Friday, April 26, 2019

Rethinking Common When Considering Teacher Professional Learning

     Jeff is a high school teacher of United States History. He has 11 years experience teaching. He is passionate about his content area and his students. Jeff has evolved with regards to his teaching which is evident in his practice. Over the years he has transitioned his approach to include more universally designed instruction and critical thinking exercises. Recently he has collaborated both within his discipline and across disciplines in order to improve approaches for developing student writing. He has recognized through his own reflective practice that his students struggle developing a thesis and defending their claims through evidence. Jeff is eager for the upcoming school year to be able to invest time in self-study and collaboration with peers to explore practices that will contribute to his growth in this area as a teacher. He is hopeful that his development will result in improved student outcomes. 
     Jeff's supervisor has a shared process of reflection and discovery. Through the observation of classes, review of student work, and her own research she has recognized a deficit among students in this area. During lesson planning meetings, post observation conferences, and informal conversations, she has provided Jeff with advice and resources to aid in his development. She has also facilitated dialogue and provided time and space among Jeff's peers that has allowed him to share and discuss his observations and motivation for action. As a result of these actions, peers within the department have made connections to the experience Jeff has articulated and demonstrated an interest in exploring this topic. Recognizing the organically developed motivation to shift instruction among department members and a teacher on the team who has demonstrated effectiveness in this practice, Jeff's supervisor establishes a professional development learning lab centered around this topic. The teachers who subscribe to this lab will meet at various times throughout the year to discuss practices, share experiences, critically reflect on outcomes, and share student work. For the remainder of the available professional development time the teachers will self-select their activities and actions in order to grow and develop in their identified area of practice. 
     The district administration has recognized the overcrowding of initiatives and one-size fits all approach to teacher professional development. They have decided to weed their professional development program of top down common initiatives. They have reformed their professional development under a new program titled Go Time.  Go Time provides time, space, and resources for teachers like to Jeff to explore areas of professional development that they self-determine to be relevant and aligned to their needs. This new model recognizes the varied learning styles and needs of teachers are differentiated. It is also empathetic to the constraints placed on teachers through the breadth of initiatives and directives that overcrowd their ability to sustain actions and practices that contribute to their growth and development.  
Education has become fascinated with common initiatives. Since the roll out of the common core we have seen a shift towards common assessments, standardized lessons, common planning time, and whole group professional development initiatives. At the forefront of this shift is the idea that research based practices can be generalized and cloned. It is the implementation of these common initiatives that will provide a consistent, research based, instructional program for all students. 
     Lacking in this understanding is the belief that teachers are professionals. Individuals capable of critically reflecting, adapting to their classroom context, and challenging their own beliefs and assumptions about students, instruction, and learning. The "common directive" serves to motivate teachers to action utilizing an extrinsic pressure in order to conform to the expectations of the organization. 
     The  Go Time  model of professional learning is in direct contrast to the common directive.  It is rooted in motivational theory and recognizes that there is not a linear relationship between professional learning and student outcomes. Instead, it recognizes that a third dimension must be introduced in order to ensure sustained growth and development. Teacher motivation must be developed and sustained in order to progress teacher learning and impact student outcomes. Self determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000) argue that motivation is dependent upon autonomy, competency and relatedness. The authors argue, "people whose motivation is self-authored compared to those whose motivation is externally controlled have more interest, excitement and confidence. This will manifest in enhanced performance, persistence and creativity" p.69.  Therefore, when thinking about the origin of motivation, consideration for the level of autonomy and self-efficacy that individuals perceive or experience is of importance. In considering relatedness, the authors position motivation by extrinsic sources as a variable that may direct motivation. They argue, when extrinsic motivators are fully assimilated to the self will they be perceived as autonomous. The self-directed model of professional learning provides participants with an opportunity to develop efficacy and autonomy in the process and activities while assimilating those needs to meet the expectations of professional learning directed by the school or district.   This integration of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is a process that happens over time and allows for sustained growth, development, or action. 

     Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Time of Year for Reflecting and Planning

The end of the school year has quickly come upon us. It is a hectic time of year filled with standardized assessments, summative exams, capstone projects and of course many field trips. For most teachers it is a time to provide a self reflection and meet with an administrator for a summative evaluation meeting.  It is also a time to present evidence and a reflection of your professional growth goals for the year.

Depending upon your district and administrative requirements this process of reflection may require structured responses to guiding questions, mountains of evidence and a scripted dialogue in a conference. While this method provides a significant amount of content to fill up a summative evaluation it can easily become a task without a great deal of true engagement.

I would prefer to see a more personalized approach for educators. Allowing for a true reflection of the year with an emphasis on "what would I truly like to improve on or learn more about next year?". The idea of pursuing an intrinsic passion is not new. We have had professional learning goals for years. However, the delivery and the process seemed to make it "another thing I have to do for my district". We have repackaged this idea by creating new vocabulary such as "Genius Hour" or "Mastery Minutes".  The idea being that you are mandated a block of time to pursue a true passion or interest that will assist in developing you as an educator.

While the idea and packaging have evolved the concept remains the same. In order to maintain "engagement" it requires personal passion. What worked for you this year? What do you see evolving within your classroom, school, the greater educational community and the world? Is there something that requires exploration, collaboration and reflection? Make that your professional development goal for next year!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Targeting Growth Over Outcome In High School

The race to achievement and college career readiness has invoked a paradigm shift in the high school experience. With an expectation that all students will further their education at the college level we have seen not just an impact on curriculum standards, standardized assessment, and rigor, but also change in mindset and decision making.

The amount of students applying to and attending universities has risen across the U.S. The introduction of the common application has simplified the application process. The end result is students applying to a significant number of schools and those corresponding schools breaking their own records each year regarding the number of applicants. The schools invite this increase as it increases their selectivity which improves their perceived status. For example, it was just released that UCLA received just over 100,000 applications this year for a freshman class that is expected to be 6,500. With a 6.5% acceptance rate, one could conclude that a tremendous number of fully qualified applicants are denied. This new pattern has turned the college admittance process into more of a lottery.  The reality of this is that a student who enters high school with a specific university as their goal and one who devotes all of their decisions to meeting that schools expectations has the greatest risk of minimizing what high school can be.

There has been countless research and discussion about the value of finding the right "fit" and the correlation of success and what you extract from your college experience.  This data contrasts the opinion that the most selective school will guarantee you the best possible outcome.

The shift in mindset experienced by students is a focus on developing a transcript that reflects high level of rigor and grade point average. With this comes a great deal of anxiety as students sometimes sacrifice physical and psychological wellness in order to remain competitive.This new path limits the greatest experiences that build a foundation for life long learning. That being, experiencing and overcoming failure or setbacks, taking risks, exploring courses outside of your comfort zone or that are of high interest. The extrinsic motivation created by this escalating race clouds perceptions as the goal to achieve can be viewed as intrinsic motivation when in fact is an outcome of the encapsulating competition. In the end, students shift their focus entirely to achievement at the expense of true learning.

My wish is to work to evolve this mindset to a new focus. Rather than focus solely on a specific outcome, I would encourage students to look at growth. Understanding strengths and limitations and making a goal to improve them incrementally. A high school student who finds the right mix of challenge, rigor, and intrinsic interest and who works to grow incrementally in each area will develop the attributes that have a greater opportunity for continued success. The ability to understand mistakes, failure and setbacks and your ability to improve on them as a valuable learning experience would be the greatest skill to graduate from high school with. The understanding that you have four years to appropriately challenge yourself and grow. Staying committed to follow your passions and interests and not be victim to "this is what I have to do" is invaluable. In the end, you can find yourself as a senior who did your best, properly challenged yourself, and expanded your interests. At that point you can then apply to a university that fits who you have become and what you bring to them instead of you trying to be what you think they want.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Promoting Collaborative Inquiry To Improve Intrinsic Motivation in Teaching

The Common Core standards were introduced in 2010. While there are varying views on the quality and expectations of the standards, this new framework offered a much needed benefit. It provided a common language across our country that answered the question: What do we want our kids to learn? This common framework gave a point of reference for all teachers and was a significant shift from the isolation of individual state standards.

My experience at the secondary level of education consistently identifies areas of isolation among teachers. The common standards have provided a uniform curriculum and a set of standardized assessments to measure student mastery of these standards. However, the instructional strategies, assessments and grading formula's utilized by teachers in many cases remain autonomous. Autonomy, flexibility and creativity are important attributes for educators. It is what enables an intrinsic motivation to thrive in the classroom. The ability to innovate and deviate provides opportunity for differentiation, personalizing and individualization of instruction. However, this sometimes results in inconsistency, burn out and a miss alignment of grades and mastery. It is my belief that a more balanced approach of autonomy and consistency will provide the right mix to ensure an effective learning institution.

When segmenting instructional practices into its menu of ingredients a closer look at the student experience in similar courses is necessary. When two teachers of the exact same content area are provided a significant level of autonomy without any required alignment deviation occurs. Weighting of assignments as a function of final grade, inflation of grades and a false representation of student mastery are all possible outcomes. If the experiences in one class over another are significantly different it demands a system of assessment that can determine the effectiveness of each decision.

When planning an effective secondary program a focus on teacher collaboration must occur. Whether through virtual or physical means an investment of such will support a directive of collaboration. Teachers working together can share their best practices, align experiences and develop common assessments to align their progress towards standards mastery.  It is my belief that effective collaborative teams may invigorate the love of teaching as much as autonomy. The collective thought  provides teachers with a deviation from isolation. The sharing of materials and ideas can dramatically decrease workload as well as develop teachers depth of instructional practices.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Balanced Approach to High Tech Instruction

What has become a number of years ago now, I made a career change into teaching.  At that time technology was beginning to make its presence in schools with an expectation of high growth use. We saw the introduction of computer labs and the "computer special" in elementary schools. Middle and high schools introduced computer classes and electives. The instruction consisted of Microsoft Office training and the widespread use of educational software. The outcome was teaching technology tools in isolation of content and software as a supplement.

Fast forward ahead a few years and we found the shift from the computer lab to the classroom. Advancements in wifi, lower cost mobile devices, presentation platforms and cloud-based applications provided opportunities for the technology to move from the lab to the desk. Professional development focused on introducing teachers and students to the tools. Teachers were expected to attend workshops or self direct their own learning towards to mastery of tools.

The evolution continues. Ubiquitous access to technology and general acceptance of the disruptive innovation that technology brings to teaching and learning has shifted the focus from "I am using tool x to how can I individualize,  personalize and differentiate instruction in ways I could not before. In what ways can we develop the skills that allow students to be creators of content and knowledge rather than passive consumers.

As technology initiatives evolve a focus on asynchronous learning, publishing, collaborating, creating and connecting will provide our students with future proof skills, differentiated learning and an excitement connected to their perceived control over there growth.

As we embrace this change and explore the opportunities that are presented with technology it is just as important to recognize that a balanced approach to instruction is best. Recognizing the appropriate mix of instructional strategies including independence and self-directed learning is the new demand on educators. The most successful will be able to identify when and with whom to employ such strategies.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Social Network Approach to School Community

Technology has created disruption in Education. Districts have channeled resources towards supporting and expanding infrastructure. Our professional development and pedagogical approach to instruction has grown to expect a significant infusion of technology. To date, we have access to a vast variety of cloud-based applications that allow for the creation, presentation, and collaboration of content.   Professional development has also evolved from “check out these cool web 2.0 tools” to“ how to create a personalized and relevant, curriculum with technology”.


The implementation of various technologies and the increase of curriculum demands was a quick moving tornado of change. Our students are connected, collaborating, creating and sharing. They are developing a digital footprint that represents their academic growth.  The integration of technology based assessment has simplified data driven decision making and a feedback chain that has never been as effective. Teachers are exploring new web-based tools and integrating them into their content areas. We have seen a decline in textbook adoption and an increase in online, curated content. Students seamlessly shift between applications creating opportunities for the representation and assessment of knowledge that has never been so diverse.


During this era of disruption our students have evolved. As educators we struggle with addressing students need for constant connectivity, the management and interpretation of mass information, the desire for immediacy and an overall increase in stress and anxiety connected to our shift in education expectations. Our reaction to a global economy and workforce has fueled an increase in computer based assessment, increased rigor, and demand for competitive college placement.  In many cases, school has become much more difficult to manage.


Today’s students have to balance high expectations, a breadth technologies and increasing demands for time. Keeping track of “what to do” and developing personal efficiencies are vital for their success. Today, Students may find themselves with eight classes and eight different online resources for managing content and communication for those classes. For students at-risk, the ability for mentors, advisors, and parents to assist may be overbearing.  Consider the significant segment of classified students with ADHD.  How do students with executive function weakness manage the technologies and resources that are peppered by teachers, administrators or coaches?


In order to harness the plethora of digital content, the need for on-demand access, and communication & collaboration, districts may consider a learning management system (LMS).   A learning management system provides a central repository for course content and assignments. It provides a starting point for all blended classrooms to curate the information necessary for their courses. While teachers may ask students to use web 2.0 technologies to create content, the learning management system is where they are delivered their assignments and any supporting documentation.


In Chatham High School we were faced with an increased breadth of technology adoption. As more and more teacher’s embraced digital content and creation options for students we found that segments of our student body were struggling to stay organized. For example, a single grade 9 student may have one teacher that posted all assignments on a Google Calendar, one who utilized a website, another who emailed information to a student group and others who shared a Google Document.  For students classified and non-classified who demonstrate weakness in executive function the challenge was amplified.


Our focus shifted to providing a single platform to function as the hub for our course content. In looking for a platform our vision was a web-based application that would provide students and teachers with course/content management, calendaring and collaboration options.  A single platform to curate course information would simplify professional development and teacher collaboration by providing a common language for teachers and administrators.


Our implementation of a learning management system proved to be a success. We settled on an LMS that syncs with our student information system. The end result is pre-populated courses and student rosters. A student has access to all of their 6-8 courses in a single location. Our teachers post documents, video and website links, threaded discussions, and assessments. Teachers can post and collect assignments and even sync them directly with a popular plagiarism software suite without leaving the LMS. Events and assignments are automatically loaded to a class calendar. Students have the option of viewing individual course calendars or a single calendar that lists the events for all of their classes in a single location. This has proven to be the most significant change agent in that students, parents, counselors, case managers and advisors have a single location to know what assignments needs to be done and when. Most LMS providers offer mobile apps that offer immediacy and mobility for keeping up with changes.


There have been a number of unexpected advantages to creating this virtual network in our school. We have utilized the groups feature for all of our student clubs and activities. News, announcements and events are shared through these groups and published on the student’s calendar. Our faculty has taken advantage of these groups by creating collaborative spaces to share ideas, success stories and their questions. One of our more popular groups is the CHS Faculty Shelfie Wednesday, were faculty members share book recommendations. The CHS Think Tank is a group of teachers who meet physically and virtually to share innovative instructional practices across content areas. The Chatham Library for Information and Collaboration (CLIC) shares tutorials and how-to-guides for a plethora of web 2.0 applications and district software applications.  Our departments have created groups to copy and share course materials, assessments, primary sources and other valuable instructional materials.


Instruction in CHS has transformed by providing a blended experience with 24/7 access to course content.  Students have around the clock access to course materials. Teachers provide access to supplemental materials for remediation or deeper exploration into topics. Faculty members have begun to develop their own web-based textbooks by organizing content in unit folders in their courses. In some departments we are exploring the development of virtual only courses. This shift has started a conversation about flexibility in seat time and a typical school day structure. As the available features of the LMS evolve we continue to explore our options for deeper integration.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Shifting from Recall to Discussion Requires Teacher and Student Training

Discussion and questioning are two of the most targeted areas of classroom observation and evaluation. The focus has resulted in modified classroom configurations ("u" shaped seating) , varied seating options (table vs. chairs), technology infusion (online discussion forums), and professional development regarding instructional strategies that promote collaboration (think-pair-share, turn and talk). 

At the heart of a collaborative classroom is the formulation of "good questions". The format of the questions dictate the result. There is a very defined  purpose for asking recall or recitation questions. It provides teachers and students an opportunity to check for understanding. In my experience, this is the most prevalent form of formative assessment used in schools today. The use of technology ( student response apps) and various other instructional  strategies (exit tickets, answer cards)  provides teachers with data that encapsulates the entire class instead of an answer from a single student.

There is ample research to suggest that when students engage in active discussion regarding a topic they develop a more thorough understanding. The engagement in discussion provides students the opportunity to  reflect, make connections, validate their knowledge and receive alternative perspectives from their peers.

Shifting from recall to discussion requires planning, preparation, scaffolding and reflecting. To be blunt, it requires training for teachers and students. Teachers and curriculum supervisors work collaboratively to develop "good questions". A good question allows students to form opinions, provide supporting evidence, make a personal connection, present their ideas and respond to feedback from their peers. When in development, teachers consider and anticipate student responses and adjust their questions to accommodate them.

The above mentioned does not come naturally. It must be modeled and reinforced. How have you provided students the classroom "norms" for effective discussion? Are students aware of the expectations for effective discussion. Have you posted them in your room?

Students need to be instructed on how to dissect a question and participate effectively in a group discussion.  How do you dissect the question and establish your personal connection and need for clarification? How do you create "mental space" for peers to formulate responses and contribute to the group? How do you ensure everyone shares their connections and is an active participant in the group? What roles can you assign to group members to ensure a productive exchange? Is it necessary to provide a graphic organizer or outline to guide students progress? How will the ideas of a group be shared with the whole?

There are a variety of resources and publications that assist teachers in the development of effective discussions and productive group work. My goal with this post is to spark a self  reflection regarding your own classroom. How effective is your classroom discussion and should it be an area to further explore?