The Importance of Technology

the importance of technology is not the thing, but what it helps us do. (1)

If you are like me, you can sometimes get caught up in a debate with others around what is the “best” tech tool. Depending on the person and the setting, these conversations can go on for a long time. I was engaged in a similar conversation the other day and stopped myself. What I has suddenly remembered is that the tool really doesn’t matter, what is important is what the tool helps us or students do.

At times in education, we forget the the things we do support the development of our students. Whether is be technology, strategies, relationships, extra-curricular involvement, or food programs these things exist in school for the purpose of the betterment of the student so that they can be come well-rounded adults who have knowledge and skills. How we get there can matter, but usually the small differences don’t… Like whether you are writing an essay on a PC or a Mac.

Let’s take that example to show you what I mean. Whether you are writing an essay on a PC, a Mac, or a Chromebook is unimportant. Why? Because chances are these pieces of technology will be obsolete in the next few years. The programs will look radically different to that point that the particular knowledge of that system is useless. On the other hand, the act of writing and the being able to clearly communicate our thoughts in the written form, that will endure. This is why the tech is less important than what is can help us experience.

If we take this a step further, what might be powerful for developing the skill of writing is leveraging a system that allows for more meaningful feedback, that allows a student to track their progress in a piece of writing over time and to share this writing with others so that they can contribute to a larger debate. These are all system neutral, meaning we can do them on almost all platforms.

In short, I think we need to focus more on what a piece of technology contributes to the overall skill development and the student/teacher experience, and less on the brand name on the side.

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Sharing Learning for Better Schools

sharing learning for better schools

I am convinced that if we share more of the good things that are happening in our schools and the learning that we believe will make our schools better, that others can learn from us. When the people I follow have made themselves vulnerable by sharing the professional development that they have been engaging in, when they share the “ah-ha” moment that they think will make their school a better place for learning, when they share the article that has made them think, I am grateful and I learn too.

This is why I have ventured down the path of sharing my learning and seeking out new learning with others through a podcast over the past 6 months. I have been fortunate and privileged to speak with some amazing educators and non-educators who have shared insights into how we might make teaching and learning better for all.

I call this project Intersection Education and will get into why I called it this in another post. For now, please check it out. Listen, visit the website I have created for the episodes and let me know what you think by sending me a message on Twitter.

The more we share, the better we will all get at meeting the complex needs of our students.

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Start Slow to Go Fast

Start Slow,

It took our school over a year to implement Learning Sprints. Yes, over a year.

It was not because we did not allocate enough resources. It was not because we had teacher resistance. It was because we implemented slow on purpose.

We decided to follow the advice of others and start slow, to go fast.

I think we have all experienced an idea that was implemented too fast. The learning is rushed. It usually does not work for the site as there are specific aspects that have not been taken into account. Also, it feels imposed, as opposed to something that came from the people who will do the work. We have all seen these plans try, and fail.

We decided to start Learning Sprints slowly by exploring the process before even speaking to staff. This was in the form of a 4 day Learning Sprints session. The ideas were understood and we started to think about what it might look like in our building.

Next, we recruited a small group of teachers to experiment with putting in place this structure at our school. We tried out the plans and the tools. We made mistakes. Here is the thing, these mistakes were not fatal because we were only working with a small group who were comfortable with not getting it right the first time. This experimentation lasted for almost 5 months.

Next, we expanded our a few more people who were interested in the Learning Sprints process because they had heard about it from some of the teachers who were talking about it in the staff room. These new people were able to add more refinements to our process and have more insight into how it would work best for us.

We slowly expanded for the entire year, 10 months of school. It was not until 12 months after starting with a small group that we expanded to the entire school staff.

How did it go? Think about it… Half the staff were already engaged in the process. The process had already been tailored to fit our school, staff and community. People were invested in the process and had experienced success.

It was the easiest implementation I have ever had.

There is still work to do. We are working to embed this as part of what we do. We are also continuing to adapt and improve. But it has been an overall success.

I think it it because we started slow, to go fast.

Small Steps

I’m going to tell you something that you already know. Teaching is hard.

Why is it hard? Do you have a few hours… There is so much going on all the time!

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In addition to all the curriculum and activities, it seems like the school is the place where all the other people involved in children’s lives need to meet them as well. This is why I called my podcast Intersection Education. At times it seems as though the school is the intersection of children’s lives. It is the place where the people and influences meet.

Not only do teachers need to be knowledgeable about the topics we traditionally associate with education, like reading, writing, numeracy, and assessment. We are now expected to be experts on a bunch of topics we had no idea that we were going to need to know about when we signed up to be a teacher.

Mental health, inclusion, physical literacy, bullying are examples. We need to have children play on technology and in nature, as much as possible at the same time as we need to increase their stamina in desks to be able to move into the next grade.

I recently attended a conference where one of the keynotes may a great case for including interior design principles in our classroom. A great message, but it seemed like just another thing to add to the list.

In addition, teachers cannot just focus on the things they need to teach. They need to know what social influences are acting on their students as well.

We recently had a group of students who were inexplicably absent for a few days. We were trying to think of all the things that we had done in our class that might have made them not want to come to school. When we finally heard from the parents, they told us that the video game Fortnite had come out and that they had allowed the kids to go on a 4 day bender.

It seems like everything is accelerating and we are along for the ride at times. By the way, I don’t think that this feeling is particular to education. Most other professions seem to think the same thing.

All of this leads to many teachers feeling overwhelmed.

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I see the main problem is that teachers believe they need to be experts on everything… right now. Not only do they think they are behind but they don’t know how to become experts.

The question they should be asking is: “What do my students most need me to learn?” and “What is the first step to becoming better in this area?” We need to focus on one area at a time and concentrate our attention on the areas that we think will have the most impact.

This idea of taking of taking one step at a time is not new. Applications like the fitness program “Couch to 5km” have revolutionized the small steps approach to improvement.

This the reason that I believe that Learning Sprints has the power to revolutionize how we get better at education. This way of approaching professional learning concentrates on small improvements over a period of time. It gets us to focus on the areas where we feel we will have the most impact and it cues us to put in place assessment tools that will let us know if we are “changing for the better” or “changing to be different”. It also leans on research to focus our efforts on the strategies that have the highest chance of having impact.

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No one needs a change for something to do. This is why knowing whether a change we make is truly better is important.

In the end, I think this gives us the sense of hope. The opposite of feeling overwhelmed. We can be what our students need us to be, but in small manageable steps, over a period of time.

We don’t need to be a master tomorrow, but eventually. We can get better everyday.

Take the first step.

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For more information visit the #learningsprints community at LearningSprints.org

Celebrate Failure

coreyhaley.com

If you are going to try to get better, you are inevitably going to make mistakes. How you see these mistakes are going to influence your progress and improvement. If you see mistakes as failures, you are not going to get far. If you instead see mistakes as lessons, you can use this missteps to get better.

I believe that instead of shying away from mistakes and trying to forget about them as quickly as possible, we should celebrate our mistakes. We should share our failures so that other may learn.

We should also share the experiences where things do not go as planned so that we create a culture where we see that getting better is not a linear path. Failures are part of the process. If you are not making mistakes, you are not pushing your self to get better.

This year, as a framework to be a better school, we started using Learning Sprints to organize our professional learning. This was hard, but worth it. We wanted to ensure that we were causing learning and wanted to get better at meeting the educational needs of our particular community. We made mistakes.

Below is a list of the biggest mistakes we made this year in implementing Learning Sprints. I hope that this helps others learn from our trials and also creates a culture throughout education where we can experiment and learn.

Failure 1

When we started we wanted to get all of our junior high teachers on board and rolling at the same time. We joined everyone, all 10 teachers into one group. After a time they started having difficult deciding on an area of learning that they could agree on. They also felt that the targets were too general for their needs.

Lesson: Keep groups smaller (2-4 people) and organize them around a unifying theme. This could be grade level or subject.

Failure 2

We created a schedule where we would meet to review our Learning Sprints every 4-5 weeks that was mostly outside of the schedule. We used professional development (PD) days (days when students are not at school), after school sessions, and a few blocks in the schedule. There were a few PD days when something came up and we were not able to meet to discuss our Learning Sprint. There were also some after school sessions where getting all teachers together was impossible because of extra-curricular activities (basketball, band, etc).

Lesson: Try, to the degree most possible, to organize collaboration time inside the schedule of the school day.

Failure 3

The message that we gave to teachers the most was that Learning Sprints was a way to improve student performance and learning. We were organizing this structure so that students could learn better. Teachers focused on the students and what they were doing for the students. They did not see that the actual focus of Learning Sprints is the professional development that they get, the improvement of their own teaching practice.

Lesson: Emphasize that Learning Sprints, and all other professional development, is most effective when teachers become better practitioners. When teacher have more strategies and are better at their craft, student performance improves.

Failure 4

Our focus was literacy this year at our school. To have accessible research I bought a copy of Visible Learning for Literacy (Hattie, et al.) for the teachers who were doing the Learning Sprints. Although most read through the book, we chose to focus on the strategies that were the most effective on Hattie’s list without consideration of the needs of our students. We started at the top of the list of effective practices and moved down.

Lesson: School communities are individual and their needs are different. Balance the effective practices with the needs of your students when choosing your focus.

Celebrate

We have learned a lot this year in implementing Learning Sprints. Ultimately, I believe that because of this way of organizing our learning we have made more progress that previously. We are committed to getting better. Part of this commitment is sharing our failures as lessons and giving ourselves the freedom to make mistakes.

I hope you learn from our failures and make a few yourself.

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.

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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.

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.