Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Intentional by Design: We Build in Opportunities to Learn in the Presence of Students, by Risking Our Own Significance and Demonstrating Instructional Cycles

In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the fourth of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.
As leaders, we know that the most important relationship in schools and school systems is the instructional relationship between teachers and their students.  We talk and write about the primacy of this relationship and, yet, it can be easy to simply do that – talk and write about it. 

Because the learning that takes place “at the desk of the student” is so critical, we often find ourselves in classrooms teaching a group of students whom we have just met and often at a level or in a subject area that is unfamiliar to us. It certainly would be far simpler to share examples and images of students engaged in learning; however, the potential benefits far outweigh the moments of doubt as one begins a lesson in front of a group of 18 or more educators.  (In a subsequent blog, we will more clearly articulate the role of those educator observers, but for now, let us reflect on some recent experiences.) 

The body of writing in the area of ethical leadership often refers to leaders who “risk their own significance” and we know of no better way than to model a strategy or an instructional sequence for others.  Certainly, this can be done in a learning session where only adult learners are present.  That is, we can engage in a strategy or series of strategies and then discuss classroom adaptations and applications.   Nevertheless, inviting others to observe a strategy in action with a group of student learners allows us to watch intentional instructional design unfold and to mitigate sentiments such as, “Well, this is a good idea, but I can’t imagine how it would work with a group of Grade 10 Science students.”  

A group of 17 teachers gathered in Debbie’s classroom to observe a process of co-constructing criteria with Grade 11 Pre-Calculus students.  In two or three minute chunks, I solved math problems for the students, by not only modelling, but by engaging in metacognitive talk along the way.  Students gave me immediate feedback in the moments between the modelling chunks and identified what they noticed me doing and saying that would inform the criteria.  At the end of approximately 40 minutes, we had, together, created robust and comprehensive criteria to answer this question – What counts, what matters, and what is important when we solve a math problem completely?  The details of the criteria included statements like, “Clear your mind before solving the problem so that you can focus.”, “Think about a problem that you have done before that is similar.”, “Draw on prior mathematical understanding.”, “Take a brain break, if you need it.”, and “Determine what the problem is actually asking you.”  At the end of the lesson, I invited one teacher to meet with a group of two students to discuss what he/she had learned about instruction, as a result of the observation.  The discussion was not about what the students had learned or what the teachers had learned about the students.  Rather, the focus was on that which the teachers took from the demonstration to inform their next instructional steps.  In this way, the teachers are making their learning public to the students and modelling the adage that is often repeated – We are all lifelong learners.  And perhaps more importantly, the teachers are risking their own significance by talking about something that they now know more about than even an hour earlier.

For two years, teams of K-8 teachers observed every day for four days as I taught writing in two classrooms. At 8:30 each morning 25 to 30 of us gathered for half an hour, digging into the learning destination, discussing evidence we might collect, and, after the first day, considering what the evidence suggested as next steps for tomorrow's lesson. During those two years, I did the teaching, simultaneously working with students and teacher learners for an hour twice a morning in classrooms ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 8, with students I did not know, and on topics negotiated with teachers in advance, based on what they were studying at the time and their students were deeply interested in. I did not impose the topic to make it easier for myself. My only requirements were that we find something that would be authentic and meaningful for the students and connected to outcomes, content, topics, genres, or big ideas already under study. After each lesson we met to make sense of our evidence - the conversations, observations, and products from the classroom. At the end of the second year, the divisional Literacy Leadership team asked for pairs of teachers to become hub teachers, each planning a writing lesson study week and inviting four to six teachers from schools new to the project into their classrooms. Fourteen teachers opened their doors and made their practice public, using the structure I had modelled and the big ideas of assessment and instruction in the writing workshop that had been the focus of our two years together. In year three, while I began the work with a new team, fourteen teachers took a leadership role, benefitting colleagues from their own school and other schools in the district and making the learning their own. When they repeat the process next year, the hub teachers have suggested that they would like to include time in the visiting teachers' classrooms. Their feedback has inspired more teachers to volunteer to become hub teachers.

As leaders we deliberately build opportunities to learn in the presence of students and risk our own significance by demonstrating instructional practices. It is our experience that this modelling inspires others to try something that may not have been attempted before.

Risking your own significance is contagious.

In our next post, we will further examine the fifth hallmark that we outlined in January 2017- We use the gradual release of responsibility model not only with student learners, but with adult learners as well.

Written with my colleague Brenda Augusta

Monday, May 15, 2017

Intentional by Design: We Plan for Both Leader and Teacher Learning

In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the third of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.
As people who love words, we appreciate and extend metaphors.
It takes a village to raise a child.
It takes a school to teach a child.
We know that it takes teachers and leaders working in alignment to make a difference in the lives of children. In our planning, we consider the needs and actions of both teachers and leaders, including those at the school and system level. Just as classroom teachers plan for the range of students they find before them each year, leaders of schools and systems plan for diverse and rich professional learning.  As a result, whether in a large district-wide session, or one with many districts represented, we share both classroom and leadership examples to illustrate the application of the principles of assessment regardless of one’s role.  In the absence of considering school and system-based strategies, the promise of assessment for learning is not fully realized.  And, as research clearly indicates, it is this alignment that propels systems into deep implementation and achievement gains.

In a district working on writing over the course of three years, sessions were planned for teachers and leaders together, but also apart. In this way, each could apply the principles and structures of assessment to their own practice in the company of colleagues in a similar role. And so, while teachers were being guided and supported to create rich, meaningful learning destinations for students about what it means to be a writer, school-based leaders considered their school writing goal in terms of a learning destination for students, a learning destination for teachers, and a learning destination for themselves. As teachers identified conversations, observations, and products they and students might collect as evidence of learning, the leaders planned to triangulate the evidence of student and teacher learning, as well as their own. And finally, as teachers considered the modelling, shared writing, and co-constructed criteria students might need to reach these writing goals, principals and vice-principals discussed the descriptions of quality teachers might need – observing during a lesson study week, planning learning destinations as a team, or co-teaching with a colleague -  and how they as leaders could help make that happen. They also discussed the samples of quality they might need to grow their own leadership practice, including visits to a hub school in a nearby district, professional reading, and practicing giving feedback with other school leaders.
In another district, teachers focused on learning about providing specific and descriptive feedback to their students.  They examined the connection of criteria to feedback and the cycle of gradual release of responsibility that is required so that students build their capacity to give feedback to themselves and their classmates.  These conversations took teachers into classrooms to practise what they were learning and to identify next steps for their practice.  Simultaneously, all of the principals and vice-principals were inquiring into ways to provide feedback to their teachers and, in particular, they were designing structures to keep their teachers at the centre of the feedback cycle.  More specifically, these leaders worked to keep their feedback at very high levels.  Instead of feedback that included suggestions by the school leader, they learned about ways to use what they had noticed in the classroom, along with a mediative question, to allow the teacher to reprocess and identify his/her own next instructional step.  Principals and vice-principals first practiced creating this type of feedback together…without providing it to the teacher. In other words, the school leaders were doing exactly as the classroom teachers were - they needed to rehearse, make mistakes, adjust and refine. They were co-learners; however these leaders were learning about feedback through the lens of their role and leadership action.

In our next post, we will further examine the fourth hallmark that we outlined in January 2017 - We build in opportunities to learn in the presence of students, by risking our own significance and demonstrating instructional cycles.

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.