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.

Teachers Matter

https://www.rand.org/education/projects/measuring-teacher-effectiveness/teachers-matter.html

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.

What Are You Unlearning Today?

The barrier to progress is often the habits and routines that served us well in the past, but are not compatible with new directions, initiatives, and ideas.

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As we learn new ways of better meeting the learning needs of our students, we often find that the changes required necessitate us to stop using some of the strategies that have helped us be successful in the past. This may seem obvious, you need to stop doing some things, but it is a concept that can be difficult to do. We often become invested in the way we choose to operate in our class. A change of routine can be very disruptive on a personal level. I believe we need to identify the things that that we are going to need to leave, or “unlearn”, in order to make progress. This should be a question we ask ourselves as we are setting up changes.

I have lived this disruptive change many times in my life. I can remember when our school was doing work around assessment and I came to see that the methods I was using could be improved. I believed that by giving more feedback and less actual marks I would improve student writing. I had a strong feeling that this would have a big positive impact on my students, which it actually did, but I struggled with letting go of the methods I had used before. I needed to unlearn. I knew these old strategies, my students knew these strategies and what to expect when they were getting their writing assignments back. I had even photocopied a years worth of marking sheets in advance to be prepared. I pushed forward and both learned the new assessment strategies and unlearned the old ones.

The cycle of learning and unlearning should be constant in an environment where learning is important, where improvement is desired, where theories are put to the test. The possible consequences of not unlearning is doing things the same way, not keeping up with new research, not changing our instruction for the needs of the individuals in our class or school, and not improving. Please be careful, I did not say we need to adopt every idea that comes across our desks. I am saying that we should be thoughtfully adopting new ways of teaching and learning based on the areas we have identified as needs in our students.

It takes confidence to take the leap and try new ways that may lead to higher levels of success. When we see new ways of teaching and learning that we believe are promising, we are often leery to try them out as it means leaving processes that have made us successful in the past. This underlines that importance of psychological safety in our workplaces and the need to create environments where testing theories that have the possibility of failure is tolerated and permissible. We need to be able to share our successes and failures in order to move forward.

When creating a Learning Sprint, a question that might need to be posed is: What are we leaving in order to try this new way? or What are we not going to do now and what are the consequences? By consciously naming the strategies we are leaving, I believe it will help some to adopt the new ways. So the question is… what are you unlearning today?

A big thanks for the podcast Masters of Scale for the inspiration on this topic. You should check them out.

A Planning Day – Sharing our Process

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.

Today I want to share some very concrete ways that we organize our collaboration days when planning Learning Sprints at our school. Although relatively early in our Learning Sprint implementation, we have experimented with different ways to ensure we use our teacher collaboration time effectively. This past week, teachers had the opportunity to meet in their Sprint groups during school. The school brought in substitute teachers to replace them for a few hours so that they could meet to discuss their Learning Sprints.

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Graminia Teachers during the “Could Do, Must Do” protocol.

Our basic agenda for a 90 minute meeting looked like this:

  1. Review Past Sprint
  2. Define Broad Focus of Next Sprint
  3. Narrow the Focus
  4. Discuss Assessment & Intervention
  5. Create Sprint Canvas
  6. Review Timeline and Set Dates

Now, let me give you a few more details about what we did in these sections and the reason we chose the protocols and activities.

  1. Review of Past Sprint – Here we had all participants bring student work from our previous sprint. The conversation started from the student work and was informed by the student work. I underline this process of speaking to the actual product of learning because we have seen a big improvement in the quality of our review when we start all our analysis on what we see concretely form the students.
  2. Define Broad Focus of Next Sprint – In this portion of the meeting we intentionally keep to a broad area. We used the Boulder-Pebble-Sand Protocol, but stopped at Pebble (no Sand in this round). This allowed us to define the students we wanted to reach and the general area we wanted to make progress in.
  3. Narrow the Focus – Here we used the Must Do, Could Do Tool to drill down in the exact strategy that we were going to focus on in the coming Sprint. We found it helpful to ensure teachers were talking about their choices of strategy and the area where they put their strategy (was it a “Must Do” or a “Could Do”). We were able to group many strategies together and comment on what we thought would have the highest impact. At the end, we chose one group in the “Must Do” section as the focus of our coming Sprint.
  4. Discuss Assessment & Intervention – Now that we have a specific area to focus on, we made a section to ensure that our intervention was based on good research or refined the intervention based on what research was saying. We have been working with the book Visible Learning for Literacy by Fisher, Hattie, & Frey, so this part was rather simple this last round. We also planned our assessment strategy to ensure that we knew if our intervention had an impact on student learning. We took a moment to talk about the tool and in this case create the tool that we will use.
  5. Create Sprint Canvas – Usually at this point, I have a whole bunch of little papers around me about what our plan is but no one place where we have clearly articulated our Sprint. I made sure we planned to take a minute to complete the blank Learning Sprint Canvas.  This way we will not forget the conversations that we had about what our main focus is during the Sprint.
  6. Review Timeline and Set Dates – Here we review when our Check-ins will take place and set the meetings in our schedules. We also review when our next planning session will take place, which indicates the end of the Sprint.

That is the details of our planning day. We had 2 groups roll through this same process twice in a day, during 90 minute sessions. I would not take less time that 90 minutes for this agenda, in fact if we had another 30 minutes our conversations could have been more rich. In the end, we had 90 minutes so we dealt with what we had.

Here are the 2 Sprint Canvases that we created in this last round:

Sprint Canvas (Humanities) Dec 6 2017

Sprint Canvas (Math_Sci) Dec 6 2017

While I am sure that our process will change, I hope that the sharing of our exact process helps someone to organize this process in their own school. Happy Sprinting!

From a Plan to Action

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment. Our learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile Network.

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

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

Lean on the Team

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

Contingency Plan

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

Personalize the Plan

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

Reminders for Focus

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

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

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