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.
Using 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!
What 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently attended a session with Charlotte Danielson who highlighted the need for better systems of teacher evaluation. One of the highlights of her discussion was when she simplified the reality of evaluating teaching and learning with the following quote:
Classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented….The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during a natural disaster.
~Lee Shulman, the Wisdom of Teaching
The quote help brings home the idea that the complexity of the teaching profession requires a variety of methods to assessing teacher performance related to classroom teaching. This system must include multiple measures and is best when those measures are clearly established in collaboration with the teacher. The work to support teachers in the process of improvement should never be isolated to the simple format of teacher observation. Obviously, it needs to include classroom observation, however, principals need to broaden their systems of performance review to include what I call collegial conversations and documentation review while ensuring that they are building open communities of trust and continuous improvement. More on that later…
The first set of questions become: Are principals truly ready for this type of work? Can any one person have the capacity to observe, coach, and routinely resource a potentially diverse group of teachers to true exemplary practice? What other professions have such a broad expectation of their management in their practice? Through my work at ReVision Learning, I have been working to identify the principal training that can generate the types of leaders who can:
- Look for and describe quality instruction according to rubrics;
- Look for and describe teacher performance outside of the classroom as part of overall teacher performance;
- Engage in conversations with teachers that drive mutual learning and respect;
- Resource teachers with the right type of information, relationships, and professional development i.e. create environments for teachers to be teachers.
So far, I am not ashamed to say, this is one difficult task. Now, that is not to say that we do not have high quality administrators in our schools but instead that the task of supporting “the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…” is a complex one itself. When we consider the day in the life of a typical school administrator and the demands placed upon them from central offices, it is hard to imagine the way in which true impact on teaching effectiveness can be had through the work of a single administrator, especially considering that most supervise more than a handful of teachers. The average in the schools with which I am working is 16 in fact.
So, more on my initial statements…
What needs to become an active part of teacher evaluation systems currently being rewritten across the country is routine, well-designed use of constructive dialogue and sharing. I believe that routine opportunities for conversation around teaching practice are at the core of the change within that practice. Schools need to function as learning centers for teachers allowing them to constantly improve their craft through on-going review and practice of their own and each other’s work. Review of lesson plans, activities, assessments, and other products of the teaching service should be routine. Protocols for review such as those found with the National School Reform Faculty become powerful vehicles for these reviews. Call it what you want – professional learning communities, critical friends groupings, data teams – I do not care, just get the conservation happening.
Some have been advocating the use of “Social Capital” strategies (The Missing Link to School Reform), which promote the importance of peer-to-peer relationships in schools to support teacher improvement and student achievement. The findings in the studies cited are exciting and cannot be ignored when considering how we are designing systems of evaluation. I am not willing just yet to jump on board with removing the principal or other supervisory personnel completely from the system (at least right away) but it does seem to support the idea that not just one person can truly evaluate such a complex task as teaching. The outcomes from the studies in Pittsburgh that are cited in the article emphasized the importance of the principal to execute the types of external relationships that support teachers in their work. This idea is truly under appreciated in most principal training programs. Some programs have been exploring Social Entrepreneurialism (RLRP) in their curriculum and this trend can certainly help to support a new type of leader able to secure quality external relationships with her/his school as described in the study.
The long and short of this is that we need to be working towards the establishment of policy that promotes the development of communities of professionals that ultimately make teacher evaluation unnecessary. Yes I do understand that this is a long way off but remember some of the most successful countries in the world for education outcomes do not have a teacher evaluation system in place (think Finland).
Margaret Wheatley has promoted for almost four decades the importance of the community in growing, nurturing and supporting organizations of all kinds. In her new book Walk Out Walk On she has stated that in her review of seven different communities around the world “we discover that every community has the ingenuity, intelligence, and inventiveness to solve their seemingly insolvable problems.”
Let’s remember the entirety of the educational community at our disposal as we continue to explore the development of our nation’s teacher effectiveness policy.
Last week I had the honor to congratulate a new cohort of CT EPFP (Educational Policy Fellowship Program) as they completed the year long program and became new alumni members, joining the hundreds of other CT educators who have participated in the Fellowship in the past 25 years. While this particular group of educators was clearly an exceptional one, I wanted to leave them with a strong message related to their leadership so I presented on Leadership for the New Century which was a topic I have been presenting on for the past year in several districts and with many administrators. In all of my conversations on this topic I have consistently come back to the idea that in the new century certain dispositions and skills are absolute in a leader – especially those who are leading our public schools. These leadership characteristics may not be radically different in previous literature of many thinkers of the 20th Century but the application of those is truly different. Collaboration is probably the most telling of all of these changes to leadership application.
With current technologies and applications of the “New Civic Discourse” as the 2020 Forecast has called it, changes the way in which leaders need to be “prepared” to address new forms of interaction among constituents. Traditional means of meeting with partners i.e. parents, students, community partners, teachers, etc. will need to include at the very minimal a recognition of how the conversations are happening all around them. Social networks (beyond Facebook or MySpace) will fast become a part of our world and, therefore, the methods of communication among all members of any given community. For many parents, Facebook (as an example) has changed the conversations about their child’s school experience from not only being at the sports complex but also at any moment, instantly, and to a seemingly endless number of people who can respond and provide input. Students are routinely engaged in digital conversations that become an integral part of the creation of a climate of the school. Advocacy groups are leveraging technology to ensure that their agenda is always available and present in the daily lives of of the community – including the educational community. With this type of extensions to the conversations, leaders of the 21st Century need to adjust their methods to applying this leadership skill. Leaders will need to innovate in their own collaborative practice – not in an effort to control the information but, instead, to develop the skills to analyze and synthesize information in support of the vision for their school community.
What was also examined and needs to be considered as we move into the new century, was the ability of the leader to nurture that vision through action-in-common. We framed this portion of the discussion around the topics of convergence and movement. How do leaders recognize convergence (such as trends and patterns to the New Civic Discourse) and generate the movements that can help us move our organizations towards sustainable change? The key lesson here was that a leader’s willingness to forfeit control and allow those who initially follow to pave the way towards implementation of the vision that has been communicated about an initiative or activity. Quoting Derek Sivers from a 2010 Ted Talk, “It is the first follower who turns the lone nut into a leader”.
A leaders ability to recognize and nurture those around them who can become the drivers of new initiatives while being willing to release control has become more important than ever before in generating change. Consider literature on generational changes including the patterns of behaviors of Millennials or some of the influence new technology is having in this element of our teacher ranks. Given these shifts, leaders of schools have incredible opportunities to generate their own convergence of change if they are willing to forfeit some of the control they may be accustomed to in the current way in which they do their work.
All-in-all, leaders of the future will need to understand the trends in new behavior that seem to constitute the convergence all around them. The Conceptual Age to which we now live requires leaders to examine their practice not necessarily differently from previous iterations of skill and dispositions of the 20th Century but how those skills translate in the 21st Century. In this sense, leadership of the past remains the framework of the future but leaders need to examine their application of those skills in relation to current trends and the forecasts of organizational design that will result.