Friday, February 25, 2011

Research Based this....Data Driven that...

I hear phrases such as 'research based', 'data driven', and 'data informed' used quite a bit in discussions about how we need to change our educational practice to improve student achievement. 

Those are pretty powerful statements, and it is hard to argue with them.  I mean, who would argue against using data to be more effective at what we do?  Ditto the research-based statement.  Everyone knows that it is sound reasoning to base our actions on what previous research has taught us, correct?

The problem is, as I see it, is that things are not quite as simple as they might seem on the surface.  If someone is talking about using data to improve instruction, what data are they referring to?  How was it collected, what is the purpose of using it?  What does it really tell us about student behavior and/or teacher behavior?  When it comes to research, what is research?  Research is not using Google to find articles, it is more than that.  Pure research involves the scientific method, focused purpose and problem, and critical analysis of the results. 

I stand by my original position, presented above, that it is hard to argue with statements such as I shared, but with a caveat.  We need to truly understand what those statements mean before we agree to use them to make changes in our practice.  We need to have common agreement on definitions, and about assumptions, before we start making changes.  We need to focus our actions, and be precise and intentional based on shared understandings and shared vision.  As instructional leaders, we need to ensure staff understand the urgency behind what we are doing as educators!  The relationships we build with each other and the culture we build in our schools is essential to supporting that clarity of vision and the development of shared understandings.

There, I said it again.  Relationships, vision, and focus are keys to student success!  Bet you never saw that coming....

Now, having said all that, where do our teachers collect their research and what do we do with it?  Google doesn't necessarily cut it.  Google Scholar is better though.  And how many teachers in my district are working on graduate degrees?  Are we sharing articles with each other?  Are we engaging in conversations about research on practice, how students learn, etc.? 

I think we need to take advantage of the things we already have going on, tap into our networks, and focus our conversations on those topics.  It is not about doing is about changing what we are already doing.  Focused and precise.  Those are my buzzwords of the weekend.

Before we do anything...let's understand why we want to do it, and identify what we want it to achieve.  We MUST develop deep common understanding about what we want to do, what it means, and why we want to do it....


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Of Mistakes and Kids These Days (Or...They're Going to Have to Know it When They Graduate)

I'm surprised CONVERGENCE is not a more popular buzzword in education reform circles.  Or perhaps it is and I am standing outside the circle?

Just about everything I have been reading lately, or that others are sharing with me online or within my district, has to do with one of 3 strategies for improving education:  (i) focused and specific instructional skills and leadership behavior, (ii) developing deep and sincere relationships with our students and parents, and (iii) preparing our students with the skills needed for success in our modern society.  You can't, it seems, reflect on one without having the others creep into the picture.

I like that.  It makes sense.  Approaching all three provides focus on basic skills, and support for taking a less rigid and more fluid approach to educational programming all at once.  Just enough mixture of loose and tight, built on a very solid foundation!

Two TED talks one these topics have inspired me.  Neither Diane Laufenberg's message, nor Chris Lehmann's message, are earth shatteringly new.  For me, they are effective reminders, however.  They have the potential to be transformational for us, too, if we can elicit the instruction they promote in all of our secondary schools. 

HIGHLY relevant learning opportunities will create HIGHLY engaged students.  Period.  Expecting the kids to change to meet our inadequate schedules and structures doesn't work.  That's pretty clear to me.  When they graduate, they won't be asked to reduce fractions to lowest terms.  Sure, they are likely to have some performance expectations, but assuming we do a good job delivering our basic curriculum, they will be OK.

We need to step back, let the kids step up, and be willing to let learning be messy.  Kids these days don't have poor work ethics, as I hear frequently.  Rather, they are different.  Their makeup is different, their experiences are different, their worldviews are different, their expectations are different.  Find a way to align with their needs, I believe, and we will see as much work out of them as any generation has ever given.  AND....what inspires me about the work they will give? I believe this current generation of students has the potential to be the most socially conscious group yet...

I've embedded Laufenberg's talk below.  It is 10 minutes.  If you are interested in hearing what engaged students do, watch it:


Friday, February 18, 2011

The Importance of Balance

I recently had the extremely good fortune to attend a mentorship day in our school district.  For several years now we have operated a mentorship program for first and second year teachers in partnership with the local branch of the Alberta Teachers Association.  It is an amazing thing, and likely is a key factor in our district having a 63% teacher retention rate, which is second in the province!


Our recent mentorship day was a 'take a break and re-assess' day, where approximately 32 first and second year teachers and their mentor teachers spent the day working with several of our Central Office administration.  Half the day was spent reviewing topics such as work-life balance, and stress management, assessment, and communicating with parents.  The afternoon was collaborative planning time for the mentorship partnerships.

During the work-life balance portion of the day, the beginning teachers were asked what types of events have caused them stress this year.  The lists were lengthy, as you might expect, with many of the usual suspects.  Conflict, time management, students, parents, etc. are all sources of stress for beginning teachers, just as they can be for veteran teachers as well.  It was mildly cathartic for me to look at that long list, and to think about stress triggers.

The ensuing discussion about how to attend to these sources of stress was interesting, and I hope helpful!  Many strategies for dealing with stress were shared.  Some important messages that needed to be affirmed, such as "Make sure you strive for balance" and "Don't feel pressured - it is OK to say no!", were restated.  A lot of talk about priorities took place, and looking back I wish I would have had someone talk to me about priorities when I was starting out..

The discussion about the importance of balance in life reminded me of a TEDx talk I viewed online recently.  Author Nigel Marsh spoke on ways to achieve balance in life, and stressed the importance of the small things.  Fitness is good, but being fitter and working 14 hours a day is still being out of balance!  It is the little things, like going to the park with your children, that are the things that count.  While it may be easier said than done, I think it very important to look for opportunities like that!  I learned that lesson from my wife and children, and continually seek to find ways to make their day.  Who knew the simple act of going into work a bit later once in a while, and driving them to school, could mean so much to them?  I'm developing a HUGE fondness for those little things...I've realized they mean a great deal to me too!

If you have 10 minutes, watch the video below.  I hope you enjoy it, and find value in it, as much as I did:


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How Do We Define Achievement?

I've been doing a great deal of reading lately on the topic of achievement gaps.  It is fascinating reading, and what I've come to realize is that there really is LITTLE consensus on what achievement is.  Little wonder there are gaps all over the place, is it? 

Some people talk about achievement gaps between genders.  Those little boys struggle with reading compared to little girls, don't they, in the early grades.

Others talk about achievement gaps between culturally diverse groups in society.  Is achievement influenced by race?  Or is the achievement gap really a reflection of poverty, as suggested by others.  Which might be influenced by race.  Or is it?

Still others talk about achievment disparities that exist between nations, as evidenced by the recent publication of the latest PISA test results.

Are there really that many gaps in our systems? 

The more I reflect, with help from Tony Wagner, who's book The Global Achievement Gap I just read, I think the issue of achievement is most likely an issue with respect to how we define achievment.  I completely agree that different students may be at different stages of development academically.  As firmly as I believe that, I also believe there is absolutely ZERO gap with respect to their academic potential. 

So when we discuss, and try to attend to, acheivement gaps, what do we look at?  Is it Reading level that is how we define achievement?  If that is achievement, then we should clearly state that is our goal and pour our resources in that direction.  Or is it Math?  Reading and Math?  What about Writing?  Hard to argue with any of those, isn't it?  What about computers?

Tony Wagner identifies how graduates in today's society require critical and analytical thinking skills, as well as the ability to problem solve and to work in teams.  It is hard to argue with those being essential skills too, isn't it.

So what do we do next?  I think our system will be best served if we get some guidance (i.e. consensus) from society re: what high levels of achievement they most want to see our student attain.  Imagine how powerful our educational systems would be if we ALL understood what we were trying to achieve, and if we ALL worked to the same end?  Wagner's seven essential skills, plus language and number knowledge would be second nature for every graduate!

I look forward to working with our communities to help identify that collective understanding, and to seeing our students reap the benefits!  If you have the opportunity, please read the Global Achievement Gap.  It has the potential to be transformational towards your thinking!