Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

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.

True, but incomplete

Some things are true, but by themselves incomplete. 

For example, it is true that planning is important. But planning is insufficient without careful implementation of the plans.

Here are other examples from a September 2013 post on:

5 contradictions that reveal essential principles of teaching, learning, and relationships

1. While hope is essential, it is not a strategy. Hope must be supported by stretching goals, robust plans, professional learning, and strong teamwork.

2. While goals cannot be accomplished without activity, it is easy to confuse activity with accomplishment.

3. While the quality of teaching determines the quality of learning, it is the quality of leadership that determines the quality of teaching across the school and the school system.

4. While professional learning can occur by attending lectures, reading books, participating in social/learning networks, and other individual activities, it is ultimately the quality of school-focused learning and teamwork among teachers with common responsibilities that will determine the quality of teaching and learning across the school.

5. While teachers’ content knowledge and instructional skills are important, another essential but often overlooked attribute of good teaching is the quality of relationships teachers have with their students, particularly those who most require the best teaching to be successful in life.

What qualities should be required of all new teachers?

Are there some qualities that are so important that individuals who don’t possess them shouldn’t be teachers?

And, if those qualities are essential, should they be required of all beginning teachers?

Or, can those qualities be acquired through experience and professional development after teachers are hired?

Since I pondered the first of those questions in May 2013, the compensation and working conditions of many teachers have deteriorated, which has made teaching a less attractive profession. 

That, in turn, has meant that it is harder for many school systems to be as selective in the hiring process as they may once have been.

Nonetheless, I continue to stand behind these “non-negotiables,” although I understand the reality of placing teachers in every classroom may require unfortunate compromises.

6 non-negotiables that I would want to see at the beginning of a teacher’s career

On the subject of “highly effective teachers,” Kappan Editor-in-Chief Joan Richardson wrote in her “editor’s note”  for the April 2013 issue:

“During practice teaching, we should be watching closely to determine if these candidates have a deep interest in how children learn. The best teachers aren’t just content experts. They not only understand how children learn; they are intrigued by the way that children learn. Content experts may get really excited about sharing their knowledge. But expert teachers get really excited because students are making it their knowledge. That’s a crucial distinction.”

Richardson’s recommendation got me thinking about the things that I think are essential to see at the beginning of a teacher’s career, in addition to a solid foundation of classroom management and instructional skills. Because I agree with Joan, I started with her suggestion for beginning teachers:

1. I would want evidence that new teachers are intrigued by the way children learn. Which would mean that they want to know in real time if and what students are learning. 

2. I would want evidence that new teachers believe in the potential of all students to learn and grow.

3. I would want evidence that new teachers appreciate and enjoy the qualities of students at the level they are teaching.

4. I would want evidence that new teachers value and tap the strengths and resources provided by families and the broader community.

5. I would want evidence that new teachers believe they can always improve the quality of their teaching and of student learning.

6. I would want evidence that new teachers believe that working with others is essential to continuous improvement and that they are committed to the process of becoming effective collaborators.

What would you add to or subtract from this list? Are these qualities essential for all new teachers, or can they be developed over time?

What’s the biggest problem in professional development?

What would you say is the biggest problem in professional development?

• Leaders do not provide sufficient time and other resources for it because they do not understand its importance?

• Teachers lack motivation for professional learning for a variety of reasons?

• Administrators and teacher leaders don’t know enough about effective professional development to plan and implement meaningful programs?

Here’s how I answered that question in May 2014, an answer that seems as valid today as it did then:

The biggest problem in professional development is…

The biggest problem in professional development is that administrators and teachers significantly underestimate what’s required to create the new habits of mind and behavior that are necessary to provide high-quality teaching and learning for all students.

One of the best and most accessible explanations of the challenges of shaping human understanding and practice is provided by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life in which he explains that people are influenced to change through three linked elements he describes as relate, repeat, and reframe. 

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships that inspire and sustain hope and provide support.

That means that:

• Teachers work in teams rather than in isolation and are accountable to one another for continuous improvement rather than to district offices or state education agencies. 

• Teachers relationships exhibit high levels of trust and appreciation rather than distrust, blaming, and negativity. 

• Teachers speak with candor and courage rather than evading discussion of important issues. 

• Teachers are hopeful and energetic rather than victims of a “slow-death spiral” of distrust, anger, and stress.

Repeat means learn, practice, and master new skills until they become habits.

The cultivation of new habits requires intention, attention, and persistence across many weeks or months until mastery is achieved, a task often complicated by the tenacity of old habits. 

The development of new habits begins with an initial learning that explores new ways of thinking and acting. It continues with the repetition of those thoughts and behaviors (often in the face of opposition from people who prefer the old habits) until new ways of thinking and acting have become routine.

An example of what may be required for leaders to alter their own behavior—which is almost always a precursor to influencing the behavior of others—is provided here.

Reframe means providing new ways of thinking about a situation. Because established frames resist facts and reasoned arguments, deep-rooted beliefs and conceptual frameworks must be identified and altered to support desired changes.

Conceptual frames are the mental organizers we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface system of beliefs and ideas. While often difficult to alter, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice, and continues by identifying alternative frames that better serve student learning.

Strategies for promoting reframing can be found here.

Although Change or Die is not explicitly about education, it explains why well-intentioned innovations more often expire than thrive.

A problem, Deutschman says, is that leaders too often rely on relatively ineffective change strategies—facts (human beings are not as rational as we think we are), fear (at best it’s a short-term motivator), and force (there are many ways it can be resisted) to promote change.

Instead, successful change efforts in schools:

• offer a sense of hopefulness that student learning can be improved through a genuine sense of community and teamwork that supports the implementation of new practices (relate), 

• provide sustained learning with practice to enable the acquisition of new habits of mind and behavior (repeat), and

• enable the development of new conceptual frameworks aligned with the innovation (reframe).

Do you agree that administrators and teachers often underestimate the intensity and duration of learning that is required to meaningful influence thinking and behavior?

Using instructional coaches effectively

Few responsibilities of a school leader are more important than continuously improving teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

Which means that a “fundamental” of leadership is an unrelenting, laser-like focus on the quality of instruction and learning.

But what exactly do effective principals do on a daily basis to improve teaching and learning?

While there is no formula for success, and leaders’ time and energy are limited, good principals effectively use as a “force multiplier” the tools that are available to them to support teachers in their demanding work.

Instructional coaches are one of the most valuable of those tools.

Many school leaders, however, have not been well supported in the effective use of coaches and are uncertain about the best ways they can enable them in their important work.

So in June 2013 I turned to Jim Knight, who knows more about this subject that anyone I know, to write a guest post.

(If you are not already a subscriber to Jim’s Radical Learners blog, I encourage you to be become one.)

Here is what Jim had to say about:

6 Ways Principals Can Support Instructional Coaching

Instructional coaching has the potential to dramatically improve teaching practice and consequently student learning.  But in most cases, a coach’s success is directly connected to how effectively she or he is supported (or not supported) by his or her principal. After working with hundreds of schools where coaches have succeeded and struggled, I’ve found that there are six actions principals can do that will make or break instructional coaching success.

1. Support the coach.  In any organization, people are keen to do what their boss wants them to do. If principals make it clear that they consider instructional coaching a vital part of their school’s plan for improvement, then teachers will be more inclined to work with the coach.  If the principal is less enthusiastic about instructional coaching, teachers will usually be less enthusiastic.

2. Let the coach coach.  I’ve never met a principal who had too much time on his or her hands. Leading a school always requires more time than is available and every principal must be tempted to hand off some of that work to a coach. But if a coach writes reports, develops plans, oversees assessment, deals with student behavior, does bus and cafeteria duty, substitute teaches, and so on… well there’s no time left for instructional coaching.  The easiest way to increase a coach’s effectiveness is to let the coach coach.

3. Clarify roles. Usually coaches are positioned as peers and not supervisors.  If teachers talk to peers, they will be more forthcoming, usually, than if they talk with a supervisor.  If this is the case, then coaches should not do administrative tasks such as walk-throughs, teacher evaluations, and so forth. If coaches are considered to have an administrative role, they should have the same qualifications and training as any other administrator, and everyone in the school, most especially the coach, needs to know that they have that role.

4. Clarify confidentiality. Again, usually instructional coaching is considered confidential.  Teachers, the thinking is, will be more forthcoming with their thoughts and concerns if they know that the conversation is just between the coach and teacher.  However, what is most important is that principal and coach clarify what will be shared and what won’t be shared.  If teachers say something they think is confidential, and find out it was shared, they may consider it a breach of trust—and nothing is more import for a coach’s success than trust.

5. Make instructional coaching a choice. If teachers are told they must work with a coach, they go into instructional coaching seeing it more as a punishment than an opportunity, and instructional coaching is difficult from the start. It is not a good use of a coach’s time for her to spend the entire conversation trying to talk a teacher into instructional coaching.  I suggest that principals be firm on standards with teachers, but flexible on how teachers hit a goal. Thus a principal might explain that a teacher needs to increase time on task, but just suggest the coach as one of many options, letting the teacher decide how he might want to change.  When instructional coaching is compulsory, teachers often perceive it as a punishment. When instructional coaching is a choice, people often perceive it as a lifeline.

6.  Make it easy for people to be coached.  Certainly most budget issues are beyond a principal’s control, but to the best of their abilities, principals should strive to find funds for released time to free teachers up for instructional coaching. The more difficult it is for people to find time to meet, the more likely instructional coaching will have limited success.  In every way possible, a principal should do everything that can be done to make it easy for coaches and teachers to collaborate.  

What would you add to Jim’s list?

What are our “basic” needs?

As I have spent time in recent years listening to the life stories of individuals who were in hospice care I realized that their stories of resilience often had roots in the unmet needs of childhood.

Many of those needs clearly fit into Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” which began with the physiological requirements of life and continued with safety, love and belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization needs. (He later added cognitive, aesthetic, and transcendence needs to the list.)

But some of their stories revealed unmet “needs” that, while implied in Maslow’s hierarchy, are worthy of special emphasis:

• Being seen and known for who we really are,

• Feeling accepted and appreciated for those qualities, and

• Being treated with dignity and respect.

Because those needs emerge during our earliest years, they have important implications for schools.

Therefore, it is essential that principals and teachers:

• Create classrooms that ensure that all students are known, appreciated, and respected; and

• Establish school cultures that satisfy teachers’ needs in those areas because without such a culture young people are far less likely to have those needs met in their classrooms.

In your experience, what do people “need” to lead physically and emotionally healthy lives, and what roles do schools play in satisfying those needs?

Why good policy is necessary but insufficient to improve schools

Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well. And, when it comes to improving schools, doing things well is pretty much the whole ball game. —Frederick Hess

Policies that serve an organization’s most important goals are essential sources of institutional resilience.

Having said that, I believe that there are limits to how far good policy can take us in the direction of creating quality teaching for all students in every school.

One of the best things that can be said about good policy, I think, is that it drives out the kind of irresponsible and sometimes mean-spirited policies that harm students, dismay teachers, and destroys public education.

But while good policy can move the education system in the right direction, it cannot ensure the quality of day-to-day improvement efforts in schools.

For that, skillful administrative and teacher leadership is essential.

Frederick Hess writes: “Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.”

Hess adds: “Our schools and systems were never designed for what we’re asking them to do today—to rigorously educate every child in a diverse nation. Making that possible will indeed require big changes to policies governing staffing, spending, and much else. That’s why I’m a school reformer. But policy is better at facilitating that kind of rethinking than at forcing it.

“School reform isn’t about having good ideas—it’s about how those ideas actually work for students and educators. This can be hard for those gripped by a burning desire to make the world a better place in a hurry….

“Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied.”

For example, policy may mandate:

• Evidence-based forms of professional development for all teachers and administrators (a good idea), but not the quality of professional learning that ensues from it and whether that learning leads to sustained improvements in teaching.

• Mentors or instructional coaches for new teachers (good ideas), but not the quality of the mentoring or coaching experience for all new teachers.

• That instructional teams or professional learning communities exist in schools (good ideas), but not the quality of their deliberations nor the results of that work on teaching and learning.

Ultimately, the effective implementation of such policies requires motivated, skillful leadership by administrators and teacher leaders. Such leadership can be set in motion by good policy, but it can be sustained only by enabling forces within school systems.

At the core of leaders’ work is the creation of school cultures of continuous improvement and teamwork, which, even under the best of circumstances, is a demanding responsibility.

While good policies are necessary, they are insufficient.

Policymakers may legislate, but ultimately it is the skillful, tedious, and often overwhelming day-to-day work of administrators and teachers that will determine the quality of teaching and learning for all students.

What is your experience with the effectiveness of local, state, and federal policies in improving teaching and learning for all students?


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