Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

The similarities between successful teaching, professional development, and leadership

 

Dennis Sparks“Big Idea”: The practices of successful teaching, successful professional development, and successful leadership are remarkably similar.

In my view, a common set of principles regarding human learning and relationships underlie teaching, professional development, and leadership that intends to continuously improve teaching and learning.

Good teaching, as I see it, is an intellectually-rich science and a psychologically demanding improvisational art that is practiced in an ever changing landscape of relationships with students, colleagues, and parents. And like other endeavors that blend science and art, it can be improved through years of practice with frequent reflection on the effectiveness of one’s efforts.

The same description could be applied to skillful school leadership and to professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because I view teaching, leadership, and professional development as closely linked, I frequently ask administrators and teacher leaders who face daunting challenges in their work to imagine how a good teacher would think about and respond to those challenges.

The following posts highlight the understandings and processes that inform effective practice in these three areas. They were among the most widely distributed and read posts of the past year.

“Learning by doing while thinking about it”

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

You can peruse all posts in the “teaching” category here.

 

Seeing what is invisible to others…

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The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is. – Marcel Proust

I recently read a fascinating book by Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes. 

In each chapter Horowitz takes a walk around her Manhattan block or in other neighborhoods with different experts to understand what they see that escapes Horowitz/s conscious awareness. She walks with a geologists, a biologist, a researcher in pedestrian behavior, a sound technician, skilled medical diagnosticians, and so on.

Each walk revealed to Horowitz a world that was previously invisible to her and provided experiences through which she believes she will be forever changed.

Horowitz writes: “There is a certain bias in everyone’s perspective that has been named, by the French, deformation professionnelle: the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of one’s profession.”

What do expert teachers and principals see that I would not?

As I read the book I found myself wondering what expert teachers  and principals see each day in their classrooms and schools that would be invisible to me. A great deal, I suspect.

But my experience in spending time with such educators has revealed that they are often not as skillful as Horowitz’s experts in explaining what they observe and what it means.

While accomplished teachers and principals see patterns and details that escape my notice, they may or may not be able to explain it in the complex and nuanced way that, say, an expert on pedestrian behavior offered his running commentary to Horowitz as they strolled down a Manhattan street.

Here are two fundamental reasons why I think that’s true:

• Teachers’ and principals’ expertise has not been acknowledged and appreciated within and beyond the school community. As a result, they might think that everyone sees what they see and does what they do. These teachers and principals often find it hard to imagine that not everyone thinks and acts as they do.

• They have had few opportunities to polish that expertise by sharing it with others.

Such fine-tuning and collegiality benefit both the individual teacher or administrator and the broader school community and are hallmarks of outstanding schools.

The continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students requires that accomplished teachers and principals share their expertise — which begins with what they are observing and thinking.

Three things are required to develop and tap that expertise:

1. Developing expertise through experience and reflection on the effects of one’s practice on student learning and other valued outcomes. Years of such practice are essential. (10,000 hours is an oft-cited number of hours required to develop expertise.)

2. Honing one’s descriptive abilities through conversation such as those that occur in team meetings and writing in journals and blogs.

3. Sharing that expertise within a culture of continuous improvement. (Creating such a culture, I believe, belongs among the highest priorities of principals and teacher leaders.)

I encouraged  teacher leaders and principals who wish to take their performance to another level to invite others into their classrooms and schools and to explain to them in close to real-time what is observed and the thought processes behind the countless management and instructional decisions made during a particular lesson or throughout the day.

Effective instructional coaches and principals, of course, enable such mindful professional learning processes.

Horowitz concludes, “An expert can only indicate what she sees; it is up to your own head to tune your senses and your brain to see it. Once you catch that melody, and keep humming, you are forever changed.”

What do skillful school leaders do to enable the school community to “catch the melody, and keep humming”?

When professional learning is a barrier to continuous improvement…

 

Dennis SparksIn my experience most of us already know enough to make a much larger difference. 

While additional knowledge and skills may be helpful, a significant barrier to continuous improvement is the “default setting” of many educators to learn more before acting.

I value learning. I have always enjoyed learning how to do my work more effectively and efficiently. I enjoy learning about a diverse range of subjects that interest me. And I appreciate learning about things that I didn’t know interested me, like when my eye travels from shelf to shelf in a library or bookstore or when I follow a series of hyperlinks wherever they may take me.

But the endless pursuit of new professional learning can also be a barrier, and even a form of procrastination or avoidance, to diligently applying what we already know to improve leadership and teaching for the students who are in our classrooms today.

Sometimes the search for “perfect” knowledge prevents us from acting on the “good enough” knowledge that will benefit students now.

How do you distinguish between “I already know enough” and “New learning is essential?”

 

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.

And:

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

 

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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

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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.


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