Tag Archives: change in schools

Teachers change their practice when their students are successful

I’ve been going to a lot of conferences lately, and watching a lot of video clips, about how leaders can influence change in teacher practice.  Mostly they are full of big ideas about collective inquiry, distributed leadership, forming relationships, using evidence-based practices, learning goals and success criteria, etc.  All of these big ideas are true.  But they are big ideas and sometimes big ideas are overwhelming to implement.

So I’ve been thinking what are ways of engaging teachers in changing practice which are not overwhelming but do lead teachers to changes in practice.  In the end, my experience is that teachers are learners and do want to do their very best for their students.  I do not adhere to the notion that we have great numbers of teachers who are resistant to new ideas.  I believe that the great majority of teachers walk in the school doors every day believing that they are teaching the best way they know how.  But I also believe that there are many teachers who are clinging to very traditional practices, probably because they appear to be working.  How does teacher practice change?

Teachers change their practice when they see that their students are successful or more engaged in learning after implementing change in practice.  When a teacher tries something new, and the lesson is successful, the teacher feels good.  The teacher goes home feeling like “this is the profession for me”!

However, often we ask teachers to change practice in ways that are not successful or make no difference.  Without a belief that the change will make a difference for an identified problem, teachers are most likely to simply comply:

  • Asking teachers to change assessment practices without changing pedagogy might mean they rename their quizzes formative assessments.
  • Asking teachers to have lots of anchor charts, without teachers understanding how the anchor chart scaffolds learning, results in lots of pretty anchor charts that rarely change.
  • Asking teachers to post learning goals and success criteria, without teachers actually changing how they plan, results in learning goals and success criteria that are often just the recipe for the day’s lesson.

Compliance is not change.

On the other hand, when teachers feel empowered to identify changes they’d like to make and try new ideas that they have identified as possible solutions, then they are more likely to change their practice.  Now, I don’t suggest that teachers who decide that the solution to a lack of student engagement is to feed them chocolate cake!  However, when teachers work collaboratively, with their principal at the table as an interested learner, identify aspects of their practice they’d like to change, look at some of the research or resources that might support that change, and then have the freedom to try it out, I’ve never never met a teacher who isn’t interested.

These conversations can come out of conversations which begin with:  What do you wish your students could do better?  Most teachers can identify an aspect of their course where students don’t seem to do as well as they’d like.  It might be a curriculum need or a behavioural/attitude need:

  • I wish my students knew their math facts.
  • I wish my students would persevere on challenging tasks.
  • I wish my students would write with more voice.
  • I wish my students thought critically about their reading.
  • I wish my students took more risks in solving problems.

The next step is to assess what the students are actually doing now, usually by looking at student work or by observations and conversations.  And then, teachers need to be empowered to try something new without feeling they are being judged, have timelines, or that there is a “right” way to do this.  But it is key that the teacher feels supported in the implementation of this new practice.  And this is the role of the principal as instructional leader; the principal needs to be interested in what is happening in the classroom, ask how the new practice is going, and be willing to offer suggestions and ideas as an interested co-learner not as a boss.

When teachers “play” with their practice and engage in thinking about what works, what doesn’t and what solves the problems they notice, then they change.  Success breeds success.  We need to be careful that our professional development ideas don’t bog teachers down to the extent that they comply rather than change.  If what teachers are asked to do, doesn’t have a fairly immediate effect on their practice, they aren’t likely to engage.  Who would?  But, when teachers implement ideas that they understand, that they choose, that they believe in, then their students will be successful.  Teachers change their practice when their students are successful.

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Changing the culture of implementation

Change is cultural.  We’d like to think that school change was about adding a new program, or providing new resources, or even hiring the “right” people.  But it’s not.  School change is about changing culture and that is hard-but not impossible. In fact, changing school culture results in increased motivation and enthusiasm.  Cultural change is energizing.

Let’s look at the mathematics crisis in Ontario.  It is not as if we have been giving teachers incorrect information over the last five years.  No, the information being rolled out to schools from boards of education and from the ministry is research-based, current pedagogy.  It is not as if we do not have the resources available in most schools, in most classrooms.  No, Ontario teachers have access to professional resources, professional development, additional qualification courses, math manipulatives.  It is not as if our Ontario math teachers are waking up every morning with an intention not to teach mathematics well.  No, most teachers that I meet are deeply committed to doing the best job they can.  It is not as if the demographic of students in Ontario has changed so radically that they are incapable to doing mathematics.

In order for there to be wide scale change, there needs to be a wide scale change in both beliefs and practices.  In order to have wide-scale change, there needs to be a change in both school and board culture with regards to the implementation of change.  Typically, in education, we focus efforts at the teacher level:  they go to professional learning, they get new resources, they are charged with change implementation.  eThere is a quick aside to the principal:  “Just be the instructional leader here and make sure it happens.”  And then, everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.

Unfortunately, change in teacher practice is messy and hard.  It never happens like the video would have you believe. It almost never works out the first time.  Teachers have to risk losing the well-oiled machine of classroom management when implementing a new pedagogical practice.  Students, too, will be wary of new approaches.  And, so, change happens in a very ad hoc manner, landing in some places but not others.  In the face of messy, many individual teachers will abandon new practices or, adopt only parts of new practices that they think they understand.

But what if the implementation of change was a joint effort between all levels of the organization, both at the board and school level.  And that effort meant taking a real interest in the change, not just managing one’s respective part in the process.  For example:

  • Principals take the same amount of interest in learning about the instructional change as their teachers do.  They are not merely present but active learners.  They don’t abandon the learning to deal with a small recess issue; they participate actively in classrooms instead of sitting back; they try teaching; they read the same resources; they engage in authentic discussions about teacher lessons.
  • Principals actively monitor the change, and can do so because they understand what the change really needs to look like.  This monitoring involves using both qualitative and quantitative data. The data helps them to know where to focus support.
  • Teachers have the freedom to try out changes without the fear of being evaluated immediately.  There is recognition of the messiness.  The change process is honored over compliance.
  • Superintendents have authentic and deep conversations with both principals and teachers about the work they are doing.  Superintendents  are also learning alongside teachers and principals.
  • Professional development and training is not attended only by teachers but also by principals, vice-principals, and superintendents.  It is visibly obvious that the change is of interest to all.
  • The change is not invitational.  Throughout the organization there is a recognition that the change is important.  However, there is also recognition that the change will be big, and messy, and require support.  The support is not provided only through training and resources, but also through authentic interest and learning by all levels of the organization.

We think that change is scary.  But, my experience is that change is exciting.  Change in practice that affects student learning energizes teachers more than anything else I know. But, change is cultural not procedural.  So, ask yourselves, does educational change in my school/board/system create high levels of anxiety or high levels of energy?  If it isn’t creating high levels of energy, then chances are, the implementation of the change is not affecting culture.  And, in the end, there will be limited change.  However, change the culture of implementation, and everyone will be excited to be learning-students, teachers, principals and superintendents.

 

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Sticky Learning

I recently gave a TEDx talk about this topic but for those of you who like to read….

Tradition and intuition play a big role in how we teach but our observations of student learning and research suggest that we might be wrong.  Traditionally we teach in units:  2, 4, or 6 weeks (albeit they sometimes stretch into 8 or even 10 weeks).  We think that if we teach the kids all they need to know about one subject (multiplication, persuasive writing, levers, time, the colour wheel etc) and give them lots of practice about this one topic, over and over again in a 2-4 week period of time, then they will learn the stuff.  Except, they don’t.  Students don’t tend to retain concepts they only learn once a year very well.

Our observations of student learning show us that this is true.  If you teach fractions, usually taught in a 4-6 week unit in the spring, you know this.  It feels like every year is like starting over.  I’m sure that you can think of many other concepts where the learning done last year doesn’t “stick”.

There is cognitive research that does tell us a lot about how people learn.  Two concepts, spaced learning and interleaving, are well-documented in the research but hold little traction in real classrooms.

We typically teach in a “massed” practice where we teach kids everything about one topic in a short period of time and then test them.  Students do well in testing situations immediately following the learning, but test them a few weeks later and they don’t remember very much.  However, when material is learned spaced over time, retention of concepts is much greater.  This positive effect has been documented in the literature since 1885!  John Hattie, in Visible Learning, listed it as the 13th most positive effect on learning out of 138 possibilities.  You may wish to consider what would happen if you took a big topic, like fractions or division or proportional reasoning, and instead of teaching it all at once, you spaced the learning out over multiple  opportunities over the course of the year.

We have found spacing the learning out to be very beneficial to our students.  For example, instead of our intermediate students reading just one novel over 6-8 weeks (and really, as a real reader, who does that except maybe for War and Peace?) our students read between 6 to 10 novels over the course of the year, spending between 2-3 weeks on each.  They learn all the same skills about analyzing literature, but they have multiple opportunities to practice the skills over the year.  We do the same in mathematics, returning to problems in proportional reasoning, for example, a few times every month instead of in a 3 week unit.

The other piece of research that has huge benefits for learning, but doesn’t really hold much traction in our school system, is interleaving.  We tend to block the curriculum into discrete units of study, studying each topic one at a time:  addition, subtraction, multiplication, division ; OR, fractions, decimals, percent; OR, persuasive writing, descriptive writing, report writing.  The problem, when students learn this way, is that they don’t learn to see the similarities and differences between the topics.  We hope they will make connections, but really it is left up to them to do it on their own.  When we teach like this it is called “blocked practice”.

But if you interleave the learning, you teach similar concepts all at the same time.  A writer’s workshop model allows students to explore a variety of forms of writing all within the context of writer’s craft.  If students were faced with problems in mathematics involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division at the same time then they would be forced to develop an understanding of how the concepts are related and to know when to apply each concept.

I call teaching in this spaced and interleaved way spiralling.  While provincial and state curriculum  say they “spiral”, meaning that students learn about fractions, for example, once every year, I argue that the spiral loops are too big.  If we tighten the spiral so that students have many chances to learn the big ideas over the course of the year, I think we get to learning that is sticky.

Of course, spiralling is not easy to plan for.  Teachers like their units.  They like to be “done”.  Spiralling the curriculum really requires that teachers adopt a new mindset about curriculum design.  It isn’t easy…but the teachers that I work with wouldn’t ever go back to teaching traditionally in longer units.  Not only do we get sticky learning, but our students are much more engaged.  Every day is a new challenge for them and they have to apply their learning to specific and varied contexts.

If you want to give it a try, think about doing just a bit at a time instead of revamping your entire curriculum.  Try something new; no one will die.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s the hardest thing a teacher does?

I have always said that assessment is one of the hardest things a teacher does, and I still think that.  But a conversation with one of my teachers this week made me wonder if maybe something else teachers do is even harder.

Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is self-assessment.  Their own self-assessment and self-reflection on their practice.  Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is to be willing to look at their practice, decide it needs changing , and do the hard and messy work of changing how they teach.

I know this is a hard thing for teachers to do, because lots of times teachers don’t.  But I don’t think teachers don’t change because they are lazy or uninterested.  In fact, I almost never meet teachers who don’t truly care about their practice.  Most do.  However, change is scary.  For teachers, a change in practice is also intertwined with a fear of losing classroom control (who doesn’t have the scary teacher nightmare in August?).  Probably the way that the school system implements change doesn’t help either.  One shot workshops don’t work because when a teacher goes back and tries out the new idea, it probably doesn’t work very well at first.  But, there is no support.  The workshop is over.  Or, there is an implication, delivered by the principal or board staff, that this new idea is it, we will all do it, we will all get it right, and that’s that.  Again, there is little support, little deep understanding of the change, and, therefore,  little buy in.

Teachers change their practice when certain conditions are in place, at the school level, that give teachers the support to make changes.  Here are a few things that have worked in my schools to help create cultural changes that last:

  • “Try something new; no one will die”.  I say this often to my teachers.  They made me a sign that hangs on the wall.  We have to support teachers with new ideas by allowing them ample time to muck about and try things.  They need to know that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work.  They need to know that as they are trying out new ideas they will be learning, too, not just their students.  They will be reflecting and changing and assessing as they go.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to have it all figured out before you start.  Just start trying it and see.  You may have to change your rubric.  You may end up changing what your learning goal was.  You may not get to all your lessons.  You may change direction half way through.  That’s ok so long as you are reflecting about your new idea in light of what are students learning and able to do.  Your students won’t die and everyone will learn something.  Next time you will teach it better.
  • Teachers need to believe that teaching is the coolest thing they do.  Most teachers went into teaching believing this.  When a culture in the school is established that reinforces this “coolness” factor, there is renewed energy in the building.  The easiest way for that to happen is for everyone to think that I, the principal, thinks that, too.  I have conversations all the time with my teachers about teaching.  I talk about what they are doing; I talk about what one teacher is doing to another; I talk about things I’ve seen; I talk about ideas I’ve heard about; I talk about books I’ve read; when I go into classrooms, I talk with kids about their work or I teach.  No one in the building doubts that I think teaching is really a very cool thing to do.
  • Teachers work in teams.  We always work together–in subjects, in grades, in cross subject teams.  Teachers who teach similar things are in classrooms that are next to each other.  Budget decisions are made in teams.  The work of learning about teaching is done in teams.  But, the work is rarely about planning the same thing together.  Teachers do plan together but it is not mandated.  Learning together is mandated but how you teach your class is left up to individual teacher style and professional judgement.  Almost all my teachers teach similarly but I have never told them they have to.  What has been the same is the deep conversations and learning we have done about pedagogy, assessment, teaching practice and student work.  We never have PD by compliance.
  • You need to have and build capacity in the building, and I have to be part of that.  We are all learning to be better together.  We read books, watch video clips, work with consultants and Learning Support Teachers.  We learn from each other.  We consult.  While I have lots of expertise in curriculum, I don’t have it all.  And when I don’t, it isn’t a big deal.  In front of the teachers, I pull out a book where I think we might get some better information.  There are definitely better ways of teaching, and not so good ways of teaching.  There is a lot of research out there to point you in the right direction.  Everyone at my school, me included, knows that we are heading towards the research-based ideas.  We aren’t taking “baby steps”–we are diving in (me, too).  But, if we don’t get it right, well, no one will die and we will figure it out next time.
  • Start with little things you know will work.  When you can offer teachers little ideas that you know will work, and the freedom to try them without fear or evaluation, then it is easy.  Teachers change their practice because it works for the students in their classroom not because the principal is coming to visit or check.  For example, the prescribed posting of learning goals and success criteria in classrooms across the world has not changed practice as we might have hoped.  Why?  The posting alone doesn’t automatically change what happens with kids so it isn’t exciting or fun or cool.  A teacher can post learning goals and success criteria and students can stay the same.  What does make a difference is that the posting means that students are more confident in the learning, and that in order to post, the teacher has done the deep work of being planned and purposeful.  But the posting alone doesn’t ensure those things. But, when teachers find something that does engage their students or helps them to learn better, well, that’s exciting.  So, then teacher practice changes.

We need to recognize that changing one’s own practice is really, really hard.  Teaching is a personal profession.  Teachers want to do a good job and feel successful.  A class of 30 disengaged or unruly students can make you feel pretty unsuccessful pretty quickly.  So, without the right conditions in place, teachers are reluctant to change.  But, when teachers have ownership, the freedom to experiment, someone interested in what they are doing, and the support of colleagues and administration, then it is much easier to give it a try–no one will die.

 

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