Sunday, July 28, 2019

Flexible Spaces Need to Lead to Flexible Learning

Do you remember the classrooms that you learned in as a child?  I sure do and not for many positive reasons. Each room was a carbon copy of one another, where you would have as many uncomfortable desks lined up in cute little neat rows.  The exception was science classrooms flush with lab tables. However, there still was the issue of sitting in chairs for long periods of time that killed our backs. Uncomfortable seating options and a lack of movement not only led to discomfort, but it also had a negative impact on engagement. Now don’t get me wrong; some lessons were extremely engaging.  The issue, however, was that the conditions under which learning was supposed to take place were not conducive to the process at all. Little did we know at the time that classroom design could be something different. It was what we always knew and came to expect and never thought twice about it.
"School should be a place that learners want to come to….not run away from." 
Evolving research on the importance of classroom design and routine movement has begun to uplift the status quo.  Some fantastic changes are being implemented in schools across the world. For some, typical classrooms with desks in rows are now a thing of the past. They have been replaced by more contemporary furniture that is not only comfortable but also modular.  Flexibility, choice, and movement are all being incorporated to make the school experience more enjoyable while setting the stage for increased engagement. The key is to create the conditions for our learners where we, as the adults, would want to learn. 

Here is the rub.  As spaces change has pedagogy as well? In some cases, the answer is no. Now I am not trying to be negative, just honest. If kids are comfortable while receiving direct instruction or all completing an activity at the same time, then what’s the point of new furniture or updated spaces? As the saying goes, if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. As precious funds are used to upgrade classrooms and entire schools, improvements to learning must be at the forefront, something Tom Murray and I emphasize in our book Learning Transformed.  Flexible spaces need to lead to flexible learning. 

Here are some questions to consider when it comes to space redesign:

  • How will it support more movement and application of knowledge or competencies?
  • How will it promote higher levels of student agency?
  • How will pedagogy change in ways that emphasize path, pace, and place?
  • How will assessment and feedback change or improve?
  • What will be the role of technology?
  • What professional learning support is needed to maximize the use of flexible spaces?

If you have already invested in flexible seating, think about the questions above in terms of what has changed.  One strategy that addresses all of the questions I posed is a move towards pedagogically-sound blended learning.  It is important not to confuse this with the use of technology to support or enhance instruction. Here is the difference. 
"Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace."
The three “P’s” in the description above combined with choice are what allow flexible seating to live up to both the hype and potential to improve learning for kids.  In my work with schools on implementing blended learning to maximize the investment in innovative spaces, I typically showcase several models that I have found to be most effective. These include station rotation, choice boards, playlists, and flipped lessons. I highly suggest you check out this post, which goes into detail on the pedagogy of blended learning. 

Educators are now inundated with ideas on how to better design classrooms and schools. It is always prudent to take a critical lens to both the work and the investments that are made to determine if there are improvements to learning and school culture.  It is ok to be skeptical of what you might see shared on social media when it comes to learning spaces (or anything for that matter).  We need to move away from classroom design that is “Pinterest pretty” and use research, design thinking, and innovative pedagogy guide the work. The space will not improve outcomes all on its own. It’s how the space is used in ways that better prepare learners for now and the future that will. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Right Questions

We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered, we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell.”  - James Stephens

Questioning techniques are one of the easiest areas of instructional design that can be improved, at least in my opinion.  By looking at the question stems, one can determine the level of thinking our learners are expected to demonstrate.  Low-level examples almost always begin with who, what, where, when. These aren’t bad per se as you need knowledge to move up any knowledge taxonomy chart.  The problem is when questions reside here and don’t push kids to think and apply their thinking in more complex ways.  Learners also don’t find much purpose with these beyond just getting them right. 

Herein lies one of my major issues with how I see many digital game tools used in the classroom as typically comprised of low-level, multiple-choice options.  As I mentioned before, there is a time and place for this. However, it goes without saying that an emphasis on recall and memorization will not prepare kids adequately to thrive now and in the future.  Disruption caused by the 4th Industrial Revolution, and living in a knowledge economy, continues to teach us this lesson. If a student can easily Google the answer, then it goes without saying that the question isn’t very challenging.  In the end, questions are more important than answers if learning is the goal. More on this later. 

The image above provides a great visual to look at the types of questions that are asked in classrooms or on assignments and scaffold them in ways that empower learners to demonstrate high-level thinking as well as mastery of concepts.  It is important to note that each and every question doesn’t have to be at the uppermost levels of knowledge taxonomy.  The key is to try to bump them up when warranted, especially if they are at the foundational knowledge level.   If question stems begin with who, what, where, or when then there is a natural opportunity to tweak them in a way to get up to at least the understanding level.

Now don’t get me wrong; developing great questions that get kids thinking is excellent. However, the real goal should be the creation of performance tasks where learners are applying their thinking in relevant ways.  This is where the role of instructional design is critical.  When challenging learners through an authentic application where there is an underlying purpose, what results is natural inquiry.  During numerous coaching visits with schools across the country, I have seen this play out over and over again.  Students are so immersed in an activity that collaboration, creativity, and collaboration converge with thinking while they work to solve real-world predictable and unpredictable problems.  What results is that the students then develop and answer their own questions. 

The Rigor Relevance Framework, of which an iteration is pictured above, is a great tool that can assist teachers and administrators develop better questioning techniques and learning tasks to engage kids with a higher purpose.  What results is the process of inquiry, which fuels the learning process.  The right question isn’t necessarily about arriving at an answer per se, but instead it acts as a catalyst for the development of more questions.  

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Ascent to Growth

I genuinely believe that most people want to get better in their professional role and they find comfort in growth. Who doesn’t want to make a difference while moving up the career ladder?  However, I say most because complacency, lack of motivation, or not being passionate about the work or the job can inhibit a drive to seek ways to improve.  Since the minority falls in this category, let’s focus on the majority.  For many of us, we are continually seeking out ways to grow and improve professional practice.  Even though the desire is there, and efforts are made, challenges arise.  These come in two primary forms: excuses and people. Let me elaborate on both.

People are our greatest asset, and when we invest in them, success likely follows.  There is no “I” in team, and to achieve goals as a system, the support of many is crucial.  Sometimes though people can play a role that works counter to what we set out to accomplish either at the individual or organizational level.  As much as they are essential in any culture, there are times when they can also impede growth. For reasons that vary, some people are not happy where they are or with the success of others.  What results are concerted efforts to undermine and derail the pursuit of improvement.  

It is essential to recognize both subtle and not so subtle behaviors exhibited by others as you strive to grow. These might be masked by platitudes that get you to rethink putting in the needed time and effort to improve your craft or to move a culture forward. Be confident in who you are and where you want to go. Don’t fall victim to the insecurities, fears, and unhappiness that other people might be grappling with as you work to get better. Even as you strive to learn and improve, a true leader also helps others do the same.  It is okay to focus on yourself when the situation calls, but in the end, helping the people we work with grow is just as important as what we do for ourselves. The process of achieving goals is much more fulfilling when it is a collaborative effort. 

In the words of Jim Rohn, “Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure.” Now this quote might seem a bit harsh at first read, but if you view it with an open mind, you will see that it is quite accurate. In many cases, we believe we can’t accomplish a task or implement an idea because of the perception that a challenge is too difficult to overcome, or the idea might have failed in the past.  In either case, our mind starts to develop a myriad of excuses as to why something won’t or can’t work.  Common impediments include not enough time, lack of money, or too many mandates and directives. Guess what…these are never going away. Growth will never occur if the will to tackle these, and many other impediments aren’t there. If it’s important to you, then you will find a way. If not, then you will make an excuse. The key here is to focus on solutions, even in the face of some difficult challenges.  

Change is hard at both the individual and organizational level. The ascent to growth will not always be easy.  Maybe it’s not people or excuses that get in your way. Perhaps it is your own mind, which can be the fiercest adversary you face on the path to getting better. Confidence and belief are two of the most powerful forces that help to keep us focused on achieving goals.  Just remember this.  You are only limited by the barriers you develop for yourself. 

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Path to Efficacy

Organizations, schools, and districts that are successful all lead with efficacy in mind.  The same can be said for teachers and administrators who can effectively implement ideas and strategies in ways that result in improved learner outcomes. To put it simply, efficacy can best be defined as the degree to which set goals are achieved.  The path to achieving it begins with a belief in oneself.  Albert Bandura is one of the most famous researchers in the area of self-efficacy, which can best be described as an individual's belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.  To put it bluntly, if people don't believe in themselves, then achieving goals will be near impossible.  Thriving cultures focus on empowerment, support, feedback, and autonomy to take risks to build self-efficacy.

The next logical step is to move from an individual belief to one that is embraced by the majority.  This is referred to as collective efficacy, which Bandura defined as "a group's shared belief in its conjoint capability to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainment" (Bandura, 1997). It cannot be overstated how much this element contributes to student achievement. Below is a summary from an article by Jenni Donohoo, John Hattie, and Rachel Eells. 
Rachel Eells's (2011) meta-analysis of studies related to collective efficacy and achievement in education demonstrated that the beliefs teachers hold about the ability of the school as a whole are "strongly and positively associated with student achievement across subject areas and in multiple locations" (p. 110). Based on Eells's research, John Hattie positioned collective efficacy at the top of the list of factors that influence student achievement (Hattie, 2016). According to his Visible Learning research, based on a synthesis of more than 1,500 meta-analyses, collective teacher efficacy is three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status. It is more than double the effect of prior achievement and more than triple the effect of home environment and parental involvement. It is also greater than three times more predictive of student achievement than student motivation and concentration, persistence, and engagement.
Understanding the critical role self and collective efficacy play in determining the successful attainment of goals lays out a path for achieving efficacy as a whole, something that I expand greatly on in my book Digital Leadership.  Achievement is important, but there are many other facets of school culture that can be improved.  The process can be best articulated through the strategic planning cycle pictured below.

Begin with the end in mind (i.e., goals) while aligning to a shared vision and collective mission. It is then essential to determine specific outcomes, strategies, and measures & targets.  Professional learning, funding, and an array of other supports are crucial to not only stay on the path but also to arrive at the intended destination. The final piece to the puzzle is the results, which can be determined through both qualitative and quantitative means. It cannot be overstated that in the end, it's the degree to which goals have been achieved that ultimately leads to efficacy.

The strategic planning process provides a logical path forward, but there are also many other elements that come into play. In a previous post, I highlighted items in terms of digital initiatives, but upon further reflection, I feel they are worth revisiting as each is important whether or not technology is involved. For anyone that has led change efforts from the trenches, you will more than likely be able to relate to the following.

Questions should lead to more questions

Questions provide context for where we want to go, how we'll get there, and whether or not success is achieved.  Having more questions than answers is a natural part of the initial change process. Consider the following in this order:
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How will we get there?
  • How do we measure success?
  • How did we do?
  • How can we improve?
Research fuels the "why"

Having a foundation and a compelling reason to change is where research plays a pivotal role. It provides a baseline as to what has been found to really work when it comes to student learning and improving culture. We can look to the past in order to inform current practice. If efficacy is the goal, embracing a scholarly mindset to inform and influence our work, not drive it, is critical.

Practicality leads to embracement

It is hard to move any initiative or idea forward if people can't see how it seamlessly aligns with what they already do. The key here is embracement as opposed to buy-in.  If it's not practical, the drive to implement new ideas and practices wanes or never materializes.  

Evidence provides validation

The only way to determine if goals have been met is through evidence. To discount this shows a lack of understanding as to what real change looks and feels like in education.  Evidence can come in many forms, but in the end, it should clearly paint a picture that the ideas and strategies implemented have resulted in a better, more improved outcome.  A combination of data and artifacts will tell you and anyone else whether or not goals were met. 

Accountability ensures success

What's measured gets done, plain and simple. Accountability is prevalent in every profession and is not something that should be feared or loathed in education.  The key is to establish protocols (checkpoints, check-ins, walk-throughs, observations, evaluations, portfolios) that ensure everyone is doing their part and is provided feedback on the way leading to accountability for growth.

Reflection propels growth

I love the last question that comes at the end of the strategic planning cycle, and that is how can we improve.  Since there is no perfection in education, this is a question we should always be asking and reflecting on. 

The path to efficacy can be an arduous and frustrating journey.  No one likes to spend time coming up with goals, and associated action plans only to have them not come to fruition.  Developing a strategic plan and following through based on the elements described above will help get you there, but staying on the path also requires teamwork, communication, patience, and professional learning.  In the end, when success is achieved, the journey and time spent are well worth it. 

For more on the topic of efficacy check out the short video below.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Eells, R. (2011). Meta-analysis of the relationship between collective efficacy and student achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Loyola University of Chicago.

Hattie, J. (2016, July). Mindframes and Maximizers. 3rd Annual Visible Learning Conference held in Washington, DC.