Data. It’s a four letter word. Especially in education.
It has been argued by many to play a pivotal role in increasing student growth. The four key PLC questions from DuFour are centered around it. Even Danielson includes it as part of Domains, 1, 3 & 4 of the teacher evaluation rubric.
And yet, when many educators hear that it’s time for a data review meeting they either cringe, cry, or circle up their friends to plan out who’s bringing what treats to get through the agonizing process.
So what’s wrong with data? Specifically, what’s wrong with data review and why does it get such a bad rap? More importantly, what can we do about it?
Problem #1 We Don’t Engage All Stakeholders
When I was a teacher I remember being invited to countless data review meetings where the reading specialists would project graphs of student growth (or lack of) using something called AIMSWEB. We would painstakingly go through each student with the specialists all sharing their insights. Periodically I would be asked for feedback on my students, but in the end the decision would be made to change some sort of intervention that I was not involved in by the other “experts” in the room.
I sincerely hated those meetings. I became an expert head nodder at those meetings. Most of the time I was dreaming about what I would eat for, let’s be honest, any meal, or thinking about which member I would take from my favorite boy bands to form the greatest band of all time. (This is way trickier than you think. You need at least one bad boy which means you can’t just take ALL the cute ones.)
From start to finish, each stakeholder, from educator to specialist needs to be both an active creator and participant in the process and beyond. The reason why data review has gotten such a bad name is that many educators, like myself, have experienced it as something being done to them as opposed to the collaborative process that it should be. No one ever explained to me WHY we were having these meetings or what the expected outcomes were. No one ever asked me what data I thought would be meaningful to look at or even to bring data with me. I was simply told I had a substitute and was to show up to these monthly data meetings. They were supposed to be these all important events, but I usually left them wanting two hours of my life back and needing a coffee.
Problem #2 We Never Get Anywhere
When I was an instructional coach one of the big parts of my role was Data Coach. I ran data review meetings, helped teachers to look at formative classroom data, and facilitated discussions in PLC’s. DATA was a four-letter word regularly used in my vocabulary. And (gulp), I liked it.
“Here’s What, So What, Now What” was my jam. We used it to evaluate everything from exit slips to Fountas & Pinnell assessments to reading responses and everything in between. The feedback that I got was positive from the teachers I worked with. It was a well-organized way to present the data (Here’s What), talk about causes (So What) and then come up with a plan of what we were going to do about it (Now What).
Unfortunately, as I have been reflecting upon this protocol in preparation for some data review with my current staff I have come to realize that there are some serious flaws in the way we used this protocol.
Wait, what? Did I just say the mack daddy of data protocols is all wrong?
Yep. I did.
Here’s why. I’m a control freak. And I broke it.
Yep. I’m a control freak. Ok, recovering control freak. Back in the hard core CF days I thought we needed a list of guiding questions, as well as categories of students, to look at when talking about data. I needed a predictable structure that would get us from point A to point B to point C each time. I mean how would teachers know what to talk about if I (God of Data) didn’t guide them step by step each time through the process?
Recovering CF me realizes how incredibly idiotic this was for two reasons:
See Problem #1
There are so many questions and levels of students to talk about that we rarely made it to the Now What (THE MOST IMPORTANT PART) in a 45 minute PLC time and would have to continue to the next meeting
Although we had some GREAT conversations about students using this protocol I have to imagine that my staff walked away feeling frustrated when we had to wait a week to get to the action plan or meet at another time after school to finish it. Without action, data review is just a pretty little template with some glorious notes about our thoughts, but no real impact on student learning.
Here’s What, So What, Now What is still a great protocol, it just needs to be simplified. Don’t try to look at all the subgroups at one time. Select the group that is most meaningful for your team to talk about and only use it for that group. Select a few questions to focus on during your conversation. Doing “All the Things” is not productive when discussing data.
Problem #3 Meaningless Data
Problem number three could be argued to be a large part of number one.
Many times we are asked to analyze data that is not very meaningful because the data has gone well past its expiration date. Standardized tests like PARCC or IAR or whatever it’s being called this year are thought to be important data to analyze because often our school success is judged by this benchmark. However, when it comes six months into the following year it’s hard to find any correlation between the results and current teaching practices. The kids have grown. Our teaching has changed. Nothing is the same. It’s hard to have buy-in to discuss something that is related to something so far in the past.
Another way that data can be meaningless is when it doesn’t match our strategic outcomes for students. If we are saying that as a school we are trying to foster collaboration, creativity, communication and any of the other six C’s, then it is difficult to make the argument that we should spend hours analyzing a multiple choice test or any other form of assessment that doesn’t show evidence of those indicators. If data is going to be meaningful for analysis it has to match with our intended outcomes.
Other times it really does go back to Problem #1. If we don’t explain the why or ask for the feedback of everyone involved in selecting data to analyze then there ultimately will be little impact on students. We have to move beyond the idea that data review has to involve fancy charts, graphs or percentages. Coming from a business background, I love me a big fancy spreadsheet with a pie chart or bar graph involved, but if we never move beyond simply looking at numbers data review is going to continue to lack meaning for many.
My So What
In order to combat the full fledged groans that usually commence at the mention of the word data we have to simplify the process. Let’s stop making it this mystical thing that requires elaborate templates and official numbers. The whole point of looking at data is to cause growth in students. The best way to do this is to select meaningful evidence that will help us to make instructional decisions that we can act on.
That being said, I don’t have all the answers (yet), but here’s where I’m currently at:
Select a facilitator. Have this person engage all stakeholders prior to the meeting about an area they see a need to talk about.
Decide on some evidence (data) that would demonstrate this need. (exit slip, writing sample, conferring notes etc.)
Decide on how you will be assessing the data prior to the meeting as a team and come to the meeting with it already “graded.” (Note: This is not extra work. This is simply assessing something you would already authentically be doing or have done.)
At the meeting answer the following questions:
What does this evidence tell us about our students? What did they do well? What did they struggle with?
How could we build on their strengths to create success?
What action steps do we need to take so that each student will grow?
What questions do we still have?
Create a plan of action with a follow-up date included.
Albert Einstein allegedly once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” To me this means that we need to simplify the process, but not the thinking involved in looking at student data. It is my hope that through several iterations and feedback from my team we are able to further refine these processes and get to the heart of what will move all students forward.
When you have a moment to yourself throughout the day, (driving in the car, running on the treadmill, when the sun is rising and you’re just waking up) what does your mind go to? In the past, it’s been anything from how can I get ALL of my students excited about reading to imagining myself singing an epic (most likely 80’s) song on stage with a live band.
Lately though I’ve been reflecting a lot on my last post about the purpose of education. A former instructional coach and now administrator, I’m always thinking about the practical end of my ideas. The questions that seem to be recurring most are:
What is the core foundation of instructional practices in a school that values creating meaningful learning experiences that build on strengths and develop students’ passions?
How do I actually go about making this vision of a learner-driven education a reality? More specifically…
What structures need to be in place? (schedule, student grouping, learning spaces, etc)
What are the mindsets and values of the leaders and learners in this type of school and how can I help to develop them if they are not already there?
What shifts should be prioritized first?
So I was blown away when I started listening to a recentModern Learners podcast (if you are not listening to this podcast you are seriously missing out) where the hosts, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, interviewed Megan Power, a teacher who had not only explored these questions and more, but had been part of designing and opening a PUBLIC school that was actually DOING all of these things.
Located in San Diego, Design39Campus, is part of the POWAY School District. Its inception story is similar to many public schools around the country. Because of the growing number of homes being built in the area, a new school was needed to help with overcrowding in other buildings.
That’s pretty much where the similarities stop.
Instead of building a school that mirrored the others in this high performing district, the superintendent took this as an opportunity to go beyond what they had done before. With this in mind, he put together a team with a very specific challenge, how do we change the way we do school? The team took this question a step further and asked…
“How do we change the way students experience learning?”
The result of a deep exploration of this one question is what has built the foundation of this incredible school:
“Learning experiences are designed with the individual learner in mind. As a collaborative community, we nurture creative confidence, practice design thinking, learn through inquiry, connect globally, use technology and real-world tools, and promote the courage and growth mindset necessary to change the world.”
This approach has not only impacted traditional academic metrics (Their 6th-8th grade students consistently outscore the other students in the district on standardized tests.), but the mindset of the students as well. Instead of being excited when they have days off of school, parents are reporting that their students are actually upset not being able to attend.
Lessons Learned & Ideas to Emulate
Rather than rehash the entire episode, I’d rather focus on the big takeaways related to the questions I have been reflecting upon lately.
1. Time & Design Thinking
The first thing that really stood out to me was the amount of time that Megan Power and the team took to think deeply and explore every possible avenue related to their big question. Using a design thinking approach they “threw every piece of the education puzzle onto the floor” and reflected on each piece to see what worked and what they might want to change. Because of a grant, the members of the team were had an entire year out of the classroom to focus solely on this endeavor.
It has been my experience that in education we have a bit of the “Squirrel!” mentality where we jump from one new idea to another without really delving in deeply to explore why we want to implement the initiative. Even worse, we don’t take the time needed to explain the purpose and build the capacity of those who will be implementing said initiative. This results in either shallow implementation confusion or overwhelmed colleagues which inevitably leads to push-back from many.
2. Building a Shared Vision
One of the models of complex change that I continually come back to use in reflection is from Ambrose.
In order for complex change to occur, the five elements above must be woven into the work. If one is not present, then any of the five items on the right will occur.
One thing that the founders of Design39Campus did exceptionally well is build a shared vision and understanding among ALL of its stakeholders before even opening its doors. This started with parents.
Instead of telling parents what Design39Campus was going to be all about they held community nights where they asked participants what they wanted for their students and for the school. Attendees were asked to respond to the following:
Imagine a place where students could…
Then we need teachers who…
Then we need leaders who…
Then we need parents who…
What skills do parents use in their jobs all the time?
They wanted this to be an open forum so, in addition to holding multiple events, they collected every single post-it response created, typed them up, and posted them online. Their goal wasn’t to convince the community that they had all the answers, it was about getting their input so they could help decide what their school could be.
And it wasn’t just about getting their input in the beginning, the parents continue to be a partner in learning. They regularly hold workshops for parents and also share articles, videos and books aligned with the vision. Parents are frequently asked for feedback and this feedback is incorporated into the workings of the school. It is a continual collaboration between the community and the school. On theirwebsite, there is a plethora of information including a geniusglossary of all of the terms they use in their school that includes everything from instructional approaches to places in the building.
3. Getting “The Right People on the Bus”
Because they were building a school from a design thinking perspective, the team knew that they needed the right type of educators to become a part of the team. They wanted to hire teachers and leaders who were creators, innovators, and risk takers who would create deep learning experiences for students that would foster curiosity. With this in mind, they changed the titles of teacher and administrator to Learning Experience Designer and Lead Designer. I love how this small change already creates a different mindset of what each of these roles has traditionally meant.
If they were looking for a different type of educator, they realized that they needed to rethink their hiring process as well. A three-part process, the goal was to really get to know the educators personally and see how they worked in a team dynamic. The teachers would be meeting for an hour daily to reflect on practice and design learning experiences together so the ability to collaborate was critical to the success of the students and the school.
The first part of the hiring process they had teachers submit something called an E-Tell where could create anything they wanted to tell the school about themselves. In the next stage, selected applicants were asked to participate in a design challenge where they worked on a team to design a lesson. The finalists from this stage were then invited back to participate in an interview with a group, but even this was more targeted at getting to know them as a person outside of the school setting rather than their curricular expertise.
4. Deep Dives, Explorations & Integrated Learning Time
One of the trickiest dilemmas that I have reflected upon most often in this journey is how to balance building content knowledge and skills with fostering students’ passions and curiosities. In addition, I have always wondered how do we help students to discover new passions in addition to the ones that they are currently interested in? This delicate balance is an area that Design39Campus does incredibly well.
Design39Campus does not have a set curriculum that students must master at the same time each year, however, they do teach content.
“Yes, your children will learn phonics, write on lined paper, and learn how to read and do math. It is our plan to make those learning opportunities engaging and interesting for them so they never lose the joy of learning. Filling out stacks of homework packets is not what we are about.”
I can only imagine the conversations that inspired this quote. 🙂
The way they accomplish this is, instead of breaking up the day into subjects, which puts a focus on content areas, their school day is broken up into Deep Dives, Explorations and Integrated Learning Time.
Integrated Learning Time is when students learn content and build skills. Just like it sounds, subjects are taught together as part of a broader question that the students explore. This creates connected understanding and more greatly models the way the world works outside of school. During Deep Dives students are able to explore a passion of their choosing in an academic setting. Design39Campus has partnered with local businesses to create a wide variety of options. Finally, students go to Explorations. This is where they get to try new things that they might be interested in exploring more deeply later.
5. Constant Learning
Everyone at Design39Campus views themselves as perpetual learners. As Megan Power explained, “they are going to be like a start-up forever.” Because of this, they are constantly asking questions, reflecting and learning together. Teachers observe one another’s practice. They go and observe in other schools. They even have time that they spend in local businesses to better understand the work that they are preparing students for.
With design thinking, you are focusing on solving a problem through the lens of the people that the solution will serve. They spent the first institute day of this school year investigating the question, “What is learning?” demonstrating that, even though they have been doing this for five years, they know there are ideas to ponder and questions to explore that will even better the learning experiences for their students. Although they have created an amazing model they know they can always improve.
A Step Further in Answering My Big Questions
This podcast was extremely helpful in coming up with some answers to the questions I have been exploring lately. I especially love how a design thinking approach permeated the entire school from the start to current practice. If you’re an administrator like me you’re probably wondering though, how could I come close to replicating this in a school that is already established?
Going back to the work of Ambrose, I believe it starts with creating a shared vision. Because the founders of Design39Campus took the time to build a shared vision with all stakeholders, they created momentum for success for the future as well as greatly diminished a large push back to change.
It doesn’t just stop with vision though, a plan has to be created with specific ideas for not only actions to be taken, but knowledge to be gained by all stakeholders. If it’s a vision similar to Design39Campus’, then part of the plan has to be building capacity in learning experience design. When the majority of our educators went to college they were taught how to manage time, follow a curriculum and teach for understanding. The type of learning experiences we are expecting teachers to create in this type of school involves asking big questions, giving powerful feedback and starting with the learner in mind as opposed to the curriculum.
We can’t just expect educators to make this shift overnight. We have to build their capacity in a way that is meaningful and builds upon their strengths. We won’t be able to do any of this effectively if we don’t get to know the needs of those whom we serve first.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when I think about the structures that need to be in place I’m not sure that question can be answered prior to building vision and capacity first. One thing that I think will definitely be a part of the plan if we are going to teach from a broader perspective is larger stretches of time for students to work as opposed to segmenting the day up into smaller chunks. However, without building the common vision and understanding of why we need to do this the result will be a shallow change in instruction. Additionally, I would envision a large amount of push-back from parents and staff.
One of the most important takeaways from the entire podcast is that to truly do this well takes time. Give yourself permission.
Explore. Imagine. Create. Reflect.
Enjoy the journey.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from their website:
“Because of what we do, our kids don’t just ask about the who, what, and where, but they ask about the why.”
What the educators at Design39Campus are truly empowering students to do is to be eternally curious learners. And for me, that’s what makes all the difference.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Christina
When I go to parties I can’t help myself. As much as I try to avoid it, I inevitably talk about education.
Especially if there’s beer. One good IPA will get me waxing poetic about my vision of education for pretty much the entire night.
I’ve never actually had two in one sitting. I can only imagine the diatribe of fostering students’ passions and deep learning that would result from a double Union Jack or L’il Sumpin’ Sumpin.
Usually, these discussions involve my educator friends (That would be most of them). But on my favorite nights, I’m chatting with a new person, a non-educator person, a person who has a career outside of the classroom who is killin’ it in the “real world.”
At this particular party, it was Anti-Hero, on draught. And an economist. Double Trouble.
The outcome? A completely thought-provoking conversation about more than just education.
So much so that I’m still thinking about it over two weeks later.
Sourdough, A Blog, & Some Calculus
“I’ve been working on mine for days. It’s a delicate process.” Two gentlemen close to me were having a rather intense conversation about something that sounded like it could be food related. I’d heard there was going to be a guy at this party who had recently taken a fairly lengthy sabbatical to create a blog based on the science of food (which of course piqued my interest).
Based on what I had overheard I assumed one of them had to be him. I grabbed my drink and headed over.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“Sourdough??” I responded incredulously prompting one of the men to start telling me about the process. Based on the amount of information he was giving me I was now positive this was the guy I had been hearing about. I was just about to ask him about his blog when my friend Sarah came over. (The birthday girl)
“Oh! So you met S! Did you know he has a food blog?”
And that’s how the epic conversation began. It turns out that S’s company granted him an 18-month sabbatical and he and his wife actually traveled all over the world for it. He even ended up contributing to a few cookbooks during this time. To make the story even more amazing his company actually continued to pay him part of his salary during the entire time he was on leave.
I had to know more. “So, what do you actually do?”
“I work in capital markets. Basically, I help multinationals manage their global foreign currency, commodity and interest rate risk. We help their treasury department to set up a sophisticated and efficient risk management policy and structure.”
“So like an actuary?”
“I use some of the same math, but no, not an actuary.” He then explained to me in more detail what he actually does on a daily basis helping me to understand the difference. It sounded insanely interesting and super mathy (which you know I am obsessed with) and I found myself wishing someone would have explained more math-related career options to me when I was trying to decide what to study in college. But I’ll get into my point about that later.
“So how can I follow your blog?” I asked as I pulled out my phone to open up the WordPress app to find it.
“It’s pretty easy. Just look up my name.” The bar had suddenly gotten louder so I had a hard time hearing which prompted me to move closer.
“I see you have the WordPress app. Do you blog as well?”
And that was that. I explained that yes, I had JUST started blogging and my passion was education. I told him that I am most passionate about creating learning experiences in school that better prepare kids to be successful in the innovative and dynamic world we live in.
So, of course, this led to me asking him about his school experience. How much of what he learned in college and high school did he feel prepared him for what he currently does? (I’m not shy. I have no qualms about asking people fairly personal questions regarding education.)
“A lot actually. I use a ton of calculus in my work. Most of my classes in college were math related. They built on the math I learned in high school. I learned about finance and economics. I wouldn’t say I’m in the majority though. I think the statistic is something like less than 8% of math taught in school is used in jobs and the percentage is even smaller for daily usage. Don’t quote me on that though.” (On a side note, I was curious and looked this one up after our conversation. He was pretty accurate. Check out this article in the Atlantic. I was surprised to read that it’s more prevalent that blue collar jobs that use calculus in their roles.)
We talked more about school and how I thought that we needed to include more opportunities for students to grow curiosity and build creativity. That many students see themselves as poor students or not smart because of the emphasis historically placed on how well they do in traditional subjects. (Not that they aren’t important, but that we need to broaden our definition of intelligence) If we changed schools from a focus on compliance to giving students meaningful learning experiences connected to the world around them, we would empower them to grow their passions, build on their strengths, and leave school already knowing the gifts they have to offer.
We agreed a lot during our conversation, each person adding in a different layer to the conversation. But at the end of our talk, he challenged me on one thing.
One MAJOR thing.
“You know people shouldn’t create a career out of their passion right?”
Huh? This one surprised me. He had just taken an 18-month sabbatical from his career to travel around the world creating a food blog. (which I still think is totally awesome)
“I remember seeing a title of an article about something like that on Medium recently. Tell me more.”
“School can’t be about people following their passions. It’s not economical. It could never work for society. You remember the bread conversation we had earlier?”
“Well, homemade bread will always taste better, but it’s not practical for everyone to make it daily. When mass produced bread was created it allowed people all over the world to start eating it on a daily basis. It solved a problem, especially for poor families.”
“You run into the same issue with careers. Think about the limited amount of jobs out there for people with a specific talent or passion. Mathematically it just doesn’t work out. There’s no way that every job would match up with every individual. Besides the point that most of those types of jobs don’t pay well or the higher salaries only go to a select number of people who become specialized and well known for that area. Take chefs for instance. The ones who are slaving away working in regular or even elite restaurants are making probably…(he listed a figure, but I honestly cannot remember the total)
Even though they are doing something daily that they love they are scraping by most of the time. When I was on my sabbatical if my company hadn’t continued to pay me a percentage of my salary there’s no way I could have gotten by. The entire sabbatical I probably made about $30,000 and that was including money made from contributing to a few cookbooks.
We need students to learn skills in school that will prepare them for jobs that will make them money. If we don’t, we are essentially setting up a greater economic burden.”
Wow. I had to think about that one. I understood his point about the mathematical probability of matching everyone’s career with their ideal passion, but I also know that if there’s a will there’s a way and people who are passionate about something will make something new. That’s how innovation works and the world changes right?
Seeing so many stories in the news lately about the middle-class shrinking and jobs being replaced by technology gave me pause though. Plus, it was midnight, and this party girl was about to turn back into a mommy. So I offered a few ideas and thanked him for the thoughtful dialogue. We both agreed to follow one another’s blogs and I left the bar to drive back to the suburbs.
Preparing Students for Success…in Anything
One of my favorite quotes from AJ Juliani is:
“Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”
For me, it’s a great anchor for making decisions about school. At some point, I seriously need to get it framed.
So when I was reflecting on the drive home, this quote immediately came to mind. If we are going to prepare students for ANYTHING (or rather empower students to prepare themselves), a definition of what anything constitutes is important to define and explore.
In the context of the conversation I had with S, I wanted to explore more the economic side of that supposition.
If you look at the unemployment trendfrom the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over the past ten years unemployment peaked in 2009 at 9.9%, but has been on a steady decline annually since and in December 2018 was 3.9%. That being said, according to the BLS Economic Situation Summaryfrom Jan. 2019, there are still 6.3 million adults in the United States who are unemployed.
A few days after my conversation, an article from Fortune magazine titled, The Shrinking Middle Class: How We Can Fix It, ended up in my inbox adding another layer to the economic conversation. According to the article, the middle class in the United States has been steadily shrinking over time due recently in part to the burgeoning “gig economy.” (Many people associate this with jobs like Uber, but it can be any kind of contract work.) People make a wide range of wages in these jobs, but what is causing a greater problem for many of them is that benefits like health insurance or a 401(K) are not included in the position. As a result, many are living paycheck to paycheck, in a constant state of stress. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, as much as 48% of contract employees struggle with poverty.
Besides the gig economy, the author also attributes private equity as another major factor in the decline of the middle class. These private investors often borrow heavily to purchase a company placing them greatly into debt. In order to repay their loans as well as investors, they have to “wring cash from holdings,” leaving little money to pay workers. Sears and Radio Shack are cited as examples of employees who suffered from this practice.
To find solutions to these problems the Fortune staff reached out to a variety of business leaders, economists and politicians to ask their opinion. The responses were mostly related to government-provided solutions such as raising the minimum wage, creating legislation requiring companies to provide benefits regardless of employment status, childcare tax credits, or universal basic income (UBI). The article even recommended emulating the government of Denmark where 98% of households with children under age 15 receive financial assistance from the government.
So what about the other side? The jobs that are out there? What skills do they require? LinkedIn annually analyzes hundreds of thousands of job postings to find out what careers are growing as well as what skills companies are looking for to fill these positions. In their recently published 2019 Report, the most promising jobs are wide ranging from Machine Learning Engineer at number 15 with a projected 96% increase to Data Scientist at number one, projected to have a 4,000+% (wow! is that number even possible???) increase in job openings this year. The other Top 5 positions on this list include Product Owner, Product Designer, Enterprise Account Executive, and Site Reliability Engineer. My favorite on the list was a position called a “Scrum Master.” You would not believe my disappointment when I found out this was not a pirate-related career, but someone who is involved in agile software development and project management. With the exception of Customer Success Manager, all of these jobs had median base salaries of $100,000+.
Additionally, LinkedIn uses this analysis to come up with the Top 5 hard skills as well as soft skills that companies are looking for. Job seekers can use this information to improve their employability by acquiring these skills and listing them on their resumes. For 2019, the hard skills most in demand are cloud computing, artificial intelligence, analytical reasoning, people management and UX design (user experience design). Making my heart (and Sir Ken Robinson’s) do a happy dance was the fact that creativity debuted as the number one soft skill companies are looking for. Time management, adaptability, collaboration and persuasion round out the rest of the list.
Implications for Education
So, what’s the final verdict? Is the purpose of education to build students’ strengths, develop their passions and foster their natural curiosity or is it to give students the skills and strategies so that they are qualified for a successful and high paying job? If we’re using the Juliani Standard (Yes, I made that up, but it should be a thing right?), then the correct answer is YES!
Reviewing and reflecting upon current economic problems as well as needs in the complex world we live in, schools are clearly not adequately preparing many students for the society they are graduating into, much less inspiring them to chase their passions and change the world. I admire the contributors to the Fortune article for brainstorming ideas to help others who are very much struggling in this new economy, but what they are not recognizing (with a few exceptions) is that no matter how much legislation we put into place, if we do not fill the knowledge and skill gaps of the individuals involved then we are just continually perpetuating a cycle of dependence on others.
Despite various government interventions over generations to help lessen the disparity between social classes in the United States we continue to have little growth in closing the gap. According to a 2018 report from the PEW Research Center, median middle-class income increased 6% from $74,015 in 2010 to $78,442 in 2016 with lower-income households (29% of adults) increasing 5%. Although those percentages point to a similar gain, when we look at actual median income dollars, 5% is really only an increase from $24,448 to $25,624 or a little over $1000 in a six-year period. Even worse, the median income was actually higher in the year 2000 ($26,923) indicating a negative growth over the past twenty years for low-income households.
We need to empower students before they enter the workforce not only with the technical skills to be successful, but with the understanding of what it takes to succeed in every aspect of a very dynamic world. We have a moral imperative as well as an incredible opportunity in education to close the gap during this innovative time known as the 4th Industrial Revolution.
In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith shares stories of amazing schools and educators that are both inspiring students and causing them to thrive in the world beyond school. In an epic journey he took to visit schools in all 50 states in just one year’s time he found these schools incorporated the following elements into learning :
Purpose: Students believe in the importance of their work.
Essential Skills and mindsets: Learning experiences foster competencies that are essential to adults (e.g., creative problem solving, critical analysis, communication, collaboration, citizenship, character).
Agency: Students create their learning experiences, set their goals, manage their progress, and evaluate their work.
Deep, retained Knowledge: Students develop real mastery of the topics they study. They can apply it, ask thoughtful questions about it, and teach others.
When I think about the elements of PEAK, my passion has been in making learning meaningful by incorporating students’ personal interests and building their strengths. They have created projects, set their own goals and reflected on their progress. I have observed this strength in many of the educators I have worked with in the past as well as present trying out a variety of new ideas including passion projects or genius hour, flipped classrooms and in general giving students more input in the classroom and designing learning with individuals in mind as opposed to following a boxed curriculum.
When I reflect on the other parts of PEAK, combined with the findings of the LinkedIn 2019 Jobs Report I realize that I myself have some huge knowledge gaps of what the current and future “real world” constitutes. Although I have played around a bit with coding and have a basic understanding of Artificial Intelligence and the implications it has for our society, I have zero idea what UX design really entails other than what I have read in articles. Many of the jobs listed in the report were fairly foreign to me. So how can I take the abstract concepts I’m teaching to students and give them relevance and meaning when I myself don’t have this knowledge?
Beyond reading about these jobs or taking some online courses to educate ourselves in these skills, the true learning is going to come from actual experiences themselves. What if part of the professional learning we offered our teachers involved spending the day at companies that did the work that our students may be doing one day? This could be an ongoing collaboration and partnership where employees visit the schools as well and mentor kids in the school. In reflecting on the P or Purpose in PEAK, kids would see any subject, but especially math as so much more meaningful when they see how it is incorporated into jobs that people are currently succeeding at. We spend a lot of time telling kids, “you’re going to use this one day,” but very little time giving them experiences in what that actually looks like.
What to Start?
As an educator you may be thinking this is great, but how can I actually do all of this? I have standards to meet and a curriculum to follow and I don’t really have control over much of the professional learning in my building or district.
If you’re not already regularly incorporating student interests and strengths into your lessons start there. It can be as simple as looking at problems you are using in your math lesson and changing the context to include experiences your students have had or topics they are interested in. Even more empowering, have your students help you with this process. In literacy, offer them choice in what they are reading or topics they are writing about. When you are planning and evaluating the work that you will be asking them to do think about whether this work is going to cause them to gain meaningful skills that will prepare them for their future or just an experience that will reinforce the target of the day. I understand that sometimes the necessary answer is the latter, but we need to show students how practicing that one small skill will lead to a much greater purpose.
Approach lesson planning with a broader perspective. Many of the jobs, as well as skills that students need to be successful in these jobs, require students to work across disciplines drawing from a variety of strengths. When you reflect on the standards you want your students to achieve what is the common thread that links them all together? Create a Big Question that students are working to answer during the week. Instead of teaching reading from 9:20-10:20, math from 10:20-11:20 and science from 1:20 to 2:20, approach each day with the lens of that question. This will help students to make more connections, ask deeper questions and see learning as a connected process which is more analogous to the work they will do one day in their career.
Although you may not be able to time shadowing people in their work, talk to your friends who are in a different field. Find out what they do regularly and what skills or attributes they needed to be successful. Start following experts in a variety of areas on Twitter. Expand your PLN to include people who are in a different field or who have a different perspective than you. Look for ways to incorporate how the learning experiences you are providing fit into these fields. Better yet, share the 2019 jobs report with your class and have the students explore what the careers and skills described entail.
Try new things. There are so many free courses out there where you can learn many of the skills that were listed in the LinkedIn Report. This list from the Muse is a great start. Next on my list is their graphic design course. I plan on incorporating what I learn into a student production group I am working with this year.
In the book Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World, the authors (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen) discuss something called the Equity Hypothesis which posits that if we give students deep learning experiences (those that incorporate the 6 C’s of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, character and citizenship) then we will engage all students at high levels essentially closing the economic gap that has existed for generations.
When thinking about the purpose of school in the context of the conversation I had with S, it’s not an either or, it’s a synergy of one thought leading to the other. People can pursue their passions AND make money doing it. It’s up to us as educators to make that happen by making the school experience more readily prepare students for the complex world we live in.
In case you were wondering, S and I are now Facebook friends. We have plans to continue the conversation at a future date. I’m sure it will be equally as thought-provoking and I will share any new thoughts that evolve.
As always, thank you for reading (or listening). I know this was a long one.
I’ve had a lot of great conversations since starting this blog about teaching and coaching and how the two are intertwined. Two of the questions that have come up a lot are
How do you ACTUALLY teach like a coach?
What does that look like in real practice?
This has gotten me to reflect about my own practice in a variety of roles in education as well as how for many of us, our schooling did not prepare us for teaching this way. As many of you are doing your own reflecting and planning over Winter Break for changes and refinements you want to make in 2019, I thought that a series of posts dedicated to answering these two questions would be timely and hopefully useful. 🙂
It All Starts With…
Knowing your team. I’m not going to try to pretend that I am the greatest basketball fan of all time, but I’ve learned a lot from Phil Jackson’s leadership philosophies via Dr. Marc Pinto. He was a hockey coach and geneticist turned chiropractor whom I would have the most amazing conversations at our weekly appointments. Dr. Pinto had read Phil Jackson’s books cover to cover hundreds of times and no matter what we were discussing his philosophies seemed to always creep into our conversation, especially when I was applying for the learning support coach position in Naperville. One of the quotes from his book 11 Rings: The Soul of Success that really resonates with being a coach in the classroom is:
“My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.” – Phil Jackson
I love that Phil Jackson’s goal wasn’t just to create amazing basketball players, it was to build on the strengths of his players overall and in that action he created a dynasty. Our main job as educators is to help learners to know their strengths, develop their passions and help them to develop new abilities that sometimes feel outside their grasp. In order to be effective at this you have to essentially know your team inside and out.
Deciding what skills you will be looking for is a critical first step. There are so many options that it is easy to get stuck here, weighing the options. If the thought of that is already making your head spin, here are some ideas to start with:
This is helpful for: Promoting more global skills in your students that will transfer to a variety of contexts, subjects, and ages.
Something to think about: Because these are broad skills you might want to have a conversation with others or your PLC about what each of these look like at the age of students you teach to create a specific definition of each.
2. The Standards – The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), College, Career & Civic Life (C3), ISTE Standards for Students
This is helpful for: Collecting information that is more related to academic achievement in different subject areas (with the exception of the ISTE standards that are more global like the 6C’s)
Something to think about: If your school uses standards based reporting, this is a great place to start. Because the standards are vast, it might be good to see how the broader ideas from each of the subject standards are connected. This document from NGSS does a nice job of making this connection already.
3. Student Interests & Passions – This one is pretty self-explanatory. You are collecting information on things your students are interested in, especially the topics they are passionate about! These interests and passions are often strengths we overlook because they may not be subjects we teach in school.
This is helpful for: Diversifying the definition of what a good student is. Helping students to be able to name a wide variety of skills they have that aren’t necessarily taught in school, but still incredibly valuable. Creating engaging lessons connected to your students’ interests and passions.
Something to think about: You may find that your students have a broad range of interests and passions. If you are overwhelmed in how to honor these strengths or incorporate them into the curriculum, ask the students what they think. I am always blown away by the ideas my students come up with when I can’t seem to find a solution.
So How Do I Organize All This Stuff?
You probably have your own way of keeping data on your students. I know I certainly tried it a million different ways as an educator, coach, and now administrator. What I found was there are basically two different ways you can go about this: individual or whole group. Regardless, you are going to need a system that works for you, the simpler the better.
As an instructional coach I started with OneNote for keeping notes on each of my meetings with teachers and eventually moved to a Google folder per teacher. If I was back in the classroom I would most likely the Google. Here’s what I would do:
Create a Google form for the data I would like to create. (Like this one that tracks the 6C’s)
Use the Doc-Appender Add-on so that the data I collected would automatically populate into individual Google folders for each student. (Here is a video of how to use it if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.)
On a side note, this add-on is amazing because now you have a Google doc for each student that can be shared easily with other teachers working with the student or parents. It’s great for conferring notes as well. 🙂
As I was walking around and talking to students use my phone to use the form to quickly jot down notes.
Create a chart for each student using Google docs like this one.
Print out each of these sheets and keep them in binder. Create a new sheet for each student per week. (Or if you’re not a fan of paper, you could also do something similar with a folder for each student, but this might be difficult to manage as you are walking around throughout the day.)
Keep the binder with me throughout the day. As I am noticing strengths, ideas etc. about students jot down a quick note in their tab.
Benefits of Individual Data: Great for looking at students as a whole. Also easy to share with students, parents and other staff members because your forms are per individual student.
Drawbacks of Individual Data: When planning for groups or looking for patterns based on the information you have collected you may be doing a lot of flipping back and forth or scrolling to find commonalities. This can be more time consuming. However, if you use Idea #1 Google forms will allow you to sort the spreadsheet that the form creates which solves this problem.
Sometimes I found keeping individual data overwhelming and found it easier to keep track of the entire class at one time. When taking this approach you are having the descriptors at the top of the chart while the student names go down the side of the chart. Here is an exampleof what I mean by keeping track of the class’ strengths. One of the reasons that I like this chart is the ability to write down goals for students directly in the chart so that they are all in one place. (The student can formulate these goals as well) This makes it easy when you are reflecting at the end of the week for next steps for the following week.
Another way you might do this is by using an old plan book and assigning student names to each box. You can then use post-its to take notes through-out the week and stick them to the boxes.
Benefits of Group Data: All of your data is in one place. It is easy to create groups and see overall how your class is doing. You can make plans for next steps without having to look back and forth at individual students.
Drawbacks of Individual Data: It takes an extra step to share this data with individuals because you will have to transfer the information to individual forms. It’s not as easy to see individual progress from week to to week as it is with individual data.
When deciding how to collect your learner data think about your personal preference for collection as well as your purpose. I would recommend starting small. Select one type of data you wish to collect and try out different methodologies until you find one that works best for you. You can then transfer that protocol to the other information you are keeping on your students.
Even if you find the ultimate way to collect information on your students there will never be any impact if you don’t take the time to analyze and reflect upon this data. You might find that reflecting at the end of each day is better for you or perhaps weekly is more preferable. Again, it’s your preference, there is no perfect methodology. Here are some questions to consider when you are reflecting each week.
What are patterns I am noticing in my classroom? (passions, interests, strengths, abilities that need strengthening)’
Who stood out as a leader? Who struggled? What is my plan for celebrating or intervening?
What lessons should I plan based on this information?
What groupings or partnerships might I plan as a result of the patterns I am noticing? Who might work together best?
If you are a fan of forms, here is aGoogle doc with these questions that you can use in your reflection. Another simple way to reflect is to create a daily list of 3 accomplishments that you would like to achieve by the end of the day based on the observations and patterns you are seeing. This could be individual or as a class.
It is powerful to share your reflections with students or to even do the reflecting side by side with the student. Share with them what you have observed and create goals together. By involving them in the process and citing specifically their talents or skills they need to work on you are empowering them to own the next steps.
Recognizing and developing strengths, passions and talents in our students is not something new or revolutionary to education. It’s what we do with this knowledge that makes the difference, positively affecting students and creating innovation in our schools. Approaching the classroom as a coach creates a deeper understanding and connection to students because you are purposefully connecting with each student daily and reflecting upon, not what EVERY student should know and be able to do, but what is best for the individual learners. This creates a classroom culture where students are energized to build on their strengths and empowered to learn in ways they may have thought previously was beyond their grasp.
Part 2 of this series will be focused on the next step: instructional practices. I look forward to hearing your feedback! Christina
If you were to ask me why I got into education I would tell you a simple fact:
I LOVE working with students.
Seeing their eyes light up when they learn something new.
Building on their strengths.
Showing them they can achieve ANYTHING.
Except when I really think about it, I don’t know that ALL of the students I have worked with throughout my career would agree with this description. The “troublemakers.” The ones who didn’t fit into my image of what a great student should be. The ones who talked out of turn too much or didn’t follow the directions or appeared to be completely unmotivated in my class. What would they say?
Would they agree…
I knew their strengths?
I valued their unique talents?
I BELIEVED IN THEM?
I don’t know. Some would, but sadly I am pretty sure there are more than a few that would not.
My short response when they asked a question I had already given the answer to.The tone in my voice when I told them for what felt like the 800th time to stop interrupting. The phone calls home to share my concerns of what they were NOT able to do in my classroom. Classroom interactions focused on my disappointment in their behavior, getting started on work, missing assignments and how if they didn’t change there was not way they could ever be successful in school and beyond.
Without intending it, these actions told them more than my actual words ever would.
You are a nuisance.
Your faults are what define you.
I do not value you.
This was incredibly hard for me to reflect on, but I know it’s true. The worst part is I could have fixed it.
The Seeds We Sow and the Mark We Leave
When I became an assistant principal one of the things I greatly feared was that my role would primarily be of behavior interventionist. I had visions of unending days in my office scolding naughty kids, dealing with upset parents and frustrating teachers if I couldn’t fix the problem child in their classroom. I was pretty terrified.
So I was incredibly grateful last year when I found my role to be more of instructional leader and culture builder than an enforcer of compliance and behavior.
But then something amazing happened. I started having more opportunities to work with students who had behavior issues in school. And it has literally become one of my favorite parts of my job.
Simple reason. We talk. About anything they want.
Cars. Unicorns. The history of the Ukelele. How they hate math. Love their brother. Hate their sister. Mastering the floss. Youtube.
I get to know them. Their strengths. Their passions. Their unique qualities. They teach me stuff. I teach them stuff. (Sometimes without them knowing it)
And yes, we reflect. We talk about what happened. Why it happened. What they will do differently next time. Why it might be hard to avoid doing whatever it is they did next time, but how they will still vigilantly work to learn from their mistake.
Instead of seeing them as someone who is disrupting my busy day I see them as a gift. An opportunity for me to connect. To Learn. To Pause. To help a kid see that even if they made a mistake they are still special, unique, and talented. School is a good place for them. They belong here. They are loved.
They are not a problem to fix, but an untapped talent with a potential for greatness.
When I was a classroom teacher there were so many pressures and demands of the job that made me feel like I didn’t always have the time it would require to build relationships with my most troubled students. If we didn’t get through every part of the curriculum each day I was somehow failing as a teacher.
We tell ourselves things like, If I don’t get through Unit 12 Lesson 9 in math by the end of the year something terrible is going to happen. This students’ behavior isn’t fair to the other kids. It’s taking away their opportunity to learn. It sets a bad example. I need to DO something about it quickly or somehow this behavior will spread like a T Swift album.
I would argue with you the opposite is true. If we don’t get students to see their unique talents and abilities then we have failed them. If we don’t make school a place where kids feel connected, develop their passions and leave with a sense of drive and purpose then we are failing society.
Taking the extra time that it may require to build a relationship with a struggling student will actually take up less time in the long run because you will have an advocate in your classroom as opposed to an adversary.
If you are still struggling with finding the time, I would recommend trying the 2X10 strategy. I read about it in an ASCD article a few years ago and it has helped many of the teachers I have worked with to build better relationships. Every day for ten days you take two minutes to share something personal about yourself with that student. Many times when we ask our troubled students things about themselves they come back with crickets or very little information. This strategy helps to overcome that barrier and the student starts to see connections with you which opens them up to share more about themselves. It helps them to see you as a human being as well and not just the daily source of their frustration.
I promise. It’s worth it.
One of the reasons I felt so compelled to share this story this week was because of a new book I started reading by Dr. Brad Gustafson called Reclaiming our Calling: Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education. The foreward is actually written by a student who discovered his passion for drawing in Kindergarten. This talent continued to be fostered throughout his elementary career by everyone in the school to the point where he has connected with published authors and is inspiring others and making a true difference. His talent for artwork could have been seen as a nuisance or something to be put on the back burner for the curriculum, but it wasn’t. Now this middle schooler is inspiring others and making a difference. Not gonna lie. This story brought me to tears.
Let’s make stories like this one the norm as opposed to the exception in school.
Trying to figure out how many times I have been asked this question would be like attempting to count the number of shoes in a Kardashian closet. More than a hypothetical question meant to ward off bad behavior, if you grew up in my house, it was a mantra, an embodiment, the law.
My parents didn’t just preach this question, they lived it. When my mom was a young adult she wanted to see the world, so instead of booking a trip she auditioned for a christian music group, recorded an album and went on a world tour. As I was growing up she was on pretty much every board in town and was constantly in the paper for the innovative work that she did.
One of my favorite stories though is how my mother convinced a large organization to hire her as a prevention specialist with absolutely zero experience after staying home for 10 years. How did she do it? She first decided to call her local state official, arranged a meeting, and got them to recommend her for the position (after only seeing her once). At the actual job interview they told her they would hire her over the other candidates, but she had never written any grants, a large part of the position. So, she left the interview, went immediately to the library, checked out every book she could, wrote a 20 page proposal, sent it to them, and was hired the next day. I could honestly go on for hours about how, throughout my life, my mother has taught me the value of doing things that may be inconceivable to others.
From my dad I learned this same value, but in a different context. A devout christian (we called him Mr. Holy Man growing up), all of his decisions and interactions with people are made based off of the scriptures in the Bible. Instead of spending his life pursuing his greatest dreams, he has dedicated it to supporting others. I have watched him over the years devote his time to connecting with people, giving his time even when he doesn’t have it and living a life of gratitude and reflection regardless what is happening around him. An avid reader of a variety of genres, he believes in his convictions and finds ways in any interaction to teach a lesson, encourage growth or offer support. It is rare that I have met anyone who rivals him in convictions, knowledge and servitude.
A Personal Reflection
This simple family belief has had a profound effect on me throughout my life, but especially as an educator. When I was in the classroom I dreamed big and often altered the curriculum in favor of more meaningful learning experiences for my students. I didn’t do this for the sake of being different, but because I wanted to plan learning activities that would truly engage all of my learners. By my last year in the classroom, this meant more opportunities for students to drive their own learning through goal setting, reflection and feedback. The students held book clubs and blogged about their books, planned out fundraisers, participated in back channel discussions, produced math and reading videos and owned their learning because they chose the activities to meet the weekly goals. (Click here for example)
I welcome risk and crave new experiences. As a result I see change as a positive. In my almost 20 years in education I have accepted tenure only once, not because it wasn’t offered, but because I have always had a desire to learn and grow. Every 3-4 years I have left my current job to work in places that I knew would push my thinking. In 2012, I left THE BEST team I have ever been on to become an instructional coach in Naperville because I was inspired by the amazing work I had heard the teachers were doing with students there.
On the flip side, I truly struggle when I am told that there is only one right way of teaching or I must do something exactly as described. Telling me to “teach with fidelity” is the equivalent of the friendly finger in my book. I am not saying that I don’t believe in following rules or that I don’t follow a policy when it has been agreed upon, but when a stringent approach is being made my gut reaction is to question it first. Simply based on the fact that students are all unique, how on earth could one way be the right way to teach ALL students?
How Our Perceptions Influence Us
According to Ambrose (1987), meaningful change will occur if the following are present.
If any of the components are missing then a variety of negative outcomes will result instead including anxiety, confusion, resistance, frustration, false starts and inertia. I completely agree with this assertion, but I would also argue that considering people’s prior experiences and perceptions is another factor that needs to be a part of the equation.
Perhaps naively, when I became a coach I thought everyone had the same viewpoints as I did. I thought that by simply providing enough background and sharing new ideas with a detailed plan that everyone would want to jump in and start whatever initiative I was introducing. Although there were definitely people who were like me and jumped in right away, there were many others who responded differently. Some people I found just needed more information than I had provided, some needed to “see it” first in action, some implemented slowly and others appeared to be completely uninterested.
The more I got to know my colleagues, the more I saw how people’s prior experiences, backgrounds and beliefs influenced how they would perceive the work we would do together. Combining this with what I learned about their strengths and passions I was able to much better tailor the learning to what my staff needed resulting in greater ownership and meaningful change. For staff members in which change created anxiety, I made sure I incorporated connections to how the new initiative was similar to strategies or approaches they had previously experienced. For educators who valued individuality I looked to include opportunities to personalize the new initiative and tailor it to what made it meaningful to them.
Students come to the classroom with past experiences and dispositions that affect the way they receive new learning as well. Charlotte Danielson advocates seeking out information on students’ “backgrounds, cultures, skills, language proficiency, interests, and special needs” and incorporating this information into planning learning experiences. Many educators interpret this part of Domain 1 as knowing information about the culture or ethnicity of the student. If we are going to reach every child, we have to go further than looking at generic stereotypes of ethnicity or background and delve deeper into the beliefs that a student has developed during their individual upbringing.
Three Little Questions
So how do we learn this critical information about those we teach, lead or work with? For me, it starts with finding out the answers to the following questions:
What does your family believe is most important? (For students, what is a lesson your parents have tried to teach you a lot? OR What do you think your parents think is the most important thing in life?)
What do you value most?
What can I learn from you?
Gaining the answers to these questions can be done in a variety of ways. I personally prefer individual conversations, but I know that is not always realistic. Having teams discuss these questions at a staff meeting or PLC is a great way to build upon a positive culture in the school. It is amazing to see the connections that people make as they share ideas or values that are meaningful to them. When staff members know the strengths of their peers, it grows the dynamic of a collaborative environment where everyone has a chance to shine and learn from one another.
In the classroom structures like genius hour or passion projects are a great way to bring out the interests and values of the kids. Giving students opportunities to be the expert and teach the class is another way to highlight and build upon their strengths. Learners could also create projects answering one or more of these questions or simply journal about them or discuss them in small groups. As with adults, there is also great power in having 1:1 conversations with students about these questions as well.
In his insanely popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey addresses perceptions and the impact they have on the way we view the world. His position is that if we acknowledge and analyze them, then we can have a much more open-minded and objective view. I believe that when we know the values and beliefs of those around us, including our own, we can better build upon strengths and create learning experiences that are meaningful and powerful for all stakeholders.
I would love to know your thoughts and what you have done to learn the values, strengths, and passions of others.