Getting Unstuck: 5 Ways to Start Today

We have all been there… Stuck. Paralyzed. Immobilized. We know we need to do something, but are not sure what or how. It can happen when we are overwhelmed, when we have too many things that we see we need to improve. It can also happen when we are underwhelmed, when everything is going well and we are not sure where to continue with improvement.

Here are 5 ways to get unstuck and start right away to get better.

1 – Limit Your Options

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice that is available. The example that is often used is the salad dressing section in a grocery store. Just how many options do you really need? How do you make the right choice? The answer is to limit the options. Psychologist Barry Schwartz talks about this extensively in his book The Paradox of Choice. His message is that all this choice may increase our anxiety.

Use selection criteria based on your goals to create a list of only 2 or 3 options. Limit the number of things that are available. The psychologist Amy Summerville uses this strategy when making decisions and came to this conclusion based on her work around regret in the decision making process.

2- Ask a Colleague

Here is a fact that many teachers often forget… You are not alone. Chances are (unless you teach in a one-room school) there is another teacher that you can turn to for advice or direction. We are often so close to a situation that we cannot see the way forward. Use your colleagues or your professional learning community to help you find direction.

Working together to move forward and trusting that together you can improve learning for students, or Collective Teacher Efficacy, is consistently ranked as one of the highest impact strategies in John Hattie’s research. It has an effect size of 1.57 (which is second highest in his 2017 update). Walk down the hall and engage your teaching partner.

3 – Commit to a Short Term Experiment

So, you have it in your head that you need to decide today your professional growth goals for the next 3-5 years. Good luck with that. Instead, why not put yourself in a position to be agile and adapt to the changing nature of your environment? Use short-term experiments to make improvement manageable and progressive. Choose a very small goal and commit to it for a short period of time. Does it seem too small? That is probably the right size as you will not feel overwhelmed. Why a short time? So you don’t feel that you will be committed to something that doesn’t work for a long time.

This is where the work of Simon Breakspear comes in rather handy. He outlines how to set up a Learning Sprint so that teams can make incremental improvement over a period of time. It also helps to focus on the main area of improvement needed, right down to the specific goal you are going to work on.

4 – Use Data

I remember having teachers do a survey about the needs of their students every year for years on end. When it came to analyzing the data, we would always skip over the top 2 needs that they identified, literacy and numeracy. One day someone in our school asked, “Why do you always skip over the top 2 needs?” It made me step back and ask myself the same question. Why was I skipping over the 2 needs that were consistently being identified? Why was I not using the data in front of me? Sometimes using the data is as easy as that. Chances are you have access to a few data sets right now. Why not look at them if you are unsure of where to focus next?

If you are looking for information on how data is changing education around the world today, look at the work from the WISE Initiative.

5 – Know Your Students

The other side of the data conversation is the knowledge that teachers have of their students. Data is one thing, research is another, but without the personal context of the humans that we serve the decisions will not be as specific as we need. Pasi Sahlberg has spoken about this at length and calls it small data. Phil McRae is another person who’s work in this area is worth a read. Sometimes the best way to get unstuck is to think of the student in your class that you are having the hardest time with and ask yourself “what can I do to better serve that student?” Use your personal experience tied with research to make a decision about how to get better.

 

So after those 5 things, are you still wondering when you should begin? I will let a person who I listen to when I am feeling unmotivated give you the answer.

“Here and now. That’s it. You want to improve, you want to get better… Where do you start? You start right here. And when do you start? You start right now.” – Jocko Willink

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Making Progress

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

The schools in my area have designated days (about once a month) where students do not attend and the staff has the opportunity to meet. Part of this time is usually taken by meetings, operational items, and information transmission, but the other part is for collaborative professional learning. We just finished our “Professional Development” day and had a chance to have our Learning Sprints team together. This is our second sprint and the first where are the team had a better understanding of the process. I was rather excited to get back to this work before the day and am even more excited to see the result after our meeting.

If you have read my previous posts, you will know that this is our second official sprint. The first was not a smashing success, but we learned valuable lessons. We knew that this time around, we needed to define our learning goal much more clearly. What we were trying to achieve and with which students needed to be crystal clear. We also knew that with a limited amount of time (3 weeks), our target needed to be a small change. Getting too big was a recipe for overload and slow progress. We wanted to do a better job of developing the evaluation tools that would let us know if what we were doing was making meaningful impact, so needed to have this defined before we started. Lastly, I knew that the teachers had to lead this initiative. If I, as the administrator, was the one pushing forward when we went to scale it up to the rest of the school, it would not work.

Coming into this round, I think the expectations of teachers were higher, but they were still becoming comfortable with the learning sprint process. Change is hard and each teacher dealt with it differently. I am always fascinated watching the learning process, whether it be in students or teachers. The idea of the “learning pit” was evident in our meeting. This is the concept that when we encounter and are making sense of a new idea, we enter a pit. The time when we are unsure if we will master this new idea. We are sometimes frustrated and feel like the process is hard. Eventually, we overcome this difficulty and exit the “pit” with a new understanding. I heard this concept first from Simon Breakspear, but have appreciated the work of James Nottingham on this metaphor.

As we were going through this process, one comment that came up repeatedly was wanting a model or example. My teachers felt that having an example of what others had done would help their understanding. We could not find a complete learning cycle in our short search, so I offer to you our work as a model. Here is our Learning Sprint Canvas.

If the photo is not clear, please use the following link.

As you can see in the canvas, we are targeting literacy. The specific focus is on sharing the expectations and reasons we are reading a text. Our small change is that every time there is a text presented (whether it be in Math, Science, French or Music) that the purpose for reading will be explicitly shared. We also developed an evaluation tool that will allow us to see if the student knows the purpose of reading the text. Students will self-evaluate whether they are aware of why a text is being presented.

As I have shared before, we are working closely with the resource Visible Learning in Literacy and this sprint is inspired by some of the research shared in the book. Our teachers looked at maximizing their impact, which is why they felt this self-evaluated strategy was more interesting. They found it fascinating that sharing expectations and outcomes had half the reported impact than when self-evaluation was added to the same process.

Please do not think that you can print this Learning Sprint example off and present it as a finished product to your staff. The decisions made in this sprint were particular to the needs of our students and won’t necessarily work for the community you serve. Every sprint needs to be tailored to the individual needs of students that you have and there cannot be a plug-and-play model. As is often said, we are student driven and research informed. Do not try to implement the sprint that I have shared here without asking some critical questions about what it is that your students need and if this will meet the needs of the people at your school.

Looking forward to seeing what sprint 2 brings and sharing with our our progress.

Beginner’s Mind

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

The concept of “Beginner’s Mind” comes from Zen Buddhism. According to Shunryu Suzuki it describes the feeling of openness to all possibilities, the innocence of first inquiry, acceptance, and freeness from habit. It was with this approach that I was participated in a session on the introduction of Learning Sprints with Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear this past week.

Why the need for a beginner’s mind? I had recently spent a week-long course on this practice and had launched the Learning Sprints model in my school. I was feeling confident in my understanding of the concept, but this also made me wary. What was I missing? What did I still need to learn? The beginner’s mind approach made seeing things as they were and forgetting what I wished them to be more evident.

The beginner’s mind approach is also a useful way of confronting many problems that we have as teachers. At times, the master teacher does not see all the possibilities in a solution and gets caught up in a single-minded approach. This leads to less innovation and similar results being reproduced. The beginner sees the possibilities of the ways to intervene. The beginner is open to new ways and makes a choice to start.

The first lesson that my beginner’s mind received was the fact that Learning Sprints gives teachers the structure for effective collaboration. I have seen too many collaboration sessions where teaching professionals waste their most important resource, time, with conversations that do not ultimately lead to impact on learning. This usually happens innocently, they simply do not know how to structure a conversation to focus on what is important and what needs to be done. Learning sprints give a structure and keeps the conversation oriented on the intervention and the result. Let’s not waste the precious time we have with our colleagues on unimportant banter any longer.

Lesson 2, learning sprints seek to create clinical practitioners. This does not mean that we are looking to create a bunch of doctors, but rather we are seeking to create professionals that use the scientific method to analyse data and use it to inform decisions. The Learning Sprints model gives the foundations for changing how teachers think and act in regards to their students. It teaches to analyse data, survey options that are based in research, make an informed choice of intervention, and collect data to verify impact. One would take for granted that their doctor follows this practice, but it is at times missing from the world of education.

The adaptability of Learning Sprints is another interesting observation that my beginner’s mind made. Regardless of how research changes, what the school/divisional/state/provincial goals are, what the needs of the population you serve are, this approach gives you the structure to enact change. It is adaptable to the future needs of the student population and to the future information that we will get about learning. It also make change incremental and iterative, so that it does not feel overwhelming. Small changes, over time, lead to big changes.

The focus of the approach to implementation in Alberta (and perhaps other places) has been that the 3 levels of leadership of a school need to be involved and are active participants. The teacher leaders, the school administrators and the divisional/district leaders should all be present and implicated in the learning sprint. I had a personal example of the efficacy of this at our last meeting. In the course of a conversation between our team, a question came up about creating a report to give teachers data to target their interventions. Our divisional representative was able to give an answer right away and offer to work with our software developer to make the report widely available. In the course of 2 minutes, we were able to make important data easily available to all teachers in our school division because of the fact that we were all around the table.

The last point that I will touch on with my “openness to new ideas” is the possibility that this approach could lead to joy. The concept of craftwork, detailed in the book “The Craftman” by Richard Sennett, proposes that we can all feel a deep inner satisfaction when we perfect our work. That in process of making something better and producing something of quality, we may increase our joy. We need more of this kind of joy in education, as the stakes are high. Instead of making beautiful furniture or playing a beautiful piece of music, teachers are contributing to another human’s life. We are creating learning that ultimately helps people and a communities. What a joy it is when we do that well.

A special thanks to Agile Schools and to the Alberta Teachers’ Association Council for School Leaders for organizing an incredible learning opportunity.

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First Check In

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

Our teachers have been in their first sprint for almost 2 weeks, so it was time for a check-in. The first sprint was designed to be a bit longer at almost 5 weeks. We chose this length as it was the start of the year and teachers are getting to know their students and as deal with all the start-up paperwork and routine building. Even though we are early in the year, I felt it was important to come together to get some feedback, make adjustments, and at minimum make sure teachers did not forget about our sprint focus. Sure enough, there are lessons to be learned already and changes to be tried.

Our first sprint was put in place quickly and our goal was less defined than it could have been. My thoughts were that this quickness would help us to learn fast and it was OK if we made errors at the beginning as we were new to this process. It makes me think of the early Facebook mantra of “Move fast and break things”. Our goal was to have teachers start a small improvement right away. The lack of refinement and definition of the goal is something we will tighten up next time. Some teachers have not had a problem with this broad goal, others found it more difficult. New rule, always define your goal more than you think you need to.

Our first intervention was a strategy focusing on summarization. I have learned that even a strategy can be too broad and too big. When we started discussing how this strategy had been put into place, we realized that it could get overwhelming. Summarization is a complex skill and our students had differing levels of mastery. Some teachers found their group could dive right into summarizing texts, while other teachers needed to explicitly teach some ways to summarize (and even define what summarizing was). Lesson learned, even a strategy needs to be small.

Another area that we will improve in the next sprint is clearly defining the assessment tools that we will use to know the impact of our intervention. Again, in the interest of moving quickly, we did not define how we would know if what we did made any changes to student learning. We have decided to aim for more qualitative feedback from students during this sprint, but I want to move into more quantitative measures for the upcoming sprints. Change for next time, know how you will know if what you did had an impact.

My last reflection is on the leadership aspect of this process. I realize I need to hand over more authority and responsibility to the teachers involved. I need them to know the structure of the sprints, the areas to cover when evaluating, the ways to come to define the different aspects of the process. My goal is that as soon as possible, they can engage in this process without me there. I need to remember that we are in the incubation period and that if we are to scale this project, I need people who are independent with this collaborative process and can work out issues that arise. I will not be able to attend every Learning Sprint meeting in my school, which means they need to do this themselves. My goal is to take the lessons learned from this group and refine the process for the others that will follow if we are successful.

We are in the early stages of this process, but I am confident that we are putting in place structures that ensure meaningful improvements. Onward.

Learning Sprint – The Start

This post is one in a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

We are launched into the Learning Sprints world as of Friday. I presented the concept to the group of teachers that we have chosen to run our incubation with and are now on to defining and understanding our Sprint. The group our school has chosen to experiment with is the grade 7-9 teachers. Our large focus is going to be literacy. Here are some things that I learned and that I am thinking about after a few days of reflection.

The biggest help that I found when presenting to the group of 7 teachers was that I had incubated my incubation. Incubating in the Learning Sprints world is to start with a small group of teachers that will act as an experiment and facilitate a school-wide adoption of Learning Sprints. What I chose to do is to start by speaking with a teacher who is in this group in advance to get feedback and to refine with another perspective. I found this to be valuable when presenting to the other teachers. This teacher spoke up a few times when I was presenting to clarify areas from a teacher perspective and made the process much easier. One suggestion I would have to any school starting out on this Learning Sprints journey is to incubate your incubation.

The other big contributor to the teacher’s understanding of Learning Sprints is the visuals and videos that are available on the Agile Schools website. I like to think I do a pretty good job of communicating, but I don’t come close to the concept knowledge of Dr. Breakspear who appears in the videos. Also, just like a class, providing multiple ways of accessing knowledge (in this case a visual to support my speaking) is beneficial. I would suggest any team to use them.

The aspect of this presentation that I found taking the most time was getting the teachers to know that they are in charge of defining the particular strategy or intervention. I want them to make decisions based on their knowledge of the students at our school. A teacher came to me and shared that they were confused as I had explained that our focus was to make small changes, yet I had defined a broad goal (literacy across subject areas). They felt as though this was unaligned. How I explained this was that it is a leader’s role (with help from staff) to set the broad focus area using data and through knowing our students. It was the teacher’s job to attack the problem (literacy) using their lived experience and knowledge of the students in their grade as a filter. The teacher chose the small changes, the administration chose the large goal.

I also feel an important piece of our setup was ensuring that strategies and interventions will be based on research and evidence. The main source I suggested for our incubation group is Visible Learning for Literacy by Hattie, Fisher, Frey. The source of this information needs to thought out beforehand. I chose this particular book because of the easy to access strategies and because I think it is based on high-quality research. Making the research-based strategies available easily is important when they become busy. I don’t want the to resort to pseudo-science or worse, make no change at all. Make accessing quality strategies and interventions easy for staff.

I was extremely happy when the group decided to try to make one change right away, before our next meeting. They understood this was about small differences being put in place right away to test them for efficacy. In the words of one teacher, “Why wait?”. Agreed. Why wait? Let’s get on this journey from day one. Let’s try to get better right away.

Reflections on ATA Educational Leadership Academy

I had the pleasure of attending the Alberta Teachers’ Association Educational Leadership Academy this past summer. It was facilitated by Dr. Simon Breakspear, Executive Director of Learn Labs and founder of Agile Schools. He lead the participants through 2 of the Agile Schools programs, Agile Leadership and Learning Sprints. This academy has been run for many years in Alberta with different facilitators through the years. The continued success of this program speaks to the professionalism and dedication of educational leaders in Alberta.

My official journey with Agile Leadership and Learning Sprints started with the Academy, but the unofficial start was well before that. Over the past 4 years I have seen Dr. Simon Breakspear speak about Agile at the uLead conference in Banff, Alberta. His sessions piqued my interest as I felt it was both based in research and experience (The entire conference is amazing and I would highly recommend it). I also attended a short presentation by some colleagues who had done a workshop with Agile Schools. They came back energized and full of optimism about the impact the program could have, but I was not yet sold. I have seen multiple programs that come through and have learned to be a bit sceptical until I see real value in what the program offers. This brings me to the ATA Education Leadership Academy this past summer.

Four days to see if Agile Leadership and Sprints were going to speak to me, to convince me, and to invigorate me. I figured that 4 days was not a huge investment and that in the end if I came away not liking the program I would have at least made some professional connections with other school leaders around Alberta. My 4 days were not wasted and I am eager to use what Agile Schools and Dr. Breakspear proposes.

Photo credit: Jocelyn Lamothe @joshy1199

So what was the tipping point? What was it that makes me think that this is where I want to spend my time? Firstly, the fact that it is focused on being research informed. This is a term I have come to appreciate a great deal lately. My own interpretation of this term is the practice of linking research with practice. Researchers are great at research, but not many are still in schools. For many it has been decades since they were in the teaching profession, if they ever were. This does not reduce the value of the research they produce, but it does make changing practice in light of new information difficult at times. Agile states that research should inform the decisions that schools make and that the best decisions are made by the people who know the students best. The link between practice and research is based on the needs of students.

Another way of looking at this concept is through the very popular meta-analysis work by Dr. John Hattie in his book Visible Learning. It shows that there are many high efficacy strategies that can be put in place by teachers and leaders. No one strategy can claim that it has a monopoly on moving students forward in their learning. Teachers therefore have a selection to make based on their experience and professional evaluation of their students. They need to make a research-informed decision on which strategies they are going to try to improve learning. I enjoyed that the approach suggested gave professional the freedom to choose the strategies that they feel are best going to meet the needs of students.

Another reason that I am convinced that Agile Leadership will yield results for students is the focus on continual improvement and reaction to change. Their tag-line is “Better all the time”. I am convinced that humans rarely foresee the amount of change that is coming. We constantly believe that we will not change, which is not true. Agile builds in a mechanism where improvement is continually sought and by consequence participants are always being thoughtful about how we will change.

And so the journey begins. I have the information and the plan, now to the toughest part for most people (including myself)… Actually doing the work.