Saturday, 18 May 2013

Clarifying the Shifts in 21st Century Learning

It seems like everyone is talking about 21st century learning, but clarity on the distinctions between education in the past and education in the present is often muddled. Many people are also annoyed by the description of 21st century learning since we are more than a decade into the 21st century. As long as education settles on a bloated list of content and skills in predictable approaches to teaching and learning, it will always be outdated. Instead the conversation needs to shift to core areas of learning for success now, and dispositions for learning that will prepare students for success in the future. Given this, here are a few of the distinctions between what education has been and what education needs to be:
  1. Previous emphasis on what and how the teacher is teaching, and current emphasis on what students are really learning
  2. Previous emphasis on the student as a passive recipient, and current emphasis on the student as an active co-designer in learning
  3. Previous emphasis on the teacher as disseminator of prescribed content, and current emphasis on teacher as a facilitator of "big ideas" and transferrable concepts
  4. Previous emphasis on a one-size fits all "standardized" approach to learning, and current emphasis on differentiated and personalized learning to meet the needs of all students
  5. Previous emphasis on learning as an individual experience, and current emphasis on self-directed and collaborative learning
  6. Previous emphasis on a narrow definition of communication as usually limited to writing and sometimes speaking, and current emphasis on a full range of communication, artistic, and media approaches
  7. Previous emphasis on textbooks, and current emphasis on multiple resources (including primary sources) of study that make fuller use of technology and digital tools
  8. Previous emphasis on prescribed activities and worksheets, and current emphasis on students as critical and creative thinkers in their own learning
  9. Previous emphasis on summative testing, and current emphasis on formative types of assessment to better ensure learning progress and also including student self-assessment within the learning process
  10. Previous emphasis on right-wrong answers and singular approaches for obtaining answers, and current emphasis on problem-based learning that demonstrates greater complexity of thinking and learning
  11. Previous emphasis on grades, and current emphasis on growth, learning, and goal-setting
  12. Previous emphasis on decontextualized learning, and current emphasis on authentic learning within real world contexts
  13. Previous emphasis on a nationalistic brand of education, and current emphasis on an engaged global and multicultural approach to education
  14. Previous emphasis on a defined and set curriculum, and current emphasis on curriculum being collaboratively shaped by student interests, talents, curiosities, and passions
  15. Previous emphasis of the school as the exclusive place for learning, and current emphasis of the 24/7 world as an "open space" for learning (with technology as a key facilitative learning tool)
  16. Previous emphasis of time as the determiner for teaching, and current emphasis on flexibility of time to appropriately support the learning of the learner
  17. Previous emphasis of teachers working in isolation, and current emphasis on teachers in Professional Learning Communities or teams to understand and improve student learning
  18. Previous emphasis on students meeting adult expectations, and current emphasis on students discovering and developing their own unique identity and authentic voice
If we aren't aware of the shifts between the past and current needs of education, then we'll likely get caught in how we've always done things. Each shift requires awareness and development of new beliefs, dispositions, and skills. Each shift requires continual inquiry as to how to most powerfully support learning for all students for success today and for tomorrow. A compelling school vision provides urgency and coherence for these various approaches to be realized.

These are not simply switches that are turned off and on, but rather require evolution of beliefs, dispositions, and skills by educators through active dialogue and engagement in these approaches. In the end, we know that culture always trumps strategy, and therefore helping all stakeholders to understand the "why" for changes and also offering varied and ongoing support for success are essential. It is the cultivation of a school-wide culture that embraces change, innovation, and ongoing research and development that will lead to bolder opportunities for students. 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Strategic Thinking and Planning

After serving as a school and district consultant in the U.S. and internationally for strategic planning, I've had opportunity to experience what makes strategic planning work and fail. One of my Superintendent friends adamantly believes strategic planning is a waste of time, and I think many of his arguments are valid.

I am guided, however, by the wisdom of baseball's Yogi Berra who once said: "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else."

Let's start with why strategic planning fails. From my research and experience, here are the top 10 reasons why strategic planning fails (in no particular prioritized order because any one of them can take you out):
  1. Lack of a compelling vision or direction
  2. Lack of stakeholder involvement and/or understanding of the why, how, and what of the plan
  3. Lack of a "focused strategic plan" with clear targets
  4. Lack of leadership (including distributed leadership) and accountability
  5. Lack of resources to implement the plan (e.g., people, time, supplies/equipment, training)
  6. Lack of ongoing PLC/teams development in implementing the plan with reasonable timelines
  7. Lack of organizational stability
  8. Lack of flexibility to monitor and adjust
  9. Lack of understanding for context and culture
  10. Lack of organizational learning on how to implement successful change
So what are potential entry points for effective strategic planning?

Learning to Think Strategically

Before a school can pursue effective strategic planning, it needs to develop understanding and skill in how to think strategically. Many ideas that come forward as strategic are actually tactical or "thin solutions," and not leveraged and robust opportunities.

Creating a Culture of Strategic Thinking

A school or district needs to look at how it will "create a culture of strategic thinking." Not only does this culture piece translate well for organizational needs and issues, but strategic thinking also translates well for teachers and students in classrooms. When everyone is focused on how to most elegantly leverage learning, hearts and minds race with possibilities.

For strategic thinking to accelerate, look at what promotes strategic thinking and what hinders strategic thinking. Find ways to accentuate the boosters and find ways to reduce the barriers. Everyone needs to pursue this within their own sphere of influence, and also wisely advocate for how strategic thinking can be further enhanced across the sacred domains and silos of a school and district.

Don't focus on answers. Focus on questions. What is the school we want to create for our kids? What would this look like, sound like, feel like? How would this be different from what we have now? Why do we think this might be better? What might be some good first steps? What might be our biggest challenges and opportunities? In short, begin to tap into the innate interests of educators to create a better future for kids. Dare to dream big.

Building Capacity for Strategic Thinking

Here are some other ways to build capacity for thinking strategically:
  1. Create opportunities for long range visioning throughout the school
  2. Support conscious and intentional culture shifts -- find ways to honor and respect the past, build enthusiasm for a desirable future, and continue to shine the light on what is going well in the transition between the past and the future
  3. Build collaborative and distributed leadership engaged in regular focused strategic thinking
  4. Establish structures that support a learning organization -- research and development, Professional Learning Communities, connected learning networks, environments within the school that naturally and comfortably support conversations and brief or extended interactions
  5. Pursue backward design -- develop graduate profiles, and plan backwards from high school to elementary on how to coherently support success for the realization of the graduate profile
  6. Use school accreditation for deep and honest review, reflection, and renewal
  7. Encourage innovations throughout the school that address strategic objectives
  8. Think 21st century -- environmental scans, scenario planning, 21st century learning standards, connect with "like-minded" people and places throughout the world so as to mobilize and energize the school 
  9. Create visual models for people to discuss the vision and future directions, so as to build understanding for the "big picture" and to reduce confusion and a sense of fragmentation
  10. Empower people and students as strategic thinkers, and celebrate both successes and failures
Strategic Planning

The Schooling by Design model created by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins is a complementary strategic planning model to the Understanding by Design model that is frequently used by classroom teachers in the development of units of learning. Both of these models are also complementary to the model used by Professional Learning Communities: 1) What do we want students to know, understand, and be able to do?, 2) How will we know when students are learning it?, 3) What will we do to optimize learning for all students (those who already get it, those in the middle, and those who struggle)?

It is helpful to have a strategic planning model that mirrors the design of curriculum units and the work of teams of teachers. These complementary models become known as how the school thinks and takes action. The main caution I have about this is when plans become overly complex and detailed, and then lose sight that life and learning happen. Therefore these need to be boldly and simply designed to communicate purposefully and also to be appropriately flexible in the process.

I remember organizational developer Marilyn Ferguson repeatedly saying: "The map is not the territory." It is important for everyone to know that plans need to be understood, appropriately supported, implemented, reviewed, revised, and sometimes abandoned.

The Apollo 11 moon flight was off a straight course more than 90% of the time, but its destination was clear. Continual monitoring and adjusting allowed the mission to arrive at its desired destination. A clear vision and direction with flexibility is the key.

Improving the Quality of Professional Learning

One of the most interesting reports on effectiveness of school systems around the world was the 2007 McKinsey Report on "How the World's Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top." Three main themes emerged from this study:
  1. The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers
  2. The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction
  3. High performance requires every child to succeed
In short, improvement for student learning is contingent on improvement of staff learning and performance. It is ironic that something so important in the research is often treated casually and erratically by schools. It would seem that something as important as professional learning would be near the top of school agendas and operations. 

At Singapore American School, we had cycles of improvement for almost everything. We noticed, however, that we didn't have a cycle to systematically review our approaches to professional learning. The trick in schools is how to best conduct a comprehensive review, but also do this in a way that is as efficient as possible so as to not distract staff from their main purpose of working with kids. The following is the process we implemented over a semester of time (fall of 2012) that identified commendations and recommendations:
  1. Initial input from the Superintendent on Institutional Commitments and professional learning
  2. Administrator interviews by division regarding current status of professional learning related to seven standards identified by Learning Forward
  3. A cross-divisional teacher research team studied the research on the professional learning standards, and identified opportunities within each of the standards through use of a google doc
  4. Each administrative leadership team member identified areas of inquiry regarding professional learning through use of a google doc
  5. Input and feedback was collected from the various departments related to quality of professional learning (e.g., Office of Learning, Educational Technology, Finance, HR), including review of SMART goals where applicable
  6. Review of schoolwide policies, procedures, artifacts, and practices as it related to professional learning
  7. Inquiry with K-12 coaches on ways to further optimize coaching for professional learning
  8. Review of best practices in professional learning through team participation at the 2012 Learning Forward Conference
  9. Synthesis of all input (for areas above) emerged as themes in a preliminary draft of commendations and recommendations
At the completion of the internal review process, an external review process was then initiated. This external review process involved Joellen Killion from Learning Forward, and included the following approaches:
  1. A Learning Forward survey (i.e., SAI2) was administered with all staff, which checked effectiveness of 50 best practice criteria aligned to seven professional learning standards
  2. Joellen Killion participated in a four-day on-site review of evidence and stakeholder sessions to determine levels of professional learning practice at SAS
  3. A 15-point Learning Forward audit of professional learning was used by Joellen Killion to further synthesize and confirm the validity of the internal review commendations and recommendations, and to make revisions where appropriate
  4. Joellen Killion facilitated feedback sessions on the revised commendations and recommendations with the cross-divisional research team, coaches, departments, division principals, and the Superintendent, and this further refined the statements of commendation and recommendation
  5. An administrative leadership team session was conducted on the final commendations and recommendations, which provided opportunity for dialogue and questions to develop deeper levels of understanding and action
  6. An 18-month action plan timeline was collaboratively developed to operationalize the various components of the recommendations, and a new board policy was developed to provide added support for these directions
A simple and yet significant development from the review process was enhanced organizational clarity around the definition, principles, and standards of professional learning for Singapore American School. 

Definition of Professional Learning:
The term of professional learning means a comprehensive, differentiated, and sustained approach to improving teachers' and administrators' effectiveness in optimizing student learning.

Principles of Professional Learning -- The Principles of Professional Learning are intended to guide the thoughts, words, and actions of leaders, designers, and participants in pursuit of quality professional learning:
  1. Effective professional learning is fundamental to improved student learning
  2. All educators have an obligation to improve their practice
  3. Successful leaders create and sustain a culture of learning and innovation
  4. Improving student learning and professional practice requires ongoing systemic and organizational change
  5. Professional Learning Communities can solve even their most complex problems by tapping into internal expertise
  6. All professional learning meets the research-based criteria of professional learning as recognized by Learning Forward's Standards for Professional Learning
  7. All professional learning aligns with the SAS Institutional Commitments and strategic directions of the school
  8. Professional learning achieves its results for optimizing student learning when it provides adult learners different learning designs and support for implementation
Standards of Professional Learning (adopted from Learning Forward):
  1. Learning Communities -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment.
  2. Leadership -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students requires skillful leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning. 
  3. Resources -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students requires prioritizing, monitoring, and coordinating resources for educator learning.
  4. Data -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students uses a variety of sources and types of student, educator, and system data to plan, assess, and evaluate professional learning.
  5. Learning Designs -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students integrates theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve its intended outcomes.
  6. Implementation -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students applies research on change and sustains support for implementation of professional learning for long-term change. 
  7. Outcomes -- Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards. 
At the end of each year, one of the highest ratings from faculty at SAS is professional learning. Hopefully these review findings will lead to further improvements within professional learning and practice, which can then translate into improved learning opportunities for all students. In the end, however, it's one thing to develop review findings and recommendations and it is all together another thing to effectively act on recommendations. This is when the effectiveness of leadership and teams are tested. 

Re-thinking Curriculum

What are the real issues that compromise U.S. and school curriculum?

Scenario #1: An Over-Crowded Curriculum
Robert Marzano has told us that it would take about 16 years for teachers to merely cover the U.S. standards recommended by the various national subject area organizations for a K-12 education of students. This obviously does not provide time for depth of learning or application. 

Scenario #2: Passion and Advocacy for Different Subject Areas
Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins offer the solution to identify what is most important within the curriculum, and I believe this is something most curriculum directors try to do in collaboration with teachers. The problem with this, however, is that usually the great teachers who want to be on curriculum writing teams are passionate about their subject areas and may not be ready to "lean the curriculum." This becomes further complicated on the high school level when courses may be recommended and designed by great teachers who have a passion for specialized areas of personal interest. 

Scenario #3: Lack of Curricular Balance
When passionate educators see particular subject areas as more important than others and there is not overall agreement on a sense of balance or proportion, then what remains is advocacy. Also national standards within different subject areas frequently advocate for their own allocations of time, resources, and facilities, and cumulatively this is not possible. The job of a curriculum director is to seek a sense of balance or proportion across the subject areas, but the fact is that curriculum is frequently a collaborative venture on a multi-year curriculum cycle. Therefore this sense of balance is not always simultaneously pursued across subject areas as new curriculum is being developed or upgraded. 

Scenario #4: A Reductionist Curriculum
Because schools and districts function within systems, there is often a belief that detailed content and skills need to be identified so that they can be consistently delivered by different teachers, so that learning results can be accurately determined, and so that teacher evaluations can be appropriately applied.

What is the fundamental problem with all four of these scenarios? The foremost problem is the asking of the wrong leading question: What are the real issues that compromise U.S. and school curriculum? The fundamental problem here is that the student is not dynamically a part of any of these conversations. Instead, the curriculum is being planned for the student as though learning occurs in a logical, concrete, and sequential manner. 

If we believe, however, that deep and profound learning is messy and requires a willingness to venture into the unfamiliar or unknown, then curriculum design needs to be approached differently. What are the starting points?

1. How do we really know each learner? What are his/her areas of passion, interest, talent, curiosity? What are his/her areas of prior knowledge and readiness for learning? What is his/her learning profile? Do we see these questions as token markers within differentiated instruction, or are we genuinely interested and curious about our learners and what is important to them?

2. What are the big ideas or concepts that are most important for students to understand in a K-12 education? How can we collectively "see the forest for the trees" in these big ideas and concepts, and how is this unpacked and deeply understood by educators? Do we error on the side of over-simplification of what is truly complex because we believe a lock-step education outweighs the value of density and inquiry?

3. What if complexity was further reinforced through appropriately challenging levels of problem-based and project-based learning where knowledge and skills are inherent within authentic work? In this way long curriculum lists of knowledge and skills could be replaced by robust problems and projects that fully engage students in real life learning and applications of learning. 

4. How do we authentically invite students to be co-designers in their own learning so that students and teachers are fully engaged in a journey of inquiry and discovery together?

5. What are various ways that students can demonstrate their understanding of big ideas and concepts in ways that are not necessarily sequential or according to "pacing guidelines?" How can students further apply their learning to different real life situations and connect with others in the world?

6. How can learning become more about dispositions for learning, so that the student becomes increasingly self-aware of his/her own goal-setting and progress?  And how can assessments become more internally driven by students than externally driven?

In short, how can the entire system of education become more respectful of the learner in creating a trusting, inviting, asynchronous, and collaborative environment where learning is authentic, exciting, and meaningful for them?  For curriculum, I believe we need to meet our students in the middle. As educators, we bring forward those essential areas of learning that also create openings and opportunities for new and unplanned areas of learning. As educators, we engage in this enterprise because we believe our students are also our teachers. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Importance of Student Voice

I was recently approached by a high school student who asked, "In order for student voices to be heard, should student evaluations of teachers be mandatory and used in the teacher’s performance review? Furthermore, is there a way to make sure that student feedback is fair and valid?"

If we truly believe in the value of students to be co-designers in learning and empowered in their learning, shouldn't we also value their important feedback? If we do value student feedback, then how can we make this meaningful and constructive?
Many schools in the U.S. and internationally are addressing this "controversial issue" with no consensus on a particular approach to pursue. Some schools advocate for student feedback as a "weighted component" on teacher evaluation with other components, some schools provide opportunity for student feedback that is exclusively reviewed by the teacher, and some schools provide opportunity for the teacher to verbally reflect on "themes" within student feedback with one's supervisor. Many schools simply ignore student feedback as too complicated and untrustworthy.
The most significant recent research on teacher evaluation was initiated in 2009 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and resulted in a 2011 report known as Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). One of the five variables valued by the MET report was "student perceptions of the classroom instructional environment" in which a field-tested instrument (i.e., Tripod Survey) was used. A finding of the MET report was that there is a significant interdependent relationship among student achievement, classroom observations and feedback by supervisors, and student feedback.
The challenge in all of this, however, is to be clear about the purpose of teacher evaluation so as to guide appropriate selection of tools and processes, and to also understand that contextual needs in one system may be very different for another system. Finally, quality implementation of the right tools and processes is everything. Anything less than quality implementation can have confusing and damaging results.

The downside of ineffective implementation of student feedback can lead to the following:
* students may not appreciate demanding teachers until years later, and may provide premature responses
* students may not be "trained" in how to provide constructive feedback, whereupon responses can be personally and professionally hurtful
* teachers may feel that popularity is most important, and consequently adjust teaching to "win" students
* students may use their own grades to determine how they view their teachers, and perhaps not always take personal responsibility
* a culture of evaluation and judgment may become more prevalent than a culture of mutual respect, trust, and support
Having said this, the quality of the student-teacher relationship is essential to quality teaching and learning. I believe quality feedback is key to growth and improved performance, whether the feedback is as a student, teacher, or administrator. Rather than a "weighted" component on teacher evaluation, I would suggest the following approach for student feedback: 
  • Allow all students throughout the school to provide anonymous survey responses using a few standard questions for their teachers (with appropriate accommodations for elementary students) and perhaps a few questions of particular interest to the teacher, which then becomes a conversation between the teacher and supervisor. This conversation would not be about specific comments, but rather about any predominant themes: What pleased you most from your students' responses? What surprised you? Are there any changes or adjustments you intend to make as a result of this feedback? 
The supervisor's evaluation of this component is then based on the teacher's reflective ability to respond to "themes" within student feedback, and the supervisor can also serve as a prompt for any areas deserving further consideration. When effectively implemented, this approach would ensure that student feedback is purposefully heard and valued and that the professional relationship of the teacher and supervisor has further information for reflection and consideration. 

In line with the MET report, I think some kind of triangulation of qualitative and quantitative data that utilizes student feedback (with teacher reflection), teacher and/or Professional Learning Community evidence of student learning and growth (with teacher reflection), and supervisor feedback from classroom observations (with teacher reflection) would help to provide a balanced and multi-dimensional approach for more intentionally and comprehensively understanding teaching and learning. There's certainly considerable development needed in each of these areas, but can be worthy if the focus is on creating a learning-focused school in a trusting and mutually supportive environment where everyone is vested in each other's growth and success.

Education is a lifelong calling, and it is value-added when there are meaningful processes to help all of us as educators to grow, to build on our relationships, and to continuously reflect and act on ways to improve the quality of learning and opportunities for all students.