Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Are Your Beliefs?

What do you believe in professionally? We all possess a particular set of beliefs that are shaped by our respective value system.  

These impact our work and ultimately determine whether we are successful or not. Mark Lenz provides this great perspective:
Beliefs. We all have them. They came from somewhere. They probably started forming in us as young children and have been strengthened through time. Or maybe they’ve changed over the years. Changing a belief or a belief system is a big deal because our minds are wired to think that our beliefs are the correct ones. It’s been said we are creatures of habit. That’s because we believe the way we do things, the way we think, is right.
I would wager that many of our beliefs in education stem from how we were taught at some point. It is also fair to say that others developed based on how we were led or what others modeled for us.  In either case, once beliefs are in place, people have a hard time changing them when challenged as Lenz alluded to above.  The fact of the matter is what we believe in, can and should evolve. In a world influenced by disruptive change and where information is readily accessible it only makes sense that we are open to adapting what we currently believe in or even developing a whole new set of beliefs.



Having a set of beliefs that align with professional values can be a tremendous asset when it comes to creating a vibrant learning culture primed for success. Mine have certainly changed over the years in large part to first moving from a fixed to growth mindset and my experiences as a teacher and administrator.  They continue to evolve now based on my work in schools, current research, and evidence as to what actually works in what seems like an ocean of never-ending opinions on what educators should be doing.  

Here is what anchors my current belief system.

All kids can learn.

Regardless of zip code or label, every single student who walks into a school is capable of learning. We must be cognizant of the fact that each child is unique and as such he or she learns differently. For this fact alone, we must be open to differentiated and personalized pedagogical strategies. All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of an educator to help them find and unleash it.

Purpose in learning must be a priority.

School should unleash student passions and creativity, not stifle them. If there are relevance and meaning, kids will be able to tell you why they are learning something, how they will use it outside of school, and what they actually learned. Curriculum and standards are essential, but so are the interests of students as well as the opportunity to authentically apply new knowledge. 

Technology can be a game-changer with a solid pedagogical foundation.

Tools of the digital world provide the means to support and enhance learning like never before.  When adopting a pedagogy first, technology second, and with an appropriate mindset, purposeful use can innovate assessment, increase collaboration, improve feedback, transform time frames (where, when), and empower kids to own their learning like never before. 

Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it still does.

The past teaches us not to repeat the same mistakes. The information age has taught us to take a critical lens to practice to improve. We now know that certain homework and grading practices are not effective. If we employ the same type of thinking, then we will get the same old results, or they might be less than what we want. Take the time to reflect on past practice to improve current practice. 

Look through an empathetic lens.

It is impossible to know what is going on in the minds of kids.  Sometimes things can be so bad that they either act out or shut down.  In the words of Jackie Gerstein, “All kids have worth. Some, though, want to prove to us that they have none. Our job as caring educators is to prove them wrong.” When times get tough with kids, try to put yourself in their shoes.

Spaces and environments should be more reflective of the real world.

Ask yourself if you would want to learn in the same spaces and under the same conditions as all of the kids in your school.  If the answer is no, then it is time to embrace a new belief.  Research has shown that classroom design (furniture, layout, temperature, color, acoustics, lighting) impact learning. Elements such as comfort, flexibility, and choice provide the needed elements for blended learning that can meet the needs of more kids.

A push for efficacy benefits all.

I will sound like a broken record here as I have written so much on this topic over the years. Evidence, research, and accountability all matter if we are serious about scaling change. A focus on each of these areas brings more credibility to ideas and strengthens collective calls for innovative change. Efficacy matters plain and simple. 

Chase growth, not perfection.

In education, there is no perfect lesson, teacher, administrator, school, or district.  There is always room for improvement. It took me a while to adopt this belief but has probably impacted me the most as of late.  Striving to be a better iteration of ourselves each day can help us be the best for those we serve.

What do you believe in? Please share in the comments section below. 

Beliefs and values help to not only guide but also influence our work. As everything around us evolves, so should our thinking.  Being open to this shift will go a long way to growing professionally and creating schools that work better for kids. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Build a Door for Opportunity to Knock On

If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door.” – Milton Berle

I love the quote above. It did not resonate with me early in my career as a school administrator, but later became sort of a personal mantra.  For years I always looked at the world through a “glass half empty” lens.  Challenges morphed into excuses, and in the end, nothing changed.  In a sense, I wasn’t pushed to be innovative or bring about substantive changes that genuinely impact school culture in powerful ways. The same old thinking typically leads to the same old results. However, in disruptive times a traditionalist mindset can lead our schools and us further down a path of obscurity.  



Opportunity presents itself in many ways and is defined as a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.  I love this definition, as there are so many apparent connections to a growth mindset, entrepreneurship, and innovation.  However, we must understand that opportunities will not just drop in our laps if a culture of possibility is not developed.  You can always wish for something, and if you are lucky, it might come true. Unfortunately, this is not realistic or practical.  On the other hand, you can act to create a different and better culture defined by actual outcomes aligned with improvement. 

David Brit provides some excellent context on discovering opportunity.
"What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly." 
Look for the new opportunity. 
It might be hidden; it might be obvious, but it is there. You now have an altered perspective because of what happened. Use this perception creatively to seek out the direction which will empower you in a way unlike ever before. 
Ask yourself what extraordinary thing it is that you now will be, do or have because of this? That is because "X" happened, I now will have "Y," and would never have had "Y" if "X" never happened. Therefore, "X" serves as the catalyst to put you into the advantageous position of the journey toward, and ultimately, being, doing or having "Y."
Don’t just discover opportunity, but also build doors to welcome it in.  Herein lies the lesson I learned during my journey. The Pillars of Digital Leadership provided the circumstances and conditions to create the door for opportunity to knock on. The interconnectivity and symbiotic nature of each pillar led my school and me down a path that allowed us to reap the fruits of our labor.  As you will see in the image below, each pillar lends itself to the next. Think of it as a way to build a better foundation and then scaffold from there. Here is a simple three-step approach to put this process into perspective:

  1. Improve the work (Pillars 1 - 3)
  2. Share the work (Pillars 4 – 6)
  3. Follow-up on opportunities that arise (Pillar 7)

The work is learning for our kids. It requires taking a critical lens to our practice to build pedagogical capacity that will allow innovative ideas to thrive.  After a better and stronger foundation is in place, the next step requires an evolution of the spaces and environments that influence the conditions impacting student learning. Finally, one cannot forget a commitment amongst all educators to pursue professional growth opportunities that lead to innovative changes practice.



Once efforts have been undertaken to improve the work the next step seems simple. In reality, it should be, but a focus on communications and public relations using a multi-faceted approach to meet stakeholders where they are at requires a certain level of consistency. By getting information out there and telling your story, a brand presence organically forms. It is here where opportunity arises. 

Case in point. Once we committed to improving the learning culture at my former school, we shared evidence of success, including achievement. The dynamic combination of innovation and efficacy resulted in the New York City media visiting our school 14 times in 5 years to share our story with millions of people. Our use of social media only amplified this even more. National outlets such as USA Today, Education Week, and Scholastic Administrator soon jumped on the bandwagon. Unprecedented media coverage was only one unintended consequence. During this time frame, we also received hundreds of thousands of dollars of technology, professional development, and off-site learning experiences for our students.  

There are endless opportunities available if you create the conditions for them to materialize. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

10 Strategies to Strengthen Instruction and Learning

When I think back to my training to become a teacher, there were some reasonably consistent norms.  These consisted of sound classroom management, listing the learning objectives, and developing a lesson plan. I still can’t believe how much time and focus there was on how to manage a classroom effectively. When it came to the lesson plan piece, many of my colleagues and I in the Northeastern United States were educated in the Instructional Theory Into Practice Model (ITIP) developed by Madeline Hunter.  For many years this framework was the lay of the land in schools when it came to direct instruction.  

Many of the original tenets still have merit today. As a realist, there is still value in direct instruction. In his meta-analysis of over 300 research studies, John Hattie found that direct instruction has above average gains when it comes to student results, specifically an effect size of 0.59. Another meta-analysis on over 400 studies indicated strong positive results (Stockard et al., 2018).  The effectiveness of this pedagogical technique relies on it being only a small component of a lesson. The rule of thumb during my days as a principal was for my teachers to limit any lecture component. Direct Instruction should be designed so that learners can construct (induce) concepts and generalizations.  For example, lessons can be divided into short exercises (two to four minutes) on slightly different but related topics.  This sustains children's interest level and facilitates children's synthesizing knowledge from different activities into a larger whole. 


We now live and work in different times. Technology, the pursuit of innovation, and advancements in research have fundamentally changed the learning culture in many schools for the better.  As I have conducted thousands of walk-throughs in schools, I am always looking at the convergence of instruction and learning. To me, instruction is what the adult does whereas learning is what the student does. There is some gray area here, but the overall goal is to continually grow by taking a critical lens to practice with the goal of improving learning outcomes for kids. With this being said, I have gone back to the ITIP Model and adapted it a bit. Some items remain, while a few others have been added. 

Standards-aligned learning target 

These frame the lesson from the students' point of view and are presented as “I can” or “I will” statements. They help kids grasp the lesson's purpose—why it is crucial to learn this concept, on this day, and in this way. Targets help to create an environment where kids exhibit more ownership over their learning. Critical questions framed from the lens of the learner include:

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

Anticipatory set 

Anticipatory set is used to prepare learners for the lesson or task by setting their minds for instruction or learning. This is achieved by asking a question, adding a relevant context, or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, and initiate the learning process. A good do-now activity can accomplish this.

Review prior learning 

Research in cognitive science has shown that eliciting prior understandings is a necessary component of the learning process. Research also has shown that expert learners are much more adept at the transfer of learning than novices and that practice in the transfer of learning is required in good instruction (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000).

Modeling 

A pedagogical strategy where the teacher or student(s), demonstrates how to complete tasks and activities related to the learning target.

Check for understanding 

Specific points during the lesson or task when the teacher checks to see if the students understand the concept or steps and how to enact them to achieve the target. It clarifies the purpose of the learning, can be leveraged as a mechanism for feedback and can provide valuable information that can be used to modify the lesson. 

Practice 

Guided practice is when the students engage in learning target activities under the guidance of a support system that can assure success. Independent practice is when the kids practice and reinforce what they learn after they are capable of performing the target without support.

Authentic application of learning 

REAL learning in the classroom empowers students to manipulate the material to solve problems, answer questions, formulate questions of their own, discuss, explain, debate, or brainstorm.   These activities deemphasize direct instruction and can include discussion questions and group exercises, as well as problem-posing and -solving sessions, to get the concepts across in a meaningful and memorable way. Pedagogical techniques such as personalized, blended and project-based learning as well as differentiated instruction and student agency can lead to greater ownership amongst learners. 

Closure 

Learning increases when lessons are concluded in a manner that helps students organize and remember the point of the lesson.  Closure draws attention to the end of the lesson, helps students organize their learning, reinforces the significant points of the lesson, allows students to practice what is learned, and provides an opportunity for feedback and review. 


Feedback 

Verbal and non-verbal means to justify a grade, establish criteria for improvement, provide motivation for the next assessment, reinforce good work, and act as a catalyst for reflection. Feedback is valuable when it is received, understood and acted on (Nicol, 2010). How students analyze, discuss and act on feedback is as important as the quality of the feedback itself. Make sure it is Timely, specific to standard(s) and concept(s), constructive and meaningful. For more strategies on how to improve feedback click HERE

Assessment 

Well-designed assessment sets clear expectations, establishes a reasonable workload (one that does not push students into rote reproductive approaches to study), and provides opportunities for students to self-monitor, rehearse, practice and receive feedback. Assessment is an integral component of a coherent educational experience.

Not all of these strategies will be implemented in every lesson nor should they. However, each provides a lens to look at practice and make needed changes that can lead to better outcomes.  It should also be noted that technology represents a natural pedagogical fit that can be used to implement these strategies with enhanced fidelity. Make the time to reflect daily as to where you are to get to where your learners want and need you to be. 

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

Nicol, D. (2010). From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 501-517.

Stockard, Jean & W. Wood, Timothy & Coughlin, Cristy & Rasplica Khoury, Caitlin. (2018). The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research. Review of Educational Research: 88(4).

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Pivotal Role Movement Plays in Learning

More blood means more energy and oxygen, which makes our brain perform better.” – Justin Rhodes

Spending time in schools as a leadership and learning coach has been some of the most gratifying work I have done.  The best part is the conversations that I get to have with learners, especially at the elementary level.  These always leave me invigorated and remind me why I became a teacher many years ago. Then there is the practicality of being able to work with both administrators and teachers at the ground level to improve pedagogy and, in turn, student outcomes. From this lens, I get to truly see the seeds of change germinate into real shifts in practice.  It also provides me with an opportunity to reflect on what I see and my take on how the field of education can continue to evolve in ways that better support the needs of all learners.

Case in point.  Recently I was conducting learning walks in Edward K. Downing Elementary School with principal Marcos Lopez as part of some broader work in Ector County ISD. As we entered, the lesson was about to conclude.  The teacher had the students engaged in a closure activity to demonstrate an understanding of multiplication concepts in math.  After the exit tickets were all turned in the teacher had all the students participate in a brain break activity. Each kid was instructed to get up, walk around the room, and find a partner who was not in their pre-assigned seating groups. They were then instructed to compete in several games of rock-paper-scissors with various peers. After some heightened physical activity and fun, the lesson then transitioned to a do-now activity where students completed a science table to review prior learning. 

At first, I was enamored by the concept of brain breaks.  As a result, I did a little digging into the concept.  Numerous studies have found that without breaks students have higher instances of inappropriate classroom behavior. Not only did Elisabeth Trambley (2017) do a fantastic literature review of these, but she also conducted her own research study to determine the impact of brain breaks on behavior. She found that once the breaks were implemented the inappropriate behavior diminished, establishing a functional relationship between breaks and classroom behavior.

The concept of brain breaks got me thinking about a growing trend in education – as kids progress through the K-12 system, there is less and less movement.  I have seen this firsthand in schools across the globe.  Let’s look into this a little more closely.  Research reviewed by Elisabeth Trambley, Jacob Sattelmair & John Ratey (2009), and Kristy Ford (2016) all conclude how both recess and physical activity lead to improved learning outcomes. To go even a bit deeper, studies have found that movement improves overall learning as well as test scores, skills, and content knowledge in core subjects such as mathematics and reading fluency as well as increases student interest and motivation (Adams-Blair & Oliver, 2011; Braniff, 2011; Vazou et al., 2012; Erwin, Fedewa, & Ahn, 2013; Browning et al., 2014). 

The bottom line is not only is physical education an absolute must in the K-12 curriculum, but schools need to do more to ensure that movement is being integrated into all classes. Need more proof on how important movement is? All one has to do for this is to turn to science.  The brain needs regular stimulation to properly function and this can come in the form of exercise or movement. Based on what is now known about the brain, this has been shown to be an effective cognitive strategy to improve memory and retrieval, strengthen learning, and enhance motivation among all learners. The images below help to reinforce this point.


Click HERE to view the research study.



Science and research compel all educators to integrate more movement into the school day. Below is a short list of simple ideas to make this a reality.

  • Add more recess not just in elementary, but in middle school as well.
  • Intentionally incorporate activities into each lesson regardless of the age of your students. Build in the time but don’t let the activity dictate what you are going to do. You need to read your learners and be flexible to determine the most appropriate activity. 
  • Implement short brain breaks from 30 seconds to 2 minutes in length every 20 minutes, or so that incorporate physical activity. If technology is available utilize GoNoodle, which is very popular as students rotate between stations in a blended learning environment. If not, no sweat. A practical activity can simply be getting students to walk in place or stand up and perform stretching routines. 
  • Ensure every student is enrolled in physical education during the school day. 

Don’t look at kids moving in class as a break or poor use of instructional time. As research has shown, movement is an essential component of learning. If the goal is to help kids be better learners, then we have to be better at getting them up and moving in school. 


Adams-Blair H., Oliver G. (2011). Daily classroom movement: Physical activity integration into the classroom. International Journal of Health, Wellness, & Society, 1 (3), 147–154.

Braniff C. (2011). Perceptions of an active classroom: Exploration of movement and collaboration with fourth grade students. Networks: An On-line Journal for Teacher Research, 13 (1).

Browning C., Edson A.J., Kimani P., Aslan-Tutak F. (2014). Mathematical content knowledge for teaching elementary mathematics: A focus on geometry and measurement. Mathematics Enthusiast, 11 (2), 333–383.

Erwin H., Fedewa A., Ahn S. (2013). Student academic performance outcomes of a classroom physical activity intervention: A pilot study. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 5 (2), 109–124.