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.

Maligne Canyon - Jasper National Park

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.


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.

Image result for agile schools

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.

“Know Thy Impact” -John Hattie

Know thy impact

John Hattie’s meta-analysis of educational research was groundbreaking back in 2009. As with any enduring work, I find myself going back to the study and learning new things. Now to be truthful, I am usually going to the updated versions of the meta-analysis with the Visible Learning organization compiles yearly. The list has slightly changed over the years, but the principles remain the same.

Lately I have been focused on the piece about knowing the impact that new interventions and strategies have on learning. One way I have interpreted this is to build in evaluations to new programs to understand whether they are having positive impact on student learning. If we are targeting a year’s worth of growth for all students, we need to know whether what we are doing is moving our students forward in their learning.

Like many teachers, I have often been hooked on the good feeling of doing something new and fun. I would start a new initiative that the kids enjoyed and think that learning was taking place. Often times good learning was going on and this new thing was an improvement, but there were other times when it was not an improvement. The problem is that I only found out whether learning has taken place much after the concept was taught.

What I have learned is that to ensure that new ways of teaching are having an impact with the individual group of students that we are working with, we need to build in evaluations to our changes. We need to measure whether we are causing better learning for the students that we serve.

The fact that we work with individuals who are unique is important here. The Visible Learning list of strategies is not a “plug and play” resource. Different strategies will work better with different students. We need to know our community and build relationships with our students, only then will be able to select the best strategies to move our students forward.

The structure that we have been using in order to remind us to evaluate the impact of our interventions has been the Learning Sprint. Having a structure allows us to move through different phases of new initiative without missing important pieces. I have found having a plan and a template to be extremely effective in organizing the professional learning in our school.

All of this evaluation takes place inside of the collective understanding of what a year’s worth of growth is. This is another piece of the Visible Learning study that I have come back to over and over. All teachers need to have an understanding of what progress looks like.

I have encountered many situations where a teacher struggles with knowing what a year’s worth of growth is for a student that is below their grade level. For instance, a grade 5 teacher is working with a student who is 2 years below grade level, but they don’t have a great understanding of the progression for grade 3 students.

This is where working with our colleagues and the psychological trust at a school become an advantage. The information is shared to be able to come to an understanding of what progress we should target. We can also share the strategies that may work well for students who are working at that level.

The concept of having a conception of a year’s worth of growth has remained incredibly important in my practice. In our school, we have students with a range of abilities in each class. In order to have each student achieve a year’s worth of growth, we need to know what progress looks like.

Our school’s conception of a year’s worth of growth is something we are working on and will continue to improve over the years. It must constantly be revisited in order to maintain understanding. As new staff arrive and leave, we are continually updating and refining our vision.

I encourage you to pick up Visible Learning again and to review the updated versions. I also encourage you to “Know Thy Impact”.

Better Together

There seems to be a strong pull on teachers to think that they are lone wolves. It seems to me that we have an archaic idea that we need to go it alone, forge our own path. Teachers won’t say it, but I have seen many act as though asking for help is a sign of weakness.

Perhaps this is left over from the one-room schoolhouse days. Maybe this is simply how the educational culture has evolved in some schools.

I know that I have personally been pulled into this trap at different parts of my career. It was a mix of not wanting to bother others and what I thought would be expedient. I thought it would just be easier and faster to do things myself.

In my experience, it is almost always better to work together. This applies equally to solving problems as it does to general everyday instruction. In the words of one of my favourite artists, Jack Johnson, it is Better Together.

I know it is not always easier, but it is my experience that it is almost always better. More ideas, more support, better end result, less work.

Of course, the hard part can be navigating the personal relationships that are involved. This can be difficult, but the results are worth it.

Happily, this trend is slowly changing. With more possibilities of connecting digitally, more research coming out on the benefits of working together in collaboration, with new ways to organize professional development, we are working together more.

The next time you are thinking of forging ahead by yourself, take a minute. Remember that we are Better Together.

Review, Reset & Share

St. John’s Bridge, Portland, OR Photo Credit: Corey Haley

If a group of teachers make great progress and don’t share with others, does anyone notice? Without sharing the learning that takes place in a Sprint the impact is limited. When we share the lessons we learn from our progress, both the teachers involved and the whole school benefits. With that in mind, at the end of a Learning Sprint I propose we Review, Reset and Share.

As we have been progressing in our Sprints and moving to wider school adoption, one aspect that we are looking to improve is sharing the lessons we have learned from the Sprints we put in place. I have found that the teachers involved are gaining great insights into ways to improve student performance, but that often the lessons are not shared with the other staff. We simply did not think about the structures we needed to put in place to share the work with the whole school.

Without sharing what we have learned the impact of the Learning Sprint is lower than it could be. Schools share students and often face similar issues and barriers to achievement. When learning in shared, teachers do not need to be involved in the formal Sprint to benefit from the findings. They can simply put in place the good practices that have been tested and evaluated by others.

Luckily, there are people who have faced this issue and come up with innovative solutions. Having a space where people can post about their Learning Sprints seems to be a great way to make sure that learning is not limited to one Sprint Group. Kristie O’Neill (@ONeillKristie), an instructional leader from South West Sydney in Australia, has shared some great ways to share learning in a school. I am going to try setting up some of the Sprint Walls that she has created.

Sharing the learning visually and making the learning of others visible not only shares great ideas, but I think will also encourage dialogue between teachers about what is happening in their classes. It will ensure that our priorities are clear: working to get better everyday, our students making academic progress, ensuring well-researched strategies are used, making the world open up for our students.

In short, at the end of a Learning Sprint, we are going to add share to the Review & Reset.

Lessons from Implementation

Lessons from Implementation

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.

Our school has recently made the transition from the “Incubation” phase to larger implementation. Through this process we have learned a lot. Every so often, I take time to reflect on the learning and strides we have made with the thinking that it may help others going through the same process. By sharing, perhaps you can learn from our implementation.

Trust the Team

When I felt like we were ready to make the transition to a larger implementation at our school, I hesitated. I took another few weeks before stepping back and letting the team we had put in place operate more independently. Looking back, this was not needed. I think it is important that leaders trust their teams to take the work forward early. I was very involved through the learning process of setting up our structure for Learning Sprints and should have trusted the team to bring that forward.

Seeing the work they are doing now makes me so proud. Our teachers are knocking it out of the park, and they are accomplishing this without me sitting in on every meeting. I am definitely checking in with them, asking if they need support, and offering suggestions, but I have taken the step back so that they own the work. I have learned to trust the team.

Use the Tools

At the beginning of our Learning Sprint journey we agonized about what we were going to focus on. It seems at times as if we were paralyzed by seeking the “perfect” thing to work on to improve student performance and learning. I think this is partly because we wanted to get it right, we were not loose enough to allow ourselves to make a mistake. We were gripping the wheel a little too tightly.

Since then, we seem to have found our groove. The focus of our learning sprints has come much more quickly and the areas of focus have a bigger impact. One improvement that we made is to use the tools on the Agile Schools website. By using the protocols that are available, notably the “Boulder, Pebble, Sand” tool, we have been able to focus on what is important and what is achievable. Using these tools allowed to be more confidant in our own perceptions of what we need to do.

Let the Group Evolve

We started our Learning Sprints journey with a large group. This was done on purpose to ensure that the basic elements of Learning Sprints were shared and that we developed a shared vision of what Learning Sprints looked like at our school. As we progressed, we saw the need to become smaller, more focused groups. I think this process was natural and positive. Teachers saw the needs of their students and wanted to address things that were relevant to their practice. They always had to work with at least one other person (and ideally groups of at least 3), but they were are able to break into the groups they needed to form.

I loved the teachers saw the need and did what they saw would lead to the biggest impact. I think it spoke to seeing the value in the work and wanting to make it even more impactful. They were operating to make sure that this work was going to make a difference. In order to do that, we needed to let the group evolve.

Skills Improve

Just like with students, teachers get better as they practice and apply the new skills. Be aware that this happens and will happen. There will be a time when progress is slow and you may question whether the process will get easier, have faith. I saw a noticeable improvement in the ability of the people involved in our learning sprints to apply the skills we had learned.

The 2 areas where I saw the biggest improvement were in deciding the focus and evaluating the sprint. I have already spoken about how we improved defining our focus above. When it came to evaluating the efficacy or our sprints, teachers became more comfortable with the different methods that they thought would give them meaningful data. We tried, and still use, different techniques such as exit slips, surveys, work samples, and conferencing.

Over the past 6 months, I have seen teachers be able to evaluate whether their professional learning was making an impact on students. This is a shift from before. Not that what they were doing was or wasn’t, but now they know. Their skills improved, expect this when moving through the sprint process.


Getting Learning Sprints going at a school can be daunting. By sharing these lessons learned, I hope that others can put Learning Sprints in place easier and more effectively. This way of organizing Professional Development has had a big positive impact at our school, and I believe it has the power to work well for you too.

Teachers Matter

There are days when teachers feel down, powerless, ineffective, used up. The great plans have gone sideways. It feels as though our students have taken every ounce of strength and energy from us.

We often ask yourselves whether we matter in the lives of our students. We ask ourselves, “What impact do I even have?”.

It is during these days that we must remember that what we do has an affect on our students. Teaching matters. It has the largest impact of any factor of school.

Teachers have the power to change lives. What they do with their students is more important that any other thing at school. What power and what responsibility!

We recognize there are others factors at play. Our students come from different home situations, they each have their own story of how they came to be with us in our class. These different situations have a big impact on their learning, but we don’t control these factors.

What we control is the school they walk into and at school the teacher is number 1. Let’s make it count, because teachers matter.

Stepping Back

There is a time in every initiative when you need to step back and release it to others to own the work. This moment is the real test of whether the initiative will be successful. Will the change be seen as practical? Helpful? Is the work worth doing? People will vote with their actions.

At our school we have reached this critical juncture, it is time for me to step back from the 2-3 Learning Sprint groups that I have been prototyping with so that we may expand our Learning Sprints to other groups in the school.

Although I am stepping back, it does not mean these groups are on their own. I will still ensure that they have support for their Sprints and will be present during the check-ins to see if there are any barriers that I can work to remove.


I will also be speaking with all groups to learn about their Sprints and see if there are any suggestions or information I can provide. I still want to be able to support in any way I can.

Ultimately there is a balance that I am looking for, between being involved and letting others own the work. I know that balance is not going to achieved when I am too involved in the professional development process, so am consciously stepping back.

I think we have all had experience with leaders who over-manage professional development. I believe when people feel micromanaged they become demotivating in the extreme. When they see that they have no power, they check-out from decisions as they believe that they don’t have power to make them in the first place.


I would be lying if I said that I am not nervous about stepping back. We as leaders are invested in any initiative that we put in place and hope for success. I have seen the improvements that have been made in classes over the last 5 months, and now hope that the organization we have put in place will be seen as worthwhile enough to continue. I have confidence.

If not, it does not mean we are done. We will adjust, we will seek feedback, we will pivot, and seek to make it better. In the end, we know that an integral part of our jobs is seeking improvement for our students. We are committed to making sure we are meeting their needs and getting better.

What are the things you need to step back from? What are the initiatives that need to be owned by others for them to continue to improve and free you up to do other work?

Choose to be Brave

Here is one of the most obvious statements in human existence, people are fearful of change. This is both obvious and frustrating, as it impedes our collective ability to get better. We often focus on fear, and as a society we have allowed this to be accepted. We tend to dwell on the emotion of fear to the point of causing anxiety.What if instead of focusing on the emotion of fear, we created an environment where bravery was the dominant narrative? We would not hide our fear, but rather bring our attention to the more useful feeling of bravery. I believe that this change of paradigm would focus our attention on what we can do to face change with courage and reduce the paralysis that often comes with fear.
The author and former firefighter Caroline Paul talks about this shift in her books and interviews. She was recently quoted in an interview with the CBC as saying “You can choose to look through the situation sort of through a paradigm of fear or through a paradigm of bravery.” when talking about how she, one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco, was able to walk into burning buildings, save children, and face sexism in the workplace.
Why is being brave in the face of change so important? If you are going to get better, you need to change. As you learn and experiment with new things that are going to improve your practice, they will necessarily be different and a change from what you were doing. Speaking about change through the lens of bravery will help you face these challenges with courage, instead of with trepidation and fear. It will help you become better as you persevere with the new ideas you are implementing.
Another important step for being brave in the face of change is to set up change in a manageable way. Be thoughtful about what change you believe will have the highest impact and then build plans for small changes in short cycles. It is much easier to be brave when you are facing a series of small changes over a period of time, rather than a big change that happens all at once. Enter the Learning Sprint.
Two reasons that I believe Learning Sprints has been so successful in implementing improvement in education are: 1) the focus on positive change and improvement, 2) the small changes done over a period of time. If you are looking at leading change for improvement and reducing fear, this structure has been effective for many schools.
I have often personally felt fear when faced with impending change. Having a structure where I feel like I have some level of control, I have made choices around the direction of the change and I have an evaluation system to know whether the change is effective has made me feel much more brave in the face of new initiatives. These are all benefits I have seen from my work with Learning Sprints.
Given the choice between feeling fear and bravery, what do you choose? I choose to be brave.

Learning To Say No

There are days when I feel overwhelmed by the number of people who are asking me to get involved in different opportunities. Some offers are from people who think that I can help their initiative, they are looking for people to get on board to move their initiative forward. In other cases, it is a hard sell they are making on what they see as something that is required for kids. Either way, I personally have a hard time saying no to many of these new opportunities. They often sound as though they would have a positive impact on students. I get caught up in wanting to help. At the end, I often end up feeling overextended and overwhelmed. I believe that accepting to take part in many of these initiative contributes to feelings being overwhelmed. What I have learned is that if I am to be effective and truly make a difference to my students I need to focus on the essential initiatives that will bring the most benefit. In other words, I need to focus and say no. I have used Learning Sprints to help set up the process of choosing what we are going to focus on and also to allow us to pivot when we see an initiative that we believe will have a big positive impact on our students. Here are some essential steps to maintaining laser focus.

Setting the Direction
First, you need to have a deep and honest discussion about what the students that you serve need most in their learning. This leads to choosing the interventions that you believe will have the greatest impact on their learning. If you do not spend the time to discuss what is important and to come to an understanding on what the improvement direction will be, it is likely that you start saying yes to initiatives that arise. Everyone should know what the focus is. Everyone should work towards what you have agreed is the most important things to do. Everyone should have the freedom to say no to things that come up that don’t align with the direction.

“Short” Learning Sprint
Having a shorter time period for your Learning Spring (professional development initiative) is important to the success of your initiative. My experience is that longer initiatives often: 1) Lose their focus, the team members forget what they were working on. 2) Do not have the ability to adapt to new high-quality opportunities that arise. 3) Continue with practices that are found to be ineffective. 4) Encourage team members to start other initiative not related to the main goal.
Keeping a tight timeline and short interval keeps the team focused. It allows them to see what works and scrap what do not work. It allows them to get on board with new initiatives that actually align with their improvement direction. It allows them the ability to say no to new things that come up.

Review & Reset
Having time to speak about the initiatives that we have put in place and to measure the efficacy of the interventions has worked really well for us. Asking “What worked?” and “What did not work?” has allowed us to discover what our students respond to. It is at this time that we decide how to proceed. It there something new to try? It is now that appropriate time to perhaps say yes to new initiative that align. Once this process is over and the new direction is set, we are back to saying no.

Through this process I have seen an increase in positive impact on learning, as teachers are now selecting what they will do and giving themselves the mental time and space to actually do it. I have also seen a reduction in teacher workload, as teachers have the ability to say no to things that come up not related to their main area of focus. The Learning Sprint process has also helped me as a leader to say no to many things that I don’t think will positively impact the learning of our students.