Archive for the 'Professional learning' Category

Addressing the “final 2%”

Learning produces physical change in the brain. —James Zull

I once read a critique of strategic planning that said it too often failed in its “final 2%,” that is, the part of the plan during which new ideas and practices are implemented by the people who do the frontline work of the organization.

That critique seemed equally valid for large-scale efforts to improve professional learning in schools.

Here’s a metaphor that may be helpful:

Imagine the United States investing trillions of dollars on a new and massive interstate highway system. 

Imagine all the time and energy and resources required to create legislation to authorize and fund the project and to pay engineers to design it and surveyors to lay out its course. Land would have to be purchased, contractors selected, and the roadway constructed.

Now imagine after years of planning and construction, the highway is complete, east to west and north to south in every state in the land.

But only one thing is missing—the off-ramps into the tens of thousands of towns it bypasses. It is essentially a highway to nowhere.

Those off-ramps are the final 2% of the highway project, the part that if not successfully executed negates the value of all that preceded it.

Like the first 98% of the illustrative highway system, schools and schools systems do a great many things in the name of professional development that may be important and even essential but in and of themselves do not affect learning and relationships in schools. 

Among these activities are establishing policies, forming planning committees, creating new positions, hiring individuals to fill those positions, and adapting union contracts to promote professional learning.

Unfortunately, leaders are often so exhausted by these activities that little energy remains for the most demanding work of all—implementing the new ideas and practices that are the final 2%.

In addition, leaders may underestimate the demands of designing and conducting the cluster of sufficiently robust learning activities that, as Zull points out, literally change the brains of teachers and administrators for the purpose of continuously improving teaching and learning.

These activities engage teachers and school leaders in solving challenging problems within the unique context of their schools and deepening their understanding of new practices.

The final 2% also includes the day-to-day demanding work of principals and teacher leaders in shaping school culture, meeting by meeting and conversation by conversation. These activities address the interpersonal challenges of leadership—the unpredictable and often emotionally-laden experiences that have a significant effect on human performance and relationships.

Four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, writing, and having critical conversations—are fundamental in both promoting professional learning and in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

While speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker, teachers and school leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words (a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for confusion, unexamined assumptions, and logical inconsistencies) and the effects those words have on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by educators deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes educators’ learning as they make comparisons with what they already understand and believe, raise new questions for exploration, and thoughtfully consider implementation challenges. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling teachers and school leaders to refine and examine the logical consistency of their ideas and to determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to open their minds to the perspectives of readers who offer their views in response.

Critical conversations are the means by which respect and civility are practiced, trust is established, diverse perspectives are shared, and cultures shifted. Without them, it is impossible to initiate and sustain continuous improvement efforts.

The goal of these learning activities is to produce complex, intelligent behavior in all teachers and leaders, to enhance professional judgment, and to create school cultures that enable quality teaching for the benefit of all students.

In your experience, what activities produce lasting and meaningful change in the brains of educators and in their professional relationships?

Thoughts on how we can make a “worthy difference”

There are some things that people do that matter far more than others. In this post from March 2013 surgeon Atul Gawande offers his thoughts on what those things are.

8 ways you can become a positive deviant

In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, physician Atul Gawande describes a talk he gave to medical students addressing the topic, “How do I really matter?” He decided to offer “five suggestions for how one might make a worthy difference, for how one might become, in other words, a positive deviant.”

(In another post I defined positive deviants as individuals who with the same resources available to their peers achieved more favorable outcomes. They do so through identifiable behaviors that distinguish their performance from that of others.)

In his talk Gawande suggested: 

Ask an unscripted question. “You don’t have to come up with a deeper important question, just one that lets you make a human connection,” he wrote.

Don’t complain. “[N]othing in medicine is more dispiriting than hearing doctors complain.”

Count something. “It doesn’t really matter what you count… The only requirement is that whatever you count should be interesting to you.”

Write something.

Change. “[M]ake yourself an early adopter,” Gawande recommended. “Look for the opportunity to change…. Be willing to recognize the inadequacies in what you do and to seek out solutions. As successful as medicine is, it remains replete with uncertainties and failure.”

Gawande’s suggestions lead me to think more deeply about the behaviors of school leaders whom I have viewed as Positive Deviants. 

 I concluded that they possessed one or more of the following habits:

1. Writing to gain clarity and to communicate;

2. “Counting” things to improve their performance (most things that count can be measured, even if only in rudimentary ways);

3. Reading widely in search of new ideas, perspectives, and inspiration;

4. Continuously seeking more effective and efficient ways to do things; 

5. Engaging the support of others when challenged by stretching goals or demanding circumstances;

6. Persisting over many months and even years to achieve important goals because the values represented by those goals were so important;

7. Seeing things in unique ways that were in opposition to accepted wisdom or common practice; and

8. Assuming that important problems can be solved, and that working alone or in collaboration with others they would contribute to their solutions.

What behaviors would you add to this list?

An example of educational malpractice 

While some important things are very complex and difficult to explain, others are clear and straightforward.

Here’s an example of such simplicity from November 2013.

Why professional development without substantial follow-up is malpractice

If a primary goal of professional development is to affect what teachers and administrators 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 also malpractice.

What would you put on your “educational malpractice” list? 

What leaders can do to ensure strong teamwork

One of a leaders’ most important responsibilities is to ensure strong teamwork within the school community.

This post from February 2013 lists three “essentials” for the development and maintenance of effective teams.

Effective teamwork requires that leaders do 3 things

Strong teams are the the foundation of school cultures infused with interpersonal accountability, experimentation, and the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

Effective teamwork requires that leaders do three things:

1. Believe in the importance of teamwork. Teamwork is based on the assumption that the school community can accomplish more when its members work together than alone. If leaders don’t truly believe that teams are the building blocks of continuous improvement, “teamwork” will be perfunctory, at best.

2. Have a deep understanding of the attributes of effective teamwork. Strong teamwork begins with principals and teacher leaders understanding the qualities that distinguish effective from ineffective teams and from other task-related groups in schools. 

3. Have a plan to continuously improve the functioning of teams. Planning begins with a clear sense of the current functioning of each team and of its next level of development.

The Rush-Henrietta School District near Rochester, New York developed a helpful rubric that explains the attributes of effective teams and what they look like in practice. A more complete explanation of the three requirements discussed above and the Rush-Henrietta rubric can be found here. 

Question: What has your experience taught you about effective teamwork and how to develop and support it?

How to create deeper professional conversations

It is true, I think, that “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” when superficial knowledge is allowed to substitute for the deep understanding that is required to make sound decisions and solve important problems.

That’s why I think this guest post by Lois Easton from February 2014 on deepening professional conversations is so important.

Lois Easton describes how to deepen professional conversations

In my experience, too many conversations in professional meetings, including  professional development, involve “talking about” complex subjects rather than moving progressively deeper into the substance of ideas and practices. Such conversations are often random, superficial, unproductive, and, for all of those reasons, unsatisfying.

To better understand how this problem might be addressed I asked Lois Brown Easton to offer her perspective and to describe how protocols and other strategies could be used to deepen professional conversations.

I have known and respected Lois’ work since I visited Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Colorado in 1997, at which she was then the Director of Professional Development. These days Lois is a writer, coach, and consultant.  (Additional information about Lois’ books and professional contributions are provided at the end of this essay.)

Here’s what Lois Easton has to say:

Sometimes the best-intentioned professional discussions seem to go nowhere.  Polite to the last word, people leave them unsatisfied and uncommitted to making any changes in their daily practice. 

Or, perhaps they ARE satisfied.  After all, a discussion that has no repercussions, requires no one to do much of anything, may be a lot easier than a discussion that goes somewhere.

And, perhaps they ARE committed, even if only subconsciously, to stay the same.  After all, what has worked for X years (you put in the number, including the years simply being a K-14 student), will certainly go on working, won’t it?

At the best, such discussions may yield only the most cynical of statements, “Well, another one done.  Back to work.”

Why do such discussions go nowhere? It seems to me that there are three reasons for “Nowhere Land” in terms of professional discussions:

1. The discussion is predictable.  It is not exploratory; there are no surprises.  These people will argue for Point A; these people will argue against Point A and offer Point B.  These people will go along with either one.  These people don’t really care.  One of the solutions will “win,” Point A or B.  Some people will take action accordingly; some people won’t.  Next week (month/year), there will be other discussions and other decisions, and they’ll go the same way.  It’s all politics and power… not new ideas, innovative solutions, or out-of-the box thinking.  Ho-hum!

One solution to predictable discussion is dialogue, real dialogue.  Dialogue is different because people slow down the pace of talking rather than race towards a conclusion or decision.  They consider each idea that is presented, building on ideas through comments and sincere questions, until they reach understanding.  They uncover assumptions, explore ramifications, project possibilities.  The language of dialogue is iterative and probing, as in, “Here is what I think you’re saying: ______.  I’m wondering about the assumptions that you have about that idea.” 

Dialogue is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, consciously.  Dialogue works for any topic that needs creative thinking, innovative solutions, and choices among surprising possibilities.  Effective leaders know that juicy dialogue can be sufficient unto itself or lead to productive discussion and awesome (in the original sense of the word) decisions.

2. The discussion lacks prompts or protocols that take people deeper into the subject.

Especially when people in a discussion are speeding down the highway of decision, discussion tends to be shallow.  Discussants deal with the basics in order to make the decision.  

Prompts or protocols can take people deeper into discussion and, usually, into dialogue that lets them probe ideas.  One protocol that seems to work well for deepening discussion is the “Peeling the Onion Protocol.”  

In one version of this protocol, a presenter (anyone who can present the issue) describes what a group will study.  The presenter also presents one or two key questions, such as “On what basis will we be able to make decisions about this issue? What should be our guidelines?”

Everyone writes freely on the issue and the key question(s)—partly to get focused on the issue and partly to have something to contribute in the next steps. 

Then there are three rounds, during which the presenter is silent and taking notes that reflect what the other participants have said.

In round one, the focus is on clarifying the issue.  Participants may say things such as, “What I heard the presenter say is . . . ” or “I’m wondering how we would describe this issue to [someone else]” or “I’m not sure I understand what we mean by [X].”

In round two, the focus is on probing the issue.  Participants may say, “One assumption that we seem to be making is…,” or “A question this raises for me is …,” or “I understand this issue as….” Others listen carefully to understand what others say and rephrase, comment, or ask questions before moving on to another probing statement.

In round three, the focus is on deepening the probing process through “What if” questions:  “What would happen if we…?” or “How would it work if we…?” or “What’s the worst/best that would happen if….?” As in round two, others listen carefully to understand before moving on to another probing question.

After the third round, the group is silent while the presenter reflects aloud (consulting notes taken during the rounds), further deepening the dialogue.  The presenter might say something such as, “I heard you say X, and that made me think further about this issue.”

Finally, the whole group debriefs both the content and the process.  At this point, the group has deeply explored the issue and may be ready for making a decision that all understand, approve, and can be accountable for.

3. The discussion does not lead to social accountability.

Decisions that come out of shallow discussions may result in accountability in the sense that someone is going to do something.  Others, especially when they feel the decision is preordained—already decided in some way by those with power—may feel no sense of accountability for the decision.  Since they have not really participated, probed, and pushed deeper into ideas to determine which solutions are really the best, they may feel no ownership of the issue and, likewise, unaccountable for the results.  

In “Fist to Five” (with people holding up fingers on one hand to signal their commitment to an idea or decision; a fist representing no commitment and five fingers full commitment and active participation in carrying out the decision), people might show two fingers, meaning they’ll not interfere with the decision, but they will not work actively towards carrying it out.

Peer or social accountability occurs when people deeply understand an issue and its ramifications, and how they can be addressed.  They have had an active role in dissecting the issue and choosing the best solution. They have “owned” the issue and feel accountable for what happens as a result of the dialogue in which they have participated.  When the outcome really matters, people are willing to go deeper and stand behind the results.  

Peer or social accountability means that people hold each other accountable for acting upon a decision. People expect others to take action and, therefore, will take action themselves. Peer or social accountability is critical when decisions are being made about whole-school (or whole-organization) change.

So, in a circular way, in order for people to feel accountable for substantial and lasting change—such as improving learning conditions for students or adults—they must engage in deeper discussions, such as dialogue, using protocols to guide those discussions, and making decisions as a result of them that hold each one of the participants accountable. 

Lois Easton is the author of Powerful Designs for Professional Learning (which is being published in 2014 in its 3rd edition), Professional Learning Communities By Design: Putting the Learning Back Into PLCs (2011), and Protocols for Professional Learning (2009).  

Designing productive and energizing meetings

For many educators meetings are an unwelcome but inevitable part of their workdays. 

When skillfully facilitated, however, meetings are an essential means of accomplishing important goals and creating strong, collaborative relationships. 

This post from February 2013 offers suggestions for faculty meetings that are also applicable to many other types of meetings.

Four essential ingredients of successful faculty meetings

Successful faculty meetings contribute to the momentum of the continuous improvement of teaching, learning, and relationships within the school community.

They add value by deepening understanding, spreading effective practices, and building relationships.

On the other hand, poorly planned and facilitated meetings deplete energy and can bring innovation to a standstill.

In my experience, successful meetings have four essential ingredients:

1. Celebration of one another and of accomplishments within the school community. While it is certainly appropriate to note student accomplishments, it’s also important to draw attention to the accomplishments and strengths of the adult members of the school community. To that end faculty meetings can routinely begin with a few minutes of recognition and celebration. Such rituals can deepen relationships and energize the school community.

2. Professional learning focused on the school’s most important goals. The kind of professional learning I have in mind would occur as staff members analyze various types of evidence regarding student learning, explore professional literature, and share effective practices. It would seldom include what we think of as training or presentations.

3. Thoughtful deliberation regarding significant challenges and decisions that the school community faces. Because these conversations would be structured through the use of protocols or other small and large group activities, they would be focused and deep.

4. “Next action thinking.” Momentum would be maintained because meetings would always conclude with clarity about individual and collective responsibilities. As a result, there would be no confusion about who will do what, by when, and to what standard.

Administrivia, of course, would be eliminated or minimized. Administrative items would be distributed through email with clear explanations about what is expected from staff members.

Question: In your experience what are the ingredients of productive and energizing faculty meetings? What things have I missed?

Robust professional development for the benefit of all students

It is time in this series of reprised posts to review the essentials of “robust professional development” that I published in November 2013.

The 6 fundamental ingredients of robust professional development

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 the 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.

• Is 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?


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