learning

Bringing More Google to Schools

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I believe in “Google” schools. I want more schools to be “Google” schools.  When I think of a “Google” school, I am thinking beyond the world of Apps for Education.  Rather, I want my school and the schools of my children, to be filled with educators who would be equally at home working at Google.

It is no surprise that Google often ranks at the top of innovative companies in the world. It also frequently tops the list of companies that most college graduates want to work for.  Yes, the compensation that these top companies offer is undoubtedly attractive. In this respect, the world of education can’t and shouldn’t try to compete.  But there are some things that Google considers when hiring that we in education should try to emulate.

The first is “smarts”.  Being smart is important at Google just like it is in education and many other professions. But at Google, being smart is not enough.  Intellectual curiosity is considered even more important and is something they look for when hiring.  Think about it in the context of education.  The phrase “Life long learners” commonly appears in the Mission and Vision Statements of schools around the world. Yet how often is the idea of intellectual curiosity factored into hiring?

Quite naturally, Google wants every person they hire to be good at what they do –  be it coding, networking, marketing, or finance.  Schools are no different.  Kindergarten teachers need to be as good at what they do as a Middle School drama, or an IB Calculus teacher.  But a clear difference lies in the fact that Google expects everyone to be a leader.  They actively seek out people who will take control of a situation instead of waiting to be lead.  According to Tony Wagner, Google has a bias towards action.  They want their employees to always be asking the important question, “How can I make things better?”  In other words, If you see something is broken … fix it!

I like the Google mindset because it is what I think we need more of in schools. You can never have too many people working together to make the world a better place.  I think at its core, schools need to be incubators of intellectual curiosity, places where everyone is teaching and everyone is learning.  Schools benefit by being populated by professionals who lead without necessarily having the positional power. I guess that is why I am fascinated by the work of Dana Watt’s and her research into “Disruptive Leadership in the International Schools”.

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The Failure Conundrum

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Last week, the school year in Saudi Arabia ended.  It is certainly a busy time of the year.  In class, we wrapped up the work that needed to be completed, prepared an awesome presentation for the end of year assembly, took time to reflect and celebrate our accomplishments, and said good-bye to each other before embarking on a summer break.  I had a few end of year meetings with families of kids who required a little more support and attention than their peers throughout the year.  In closing one of these meetings, a father shared his concern that his child would “fail” and need to repeat grade three.

At that moment, I could not help but empathize with this father, sharing his greatest fear for his child.  A fear that his child would not succeed, that they would fail.  I think it is a universal fear shared by all parents.  So, I quickly tried to put him at ease, reassuring him that his child would be moving on to fourth grade.  I also took the opportunity to reinforce the great accomplishments of his child.  Yes there were some challenges, but the year was a success because of the growth and learning that transpired.

Since ending the meeting, I have found myself thinking about failure.  In schools, it is a bit of a four letter word.  Great schools, like great educators, believe in their students and know that for their kids, failure is not an option! In the same way that actors do not mention the play MacBeth on stage for fear of cursing a performance, failure seems to be an abhorrent word in schools.    Kids openly share work that they see as successful.  They also hide their failures.  So do teachers.  When collaborating with colleagues, teachers are more likely to bring to the table what works rather than discuss what didn’t.  It is called being human.  No one likes to hear about or experience failure.

But here is the failure conundrum.  Learning isn’t easy.  School should not be easy. It should be a struggle that requires effort.  Failure, like success, plays an important role in a classroom.  It is only a bad thing if it leads to a dead end and stops the journey.  I believe that to fail is to learn.  Failure simply provides another opportunity to revise, reconsider, deepen understanding, and grow.  It is failure that makes us stronger. It is failure that ultimately leads to success.  Think about it.  How many toddlers learn to walk without falling?  There is a reason people train for a marathon. Two weeks ago I deleted my last blog post while learning to use the WordPress app on my iPad.  I wish I could get it back, but I can’t. I have learned something that will help me in the future.  As a teacher, I’ve had my fair share of lessons that were a failure.  Lessons that despite my best planning and effort, did not produce the desired outcomes.  Subsequent lessons were inevitably better because failure provided me with the opportunity to change and grow.

My parents worked hard to instill the belief that there is no use crying over spilled milk.  Instead, clean it up.  Understand why it happened and turn a potentially negative situation into a positive one.  In that sense, failure is a learning opportunity.  I recognize the importance of supporting students in their learning, but I also don’t ever want to prevent failure either. Ultimately I would be hindering exactly what I am trying to accomplish.

Looking For Learning

Getting back into some sort of blogging routine feels a lot like getting back to the gym.  I have great aspirations, but do not seem to always find time to fit everything in.  It’s hard.  So last week, I set a small personal goal for myself … try and build a blogging routine by posting something this week.

Following up on my previous post, I continue to find myself thinking about learning — its big idea, what it means to me, and my colleagues? What does it look like in our community?  I am a firm proponent that schools should always be learning focused collaborative endeavors.  As an educator, my professional practice continues to be a work in progress, constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. Now I am much more of a “coach” or “critical friend” to the kids I work with than ever before.  Quick, timely, formative feedback is incredibly powerful either on the ice at a hockey practice or in a reading workshop.  I would not want it any other way.

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As an educator, I am looking for a similar critical friend or learning coach to help improve my professional practice.  It is something I look for in my colleagues and formal administrators.  Fieldwork Education’s   Looking for Learning protocol is the closest experience I’ve had to receiving consistent, timely formative feedback.

Looking for Learning, is an effective process for working collaboratively with colleagues (teachers, instructional coaches, parents, principals, etc.) to see what learning is happening in classrooms.  The focus is on student learning.  So talking to kids about their learning is at the center of each visit.  Should a teacher be in the midst of a mini-lesson, classroom visitors can simply move on to another room, and drop by later when whole group instruction is no longer in progress.

Ten to 20 minutes is the typical length of a teacher or administrator’s classroom visit.  In the busy day to day routines, finding ten or 20 minutes here and there to visit a colleagues classroom is easily manageable.   However, it is absolutely fabulous when I manage to set aside an hour to visit and talk with students about their learning in a wide range of classrooms, grade levels, and content areas.

When visiting a classroom and talking to kids, four essential understandings helped shape conversations:

Is this a learning classroom? This simple line of questioning is incredibly powerful.  It is non-threatening and one that every educator, parent, and student would expect to hear a resounding, YES!  When a learning community has an established, shared common definition of learning, the power if this question is amplified.

Is the learning appropriate and sufficient?   As an elementary literacy teacher, this idea always makes me think of students’ “Just Right Books”.  Ideally, learning for the kids should not be too difficult, nor too easy.  It should be just enough of a stretch that they can independently achieve a level of success.  When speaking to kids, I tried to speak with them in order to find out if they were learning something new, consolidating their learning, simply treading water, or drowning.

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What is helping or hindering the learning? This is perhaps my favorite line of questioning.  I always found it to be amazing to hear students reflect on who they are as a learner, identify what they see as a need to further support their learning, and articulate exactly what is helping them on their journey.

Here’s a list of possible questions to help guide your conversations with kids.

The final piece of the puzzle is getting together with a colleague to share and discuss your visit.  This always created the biggest challenge for me, but I soon found that a short conversation over coffee at recess worked best.  It is easy to participate in a reflective conversation with your colleagues because Looking for Learning is not evaluative.  As the visitor, your role is to simply share out the evidence you collected during your visit, not your impression, your opinion, or suggestions for next steps.  When visiting classrooms, I tried to take detailed notes because I always found receiving specific quotes from the kids seemed to encourage reflection because they helped me recognize if my perception matched those of my students.

I am a BIG fan of Looking for Learning. Not only do I see its great potential to support student learning, but what I like most is that after speaking with students and my colleagues, I find myself energized and enriched by the experience. Thank you Pam Harper and Fieldwork Education.

LEARNING … It’s What We Do

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For the past few months, work has been a little busier than usual.  We have been busy wrapping things up at the end of one accreditation cycle and launching into a new accreditation process — Excellence by Design.  Although things have been busy, I find the accreditation work very engaging and worthwhile.  I think it is because I always enjoy the collaboration and thinking about the potential that our learning community holds.  I believe it is important to recognize where we are, celebrate our wonderful accomplishments, and start to envision where we want to be.  The accreditation process has certainly provided me with a tremendous amount of food for thought.

Recently, friends who work in other professions were sharing what was happening in their work and personal lives. Both also happened to be in the midst of some sort of accreditation / self-evaluation process similar to ISO 20000 certification.  I was struck by the similarities of purpose, process, and importance of  accreditation in their work.  I was also surprised by the ease and simplicity with which they could clearly communicate the work that they do, be it producing a good or providing a service.  Both shared the great lengths that are taken in their professions to establish a simple, common understanding of what they do. It was central to their growth, development, and how they monitored the quality of their work.

So, I found myself wondering, what is it that we do in schools?  Do we have a common understanding of what we offer our children, their families, and the greater community?  My guess is that if I asked this question to my colleagues, LEARNING would likely be a top response.  But do we have a common understanding of what it means to learn? Could every member of my school community share the simple, common understanding with a parent or colleague?  Would we be able to consistently identify learning throughout the grade levels and across the curriculum? I must admit I am not so sure.

I believe that International School Bangkok offers some great ideas for helping develop a simple, common understanding of what they offer the members of their community.  A simple, clear and concise Mission and Vision Statement is a great place to start.

MISSION
To be a model of excellence for educating students for success in the world community.
VISION
Through outstanding teaching in a nurturing environment,  ISB inspires students to:
  • achieve their academic and personal potential
  • be passionate, reflective learners,
  • becoming caring, global citizens

There is tremendous power in being able to simplify a complex idea and I believe that International School Bangkok does a particularly good job at it.  However, what I find most impressive is that as a community, they have established a common understanding of “learning” and what it looks like.

Learning is the primary focus of our school and we recognize learning as a life-long adventure.  We value meaningful learning where students construct enduring understanding by developing and applying knowledge, skills, and attitudes.  Increased understanding is evidenced by students who:
  • Explain its relevance
  • Describe how it connects to or conflicts with prior learning
  • Communicate it effectively to others
  • Generalize and apply it effectively to new situations
  • Reflect critically on their own and other’s learning
  • Ask questions to extend learning
  • Create meaningful solutions

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If learning is an essential component of any school, why do more schools not have a definition of learning at the heart of their Mission and Vision statements?  It is  these documents that help shape and provide direction for a school and its improvement plan.  In the world of education, just like the world of business, having a shared, common understanding is essential for establishing a cycle of continuous growth.  ISB’s definition of learning provides an essential framework for collaboration, a tool for monitoring the quality of student learning, and a means of adjusting professional practice because stakeholders are looking at things through a shared, critical lens.

Check. Please!

Originally Posted September 2011

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In Saudi Arabia, the new school year started on Saturday.  The start of each school year is an exciting time.  It is a  time to reconnect with friends and colleagues who have flung themselves on great adventures around the world and close to home.   As an international educator, it is also the time to meet new colleagues and build new friendships.  This year, the rituals of the “Welcome Back Coffee Mornings” were enjoyed by one and all, but quickly, everyone jumped back into the swing of things to get our school ready to the nearly 900 kiddos who will arrived at our doors.

One of my rituals at the start of each school is to delve into my “Back to School” folder.  I always go looking for a checklist that I received years ago from a principal in Monterrey, Mexico.  Ever since, this checklist has helped me organize and plan each school year.  I must admit, it is a bit of a laundry list with more than 30 items to think about, but it serves its purpose.  The “Back to School Checklist” helps me make sure that the simple and mundane pieces of the puzzle are not forgotten or allowed to fall between the cracks.  I couldn’t agree more with Atul Gawande, who in The Checklist Manifesto noted :

“The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we. land?).”

In the spring, my son was finding learning to read a challenge.  He loves school, loves books, enjoys listening and telling stories; but found learning to read quite difficult.  He has been fortunate to be supported by some of the best literacy teachers I have ever encountered, yet he still struggled.  We met.  We discussed strategies, plans, approaches, and after months, eventually hit upon eyesight.  It has been about 6 months since he had had his eyes last tested.   In short, he got glasses and began experiencing greater success with his reading.  As an educator and a parent, I found myself asking … why didn’t I think of it sooner?  I know better!  I needed a checklist.

Checklists exists throughout the world, in every profession.  They are central components to aviation.  Pilots have well developed checklists for everyday routines like taking off, or the unexpected incidents of a bird strike.  The medical profession is adopting a 90 second surgery checklist that has reduced patient deaths and complications by 1/3.  The skyscraper industry uses checklists to reliably manage complexity.  Van Halen even added “no brown M&Ms” to their concert riders (checklists) to help monitor compliance.

In the many schools since Monterrey, ASFM has remained the only one that provided teachers with a back to school checklist.  End of year checklists have been more common, and few have used checklists to support student learning (RIT, support services, etc.).  I find myself wondering, how can the world of education make better use of the checklist to improve student learning?   What checklists can I use to more deliberately to effectively manage the increasingly complex world of students, education and learning?

Start With Teachers

Originally Posted February 2011

I believe that schools are great places, filled with great people, and great learning; but in the complex world of the

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21st century, that’s simply not enough.  Our students deserve better than simply maintaining the status quo.  As a profession, we have a responsibility of becoming “better”.  What does it take to become better?  According to Atul Gawande, it simply “takes a willingness to try”. But where do you start?  What do you try?

I think that Schmoker and Marzano convincingly say, start with the teachers.  Their work clearly links the quality of a teacher with student learning and success.  A year with an ineffective teacher greatly inhibits student learning and achievement.  Two successive years of ineffective instruction is debilitating.  In contrast, a year with a highly effective teacher is very powerful and two successive years with highly effective teachers enables student learning and achievement to soar.  So, what do you do?

You start by being a learning leader.  You start by being a teacher.  I think that everyone in education aspires to be the “highly effective” teachers.  People always want to do their best.  No one wants to be the “ineffective teacher”.  However, like the students in our classrooms and people in every profession, there are varying decrees of competence and excellence.  So where do you start? What do you try?

You start with the positive assumption that teachers are doing the best they can with what they know, and begin to expand the depth and breadth of their knowledge. People are comfortable sticking to what they know and what they know works.  It’s human nature.  Why reinvent the wheel?  So show them something new, something alternative, something better. Show them that “new wheel”!  Share a favourite book. author, website, blog, podcast or resource. It’s unreasonable to expect students to learn something new unless we have shared it with them.  Why should teachers be any different?  Show your colleagues a better possibility and they will more likely to attempt a new instructional practice rather than stick with the familiar and known.

Get teachers working together.  Today’s world is too complex to manage by yourself.  Schools and the work of educators, is no different.  Build schedules that allow for easy collaboration. Include training and staff development on collaboration.  Cooperation is easy.  Collaboration is hard work. People need to know how to participate in a collaborative group, they need to know how to produce an agenda, to come to a decision and communicate it,  to understand the difference between dialogue and discussion.  The work of Robert Garmston with the Center for Adaptive Schools is a great place to start.  Start modeling the use of protocols when working with small and large groups, and gradually begin training the early adapters and informal leaders in your community on their use and purpose.  If you do, Critical Friends Group training will soon follow.

Start getting rid of shared drives, servers, Rubicon Atlas, and cluttered email In boxes.  Begin using Google’s Education Apps in your school.  There are incredible tools at your finger tips, so get exploring.  Google Docs and Google Calendar are simple and effective tools for getting people to work together collaboratively.  Imagine teams of teachers meeting together to purposefully discuss and share ideas about student learning. Tools like Google Docs are great for collaboratively building agendas, sharing nuts and bolts, and keeping the minutes from a meeting at everyone’s finger tips, their true power is in the ability of teams to craft Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings together, to build units of study or collections of shared resources together, and reflect on student learning at anytime, from anywhere.

Be a role model.  Get out of the office.  Get out of the meeting and into the classrooms and hallways.  Make it an uncompromising priority.  Actions speak louder than words.  As the learning leader in your school, start talking to students about learning.  Start talking to teachers about learning.  Engage in these conversations daily. If you do, students and teachers will take notice.  Fiedlwork Education’s “Looking For Learning” has excellent resources and ideas for building this reflective practice.  Soon teachers, students, and all community members will see that learning is the priority, not teaching.  They will see how they are expected to interact with each other.  They will be more likely to visit each other’s classrooms.  We know that providing students with exemplars is an effective instructional practice.  So why not do it with your faculty?  Get your teachers learning from the best, by seeing the best!

If students are the most important people in your school and their learning is the central focus, then what are you doing to make it better?  All you need to do is try.

Hey, Coach!

Coach

Originally Posted October 2010

Last night was a great night.  I spent a wonderful two hours under the lights, on a lush green pitch, in a very arid Saudi Arabia, starting to learn how to be a little league soccer coach.  For the past two years, I have “supposedly” been coaching my son’s soccer teams.  In reality, the actual coaching was left to those who ran practice, introduced specific skills, and gave timely feedback.  My turn as coach, came in on game days and I’d have to characterize my role as more of a cheerleader, moderator, medic, and “cat herder” than coach.

Throughout my training session, I couldn’t help but see strong parallels between my role as a soccer coach and my daily life as an elementary teacher.  The soccer skills program has a clearly defined set of skills that are outlined over time, and build upon skills that already exist.  The program was designed with the end in mind, has success criteria that are specific, easy to understand, and of a high standard.  A scope and sequence is in place, and timely feedback is expected.  There is even a common lesson structure :

  • explain what to do
  • model what to do
  • have the kids do it
  • provide precise, immediate corrective feedback
  • allow opportunities for repeated practice
  • when they can do it, move on

Is this the type of learning environment you’d expect for yourself or your family?  Is this a type of learning environment that you’d be interested in joining?  Does this remind you of any school that you know?

As a literacy teacher, like many of my colleagues, I’ve adopted a workshop model for instruction, and my reading and writing lessons have a similar lesson structure to those my son’s soccer practices.  As hard as it is, I strive to keep my mini lessons, “mini” — allowing myself 10 -12 minutes to explain and model the lesson’s focus.  I know that any longer, and  “ … teacher talk results in cognitive overload, student anxiety, and valuable information going in one ear and out the other.” (Jones)  Most of my class time is spent with kids having the opportunity to independently practice and grow particular concepts or skills.  To become a better readers, students need to read.  To become better writers, students need to write.  Like an effective soccer coach, my role is to closely watch my students and provide timely complimentary and corrective individual feedback.  Conferences and guided flexible groupings allow me do to this.  The power of conferencing with students and talking to them about their learning is clearly effective.

I find myself reflecting on my professional practice, wondering how lessons from youth soccer transfer from the pitch into the classroom or school, and thinking about how schools compare to youth soccer.  I wonder how many schools have a clearly articulated, guaranteed, and viable curriculum like the soccer program?  How can I do a better job of providing timely, individualized, corrective feedback to my students like I do at soccer?   Feedback at soccer certainly drives instruction.  As a teacher, are my assessments primarily OF learning or FOR learning?  During a curriculum course at the PTC in Miami this summer, we discussed agreed upon instructional strategies and the power of common lesson structures.  They are in place at the soccer academy.  Could I say the same about the different teams, divisions, and schools where I’ve worked?  What about other international schools?

Taking the time to coach little league soccer is great.  Not only am I learning a lot about coaching and soccer, but it is helping me reflect on my professional life, grow as an educator, and most importantly, I get to spend time with my son doing something that he loves.

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