Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

Deep work


A man sits alone in a courtyard with a pad of paper in front of him.

He writes and then pauses, looking off into space. He writes again.

As I watched I realized that those are the essential ingredients of “deep work” – solitude, a process that allows us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking (in this case, writing); thinking about what we think (metacognition); and then beginning the cycle again. Deep work is essential in classrooms and meeting rooms. It is also an essential ingredient of professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because focused conversation enables us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking, it is important that schools provide generous opportunities for well-designed group work in classrooms and among teachers.

But it is also important that schools value the solitary activities that are often a prerequisite to the deep work that is the foundation of meaningful learning, teaching, and school leadership.

Self determination


When it comes to teaching methods, Glanz observed that most techniques teachers used “promote the feeling that students have little control over or responsibility for their own education.” —Larry Cuban

I recently talked with an elderly woman about her dissatisfaction with the diminished life she has in a long-term care facility. She knew she would be happy, she told me, if only she could have an apartment of her own.

I pointed out her children’s concerns about her safety, and she said she would rather die living life on her own terms than live longer in her current circumstances.

While this may be an extreme example, no matter our age or life circumstance all of us want to feel in control of our lives, to make decisions large and small whose sum total makes up the substance of our days.

I have worked at jobs where virtually all important decisions were made for me. My circle of influence was very small, and while I knew that I could choose my attitude about those circumstances, I nonetheless often found myself feeling frustrated and unhappy.

A child says, “You are not my boss.” A dissatisfied worker says, “Trust me to make decisions about my work.” An elderly woman says, “I would rather die than not be able to do the simple tasks of life that gave me purpose and responsibility.”

The desire for self determination is deeply embedded in the human psyche. People have been willing to give their lives on its behalf.

What are the implications of this “truth” for school administrators and teachers?

From my perspective it means that we do everything in our power to give those with whom we work—both young people and adults—as much decision-making authority as possible, pairing that authority with appropriate responsibility and abundant learning opportunities to increase the likelihood of success.

When we trust others to take responsibility and enable their ability to do so we will be richly rewarded by the continuous flow of expertise and energy such trust generates.

What is your experience with both young people and adults in enabling self determination?  

Schools are intensely interpersonal


“[T]he transmission of knowledge is not done in a vacuum. The quality and influence of relationships has a tremendous influence on how and what is shared, and with whom.”

Tarsi Dunlop

Schools are intensely and unrelentingly interpersonal. That’s why the continuous improvement of teaching and learning requires strong relationships founded on trust.

And that’s also why “reforms” predictably fail when they are based primarily on technical remedies such as high-stakes testing and poorly-designed teacher evaluation systems.

A recent study supports those conclusions:

“What we have found over and over again is that, regardless of context, organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals.

“Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; information sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement; and a collective sense of purpose….”

High-quality teaching and learning for all students requires that administrators and teacher leaders develop school cultures that have at their core high levels of integrity, mutual respect, and trust, attributes that are challenging to cultivate and even more challenging to sustain.

Leaders who ignore this challenge or minimize its demands will fail in their most important responsibility—the creation of school communities in which everyone thrives, no matter their age or role.

The person doing the work does the learning…


“The person doing the work does the learning.” That adage is as relevant today as it was when it was first spoken decades (or centuries) ago.

The “doing” of both simple and complex tasks promotes learning.

That’s why many teachers, myself included, report having learned so much more about the subject matter they taught through the complex process of teaching it than they did in universities.

To elaborate:

The person doing the explaining does the learning.

The person doing the planning does the learning.

The person doing the assessment of his or her own learning does the learning.

Consistently acting on this adage in every classroom and professional learning venue would change virtually everything.

And it would be a change for the better.

Think like a teacher


Doctors not only learn medical terminology and procedures, but they also learn how to think like a doctor.

Lawyers learn legal terminology and procedures, and they learn how to think like lawyers.

And so on through the professions.

But do teachers learn to think like teachers?

Do teachers think about their classrooms and learning in ways that separate them from parents and others who care about the well being of young people?

I think that they do.

For instance, competent teachers plan with the end in mind. They visualize the classrooms they want for their students and create physical environments, routines, and rules that will create the desired classroom experience. The same is true when those teachers plan instruction.

What, in your experience, does it mean to think like a teacher?

Stretch yourself


Forty-seven years ago this month I began my teaching career. Over those years the challenges and opportunities of teaching, learning, leadership, and public education gradually became a part of my daily consciousness, whether I was “on the job” or not.

I started teaching in 1968 in a high school with team teaching and modular scheduling that allowed for the flexible grouping of students, which by their very nature immediately engaged me in collaboration and job-embedded professional learning, although both terms would have been foreign to me at that time.

In 1972 I was invited to participate in designing and implementing a public alternative high school for “disaffected youth.” I had not heard the term “teacher leader,” nor was I aware how rare it was for a teacher to be meaningfully engaged in creating such a school.

In 1978 I became director of a teacher center, again as a teacher leader. A year later I became a member of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward).

I did not then know how my career was being subtly and irrevocably shaped by this succession of important and rare opportunities.

And in 1984 I became executive director of NSDC, a part-time position with an organization that at that time had just a few hundred members. For the next 23 years I had  the privilege of meeting outstanding educators from around the world and abundant opportunities to think deeply about professional learning.

What all of these things had in common is that they stretched me in ways I could not have anticipated and often did not desire. And, because I often worked outside my comfort zone, the fear of failure was a constant companion.

While I had not yet heard of the “impostor syndrome,” I lived it daily.

And in each setting —an innovative high school, an alternative program, a teacher center, and NSDC — I benefited from the support of respected colleagues who offered encouragement and mentoring along the way.

So what would I say to a teacher near the beginning of his or her career?

Look for and be open to opportunities and mentors who will challenge and stretch you. If you do, I predict that you will have a rich and fulfilling professional journey. I wish you well wherever you may be along that road….

Beliefs matter


Beliefs matter because they have a profound and often invisible effect on what teachers and administrators say and do each day.

Beliefs are also habitual, which means they are often applied to new situations without a full understanding of their consequences.

My three previous posts addressed professional learning, school culture, and teamwork, each of which has implicit beliefs that channel them in productive or unproductive ways.

For example:

• If school leaders believe that good teachers are born, not made, high-quality professional learning will have a low priority.

• If school leaders believe that new ideas and research-based practices should be sufficiently compelling in themselves for their full adoption, they will ignore the influence of school culture on innovation.

• If school leaders believe that professional learning and instructional improvement are the sole responsibility of teachers, they will fail to create the necessary structures and incentives that enable strong teamwork.

Left unexamined and unaltered, some beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are several such beliefs I proposed in a previous post:

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

• Teaching is delivering, “telling,” and performing. Leadership is directing and motivating.

• 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.

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

• The best means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

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

Another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding teachers’ capacity for growth, which I wrote about here:

“Just as it’s essential for principals and teacher leaders to believe that student learning can be improved by skillful teaching, it’s essential that principals and teacher leaders believe that through well-designed professional development and teamwork virtually all teachers can become effective, if not masterful.

“Believing in the capacity of students to learn at higher levels without a parallel belief in the capacity of teachers to successfully teach them — given appropriate support — can only lead to frustration and failure.”

Yet another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding the qualities that are important in new teachers, a subject I address here.

(Other posts on the subject of teaching can be found here.)

Administrators and teacher leaders are not powerless to affect colleagues’ beliefs. In a post on “frames” I wrote:

“Put simply, frames are the mental frameworks we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface systems of beliefs and ideas. While difficult to dispel, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice and the ability to conceptualize alternative frames that better serve student learning.”

In that post I suggested two frames that I believe interfere with change and offer alternative ways to conceptualize them.

I closed that post by inviting readers to identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in in their setting.

I encourage you to do the same.

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