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.

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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

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.

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.