Cracking The C.O.D.E of Teacher Learning

Professional Learning Communities.
Response To Intervention.
Instructional Rounds.
Flipped Learning.

Sigh.  Have you ever taken five minutes to jot down the initiatives that you have going in your school or district?  Or the ones that you have had going at some point in the past?  Or even those programs that, if you squinted, you might still see remnants of them–you know, the ones that no one can quite determine when they started or ended–they just seemed to fade into the background, much like the once-splashy posters on our Counselling Office billboards or the rotating messages on our electronic signs.  If you are anything like me, you likely find it difficult to recall and much harder to reconcile the amount of time and money each of us has spent chasing after the next ‘holy grail’-like program that came our way when we know that the resources required to make them successful are so woefully scarce in supply.

Earlier this month, as a member of the Agile Schools Faculty, I had the chance to work along side Dr. Simon Breakspear at the summer Educational Leadership Academy (#ataleads16) put on by Jeff Johnson and the Alberta Teachers’ Association in Edmonton.  It was both inspiring and challenging to take a deep dive into designing research-based, high-impact projects with classroom, school and district leaders for five intense, immersive and practical days.  During one of the early sessions, Simon asked each of the participants to do a “stock-take” (on this side of the Pacific, we would say “inventory”) of the initiatives they had done or were currently doing in their schools.  Many generated lists similar to the one above, and even more created ones that were much longer.  But then Simon asked the group to examine their lists to determine which ones they felt were actually making a tangible difference to student learning in the classroom. After a number of people began ruefully shaking their heads, Simon said something that truly resonated with the entire group (including me):

But here’s the thing: no one was saying that it was ‘wrong’ for schools and districts to look for promising new approaches to improving classroom practice, nor was anyone saying it was ‘wrong’ to attempt organize our time, efforts and resources around practices that are research-based and genuinely improve classroom practice and student learning.  But before we jump headlong into ‘the next big thing’, we need to have a laser-like focus on the actual impact that the initiative has on student learning and the type of learning that educators will need in order to help them effectively implement the initiative in a way that makes a visible difference at the classroom level.  As we know, the goal of an educational initiative is not to be ‘doing’ a program, it is to improve teaching and learning.  Does it matter if we have become a professional learning community if we don’t see a change to teaching and learning in our classrooms?  Does it matter if we “do” Instructional Rounds in our schools if we continuously have the same problem of practice?  Nope.  Not a bit.

In preparation for the Education Leadership Academy, Simon and I spent a great deal of time pushing each other about the composite pieces that we felt were important for teacher learning.  Simon spoke from his experiences as a teacher and as a researcher in seeing and working with dozens of educational jurisdictions around the globe, who use a multitude of methods to engage teachers in professional learning.  I came at it from the point of view of a Principal who has attempted to implement the approaches listed in the “stock-take” at the beginning of this post with subsequent results that ranged from moderate success to complete and abject failure.  In the end, our thinking led us to a lens through which school leaders could look critically at their own “stock-take” of initiatives to determine whether those ideas had real potential to have a deep and lasting impact on the learning in their classrooms and with their educators.

We can determine whether the initiative can crack the C.O.D.E of teacher learning.  

If the initiative, approach, or professional development is Connected, Observable, Developmental, and Embedded for teachers, it can significantly impact teaching and learning at the classroom level.

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CONNECTED…to the classroom, learning, and to each other 
Do you enjoy being electrocuted?  Being immersed in water so cold that the ice in it doesn’t melt? Having your clothes and skin torn by barbed wire?  Sounds like a barrel of monkeys, doesn’t it?  So why do thousands of people around the globe voluntarily do these things to themselves in events like the Tough Mudder?  Doing something challenging with a group of like-minded people connects us to the task, but more importantly, it connects us to each other.  Learning is social, and while learning about new approaches to teaching and learning is not the same as being immersed in an ice bath, changing classroom practices can represent a significant shock to the system.  As a result, it is vital that the learning experiences that come from initiatives or pro-d connect our teachers to one another: we must create a supportive, encouraging, and laterally accountable environment (much like a Tough Mudder team) to deal with obstacles that they will encounter along the way.  

Earlier this year, I sat across from Dylan Wiliam at dinner after learning from him earlier in the day at a conference session.  He looked at me and said something that has resonated with me ever since.  He said “I don’t know why Principals would spend one second trying to implement something that isn’t proven by research to improve learning.”  If there is no research to connect the initiative to improvement in student learning, he said, schools and districts don’t have the money or time to waste on it.  Period.  I listened.  I learned.  While we all have ideas about what we think ‘works’ and ‘doesn’t
work’ in classrooms, if there is no foundation of research to the initiative we are considering, Dylan is right, we don’t have the time to bother.

Dr. Richard Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes the importance of professional development being directly connected to the classroom.  In one of his “laws” of professional development, he says “the impact of professional development is inverse to the square of its distance from the classroom”.  Professional development that requires educators to really chew on meaty instructional issues with each other and grapple with approaches in their own setting is professional development that is worth doing.  Inasmuch as there can be value to offsite professional development, the more connected that educators are to their own classroom situation when they are learning, the higher the likelihood that the initiative will make a visible difference in their own classroom.  

OBSERVABLE…to all of us, BY all of us
The products of any professional development that we do should be readily and plainly observable. When facilitating Instructional Rounds in schools, I ask educators to focus on what students are saying, doing, writing, and producing as a result of the tasks they have been assigned and the instruction they have been given.  But how often do we consider what our educators saying, doing, writing and producing at an inservice or conference that they are attending?  If educators are sitting passively in a large conference listening to a witty and charming ‘edutainer’ show pictures and YouTube clips while telling amusing anecdotes, what is the evidence that our educators have learned a single thing?  The age-old proclamation of “If you get one good thing out of a conference, it was a good conference” doesn’t fly anymore:  with shrinking PD budgets and more demands on our time, the educational return on a $2000 investment needs to be better than that.  WAY better.  When we are considering any initiative, we should be able to clearly articulate what an observer would see in our classrooms as a result.  

But who is observing?  One of the saddest revelations that I had as a Principal happened when I was doing teacher observations.  Not because of what I was observing in the classroom, but because I was the only one who was doing the observing!  Far too often, the people who are doing the bulk of teacher observations are not teachers–this is wrong.   More of our professional development needs to be directly connected to the classroom, with teachers observing and working with other teachers.   And if we are to use the excuse that there isn’t enough money, consider that $2000 conference bill to send one teacher to a conference to get “one good thing”, as we have all done far too often in the past. That same $2000 is the cost of five or six release days–or 10 or 12 half days.  How much could be done by releasing four teachers for three half days to observe and work with other teachers?

DEVELOPMENTAL…it meets us where we are at
Would we ask a new swimmer to jump off of the high diving board?  A novice skier to head down a double-black diamond run?  Or would we tell someone that the only car they should buy is a new Mercedes Benz when we know they only have a $10000 budget?  While each of these scenarios seems absurd, imagine what it feels like for an educator to be asked to “do Project-Based Learning” in their classes, or to “welcome observers into their classroom” when they are used to being left on their own behind a closed classroom door to teach the way that they have found to be successful for themselves and their students.  While there may be a research-base to an educational initiative that supports a positive change in classroom practice, research does not automatically open classroom doors: having a colleague or a team come to observe their classroom can truly be a ‘double-black diamond’ moment for many educators.  And rightfully so!  In most cases, we have not taken them down a ‘green run’ with ideas like PBL or classroom observation.

Educational initiatives and professional development must provide multiple entry points for our educators, and provide the appropriate level of challenge at each level.  In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “mee-hi, cheek-sent-me-hi” if you’re curious) talks about the importance of “flow” when we are considering whether the activities we design allow participants to get into “the zone”.  However, we must not only acknowledge the challenge level of the activity, we have to ensure a certain skill level of our educators so we help them move from a state of anxiety or boredom to a place where they are optimally engaged.

With something like classroom observation, we might create multiple entry points for our educators like this:

  • Level 1: examining sample classroom tasks to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of those tasks
  • Level 2: examining our own classroom tasks to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks
  • Level 3: video observation of sample classes to develop common, specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of the tasks and activities in the lessons we see
  • Level 4: individual video observation of our own class to describe and reflect upon our own practices using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities
  • Level 5: small group/department video observation of our own classes to describe and reflect upon our own practices using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities
  • Level 6: external colleague/group live observations using specific and non-judgmental language to describe the learning that takes place as a result of our tasks and activities across our school
Whether it is peer observation, formative assessment, collaboration, or any other approach or initiative, it needs to meet people where they are at and engage them to move forward.

EMBEDDED…in what we do, in our context
In what we do.
Every day. 
With the people that we have.
With the money that we have.
With the time that we have.
Education conferences and workshops can have tremendous value, as can visits to other schools, jurisdictions and countries:  having scholars and practitioners synthesize their research and experiences can save us huge amounts of time and effort.  There is no doubt that it is difficult to see what others are doing when we are in the ‘trenches’ of everyday school business!  It is important for us to ‘get to the hilltops’ to see what is possible for us from a different perspective: to understand new ideas, to be inspired, and to get outside of ourselves and our own learning situations.  However, before we leave our own schools and districts, we not only need to have a very clear vision of our own context, we need to imagine how we can re-combine the people and talents that exist in OUR contexts and in OUR classrooms given the information that we are learning about.   
As much as there is no more time, and there will never be more money, we DO have the time and the money that we currently spend on things that do not crack the C.O.D.E. of teacher learning. We just have to find them, name them, and file them in the appropriate place.
So, as each of us comes off of a refreshing and recharging summer filled with excitement and ideas about how we can impact student and educator learning, we need to ask ourselves one question before we jump at the next promising practice or idea that comes our way:
“Does this crack the C.O.D.E of teacher learning?”

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