Archives for the month of: March, 2012

I’m not easily impressed but I was impressed with Atul Gawande’s keynote at ASCD, perhaps because he touched on topics percolating in my brain the past few months.  My love affair with Gawande began with his article in the New Yorker  where he advocates for all professionals having the opportunity to be coached. The philosophy is so simple—we get better at what we do if we get specific feedback on our performance—yet it happens so little in most professions, except in sports and dance. The goal of this feedback is not to be rated or graded; the goal is simply to get better.

When I danced years ago, my instructor would have us watch ourselves repeatedly in the mirror. She’d show me how to adjust my body for better balance, more grace, a longer line. No one has done this for me as a teacher. Certainly no one has done this for me as administrator.

I know when I watched myself teach on video, I found several unexpected behaviors that I didn’t know I did—for ex, I do this sort of two-step move when in front of the classroom. It’s because I move towards the students who are talking and then back up because I realize the students on the edge of the “U” are out of my periphery.  It ends up looking like a strange dance, or at least it did when my students imitated me during a school skit. I also use the word “actually” too much.  Now these aren’t horrible habits in that they’re not overtly harmful to students, but they are a potential distraction to students, so I try to curtail them.

When I’ve had teachers observe themselves, they often share with me that they had no idea how short their wait time was, or that they called on boys more often, or that they asked so many closed questions. Half the trick to improvement is identification and recognition. You can’t work on something if you don’t see it. We need to open ourselves to asking and receiving feedback. Most importantly we need to rethink how we view teacher evaluation and professional development.

Gawande made the point that most teachers, like doctors, fall into a bell curve—most are average. We shouldn’t focus all of our efforts on trying to get rid of the “bad teachers.”  Instead, we should teach them. So simple, but our teacher effectiveness systems aren’t designed this way. We should be thinking about teacher growth for all teachers, not teacher evaluation. How can we learn from the great teachers, and how can we share this wisdom?

In all of the districts I’ve worked, many teachers coast after their first five years. They feel as if they’ve mastered their craft and they don’t feel pushed to keep improving. I wonder if many potentially great teachers leave the profession because they don’t experience the challenge of continual improvement. Other professions offer these challenges. Just like students need the right balance of a challenge without crossing over into frustration, so do our teachers. So do our administrators.

Here’s the big question: how can redesign our profession so that it’s the norm for all teachers and administrators to be coached? Imagine the impact this could have on students.

I was only able to participate in a short segment of Grant Wiggins’ session yesterday—wish I had been able to come in sooner. When I worked with Grant back in 1999 as part of a Klingenstein Summer Institute, his Understanding by Design framework came at exactly the right time for my practice—over a dozen years later, Grant is still ahead of the curve. Here are some of the big questions he raises:

  • What would schooling look like if we designed it “backward” from the school Mission & using sound principles?
  • Where do mission and long-term learning goals get lost in short-term actions? What, then, should we do to change this?

Wiggins advocates for what I’ve been arguing for as well in my district: everything in our schools should be aligned—the mission, curriculum, response to personnel issues, response to students, administrative walkthroughs, and certainly professional development.

Having recently read Unmistakable Impact, Wiggins reminded me of aspects of Jim Knight’s work. Knight argues that a school’s improvement plan should be clearly written on one page—too many initiatives get lost. The strategies should be easily understood by the whole school community—administrators, teachers, parents, and students. If not, the school isn’t focused enough to experience real impact. Wiggins provides one sensible method of focusing school initiatives by tying everything together through a backwards design approach using the school’s mission.

Everyone seems to be recognizing the necessity of alignment and clarity, yet schools still seem to struggling to find their focus. I’m convinced it takes strong instructional leaders who have vision and a clearly articulated plan (developed with the support of all stakeholders) to make this happen. The most difficult task is learning to filter out all of the distractions to maintain the school’s focus, making sure the short term doesn’t overwhelm the long term.

One of my favorite Wiggins’s quotes: “The point of school is not to get good at school.” Schools must have a plan to move students towards autonomy in solving real world problems.

While this ASCD session wasn’t exactly what I was expecting–didn’t read description carefully, I did leave with a number of great website links, and some clever paradigm-shifting analogies and anecdotes. Heidi Jacobs always has so much to share–I signed up more for her than the topic. I loved when Jacobs compared teaching to medicine.  Principals often brag that they’re using 21st century technology at their schools and then take you to see the 3 or 4 teachers who are implementing tech into their classrooms. Imagine if a hospital administrator bragged about her hospital using 21st century technology and then took you to see the 3 or 4 doctors who were using it.  If we wouldn’t allow medical staff to choose not to use current technology, why are we okay with teachers continuing to use strategies and technology that is antiquated and does not prepare our students?

Another great analogy: We treat curriculum like real estate—I own Dickens.  If we don’t look at the big picture collectively, then curriculum conversations often default to territory negotiations.

On a deeper level, Jacobs is completely on target when she argues that we need to restructure how we teach sciences. As she says, we’re “mammal happy”—think about how often students write reports on animals.  She argues that much of life science could be cut out to allow more room for contextualizing science and focusing on problem-based learning, not memorization.

Perhaps my favorite Jacobs comment addresses when teachers claim they don’t have time to infuse 21st century skills and tools because they have to “cover” so much material. Jacobs reminds us that “to cover” means “to obscure from view,” which is essentially what happens when we don’t teach authentically.

When we, as the adults, focus too much on what we want to teach, what we’re comfortable teaching, what we know and want to share, we miss the big picture: the students and what they need.  I’ll end where Jacobs began, who owns the learning in our schools? Who should?