Back-to-School: 7 Questions Educators Should Ask
As we begin a new school year, it is easy to fall into the trap of planning, conducting meetings, and focusing on the first day of school. While planning is critically important, educators often focus on completing templates, meeting deadlines, and getting ready for opening day. Educators have shifted from merely teaching content to asking students thought-provoking questions. When it comes to teaching, we often operate based on tradition rather than seeking answers to questions which will have a positive impact on teaching and learning.
7 Questions Educators Should Ask:
1. Learning - Who Owns the Learning?
When I visit schools and observe classrooms, this is the question I ask myself (Alan November, 2012). Student contribution comes in the form of project-based learning. You can also see student contribution when a group of middle school students are making a video in science class, rather than watching a video. When students participate in a Socratic Seminar, you can hear students push back and ask clarifying questions. In a classroom where three students are designing a product, based on an authentic task you can see that students are applying their skills and demonstrating their understanding. Students enter kindergarten full of questions, ideas, curiosity, and imagination. By the time students reach middle school, many of them are bored and do not enjoy school.
2. Learning Space - Do Our Classrooms Empower Students To Practice Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Contribution?
Schools need to redesign the learning space in order to create a Culture of Learning. Analyze your student learning goals or outcomes. Does your current classroom design enable students to meet those goals (think collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, contribution, community, citizenship, literacy skills, leadership, innovation, relationships, virtual learning, problem solving, adaptability, and more)? Does your classroom need to look like a playground or Chuck E. Cheese? No. However, you could learn a lot about classroom design by visiting a playground, children’s museum, or arcade. When you observe students on a playground, you will see collaboration, communication, critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, citizenship, innovation, and community. We need more academic playgrounds. If teachers and administrators took time to reflect on the importance of design, purpose, and space, they may find that the old structure is a barrier to student achievement (Weber, ASCD EDge, 2014). All students deserve a learning space, not a classroom.
3. Partnerships - Does Our School Have a Plan For Communicating With Families?
Do you have a mechanism in place for instant feedback from parents, guardians, and stakeholders? Do you send home a note and expect that it will return to school the next day? If you are a fan of continuous improvement, then you will love the unsolicited feedback that you receive from individuals through a blog, school app and/or Twitter. Every school has a brand, similar to a restaurant, sports drink, or professional organization. Are you waiting for the local newspaper to print your story in six months? Great things happen in schools on a regular basis and when you use social media to tell your school's story, you will build followers and partners.
4. Assessment - Does Our School Have a Plan For Supporting Formative Assessment?
If student achievement is the goal, then educators must define what students will achieve and monitor the results of instruction and learning. Common formative assessments seem like a common sense approach in education, but many school districts still allow each professional educator to determine achievement based on assessments created by individuals rather than common formative assessments developed by professional learning teams.
“Formative assessment, done well, represents one of the most powerful instructional tools available to a teacher or a school for promoting student achievement. Teachers and schools can use formative assessment to identify student understanding, clarify what comes next in their learning, trigger and become part of an effective system of intervention for struggling students, inform and improve the instructional practice of individual teachers or teams, help students track their own progress toward attainment of standards, motivate students by building confidence in themselves as learners, fuel continuous improvement process across faculties, and, thus, drive a school's transformation” (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009, p. 640).
5. Reflection - How Will Each Staff Member Create White Space For Reflection and Growth?
When do you take time to reflect? Is reflection important? Can it support your continuous growth and development as an educator? John Maxwell, author of How Successful People Think, cites 11 skills for thinkers. When you share your thoughts, you will become more well-rounded as an educator. Schedule time for your own professional growth. Jeff Boss (Forbes, 2014) wrote, “White space allows you to get away from the chaos of the day to reflect and redirect your efforts towards those initiatives that yield the greatest impact. The human brain, like every other muscle in the human body, needs time to recharge, and if you keep plugging away at the keyboard all day or attending back-to-back meetings, your brain doesn’t get the rest it needs and soon runs dry—or empty.” Make reflection part of your weekly schedule to prevent burnout.
6. College and Career Readiness - Would You Hire Your Own Students?
Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need - And What We Can Do About It (2008), continues to challenge my thinking. This is a powerful question. Would you hire your own kids? The answer to this question may lead to “What should every student know and be able to do?” It is easy to look at the graduation rate and to pat our teachers on the backs when over 70% of the students demonstrate grade level mastery on a high stakes test. The real question is - “Would you hire your own students?”
7. Image - What Makes Your School Unique?
Would you send your own child to your school? When you give school tours, what makes your school unique? Does your school focus on the whole child? Do you have a strong parent teacher association (PTA)? Do you have a focus on STEAM? Families can send their child to public, private, charter, home schools, or study abroad. Why should a family send their child to your school?
“In the field of education schools are considered a brand. They promise value to residents of the district in terms of academic preparation to succeed in society. Many families will choose to reside in a specific district if the schools have a track record of academic success” (Sheninger, 2010).
Tweetable Moment - I encourage educators to search for a “Tweetable Moment.” If you walk through six classrooms and don’t see a “Tweetable Moment” you may have a problem with teaching and learning. Some classes will be administering a test and other classes will be returning from lunch. The power of the “Tweetable Moment” is that you can share how your school is teaching the 4 Cs: Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Creativity. If your school is focused on technology integration, then your “Tweetable Moments” will feature students with iPads, green screens, robots, designing infographics, and blogging. Families are seeking the best school.
“If you want to make discoveries, if you want to disrupt the status quo, if you want to make progress and find new ways of thinking and doing, you need to ask questions” (John Maxwell, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, 2014). Continuous improvement should be about answering questions, rather than checking off goals. School improvement plans provide teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders with a rudder for supporting all students. The questions we ask are often more important than completing the school improvement plan.