the protocols that are offered for even more ways to pinpoint your target focus, investigate how to make progress, come together on a strategy and build assessments.

Find A Spark

Reflecting back on the best improvements that I have made as a teacher and as a leader, they usually come from a moment of inspiration. That moment might be a great conversation, a conference or workshop, reading a book or article, or even seeing another teacher in action. In other words, improvement needs a spark.

We sometimes get lucky and our spark finds us, but most of the time we need to find a spark. We need to have the conversations, get the books or articles, connect with the colleagues who inspire us, register for the conferences. If we continually wait for a spark to come to us, we are being inefficient with our time and ability.

Every teacher has lived moments of doubt and low motivation. It seems the days drag on with no change and no inspiration. Want to change that? Get inspired. Break out of your rut find something new. Find a spark.

There are so many excuses not to find our motivation. No money for professional learning. No other colleagues who are interested in what I am into. No time to try something new. The weather is bad. My students are difficult this year. The list goes on. Here is the thing, the excuses don’t go away.

Put yourself in a position to be able to be inspired. Put yourself out there. If you are struggling with something, find ways to make your path easier. If you are uninspired, connect with inspiring people. It is easier today to get inspiration than ever before. Find great educators and leaders on the internet or social media. This is one way that these tools are making our life better.

Finding the spark that gets you moving in the right direction, that gets you on the path to improvement, that makes you put in place habits that will encourage your continued improvement is what you need. Go find it.

We both know that our professional lives and personal lives are linked. Maybe this spark is what you need to a better person, to feel better about yourself, to feel empowered. When we are successful at work, we feel good about ourselves.

Get out there. Find a spark. Get better.

Some places that I look for motivation:

Conferences:
uLead – Council of School Leaders, ATA
Agile Schools Summits/Workshops

Books:
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Discipline Equals Freedom – Field Manual by Jocko Willink
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
Visible Learning by John Hattie

PodCasts:
The Tim Ferriss Show
Jocko Podcast
Hidden Brain
Master of Scale

Show Them Some Love

It is Spring Break in my part of the world, which means teachers and students have some time to reconnect and relax. My wife and I have even had a little time to get away and enjoy the beautiful Alberta Rocky Mountains.

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While on our getaway, she shared a story of working with some clients that needed some extra help. People who were having a difficult time and were struggling to ensure their family was safe. She needed to evaluate how she might best help and in the end she was able to assist them. Afterwards, the clients expressed how thankful they were and how they felt cared for.

What her story reminded me of was that people need kindness, care and love. Her clients were grateful for the help, but they also needed a caring relationship.

I believe this to be a universal truth. I believe that we are all looking for some kindness, caring and compassion. I believe we are looking for a little love.

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I say this because it is my belief that at the core of teaching are the relationships that we develop with our students and community. Teaching and learning is about relationships. The progress we make is increased when our students feel cared for and loved. All great teachers and school leaders know this and constantly work to develop the relationships that they have with the people they serve.

We can espouse the virtues of self-reported grades as one of Hattie’s top strategies until we are blue in the face (and trust me I do… I am a huge Hattie fan), but the reality is that if a student doesn’t trust you they won’t give you their true vision of their capacity. In fact, when looking at a list of the most effective teaching strategies almost all are much more powerful when a strong relationship exists.

This idea also reinforces a truth that has been circulating among educators some time. The idea that we serve people and that people should drive our decisions. This idea relies on data and information, but always circles back to the individuals that we serve.

Have you ever been in a meeting of teachers and someone pulls out the Visible Learning strategy list and says something like “Alright, let’s start at the top and work our way down”? This would be the opposite of human driven decision making. By blindly starting at the top of the list we forget that the students we serve have individual needs and priorities. We need to let both the data and the people guide us.

Notice how I did not say, “forget all the data stuff and just be kind to the students”. There is a bit of a Maslow’s hierarchy going on here with interplay between the levels. At the base is the love we show and the relationship that we develop with students. If we stay at this level, learning will not be effective. We need to ensure that we are leveraging the relationship and the knowledge we have of our students to move them forward in their learning by using effective teaching practice and refining our strategies all the time.

We need to be effective teachers, but this is done more easily when we show our students a little love.

Show 'em some love

Using Learning Sprints to Maintain Intellectual Humility

We can trick ourselves into thinking we are smarter that we are. Not only that, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we have “the answer” to problems. The fact that we can trick ourselves becomes very clear in those moments when things do not go as planned or new information is presented.

A good definition of intellectual humility is “how tightly (or not) you cling to your own opinions”(Drake Baer). New research is showing (article and summary) that people who are humble are better at making decisions. Does this mean that those that are not humble are doomed? Most of us know that we need to keep intellectual humility, but how do we go about maintaining it?

A process that I have found effective in guarding myself against my own ego is to engage in Learning Sprints. Now originally, the reason I started in sprints was to better organize professional development and collaboration at our school. I was looking for ways to better improve learning for students by getting teacher to learn together. It turned out that there were side benefits to this way of organizing our learning.

The core part of the Learning Sprints process that helps to keep us humble is that we are constantly experimenting and evaluating our actions. We are asking ourselves over and over it we did something to improve learning and what the evidence is that shows it. If we get our evaluation correctly, it will tell us without bias whether we are right to continue with the intervention we have chosen. Built into the system is the process to keep us humble.

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One might be tempted to think that a group of experienced educators would be able to choose interventions that work every time. You would be wrong. We regularly make mistakes and our evaluation loop lets us know. The process is constructed to keep us humble.

At times we need to blow the whole sprint up, but usually we try a smaller change or focus to see if that nets better results. We set up the evaluation process again and start anew. The data and our students will tell us whether we are getting it right.

The process can be improved to ensure even better intellectual humility. By sharing and having conversations with others we gain new perspective that keep us honest and humble. The sharing of a Learning Sprint becomes important, as it is when shared that these questions will get posed. Another way to keep us humble and doing what is best for the progress of the learning of our students.

Guard yourself against being the know-it-all by using processes, such as a Learning Sprint, that keeps you honest and humble.