The flow of learning around here.

Our superintendent, Kevin Alfano, recently returned from a meeting with a group of superintendents.  He was telling us about the focus of the learning: school organizations as bureaucracies vs. learning organizations.  Our intention is to well live and work in the latter.  In the conversation, he mentioned an author, John Tanner.  Turns out that John Tanner has written a book called The Pitfalls of Reform: Its Incompatibility with Actual Improvement.  The description of the book and its author caught my attention…so I bought the book and have nearly finished reading it.  It’s an amazing discussion about standardized testing, what it can do, and what it definitely can’t do.  And how it has zero to do with actual improvement for kids and teachers.

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Here are a few booming quotes/ideas that hit home:

“Assessing students and gaining an understanding regarding what they know or are able to do is a vital component of accountability, but it is the easiest part of accountability. Once we know where students stand in their learning, the harder part is understanding why we are seeing the results we are seeing. Why is one gender performing better than the other? Why do some of our English-language learners excel when others do not? Answers to these questions enable teachers to change, hone, and refine practice to produce better results. And answers to these questions are not available through standardized testing.”

“The simple fact is that such tests are tools that fail to work as designed once you put the burden of accountability on them. Tests meant to operate in the background as a check on a system are now made to operate front and center and are presumed to say something well beyond and in addition to their design.”

“In fact, tests have come to play just about any role a policymaker wishes to assign to them without so much as even a rudimentary understanding of what a standardized test is, what it was designed to do, or how it was designed to be used. A standardized test score now determines whether a student has sufficiently learned his or her assignments, whether a teacher has effectively delivered the curriculum, whether a principal is or is not a fit instructional leader, and whether the system of education is functioning as intended. None of these was ever inferred in the design. Choosing such an instrument and deploying it counter to its design has serious consequences.”

And my favorite quote so far, ”

“But the argument that anything is better than nothing when it comes to making changes risks offering a fallacy for a solution. It risks being akin to saying “we needed a needle and thread but you gave us a hammer so at least we have that.” Having the wrong tool is having the wrong tool, and it cannot substitute for the right tool. That they are both tools is true—and useful in their own right against their design—but you can’t sew a button with a hammer.”

The point of this blogpost isn’t actually about the book, although it’s a doozy, has already impacted my thinking, and I recommend it to all education leaders and thinkers. The point is how we learn around here.

In our district, we want our leaders to be learners.  We want them to be readers. We want them to be sharers of their learning and reading.  And my aspiration for this year is to encourage our leaders to also be writers.

A simple conversation with our superintendent led to a book being read which led to new ideas and thinking to be undertaken.

A good day at work.


Educators and Research

What do good educators do with research that will improve learning for kids? 

Before that question can be addressed, there’s a more important question.  Do teachers, after college (or even in college given my experience), connect with research as their careers are rolling along?

In our district, we try to keep our educators apprised of research.  For example, we have shared Hattie’s work, especially the finding regarding ‘Collective Teacher Efficacy’.  At one of our kick off days several years ago, we introduced them to Jenni Donohoo, the author of Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning.  We literally had Jenni onsite, working directly with our teachers.  That pretty much made the research come to life.  Collective teacher efficacy continues to this day to be a topic of conversation, planning, and action in our schools.

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One of the main reasons it’s easy for educators to get behind Collective Teacher Efficacy?  It just flat makes sense.  When educators share the belief that, through their collective actions, they can influence student outcomes and increase achievement. Educators with high efficacy show greater effort and persistence, willingness to try new teaching approaches, and attend more closely to struggling students’ needs.  Common sense.

Here’s another common sense idea with the power of research behind it.

Greeting kids at the door.  Yep.  That simple idea.  Makes a whopping difference for kids.  Here’s the actual research.  Common sense.  I know teachers who were doing this before they knew about the research.

From the research article, “In practical terms, students in the PGD (Positive Greetings at the Door) classes evidenced a 20% gain in AET (Academic Engaged Time), which corresponds to an extra 12 min of on-task behavior per instructional hour or an additional hour of engagement over the course of a 5-hr instructional day. On a larger scale, use of the PGD strategy could potentially result in gains of several more hours of additional academic engagement over the course of the academic year, which could produce significant improvements in actual academic achievement.”

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Back to the original question.  What do good educators do with research that will improve the learning for kids?   When they know about it, do they act upon it?

Our great teachers do both.  They know about it.  They act upon it.


If I only knew then….

“So when kids come to your class, are they learning math or math class?”

There’s a question for you.  Are kids learning math or math class?  Ignore the content area.  The question remains the same.  Not something I had contemplated before.  But it really rocked me back when I heard the line.  So I started thinking back to the math classes I taught.  Or the language arts classes.  Or the social studies classes.

Did the kids learn math…or math class?

I tweeted this line out a while ago.  One of the replies came from the twitter account of Teacher2Teacher.

They asked a fair question:

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My answer was, “I guess I think about what kids are doing. Are they DOING math? Or have they simply figured out how to do your math class? Are they up to their eyeballs in math or up to their eyeballs in the math class routine. And I know one doesn’t automatically exclude the other.”

That answer is fine.  It’s close to what I could express within the limits of twitter. A better answer would focus on of what constitutes the majority of the kids’ learning?  Do they primarily learn math?  With joy, creativity, challenge, open ended thinking, collaboration?  Or do they primarily learn math class?

I know the kids learned math class because I had my routine. Get out your homework while I take attendance. Maybe a bell ringer activity.  Any questions from last night’s homework?  No?  Ok, switch papers.  Correct.  Turn them in.  Get out your notes.  I give some notes about the next thing in the math book.  Any questions?  No.  Ok, the assignment is page 48, 2-40 even.  Go ahead and get to work.

Ugh.  As goes the old saying, if I only knew then what I know now.  That model would be blown up.  Way less teacher.  Way more kid.  Way more interaction among kids.  Way more talk, questions, strategies, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.

Nelson SLMS(Back when I didn’t know what I know now)

The line also made the me think about ‘classroom management’.  Such an awkward phrase.  Like teachers are managing a classroom.  They’re not.  The classroom is fine.  It’s a room.  The ‘management’ is of students.  Kids.  And usually the ‘management’ is focused solely on behavior.  And more specifically, sadly, kids being quiet and orderly.  Again, the old saying.  I’d rework the entire classroom management conversation. Something more along the lines of, “How to we maximize our learning time together everyday?”  “What does it look like and feel like in here when we’re learning?”  And 5 bucks says the answers wouldn’t all focus on quiet.

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One little line disrupted my thinking.  That’s a darn good thing.

What does the ‘I’ stand for again? #LeadLAP #IMMOOC

Sometimes when we’re out and about and people ask us what our roles are, we tell them we work in in the TLI department in Fife.  And of course we’re asked what the heck TLI stands for.  Teaching-Learning-Innovation.  Most people get the Teaching-Learning part.  In our little shed down here, we define learning thusly, “Learning results in a permanent change in thinking or behavior.”  So…one has learned something when a permanent change in thinking or behavior occurs.  Turns out, for example, I never actually learned about photosynthesis.  I held the information for a while, until the test, then gave the information back, and went my merry way. No permanent change in thinking or behavior.  And of course teaching is everything that great educators do with/for kids to create learning.  And everything that great educators do create learning for themselves.


How about the innovation part?  Well we get our definition for innovation from an educator named George Couros.  He wrote a book called The Innovator’s Mindset.  I’ve probably mentioned over 1000 times that this is simply the best book about the learning world I’ve ever read.  A career changing mind blower.  Couros on innovation, I’m defining innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative. That means that change for the sake of change is never good enough. Neither is using innovation as a buzzword, as many organizations do, to appear current or relevant.”

Something is innovative if it creates something new and better.

We have examples of innovation all over the place in our district!  One of the questions we encourage ourselves and our educator colleagues to consider is, “When was the last time I did something for the first time?”  That’s a decent place to start thinking about something new.  But not new for the sake of new.  That’s dumb. New and making something better.

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Here’s a perfect example.  Mr. Beddes, SLMS principal, wanted to focus on the educators at SLMS and improve communication to our community.  So, he decided to give podcasting a try.  Podcasts, in and of themselves, aren’t new.  But Mr. Beddes made them innovative in how he used them, and in doing so, made communication about SLMS better.  New and better.

Here’s his latest podcast, where he interviews Mr. Kratzig.  It’s a remarkable and insightful interview.

Way to model innovation gentlemen!