First Check In

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 teachers have been in their first sprint for almost 2 weeks, so it was time for a check-in. The first sprint was designed to be a bit longer at almost 5 weeks. We chose this length as it was the start of the year and teachers are getting to know their students and as deal with all the start-up paperwork and routine building. Even though we are early in the year, I felt it was important to come together to get some feedback, make adjustments, and at minimum make sure teachers did not forget about our sprint focus. Sure enough, there are lessons to be learned already and changes to be tried.

Our first sprint was put in place quickly and our goal was less defined than it could have been. My thoughts were that this quickness would help us to learn fast and it was OK if we made errors at the beginning as we were new to this process. It makes me think of the early Facebook mantra of “Move fast and break things”. Our goal was to have teachers start a small improvement right away. The lack of refinement and definition of the goal is something we will tighten up next time. Some teachers have not had a problem with this broad goal, others found it more difficult. New rule, always define your goal more than you think you need to.

Our first intervention was a strategy focusing on summarization. I have learned that even a strategy can be too broad and too big. When we started discussing how this strategy had been put into place, we realized that it could get overwhelming. Summarization is a complex skill and our students had differing levels of mastery. Some teachers found their group could dive right into summarizing texts, while other teachers needed to explicitly teach some ways to summarize (and even define what summarizing was). Lesson learned, even a strategy needs to be small.

Another area that we will improve in the next sprint is clearly defining the assessment tools that we will use to know the impact of our intervention. Again, in the interest of moving quickly, we did not define how we would know if what we did made any changes to student learning. We have decided to aim for more qualitative feedback from students during this sprint, but I want to move into more quantitative measures for the upcoming sprints. Change for next time, know how you will know if what you did had an impact.

My last reflection is on the leadership aspect of this process. I realize I need to hand over more authority and responsibility to the teachers involved. I need them to know the structure of the sprints, the areas to cover when evaluating, the ways to come to define the different aspects of the process. My goal is that as soon as possible, they can engage in this process without me there. I need to remember that we are in the incubation period and that if we are to scale this project, I need people who are independent with this collaborative process and can work out issues that arise. I will not be able to attend every Learning Sprint meeting in my school, which means they need to do this themselves. My goal is to take the lessons learned from this group and refine the process for the others that will follow if we are successful.

We are in the early stages of this process, but I am confident that we are putting in place structures that ensure meaningful improvements. Onward.


Learning Sprint – The Start

This post is one in 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.

We are launched into the Learning Sprints world as of Friday. I presented the concept to the group of teachers that we have chosen to run our incubation with and are now on to defining and understanding our Sprint. The group our school has chosen to experiment with is the grade 7-9 teachers. Our large focus is going to be literacy. Here are some things that I learned and that I am thinking about after a few days of reflection.

The biggest help that I found when presenting to the group of 7 teachers was that I had incubated my incubation. Incubating in the Learning Sprints world is to start with a small group of teachers that will act as an experiment and facilitate a school-wide adoption of Learning Sprints. What I chose to do is to start by speaking with a teacher who is in this group in advance to get feedback and to refine with another perspective. I found this to be valuable when presenting to the other teachers. This teacher spoke up a few times when I was presenting to clarify areas from a teacher perspective and made the process much easier. One suggestion I would have to any school starting out on this Learning Sprints journey is to incubate your incubation.

The other big contributor to the teacher’s understanding of Learning Sprints is the visuals and videos that are available on the Agile Schools website. I like to think I do a pretty good job of communicating, but I don’t come close to the concept knowledge of Dr. Breakspear who appears in the videos. Also, just like a class, providing multiple ways of accessing knowledge (in this case a visual to support my speaking) is beneficial. I would suggest any team to use them.

The aspect of this presentation that I found taking the most time was getting the teachers to know that they are in charge of defining the particular strategy or intervention. I want them to make decisions based on their knowledge of the students at our school. A teacher came to me and shared that they were confused as I had explained that our focus was to make small changes, yet I had defined a broad goal (literacy across subject areas). They felt as though this was unaligned. How I explained this was that it is a leader’s role (with help from staff) to set the broad focus area using data and through knowing our students. It was the teacher’s job to attack the problem (literacy) using their lived experience and knowledge of the students in their grade as a filter. The teacher chose the small changes, the administration chose the large goal.

I also feel an important piece of our setup was ensuring that strategies and interventions will be based on research and evidence. The main source I suggested for our incubation group is Visible Learning for Literacy by Hattie, Fisher, Frey. The source of this information needs to thought out beforehand. I chose this particular book because of the easy to access strategies and because I think it is based on high-quality research. Making the research-based strategies available easily is important when they become busy. I don’t want the to resort to pseudo-science or worse, make no change at all. Make accessing quality strategies and interventions easy for staff.

I was extremely happy when the group decided to try to make one change right away, before our next meeting. They understood this was about small differences being put in place right away to test them for efficacy. In the words of one teacher, “Why wait?”. Agreed. Why wait? Let’s get on this journey from day one. Let’s try to get better right away.

Reflections on ATA Educational Leadership Academy

I had the pleasure of attending the Alberta Teachers’ Association Educational Leadership Academy this past summer. It was facilitated by Dr. Simon Breakspear, Executive Director of Learn Labs and founder of Agile Schools. He lead the participants through 2 of the Agile Schools programs, Agile Leadership and Learning Sprints. This academy has been run for many years in Alberta with different facilitators through the years. The continued success of this program speaks to the professionalism and dedication of educational leaders in Alberta.

My official journey with Agile Leadership and Learning Sprints started with the Academy, but the unofficial start was well before that. Over the past 4 years I have seen Dr. Simon Breakspear speak about Agile at the uLead conference in Banff, Alberta. His sessions piqued my interest as I felt it was both based in research and experience (The entire conference is amazing and I would highly recommend it). I also attended a short presentation by some colleagues who had done a workshop with Agile Schools. They came back energized and full of optimism about the impact the program could have, but I was not yet sold. I have seen multiple programs that come through and have learned to be a bit sceptical until I see real value in what the program offers. This brings me to the ATA Education Leadership Academy this past summer.

Four days to see if Agile Leadership and Sprints were going to speak to me, to convince me, and to invigorate me. I figured that 4 days was not a huge investment and that in the end if I came away not liking the program I would have at least made some professional connections with other school leaders around Alberta. My 4 days were not wasted and I am eager to use what Agile Schools and Dr. Breakspear proposes.

Photo credit: Jocelyn Lamothe @joshy1199

So what was the tipping point? What was it that makes me think that this is where I want to spend my time? Firstly, the fact that it is focused on being research informed. This is a term I have come to appreciate a great deal lately. My own interpretation of this term is the practice of linking research with practice. Researchers are great at research, but not many are still in schools. For many it has been decades since they were in the teaching profession, if they ever were. This does not reduce the value of the research they produce, but it does make changing practice in light of new information difficult at times. Agile states that research should inform the decisions that schools make and that the best decisions are made by the people who know the students best. The link between practice and research is based on the needs of students.

Another way of looking at this concept is through the very popular meta-analysis work by Dr. John Hattie in his book Visible Learning. It shows that there are many high efficacy strategies that can be put in place by teachers and leaders. No one strategy can claim that it has a monopoly on moving students forward in their learning. Teachers therefore have a selection to make based on their experience and professional evaluation of their students. They need to make a research-informed decision on which strategies they are going to try to improve learning. I enjoyed that the approach suggested gave professional the freedom to choose the strategies that they feel are best going to meet the needs of students.

Another reason that I am convinced that Agile Leadership will yield results for students is the focus on continual improvement and reaction to change. Their tag-line is “Better all the time”. I am convinced that humans rarely foresee the amount of change that is coming. We constantly believe that we will not change, which is not true. Agile builds in a mechanism where improvement is continually sought and by consequence participants are always being thoughtful about how we will change.

And so the journey begins. I have the information and the plan, now to the toughest part for most people (including myself)… Actually doing the work.

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.

Triple-purpose Instruction

How_Children_SucceedHow Children Succeed by Paul Tough describes the benefits of adding character development outcomes to educational instruction. He follows different students, teachers, schools and academics to see how they address the question of teaching character.

One concept he describes comes from KIPP Infinity, a charter school in New York. They talk about “dual-purpose instruction”. This is where the teacher integrates character outcomes into each course. The idea being that by working on both skills, the students will be more successful in developing character skills.

Although I like this integration method, there seems to me be an element missing. I believe we should target triple-purpose instruction. Especially for teachers in immersion language programs, we need to be targeting the course subject, character development and language.

An example in a Social Studies course is a lesson on Canadian confederation. The teacher would be teaching the facts and perspectives on why the colonies came together to form this country (course outcomes). They might also introduce a discussion about team work and suggestions for working well as a team (character). Finally, they would would introduce useful vocabulary and draw attention to the verb tense used when discussing historical events. 3 different areas of focus, triple-purpose instruction.

After reading How Children Succeed, I am convinced that character instruction is not only a “nice” thing to do, but can also have a positive impact on student performance. That having been said, we cannot forget to integrate language skills in all courses (especially in immersion programs). In the same way that integration helps character development, it also helps language skills.