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.

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

The Agile Advantage

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 used to be extremely inefficient with how I implemented change in my classroom. Let me tell you about what change usually looked like for me. I would go to a conference or speak with someone and get an idea for a change that I thought would be valuable. It would usually be a ridiculously big idea or project that I would put in place for a specific period of time. It would almost alway be planned for March (the month of new learning in my old brain). I would get this idea in October and spend the next 4 months planning what I was going to do in March. I would come up with what the students were going to do differently, I would imagine the responses I would get, I created exemplars and envisioned what the student work would look like at the end. I would base all my energy on this one project, while the rest of my teaching stayed the same.

March would arrive and I would be so excited. I would launch into this project that I had been planning and be expecting great results. Every time I would be disappointed. Usually in the first few days students would respond to my teaching in wildly different ways than I imagined. I would have to redesign the whole project based on what they were showing me, my months of hard work was out the window. I would press on, with a few more redesigns but usually by the end I was left feeling exhausted and the students would say that it was a nice assignment, but they would prefer to go back to how things used to be. They were exhausted too.

This story highlights one of the main reasons that I decided to adopt the Agile method in my classroom and to advocate for it in schools. I realized that I needed to put away the one month project and focus on getting better everyday. My reality was that my day to day instruction was not getting much better, as I was focused on the big project (that only lasted one month!). A focus on smaller objectives that I could put in place rapidly and evaluate whether they had impact would have served my students better. I did not realize that I could change incrementally over time, but in a more conscious way so that I made big gains over the year. My project was also usually based on a teacher who had a novel idea, as opposed to using research to show me how I might improve student performance. I think in a way my students knew that the projects I was designing were not usually helping them. They usually told me that they just regurgitated what they already knew or copied from somewhere. There was not authentic learning going on as I was usually so focussed on them producing an end result that I forgot about introducing new information.

I see these qualities all the time with teachers. The focus of their professional learning is a project, to be completed later in the year. They are usually so exhausted when they complete it that they question why they did it, but don’t know how else they might get better. This is the Agile Advantage. Small focussed improvements that are put in place over a period of time and evaluated for impact.

Getting Unstuck: 5 Ways to Start Today

We have all been there… Stuck. Paralyzed. Immobilized. We know we need to do something, but are not sure what or how. It can happen when we are overwhelmed, when we have too many things that we see we need to improve. It can also happen when we are underwhelmed, when everything is going well and we are not sure where to continue with improvement.

Here are 5 ways to get unstuck and start right away to get better.

1 – Limit Your Options

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice that is available. The example that is often used is the salad dressing section in a grocery store. Just how many options do you really need? How do you make the right choice? The answer is to limit the options. Psychologist Barry Schwartz talks about this extensively in his book The Paradox of Choice. His message is that all this choice may increase our anxiety.

Use selection criteria based on your goals to create a list of only 2 or 3 options. Limit the number of things that are available. The psychologist Amy Summerville uses this strategy when making decisions and came to this conclusion based on her work around regret in the decision making process.

2- Ask a Colleague

Here is a fact that many teachers often forget… You are not alone. Chances are (unless you teach in a one-room school) there is another teacher that you can turn to for advice or direction. We are often so close to a situation that we cannot see the way forward. Use your colleagues or your professional learning community to help you find direction.

Working together to move forward and trusting that together you can improve learning for students, or Collective Teacher Efficacy, is consistently ranked as one of the highest impact strategies in John Hattie’s research. It has an effect size of 1.57 (which is second highest in his 2017 update). Walk down the hall and engage your teaching partner.

3 – Commit to a Short Term Experiment

So, you have it in your head that you need to decide today your professional growth goals for the next 3-5 years. Good luck with that. Instead, why not put yourself in a position to be agile and adapt to the changing nature of your environment? Use short-term experiments to make improvement manageable and progressive. Choose a very small goal and commit to it for a short period of time. Does it seem too small? That is probably the right size as you will not feel overwhelmed. Why a short time? So you don’t feel that you will be committed to something that doesn’t work for a long time.

This is where the work of Simon Breakspear comes in rather handy. He outlines how to set up a Learning Sprint so that teams can make incremental improvement over a period of time. It also helps to focus on the main area of improvement needed, right down to the specific goal you are going to work on.

4 – Use Data

I remember having teachers do a survey about the needs of their students every year for years on end. When it came to analyzing the data, we would always skip over the top 2 needs that they identified, literacy and numeracy. One day someone in our school asked, “Why do you always skip over the top 2 needs?” It made me step back and ask myself the same question. Why was I skipping over the 2 needs that were consistently being identified? Why was I not using the data in front of me? Sometimes using the data is as easy as that. Chances are you have access to a few data sets right now. Why not look at them if you are unsure of where to focus next?

If you are looking for information on how data is changing education around the world today, look at the work from the WISE Initiative.

5 – Know Your Students

The other side of the data conversation is the knowledge that teachers have of their students. Data is one thing, research is another, but without the personal context of the humans that we serve the decisions will not be as specific as we need. Pasi Sahlberg has spoken about this at length and calls it small data. Phil McRae is another person who’s work in this area is worth a read. Sometimes the best way to get unstuck is to think of the student in your class that you are having the hardest time with and ask yourself “what can I do to better serve that student?” Use your personal experience tied with research to make a decision about how to get better.


So after those 5 things, are you still wondering when you should begin? I will let a person who I listen to when I am feeling unmotivated give you the answer.

“Here and now. That’s it. You want to improve, you want to get better… Where do you start? You start right here. And when do you start? You start right now.” – Jocko Willink

Image result for jocko willink quotes

Making Progress

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 schools in my area have designated days (about once a month) where students do not attend and the staff has the opportunity to meet. Part of this time is usually taken by meetings, operational items, and information transmission, but the other part is for collaborative professional learning. We just finished our “Professional Development” day and had a chance to have our Learning Sprints team together. This is our second sprint and the first where are the team had a better understanding of the process. I was rather excited to get back to this work before the day and am even more excited to see the result after our meeting.

If you have read my previous posts, you will know that this is our second official sprint. The first was not a smashing success, but we learned valuable lessons. We knew that this time around, we needed to define our learning goal much more clearly. What we were trying to achieve and with which students needed to be crystal clear. We also knew that with a limited amount of time (3 weeks), our target needed to be a small change. Getting too big was a recipe for overload and slow progress. We wanted to do a better job of developing the evaluation tools that would let us know if what we were doing was making meaningful impact, so needed to have this defined before we started. Lastly, I knew that the teachers had to lead this initiative. If I, as the administrator, was the one pushing forward when we went to scale it up to the rest of the school, it would not work.

Coming into this round, I think the expectations of teachers were higher, but they were still becoming comfortable with the learning sprint process. Change is hard and each teacher dealt with it differently. I am always fascinated watching the learning process, whether it be in students or teachers. The idea of the “learning pit” was evident in our meeting. This is the concept that when we encounter and are making sense of a new idea, we enter a pit. The time when we are unsure if we will master this new idea. We are sometimes frustrated and feel like the process is hard. Eventually, we overcome this difficulty and exit the “pit” with a new understanding. I heard this concept first from Simon Breakspear, but have appreciated the work of James Nottingham on this metaphor.

As we were going through this process, one comment that came up repeatedly was wanting a model or example. My teachers felt that having an example of what others had done would help their understanding. We could not find a complete learning cycle in our short search, so I offer to you our work as a model. Here is our Learning Sprint Canvas.

If the photo is not clear, please use the following link.

As you can see in the canvas, we are targeting literacy. The specific focus is on sharing the expectations and reasons we are reading a text. Our small change is that every time there is a text presented (whether it be in Math, Science, French or Music) that the purpose for reading will be explicitly shared. We also developed an evaluation tool that will allow us to see if the student knows the purpose of reading the text. Students will self-evaluate whether they are aware of why a text is being presented.

As I have shared before, we are working closely with the resource Visible Learning in Literacy and this sprint is inspired by some of the research shared in the book. Our teachers looked at maximizing their impact, which is why they felt this self-evaluated strategy was more interesting. They found it fascinating that sharing expectations and outcomes had half the reported impact than when self-evaluation was added to the same process.

Please do not think that you can print this Learning Sprint example off and present it as a finished product to your staff. The decisions made in this sprint were particular to the needs of our students and won’t necessarily work for the community you serve. Every sprint needs to be tailored to the individual needs of students that you have and there cannot be a plug-and-play model. As is often said, we are student driven and research informed. Do not try to implement the sprint that I have shared here without asking some critical questions about what it is that your students need and if this will meet the needs of the people at your school.

Looking forward to seeing what sprint 2 brings and sharing with our our progress.

GETCA Presentation

Thanks to all the teachers, administrators and consultants that came out to the presentations today. I appreciated your feedback and look forward to seeing you again. You can find the presentation here.

Also, the upcoming PD session for French Immersion leaders offered in conjunction with the Council for School Leaders is on March 20th. You can find more information here. This session will focus on school performance in French Immersion.