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.

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.

Innovate like the Olympics

Start_of_100_yards_swimming_during_1904_Summer_Olympics

Start of a swimming event at the 1904 Olympic Games.

Source: http://multimedia.olympic.org/pic/gal1904s_l_13.jpg

Michael+Phelps+Olympics+Day+1+Swimming+KIuJwYRuieCl

Start of a swimming event at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Source: http://www1.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Michael+Phelps+Olympics+Day+1+Swimming+KIuJwYRuieCl.jpg

We are currently faced with a difficult task in education. This task is to maintain an education system that our society recognizes from their youth, while keeping up with the changes in our society. People in our society, through their experience as a student, have a conception of what school “should” look like. Pair this with the fast pace of change and innovation in society today and we are faced with a difficult situation. Society doesn’t look like it did 10, 20 or 30 years ago, yet the idea some have in their head of school is as it was then.

I believe that one of the solutions to this difficult situation is to find a balance between the traditional parts of school and the technological innovations that we have access to today. We need to change the recognizable parts of school to better integrate today’s reality. At the same time, we may need to let go of some aspects of traditional education that no longer fit with our goals and introduce new aspects that meet the needs of today’s learners. The difficult part of this is to do it in a way that maintains the image that our society holds of school and to reassure those who are skeptical that the changes are for the good.

I do not believe, as some others advocate for, that the correct course of action is to burn down every resemblance of our former education system. We need to keep many of the traditional activities we offer. Traditions give students a sense of pride in their schools and familiarity. Also, there are many aspects of our education system that work and that we should keep.  What I believe we need to do is push forward with our questioning of our educational practices and innovate them.

An organization that could be seen as an example of keeping traditional aspects of their organization, while innovating to reflect our changing society is the Olympic Games and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The modern Olympic games look little like their old-time editions. The equipment being worn, which Bloomberg did a great article about for the 2008 games in Beijing, is radically different. The business presence in the games is now huge. The use of technology is massive and includes one of the largest worldwide audiences of any event. Even the selection of where the games are held have been radically transformed from the past (can anyone imagine Garmisch-Partenkirchen hosting the games again as they did in 1936?). There have been new sports added and some taken out to reflect the interests of the sporting public.

This change has not been easy for the Olympics, there have been controversies and false-steps. Despite the difficult nature of change, the last Olympic Games in London were a resounding success. They were massively popular and are one of the few events that bring together the people of the world. It is an example of an organization finding the balance between innovation and tradition.

So now, let us try and find this equilibrium in our schools. Balance the traditional aspects of your school with the new innovative aspects of our times to find new success. I believe that this will lead to better student engagement and better learning.