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As I read about Google’s New Car said to have been “designed for learning and is considered to be a prototype that could develop in a lot of different directions,” I thought of how this concept of a "work in progress" speaks to learning as a process that is often messy.
What is Learning?
Learning can be described as the acquisition of skills and knowledge through experiences, study or by being taught. For learning to take place, methods, techniques, activities and assessments are organized within the frame of a learning theory and consideration is given to learners’ needs. All of these elements then comprise an instructional plan.
Learning is Not Smooth
It is of course a good thing to have a plan because a plan tells you what to do, how to do it, holds you to a timeframe and provides you with a means to evaluate what you have done. However, though it is important to have a plan, it is not prudent to spend inordinate amounts of time planning for every possible mishap, because inevitably, something will go awry, in other words, some type of mess is bound to occur. This is not necessarily a negative because deciding on a solution for a mess provides an opportunity to learn. Messes allow for the spontaneity of natural expression, which feeds the love for learning, gives way to creativity, which in turn draws on errors and uses same to find solutions that are outside of the box.
Understand the Mess
We must be careful to not standardize how learning takes place to the point of sterilizing the learning process, that is, making narrow decisions about what should or should not be within the bounds of what we consider to be learning and ignore occurrences that we do not immediately recognize as part of the learning process.
As Boettecher (2007) points out learning is not about producing "standardized brains." As such, it is perfectly natural for instance, that some students may not complete an assigned task because all students do not grasp concepts at the same rate. Similarly, a student who decides to follow another path (other than that prescribed by the teacher) to accomplish a task but still attain the required outcome, should not be chided for doing so because like Google’s New Car, students’ learning can also develop in all sorts of directions.
These types of messes – referred to as such since things did not go as planned – provide the student and the teacher with an opportunity to extend the learning process. In fact, for teacher evaluations to be fair and accurate evaluators need to be able to recognize messes, to understand the role that they play in the learning process and able to determine which ones can be addressed immediately and which ones need to be addressed later.
Embrace the Mess
As long as we remain fully human and do not succumb to becoming Cyborgs (but then again even machines are known to malfunction), our propensity to make messes while we learn will continue be an enduring feature. We can, however, find ways to clean up our messes and by doing so continue to grow. Hence, let's embrace our learning messes and all the benefits that they offer.
Boettcher, J. V. (2007). Ten core principles for designing effective learning environments: Insights from brain research and pedagogical theory. Innovate, 3(3). www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=54
This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “how do cultivate and support teacher leaders?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.
Before forging ahead with plans to identify and cultivate teacher leaders, principals need to reassess whether they themselves fully understand what leadership is, whether their brand of leadership is still relevant, and whether they can identify how leadership is exhibited. Paying attention to these factors will evidence whether or not a “leadership gap” exists and determine if it is okay to move on with the process of selecting teacher leaders.
The Leadership Gap
The leadership gap refers to the lack of leadership skills that are needed to lead effectively. It is one of the factors that is said to contribute to the overall “skills gap,” that is, the lack of a skilled workforce needed to meet labor demands; an issue that has been blamed chiefly on educational institutions.
Leadership for the Future
In “Bridging the Gap,” a report based on a 2009 American Society for Training (ASTD) poll, 50 percent of the respondents stated that there was a lack of leadership skills in organizations. Similarly, the report “Understanding the Leadership Gap,” based on results from a 2010 survey conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to compare leadership skills that are deemed important “now” to those that will be deemed important in the future, found that leaders lack the skills that they need to be effective. Leadership skills that were identified as being important for the future include:
It is important to note that in the 2010 survey “employee development,” which was not listed as being an important leadership skill for now; it was added to the list as an important leadership skill for the future. This skill, together with another, that of employing participative management, are directly related to how teacher leaders can be identified and cultivated. For instance, in its white paper entitled, “Re-imagining Teaching: Five Structures to Transform the Profession,” the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) writes of one type of participative management, which is referred to as “distributed leadership.” This involves giving teachers the chance to take on leadership roles among peers and allowing them to participate in making school wide decisions including decisions about instruction. Principals would have to relinquish some control in order to put this type of initiative in place; in essence they would be required to change their leadership style.
In fact, the results of a 2013 study conducted by the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) entitled, “The Leadership Deficit” also suggest that there is a leadership skills deficit and that this it is chiefly due to outdated leadership styles and insufficient resources employed to develop potential leaders.
Close the Leadership Gap, Close the Skills Gap
These studies offer insights into best practices when it comes to what skills leaders need in order to effectively identify and cultivate other leaders. Perhaps armed with such insights, educators can make a dent in the leadership gap, which may in turn have some bearing on the skills gap.
Frames or frameworks come in different forms including graphic organizers, curriculums and evaluation models. Though they are great tools for teaching concepts, learning can be stymied by their use if they are not used with elasticity.
Consider for instance using a web graphic organizer, divided into beginning, middle and end to teach sequencing. When using this frame, students can easily provide events that are linked and that give a clear picture of a whole. However, when given a blank sheet of paper and asked to write a narrative, students often lose focus, that is, stray from the topic and their writing lack coherence. One reason for this is that students become too dependent on the frame. Their thinking becomes fixed within the frame and it becomes challenging for them to use what they have learned outside of the immediate confines of the frame. One way to address this particular situation is to stretch the web frame by deconstructing the narrative into sequential parts; a sort of backward design approach.
Curriculums too need to be stretched. For instance, if teachers are fixated on completing units within the time stipulated by the curriculum, they are likely to overlook certain things like whether too much information was presented for that particular time frame and whether this resulted in cognitive dissonance, or, if some information could have been presented differently based on their knowledge of the students. Having this type of information is essential for promoting deeper understanding.
Similarly, if evaluation models are used stringently, the nuances of teaching and learning are likely to be missed. Evaluators need to be armed not only with criteria but also need to have a working knowledge of instruction in order to introduce a measure of elasticity, such as drawing on tacit knowledge and engaging teachers. Such elasticity is likely to ensure that thinking is not contained within the immediate limits of the model.
For optimum use, remember to stretch the frame beyond its immediate limit.
When it comes to technology, a great way to build, apply and measure (BAM) learning is to focus on three major ways in which devices can be used.
In Educational Technology for Teaching and Learning, Newby et al, list three roles that computers play in integrating technology in the classroom: teacher, learner and assistant. They explain that computer as teacher acts like a human teacher or tutor, presenting instructions, materials, evaluating and giving feedback; that the computer as learner is taught by the student to accomplish a task and that the computer as assistant helps individuals to perform tasks. When these ideas were first proposed, the computer was the technological device of the day. However, today, many of the computer's functions can be accomplished with the latest digital devices like the iPad. Nevertheless, the roles themselves are still useful.
Placing the roles in the order of teacher, assistant, learner (TAL) provides opportunities for scaffolding learning. For instance, the student first completes a drill and practice activity to reinforce vocabulary (teacher), then the student conducts research to learn more about specific vocabulary (assistant) and last the student develops a presentation to demonstrate the research (learner). This scaffolding process requires a tool that provides opportunities for application while building learning and one that also provides opportunities to measure learning. An excellent tool for doing this is the Technology Integration Matrix (TIM).
As described on the website, the TIM links five levels of technology integration (entry, adoption, adaptation, infusion and transformation) with five characteristics of meaningful learning environments (active, constructive, goal directed, authentic and collaborative) to create a matrix of 25 cells. These cells reflect the TAL scaffolding process. For example, the entry-active matrix where students are mostly passive speaks to the role of teacher; the adoption-active matrix where students begin to use devices for procedural purposes speaks to the assistant aspect of TAL and the adaptation-active, infusion-active and transformation-active matrices where students are beginning to use devices more independently and with higher order thinking activities, relate to the role of learner.
The TIM also provides activities that demonstrate how to implement the matrix. Furthermore, the TIM aligns well with both the Profiles for Technology (ICT) Literate Students and the National Educational Technology Standards and Performance Indicators for students (NETS*S).
BAM – building, applying and measuring using the above mentioned tools in combination will ensure continuous and sustained learning.
An intriguing viewpoint posited in the article, “Rethinking Learning,” found on www.3gSelling.com, is that we often base our decisions more on what we are accustomed to than on what really works best. This is a useful perspective from which to examine expections and decisions that are made with regard to curriculum use and teacher evaluation.
It is not unusual for the directions on how to use a curriculum to include an admonition that in order to be used effectively, the curriculum must be followed as is. Doing this is often problematic because though learning takes place within a process, learning itself is not linear.
Hence, a teacher might opt to complete a particular aspect of a lesson based on what she knows about her students and not on a stipulated timeframe or, manner stiuplated by the curriculum. This type of professional judgment is integral for meeting specific needs through such vehicles like diversity, personalized learning and differentiation; all of which focus on meeting individual’s needs.
Given this recognition of varying individual needs, it is equally important to understand and accept that even when different instructional methods are used, not all students will grasp concepts at the same time. Similarly, a teacher will not always be able to address learning deficiencies during one lesson. Being able to do this is highly dependent on the nature of the lesson and student effort.
This is an especially important issue for evaluators during classroom observations. Conclusions about a teacher's practice should not be based on how many students did not grasp a particular concept at one point and time but rather they should be centered on what the teacher does subsequently and how effective it is in moving students towards mastery. This is in keeping with the true nature of learning, which occurs overtime and at a different pace for each person.
Unrealistic expectations and unsound decisions easily become the norm because they sound great and because changing them entails some discomfort. However, for learning to thrive, these habits need to be laid to rest.
The belief that standardized test scores are the most viable means that can be used to determine student learning, is so deeply rooted in our psyche that we have embraced the practice of evaluating teachers of non-tested subjects based on the results of subjects that they do not teach. This should be scandalous; especially given that this practice negates the main goal of evaluation systems, which is to hold teachers' accountable for student performance based on what they teach.
The Tennessee Fine Arts Growth Measure System brightens the prospect that this practice would eventually cease. This System incorporates students' portfolios and peer reviews to gauge teacher effectiveness. As Tracy McNelly notes, portfolios focus on teacher demonstration, professional development and teacher assessment. Together, these factors provide a more complete picture of a teacher's performance. Also, the use of peer reviews provides an opportunity to bring about true education reform by helping to create an evaluation structure that deviates from and that holds more promise than traditional evaluations systems in terms of effectively capturing and determining how a teacher’s professional growth influences student achievement.
In addition to providing a more comprehensive look at a teacher’s performance, portfolios and peer reviews are in line with the much lauded 21st century skills. Portfolios are authentic artifacts that are better suited than standardized test scores for illustrating, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, decision-making and learning. Similarly, peer reviews require communication and collaboration. As such, the use of these two tools helps to exemplify what is meant by “teaching is an art.” Furthermore, using portfolios and peer reviews also help to restore the humanity into evaluation systems that have become far too mechanical, subjecting all those involved; school leaders, teachers and students to mind numbing activities.
Perhaps this is an opportunity for educators to act on Craig Mertler’s call for courageous educators. In this case, the call is for educators to speak up about this practice of evaluating teachers of non-tested subjects on subjects and for students that they do not teach. It is a practice that diminishes recognition for the contributions that teachers make equipping their students with the knowledge and skills that they need for future success.
It's one week into the school year and the literacy PD plan has been launched. Summer readings are done, classroom routines are developing. The readers' workshop is up and running! We're on the right path. But there's always a challenge when we set a plan into action, we get busy and lose focus. It's similar to the resolutions we set for the new year. We tell ourselves this is the year I'll lose 10 pounds, this is the year I'll cut down that credit card debt, this is the year that I'll run the NYC marathon. Great goals....but without reflection you'll never meet your intention. So let's take a moment to reflect about the purpose of reflection (every pun intended). It's with good intention that we set goals, right? We often hear people say, oh, she had every good intention.....meaning, she meant to do something but she didn't. But without reflection there's no point of intention. I know, I know....let me make this real! I intend to develop best practices in the area of reading workshop with my colleagues. Why? So students become skilled, critical thinking readers. I set the intention, I took the first step and outlined a plan, provided professional readings, had teacher team discussions, and started observing in classrooms. The goal is concrete, the intention has been set but if I don't stop and reflect, there's no point to it all! Teaching IS reflective practice. If it's not, then it's just a lot of "wah, wah, wah," think Charlie Brown. It becomes a whole lot of talking at kids, depositing information, requesting students to complete tasks, and so on and so on. And come on, we don't really believe our students are empty vessels do we? No, so we set our intentions, make a plan, and take the time to reflect because we want our students to thrive in the classroom, to feel challenged. We want to be the best professional we can be, we want to challenge ourselves as practitioners to study, learn, and reflect!
The theme of this opening week is reflection on the intention. Am I following the plan? Am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing? Could I do it better? I challenge everyone one of us to take a moment after this first week to reflect! To remind yourself of your teaching intention. Examine the plan you created and applaud yourself for those things you accomplished this week. Reflect on what didn't work and fine tune it. Intention, planning, reflection. This is the formula for best practices.
When rolling out a new curriculum, it is important to create a stimulating learning environment that enables teachers to visualize how various components work together to form the whole and to equip them with implementation know-how. Four factors must be considered in order to do this effectively: goal setting, an overview, lesson plan and evaluation.
Goal Setting: Though it might seem a “given” that the expected goal for introducing a new curriculum is that teachers are able to use the curriculum to promote student achievement, it is important to state this and to attach some sort of measure that will demonstrate how concepts are used and what results are evident. Stating expectations explicitly motivates teachers to work purposefully.
The Overview: This consists of a “brief” summary of the curriculum components (using segment headings for instance) that helps to ease teachers into the program. However, be creative and go beyond using a bulleted PowerPoint to introduce the overview. For instance, use an opener (a start-up activity that relates to what will be covered). One such example is to have teachers match the different components to summaries. This helps to get teachers thinking about the content of the curriculum.
The Structure: It is always tempting to take information provided by vendors and use them as is but this is one of the least effective ways to present a new curriculum. It often engenders boredom and tiredness. Consider other means. For instance, dissect the information in a way that allows for the curriculum structure to be juxtaposed to lesson plan items. Doing this enhances teachers’ visualization and contextual understanding. It demonstrates more clearly how the different components of the curriculum work as a whole. And, an added benefit of using this strategy is that the planning required to create the juxtaposition is likely to cement the understanding of the individuals who are responsible for introducing the curriculum.
The Lesson Plan: Begin with a graphic organizer that shows the flow of the lesson with brief descriptions of lesson segments. Employ an actual lesson to move teachers along the flow but use a presentation method that is engaging, (solicits teacher participation) mixed (multimedia, role play) but balanced (not too much of either method). For instance, introduce each lesson segment with a lecturette, show a video or do a role play. When teachers move along the flow, have them record questions, and or concerns that will be addressed at the end of the flow cycle. These questions and concerns are useful in identifying possible barriers to proper transfer of knowledge and implementation in the classroom.
Evaluate: Teachers started out without knowing the curriculum and without knowing how to use it. Can they now implement the curriculum after going through the process described above? The measurement/s established during goal setting is to be used for this purpose.
Scrolling through a PowerPoint of “ready-made” material is convenient and faster. However, using some creativity as proposed herein is more likely to produce positive long-term results.
It is what teachers do all the time and it is a great way to replace hodgepodge professional development planning with professional developing planning that is effective: begin with a baseline; provide support; and evaluate.
Begin with a baseline: What do teachers need in order to continue to grow professionally and to enhance student achievement? How do these needs relate to the school’s goals? Anwering these questions require two things. One is teacher reflection that determines where the teacher is and what she wishes to improve, or, add to her instructional toolbox. The other is having an honest conversation with the school leadership about how the teacher’s needs are linked to the school’s goals. This information is recorded by both parties as part of the teacher’s professional development plan.
If the school plans to introduce new iniatives, it is a good idea to ask the teacher if and what she knows about these initiatives. Responses will provide further insights to the type of professional development opportunities that would be useful. Also, a good way to ensure that all teachers are interviewed is to list meetings on the school’s internal planning tool.
Evaluation criteria are established during this step and are based on the questions posed earlier. Hence, enhancement of teacher practice, student achievement, and impact on the schoolwide community are factors that are measured. These factors typify Danielson’s framework domain one (planning and preparation), domain three (instruction), and four (professional responsibilities), respectively.
Provide Support: As noted earlier, recorded goals and responses to questions about initiatives are great sources to use to plan appropriate, group and differentiated professional development. In addition to providing internal professional development opportunities, school leadership should also consider allowing teachers to attend external professional development sessions during school hours. However, in keeping with the effort to create an effective professional development plan, these sessions should also be included as part of the school’s internal planning tool to ensure a smooth transition of instructional changes that are needed in the teacher’s absence.
Additionally, teachers are to be encouraged, after a reasonable time has passed, to share what they have learned, what challenges they faced when implementing new learning, how implementation affects their practice and urged to provide a demonstration for their peers. And, they are to be recognized for their efforts and accomplishments.
Evaluate: Now that goals have been set in accordance with teachers’ and the school’s needs and a support base has been established, evaluation can take place. How has the professional development that teachers have engaged in enhanced practice, student achievement and the school community as a whole? The criteria established during goal setting are used to conduct the evaluation that will help to answer this question.
One other area that is often overlooked but that must also be evaluated is the process. How effective has the process been in promoting professional development? This can be determined by using feedback from teachers together with implementation results.
This approach of using a baseline to meet specific needs, providing support by making it possible for teachers to practice and share what they learn and evaluating to determine the value of professional development, is simple but useful for promoting a healthy environment for effecting growth in teaching and learning.