Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Point of a Lesson

I am not a huge fan of collecting lesson plans and have not been for years.  It is my opinion that you can learn a great deal more by collecting and looking at assessments.  Regardless of where you stand on the whole lesson plan debate, the intent is what really matters. For all of us who have taught or have been in a leadership position that supports teachers, I think we all agree that the point of any lesson is to help students learn.  Yes, there are standards and curriculum to cover as well as essential concepts. There are activities, projects, and assessments along the way. In some cases, innovative techniques such as a more personal or blended approach might be the preferred pedagogical pathway. No matter what constitutes a lesson, the goal remains the same – learning.

If the intended outcome is clear to us, it goes without saying that the same must be said for our learners.  This begs a fundamental question that should always be considered – do students understand the point of the lesson?  If not, then it is challenging to meet any goals that are set.  It all begins with a clear articulation of the learning outcomes.  For many of us, this comes in the form of objectives.  I know when I went through my coursework and teaching certification process this was emphasized in any lesson plan.  As I entered the classroom what I was taught carried over and objectives were not only included in every lesson plan, I developed, but I also listed them on the board for all the kids to see. Herein lies another point. I am not saying that objectives should always be posted for all to see. However, it is crucial that kids understand what is to be learned on any particular day.

I have reflected a great deal on the objective aspect of the lesson and in my coaching with schools on pedagogy have advised them to move away from this traditional component of lesson design and implementation.  Objectives, if we really think about it, are more often what the adult wants to achieve in terms of alignment to standards and concepts as well as scope and sequence. Just look at how they are written and see if you feel the same way. Learning targets on the other hand frame the lesson from the students' point of view and are written using “I can” or “I will” statements. They help learners to grasp the lesson's purpose such as why it is crucial to learn this chunk of information or concept, on this day, and in this way. Quality learning targets as part of an effective lesson help kids answer these three questions:

  1. Why did we learn this and what will I be able to do when I've finished this lesson?
  2. What idea, topic, or subject is important for me to learn and understand so that I can do this?
  3. How will I show that I can do this, and how well will I have to do it to demonstrate that I have learned something new?

Developing learning targets does not go far enough though.  Learners need to understand the point of a lesson just as much as a teacher or administrator. Imparting relevance through a specific context and application will go a long way in achieving this. However, everything must be tied together from the learner’s point of view. This is why closure and reflection at the end of the lesson are crucial.  Either one or both of these elements can be tied to the use of a KWL chart. Chech out this updated version below.

From a pedagogical standpoint, it is vital to build these in each and every day to bring the learning process full circle. Bottom line – everyone should have a good sense as to the point of a lesson.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Tap Into Your Full Potential

"Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny." - Mahatma Gandhi

There are many elements to change. However, one of the most powerful is that of self-efficacy.  Almost everyone can identify goals they want to accomplish, accomplishments to achieve, or personal and professional aspects they would like to change. Here is where self-efficacy comes in. It plays a significant role in how goals, tasks, and challenges are approached and ultimately achieved.  To improve one's self; we must first determine where our practice currently lies. The next step is deciding where we eventually want to be. Success in this endeavor requires self-efficacy combined with a leap of faith. 

For self-efficacy to play a role in the change process, we must always be open to growth and improvement.  Without these, there is nothing for us to hold ourselves accountable for.  This is why it is so important that we are our own most prominent critic and make reflection a daily part of our routine. No matter who you are and what you do, there is always the opportunity to get better. The question is, will you pursue it?  Enter the Potential Matrix created by Mark Sanborn. It is not about achieving perfection as that is not a reality in the professional world. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but nobody is perfect.  It is about how we can become better to evolve into the best iteration of ourselves. Here is a great description from Thinking Space

As we look at the matrix, we probably identify one quadrant which we prefer: perhaps you’re naturally an activist, in which case, ‘performing’ is probably your favored way of operating. If you only ever concentrate on performing, you may not be taking the time to reflect and see how you could operate even more efficiently. If you spend all your time reflecting and planning but never take action to learn new skills and try them out, nothing will change. To see more improvement and to release more potential, we need to step outside of that comfortable quadrant and explore the other areas too. 
You will see that improvement happens not only outwardly as we learn new skills and perform but also inwardly as we think and reflect. It’s about active experiences which we initiate and passive experiences to which we respond.
Our potential is often inhibited by a fixed mindset or an unwillingness to grow.  We often perceive our talents and ideas as not being all that great. I know this is how I viewed these for a long time, which inhibited my growth as both a principal and then as a speaker/author.  However, looking at where we put the most and least amount of time in the quadrants of the Potential Matrix, we can begin to unleash potential that we never thought was possible.  It is ok to not have a clear idea on any given day as to where we want to be.  This is my daily reality.  The key is never to be satisfied where you are. 

If we want to help those we either serve or work with unlock their potential, then we must do so ourselves first. Think about where you are and then where you eventually want to be.  Apply the same lens to your classroom, school, organization, or district. Then take the leap of faith; trusting in your innate abilities to improve in ways you never thought were possible.  Will everything always work out the way you want it to? Heck no! Just remember that each journey, no matter the result, provides an invaluable learning experience. 

There is no better time than now to tap into your full potential. 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

5 Ways to Create Relevant Cultures of Learning

Education can seem like a balancing act between what we as adults feel is essential and what interests our learners.  The struggle is real as the former is sometimes emphasized as a result of a school or district’s focus.  Make no mistake about it – capturing the attention of students has become harder and harder because of the access that many of them have to knowledge, games, and each other through technology.  As difficult as it might be, schools must rise to the occasion. To authentically engage kids today, a central purpose has to be instilled through a combination of a relevant context and application. Without it, learning many concepts as well as the bigger picture doesn’t make sense to students.  The benefits speak for themselves, which compels all of us to ensure that this becomes a mainstay in pedagogy as well as learning environments. 

Success lies in a shared ownership approach to design relevant cultures of learning.  It is important to note that this task does not just fall squarely on the shoulders of teachers. However, their role in the process is critical. Below are three questions that kids should be able to answer if learning is relevant:
  • What they learned
  • Why they learned it
  • How they will use what they learned outside of school

Image credit: Erik Francis

To dig a little deeper Robin Roberson discusses two fundamental ways to provide relevance to students aligned to research. These include utility value and relatedness. 
Utility value answers the question “Yeah, but what am I gonna use this for?” Utility value is purely academic and emphasizes the importance that content has for the students’ future goals — both short-term and long-term goals (Ormrod, 2006). 
Relatedness, on the other hand, answers the question “What’s this have to do with me?” Relatedness is an inherent need students have to feel close to the significant people in their lives, including teachers (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Relatedness is seen by many as having nonacademic and academic sides. The nonacademic side of relatedness emphasizes the relationship the instructor has with students. Integral to this side of relatedness is the understanding that students need to feel close to their teachers and are more likely to listen to, learn from, and perhaps identify with the ones they like (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
What happens in the classroom through the relationship-building expertise of teachers needs to be supported and enhanced across the entire school or district.  Herein lies the vital role leaders play in designing relevant cultures of learning.  A systemwide focus on meaning and purpose across all grade levels and content areas goes a long way to supporting a consistent interest in learning.  There is no right way to accomplish this as you will see from the examples below.  

Theme-Based Schools

Schools that have embraced this ideal have a central purpose that is embedded across grade levels and throughout the entire curriculum.  The theme serves as a conduit to connect various content areas and concepts to impart a greater sense of relevance whether it be in the classroom, hallways, or cafeteria.  Recently I observed a great example of this during a coaching visit with Kay’s Creek Elementary School in Farmington, UT.  Their theme focused on global goals for sustainable development.  As you will see below, not only were the goals clearly visible, but each wing of the building highlighted the main components of the environment. Video displays and interactive activities were also found in each of the main entrances to further engage learners in the theme.


Academy programs represent a bold new direction for education, one that considers student interests, national need, and global demand for highly qualified graduates capable of competing at the most challenging levels. They provide a defined framework for studies in well-defined, career-focused areas directly connected to university majors and workforce need. These programs cultivate emerging professionals who exhibit the knowledge, skill, character, and work ethic necessary for success in the global marketplace. To provide more learning opportunities for our students, the Academies @ New Milford High School were launched during my tenure as principal. Think of it as a school within a school. 

The entire program was designed using existing high school courses as well as adding new ones to complement the three Academies—STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), Arts & Letters, and Global Leadership—without costing the district precious financial resources. Any learner, regardless of GPA or learning disability, could be a part of these. Students graduated with a mini-major specific to their interests.  To help build the program, junior academies were created at the middle school to spark interest and function as a feeder pipeline. To learn more about our specific academies click HERE

A Unifying Focus 

I was torn as to whether or not I should include this in the theme-based or a standalone category. Obviously, I chose the latter.  A unifying focus bridges curriculum, instruction, and assessment to a school’s vision and mission. While every school has a mascot and logo, it is rare to see how these are connected to the elements outlined in the previous sentence.  Wells Elementary School in Texas is a great example of how a unifying focus becomes a reality.  When the school opened the kids and staff selected the “Explorers” as their mascot and from there on out the goal has been to create an innovative culture where kids actively explore learning through blended pedagogical pathways, outdoors, and in flexible spaces.  The focus is strengthened by the school’s commitment to social media to consistently share and reinforce how everything they are doing centers on the whole child and high levels of student agency. To see what I am talking about check out #ExploreWells.

Specialized Programs

Many districts and schools are providing supplements or enhancements to the curriculum to impart more relevance amongst learners.  These can range from traditional electives or more innovative options that align to student interests and current trends in the workforce. Some schools are taking it a step further to upgrade to learning environments while providing even more opportunities to engage students authentically. Be sure to check out what Mt. OIive High School in New Jersey has done in this area. 


There isn’t much I have to say here as I have written on the topic extensively over the years. Makerspaces function as an oasis for learners who will never do well on a standardized test or succeed in a traditional classroom environment as that is not how they learn.  These spaces foster open-ended exploration, tinkering, making, and creating to learn. Many at-risk kids thrive here as they can learn with their hands while coming up with innovative solutions to problems that align with the real world.  Below are some pictures of makerspaces at New Milford High School and Mt. Olive Middle School in New Jersey.

I am sure there are many other great ideas out there that have positively impacted kids across the world. Creating relevant cultures of learning is the responsibility of all who serve kids, not just teachers in the classroom. This includes administrators, boards of education, parents, legislators, and other pertinent stakeholders. If the goal is to improve an array of outcomes and genuinely prepare kids for the workforce now and in the future, a relevant culture is a necessity. 

Ormrod, J.E. (2006). Educational psychology: Developing learners (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Feedback Should Be a Dialogue, Not a Monologue

Feedback can bring people together in the pursuit of a shared goal. Criticism, on the other hand, can drive people apart. In many situations going with the former is the better course of action.  Below is a piece I pulled from an article titled Using Neuroscience to Make Feedback Work and Feel Better that explains why it matters so much:
Feedback isn’t just a ritual of the modern workplace. It’s the means by which organisms, across a variety of life-forms and time periods, have adapted to survive. To University of Sheffield cognitive scientist Tom Stafford, feedback is the essence of intelligence. “Thanks to feedback we can become more than simple programs with simple reflexes, and develop more complex responses to the environment,” he writes. “Feedback allows animals like us to follow a purpose.” It’s no coincidence the words organism and organization share a Latin root. Just as feedback enables the former to flourish, so it does for the latter.
The feedback process matters.

Nobody likes to be just talked at regardless of the age group of the person being spoken to.  Even though there are most certainly cases that necessitate this, context matters.  Lately, I have been thinking about how we give feedback to our learners, colleagues, and those who we supervise.  Maybe give is the wrong word to use here. The prevailing notion is that one person speaks while the other(s) listens intently and reflects on the advice given.  Herein lies one of the greatest misconceptions with an effective feedback loop.  In many cases, feedback is seen as something that is given to another person.  It becomes even more complicated when it is viewed as something that must be delivered. 

When there is a focus on delivery, we run the risk of focusing more on what is said as opposed to a process that fosters reflection and ultimately questions from the receiver.  Often, we settle on what the feedback is in terms of what people have done well, or not, through our own lens.  So much time is then given to mapping out what the feedback is that we want to share with the other person that it becomes more about us than the person or people we are trying to help.  When done this way it can be construed as criticism as opposed to a catalyst for growth. 

If the purpose is to help others grow, then a mentality of delivering the message or advice has to be rethought.  Feedback should be a dialogue, not a monologue. A conversational approach can lead to high value and actual changes to practice. Below are some specific reasons why the conversation is such an integral part of the feedback loop:

  • The receiver sees that it is more about him/her than the giver.
  • Imparts a greater sense of trust on behalf of the receiver resulting in a more powerful relationship with the giver.
  • Creates the space for open reflection based on what was shared.
  • Opens the door for discussion on action steps to be taken.
  • Provides the receiver with an opportunity to present his/her own perspective on the feedback given.  This can result in the sharing of evidence or more context that the giver might not have been aware of when initially providing the feedback.
  • A conversational approach can motivate people to seek out feedback. Research suggests that asking for it can help organizations tilt culture toward continuous improvement.

Delivering feedback in the form of a monologue is an outdated process that can be improved whether you are working with kids or adults.  Instead of preparing how you are going to “deliver” the message think about creating the conditions where the receiver will value the recommendations.  A conversation that incorporates the art of listening will go a long way to creating a culture where feedback is not only acted upon but asked for regularly.