Thursday, May 26, 2011

Possessions of GREAT Value and Our Guiding Principles

In my last year of university, I lived with a friend who was working full time already.  One afternoon I was studying intently on the sofa in our living room, and he came home and woke me up to tell me had a new car.

A Porsche 911.

The context here is that a Porsche 911 has been my dream car for some reason since I was a little gaffer.  Thinking he was pulling my leg, I replied with a laugh "Sure you did.  Let me take it for a drive then, I've always wanted to drive one."

When I grabbed the keys that were flipped to me, I saw the Porsche key ring.  The Porsche key.  And when I went to our parking spot, I saw a red 911 Targa.  Before he changed his mind, I hopped in and took it for a drive.

After getting over my initial surprise that I fit in it, as legroom is often an issue, the drive was everything I thought it would be, and then some.  I brought it home, gave him his keys back, and vowed to myself I'd never drive one again until I owned my own.  As I came home from work today, 20 years later, driving my mini van and not having driven a Porsche since, I was reminded of that story by a new 911 passing me.  And I thought of how that story applies to my current context in education...

Someone I can't remember once made a comment about the chances of people asking strangers to hold items of great value.  I wish I could remember who raised that point, I'd love to give them credit, as I think it is brilliant.  I  really don't think I know any strangers who would walk up to me and ask me to take care of their $100 000 car for the day.  Or to hold their 5 carat diamond ring while they go to work.  Yet that is exactly what countless people do on the first day of school every year.  They drop their most valuable possessions, their children, off with mostly complete strangers, the staff at the school.

Why?  It speaks to trust, doesn't it?  Thinking of that trust they have in us, it makes one think next of responsibility, doesn't it?  We have a responsibility to ensure we live up to our responsibilities!  I was doing some writing tonight about ethical decision making, and thought of the 5 Universal Guiding Principles we have adopted in our school district.  When we are making decisions, we need to consider our Guiding Principles, which are:
  • Is it good for students?
  • Will it help build trust and good relationships?
  • Will it help us improve?
  • Is it the responsible thing to do?
  • Is it open, honest, and ethical?
As I reflect tonight on our guiding principles, I've reaffirmed my belief in their value.  Those are the kinds of principles that support people entrusting their children to our care.  Reflecting on our Guiding Principles consistently, regardless of where the decision is being made, and building practices that will support their use is evidence of our commitment to the responsibility we owe our parents.

There is a lot involved in answering these questions.  We need to use good research to identify what practices are goo for students, for example.  We also need to balance costs and benefits to determine if an improvement is worth it.  Etc.  These are not easy questions to answer.  But that does not mean they are not worth the effort.  Haven't you ever noticed the most satisfying things in life are usually those you have to work the hardest to attain? 

That is likely why I still drive a mini van.  But one day.  And in the meantime, I have the honor of working to support our staff, students, and parents.  More valuable than a Porsche, for sure, but not quite as filled with the same potential!


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Evening With Sir Ken Robinson and a Message of Hope

I had the great pleasure of taking a bus with 35 district teachers and administrators from Grande Prairie to Dawson Creek last night to attend a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson on personalized learning, creativity, innovation, passion, and the need for education reform.  Thanks to Lance and the senior leadership in our district for sponsoring the lot of us to attend!

Look how happy everyone is in the picture, as we stand beside what is apparently the second largest semi-aquatic rodent in the world.  Next time we stop at the BMI!

If you've not seen Sir Ken speak in one of his talks on TED, or read any of his books, you really should.  He's funny, engaging, has an inspiring message, and I think you'll like what he has to say.  You might also take the hint: @jenclevette gave me and listen to his latest book The Element in audiobook format.  SKR reads it himself and is equally engaging on iTunes as he is in person.

Sir Ken didn't say anything especially new or unique yesterday.  He didn't rock us back on our heels with challenging or controversial claims.  He simply shared what I consider a message of hope for the future of our education system!

At the 40,000 foot level, you can't argue with anyone who says kids need the opportunity to explore their passions.  Who says kids need caring people in an education system to personalize their learning.  Who says kids need to develop the skills that will prepare them for a future that we are not entirely sure what it will look like.  Sir Ken's message was quite clear at the 40,000 foot level.

But we live at ground level.  And things are not that clear close to the ground.  The talk today was about what we do with his message. Logical sequential people may have felt a gap today, while random abstract people will likely last a few more days basking in the message before moving on to something else.  Regardless of one's position, I think the next step, however, is not evident.

I'm optimistic that enough people heard, and value, the message though and that it will gain traction over time.  The same message is coming from Alberta Education as the Action on Curriculum builds momentum.  It is inherent in the new Education Act.  It is a common message from a number of different directions.  It is also a common perspective in all of these messages that I think the specifics of changing our practice have to be left up to us.  As a district, we need to construct our own meaning of what this message of hope means for us.

Who will lead our transformation?  How will our Board engage our community on a deep and meangingful level to get involved so that we can help all our students embrace their passions?  How will our Ministry give us the authority to truly personalize individual curricula?  How will our district and our administrators create the conditions for teachers to succeed and then get out of the way to let them do what they need to do?  And, finally, how will our students handle the responsibility we need to give them?

Of all the questions in the preceding paragraph, the one I'm most sure of is that our students will amaze us.  They always do.  And I can't wait to see that.  Sir Ken's message of hope resonates with me today.  Let's get to work.  Together.  We need to work on those first few questions from the paragraph above...


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Simple Question. A Complex Set of Answers.

I came across what I consider to be an excellent question on the topic of teaching today.  I think there likely to be as many answers suggested as there would be people who might answer it.  I'd love to give the question (see below) out at the start of a staff meeting and spend a good hour discussing the qualities of effective teachers.

Lack of consensus on an answer would be a problem for instructional leaders however.  Our goal as instructional leaders has to be always to increase the effectiveness of the instruction in our schools.  It is clear (and is backed up by substantial research) that classroom instruction is the single most important school factor that influences student achievement, which leads me to the question I came across today:

What are the most common differences between good teachers and expert teachers?

If we want to increase the skill level of our teachers, where should we focus the majority of our resources?  What will give us the biggest bang for our buck, so to speak?  What should our instructional priority be?
  • The ability to differentiate?
  • The ability to develop effective and caring relationships with students?
  • Skill with small group instruction?
  • Effective planning?
  • Effective technology integration?
  • Skill with classroom management?
  • The ability to provide descriptive feedback to students?
  • Something else?
WWMS? (What would Marzano say?)
WWHS?  (What would Hattie say?)
WWLS? (What would Leithwood say?)

What if they all said the same thing?  Would that be enough evidence to demonstrate an urgent need for specific action?

I'd love to have this discussion with a room full of teachers or administrators....I think it would be fascinating and passionate!  And if we could turn that into action, wouldn't we have a clearly established vision of what instructional leadership is all about and a common understanding of where we need to go?


Sunday, May 15, 2011

After School Sports or After School Learning? Is Anything Non-Negotiable?

Further to my last post, re: Hattie's book Visible Learning, I've been trying to reflect on the value of different aspects of our educational system on student learning and assess whether or not we are maximizing the value of our investments.

There are lots of places in our system where emotions can come into play and a decision focused solely on the impact on achievement should be weighed against the impact on some of the other goals of the system.  Extra-curricular athletics is an example of a part of our system that I think might generate some interesting conversations if a change to those programs was suggested.  Thinking about the idea of radical changes to our system makes me wonder about what might be considered a non-negotiable part of our current system.

Reflecting on the impact on achievement is tough one considering the resources we put into extracurricular athletics, for example.  School sports are the one place where some students experience success, and can be of considerable worth in regards to school culture, relationships, etc.  The problem is though, Hattie says that extra-curriculars, and in particular sports, do not have much impact on student achievement:

Outdoor education programs however, do have a significant positive impact on student learning:

In my community we have EXCELLENT minor athletic programs including hockey, baseball, volleyball, basketball, gymnastics, soccer, swimming, dance, tae kwon do, and skiing, among many others.  We also offer many of those opportunities in our schools, with volleyball, basketball, soccer, etc. offered throughout the school year.  What is the impact of that duplication on our access to resources?  Are we missing other opportunities by sticking with our standard school sports? 

I've been thinking about this idea in general terms for the past several days, since I first saw the images above in Visible Learning, and we had a discussion at work about how we might use the book.  What if we left the sport development and instruction to the communities, and instead focused our extra curricular efforts on providing our students with outdoor adventure programs?   If we changed how sports were accessed and delivered in our communities, what would the impact be on our schools if we then changed how they are delivered in our schools?

Community groups could take over all sports, and schools could focus their resources on other learning opportunities.  Instead of running after-school athletics, perhaps we could provide students with other outdoor education opportunities?  We could combine Science, Social Studies, and Outdoor Education into practical and relevant community projects and provide our students with additional sporting opportunities in the community outside of school hours.

Considering one of the reasons behind my decision to enter education many years ago was related to a desire to coach, this thought does cause me some not unsubstantial internal conflict.  :)  Participation in organized sports is something I consider essential for kids, but perhaps a change in focus in how that opportunity is provided could be a way for our schools to meaningfully involve our communities?  We might also avoid duplication of efforts, provide kids with outdoor learning opportunities so many of them do not get AND positively influence student learning as well!

I don't believe I'm advocating this....I'm just thinking out loud....and maybe this will generate some conversation about what constitutes reform....penny for your thoughts?

Making Data Easy To Understand With Visible Learning

It is hard to argue with the role that data can play in informing educational decision making.  That we need to make decisions to increase student learning is a given.  In an era of increased competition for educational funding it is important we maximize the value of our choices.

The challenge for educators is to know how to find and use data when making decisions in schools and districts.  There is no shortage of data in educational systems, when you consider financial reports, student achievement data, community data, etc.  Factoring in the data we collect locally with that generated by the significant world of educational research can be overwhelming.  There is so much data available, it can lead to paralysis before it leads to analysis.

Recently while attending a session on systemic improvement presented by Kenneth Leithwood I was introduced to a resource focused on educational research that I believe is quite valuable in this regard.

John Hattie is an educational researcher and professor of education at the University of Melbourne.  His book, Visible Learning, is an easy to read synthesis of other meta-analyses of educational research and presentation of the impact of different strategies on student achievement.  Hattie's summary and the effect of different factors on student learning has the potential to be very useful when trying to decide how we might make the best use of our available funds.  If we start by asking the right questions about our existing practice, Hattie's book can provide valuable data for making our decisions.

One of the unique features of Visible Learning is the way Hattie presents the summary of the research.  The visual gauge Hattie uses, below, is an excellent visual representation of the summary.  The use of formative feedback is something we often talk about as a necessary part of effective instruction.  As Hattie shows below, it is a very powerful factor influencing student achievement.  If you want to take a look at it the book before purchasing, you can check it out here on Google Books.  Much of the book is available for preview online.  If you are wondering if class size or teacher training will have a more powerful impact on student learning in your district, for example, search in the book and see what discussion ensues...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Potential of Online Mentoring

I have been reflecting quite a bit recently on the potential for change in Alberta's education system.  With a move from a very prescriptive system to a more collaborative system with more local input/control a possibility, I see even more need for focusing on the relationships we create personally and professionally.  

In terms of building the capacity of district and provincial teachers and administrators, I see a place for an increased focus on formal and informal mentorship as a way to facilitate those relationships.  More than a simple focus on team building, mentoring is truly a powerful way of supporting personal and professional growth through tapping into the potential of relationship building.  The impact on the culture of the organization is potentially quite powerful as well!  I wanted to share two examples that I believe illustrate the power of virtual mentorships on individuals and the organization.

I was talking with one of my sources of inspiration a while ago who is doing some work with the Apollo Group as they refine their practices in the Canadian higher education market.  He mentioned that the Apollo Group has an employee mentoring program, and shared the example of a very high-ranking Apollo executive (I believe the CEO) mentoring or coaching one of the young IT employees in Nova Scotia, Canada.  They email, talk on the phone, and occasionally meet when the executive's schedule takes him to Canada.

This commitment to individual employee growth, at the highest level of the organization, is an example of the potential of mentoring programs at the organizational level.  What does it say about the value of people in that organization, that the CEO works to mentor someone in the IT department?  Does that kind of relationship across departments build trust and organizational loyalty?  I think a little bit, don't you?

At the school level, in the past I have encouraged young female students from our remote northern location participate in the Cyber (SCIber Mentor) program offered by the three universities in Alberta (  This program puts talented and interested female science and math students in mentoring relationships with females in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions.  It is simply an amazing program.  It has been in place for many years, and I think/hope it will continue to grow in popularity!

Of course, with children and mentoring programs, the safety issue is something that is of extreme importance.  I have trust in the SCIber Mentor program, but I believe extreme caution is warranted if directing a student to join a mentoring program offered by an outside organization, such as, as opposed to an institution I am familiar with.

As we plan opportunities for ourselves and others, we need to remember that structure is an important part of a successful program. Online mentorship programs, as with face to face programs, will benefit from a core structure, whether curricular or attending to other needs, that shapes the interactions between the mentor and the protegee.  Additionally, providing a framework to guide interactions and offer direction for the future can help begin a relationship and guide participants until they are comfortable with each other. Until safe and trusting relationships are formed, having a structure in place can help guide the interactions between mentorship participants.  

For individuals and organizations in small geographic areas, I think the potential of building an online pool of mentors is something to consider!  As individuals are more and more connected outside of traditional work hours, there is benefit to this sort of relationship as well.  

I think it is something worth considering!  Our people are the most important resource we have in a school district, and more than any supplies we could possibly buy, they are essential to the achievement of our students!  If differentiating the support our adults get helps the students, it makes sense, doesn't it?