Sunday, November 25, 2018

Chase Growth, Not Perfection

Perfection is something many people chase after. Educators are no different, but more on this later. In sports, there are only defined scenarios when perfection can be achieved. A pitcher can deliver a perfect game if he or she gives up no hits or walks and the fielders commit no errors. In bowling, a 300-game consisting of all strikes is also a sign of perfection.  Outside of sports, it becomes even harder to meet stringent criteria to achieve this.  For those of us that are married, we all strive to provide our spouse with a “perfect” diamond. The closest you can get to this designation is a “D” color, which is often referred to as a flawless and has no visible imperfections at 10X magnification.  As great as our intentions might be this can prove to way out of our budgets.  

For the most part, perfection is a fallacy. It is based more on set opinions and perception as opposed to established criteria such as the examples I provided at the beginning of this post. The fact of the matter is in the context of education there is no perfect lesson, teacher, administrator, school, program, curriculum, district, or organization. If we constantly chase or strive for perfection, then more often than not disappointment will follow. This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to be our best for those who we serve, most notably our learners. However, trying to accomplish the impossible day in and day out is not only unrealistic but also not a wise use of time and resources. 

You can be good or great, but both of these distinctions are really in the eye of the beholder. A mindset shift is in order that requires us all to reevaluate how we approach professional practice. It is as simple as it is effective. Chase growth, not perfection. By consistently reflecting on where we are steps can be made to grow in an effort to get to where we want, and our learners need us to be. Chasing growth is attainable and leads to daily rewards that are more intrinsically motivated than extrinsic.  The fact of the matter is that there is and always be room for improvement no matter your role in education or how well your school achieves.  

Don’t put immense pressure on yourself to be perfect. You don't have to be. Instead, we should continuously strive to be the best iteration of ourselves. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

8 Ways to Overcome Management Fatigue

As a school administrator, I remember always having the best intentions when it came to instructional leadership.  During every summer, my team and I would reflect on the past year and establish a better vision and plan for how we all would collectively work to improve learning.  In theory, we devised ambitious, yet attainable goals during these months, or so we thought. Then reality would strike. It began immediately upon school starting with meetings and more meetings.  These were then followed by back to school nights and athletic events.  Throw in constant emails, texts, paperwork, parent issues, and calendar notifications, and the reality of educational leadership manifested itself in the form of management, which often came at the expense of instruction and school culture.

Now I am not saying management is not essential.  Effective school leaders can find a balance between the three. The challenge though is when the scale tips in the direction of management more time is spent here than is needed or wanted.  Herein lies the rub.  The digital age is both a blessing and a curse.  The latter takes form when administrators feel they are a slave to email, their calendars, and paperwork in the way of digital documents. Ask any school leader if this is what he or she honestly signed up for and the answer is most often a no. Management fatigue can be grueling.  It also takes an eye off the most critical job of any school leader – improving learning while developing a positive culture. 

I will be the first one to say that it is easier said than done when it comes to creating a balance between management, instruction, and school culture. It was a significant point of contention for me that finally came to a head when I reflected on this question:
How does the time I am spending actually impact learning?
In reality, the majority of my time was not being spent on improving instruction or building up school culture. Without a good focus on these areas, it is quite difficult to improve learning outcomes. The question above helped me to evaluate better where the majority of my time had to be spent. If it’s important, you will find a way. If not, then you will make an excuse. Don’t try to find the time to become a leader of learning. Make the time by committing to a few changes that will create a healthy balance between management and leadership that impacts the learning culture.  Below are eight ways to consider making this a reality.

  1. Commit to getting into classrooms more. First off, you can’t fix problems or issues with instruction if you don’t know about them. It is also impossible to give teachers valuable and needed feedback for the same reasons.  One of the most instrumental changes I ever made as a principal was committing to getting in classrooms every day, whether for unannounced observations and non-evaluative walks and sticking to it. 
  2. Build time into your calendar to write up observations. Here in lies another powerful way I broke free from the stranglehold my calendar had on me.  By turning the tables per se, I blocked time after every observation to write it up and in this case being at the mercy of my calendar was a good thing as time was directly spent on developing suggestions to improve instruction and learning. 
  3. Lead professional learning. Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself. By planning and facilitating workshops and breakout sessions in your respective school or district, the chances of the specific strategy taking hold increase.  Remember, you get what you model.
  4. Attend professional learning. I know full well how tough it is to get out of your building or district for a day. However, you really need this break from management responsibilities as well as to give your brain a needed push.  It will also help keep you on the cutting edge of the latest strategies in education. Although difficult, you must resist the urge to check email and engage in work not related to the session. If need be, step out briefly to attend to this out of respect to the presenter. Be present at all times, not just physically.
  5. Cover classes. Better yet, teach a class. The former is a bit more manageable than the latter. During my first two years as an administrator, I taught a section of biology and wished I had continued to do so. Covering classes so teachers can observe their peers or attend professional learning not only gets you out of the office but provides you with an opportunity to connect with kids.
  6. Greet kids as they enter and leave the building. If you want this to work, then don’t plan meetings during this time and leave the device in your office.  There is no easier way to build culture and relationships with those who you serve by sharing a smile, handshake, or works of encouragement to start and end the day. 
  7. Eat lunch with the kids to get a pulse on culture. I loved spending my lunch in the cafeteria talking to my students. Not only did it give me a longer time to eat and relax but I also was able to receive Minecraft tips that I would later share with my son. The conversations also gave me valuable insight into what we could do to meet the needs of our kids better. 
  8. Delegate. The role of a leader is to create more leaders.  You cannot accomplish this if you do everything yourself.  When it comes to delegation, management tasks should be the first ones that are delved out.  Examples include meetings, testing schedules, and budget preparation. I had a role in all of this and more as an assistant principal but continued to be highly involved when I transitioned to the principalship.  Once I began to delegate more of these responsibilities out it freed up more time to focus on all of the above items.

Don’t let the managerial aspects of leadership drag you down. Everyone has the same amount of time during the day.  Go back to the original question I posed to determine how you are spending your time to be primarily a learning leader as opposed to a manager.  Difficult choices have to be made.  These are not them when it comes to lessening the burden of management. Yes, it will always be part of the job. Just don’t let it become the dominating component.  

Sunday, November 11, 2018

3 Shifts to Make Learning Personal

In education, a lesson makes or breaks a learner’s experience in a classroom.  Planning takes time. I remember many nights and weekends when I spent countless hours developing a variety of activities that would keep my students engaged while also following the scope and sequence of the curriculum based on the standards that needed to be addressed.  When it is all said and done, it is more about the experience than the lesson, but the latter is necessary to create the former.  The key to strengthening learning and instruction consists of the right balance of two main components:

  1. Instruction (what the teacher does)
  2. Learning (what the student does)

Balance surely is important. There is a time for direct instruction, but many learners would tell you outright that this component of a lesson is not what they really crave or find meaningful. In Learning Transformed, Tom Murray and I examined research and evidence to conclude that kids want a learning experience that is personal, while educators want alignment with the real expectations placed on schools across the world.  Finding common ground in this area at times poses quite a challenge.  Any personalization necessitates a move from “what” to the “who” to emphasize ownership of learning.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Getting everyone on board becomes the challenge.

Making the shift to personal learning goes right back to finding the right balance between instruction and learning.  Success in this area requires a shared vision, language, and expectations that not only make sense but also jive with curriculum, standards, and assessment.  Enter the Rigor Relevance Framework.  Now, I am not going to rehash the details of this tool as I have been writing about it for years, but I will provide an image of it below. The essence of the framework is quite simple as it allows for a lens for teachers and administrators to determine the level of thinking and relevant application that kids demonstrate while engaged in the process of learning. Instilling a purpose of learning while challenging all kids in the learning process is at the heart of a more personal approach.

Solid instruction should lead to great learning where kids are in the proverbial driver’s seat.  The Rigor Relevance Framework unearths three critical shifts in practice that can lead to personal learning experiences for kids.  As I love using images to articulate ideas and concepts, I will frame each shift with a question that will then be described in more detail using an associated image.

Shift 1: Are learners telling us what they know or showing that they actually understand?

Shift 2: Who is doing the work and thinking?

Shift 3: Who is asking the questions?

There is obviously more to consider when embracing and implementing the shifts listed above.  A personal learning experience doesn’t sacrifice higher-level thinking and application just for the sake of relevance and meaning.  Sound pedagogy lays the foundation with an added emphasis on scaffolding, innovative assessment, and improved feedback.   Student agency and technology both play a huge role throughout by empowering learners through choice, voice, and advocacy.  When these are combined to create effective blended learning activities in flexible spaces, the added elements of path, pace, and place further influence the personalization that will help kids flourish regardless of zip code or label.

However, it is the third shift that tells the tale as to whether a lesson or task supports rigorous and relevant learning to create a more personal experience for kids.  If kids see and understand the purpose while being challenged, then they will be asking the questions.  Better outcomes rely on transforming practice in a way that kids of the present and future can relate.  Making learning personal is a means to this end. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What Learners Really Need

A great deal has changed since I began writing this blog back in 2009. For starters, my primary device to connect on Twitter was a Blackberry.  I didn’t even have a Facebook page until a year later.  Additionally, my views on education regarding teaching, learning, and leadership were beginning to evolve in ways that would eventually help my school experience innovative success while also pushing my professional practice into a whole new dimension.  As my thinking shifted so did my views as to how education had to change to better prepare learners to survive and thrive in a disruptive world.  The same old thinking typically leads to the same old results, which does not benefit anyone.

When it comes to education, I now view it through two distinct lenses. On the one hand, there is my professional lens as I work with schools, districts, and organizations from all over the world. By looking at the rapid pace of change due in large part to advances in technology, past and present research on what actually works, and evidence of the impact that purposeful innovation can have on learning outcomes, has given me valuable insight on what learners genuinely need.  Then there is my parent lens. It is here where I try my best to look at the world through the eyes of my two children who are both in middle school. It is impossible to predict what type of career path they will pursue at this point, which is why it is essential that their education helps them to develop critical competencies needed for success in an unknown world. 

As I reflect more and more on this, I am always drawn to an image created by MMI independent educational consultancy. The premise of the image aligns with work that I help facilitate in that there has to be a focus on sound pedagogy while creating a culture that truly prepares learners with the qualities they need now and well into the future.  We call this Quad D learning based on the Rigor Relevance Framework. It is here where learners have the competence to think in complex ways and to readily apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, learners can use extensive knowledge and expertise to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. What I really like about the MMI image is not only how it aligns to Quad D learning, but also how it lists the qualities, outcomes, and dispositions that present and future learners really need.

Image credit and more info

I have taken the liberty of writing out each of the descriptions on the outermost part of the image.  The innermost circle represents knowledge taxonomy, the second key verbs, and the third sample activities that can be linked to each. As MMI explains, the categories on the periphery are added as an independent external wheel which can be applied to any section of the taxonomy.
Creative thinkers think creatively by generating and exploring ideas making original connections. They try different ways to tackle a problem, working with others to find imaginative solutions and outcomes that are of value. 
Reflective learners evaluate their strengths and limitations, setting themselves realistic goals with criteria for success. They monitor their performance and progress, inviting feedback from others and making changes to further their learning. 
Team workers work confidently with others, adapting to different contexts and taking responsibility for their own part. The listen to and take account of different views. They form collaborative relationships, resolving issues to reach agreed outcomes. 
Self-managers organize themselves, showing personal responsibility, initiative, creativity, and enterprise with a commitment to learning and self-improvement. They actively embrace change, responding positively to new priorities, coping with challenges and looking for opportunities. 
Effective participators actively engage with issues that affect them and those around them. They play a full part in the life of their school, college, workplace, or wider community by taking responsible action to bring improvements for others as well as themselves. 
Independent enquirers process and evaluate information in their investigations, planning what to do and how to go about it. They take informed and well-reasoned decisions, recognizing that others have different beliefs and attitudes.
As someone who has transitioned from the public to the private sector, I can tell you without hesitation that the qualities and outcomes listed above are critical to my current role. A strong case can also be made that our learners would benefit greatly if these were emphasized across the curriculum.  Standardized tests, standards, and curriculum do not hold anyone back from focusing on what kids really need. If it is important, then a way will be found. If not, then an excuse will be made. Our learners are relying on us to provide them with an education that will withstand the test of time.

Think about where you are with each of these, but more importantly where you want to be. How does learning in your classroom, school, or district help learners become creative thinkers, reflective learners, team workers, self-managers, effective participators, independent enquirers? Where is there an opportunity for growth?

It is also important to remember how these qualities and outcomes are just vital to you as well.  As you reflect think about where you can grow in these areas to benefit professionally and personally.