What Educators sometimes say…

…that you wouldn’t hear in any other profession!

Every profession has a way of doing business that makes the profession unique; education is no different.  That said, every profession can also become insulated, then isolated and then develop habitual ways of thinking that don’t make sense in other walks of life.

Over the years I’ve thought about a few of things we say as educators (not all of us, of course) that don’t really make sense in other professions.   These examples are meant to make us reflect and to have a little fun…to be considered but not overanalyzed.  Here are just a few…

Could you imagine someone ever saying, “This is the cell phone I used back in 1991.  It worked back then, why would I change phones now?We change technology more often than we change lesson plans.  Now granted, not much has change with the Roman Empire in the last few years and 3 x 2 is still 6, but shouldn’t we at least be a little more open to reflecting on whether the lessons we developed ten, five, or even two years ago are still current? How many of us have the same cell phone we had three years ago? What about your lesson plans?

How about the NFL coach saying to his team, “I’ve given you the opportunity to play football.  If you choose to go out and lose that’s your problem.” This mindset that our job as teachers is to simply deliver information and that it’s entirely up to the students to get it or not is erroneous. We all know that in the professional sports world it’s the coach who is the FIRST to get fired if the team underperforms; he or she has a vested interest in how the team performs.  Coaches can’t actively distance themselves from the direct results of their work; neither should teachers.  If we teach, but kids don’t learn, who’s responsible?

Here’s a good one, “I’m sorry Amanda, your second driving test was excellent, but when I average it with your first test you still fail.” The mean average has dominated the way we calculate grades, even though there are other ways.  In fact, there are three different ways to calculate the average – mean, median, and mode – and each of them is not perfect, not to mention the fact that there are numerous other ways to determine grades as well.  The biggest challenge with the way we calculate grades is that the most recent evidence of improvement – significant or not – doesn’t usually play a role in determining the students’ levels of achievement.  Either you can drive or you can’t.  If you can’t you don’t get your license; if you can you do…end of story! If I didn’t know but now I do, why does what I did when I didn’t know still count?

And my personal favorite…imagine your dentist saying, “It’s February 17th, that means I’m doing a root canal.  I’ve done root canals on February 17th for the past 16 years!” The dentist can’t scope-and-sequence her patients; they are patient responsive professionals who respond to the needs of the patients in front of them.  Also, when a patient comes running into the dental office in April holding their cheek in need of a root canal, the dentist doesn’t respond by saying, “Oh I’m sorry, we did root canals back in February…it’s too late… we’ve moved on.” There was a time when you were the envy of the staff if you were photocopied-up-to-Christmas, that is of course, unless a new student arrived and then you had to make one more copy of everything and that ruined the little tabs you had separating the handouts in the pile over by the…you get the idea.

Anyway, these are just four examples of things we say in education that don’t make sense in any other walk of life.  We have to continually challenge the way we think, reflect on what we say, and collaborate to find a better way.  Lifelong leaning means WE lifelong learn first; it starts by questioning our established ways of thinking that hold us back from maximizing our success as teachers…and we have to be able to laugh at ourselves every once in a while.

Happy Friday!

“Can’t do” vs. “Won’t do”

This is something I’ve wondered about for a long time.  Why is it that when students are unable to meet academic expectations we typically consider it an issue of what the student can’t do, but when a student is unable to meet behavioral expectations we typically consider it an issue of what the student won’t do?

Now, I know that is an overgeneralization, but I do think our collective outlook toward behavioral challenges is very different from academic challenges; should it be?

When a student can’t add fractions, write an essay, or shoot a basket we typically react in a supportive way; we identify something the student can’t do and intervene with a variety of secondary or tertiary instructional strategies.  If they can’t do it we teach them.

However, when a student misbehaves we often assume that it’s an issue of compliance; that it is a matter of choice or won’t do.  Is it possible that some behavioral issues kids present are can’t do issues; that they actually don’t have the social skills, support, or circumstances necessary to act in a way that is expected in class or within the school?  If we mirrored the instructional strategies we use for academic deficiencies with behavioral deficiencies would students learn more appropriate, pro-social behavior?  This year, all around the world, Kindergarten students are learning that raising your hand is a pro-social way to access adult attention.  They are not born with that skill so teaching it must be possible.

As a school administrator I learned to ask a very simply question whenever a teacher referred a student to me as a result of their behavior: From your perspective, is this a ‘can’t do’ or a ‘won’t do’ issue? While it’s not always obvious, most teachers are able to make a best-guess (based on their experience with the student) as to which one they suspect it is.  Won’t do means the student is fully capable of behaving appropriately but they are choosing not to; can’t do means the student, for a variety of reasons, may not be capable of behaving in the way that might be expected.  For some students, for example, sitting quietly through a 60 min. assembly might be asking too much of them.  That doesn’t mean they will never be able to sit through an assembly.  It just means we have to have reasonable expectations given the existing limitations the student might be currently dealing with.

I don’t think can’t do issues should be dealt with as discipline issues, even if the behavior is disruptive.  If we believe there is a skill missing, I think we would be much better served teaching the student what the appropriate pro-social behavior within the given context would look like.

I think won’t do issues are issues of student discipline that should be dealt with through the school’s discipline policy, practice, and/or routines. That doesn’t mean punishment; the most effective discipline policies are instruments of support and inclusion, not removal and isolation.

By asking ourselves the simple question – is it a won’t do or a can’t do we will immediately be focused on the proper kinds of interventions necessary to help the student improve.  When neither the teacher nor I were sure, we always deferred to can’t do; there is no rush in applying any kind of discipline practice to a situation.  The absolute worst case scenario is to discipline a student for something you find out later to be a can’t do. I think this one simple question will help guide you to make more effective and efficient decisions when it comes to supporting our students who demonstrate challenging behaviors.  Once you make the distinction you will be much more able to drill down to the root of the problem.

That’s what I think…you?

“How did he get so Good?”

My son, Adrian, is an exceptional skier.  Now before you think I’m about to take credit for it you need to know that it had nothing to do with me.  In my first blog post on confidence (Jan. 27) I mentioned how afraid of skiing he was when he first learned; he’s not afraid anymore. The picture on the left is of Adrian last year (age 9) so clearly fear is no longer a factor.

Every Saturday morning Adrian and I make the 35 min. drive up to Apex Mountain. Adrian is part of the Apex Freestyle Program.  Now I’m not saying he’s going to the Olympics or anything, but when your ten-year old tells you that the double-black diamond runs are easy and boring you know he has some skills.  Every Saturday he skis with the freestyle program.  So we drive up to Apex, I drop him off with his coach, and then I head off for a day of skiing.  If my wife and daughter choose to come then I ski with them; otherwise I’ll ski with some of my friends who are at Apex that day.  It’s a small mountain so it’s easy to find someone.

This past Saturday, however, was a little different. There was no one for me to ski with so I decided to ski alone.  One thing I learned about skiing alone is that it really tests your own commitment to improvement.  I am a good skier, not great; moguls are my enemy!  I found out that when you ski alone you don’t really have to ski any mogul runs. After all, no one is watching.  However, I did head over to a few of the more challenging runs because I do want to improve.  After bouncing my way down one of the black diamond runs – I didn’t fall, but make no mistake, I didn’t ski it – I stopped to catch my breath.  As I stood – alone – thinking about what I had just done, I kept mentally referring back to the images of Adrian skiing the very same run. I wondered aloud, “How did he get so good?”

I traced it back to two things: First, he has spent a tremendous amount of time on his skis over the last 4 years; last year he skied 25 times.  However, time on skis is not enough if you are consistently practicing the wrong technique.  Second, and more importantly, he’s had excellent coaching.  As I thought about the coaching he has received and reflected upon it within the context of what we know about assessment for learning and sound instruction I realized his coaches did all the right things.

Here’s what his coaches did:

  • They figured out his strengths and weaknesses as a skier.
  • They made Adrian spend most of his time strengthening his strengths in order to maintain his confidence & motivation.
  • They put Adrian on the edge of improvement by introducing challenges that gradually pushed him.
  • They gave him specific, descriptive feedback on how to improve.
  • They taught him how to recognize his own mistakes and how to correct them.

Here’s what his coaches DIDN’T do.

  • Evaluate him every week and send a report home.
  • Set unattainable improvement targets.
  • Keep the standards for excellent skiing a secret.
  • Only tell him what he was doing wrong.
  • Set a time limit for improvement.
  • Scare him or stress him out by expecting too much too soon.

As I thought about Adrian’s experience, and how proficient at skiing he has become, I realized that his ski instructors got it.  Everything they did with him fell in line with the current thinking about formative assessment, descriptive feedback, and the role both play in allow kids (students) to maximize their success.  The self-assessment/correction piece was the icing on the cake.  By teaching him the standards of excellent skiing and breaking down the techniques into manageable chunks, Adrian is able to now correct himself when something (or he) goes sideways! After all, the person who does the assessing does the learning.

How do we get more of this in our classrooms?  I know it’s there, but how do we get more? How can we give our students more opportunities to strengthen their strengths, self-assess their progress, and continually sit on the edge of improvement?

Math still takes their Lunch Money!

As a subject, math is still the academic bully that many kids face everyday.  It corners them, pressures them, intimidates them, and leaves their confidence shattered.  Math still takes some kids’ lunch money and I am struggling with how we can put an end to it.

It seems as though you either get math or you don’t.  It also seems to be the only subject where it’s permitted for adults to admit they’re not very good at it either. As Kyle asked/commented on my blog about confidence (Jan. 27), do you ever hear a parent or student proudly announce that they can’t read? But with Math it’s OK? Why?

Maybe it’s the nature of the subject itself. Maybe we’re asking students to be far more abstract that their stage of development allows.  When my daughter was in the third grade, she had a homework question that asked her to “Draw as many shapes as she could with 2 parallel lines.” She did that. “Now write about them.”  That was the question…what kind of question is that to ask of a third grade student? Now write about them?  Then again, we talked it through, I helped her understand the intent of the question and she got it, so maybe it’s not that.

Maybe it’s the way we teach it. Maybe we just quite haven’t figured out the best way to organize our instruction. We have the manipulative toolkits, but have we figured out how to use them as both lead and remedial instructional tools? Or maybe our youngest students do need more drill-and-kill to master the essential skills necessary to be successful.  But then again, I’ve given enough blackline masters to enough struggling students to know it did nothing to improve their skills, so maybe it’s not that.

Maybe Math teachers were too successful when they were in school. Since most Math teachers have loved Math since they themselves entered Kindergarten, maybe they just don’t have the empathy for kids who don’t get, or even like, Math.  Maybe the idea of not getting it just doesn’t compute?  Then again, I taught Math, I loved Math, yet I had empathy for those who struggled.  I’ve since Lisa West, Dave Killick, and countless other Math teachers spend hours with struggling students to help them get over the hump, so maybe it’s probably not that.

Maybe it’s the language of Math. Why do we say ‘pluses’ and ‘minuses’ when we know those aren’t proper math terms?  Maybe we need to teach the proper language of math earlier on and use it consistently throughout the grades. Product, quotient, difference, area, diameter, quadratic formulas, it’s all very confusing.  Irrational numbers, really? Maybe the words get in the way. ∏?  What in the world is ∏? In Math there is only one correct answer yet we have a number that goes on forever? If we going to ask our students to speak this foreign language then we better explicitly teach it to them. Some kids do make it through, but maybe it is a little of this.

Maybe Alan Schoenfeld is right?  In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Schoenfeld said that you master mathematics if you are willing to try. That success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds. Maybe he’s on to something.  Maybe our students give up too quickly?  Maybe we do too? Maybe we begin to compartmentalize math students too early as haves and have-nots. It could be some of this.

Maybe it’s all of the above; maybe it’s none of it.  All I know is that I am going to maximize my twenty-two minutes trying to figure it out.

Blogging WITHOUT Authority

Nine days ago I finally took the plunge; I started this blog and I singed up on Twitter.  My intent was to learn and have fun – I’ve done both.  I’ve started reflecting on what the virtual world is like and am becoming mindful of how things can come across in the Twitter world.  Have a question? Here’s a link. Need advice? Here are five quotes. On the fence? Check out these blogs.  I have to admit that part of the appeal of starting a blog was that someone might finally listen to me!   After all, people in the virtual world don’t really know me so maybe they’re a little more open??

I’ve accomplished a lot in my 20 year career and think I have a lot to say; so do you…we all do.  That’s what makes this venture into the cyber world invigorating.  We can contribute and learn at the same time. 

One thing I want to be aware of as I move ahead is to not preach from the pulpit of my blog too often; never would be unrealistic! It’s so easy to sit behind my keyboard and write from a definitive perspective – always, never, they should, they shouldn’t, get rid of this, implement that, we need more of this, less of that, and plenty more of those! Why doesn’t everyone think like me or teach like me?

If I’ve learned anything over my 20 years it’s that I still don’t have all of the answers.  Don’t get me wrong, I think I know a lot, but I’m not sure I know enough to say for sure.

So, from time to time I’m going to blog without authority.  I’m going to share what I still question, what I still wonder, and what I still don’t know.  I’m going to blog about why I might still be a little uncertain about the things I think I know for sure.  And while I welcome your input or comments, I would also invite you to share what you are still wondering about.  Let’s think and learn together!

The Inquiry Process: Conversations & Protocols

Last night I had the pleasure of participating in our school district’s second Inquiry Workshop of the year entitled Conversations and Protocols.  The first session this year focused on developing a good inquiry question.  Last night’s session focused on how to organize and conduct productive conversations with inquiry teams.  It was an amazing session!

Last year, our school district moved to an inquiry-based model for school improvement.  That meant that rather than focus on one (or more) of our district goals as a whole, schools were asked to develop inquiry questions that focused on specific aspects within the goals that were most needed in their schools.  Our 3 District Goals – Literacy, Numeracy, and School Completion – remained, and we did ask schools to develop a question(s) that fit within one of the three goal areas, however, schools were now able to focus their attention on what really mattered. 

This benefitted our small schools and our large schools for different reasons.  Small schools were now able to concentrate their efforts rather than having everyone doing everything for three goal areas; our large schools were able to develop a connectedness around a common question that typically focused on the School Completion Goal.  This is starting to connect individual departments to a common question and focus, which for High Schools is a huge step forward.  To make a long story short, our schools spent all of last year developing their questions, shifting the paradigm around school improvement, and developing new routines for dialogue.  Samples of our school-based improvement plans can be found at our website: http://www.sd67.bc.ca/content.asp?o_id=1332. Now before you get too excited, remember, we are only in year 2 and our questions still need some fine tuning, however, we think we are off to a great start.  All of our schools are at various points along their own continuum – that’s okay.  We encourage schools to look inward – to highlight how much they have grown and how much they have learned.

Anyway, this year we are focused on developing leaders who can facilitate inquiry sessions for learning teams and/or schools.  We had a group of 30 teachers/administrators attend the session. 

As you likely know, protocols are ways of organizing and structuring your professional learning conversations.  So often our professional discussions start to go sideways and we begin to talk about irrelevant things.  We’ve had a good time, ate some good food, left happy, but accomplished very little.  Protocols keep groups focused on the purpose of the meeting and begin to build a true culture of collaboration.

Protocols help educators achieve trust and create a culture that is essential for collaborative work on issues of substance. You can’t wait until the culture is “perfect” to engage in protocols; it is through their use that the culture will develop and trust will emerge. The structure and norms, such as warm and cool feedback, of the protocols, combined with actions that are in accordance with the assumptions that undergird protocols, lead to a collaborative culture willing to engage in substantive dialogue. (Lois Brown Easton)

Protocols are very beneficial when you have a group that doesn’t know each other very well OR when you are dealing with a controversial issue.  The facilitator’s role is really to keep the conversations going, ask the right questions, and keep people on task.  A facilitator is not there to give answers or advice.  The inquiry process is about discovery; there wouldn’t be any discovery if the facilitator gave all the right answers.

Anyway, I will likely add more about our inquiry-based school improvement process in future blogs.  I really just wanted you to know that we had a great session last night.  It just confirmed for me that I work in a great school district and with some amazing educators!

How Systems support Practices

My previous post (Leadership FOR Confidence, Jan. 30) emphasized that leaders need to balance the hard and the soft – the structure and the soul – of leadership.  Too much hard and we end up pushing at all costs; too much soft and we feel great about going nowhere.  This is especially true when we consider implementing a new practice, policy, or routine. 

Whenever something new is being implemented, it is important to make sure that the appropriate support is in place.  Over my career I have seen many new initiatives; some have come and gone, while others have remained.  The difference between the ones that last and ones that fade away is typically not about the quality of the idea itself.  I have seen more than my share of innovative, award-winning, research-validated practices shelved in favor of something else.  If I have learned anything about implementing something new, it is this:

Effective practices are only as good as the systems designed to support the teachers who use them.

Practices are the things we do directly with our students; Systems are the necessary structures and routines put in place to support the teachers implementing the new practice.  The lack of a system – a support structure – for teachers is often the reason why so many research-validated practices fade over time or don’t get off the ground at all.  We don’t often think this way since it’s much easier to blame the practice or program.

Systems create predictability for teachers by taking the guess-work out of what to do, how to do it, and when the next step is required.  Without systems, teachers will feel as though their implementation is happening in isolation.  This is why, as leaders, we are responsible for establishing these systems that show teachers that there is a routine around the new practice we are establishing; this builds their confidence – the expectation of success – because they know they are not alone.

Systems can also account for scenarios where things don’t go exactly as planned.  If we can predict some possible errors in implementation we can plan for our most likely responses. If, for example, a teacher is implementing a practice of not reducing scores for late work, the system developed would identify a replacement routine – what to do instead, how someone else (administrator) can assist, and how everyone accesses support.

As leaders, we can make sure that no one gets left unsupported by establishing systems that support the implementation and sustained use of the best practices for our students.