The Right Size

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 learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile Network.

A question that we have had to answer as we are organizing our professional learning around Learning Sprints is “How many people should be in a Learning Sprints group?”. This might seem evident, but we have struggled to find a number that works and have learned some lessons along the way. Through our trials and tribulations I think we have come up with the definitive answer: it depends. The biggest thing that I have learned in my time with PLCs, Learning Sprints, Departments, etc. is that the perfect number is affected by multiple factors.

The first factor that I believe needs to be in place is that the group should have a common link in what they teach that enables them to find common outcomes to focus on. This might be a certain range of grades, it might be a common subject or department. When I worked in a High School, our subject departments were a great way to form a group around common outcomes. Whether that be around Science, Language Arts, Math, it works well. I have even had a personal experience where a group of teachers who were the only specialists in a school came together by finding common outcomes they could all focus on. I was part of a Modern Languages/Fine Arts department that brought together the French, German, Japanese, Art, Band, and Drama teachers. We needed to be open to what we all shared in our different subjects, but ultimately we were able to focus on how we were designing our instruction to ensure our outcomes were being met. Other examples of groups that I have seen to work are junior high humanities or Science/Math teachers, Grade 1-2 teachers. The list is endless, but the important piece is that there are common outcomes that the teachers want to focus on.

The next factor that determines the optimal size of your Sprint Group is the ability to meet. If there are too many differing schedules and the group cannot find a common time to meet the work will fail. I have written about how groups need to “Check In to Win”. The best ways to organize this meeting is to schedule time in the timetable, but often times this is not available or is an ongoing goal. In the times where the timetable is not in place to allow teachers to meet during the day, there must be a time when all are available on a regular basis. The availability of the members will determine the size of the group.

My experience is that there is a certain point when consensus becomes difficult to obtain. To say this another way, at times when there are too many divergent perspectives and the group cannot choose one outcome to work on. This number varies widely based on the personalities in the group, the subject areas, the past experience and the buy-in of the group. At times, this is when 3 highly different people come together, other times it is a significantly higher number.

Though all these factors come into play, don’t get stalled in implementation. A group, whatever the size, that actually makes progress on meeting the needs of students is better than none. Get together, make progress, learn along the way what size of group is going to be right for your school. Get started today.


From a Plan to Action

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 learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile Network.

I have just spend the day at an Alberta Teachers’ Association – Agile Schools Network event with the Agile School team. I left the day energized about our plan for school improvement. It was great to connect with our team and interact with other schools around Alberta. It was also wonderful to plan about how we might have an impact on student learning at our school.

A big part of the day was spent on planning for our next Learning Sprint. We think that we have our plan in place, but now comes the big leap. Taking a plan from a sheet of paper to action in schools. This is where many of my “great ideas” have fallen apart before, so I have been reflecting on ways that I might be able to increase the likelihood of reaching my goals. Here are some tips that I am going to try this time.

Lean on the Team

I have already written about how I think that successful teams meet regularly (Check In to Win), and how meeting increases the likelihood of success. After today’s conversations, I am more firm in my belief that we need to make this happen. I need to lean on my team so that together we can share our work, our successes, and our stretches. We need to ensure we are coming together regularly to keep our focus on this work. This meeting will keep our goals fresh in my mind and will help me not get caught up in my everyday grind.

Contingency Plan

As part of my planning for this coming Learning Sprint, I have included a list of things that I believe are most likely to be barrier to our success. I am using the “when-then” approach that some researchers see as beneficial when goal planning. I have 2 main objectives for doing this. First, I want to avoid potential barriers by creating a list and seeking proactive solutions. Secondly, for things that I can not proactively avoid, a plan for what I will do in the case that they come to pass (when this happens, then…). This planning makes me feel much more confident that I can achieve our goals and that I can deal with things that come up.

Personalize the Plan

Another strategy I am using this cycle is putting a personal spin on the benefits of our goals. I am asking myself about the individuals at our school who will benefit if we are successful in our Learning Sprint. I am putting a face to who will have a better learning experience if we do what we set out to do. This will remind me that our actions have tangible benefits on individuals. I believe that this strategy will help me to keep focused and know that if we accomplish our goals, we will have bettered a human being’s outlook on education. This is a reminder that in education we deal with students, not with abstract concepts. The actions we choose to undertake have effects on real people. This is an important reminder.

Reminders for Focus

This round, I am going to set up some environmental cues to help remind me to work towards what is important. First, I am going to set up some visual cues that will remind me of our goals for this Learning Sprint. Some ideas I have right now are:

  • Change the background on my computer to a picture I like with the learning outcome we are targeting written across the image.
  • Set-up a reminder in my phone or computer to automatically remind me of the most important goals of our sprint on a regular basis.
  • Set a time in my calendar where I work on the Learning Sprint so that I don’t get caught up in the daily business of the school.

We have had success up to this point with our targeted interventions and Learning Sprints. I am hoping that these small strategies will help me to take our next plan from a plan to action.

Reflections on Report Card Season

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 learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile Network.

In our corner of the world we have just emerged from the dreaded report card season. We are all feeling a little over-taxed and under-rested. Perhaps it is the lack of sleep, but I was reflecting on student assessment and reporting. I often think that in the report card bustle, we forget what is important. Many teachers, even me when I was in the classroom, get so focused on the reporting piece of assessment that we forget about the valuable functions of student assessment. We at times make assessment about what we will use on the report card, instead of using this data for more beneficial uses.

My view is that the most important thing we can do with student assessment is to change our teaching, based on the information, to meet the needs of our students. This does not mean that I don’t value reporting, I do. I just believe strongly that assessment should inform the teacher on what to do next. The other functions should be secondary.

First, we should define our assessment strategy based on our most important goals. The things that we feel our students need the most.  If you are using the Agile methodology or a Learning Sprint protocol, this would be your focus. If you are using a Backwards Design lens, this would be your big learning outcomes. Evaluate their progress in this area where we feel it will help them develop as learners. Use a few assessment strategies to get a clear picture of progress, but don’t use so many that you feel overwhelmed. This selection should be done carefully to make sure we are getting the data we need to inform our practice.

One way I like to do this is by choosing the assessment strategy at the same time as we are planning. We usually brainstorm a bunch of assessment strategies that we may be able to use, them eliminate the ones that we think will not work or will not get us the information we need. We are looking for the tools that will get us the best information about whether our students are making progress on the goals we have set out.

It is easy, when we have a big reporting task ahead of us, to start choosing assessments that are going to help with report cards, rather than assessments that that are going to inform practice. I think we need to maintain our focus on what is important, responding to student need.  Assessments let us know whether what we decided to do, as the clinical practitioners of learning, was successful or not.

If one does assessment right, these 2 worlds can collide (what helps for both report cards and practice decisions). It means that the evaluation tools both give data one can share with parents and help make good choices for student programming in the daily setting.

Let’s focus on what is important, ensuring our teaching meets the needs of students, rather than making sure we can fill out a report card every 3 months.

If you are looking for some help with selecting which evaluation tools to use, I suggest the following 2 resources:
Hattie’s 2017 Updated List of Factors Influencing Student Achievement

Lean Assessment Plan Tool

The Agile Advantage

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 learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile Network.

I used to be extremely inefficient with how I implemented change in my classroom. Let me tell you about what change usually looked like for me. I would go to a conference or speak with someone and get an idea for a change that I thought would be valuable. It would usually be a ridiculously big idea or project that I would put in place for a specific period of time. It would almost alway be planned for March (the month of new learning in my old brain). I would get this idea in October and spend the next 4 months planning what I was going to do in March. I would come up with what the students were going to do differently, I would imagine the responses I would get, I created exemplars and envisioned what the student work would look like at the end. I would base all my energy on this one project, while the rest of my teaching stayed the same.

March would arrive and I would be so excited. I would launch into this project that I had been planning and be expecting great results. Every time I would be disappointed. Usually in the first few days students would respond to my teaching in wildly different ways than I imagined. I would have to redesign the whole project based on what they were showing me, my months of hard work was out the window. I would press on, with a few more redesigns but usually by the end I was left feeling exhausted and the students would say that it was a nice assignment, but they would prefer to go back to how things used to be. They were exhausted too.

This story highlights one of the main reasons that I decided to adopt the Agile method in my classroom and to advocate for it in schools. I realized that I needed to put away the one month project and focus on getting better everyday. My reality was that my day to day instruction was not getting much better, as I was focused on the big project (that only lasted one month!). A focus on smaller objectives that I could put in place rapidly and evaluate whether they had impact would have served my students better. I did not realize that I could change incrementally over time, but in a more conscious way so that I made big gains over the year. My project was also usually based on a teacher who had a novel idea, as opposed to using research to show me how I might improve student performance. I think in a way my students knew that the projects I was designing were not usually helping them. They usually told me that they just regurgitated what they already knew or copied from somewhere. There was not authentic learning going on as I was usually so focussed on them producing an end result that I forgot about introducing new information.

I see these qualities all the time with teachers. The focus of their professional learning is a project, to be completed later in the year. They are usually so exhausted when they complete it that they question why they did it, but don’t know how else they might get better. This is the Agile Advantage. Small focussed improvements that are put in place over a period of time and evaluated for impact.

Check In to Win

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 learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile School Cohort.

If you are like most of the teachers and administrators that I have worked with in schools, work is pretty darn busy. It is easy to get caught up in the cascade of demands put on you by students, parents, administration, etc. Often times, the goals that we has set out for ourselves quickly vanish in the daily grind. What if there was a way to remind yourself of the important things that you want to accomplish? What if there was a technique that you could put in place that would allow you to share your successes and failures with others who were working on the same things as you? You are in luck! The process of “Check ins” or “Scrums” does exactly this.

So what is a check in or a scrum? Essentially, it is a pre-set time where you meet with the other members of your Professional Learning Community (people who are working on the same goals as you) to each answer 3 questions related to your most important goals. The meeting only lasts 10 minutes and the 3 questions are:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Are there any impediments in your way?

Ideally this would happen frequently, how frequently is really dependent on your schedule. Some people find the time to meet everyday, others meet once a week.

The beauty of this simple process is that it keeps you continually focused on your most important goals. It lets you learn from one another’s triumphs and defeats. It also lets your administrator (yes, they should be a part of this too) know how they can help you to achieve your goals by removing blockers or impediments.

As I have said before, schools are busy places. So why in such a busy workplace would we add another time commitment? The answer is simple, because it will help you to reach your identified goal. If you have done your research and targeted your goal properly, it should have a meaningful impact on student learning. It is the change that will make you a better teacher and your school a better place for learning. This worth making a small amount of time for, if you believe it will have real impact.

Now you could go on losing your focus and finding it hard to concentrate on your most important objectives, or you could try a check-in. The choice is simple, check in to win.

French Immersion Teacher Shortage: A Call for Better Professional Learning

Statistics Canada has recently come out with numbers regarding French Immersion registration in Canada. There are reasons to celebrate, enrollment is up 20% between 2011-12 and 2015-16. The program is a huge success and increasing numbers of parents are choosing French Immersion as a way to ensure their children are bilingual. Overall, those involved in French Immersion should be very proud of the work they have done.

A major issue that this increase in enrollment has created is a shortage in the availability of qualified French Immersion teachers. By qualified, I mean having both great language ability and pedagogical knowledge of second-language instruction. This shortage has been developing for a while and is now reaching a point where school divisions are having to make difficult decisions around their French Immersion programs. One school division in Ontario is considering closing their FI program because of a lack of teachers.

We will need the collective effort of Educational ministries, Universities, teacher colleges/unions/federations, and school districts to help solve to root causes of this problem. In the meantime, there are FI teachers available who may have varying levels of the 2 skills previously mentioned. It is my view that the most important thing we can do today to ensure the continued success of French Immersion is to improve the quality of teacher professional learning.

To this end, I believe that one of the best ways for schools to ensure continued school improvement is to implement Learning Sprints. This way of organizing teacher collaboration and educational improvement ensures that teachers are focused on changes that will improve learning, that changes are manageable in size, are based on research, and take into account the individual community that they serve. There is a global community that is implementing this teacher learning strategy with high levels of success.

In the face of this French Immersion teacher shortage, school leaders need to focus on what they can control. Leading excellent professional learning with teachers is the action that they can most control. Learning Sprints is a practical way to ensure continued improvement. Here is the Learning Sprints plan translated into French to help with implementation in French Immersion and Francophone schools.