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.


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.

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!

The Right Size

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.

A question that we have had to answer as we are organizing our professional learning around Learning Sprints is “How many people should be in a Learning Sprints group?”. This might seem evident, but we have struggled to find a number that works and have learned some lessons along the way. Through our trials and tribulations I think we have come up with the definitive answer: it depends. The biggest thing that I have learned in my time with PLCs, Learning Sprints, Departments, etc. is that the perfect number is affected by multiple factors.

The first factor that I believe needs to be in place is that the group should have a common link in what they teach that enables them to find common outcomes to focus on. This might be a certain range of grades, it might be a common subject or department. When I worked in a High School, our subject departments were a great way to form a group around common outcomes. Whether that be around Science, Language Arts, Math, it works well. I have even had a personal experience where a group of teachers who were the only specialists in a school came together by finding common outcomes they could all focus on. I was part of a Modern Languages/Fine Arts department that brought together the French, German, Japanese, Art, Band, and Drama teachers. We needed to be open to what we all shared in our different subjects, but ultimately we were able to focus on how we were designing our instruction to ensure our outcomes were being met. Other examples of groups that I have seen to work are junior high humanities or Science/Math teachers, Grade 1-2 teachers. The list is endless, but the important piece is that there are common outcomes that the teachers want to focus on.

The next factor that determines the optimal size of your Sprint Group is the ability to meet. If there are too many differing schedules and the group cannot find a common time to meet the work will fail. I have written about how groups need to “Check In to Win”. The best ways to organize this meeting is to schedule time in the timetable, but often times this is not available or is an ongoing goal. In the times where the timetable is not in place to allow teachers to meet during the day, there must be a time when all are available on a regular basis. The availability of the members will determine the size of the group.

My experience is that there is a certain point when consensus becomes difficult to obtain. To say this another way, at times when there are too many divergent perspectives and the group cannot choose one outcome to work on. This number varies widely based on the personalities in the group, the subject areas, the past experience and the buy-in of the group. At times, this is when 3 highly different people come together, other times it is a significantly higher number.

Though all these factors come into play, don’t get stalled in implementation. A group, whatever the size, that actually makes progress on meeting the needs of students is better than none. Get together, make progress, learn along the way what size of group is going to be right for your school. Get started today.

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.