As I prepared for the 2017-18 school year, I had lots to consider: my learning the past year as a part of the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute, the feedback that I received from my students, staff, and parents through various data points, the past that had resulted in the path Degan was on, and the aspirations that we had for our students. The question that kept ringing in my head was “How in the world do I create a vision to help us move forward with all of this to consider?”
My campus had been fortunate to experience lots of success and recognition for the accomplishments we have made with transformation. At the same time, we have also experienced some pretty big hits to culture. It’s hard to put this much energy into getting our flywheel moving. I think we all thought after three years, it would be starting to have its own momentum. It’s not very comforting to hear that real change takes three to five years when you are in year four. How would we keep moving forward? What would be our rallying cry for this next push to transform learning in meaningful ways so that our students could be successful?
The answer was actually in the data. It was clear that as a campus we had made great strides in understanding what it was students were to learn and proven strategies to ensure that learning. We understood our changing demographics and could relate to them and build meaningful relationships. Yet, we were still short of the goal. What our data showed was that we needed to evolve in how we were having teachers use technology and that teachers wanting to design more engaging, innovative work, but they needed time and practice to make this happen.
Then it hit me. It was time to get our “game on”, literally, and level up learning for our students.
I love the mental image this theme created. It acknowledges that first, our work, like games should be fun! It should be challenging enough to keep our interest, while still being attainable. We should receive feedback that adds value and helps us shape our decision-making to improve our processes. We need to feel a part of a network in achieving the goal.
I am so excited about this year. Today, we had our first professional learning and we made connections to the work of Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. While not everything in learning has to be digital, it recognizes that games release some of the control to the gamer and allow them to test out theories to achieve the goals. My teachers had the chance to explore how to incorporate some of these concepts into their learning design today. Today teachers created and shared some cool new ideas. I can’t wait to see the impact in the classrooms with students!
For my afternoon learning, I got to reconnect with the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute. Listening to Alan November just reinforced my belief that my campus is on the right path. When we only focus on testing, we don’t have fun.
Our current generation of students has never lived without technology in their lives. They spend 2-3 hours a day “gaming”. According to McGonigal, over the course of their school years from fifth grade to graduation, they will likely spend as much time on games as they do in school. We have to prepare these new learners for a new future. That may mean that as adults, we have to “learn” how they learn and incorporate it into the knowledge we want them to gain. It’s time to level up and do things differently than we have always done. GAME ON!
I was never good at accepting “because I said so,” as an explanation. As a child, when this was the reasoning for why I should do something, it typically resulted in arguments or lack of compliance on my part. I always wanted to know why something was expected and how it was best for me in the long run. After five years as a teacher, I even got a minor in Special Education with my diagnostician certification because I couldn’t just accept someone telling me why some students qualified for services and others didn’t. I needed to know why. As a result of my loathing for this particular combination of four words, I have made it a point to never say them as a parent or an educator.
When I began teaching, I was content to give my students a mathematical formula for volume so they could plug in numbers to find the answer. It was all I knew to do. However, after attending a training based on the work of Marilyn Burns, I found that my students were so much more successful using inquiry-based learning where they were given boxes of all different sizes to fill with cubes. Not only did they discover the formula for volume, they owned it. Now they were not determining the volume of containers because I said so, they were doing it because they completely understood what, why, and how.
Ironically, while our teaching has evolved to understand that a discovery approach develops our students thinking and problem solving abilities, we have often kept our leadership practices in the realm of “because I said so.Here is your lesson plan template “because I said so”. You need to use small group instruction, “because I said so”. Include technology, use this strategy, and don’t forget to post your objectives “because I said so.”
Recently, I realized how passionately I feel about the ineffectiveness of these words as a leadership justification. This year, as we were really delving into our teaching habits and routines, it became time to discuss a “best practice” that teachers had already implemented…posting learning objectives. Yes, I know this is best practice, but I never required this of my teachers . Many did it because someone had previously told them to do so. Some knew it was a check on our walk through documents, so they did so. Others attended training for English Language Learners and where told there to do so. The problem I had with this is that while posting learning objectives is a “best practice” and there is research to support the benefit of doing it, when teachers post objectives out of compliance, is it really any different from giving students a formula so that they can plug in numbers without understanding why or how they get the answer?
I knew it was time to discuss the issue of learning objectives but I resolved that teachers in my building would not do this out of compliance to leadership. If they were going to post the learning objectives, I wanted it to benefit students, not out of efforts to please the principal. I wanted my teachers to own the purpose of posting objectives, just as my previous students had owned using mathematical formulas.
For the past two years we had been on a journey to explore strategies of raising the higher level thinking abilities of our students. We had done this by dissecting the state standards, writing questions aligned to the proper rigor level, and implementing mental models for our students to help them transfer knowledge and develop schema. This year I explained that we were going to begin to explore how to raise the level of thinking of our students through writing objectives that integrated process skills with content standards to make sure that our learning in the classroom was dually-coded.
Almost instantly I heard the collective groan. I knew it was because they already had a negative perspective of this practice as something they had done out of compliance and not truly the purpose intended. We practiced with “manipulatives” that I had created so that they could easily lay out process skills to see which ones were the best fit for the content. As I walked around, some teams were getting the process more easily, while others struggled. I even had one of my more independently thinking teachers become quite uptight at even the mention of suggesting that they do something “mandated”. As we closed the activity, I assured teachers that I wasn’t requiring anything, but that we would continue to explore this practice and how it could benefit our students during the time allotted for our professional learning communities.
We have just finished our first round of PLC meetings and continued our conversations of posting learning objectives. As teachers expressed their anxiety, I have continued to tell them that this is not a required practice. I had one brave teacher share out that she had posted for years. However, she acknowledged that she had never referred to them in her lesson. I asked how much time she spent each day creating the objectives and writing them on the board, to which she replied a couple of minutes. Interestingly enough, if someone spends 2 minutes a day creating and posting objectives, that is just over six hours a year spent on a task that didn’t give any educational value. Six hours of time that could have been spent on something more valuable if we weren’t going to mention them during the lesson anyway.
I think that this is where we miss the boat in education. Someone somewhere attempts to get higher achievement for their students and discovers a strategy that works. That person explains the strategy to others and some research to prove its benefit. Good, right? Yes, right up until the point that we begin giving teachers the formula without letting them discover it for themselves. All to often, we mandate best practice and teachers do it out of compliance and not truly understanding the value. Teachers are typically a very compliant group of people. We want to please and we want to do it right, especially if student success is at stake so we go through the motions and hope it the next silver bullet will work.
I think it’s time to take a different approach. I’ve been in education long enough to see the pendulum swings of pedagogy. From what I have observed, often it is more about a teacher’s ability to “sell” the learning than it is about any particular strategy. Be it phonics, whole language, or balanced literacy, if the teacher believes in it and can effectively use it, students learn. Certainly, we need to use research-based best practice. However, if we are going to mandate its use by everyone in school, in a district, or in a state, we need to take the time to set up the learning opportunity for teachers to discover its value and relevance so that they have a deep enough understanding of what, why and how that they can effectively implement what we are asking them to do. Remember, my students didn’t invent the formula for volume, but they discovered it for themselves and they had more buy in for its use.
As we end September, we are continuing to learn, explore, and discuss this strategy of posting learning objectives. I bring in a variety of formats and resources for them to investigate. We practice writing objectives together. Slowly, I see teachers adopting a practice that is best for them. They know what they need to do, how to do, and most importantly why. Because of that, they post objectives for their students, not for me. It makes me think about a time when my oldest son was very little. He once responded to someone who told him not to ask so many questions with “I only ask why because I need to know.” I think too often we have squashed questions out of our learners to the point they just do it and no longer ask. If we truly want to develop thinkers and problem solvers, we have to create and encourage “why?” Our students deserve more than teaching practices based upon “because I said so”.
Below is a great resource from Simon Senek on why it is important to explain the importance of “why” (and it’s not because I said so!)