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

Image result for jocko willink quotes

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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.