Student Exploration Nurtures Student Engagement

Guest Author: Mike Maunsell

Mike Maunsell is in the last phase of his teacher preparation program at the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, CT. He is entering the teaching profession as a second career.

Not long ago I was speaking with my friend Patrick Flynn, Executive Director of ReVision Learning, about teaching and learning in classrooms. At the time, I was a second semester student in the Masters program at the University of Bridgeport and preparing for the time when I would be working with a classroom of my own. Patrick directed me to a Ted Talk entitled, “Build a School in the Cloud” by Sugata Mitra. The talk blew me away. Sugata spent years traveling to the poorest parts on earth and merely “dropping” a computer for local kids to learn and teach themselves. The results were astounding! Children from the poorest places on Earth began to teach themselves everything from different languages to high level physics on their own with a simple laptop and internet access. Months passed and I now am student teaching in a 5th grade class at Oxford Center School, Oxford, CT. Needless to say the last few months have been cold so we have had months of indoor recess. I recalled this talk and began to ask myself how I could incorporate what I had learned to the classroom. As an experiment, I began by leaving safe Science equipment on the back table for them to play with. We were covering Color and Light so I had prisms, colored filters, flashlights, etc… I didn’t acknowledge they were there and didn’t make a big deal of it. The children would come in from lunch and slowly gravitate towards the materials. What began to happen was amazing! They began to teach each other science. They would conduct their own experiments. Students that I previously noticed were struggling with science concepts, were learning from their peers in a way they seemingly could not learn during a more traditional lesson. Just because they could, they would play “Science” for recess. The end result was that all of the students became completely engaged in Science.

As I went back into my science lessons during instructional time, I found myself teaching with a fully engaged class. They all became “experts” in color and light and I began to hear daily accounts from students of observations they made at home after school, in addition to a few students who told me they had been conducting research at home when it wasn’t called for. They could not get enough of it.

I am starting a lesson on fractions next week and for the past few weeks I have been leaving the fraction manipulatives out along with the science equipment. I am already noticing the same patterns. I simply left the materials there without saying anything and they began to ask questions of me like “what are these and how do we use them”. I would sit and do a quick demonstration and then leave. They began to ask me to give them examples to work on during recess. As was suggested by Sugata Mitra in his Ted Talk, it is amazing what students will learn and do when they feel that they have discovered it on their own, feel that no one has told them they have to learn it, and there isn’t a test involved.

As I begin my career as a teacher, having witnessed directly the power of curiosity to incite learning for students, I feel even more excited about teaching than ever before. I realize now the importance of giving students space and time to learn and explore on their own, and to question and problem solve without fear of having to regurgitate it on a test. In our crazy, fast-paced culture we have forgotten what it is like to sit, explore, and think deeply, and this type of learning and reflection must take place in order for true learning and problem solving to take place.

Authentic Teacher Observation Supports Professional Learning, Not a Scripted Defense

Over the past three years ReVision Learning facilitators have routinely been met with the comment from administrators “but that’s not how we were told we have to observe teachers.” We first heard this in New York as we provided training to Network Teams and then in Connecticut with districts that engaged in on-going calibration activities with us. In some ways this had become a beacon, reinforcing that we were actually on the right path to helping administrators/evaluators complete the difficult and complex work of reviewing teacher practice to support professional learning and student outcomes. As we engaged in our work which to this point includes over 2,100 classroom observations and calibration training of over 500 administrators in over 20 districts and school systems, we began to realize that what was being taught was not about completing observations to provide information for professional learning, but, instead, a mechanical recording of evidence to satisfy a set of guidelines established by each district in response to state mandates.

Scripting, the act of writing/recording everything one sees and hears during a class, was being taught as the sole approach to recording what was happening during a formal observation as opposed to observing and engaging in the classroom learning experience to assist teachers with feedback that supported areas of growth as well as reinforce areas of strength. Observation of teaching practice was not about supporting and continuing to nurture effective teaching (the authentic purpose of evaluation practice), it was about documenting as often as one could in order to create a defense for a summative review at the end of the year. It is no wonder that teacher evaluation has been met with such disdain from teachers. Even the most relationship-focused administrator was starting off in a deficit with their staff.

During calibration activities with district evaluators who experienced this model of training, we began to expose them to (sometimes remind them of) additional strategies. Creating classroom diagrams that could be used to track such instructional elements as student engagement in the instruction, teacher movement and teacher questioning techniques, student response, student-student interaction, resource use, and so much more. We introduce the use of “Scriptive Verbatim,” an approach that targets particular dialogue among any and all members of the classroom helping to focus teacher feedback on particular areas of growth. We taught non-disruptive observation strategies that allowed the observer to move throughout the classroom, talk with students to determine the levels of understanding they had of the learning content, ask questions of students to better understand and provide feedback to the teacher about the impact of selected teaching and assessment strategies.

The bottom line is that engaging in observation and reviews of practice is about leading people not managing them. The observation strategies being taught seem to focus more on management of process and information than they do on leading of people towards growth and change. This will not lead to effective teachers in every classroom and administrators and evaluators have to work towards finding a balance in their practice. They have to consider how their observations are not about just doing it right but doing the right thing.

A couple resources that have proven helpful to evaluators:

I. The ReVision Learning Supervisory Continuum

With the new evaluation systems being applied, evaluators found themselves in what can be considered “new learning.” What better way to help someone understand new information but a rubric? So, ReVision Learning developed and applied a continuum for evaluators with two domains. The first focuses on evidence-based observation and defined the evaluator practice associated with collecting and organizing evidence before, during and after an observation. The second domain focuses on coaching for feedback and is introduced later in our training as we turn from calibration training to teacher feedback and support (a topic for a future post).

We have used the tool in multiple ways with evaluators. At first the tool is used to analyze how effectively an evaluator can collect and organize evidence during a classroom observation. These are most often based on videos of lessons and became a primary mechanism for gauging an evaluator’s readiness for the work in the districts we serve. During the school year, evaluators are encouraged to use it as a self-reflection tool to review their observation reports and help measure growth in their own practice. At any time, evaluators can submit one of their reports (names removed of course) and ReVision Learning will review their reports, “score” them and provide specific feedback using this continuum. One principal went as far as to share it with her staff as a way to hold herself accountable within the process. That was by far my favorite use of the tool.

II. ReVision Learning’s Collegial Calibrations™ Model

Another major obstacle to the development of strong observation techniques and, ultimately, calibration to the rubric or instruments being used is the fact that simulated, video-based classroom lessons can only allow for certain techniques to be authentically practiced. In response, we created a model for live calibrations with teams of evaluators. Led by a facilitator (at least at first), teams of evaluators complete observations in real classrooms with real students, and with real learning happening. This allows evaluators to work collaboratively in post observation debriefs, compare evidence collected, review and assign a performance level to help “calibrate” in a deeper more meaningful way than video sometimes allow. Additionally, a ReVision Learning facilitator uses the continuum throughout the year and provides targeted feedback towards evaluator improvement.

An additional resources for authentic instructional analysis…

The Research for Better Teaching, founded by education leader Jonathan Saphier, provides outstanding resources for leaders targeted at on-going and effective instructional feedback.

RBT’s Skillful Leadership Program is well aligned to ReVision Learning’s approaches or – better put – we align well to Dr. Saphier (he’s been doing this much longer). RBT has provided an instructional observation framework that provides a more authentic and meaningful approach to observation of teacher practice. Saphier encourages interaction with the learning versus a process for record keeping that merely manages information and therefore, will merely manage people.

By considering the reviews of practice associated with teacher evaluation as an opportunity for deep change, observations will not simply become another method of collecting evidence and information to support general analysis of teaching in schools. We will be able to shift our understanding of teaching and learning through routine and collaborative analysis of data sources that highlight the learning within our classrooms. On-going analysis in this manner will also reinforce an understanding of performance beyond what is witnessed in a classroom on a given day for a given lesson, generating a more complete picture of a teacher’s work and it’s support of student outcomes. Based on the varied data, administrators and teachers can build targeted solutions that will positively impact teaching practices and learning outcomes. Framing our observation practice as learning opportunities versus the organization of a scripted defense will also allow teachers and administrators to create collaborative learning communities to help support school-wide and differentiated professional learning.



Authentic Learning for 21st Century Skills


I recently had the privilege of engaging in a morning of classroom visits at Pomperaug High School in Southbury, CT who has partnered with Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION. I went on the visits to assist in the review of a 21st Century Instruction and Learning Standards Rubric designed to support and promote teacher performance and practice towards new and innovative learning environments. While I was able to meet my promise to my colleague to provide feedback on the rubric, I found myself enthralled with the student learning and tremendously impressed with the level of inquiry, critical thinking and collaboration I witnessed.

Our group, which included participants visiting from The Heritage School in New Delhi India, the Center and ReVision Learning Partnership, followed students in the Skills 21 Classrooms through two blocks. Students were engaged in their year-long Expo project which involves the development, design, authentication and presentation of an original, innovative product or idea. The culminating presentation of projects takes place on May 17, 2014 at the Innovation Expo at the Hartford Armory. I found myself entering the date immediately in my calendar as a MUST ATTEND.

classroomUsing a school within a school model, Pomperaug and the Center for 21st Century Skills have created an opportunity for authentic student learning within a digital world.

What I found most promising about the visit though was not necessarily the presence of technology or digital learning but the obvious understanding of technology as a single aspect of 21st Century learning environments. It was abundantly clear that students are expected to engage in work that requires them to think critically about potential products or services that address real world problems. They are required and create full-scale prototypes by applying what I would call a real world business model, including working on R & D teams, product design and manufacturing and various marketing work groups.

In the first half of the year students engaged in the necessary study to understand the core concepts across multiple disciplines necessary to create their product. Then, in the later half of the year they engage in development and preparation for release of their product. As an example, one group was working to develop an alternative to using salt as a primary de-icing agent on roadways (an all too familiar need this year here in snowy New England). In their Bio21 Course, these sophomores studied the use of certain byproducts of algae to produce the same effect. As an example of how thoughtful these students are, when I asked if they had thought about the potential financial impact on local towns and communities struggling this winter to maintain salt supplies, a student responded, “While the cost may not initially create savings, it could create a new market through the farming and manufacturing of the product so the economic benefit would be good in the long run.” Entrepreneurship and critical thinking at its best!

reviewWhat also impressed me during the visit was the teachers’ obvious understanding of pedagogy and the willingness to forfeit the pressure for immediacy often associated with content delivery to ensure student directed learning. In one freshman class, students held themselves accountable through weekly goal setting and summaries of progress to ensure they maintain high levels of production for the team.

I watched as a teacher and student engaged in a critical review of a website to ensure the validity of the source content for the project. Teachers were able to engage in a true facilitative approach asking open-ended questions that required thoughtful, meaningful responses from students. At one point, as students set themselves to product design, the teacher opened up the conversation with the most simple of questions – “how are you going to do this?” Within minutes, the six students on the core design team had multiple theories proposed to create a prototype and run the first product test. By the end of the 50 minutes, they were able to run their first test. I know some companies who would kill to have their employees working with such effectiveness. I cannot wait to see these products presented at this year’s Expo.

labI want to say thank you again to all the folks at Pomperaug High School and from the Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION for inviting me to participate. I can truly say, they are an excellent model for authentic learning in our nation’s 21st Century Classrooms.

It’s About “Time” Gov. Malloy

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy announced earlier this month that he is calling for a “slowing down of new stricter evaluations for teachers” and is “establishing a task force to study implementation of the Common Core State Standards.” It’s about “time.”

Funny thing is, it’s always been about “time.” It is less, however, about “more time” than it is about “taking time” at all levels of our educational system. But time for what in particular? It is about the State Department of Education and PEAC taking the time to adequately reflect, prepare, and communicate a strategic implementation model that provides guidance and support to districts. It is about district leaders taking the time to organize and provide professional learning opportunities that authentically introduce the concepts and shifts in practice associated with CCSS and SBAC. It is about teachers and administrators throughout CT taking the time to engage in substantive, meaningful conversations about shifts in instructional practice so that they have the chance to learn and grow within a changing educational environment. It is about taking the time to ensure that teacher evaluation models are designed to support educator professional growth directly aligned to newly established expectations of CCSS versus the creation of punitive, high stakes programs of professional accountability.

What it is not about is a reactive answer of “slowing down” the process. It is instead about designing that process through structured dialogue, across all levels, that focused on the importance of…

  • learning theories (both new and established) that support student success;
  • how what several teachers already do in their classrooms align with these theories;
  • where new strategies can and should be implemented to support student success in college, career, and life;
  • how teachers and administrators can leverage each other to challenge and support their professional growth;
  • how classroom and school environments can and should change to support students of the 21st Century; and
  • how CCSS and the performance expectations outlined in the CCT (Common Core of Teaching) and CCL (Common Core of Leading) can be aligned to drive towards those environments.

As an educator who began his career in the midst of the standards-based instruction movement almost 20 years ago, I have come to understand that it is more about how we engage standards versus the standards themselves. It does not matter if the standards we are referring to are new student standards as in the CCSS or new educator performance standards as in the CCT and CCL. As teachers employ standards, it is expected that they plan strategically, rooting those plans in instructional practice that best support the learning of all students. As every teacher will tell you, this type of planning takes time. As the State Department of Education outlines new educator standards and guidelines, they too need the time to plan a strategic, well-structured rollout. Up to this point, these well-intentioned educators have been against an impossible timeline and it is with great hope that Gov. Malloy’s “slow down” will allow for a renewed chance for the State to communicate and execute a plan for on-going, embedded support to districts.

As new plans are provided, district leadership needs to then be responsive and take time to design a supportive professional learning program. As applied in our classrooms, we expect that teachers understand the policies and expectations of the district in combination with the learning needs of their students to provide instruction based upon formative performance assessment as well as student input. The same needs to be expected from district leadership. Teacher and administrator input about professional learning needs in the face of CCSS, SBAC, CCT and CCL should drive implementation of professional learning, ensuring ownership of change at a local level. Aligning this with data about performance and practice should generate differentiated plans at a district, school, sub-group, and classroom level.

As professional learning opportunities are established and offered, teachers and administrators need to engage those as part of a learning process, not as an indictment of their practice. They need to take time to learn new applications of classroom and leadership practice that support a generation of students far different than themselves and who are entering a future riddled with uncertainty. We need to embody the very mindset of learning we work so hard to instill in our students. We need to establish clear goals for our learning and our students’ learning so that the conversations and the professional dialogue are rooted in the fundamental concept of school itself – continuous, meaningful learning to support lifelong success and happiness.

None of this will occur without a strategic use of time at all levels going forward. None of this will occur unless we take the time to ensure that the relationship between an evaluator and the teacher or administrator is one of trust and commitment to learning. When “grades” on performance are nothing more than a snapshot in time to assist us in taking the next step in our lives as professionals, colleagues and as people. This represents the type of growth mindset we wish of every student walking through the hallways of our state’s schools. That will only occur when we engage that mindset at all levels of our state educational community and as a fundamental criterion for reform itself.

Developing Human Capital with Purpose

I had a discussion with a Principal (Aspiring) from NYC today who is involved in the New Leaders Aspiring Principal program. He is in his final stages of preparation for full placement in leadership. This aspiring principal has been involved in a blended environment program through New Leaders that includes a bulk of preparation in clinical setting as well as national and virtual seminar work that supports leader preparation.

What I was most taken by was his statement that this approach, including the blended environment, was “just so right for him.” As I talked with him about his experience, it became more and more clear to me that his situation reinforced the notion that if you give passionate people the room to work and allow them the opportunity to design that work in a way that meets important goals but also meets their personal needs, they simply will reach better outcomes. In the education world, I need to constantly remind myself of what I learned from Drive by Daniel Pink; autonomy, mastery and purpose are why we do what we do, especially when we do it well.

RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

This aspiring principal felt so strongly that the program he was experiencing brought him true mastery towards his ultimate goal to be a principal but that they allowed him the opportunity to attain that mastery through applying his own ideas and approaches in a real working environment. They also gave him the freedom through the virtual component to learn more at the times best suited for him. This helped to reinforce his level of purpose and the “drive” he had to be the highest quality principal leader he could be.

In an education world that is ripe with overbearing policy changes and legislation it was encouraging to talk with someone whose passions for education remained so strong during his preparation program. While his character and action are obviously the core reason for his success, I also give due credit to New Leaders for providing a preparation program that can help reinforce this type of leader. Not too many University programs can currently say the same.