Rigorous and Human

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A few weeks ago, I encountered a great way of thinking about schools. Simon Breakspear was leading a session about Learning Sprints and shared that our approach to learning should be both rigorous and human. This struck me as so true. We need to be both committed to data and research, at the same time as taking the personal needs of the individuals we are working with into consideration when making decisions.

Simon
Simon Breakspear (@simonbreakspear)

We often see information that leads us to choose one side or the other in this spectrum. We see people espousing the need to base decisions solely on data, evaluation, and the most effective teaching practices according to research. We also see people making arguments for the other side. They would say we need to value the individuals, the local context and the emotions of our students over all else.

I am not here to say these people wrong. I actually think they are both right.

One of the reasons I feel this “rigorous and human” term is so helpful is that it acknowledges that most things about working with people, of which schools are most definitely in this category, are not black or white. They are a shade of grey. When we are faced with complicated decisions, we need to use both research and individual needs. We need both evaluation and feedback. We need both numbers and how the numbers make people feel. We are in a constant juggling act where one influence leads to the other and back.

One of the problems I can see with the “rigorous and human” approach is that we need to define the terms. I think the word rigor has had a certain buzz around it for a while and has lost some of it’s meaning. Also, human is a pretty large category. We should probably have a common understanding about what I feel it means in this context.

Rigor for me means that there is a quantitative piece to an approach. It might be that there is research backing this approach or an evaluation that has been done pre/post. It might also mean that you are using data from different sources to inform a decision. Something that is rigorous means that it applies to your context and it is a real problem that you face, and that you expect to fact over a period of time. As a teacher you are approaching your own learning on this subject from a deep learning perspective.

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For me, the term human mean that you are taking in all the factors that can affect decisions, but can’t always be measured in a group evaluation or in a standard distribution. It might be community factors that affect your school. It might be individual needs of teachers that you work with. It may be related to workload issues, or the fact that one of you teachers just returned from a maternity leave and is getting less sleep. My lived experience tells me that human factors are the reason we need to approach change carefully and with small steps, over time. We also need to take care of ourselves as teachers and take steps to ensure we are well.

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Here is the kicker about using “rigorous and human”, I have caught myself using this term for many aspects of my life that are not related to school. For instance, I was speaking to my wife about a problem we were going to tackle involving one of our children. We were reading parent sites to see what was recommended as an approach. We spoke after reading and felt like the information gave us a piece of the answer, but that what was going to work for our kid was a mix of a few of the suggestions. Our approach needed to be rigorous (using the data we found) and human (using our knowledge of our child to select the correct course of action). I think this shows the power of this perspective.

The next time to catch yourself going down a path that leads you to consider only one side, remember… be both rigorous and human.

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Structure Your Collaboration

So you’ve decided collaboration is your priority this year. You’ve set out the time, you have talked about the research on teacher sharing, you are ready to get the teachers in your school working together. Teachers are keen and motivated. And what happens? Not very much.

Has this ever happened to you?

I have lived this experience and hear stories from other schools that are similar to this all the time. Despite our best intentions and despite having great staff, the result of collaboration time is not what we expect. The time we have put aside is not leading to the progress we expect.

So what might you do?

I would argue from experience that what is needed is a plan for the collaboration, a framework that informs the people who are coming together what to talk about and how to do it. Some people might even call this an organizational structure.

I am not alone in thinking that we need to give people more support in how they collaborate. Better minds that I have directed their efforts to this question and come up with solutions that make collaborative time more effective. Educators that I respect and follow such as Simon Breakspear, Dylan William, and Cale Birk have worked on this subject.

In my experience, the tool that has been the most effective for maximizing the impact of teacher collaboration time has been Learning Sprints. The time we have to meet and work collaboratively is precious, using Learning Sprints has helped us to ensure that our time is focused and leads to impact.

This is not some crazy native advertising. I don’t work for Agile Schools. I just find that this works. When we put this in place, we made more progress for our students.

So what is it? It is a structure that we use to tell us:

  • when to meet
  • what to work on
  • how we will know if we were sucessful
  • how we will share what we learned

In addition to defining how and what we work on, it also allows us to change our focus to what is important.  A Learning Sprint is a short cycle that allows different concerns to be addresses, or at least different aspects of the same issue to be worked on.

I have had the opportunity in last few weeks to speak with educational leaders across 3 continents and I found it interesting that most of them had a sense of the pedagogical issues they needed to address, but they were all struggling with how to ensure the changes were made. They knew that their students needed support with: reading, emotional regulation, numeracy, writing, etc. What they needed was a structure to allow them to work on these issues with their teachers that would cause learning.

When builders go into a construction project, they not only have a blueprint, they are also have structures that let them meet to ensure safety and that the different trades have what they need. They same should go for our work at a school. Build in the structure of the meetings so that all are focused on the goal and everyone has what they need to improve the learning in their class.

Are you thinking about making time for teacher collaboration? Great work, it can be a positive addition to the professional learning at your school. If you already have this time set aside and are looking to get more, try using this organizational structure that will increase your efficacy.

Check out the Agile Schools website for much more that a way to structure your collaboration time. Investigate the protocols that are offered for even more ways to pinpoint your target focus, investigate how to make progress, come together on a strategy and build assessments.

Find A Spark

Reflecting back on the best improvements that I have made as a teacher and as a leader, they usually come from a moment of inspiration. That moment might be a great conversation, a conference or workshop, reading a book or article, or even seeing another teacher in action. In other words, improvement needs a spark.

We sometimes get lucky and our spark finds us, but most of the time we need to find a spark. We need to have the conversations, get the books or articles, connect with the colleagues who inspire us, register for the conferences. If we continually wait for a spark to come to us, we are being inefficient with our time and ability.

Every teacher has lived moments of doubt and low motivation. It seems the days drag on with no change and no inspiration. Want to change that? Get inspired. Break out of your rut find something new. Find a spark.

There are so many excuses not to find our motivation. No money for professional learning. No other colleagues who are interested in what I am into. No time to try something new. The weather is bad. My students are difficult this year. The list goes on. Here is the thing, the excuses don’t go away.

Put yourself in a position to be able to be inspired. Put yourself out there. If you are struggling with something, find ways to make your path easier. If you are uninspired, connect with inspiring people. It is easier today to get inspiration than ever before. Find great educators and leaders on the internet or social media. This is one way that these tools are making our life better.

Finding the spark that gets you moving in the right direction, that gets you on the path to improvement, that makes you put in place habits that will encourage your continued improvement is what you need. Go find it.

We both know that our professional lives and personal lives are linked. Maybe this spark is what you need to a better person, to feel better about yourself, to feel empowered. When we are successful at work, we feel good about ourselves.

Get out there. Find a spark. Get better.

Some places that I look for motivation:

Conferences:
uLead – Council of School Leaders, ATA
Agile Schools Summits/Workshops

Books:
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Discipline Equals Freedom – Field Manual by Jocko Willink
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
Visible Learning by John Hattie

PodCasts:
The Tim Ferriss Show
Jocko Podcast
Hidden Brain
Master of Scale

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.

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.

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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”.

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.

Conclusion

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.