Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

Can teachers give away what they don’t have?

Dennis Sparks

• Is it possible for teachers to create classroom cultures of high-cognitive engagement if their own meetings and professional development require little intellectual engagement?

• Is it possible for teachers in a school with incoherent, fragmented improvement efforts to create coherent, focused instruction in their classrooms?

• Is it possible for teachers who work in professional isolation to create classrooms with high-levels of student cooperation?

The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But, it’s a qualified yes.

Within every school—not matter how problematic its culture and structures may be—there are teachers who rise above the circumstances of their environment.

But if the goal is quality teaching and learning in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then the bar for intellectual engagement and meaningful collaboration in faculty meetings, school culture, and professional development is set much higher.

Put another way, a school faculty cannot give away what it doesn’t experience on a regular basis in the professional culture of the school.

Do you agree? 

A professional responsibility to continuously improve teaching

Dennis Sparks

My previous post highlighted the problem of “either/or thinking” when it’s applied to professional development.

Such thinking is also a problem when educators discuss their responsibility for improving student learning in the face of poverty and other challenging economic and social conditions.

Some say that poverty is too strong a force for schools to overcome. Others believe that there is ample evidence that schools can teach all students to high levels no matter what their socio-economic status may be.

For me it is not either/or, but both/and.

I am fully convinced the poverty affects student learning and the overall quality of children’s lives. That seems irrefutable.

Poverty has a profoundly negative effect on the quality of life for young people and their families. I hope that educators join with others to do everything in their power to blunt its impact if not eliminate it.


We know a great deal about the kind of teaching that engages all students in meaningful learning, no matter their socio-economic status. And we know a great deal about the kinds of structures (professional learning communities, for instance) and the attributes of school cultures that enable such teaching.

As a result, educators have a professional responsibility to continuously improve the quality of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students, particularly those facing daunting life challenges.

Do you agree or disagree? What are the individual and collective responsibilities of educators in the face of serious social problems?


11 dysfunctional beliefs that profoundly undermine leadership, teaching, and learning

 Dennis Sparks

Change the way you think, and you are halfway to changing the world. —Theodore Zeldin

You may call them beliefs, assumptions, conceptual frames, mental models, or world views.

While for the most part they may be invisible to us, they are likely to have a profound effect on leadership and teaching.

And, as a result, when left unexamined, some of our beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are 11 such disabling beliefs that provide an often unspoken subtext in countless professional conversations:

1. Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

2. Teaching is a non-intellectual, low-skilled, primarily nurturing activity.

3. Good teachers and leaders are born, not made.

4. Teaching is “telling” and performing.

5. Content is “delivered”; learning is demonstrated by repeating what one has been “told.”

6.. Leadership of change means giving directions. Teachers who do not do as they are directed are “resistant.”

7. For the most part teachers know what to do and how to do it; they just have to be motivated to do it.

6. Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

9. Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

10. Therefore, the primary means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

11. It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Are there any dysfunctional beliefs that you would add to or subtract from this list?

The 6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development


Dennis Sparks

Powerful professional development has as its primary and overarching purpose the creation of professional learning that affects what teachers believe, understand, say, and do on a daily basis for the benefit of all students.  (To better understand the distinction between professional development and professional learning, please read this.)

To that end, such professional development:

Deepens teachers’ knowledge of the content they teach, including pedagogical content knowledge. It also expands teachers’ repertoire of research-based instructional skills to teach that content and provides classroom management skills appropriate to their settings. For the most part, such development will be individualized or occur in small-groups based on self assessment, teacher evaluation, standardized test scores, student work, and other sources of information.

Provides teachers with classroom assessment skills—what experts call “assessment for learning.” Such skills allow teachers to diagnose student learning problems and to monitor in real time gains in student learning resulting from newly-acquired classroom practices.

Embedded in teachers’ daily work. Job embedded does not mean having workshops occur in schools rather than district meeting rooms. Instead, it requires that the learning be closely linked to school and classroom-specific student learning problems with frequent opportunities for problem solving and hands-on assistance from colleagues and coaches.

Provides sustained classroom assistance in implementing new instructional skills. Teachers regularly receive individualized feedback and meaningful support from skillful coaches and others within their professional communities.

Has at its core a small team of teachers who meet regularly as part of their work day to plan lessons, critique student work, and assist in problem solving.

Is surrounded by a culture that encourages innovation, experimentation, and continuous improvement. The creation of such cultures is a fundamental responsibility of principals and teacher leaders.

These attributes are synergistic, with each enriching the others.

And the absence of any one of these six attributes can seriously diminish the likelihood that the overall effort will significant improve the quality of teaching in every classroom and the learning of all students.

What have I missed?


What is your story: Why did you become an educator?

Dennis Sparks Here’s a story told by a principal that has stuck with me since I first read it in 2001:

“When I was in 3rd grade my father died. I was greeted at school the following day by my principal who held me in his arms and told me in a voice I believed, ‘You are going to be okay.’ That’s when I knew I would be. I’m a principal today because I wanted to be someone who could make such a powerful difference for a child.” ***

Most teachers and principals have a story that explains why they became an educator. Sometimes their stories are about exemplars who inspired them to follow their example, like in the story above.

Sometimes their stories describe a strong desire to improve conditions or remedy a wrong they experienced as students or earlier in their educational careers.

Reminding ourselves of our stories—and hearing the stories of our colleagues—can reinforce or reacquaint us with the motives that first drew us into teaching and leadership.

Sharing such stories in faculty meetings—which in small groups may only take a few minutes—increases staff cohesion as teachers develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of one another.

The collective content of such stories can also inspire and guide the creation of schools in which everyone thrives, adults and young people alike.

What is your story?

***This story was recounted by George Manthey in the October 2001 issue of The School Administrator. It’s a story that undoubtedly had special resonance coming just a few weeks after the events of September 11.

Why a school community’s primary purpose is creating the non-inevitable



The inevitable will take care of itself, the eternal will always be there, but the non-inevitable is the real plane of the human spirit. – Robert Fritz

Left unaddressed, some things are inevitable:

• If unaddressed, the quality of teaching in most schools will vary from superb to mediocre to poor.

• If unaddressed, the quality of school leadership will vary across a school system from superb to mediocre to poor.

• And most important of all and tightly linked to the items above, if unaddressed, students’ learning will closely reflect their socioeconomic status rather than their capacity to learn.

The “non-inevitable” means:

• Student learning reflects their capacity to learn, not their socioeconomic or family status. Put another way, their zip codes will not determine their success in school.

• High-quality teaching and learning occur every day in all classrooms for all students.

• School culture enables strong teamwork, experimentation, and continuous improvement in teaching and learning for the benefit of everyone in the school community.

• Robust professional development enables high-quality professional learning so that all teachers can provide quality teaching every day.

A primary and overarching purpose of a school community is to create the non-inevitable, which Fritz rightly calls the “plane of the human spirit,” a spirit that is essential in sustaining continuous improvement in the face of countless challenges and setbacks.

Our students deserve no less. All of them.


The consequences for students of settling for too little


The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.   – Thomas Merton

Temptation to settle for too little must be a well-established part of the human condition if Thomas Merton finds it worthy of comment.

What might that temptation mean for educators?

• We may settle for too little from ourselves.

• We may settle for too little from our students.

• We may settle for too little from our colleagues and the school community.

Like in all things, the remedy begins with us—with intention and commitment we move beyond comfortable beliefs, goals, habits, and routines to attempt things which may seem impossible.

• We envision schools in which every student experiences quality teaching every day.

• We envision schools in which all teachers continuously improve throughout their careers.

• We envision schools in which teachers and students are surrounded by supportive relationships.

Taken together, we envision schools in which everyone learns and thrives, and we do all that we can each day to enable their creation.

And should we fall short of that aspiration, I am confident we would have accomplished far more than we would have if we had pursued more modest goals.

And I’m confident no one will have accused us of settling for too little.

“Learning by doing while thinking about it”

Dennis Sparks

I admire people who can say important things with concision and precision.

When the subject is a topic as complex as teaching and learning, I admire it even more.

Marion Brady did just that in a recent essay

“No textbook ever printed, no lecture ever delivered, no computer program ever written puts school subjects to more relevant use, more thoroughly engages every thought process, or more directly simulates creativity, than learning by doing while thinking about it.”

Put another way, “learning by doing while thinking about it” means learning through engagement in worthwhile, challenging activities that require thinking deeply about them both during that engagement and afterwards. 

That’s the kind of learning environment I would like all  students and educators to experience every day.

For students, that would mean deep, sustained engagement in meaningful long-term projects and in solving real-world problems with other students and adult collaborators.

 For educators, that would mean deep, sustained interdependent engagement with their colleagues, meaningfully supported by their leaders, as they address the most challenging issues of teaching and learning. 

While “presenters” and “motivational speakers” may play a minor role in such professional development, they are not its sum and substance.

 Instead, “learning by doing while thinking about it” means team-focused, hands on participation in lesson planning, assessment of students’ work, and seeking solutions to pressing classroom problems, among other things.

What’s your experience with learning by doing that includes ample time for reflection on the learning?

Why professional development without substantial follow-up is malpractice

Dennis Sparks

If a primary goal of professional development is to affect what teachers believe, understand, and do on a daily basis, then . . . .

Offering “presentations” or “training” without intensive and sustained small-group dialogue, in-classroom coaching, and just-in-time problem solving is educational malpractice.

Put another way, “head learning” abstracted from practice without abundant opportunities for supportive on-the-job feedback and trouble shooting wastes the organization’s resources and squanders teachers’ good will.

Such malpractice is not only an ethical lapse, but is immoral when students’ learning and well being are negatively affected.

Of course, the presence or absence of many other things in classrooms and schools is malpractice.

What would you put on your “malpractice” list?

What’s in the “black box” of your school or school system?

Dennis Sparks

Years ago a professor invited me to his office seeking my endorsement of a proposal to solicit a large grant to improve middle school science instruction.

He showed me a large chart on his office wall. In the upper left hand corner was a box that indicated that teachers would be engaged with researchers over many months in designing the curriculum and instructional strategies.

The next box said that the curriculum and strategies would be field tested to determine their effectiveness. The third box pointed out that large numbers of teachers would be trained to use the curriculum and teaching strategies.

An arrow went from that box to a black box with no descriptive words attached to it. And, finally, an arrow went from the black box to a box that concluded that teachers would apply their new knowledge and skill and that student learning would improve.

I asked what the black box meant. The researcher shrugged his shoulders, saying that the box contained all the things that went on in schools that were outside of the researchers’ control but would affect whether teachers actually acquire deep understanding of the curriculum and apply the new practices.

Readers of this blog know the black box contains the elements of school culture (trust, clarity of purpose, etc.) and structure (time for meaningful collaboration, instructional coaching to support implementation, etc.) that determine whether or not innovations are adopted and  student learning improves.

What plans did they have to address that black box?, I asked the researcher. Another shrug, indicating his helplessness in the face of such forces..

What’s in the “black box” of your school or school system?

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