Getting better = pressure, but support

“You’re always trying to be better.  You must be exhausted all the time.”

That was something a colleague of mine once said to me as I was starting my journeys into 1:1 learning and standards-based learning (at the same time).  I didn’t realize that “always trying to be better” was what I was doing by constantly trolling Twitter and my feed reader for new ideas and ways to do school a little differently.  It was and is still exhausting, but the payoff is huge – if you can stay in the struggle.

Being in a constant cycle of self-improvement means you’re constantly causing yourself a lot of pain, suffering, self-doubt, and self-reflection, but knowing you and your students will come out the better for it on the other end.  I came across a tweet yesterday that contained a visual map of all this pain and suffering:

The reason I connected with this visual was that everything on here is pretty much what’s coming out of my mouth or rattling around in my brain about something I’m working on at any given time.  I remember being in the dark swamp of despair at around this time of year when I was implementing standards-based learning in my classroom, putting my head down on my teacher desk and just wanting to leave education altogether.  And I would have left if I hadn’t had some timely administrative support when I needed it, yanking me out of that swamp.

Now, as an administrator, I’m looking at this in terms of staff readiness for this type of journey. How many really understand what happens during the journey to something great?

How many of them really understand that mistakes, readjustments, and sometimes outright failure have to happen before greatness can happen?

But that’s one of my jobs, then, isn’t it-to make staff aware of the emotional journey they face when enacting change, that constantly trying to be better sometimes really, really sucks.  But it’s also my job to make sure I’m there to support them in any way possible, just like my administrator did for me the day I wanted to walk out the door and never come back.

Pressure to change for the good of students, but also support-that’s my job.


Help students be good at life.

Below is a quote from this KQED MindShift article titled “Why Academic Teaching Doesn’t Help Kids Excel in Life:”

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?

I am one of 5 siblings, and I am the only one who entered public education as a long-term career.  My brother works in construction, my twin sister works for a major IT company, another sister own her own karate studio, and yet another sister is a police officer.

Not one of them needs or has ever needed to know or use 95% of what I taught my 9th graders when I was teaching high school science.  And I’m pretty sure most of my students didn’t need most of what I taught them either.

So why do we teach what we teach? (Back to those pesky “why” questions…)

Most of what we teach is mandated to us in the form of standards that are mostly what academics need to know.  How we teach that academic stuff most of the time, unfortunately, only teaches students how to be good at school.

We can do better.

At the end of the article, the author (a teacher) suggests a more constructivist approach, with students answering these three questions in her classroom:

  • What are you going to learn?
  • How are you going to learn it?
  • How are you going to show me you’re learning?

Imagine what powerful learning can happen if classrooms were focused around those three questions using mandated standards as a vehicle for this learning.  Imagine the ownership, not only of ideas and concepts, but over the process of learning that can happen in classrooms set up around those three questions.  Imagine how many students will find their passions in life answering these questions (and think about how many of your students found their passions filling out a worksheet or taking a multiple-choice test).

Imagine. Then make it a reality.

Yes, we have to teach certain stuff that students will never ever need or use. But no one says we have to teach it like we’ve been teaching for the past 100+ years or so.  Let’s start teaching so students will be good at life.


Some “whys” that need honest answers

Why are we still using teaching methods that we know don’t maximize student learning?

Why is what we’re teaching useful for students in their lives – and not just for the next grade level or course in the sequence?

Why are we still reporting student learning in terms of letters that represent how many points students have collected through the semester or year?

Why do we still insist on documenting student learning deficiencies rather than progress they’re making towards mastering a skill or concept?

Why are students still showing up only to watch teachers do their jobs?

Why is surface-level learning still valued by the majority?

Why do we do all the things that we do?  If the answer to that question isn’t deeply honest and truthful, if it’s just “because that’s what we do because that’s what was done to me,” then that answer or any answer that’s really saying that only with different words just isn’t good enough anymore (if it ever was).  It’s an answer that serves the best interests of adults, not students.  It’s not honest – it’s just an easy way out of addressing the real issues.

It’s time we searched for honest answers to questions that matter.


What teaching less and giving more feedback looks like

My last post talked about teaching less and giving more feedback to produce greater learning in students.  But what does that look like in a classroom?  Well, let’s consider a process built around the idea below, as stated by Dr. Robyn Jackson:

“The person working hardest in the room is the only person learning.”

This isn’t to say that teachers can sit back, relax, and watch their students toil over worksheets or glaze over watching a video all period.  To me, it means two things:

  • Teachers must stop planning lessons centered around what they will be doing in front of students
  • Teachers must start planning lessons centered around what students will do to master learning targets.

It’s this shift in the direction of lesson planning toward students and away from teachers that is a subtle but necessary shift.  To think in terms of student activities oriented toward learning is the vital first step in teaching less.  To teach less, students must be engaged in meaningful tasks that allow them to do the intellectual heavy-lifting instead of watching the teacher do their job all period.

But how does a teacher know what meaningful tasks to give students?  Well, that’s based on the learning targets/outcomes the teacher wants the students to learn.  From standards learning targets are born…and then the assessment that clearly depicts what mastery looks like for students.  The students learning tasks should be selected or designed to get students to master the targets in such a way that is aligned to what’s on the assessment.  To some that’s called “teaching to the test.”  To others it’s called “setting students up for success” and “getting all students to learn the material they’re supposed to learn by helping them clearly see what they have to do and not make learning a guessing game.”

And what about the feedback component?  If you and your students know what mastery looks like by having assessments aligned to learning targets (beginning with the end in mind), everyone is better equipped to give and receive feedback on progress towards mastery – and what it takes to get to mastery.  The whole intent of a formative assessment is to not only inform the teacher of where students are at so instruction can be planned and modified as needed, but also to give information to students about where they’re at with their learning.  The assessment itself is a powerful tool for feedback and learning, if designed in such a way that mastery of a learning target is made clear ahead of time.

But, again, none of the above actually gets down to the nitty-gritty of this “teach less/more feedback” idea – what it looks like in the classroom.  The truth is, it can look like a lot of things:

All of the ideas mentioned above have students at the center of any learning going on, with feedback loops created as needed.  Really, it looks like anything but traditional teacher-centered factory-model education.

So how do teachers get started teaching less and giving more feedback?

The answer is…that depends.  It depends on their students, it depends on the teacher’s level of readiness, it depends on how well the culture of a teacher’s school is developed to allow teachers to take risks and support them in those risky ventures.

But we have to be brave and take the risk.  Because once we put students in the center of learning, amazing things start happening.



Teach less and give more feedback.

As I was scrolling through my Twitter today, I came across the tweet below:


I was having a conversation last week with a teacher that is trying to do just that – less teaching, more feedback, to allow for student ownership of learning.  She said the thing that is upsetting her the most about letting students have more control in the classroom is that she has less control – and she doesn’t feel like a “real teacher.”

I told her that real teachers help students learn, and learning doesn’t happen until we stop doing all the talking.  That’s the purpose of school, after all – to help students be learners by having them do the learning.

Our job isn’t to feed students all the information in an easily understandable format so they can repeat it back to us with ease, only to forget it just as easily.  Deep understanding takes time, clear criteria for success, mistakes, do-overs, and clear feedback for students so they can focus their learning efforts.

Learning happens when we stop talking and give students meaningful, rich tasks that foster their own learning development. Teach less. More feedback.


Permission is the first step

From Scott McLeod’s latest post:

As school leaders, we must provide much greater support to our teachers as we ask them to initiate new instructional practices and ’transform school.’ I hear repeatedly from principals and superintendents that they supposedly have given their educators permission to be risk-takers. But it is not enough for school leaders to just give encouragement or permission. Our teachers deserve specific, concrete instructional (re)design strategies and techniques; short-cycle feedback loops; ongoing conversation with teaching peers about successes and failures; and long-term, follow-up activities that ensure implementation success. We also have to create organizational systems that foster ongoing innovation cultures rather than momentary risk-taking, including educator resilience and learning from failure. And we have to continually and critically interrogate our own internal culture, climate, messaging, reward systems, and other leadership practices that reinforce the status quo and mitigate our alleged ‘permission to take risks.’

This reminds me of Michael Fullan’s idea of pressure and support to move change forward in institutions – the pressure must be there to improve and enhance student learning, but support is also required to help teachers make the changes necessary.

And that support requires that school leaders stay current with best practice.  It requires that true professional learning communities are set up so teachers can get the conversation and feedback they need from peers from successes and from failures.  It also requires us to put aside our own egos to take a good, long look at our systems and culture from a 10,000 foot view in order to see what needs to be changed, what needs to be amplified, and what else needs to be tweaked.

Really, it comes down to this:

If we as leaders are not helping everyone become smarter and better, we’re not doing our job. (From Fullan’s book The New Meaning of Educational Change)

Permission is only the first step.  Leaders must create the pressure to innovate and provide the support teachers need to do just that.

Doing nothing is risky, too.

Our staff aren’t ready for that new technology.  We should wait on that.

The community isn’t going to like it; we should wait.

That teacher is about to retire; there’s nothing we can do to help them improve.

The change we want to enact may make people upset because it’s so different from what has been done traditionally; we can’t take the risk.

Well, doing nothing has it’s own risk.  By doing nothing you risk falling behind, going stale, honoring tradition over what’s right for students, and risk not giving students the needed skills they need to be successful in their world…which, we have to remember, isn’t our world.

We have to move forward, or risk becoming victims of our own inertia.