Archive for the 'Professional learning' Category

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?

Kent Peterson: “Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school”

In this post from March 2014 Kent Peterson offers his wisdom and practical experience to both aspiring leaders and those who have served as leaders for many years.

Kent Peterson suggests ways to support “wary and weary” teachers

Kent Peterson was one of the first educational thought leaders I knew to recognize the power of school culture in shaping teaching and learning, an influence he explored with co-author Terrence Deal in Shaping School Culture.

So I was particularly eager to see how he would respond to the questions I put to him.

Kent is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has spoken to school leaders across the U.S. and internationally about shaping positive and transforming toxic school cultures. 

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from observing and studying it?

Over the past decade I have visited hundreds of schools and talked with thousands of school principals and teacher leaders, and in all cases there are several important things that successful school leaders do.  

First, they work to make the school culture and environment a positive one where all are respected, there is a sense of purpose in the school that is clear and focused on students, and the contributions of everyone are celebrated.    

Second, they build trusting relationships by being consistent, following through, and caring about the learning of teachers and students.  

Third, work in the classroom is supported and celebrated—the administrative side of the school is well organized and dependable.  

Fourth, they connect with all staff and community—food service workers, secretaries, custodians, parents, and teachers—fostering energy and commitment. 

In short they make the school an enjoyable place to work with positive relationships and a clear, shared direction.

What would you say to a principal in his or her first year on the job?

When a new principal enters the building many expectations, issues, and demands confront them—some positive, some quite difficult; some obvious and some hidden. While the regular administrative issues need to be addressed, it is key to learn about the culture of the school.  

Every school has a culture—that set of norms and values, traditions and ceremonies—that shape everything that occurs.

Early on, a new principal needs to do several things right away.  First, learn about the current culture.  Find out what are the ways teachers interact, work together (or not), and share ideas.  Ask about the important traditions of the school and the ceremonies and celebrations that give the school life from August to June.

Second, delve into the history of the school and find out what shaped the culture.  Who were the prior principals and what were they like?  What were the ways previous principals interacted with teachers, students, and parents? Ask yourself how you are different from these prior leaders.  Consider the history of change in the school—was it a positive experience or a grueling trudge?

Finally, talk to teachers about what they like best about the school, aspects that really make them proud and happy to work there.  Consider nurturing and celebrating these in the early months in the school year. 

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

School leaders who both enjoy their work and who are successful at helping teachers and students learn seem to exhibit several characteristics.  They have:

• A clear set of values focused on students.

• The ability to build positive relationships with staff and between staff.

• An understanding of the administrative side of schools, with a strong sense of how to foster a positive school culture.

• A clear knowledge of how to enhance the learning of staff.

• The ability to do complex problem solving.

• A healthy balance in their own lives that fosters positive relations within and outside school. 

• A sense of humor.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

There are many ways to build skills and knowledge about leading and about oneself.  Leaders have told me that they have developed deeper understandings and knowledge through:

• Great professional development that engages their minds and hearts.

• Good colleagues who ask tough questions, offer interesting or complex ideas, and who deeply understand school leadership.

• A personal approach to gaining insights, sometimes called experiential learning.  This involves analysis of one’s actions and the reactions or consequences followed by building new insights about what happened, and then experimenting with a new approach based on these insights.

• Reading.  And not only educational or leadership sources but novels, short stories, blogs, plays, and personal reflections on life.  These can push and expand understanding of schools, people, and oneself.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

Paradoxically, leaders in all organizations need to find a balance of change and stability.  Pacing a change means that movement forward does not unbalance the boat.  

But if the needs of children are not being addressed, a red light should come on and leaders need to develop a sense of urgency and commitment to the changes needed to serve children. 

Change is never easy and in schools, with so many years of changes, some staff may be reluctant to jump into new curricula or teaching approaches.  While some of these changes were perhaps “bandwagons” and disappeared, others are useful trains to jump aboard (such as job-embedded staff development and the use of data for decision making, to name two).  

But teachers have become both wary and weary at times, resistant to trying new approaches. Here are some suggestions from teacher leaders, principals, and those who study schools. 

  Connect the change to existing values and purposes.  Most new techniques exist to accomplish existing goals—but one needs to be clear how they do.

  Provide the needed resources, support, and time to make the implementation of new ideas smooth and (relatively) easy.  Most classroom or school level changes have to be fit into existing routines—it takes time, professional learning, and materials to do this.  Leaving one of these out can crash any new initiative.

  Understand and acknowledge the concerns of teachers.  The history of change for seasoned staff is not always a positive one.  Some of the concerns and resistance come from the reality of other failed reforms.  Acknowledge these past efforts that raise concerns and show how the new efforts will be different.

  Fullan talks about seeking small successes; I agree.  Identify the small successes along the way but also celebrate the larger victories months if not years into the implementation.

In what ways do you recommend principals spend their time, energy, and resources to improve schools?

I would suggest that principals think about their time as an investment in school improvement. As we know, principals engage in hundreds of different activities in a day, work on a large set of problems and issues, and have interactions with dozens if not hundreds of different people.  

Principals should see each of these activities as an investment of their time and energy, an opportunity to make the school better.  Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school.  Here are some things to consider:

  Each activity communicates a message about the values and the mission of the school.  These foster a clearer focus on what’s important. What messages are you sending?

  Every problem that is solved—from working with a disheartened teacher to insuring that buses are available for a field trip—increase the successes of the school.  Which problems are you choosing to address?

  Every positive interaction—with a student, staff member, or community member—is a way to shape the school culture, to enhance motivation, and to build commitment.  Are you aware of every interaction?  Or do you slide through the day unaware that this one interaction may be important to the other person?

Using time wisely, focused on the right activities, problems, and interactions fosters school improvement.  All of these—small and large, are investments in success.

Pay attention to the fundamentals of professional learning

Sometimes the “bells and whistles” of new things can distract us from the fundamentals, the things that make the biggest difference and form the basis of all that follows.

In classrooms, those fundamentals include close reading, clear and compelling writing, and thoughtful conversations informed by attentive listening.

Those same fundamentals apply to professional development, as this post from February 2014 underscores.

4 fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy

Generous amounts of close purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy. These simple activities are the foundation for a trained, powerful mind.…” —Mike Schmoker

Many years ago in an interview for a NSDC (now Learning Forward) publication Phil Schlechty told me, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.” 

For my own purposes I amended his adage to read, “If you don’t make time to read, write, speak, and listen in ways that promote professional learning, you don’t have time to lead.” 

Just as we desire to cultivate literacy among K-12 students, it is essential that education leaders take the time—even just a few minutes a day—to cultivate their own  professional literacy and that of others for the benefit of all their students. 

Professional literacy means the development of intellectual depth and fluency regarding values, beliefs, ideas, and practices that guide day-to-day decision making. Its acquisition requires cognitively-demanding processes, in contrast to the minimal engagement of the “sit and get” sessions that continue to dominate too large a share of “professional development.”

While professional literacy can be acquired through various means, my experience has taught me that four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, and writing—are the fundamental practices for cultivating leaders’ professional literacy. 

Speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker. But 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 unexamined assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and so on—and the effects of those words on others. 

Committed, attentive listening by leaders 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 leaders’ learning when they not only take in information but respond actively to it by making comparisons with what they already understand and believe and by raising new questions for exploration. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals who they may never meet. 

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling leaders to refine their ideas, examine their logical consistency, and 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 actively engage with the perspectives of readers who offer their comments.

Taken together, these four learning processes are fundamental, interconnected means for cultivating’ professional literacy.

What would you add to this list?

Consider ways to create positive energy

The beginning of a new calendar year is a good time to consider ways of creating positive energy in ourselves and others, which is truly one of the most important fundamentals of leadership and resilience.

This post from September 2013 points the way to the positive emotions at the core of positive energy. 

8 ways to create positive energy in the school community

Visitors can often sense in a matter of minutes the positive or negative energy of a school. 

Some schools feel welcoming, calm, and joyful. Others feel angry, stressful, and even foreboding.

Fortunately, administrators and teacher leaders can influence the energy and emotional tone of classrooms, schools, and school systems. 

Here are 8 suggestions for creating positive energy:

1. Bring authentic positive emotions such as enthusiasm, hopefulness, and joy into the school community.

2. Use  formal and informal processes to celebrate the accomplishments and strengths of everyone in the school community.

3. Honor those who are not present by refusing to engage in gossip and other negative interactions.

4. Make certain that all meetings are engaging and productive.

5. Ensure that professional development produces meaningful professional learning by putting an end to “mindless” professional  development.

6. Make certain that all requests are carefully considered before making promises, and that once made, those promises are kept.

7. Whenever possible, use careful planning to prevent or minimize problems and the stress they cause. 

8. Maintain an unwavering focus and consistency by ensuring that continuous improvement efforts are based on a compelling vision, shared community values, and clear long-term goals and strategies.

What ideas or practices would you add to this list?

Eliminating mindless professional development 

It’s essential that teachers’ professional development resemble in its learning processes the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

I made that point in a February 2013 post, and it is worth repeating here.

Mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching

The notes of the lecturer are passed to the notes of the listener – without going through the minds of either. – Mortimer Adler

Mortimer Adler succinctly describes the mindless learning that follows mindless teaching.

Visualize a continuum with that form of teaching and learning at one end. At the other end place the kind of teaching that produces high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills. (A good share of the teaching students experience each day falls between those two extremes.)

The professional learning of teachers and administrators can be placed along a similar continuum.

To update Adler’s description, at one end of the continuum the PowerPoint slides of the presenter are passed to the tweets of the students without going through the minds of either. 

At the other end is professional learning with qualities that closely resemble those described above for students—high levels of engagement, meaningful involvement with the subject matter, and the acquisition and exercise of complex cognitive skills.

In my experience, the kinds of teaching/learning processes used in professional development have a profound effect on the teaching/learning processes used in the vast majority of classrooms. Put another way, mindless professional learning produces mindless teaching. And vice versa.

The remedy is simple, but not easy: It’s essential that teachers’ professional learning resemble as closely as possible the kinds of teaching and learning desired in all classrooms.

That means that teachers will:

• spend much of their time in small, interdependent groups collaboratively solving important instructional problems;

• gain a deep understanding of important educational issues and their significance through intellectually-demanding learning processes—the close reading of professional materials, writing that extends learning, and dialogue;

• acquire and regularly apply complex cognitive skills in identifying and solving meaningful problems; and

• experience firsthand the value of the methods they are expected to use with their students.

Through mind-full experiences like those, teachers will continuously improve their practice for the benefit of all students.

Influential leaders think, speak, and write with clarity

Clarity is a fundamental leadership skill. 

One of the best ways to achieve and maintain clarity is by formulating through writing and dialogue “teachable points of view” about topics of importance to the school community.

This post from February 2010 describes the benefits of this process.

Gain clarity by developing “teachable points of view”

I need to become a well-educated person, as opposed to a well-trained person. This means reflecting upon and deepening my own ideas, and giving greater value to my own  thinking…. We each have our own theories and models about the world and what it means to be human. We need to deepen our understanding of what we believe. —Peter Block

Leaders increase their influence when they express their ideas in simple, accessible language and share those ideas with others in the spirit of openness to learning and mutual influence. 

The result is a shared understanding of important ideas and practices throughout the school community, the development of leadership in others, and improved relationships.

My thinking in this area was influenced by Noel Tichy’s book, The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win.

Tichy recommends that leaders create “teaching organizations” formed around Virtuous Teaching Cycles in which “… a leader commits to teaching, creates the conditions for being taught him or herself, and helps the students have the self confidence to engage and teach as well.”

Leaders begin Virtuous Teaching Cycles, Tichy says, when they craft a “teachable point of view,” which is “… a cohesive set of ideas and concepts that a person is able to articulate clearly to others.” 

A TPOV reveals clarity of thought regarding ideas and values and is a tool that enables leaders to communicate those ideas and values to others, Tichy says.

Some possible topics for leaders’ TPOVs include their aspirations for students, the nature of human learning and the type of teaching that promotes it, the meaning and value of professional learning communities, how assessment can contribute to student learning, and the role of parents and other community members in improving teaching and learning.

“The very act of creating a Teachable Point of View makes people better leaders…,” Tichy writes. “[L]eaders come to understand their underlying assumptions about themselves, their organization and business in general. When implicit knowledge becomes explicit, it can then be questioned, refined and honed, which benefits both the leaders and the organizations.”

But developing a Teachable Point of View “requires first doing the intellectual work of figuring out what our point of view is, and then the creative work of putting it into a form that makes it accessible and interesting to others,” Tichy observes. 

He strongly recommends writing as a tool to achieve clarity. “The process of articulating one’s Teachable Point of View is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing, iterative and interactive process,” Tichy writes.

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• describing a time when you were clear about your views related to a particular educational issue and how your clarity affected the thinking and actions of others,

• identifying a topic of importance to you and/or your school community and setting aside time to clarify your views on this subject in writing, perhaps redrafting your view several times to gain clarity.

Creating organizations in which everyone thrives

Emotions are contagious.

If a leader’s goal is to gain and hold power by sowing fear and spreading anger and hatred, such a leader will be angry and hateful at every opportunity.

But if a leader’s goal is to create organizations in which everyone thrives, in which participants are given every opportunity to become their best selves for their benefit and that of others, then this post from December 2013 is as relevant today as it was then.

Effective leaders exemplify positive attitudes and respect

Positive emotions such as compassion, confidence, and generosity have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health, and personal relationships. —Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee

Civil school cultures are those in which community members think the best of one another, display positive attitudes, speak with kindness, respect others’ opinions, and disagree graciously while candidly expressing their views. 

Those qualities are unlikely to exist and persist without school leaders who embody them in their day-to-day interactions with staff members, parents, and students.

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude  P. M. Forni writes, “Whether positive or negative, attitude is destiny…. Positivity makes relationships better, and better relationships reinforce positivity. So, if you are inclined to perceive what happens to you through the fog of negativity, make a change of attitude your number one priority.”

Changing habits of mind and behavior, however, requires that leaders be intentional and persistent in approaching these changes, beginning with themselves.

To establish civil school cultures, leaders:

Hold positive expectations for others by setting high standards for conduct and learning and by living those standards on a day-to-day basis. And when leaders stumble, as they sometimes do, they acknowledge the lapse and set about resolving whatever problems it may have caused.  

Display a generosity of spirit which assumes that others are honest, trustworthy, and capable unless there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Assuming the best is a key attribute of hopefulness, which, in turn, is a critical attribute of relationships that nurture and support continuous improvement.

Speak with compassion and kindness, which Forni believes is at the heart of civil behavior. In another book, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, he writes, “Never embarrass or mortify…. Always think before speaking…. With your kind words you build a shelter of sanity and trust into which you welcome others for much-needed respite.” 

Speak truthfully. Civility recognizes that people look at the world differently and are entitled to a fair hearing of their views.

Civil school cultures are places in which ideas and beliefs are vigorously and respectfully expressed in meeting rooms. Sarcasm, disparaging gossip, and “parking lot meetings” have no place in such cultures. 

These cultures have at their core leaders who display positive attitudes and deep respect for the abilities and perspectives of everyone in the school community and who interact with and speak about others in that spirit.


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