Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Question....

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit through an interview and was given one question ahead of time in order to prepare a ten minute answer.  At the time I did not blog, had no Twitter account, and had a Facebook account that my wife had set up for me, but did not use, so my only method for idea sharing was through face-to-face conversation (old-school).  If I used any of these social media vehicles, I would have put the question out for response sharing.

While the interview has since passed, I am still curious to see how others would have responded to the question.  It is, in my opinion, an excellent question, and could prompt wide-ranging discussion.  I would be very interested in hearing people's thoughts.  Below is the question and some of what I crafted for a response.

As the principal, what are the things that you would look for in your school that would inform you that the connection between teaching and learning is strong? Conversely, what would you look for to see if things in this area needed attention?
First thing to do is define what “teaching” and “learning” mean to me:
·         I define "teaching" as the art of engaging learners in the process of understanding, applying and extending concepts or skills for use in their future.  I use the term “art” purposefully, because it is an art which requires certain skills plus an awareness of audience.  Some may claim that they are “teaching” well; using current methodologies, varying instructional strategies, sticking with Prescribed/Essential learning outcomes, but if there is no assessment of what has been “learned” there is the risk that learning is not taking place, and thus the teaching is not all that strong or effective.
·         Learning, to me, is the active participation in developing attitudes, skills, and knowledge through experience, and connecting that experience to future endeavours.
This question makes me think of conversations I have had repeatedly with the Principals I have worked with in my career. 
·         The first Principal I ever worked with still asks, “What are we hoping our students are learning or able to do?  How will we know if they have learned it/can do it?  What will we do if we find they have not learned or can not do it?” These are critical questions that staff need to be able to answer to ensure that teaching and learning are connected.  Embedded in the answers to these questions are concepts like learning intentions, clear criteria, assessment practices, feedback for students and teacher and how that impacts future sessions; all of which need to be clearly understood by both the teacher and the students.
·         The Principal I am currently partnered with, in the years we have worked together, has visited hundred of classes to ask students the question, "what are we doing in school that is working for you, and what are some things we do that you question, or wish we didn’t do so frequently?”  Again, the answers to these questions, plus the fact they are being asked, can tell a great deal about the culture of a school and how connected teaching and learning are, and how engaged in teaching and learning the teachers and students tend to be.
In order to ascertain the strength of the connection between teaching and learning I would need to be engaging people in conversations like the ones I have mentioned above in a variety of forums-casual conversations in the hallways, discussions in Pro-D sessions, philosophical conversations in staff, SCC and Ed Facilitator meetings, as well as in teacher study-group meetings.  I would also need to regularly visit classrooms to see if what people articulate in conversation is carried out in classrooms with students.
·         Specific things I would look to see and/or hear would include classrooms where there was activity and conversation, where students had opportunities to work together and were comfortable and were encouraged to approach their teacher with questions that were designed not so much to ensure they have the correct answer, but to take the concept beyond the classroom.  This is important because I believe learning is an active process.
·         I would encounter teachers who were willing to take risks and who supported each other by forming strong study groups to explore new ways of doing things, and could readily answer the questions “what do you want your students to learn, how do you know they are learning it and what will you do if you find they are not?”
·         I would see students who were excited about coming to school, and who, like their teachers, knew what they were being asked to learn or be able to do, and understood WHY it was important for them to learn/be able to do it.  They would have a lengthy list of things they enjoyed about school and what got them excited about being there.  The list of things they didn’t understand, or didn’t see the value in could be articulated and would provide the impetus for a conversation about why we do it, and whether or not we should evaluate the purpose of that practice.
·         I would check with the Resource department and look at the model for assisting students who sometimes struggle, because I believe that a strong Resource department can have a positive impact on the students enrolled in those classes, and on the work being done by teachers in the other areas of the school.  The Resource department is an invaluable group for assisting teachers and students in trying to help both parties understand the needs and limitations of the other.  If clear communication exists between these people and the staff, as well as between the Resource teachers and the students in their care, there is good reason to believe the connection between teaching and learning is strong throughout the school.
·         I would also likely encounter data that suggested the link between teaching and learning was strong.  Students and teachers would be excited to be at school/work, so absence rates would likely be low.  Discrepancies between school and exam marks would also be low, teacher attendance at Pro D functions and study groups would likely be high, and student misbehavior rates would likely be lower since fewer students would be frustrated with school because they understood what they were being asked to do, and why it was important.
I have hinted at looking at data to indicate how connected teaching and learning are, but I feel it is important to clarify a few things.  Once a determination of the connection between teaching learning has been made via these conversation and observations of activities in classrooms, there is the ability to support these finding with data that can be found in various forms around the school. 
·         Data relating to Grade distributions, Provincial exam results, differential between school grades and exam scores, rates of student misbehavior, absentee rates for both staff and students, professional development involvement, levels of staff collegiality and collaboration and willingness to take risks, relationships between staff, students and staff and students, would all support findings made through conversations/observations.  It is important to realize, however, that these data sources cannot be looked at independently.  Without the culture and context conversations of what is happening in a school, the data, by itself, can be inconclusive or misleading.  Student test scores, grade distributions and attendance and misbehavior rates can all be very good without the connection between teaching and learning being strong.  It is important to look at this data, but only with the culture/context being understood via observation and conversation.
To answer the second part of the question, “what are the things you would look at to see if things in this area needed attention?”, I think I would engage in the same conversations, observe classes for the same things, and check the data to see what it supports, but the answers would most likely be quite different, or that much harder to get.
·         Teachers and students may not be able to readily answer the questions, “what do we want (our students) to learn/be able to do?”
·         Students would have a short list of things in a school they got excited about, and a much lengthier one of things they questioned, didn’t understand or didn’t enjoy.
·         I would see classes where there was very little activity, movement, conversation, risk-taking on the part of the students or the teachers, and very little group-work where students get to share ideas and communicate with each other.
·         I might see a Resource department that was structured simply to help students with task and homework completion, rather than having them develop skills that can help them succeed on their own.  I wouldn’t see the communication in this department between teachers and between students and their case manager that is so vital for ensuring success for these sometimes struggling learners.
·         I would also likely encounter data that showed a disconnect between teaching and learning-teachers and students who were not excited about coming to school/work, so absence rates would be high; a discrepancy between school marks and exam marks; likely (although not necessarily) increased rates of student misbehavior; poor staff participation in Pro-D opportunities.
If I were to find myself in a school like this, I would have a large task at hand in helping surface the importance of connecting teaching and learning.  I would need to repeatedly ask the question, “Why do we do the things we do? Do they help students learn?  Are we clear on what we want our students to learn and why?”  I would also need to model the behavior I am hoping to see from the staff.  I would need to remain current in teaching and learning strategies and technologies, excited about the potential that these tools have, and encouraging the staff to try new things and communicate effectively with each other and their students.  Engaging in dialogue with people in conversations about practice and purpose, celebrating the positive things being done in these areas, and bringing attention to areas where we need to improve is the most important role for the educational leader in a school, but can only be done once trusting relationships have been built.  The building of relationships that can foster fruitful conversations about what we do and why, and how it impacts student learning is the first thing I must do in order to be an effective Principal.
Thanks for reading my response.  I would welcome any feedback, and would love to hear from others what they might look at to determine how strong the connection between teaching and learning is in their school.

I have also subsequently found a couple of links that I wish I had looked at prior to creating my response.  They are the articles Creating a Landscape for Learning: Connecting Teaching and Learning at Northwest Indian College by  CC Bull, Ted Williams and Brian D. Compton (a little lengthy, and geared toward First-Nations teachers and students, but many of the principles transfer well to all students and educators), and from Dylan Wiliam, Assessment: A Bridge Connecting Teaching and Learning, in 2006.  A couple of other, more recent blog entries are Innovative 21st Century Teaching: Safety, Connection, Learning and Inquiry, and How High Schools Become Exemplary by Adrian Bertolini.  The content of the articles seems to reinforce many of my thoughts, represented in different contexts.  Also worth watching is the advertisement below.

Please share your thoughts.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

The holidays bring an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family, and to appreciate all that we enjoy in our lives.  It is also, however, a time when many people struggle with loneliness and depression as they are reminded of how things in their lives used to be better, easier or different.  I just returned from a walk with my dog and stopped in to say hello to a few neighbors, two of which are going through difficult changes in their lives.  They seemed a little lonely, and were very welcoming of some conversation with someone.  I was happy to be that someone, and it reminded me how important it is to keep connecting with people, since it is easy to get swept up in the business of our work lives.

Today's experience also made me think of what we do in schools.  Like most other schools and districts in B.C., we have School Performance Plans and District Accountability Contracts which indicate a strong desire to enhance student Social Responsibility. Like many other schools in BC and across Canada, we have a cause we support on a global level.  Students host a variety fundraisers and events to raise awareness for a school we are building in the Dominican Republic.  Each summer we send a small group of our students with and agency called Hero Holidays to engage with the community in the Dominican and work on the actual footprint of the building.  These are without question life-changing experiences for the students involved, and I endorse them whole-heartedly. 

Equally, if not more important, however, is the need to act in such ways on a local level, since we have many people in our own community in need of assistance and attention, and these interactions are opportunities that can impact far more of our students.  I am very proud of the work we have done at Burnett over the past several years engaging in such efforts.  The frequent class and extra-curricular field trips to downtown soup kitchens, our extremely successful canned food drive, and family adoptions around holiday seasons are just a few of the local efforts Burnett students are engaged in.  One of our most successful efforts occurs through our Social Responsibility Conference day, which this year was held on December 7th.  We suspend classes for the entire day and students sign up for sessions based solely on Social responsibility.  We bring in guest speakers like Jesse Miller on the dangers of social media and how to use it responsibly, and John Banovitch from MADD on the dangers of drinking and driving.  Students spend the day thinking about and acting in socially responsible ways, discussing topics like recycling and homelessness with their teachers, and going out to sing carols at the Richmond General hospital and at Seniors homes like Rosewood Manor and Courtyard Gardens.  The highlight of the day for many of us is the seniors brunch, where we invite 150 seniors from nearby care homes to come to the school for a catered brunch and some singing, dancing and time for visiting.  The feedback we get from our guests is always very positive, and the students walk away from the experience feeling good about the efforts they have made in brightening the days of others, on top of the learning that has taken place regarding the planning, organizing and delivering the event itself.

I would like to wish everyone a happy holiday filled with opportunities to interact with your friends and families, and remember to do your part on a local level to make this season more pleasant for everyone.  It is invaluable for the individuals we interact with, and also provides a positive example for our students and family members in creating a stronger sense of community.