Monday, April 3, 2017

Intentional by Design: Using the Principles of Assessment for Learning as a Structure for Professional Development

In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the second of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.
“Wow, this must be really different from being a classroom teacher!”
“Working with adult learners is a whole new ball game.”
“You’re going to have a steep learning curve. Working with adults is nothing like working with students!”
These are comments we heard as we first left our classrooms and moved into the world of leading professional learning. The general consensus was that nothing we had done as teachers would serve us, or our learners, in this new role.  As reflective practitioners, we quickly recognized that although there were some differences between learners under 18 and those over 18, there were also many similarities. The similarities became particularly striking when we applied the principles of assessment for learning to the professional learning experiences we designed.

Just as with student learners, our adult learners become actively engaged in their own learning when, together, we identify clear learning destinations, explore quality and proficiency through samples and criteria, provide opportunities for self- and peer assessment, collect triangulated evidence of learning and set goals based on that evidence. And, just as it was with our students, these actions give our adult learners the confidence and the willingness to communicate their learning to others in formal and informal ways.

When we deliberately link classroom practice to the ways in which adults engage in learning, there is another intended positive outcome.  Research shows that when we impact the learning practice of teachers, we also impact their teaching practice.  For example, a teacher who has experienced the power of differentiation is more likely to differentiate in his classroom; a teacher who sees the value of self-assessment through the lens of personal practice is less likely to suggest that it is an “add on” to his instruction.  And so, the following two accounts provide practical examples of assessment for learning principles in action with adult learners.

A group of coaches in a district in Ontario were working alongside teachers as they inquired into the mathematical process of problem solving.  I was invited to, in turn, support the coaches in their facilitation of the inquiry.  As we came to the end of the first term of the school year, I asked the coaches to consider the evidence that they were collecting that would prove their work was making a difference.  When we examined their initial list, we noted that the majority of the artifacts were products.  Because we know that evidence from multiple sources (products, observations, conversations) brings both reliability and validity to the data set, we identified further evidence that could be collected, as the inquiry continued - making certain to include both observations and conversations.  We represented our thinking using a triangle (see photo) that could guide our evidence collection for the next six months.  The quality of these coaches’ leadership could not simply be measured by product alone; a triangulated approach provided the fullness of their impact.

Teachers at École Howden, a French Immersion school in the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, Manitoba, were guided in co-constructing criteria on what counts in teaching writing in ways that maximize student achievement and joy in the process. Through ongoing work, teachers and leaders were provided with many descriptions of quality through demonstration lessons over the course of several lesson study weeks. These samples were used to co-construct criteria. The criteria was then used by teachers to support each other in co-teaching contexts – collaboratively planning modelling lessons based on criteria – and goal setting contexts - one teaching and a colleague recording all language used to allow the first teacher to compare her language to the intentional use of language described in the criteria. The criteria made it safe for teachers to support each other, to collect evidence for each other, and to provide feedback for each other. Just as it does for students.

In our next post, we will further examine the third hallmark that we outlined in January 2017 - We plan for both leader and teacher learning.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Intentional By Design: Being responsive to the learners and the system within which they work

In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the first of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.

Once A Teacher, Always A Teacher

We are educators. It’s not just a job; it’s who we are. Just as elementary and secondary teachers and leaders are responsive to their students, we are responsive to our learners and the system within which they work. We don’t just open the computer and run the slides. Like you, we begin our planning with the provincial curricula (of the province you are in, not the one we are from!) and district documents. Every agenda is custom-designed, based on those local documents and the needs identified by those who know the learners best. It is exactly as teachers plan for each new group of learners, meeting them just where they are.

So what does that mean in practical terms?

It means that when we are invited by, for example, the Wikwemikong Board of Education in Ontario to come and do a writing lesson study week (a week of being the writing teacher in residence who demonstrates the teaching of writing, along with the big ideas of assessment), we must first be familiar with Growing Success to truly understand the context. It means that the learning destinations we create for the students are based on the Ontario language arts curriculum and that the writing we do is driven by the interests and passions of the students and not a canned lesson we have done ten times in other schools, other districts, other jurisdictions, or other provinces.

It means that the learning sequences we prepare are always in draft form. In fact, our published agendas (whether on chart paper or a PowerPoint slide) consistently include the word ‘Proposed.’ 


We are deliberately tentative, because we need to continually engage with adult learners in order to determine the very best next instructional step.  We adjust based on our observations and conversations – just as teachers adapt their lessons to best suit their students and just as the tenets of formative assessment demand.  In many cases, we use an electronic back channel, like, to collect questions, connections, and comments.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we structure our day’s plan in this way because it is the very thing that teachers are expected to do each and every day in their classrooms – be responsive to their students.  As leaders, it is imperative that we model this in adult learning sessions, so as to both bring alignment and, quite frankly, to not ask teachers to do things in ways we are not prepared to do ourselves.

In our next post, we will further examine the second hallmark that we outlined in January 2017 - We use the principles of assessment for learning as a structure for adult learning.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Intentional by Design

As we begin the New Year, we continue to reflect on the connections that we made during our session at the Learning Forward 2016 Annual Conference held in Vancouver, BC, in December.  We were struck by your level of engagement at 8:00 am on the final day of that conference and were so pleased to speak to many of you both during the session and after it had finished.  For us, what outlasts the event is the feedback we received.  A theme in your feedback was that you noted not only what was said (content), but also how it was said (design and method).  This brings to mind the opportunities we have as leaders to intentionally and purposefully design the learning process for adult learners.

We appreciate this level of “noticing.”  We are intentional and purposeful in the work we do with schools and systems.  Often, what brings us to you is a request for content – assessment, writing, reporting, instructional leadership, evaluation, strategic planning, etc.  And yet, each time we choose to “deliver” this content through a well-designed framework, because we know, just as classroom teachers know, that content cannot stand alone. 

In order to be clear, we would like to illuminate hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time: 

·      We are responsive to the learners and the system within which they work.
·      We use the principles of assessment for learning as a structure for adult learning.
·      We plan for both leader and teacher learning.
·      We build in opportunities to learn in the presence of students, by risking our own significance and demonstrating instructional cycles.
·      We use the gradual release of responsibility model not only with student learners, but with adult learners as well.
·      We identify what we want the learners to notice as we teach and facilitate.
·      We provide time for learners to practice and we provide them with feedback.

This structure permits us to move between adult learning sessions and classroom demonstrations/observations and back again in a seamless manner.  In fact, this is, for us, a ‘coaching’ stance, allowing adult learners to access their internal resources, experience, and expertise.

Over the course of the next several months, we will elaborate on each of these statements.  We will use examples and accounts to reveal how the intentionality of our design leads to deep adult learning and change in practice.  Just as Kevin Fahey and Jacy Ippolito state in their article, How to Build Schools Where Adults Learn, we believe that “School improvement is built on adult learning, which changes over time and can be encouraged and supported by savvy school leaders. Moreover, a learning practice, like a teaching practice, develops in complex ways as teachers grow and learn…” (Journal of Staff Development, Vol. 35, No. 2, April 2014).

Sandra, Brenda, and Anne

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Connecting the Work of School Leaders and Classroom Teachers

For us, learning is in large part about listening, asking questions, and making connections.   As we listen to the leaders whom we serve and support, here are a couple of the questions that we have been hearing.

Question: What does research show to have the most significant impact on student learning of anything ever documented?

If you have spent any time with us at all – in person, through our writing, or on our blogs – you know our response to this question. What we do as educators is built on the foundation of assessment and the seven actions that are collectively known as assessment in the service of learning or assessment for learning (William & Black, 1998).  By this we mean that all students, no matter how much they struggle will:

       Have a clear learning destination.
       Use samples to understand quality and 
       Participate in the co-construction of criteria.
       Be involved in self- and peer assessment.
       Collect, select, reflect, and project (set goals) based on evidence of their learning.
       Communicate their learning to others, both 
formally and informally.

Connection: School leaders facilitate the learning of teachers and support staff. These actions or big ideas are equally effective with adult learners. Just as teachers use these strategies to build self-monitoring and self-regulating learners, leaders use these strategies to build a culture of learning and collaboration where teachers own the learning and change is sustainable.  Examples include:

·      One principal of a K – 8 school modeled writing a letter for Grade Two students, making her thinking visible by talking about it as she wrote.  Her goal was to support teachers in their professional inquiry into the teaching of writing as a co-learner, leading the way by taking risks herself, so as to encourage teachers to take risks alongside her.
·      A principal co-taught with a teacher, modeling what it means to solve a math problem completely while colleagues observed and recorded data as requested by the co-teachers.
·      A secondary principal modeled, along with the classroom teacher and one of the assistant principals, what was important in a class discussion that leads to learning.  The students observed that demonstration and analyzed what the adults were doing, in order to establish criteria in that regard.

Question:  What if the school is too large for me to reasonably model in classrooms or I just don’t know enough about the subject matter or current teaching practices to model with students?

In a research study (Davies, Busick, Herbst, & Sherman, 2014) into the effectiveness of using assessment for learning as a leadership tool, the authors reported three key findings. One of them speaks directly to the ideas in this post:

“Leaders take action and move beyond words to deeds.”

The leaders in this study used the principles and strategies of assessment for learning in their leadership practice, modeling for teachers the big ideas they were looking for in teachers’ classroom practice.

Connection: When we work in alignment with teachers we implicitly and explicitly communicate a powerful message:

You are not alone in this change we are making as a school. We are all working toward this goal.

Examples from our colleagues include:

·      Principals and vice-principals in a community of practice wrote clear and specific descriptions of what success would look like in relation to their school improvement plan goals in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. After considering the possible conversations, observations, and conversations to collect as evidence, the leaders gave each other feedback on the plans.
·      A principal, whose school’s literacy goal included the importance of providing samples of proficiency and quality, began a session on writing report card comments with exemplars provided by the province. Together, the staff deconstructed the samples and co-constructed criteria on what makes an effective report card comment.
·      A secondary principal and the school’s three assistant principals talked through the triangulated evidence that they were collecting in relation to their school improvement plan.  They shared this evidence during the staff meetings that coincided with each of the four reporting periods. They described the challenges that they were facing, in particular, with the collection of evidence from observations and conversations that “outlasted” the event.

As you consider these examples, you might ask yourself the following questions:

In what ways do these connections remind me of my leadership practice?
In what ways might these examples provide opportunities for me and my leadership practice?
What other examples could I add to the illustrative ones offered here?

As you respond to these questions, you are invited into a deeper reflection of the actions of an instructional leader. And you move, “lead teacher” to “lead learner” or “principal teacher” to “principal learner”.

This blog post was co-written with my colleague Brenda Augusta.

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. 1998. Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan 80(2): pp. 1-20.

Davies, A., Busick, K., Herbst, S. & Sherman, A. 2014. System leaders using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process: Developing theory from practice. The Curriculum Journal, Vol.25(4): pp. 567-592.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What We’ve Learned About Being a Teacher This Year… From You

We were recently driving several hours through a rural region of Ontario to catch a flight out of Toronto Pearson Airport.  Because of our schedule, we were solely focused on the unfamiliar road ahead – the traffic, the highway signs, and the incessant directions of our GPS.  Something caught our attention and we both checked the car’s side mirrors at the same time.  What surprised us were the scenic vistas that the mirror reflected – gently rolling hills, trees in bloom, the darkening sky backlit by the setting sun.  Quite frankly, we had been concentrating so hard on what was in front of us, that we were missing the beauty of the landscape through which we had just travelled.

This reminds us of this time of year.  It’s June.  Even though none of us can believe it, the year has gone by in the blink of an eye.  Again. We seem to have a clear focus on “the end”…graduation ceremonies, farewell assemblies, final sets of report cards, retirement celebrations, and the list continues.  And yet, as we quickly move to the final day of school, we can forget that the closing of another school year is enhanced by pausing – even if for just a moment – and recalling what has come before.  Without this opportunity to look back, we can miss some of the successes, the learning, and the experiences that have propelled us throughout the year and influenced the professionals that we continue to  become.

So, we take our own advice.  We shine the flashlight backwards over the past year and mark five things that we have learned about being teachers and leaders because you have invited us to work alongside you.

·      There is much that connects us across the grades.
As teachers, we have more in common than we think we do.  As we worked in residence in Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms this past year, we used the gradual release of responsibility, moving from modelling to shared practice to independent practice in very similar ways. The big picture was the same, what varied was the instruction required before releasing to independence, the complexity of the shared practice, and the needs of the students in front of us. In Kindergarten and in Grade 12, all students knew the learning destination – where they were going – and what quality and proficiency looked like.

·      We can learn from each other across levels – early elementary to middle years to high school… if we are open to it.
During our time in schools this year, teachers of our youngest learners observed teaching and learning in middle years and high school classrooms, and an hour later led us down the hall or across the field to their Kindergarten or Grade 1 classroom. We are not describing a one-time only event. In all instances, teachers were deeply interested and respectful of the development at another level. They reported seeing the connection between teaching and learning at all levels.

·      Turn and Talk is an incredibly powerful strategy… everywhere.
In Kindergarten, we wrote a letter and paused for students to turn and talk about what they had noticed that might help them write their own letters. We took Grade 11 students to observe in a Grade 12 chemistry class and every four to five minutes asked them to turn and talk with a partner about what they had noticed and jot their ideas on a sticky note. When we ask learners to turn and talk, we are really asking them to notice and name the learning.

·      Modelling plus metacognition is an unbeatable combination.
When people of all ages are asked to think about how they learn something new, they often describe watching someone or having a more skilled other show them. Think back to learning how to drive a car.  We remember carefully watching our parents in the year before we would actually get our own hands on the wheel. Some of the things we “learned” were partial understandings at best and total misconceptions at worst. When our parents began to actively “teach” us to drive, the modelling was now accompanied by a “think aloud”, telling us what they were doing and why. There was far less left to figure out on our own.

And so it is with modelling writing, reading with comprehension, oral presentations, lab reports, or solving a math problem completely. Students need to hear and see your thinking. Without the metacognition, learners are left to guess about what was important in the demonstration. For those students who cannot read between the lines, in fact, cannot read our minds, this leaves too much to chance.

·      The language we use matters.
In our workshops and sessions, as well as in our classroom-based work, you, the teachers, comment on the precision and intent of our language. This is no accident. We intentionally begin with invitational stems, use tentative language, and embed positive presuppositions.  We also deliberately connect the language of the learning destination to the language of quality and proficiency, to the language of specific feedback, to the language of evaluation.  Like Carol Dweck and Peter Johnston, we believe you can use language to not only increase student success, but to change lives.

And before we turn to the school year ahead, we wonder what your list might be.

Friday, February 5, 2016

What might someone have learned because you were in the room today?

  • What is one idea or strategy that you are taking away with you back into your school?
  • In what ways might you apply one of the strategies to your next instructional sequence?
  • What is a word or a phrase that continues to resonate with you from today’s session?
  • In what ways has the content and processes of the day informed your current role?

These questions, or ones like them, seem very familiar to us. We often pose them at the end of a meeting or a professional learning session. Participants may be asked to share their thinking with a valued colleague or to write about it on an exit slip. In some instances, there is time set aside to reflect and respond and at other times, they are offered as a “take away.” In any case, these questions call us to consider what we might have learned from the content and/or the processes presented and used.

What if we would end our time in professional renewal by also proposing this question: What might someone have learned because you were in the room today? That is, at the end of these gatherings, we pause to also think about the ways in which our words and actions might have impacted upon the learning of those beside whom we have been working. And what if, as facilitators, we pose this question at the very beginning of our time together. We signal that, as we close, we all will be thinking and talking about our responses to that very question.

The question itself presumes a stance of positive presupposition and a sense of community. It suggests that we are all responsible for the learning in the room. Oftentimes, norms of collaboration state this very notion. We may even review those norms before we begin; but before we know it, we forget about this shared obligation.

Instead, when we begin in this way, we ask both others and ourselves to think about the ways that we will “be” in this learning space today. In other words, I am reminded that my actions, my words, my inactivity, my silence, and my behaviour can be the very thing(s) that provocates someone else to deeper thought, that causes someone else to pause and rethink a previously held position, or that presents to someone else a new strategy or idea.

Over the past several months, I have started my sessions with this question. Educators have provided me with feedback that they have appreciated the reminder that they are all responsible to the community of learners gathered. Some have reported that they believe others may have learned something not as favourable, such as “It is hard for me to not check my phone for texts and emails.” or “I noticed that I interrupted several people today.”

Nevertheless, when we are reminded that we are not only responsible for our own learning, but that of others, it can call us to be our best selves. And then when we reflect at the end of the learning session, we not only think about what others have done with and for us, but we are afforded an opportunity to reflect on our performance, words, behaviour and interactions. In this way, we turn the mirror back to ourselves to reflect upon our impact on others, not just what others have done for and to us.   

Perhaps a powerful question such as, “What might someone have learned because you were in the room today?” can, in fact, help us and others to close the knowing and doing gap.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Continuous Reporting?

"What is continuous reporting? I want to students to do most of the work. What can it look like?"

"How is it possible to do e-portfolios with young children without using all my personal time? 

Can we even do it with the technology we have in this classroom - one iPad and Apple TV?"

The idea of continuous reporting is one that has great currency right now. And, it is certainly as idea that is possible given the technology that is available. However, moving to continuous reporting takes time and resources. It is important to examine what resources you have to make continuous reporting possible given your context. In the example below, I share the conversation I had with Kari Nye, a multi-age 1 and 2 teacher in the Comox Valley School District.


Kari Nye posed the questions above when I visited her multi-age 1-2 grade classroom this week. The context for her work is changing. There are massive curriculum changes underway. Report cards are also changing but teachers are being asked to explore different possibilities.

How did I respond? I began with a question, "It is the fifth week of classes, how are you involving students in the assessment process now?"

"We are looking at samples of student's work and we are talking about quality work. I show samples using the iPad and Apple TV. I ask students to share their ideas about what makes it a quality piece of writing. Then I ask them for one or two ideas that could make it a better piece of writing next time. I help students to be very specific. We point to the evidence in the samples. We've been doing this since the beginning of the year."

"We have just started to co-construct criteria because the students are pretty good at identifying quality in work samples I show. I began by asking them what are the signs of a good drawing book." 

"After I asked students to choose a piece of work of good quality and put a pink sticky note on it. Then I gave each student 5 sticky 'stars' to place on their work to show evidence of each of the five criterion."

"I typed the criteria up (see lower left of sample below). Then I met with each student and they showed me the evidence for each criterion and they set a goal. The goal was highlighted in yellow."

As Kari showed the samples, I thought about how she was preparing students to be engaged in reporting - they were looking at samples of work, talking about quality attributes, developing success criteria, talking about possible 'next step' goals and showing proof of quality.

Then I asked, "How are you collecting evidence of learning now?"

Kari showed me a collection of large sheets of paper folding into a pocket. Each child had decorated the front of their own pocket. Inside each child had stored some selected pieces of work.

Then we had a conversation about reporting requirements and about the reporting process. Kari's students will be part of a student-parent-teacher conference. She wants students to be a large part of the reporting process. We talked about the need to show student learning over time so parents could see the learning. And the need for teachers to be present and involved as they need to both make and be seen to be making an informed professional judgement.

By the end of our conversation Kari had tentatively decided to continue having students collect their work into the large pocket folder. And, in order to help parents and students see progress over time, she planned to have a simple portfolio (see sample in photo below) that would include a beginning samples of reading, writing, numeracy and choices from early in the school year.

Then, before reporting, students would select another sample from the big pocket folder showing their growth and improvement in each area. They would do a self-assessment using a frame such as, "I used to... and now I...." The four pocket portfolio could be organized by term (e.g. Baseline, November, March) or by the subject areas (e.g. Reading, Writing, Numeracy, Choices). It is a portfolio structure I have written about in Making Classroom Assessment Work. It is simple. It works because it shows the learning progress of each child relative to where he/she started the year.

The big pocket folder, the four pocket folder along with a student-parent-teacher conference will be the major communication tool for reporting. Kari tentatively decided to continue the report card with categories such as exceeding, meeting, approaching and beginning because parents find the 'bottom-line" summary useful.

We also talked about using e-PEARL - an excellent portfolio program developed by Concordia University. Kari also decided to NOT use an e-portfolio because, given the lack of technology available in her classroom, she would be the one doing most of the work and students would not have the ownership they need.


In summary, as you consider the reporting process you have established and since the primary purpose of all assessment, evaluation and reporting is LEARNING, ask yourself,

"Will students learn from this process?"
"Will parents learn about their children through this process?"
 "Is it practical and possible from a teaching perspective?"

If the response to all these questions is, "YES!" then move forward with your plans.

If the response is, "Not quite..." then it is time to revisit and rethink your continuous reporting plans given the unique needs present in your context.

Send us your questions and comments either below this post or via email.

All my best,