Archive for the ‘Learning From Video’ Category

Learning Forward Keynote: Autonomy, Accountability, and Professional Learning

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Given the opportunity to speak at the Learning Forward Summer Conference, I asked myself, what would be the message I would consider most important to share with a large audience of educational leaders?  I decided that I should make my case that autonomy and accountability are both an important part of professional learning.

In my opinion, professional development that “holds teachers accountable” but doesn’t respect teachers as professionals and recognize their need for autonomy will not succeed. At the same time, professional development that honors teacher professionalism and autonomy but is not accountable will not succeed.  Effective professional development requires autonomy and accountability. To understand what this means, we need to answer two simple questions.

What is Autonomy?

For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to answer this question.  For me, when we respect teacher autonomy, we see teachers as full partners in their learning.  I’ve written about partnership principles that describe what such a partnership might look like.

You can download a research article about the partnership approach here

You can read more about the partnership principles and how they apply to presenting here

You can read an Ed Leadership article about partnership and coaching here

Voice:  If leaders and professional developers are going to honor teachers as professionals, then that begins with the simple notion that educators should have a say in what they do. Professional development that ignores the voices of teachers is dehumanizing.  However, when we seek out the truth and encourage others to speak, we engage in mutually humanizing professional learning.  Mr. Rogers is a great example of a person who truly wants other people to speak up and share their voice.

When professional development ignores teachers’ voices, it treats them like cogs in a machine, not people with knowledge, minds, and hearts.  Also, when leaders do not encourage teachers to speak up, they cut themselves off from the very people who spend most of their time with students, who in most cases know the most about students.

Equality:  The principle of equality is foundational to democracy, perhaps most clearly articulated in Martin Luther King’s magnificent I Have a Dream Speech, when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

Equality is about more than equal access and equity, though these are certainly important. Equality is about seeing others as of equal value to ourselves, seeing that others count as much as we do, and not seeing ourselves as better than others.

This is critical for leading change.  Edgar Schein in Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, argues that people are always judging whether or not they get the status they deserve, and when they don’t, people resist help. Schein writes:

All human relationships are about status positioning and what sociologists call “situational proprieties.”  It is human to want to be granted the status and position that we feel we deserve, no matter how high or low it might be, and we want to do what is situationally appropriate. We are either trying to get ahead or stay even, and we measure all interactions by how much we have lost or gained.

During interactions, Schein explains, leaders can take on the role of being a parent and put other adults in the role of being a child, or they can see interactions as an adult to adult conversation.  If leaders see themselves as parents, to the professionals in their school or system, they usually engender resistance.

Choice: If I see teachers as equals, then I don’t make choices for them. But choice is a nuanced principle for many reasons.

First, telling someone they must do something (and ignoring their autonomy) almost always engenders resistance. As Timothy Gallwey has written in The Inner Game of Work: Focus, Learning, Pleasure, and Mobility in the Workplace, “when you insist, I will resist.” Ignoring a teacher’s professionalism and giving them no choice will often lead to resistance.

Second, choice does not mean that there are no non-negotiables.  In any organization dedicated to public service, there are going to be some things that have to happen.  The challenge is to respect teacher autonomy and clarify non-negotiables.

Third, as  Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar have explained, too many choices is no better than no choice. Sheena Iyengar gave a famous Ted Talk where she explains her research on the topic:

Reflection: Choice is essential for reflection, of course because if I just have to do what I’m told, I don’t get to do much thinking. Reflection is largely about thinking about how I will do something.  Thomas Davenport in his book Thinking For a Living provides a second important reason for encouraging reflection.  Davenport used surveys and interviews to study knowledge workers, people like teachers, who think for a living.  He found that the defining characteristic of knowledge workers is a need for autonomy.  Knowledge workers are paid to reflect, and when someone else does the thinking for them, knowledge workers resist. Davenport writes

Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.

Dialogue:  Dialogue is the natural mode of discourse for partners.  During dialogue, I want to hear what you have to say, I want to engage in a mutually humanizing conversation in which we use words to think together.

I’ve written about Paulo Freire’s conditions for dialogue in other posts on this blog. They include humility, faith, hope, love .

What is Accountability?

For me, accountability means only conducting professional learning that makes meaningful, significant improvements.  When educators are accountable, their professional learning has an unmistakable impact on student learning.  In this way, educators are accountable to the process and especially accountable to children, parents, other stakeholders, and the profession of teaching.  Furthermore, at the individual or school level, accountability is a genuine commitment to learning and growth on the part of every educator, a recognition that to have learning students, we need learning teachers, coaches, and administrators who are also learning.

Robert Fritz has explained in The Path of Least Resistance about growth coming from a creative tension between a clear picture of current reality and a goal. Peter Senge nicely summarized Fritz’s ideas in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline

The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call creative tension: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution.  The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.

Current Reality: Getting a clear picture of reality is not that easy.  We misunderstand our personal reality because of habituation, confirmation bias, our inherent desire to feel competent, and other reasons.  (One study, for example, found that 93% of US drivers judge themselves above average).   For these reasons, real change begins with getting a clear picture of reality.  This can be done in many ways.

Video recording your class:  Learning Forward members can read an article about video and professional learning here

Gathering data:  I’ve written on this blog about gathering data on positive interactions, questions, learning time and student engagement. Many other data points could be gathered as well.

Looking at student work: Rigorously analyzing student work can also provide a clear picture of reality.

Setting a Goal: Effective goals are objective (that is you’ll be certain you have hit the goal when you hit it), measurable, and based on student learning (e.g. results on formative assessments), behavior (e.g. number of disruptions), or attitude (number of students who write about reading in their journals). A good book summarizing the power of goals is Heath & Heath’s Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Instructional Coaching: One way to combine autonomy and accountability is through instructional coaching.

You can read a column about goal setting and instructional coaching here

You can download a study of the impact of instructional coaching here

You can download an article describing what instructional coaches do here

Creating An Impact School:  Another way to combine autonomy and accountability is to create an impact school.

You can download a presentation on the creating an impact school from Learning Forward 2012 here:

The book describing the impact process is Unmistakable Impact.

To sum up, teachers want to make a difference, and when their autonomy is respected and they are given the tools to make a difference, they will.  Teachers like Michael Covarrubias recognize that they are the ones that can ultimately have a profound impact on students:

You can see my full conversation with Michael on The Teaching Channel

What Video Helps Us See

Friday, June 21st, 2013

This is an early version of a section from my forthcoming book coming out at the end of this year.

Using a video camera to learn about your teaching is like looking into a mirror.

–Beth Sanders, Teacher, Birmingham, Alabama

Perhaps the most important reason why video is so useful for professional learning is it helps us see exactly what it looks like when we teach or our students learn.  This is important because professionals often do not have a clear picture of what it looks like when they do their work. In our research conversations, teachers and coaches tell us that when they see video recordings of their lessons, they are often amazed at what they see.  Often, teachers are pleased to see evidence that their lessons are working.  In other cases, teachers are disappointed (and every coach told us that teachers tend to be extremely hard on themselves) by what they see. Often teachers are both pleased and disappointed. Kimberly Nguyen, a teacher in Michigan, watched two different classes she was teaching: her most and least engaged.  Kim was surprised to see that she was a different teacher in each room. During our interview, Kim said

What I really noticed was that with the engaged group I am much more animated and I interact more. With the second group I really struggle with my mood and my response time is lower. In that class I think I am really boring.

People, we have learned, often have the same experience as Kimberly: they do not know what it looks like when they teach until they see the video.  And, because they are unaware of what it looks like when they teach, educators often do not feel the need to change.  They might be open to trying new practices, but they don’t feel compelled to change.

James Prochaska’s research into the personal experience of change provides us with some language for describing and understanding why people are so surprised by what they see in video recordings.  Prochaska conducted more than 55 clinical studies of change with more than 1,000 people and concluded that the first stage of change is what he refers to as “precontemplation.” Change begins with people “pre” “contemplating” change, that is, at the start people aren’t even thinking they want to change. Prochaska writes, “G.K. Chesterton might have been describing precontemplators when he said, ‘It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.’” (p.40)

Our work with teachers, coaches, and principals has led us to similar conclusions.  When we show videos of lessons to teachers, their response is often that they had no idea that the class looked the way it looked on video.  Beth Sanders, a teacher in Alabama, said that watching video puts you inside the situation of your class:

It is much different being in the situation versus being outside the situation looking in.  It is really important to me that I am kind of getting the full circle view of my classroom and seeing these are things that matter and these are things that could be better, and things that I can do to hopefully make things better by watching my class.

Watching yourself on video feels similar to the unsettling experience of hearing a recording of your voice for the first time—to the power of ten. There are many reasons why people are precontemplative, why they have so little awareness of what it looks like when they do the work that they do. Three main reasons are the complexity of teaching, habituation, and confirmation bias.

The Complexity of Teaching.  Anyone who spends a short period of time in a classroom, will quickly realize one big reason why teachers sometimes have an incomplete understanding of everything that occurs in their classroom: teachers have too much to think about while teaching to also be able to step back and oversee everything happening in their class. In one introduction to teaching, the authors write that “teachers make somewhere between 800 and 1,500 decisions every day” (Kauchak & Eggen in Introduction to Teaching: Becoming a Professional, 2005, Chap. 2, p. 55). Teachers must think about delivering material, monitoring student learning and behavior, setting up activities, maintaining engagement, all while keeping an eye on the clock, and so for most of us, it is extremely difficult to step back and take in everything that is happening in the class while teaching.

Habituation.  A second reason why many professionals struggle to get a clear picture of reality is a phenomenon psychologists refer to as habituation, the fact that we lose our sensitivity to just about anything we experience repeatedly. Through habituation we can become desensitized to any experience, pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly.  This means that what at one time would have been impossible not to see can eventually become practically invisible.

When habituation happens to us in the classroom, it can have dire consequences. First, educators can forget about the true joy of this work, how important and beautiful it is to teach, to empower students to read and write, to become numerate, to help them transcend their social status, to mentor them to be the first in their family to go to college. Second, teachers can stop seeing children when they aren’t learning. They can stop noticing students who are bored, wasting time, or hating school. They can come to believe that off-task behavior and poor performance are all that can be expected from students. Teachers can also getting a much better understanding of how they treat students, becoming more aware, for example, of the positive ways they encourage students or the negative ways they let emotions interfere with fluent corrections.

Confirmation Bias.  Another reason why we may not get a clear picture of reality in the classroom is confirmation bias. In Decisive Heath and Heath describe that confirmation bias is our natural tendency to seek data that supports our assumptions:

Our normal habit in life is to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief… Researchers have found this result again and again.  When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions (Heath & Heath, 2013, p.11).

This tendency to seek out support for our beliefs can keep us from getting a clear picture of reality.  Thus, for example, we might take correct answers of four students as evidence that all students are learning, or we might take a students’ failure to learn as evidence that the student lacks motivation rather than a prompt to change teaching.

Our tendency to seek out data that confirms our biases is further increased by the anxiety we feel when we realize students are learning and we don’t know what to do.  We might be especially inclined to find proof that we are not at fault if students aren’t learning and we don’t know what to do to turn their learning around. The power of video is that it cuts through habituation, confirmation bias and the complexity of teaching to show a real picture of what is happening.

What is the Value of a Coach?

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Atul Gawande

A district administrator recently wrote to tell me that her district was facing “tough financial decisions” that are naturally causing lower morale.  Everyone in her district feels under attack. And “the coaches are naturally questioning their value.”

All of us experience dark times when we wonder if we are making a difference, and coaches are no different.  So I thought I would do my best to answer the coaches’ question.

What is the value of a coach?

Coaches Support & Encourage Teachers. A coach is a trusted friend to educators, a colleague, a sounding board, and a witness to the good.  These days can be difficult for educators, with increased expectations, decreased funding, more pressure and less encouragement.  Coaches provide an incredibly important service by listening, empathizing, and encouraging their colleagues respectfully and nonjudgmentally.

Coaches understand teachers because they are teachers themselves and most model practices as a part of coaching. For that reason, they can empathize with teachers in ways that are more difficult for others. Coaches get what it is like to have a great day and an awful day (sometimes in the same day).  They know how rewarding and tough teaching can be.

Many coaches have told me that an important part of what they do is to listen to their colleagues when it seems like their colleagues have no one else who is able or available to listen.

Coaches Encourage Meaningful Conversation.  Every organization improves or declines based on the quality of the conversation within it. Michael Fullan, who has written more than 30 books about educational change, sums this up in his great book Leading in a Culture of Change:

We have found that the single factor common to every successful change initiative is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, things get better.  If they remain the same or get worse, ground is lost.

Coaches study the art of communication—often video recording themselves and reflecting on how they ask questions, listen, encourage, and connect. They know how important each interaction can be, and they strive to engage in positive, supportive, honest conversations at all times.  In this way, coaches move a school forward one conversation at a time.

A coach is a second set of hands.  I don’t buy the line that teachers don’t want to learn.  In my experience, when teachers are respected and treated as professionals, most of them are passionate about their own learning and growth. The trouble is that teachers are swamped with urgent tasks. Often teachers have too much to do to organize learning how to implement new practices.

Coaches make learning much easier. Coaches do the work of organizing materials, explaining the practices, modeling, and providing support.  Thanks to coaches, teachers around the world finally are able to do what they most want to do: find new ways to reach more students.

 A coach is a second set of eyes.  The task of teaching, as I experienced just a week ago, can be a complicated and crazy ride demanding every ounce of a teacher’s attention. When you are locked-in to ensuring that your 33 7th-graders are on-task and learning, it can be difficult to pause and deeply reflect on what is actually going on the classroom.

A coach can gather data a teacher would like to gather if they weren’t so busy actually teaching.  Also, coaches can gather data that might otherwise go undetected, recording, for example, how teachers use their time, students’ levels of engagement, teachers’ positivity ratio, and the kind of questions asked by teachers and students.

A coach leaves a legacy. We go into education because we want to make a difference, to leave our world a little better than we found it. George Lucas sums up what we all know to be true when he writes about the teachers who taught him:

 Apart from my parents, my teachers have done the most to shape my life.

Few people can be more confident that they are making a difference than a coach.  Every time a coach helps a teacher implement a new teaching or learning strategy, the coach is helping every other student that teacher will teach. One step forward for a teacher is one step forward for hundreds or thousands of children.  Multiply that impact by all a coach does every day, and you get a clear picture of the value of instructional coaches.

Education is the way we move society forward. And coaches are one important way we move schools forward. For that reason, if you want to make our world a better place, there are few ways more powerful than being a coach.

What is the value of a coach?  A coach is as valuable as a better future for our children. That seems extremely valuable to me.

The Most Important Part of Instructional Coaching? Setting a Goal

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

For most of my career, I’ve been studying teacher growth. I’ve found, as I’m sure many readers have found, that one-shot workshops and other quick-fix forms of professional development often have little impact on teaching and learning. For that reason, my colleagues and I have spent more than a decade studying instructional coaching.

Our research has uncovered that one factor plays an incredibly important role in successful instructional coaching. When coaches set measureable student goals with teachers, and provide effective support, coaching can really make a difference. When coaches and teachers do not set goals, coaching can be a waste of time.

Successful goals have three characteristics

We’ve found the following to be essential characteristics of effective goals:

1. The goal has to be based on a clear picture of what is happening in the classroom. The easiest way to do this is just to video record the class. Coaches can also gather data such as Time On Task or Ratios of Interaction if that is what they prefer, but teachers need to see the data as reliable.

2. The goal must be a student goal. If coach and teacher set a teacher goal, they can’t be sure that the goal will make a difference. When a student goal is set, coach and teacher keep working until something significant happens for students. Setting a student goal also takes the focus off of the teacher, which often helps the coaching relationship.

3. The teacher has to care about the goal a lot. If the teacher doesn’t care about the goal, not much is going to happen.

How the Process Works

We usually complete the following steps to set goals:

1. The coach video records the teacher’s class or gathers some other data.

2. If video is recorded, the teacher and coach watch the video separately. The teacher might watch the video using the surveys “Watch your students. Watch yourself.”

3. When they meet after they have watched the video, the coach asks a few questions to help the teacher identify a goal, such as the following:

• On a scale of 1-10, how close was today’s class to your ideal?

• What would have to change for it to be closer to a 10?

• What would your students be doing if that change happened? Describe what the students would look like.

• How would we measure that change?

• Is that a goal you would like to try to achieve?

• Which teaching strategy can we use to achieve that goal? We offer a list of teaching strategies from High-Impact Instruction that teachers can choose from, but coaches could use other books or instructional frameworks such as Robert Marzano’s Art & Science of Teaching, or Jon Saphier & Mary Ann Haley-Speca’s Skillful Teacher

4. Once a measurable student goal is established, the coach should confirm that the teacher really is committed to implementing the goal, by asking questions such as “Is this a goal you really want to achieve? Does this matter to you?”

If the teacher is committed to the goal, then coach and teacher move forward. If the teacher isn’t committed, then coach and teacher revisit the goal until one is identified that matters to the teacher.

Our research on instructional coaching has led us to many insights into the importance of modeling, effective questions, effective communication skills, how to explore data and so forth. In my opinion, our most important finding is that goals are incredibly important. When teachers set a measureable student goal, there is a good chance the coaching will really improve instruction. When there is no goal, there is a real danger that coaching will have no lasting impact.

Steve Jobs, Radical Learner: Sell Dreams

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

The [think different] ad campaign … reveals a fundamental difference between radical innovators and mediocre copycats: the former believe in their customer’s dreams and their ability to change the world; the latter see their customers as dollar signs and nothing more.

Carmine Gallo, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs may be the most innovative creator of our generation. What separated him from everyone else was his ability to create products that people didn’t even know they wanted until they saw them.

Most people didn’t realize they wanted a personal computer, an iPod, an iPhone, or an iPad until they saw each of them, but once they saw them, they had to have them. As Carmine Gallo says in The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, “the iPad fills a gap, one that most of us didn’t know existed.”

Steve Jobs created such compelling products, Gallo writes, for two reasons.

First, Gallo says, “Steve Jobs knew his customers better than anyone at the company. He understood their needs, hopes, and dreams.

In Apple’s world, customers are … men and women, young and old, professionals and amateurs, who have one thing in common: they dream of a better life. Apple has created world-changing products precisely because they help their customers fulfill their world changing dreams.

Second Steve Jobs had exacting standards for what Apple created. Gallo writes, “Jobs is relentlessly focused on the customer and his or her experience with the product and the company. He will not tolerate anything that doesn’t meet his exacting standards.”

What can these suggestions mean for educators?

First, like Steve Jobs, teachers can strive to have a deep understanding of their students’ hopes, fears, and expectations. One way to do this is to ask questions. I’ve created a list of questions teachers can ask students to learn more about what makes them tick. There are questions for elementary, middle, and high school students.

Second, like Jobs, teachers who truly want to inspire their students, need to commit to extremely high standards. Radical learners know this. They relentlessly pursue excellence—video recording their lessons and learning from the recordings. Reading anything they can about how to be more effective. Observing other teachers. Finding and using technology to accelerate student learning. And doing whatever else they can to increase engagement, well-being, and achievement.

Jobs understood that a deep understanding of his customers and a deep commitment to excellence would lead to world changing products. For teachers, a deep understanding of students and a deep commitment to excellence can lead to life changing experiences.


Monday, January 3rd, 2011

“The more deeply you understand other people, the more you will appreciate them, the more reverent you will feel toward them.” Stephen Covey

Imagine a person you know, a real person, who is not a very good listener.  What is it like when you talk to him?  What does he do?  Chances are, he cuts you off in mid-sentence.  He might look bored while you talk. Whenever you start to talk, he might look as if he can’t wait to share his thoughts and words. His actions make you feel as if he doesn’t think what you say holds much meaning or interest.  He might even look as if he thinks he is much smarter than you.

Now imagine a real person you know who is a great listener.  Chances are when you talk to her, she lets you have the floor. She appears to be curious and interested in what you have to say. Her actions make you feel your words and ideas are important; she makes you feel you count; that you are valuable.

Leaving aside every other characteristic of these two people (their intelligence, leadership skills, gender, ethics, etc.), chances are you have a better opinion of the person who listens than of the one who cuts you off — just because she listens to you.

Not surprisingly, much has been written about listening.  If you pick up a book about leadership or relationship building, more than likely, there will be a chapter on listening.  We are given lots of information and recommendations for how to be good listeners.  Good listeners make eye contact; they empathize; they paraphrase; their body language reflects back the stance of the speaker. Good listeners get inside the paradigm of the speaker.  This is all good advice, but I believe the heart of listening lies primarily in making a commitment to doing it.

If we really want to hear what another person has to say, just allow him to speak and process what he says. I believe the rest will take care of itself. That is, when we reduce listening to its essence, we primarily just have to stop talking and focus on the speaker.  If we really want to hear what the other person has to say, he will know we are listening. It’s as simple as that.

Listening is important in any relationship. It is important in leadership, and it is especially important in the classroom.  When we listen to students, we

  • show our respect for our students
  • reduce behavior problems by encouraging a positive and respectful classroom culture
  • communicate our belief that students have something worthwhile to say
  • communicate our belief that our students are smart, valuable people
  • model respectful behaviors that all people should demonstrate

I have found that a Flip camera is a great tool for observing how effectively I’m listening. Any teacher can get a pretty clear picture of how effectively he or she listens by video recording a class and then watching the recording. If you don’t have a micro camera, you can record your class on a cell phone, iPhone, or iPod touch.  With the right technology, you can even listen to your class in your car as you drive home.

In my own experience, confronting the brutal facts of how I communicate by watching a recording is a profound learning experience and a real, if uncomfortable, catalyst for change.  When I watch a recording of myself, what I see is what everyone else sees every day.  It is much better to suffer through videos of myself, and ultimately improve as a communicator, than it is to go on thinking I’m a great listener when in reality everyone else thinks I’m a jerk. Or worse.

Really listening is a humble act.  If we listen to our students, we communicate that we are not the only one in the room who has something worthwhile to say.  By listening, we also have an opportunity to learn by really hearing what our children are saying.  When we really listen to our students, they often reward us with profound insights.


Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

If I do not love the world–If I do not love life–If I do not love [people]–I cannot enter into dialogue.  Paulo Freire.

What does it mean to teach with love?

The poet Margaret Atwood has famously said, “The Eskimo has fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them; there ought to be as many for love.”  As it turns out, there aren’t really 52 words for snow, but Atwood’s statement is nonetheless true.  Love has many colors and hues.  There is the love of a parent and child.  The love of a sibling.  The love we feel in an emergency room, worried about a loved one, and the love we feel at a wedding.  There is the love between lovers, the love of long-time friends.  There is the love of a married couple, which can include many of the other kinds of love.

I think we are afraid to talk about love, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe the word just sounds “soft.” Maybe the idea of love makes us more vulnerable than we want to be.  Maybe we just don’t understand it, so we avoid it. Maybe we have been hurt and don’t want to open old wounds. Nonetheless, if we are going to explore healthy relationships, we simply have to suck it up and talk about love, even love at school.

Many teachers I know recognize the importance of love in school.  In my work, I’ve had the  pleasure of talking with hundreds of teachers about their work, and again and again they talk about the primacy of a loving relationship.  Here are just one person’s comments taken from an interview I conducted, but I believe she speaks for many when she talks about how love stands at the heart of her work in schools:

I really came to teaching through the back door, watching what was happening with my kids.  I guess that’s why I became a teacher because watching them I realized that education should be an amazing experience.

At my school it’s been really wonderful, empowering.  I know I’ve made a difference, and I know I respect the kids that come into my room… to watch how kids have grown, that’s a magical thing to watch.

I feel privileged. I feel that seriously. It’s about the most important work a person can do.  I’m just one of the people who can wake up each morning and say, I love what I do and look forward to what I do.  I feel just really fortunate and it’s wonderful.  I think its critical how I react, and how I support the kids, help create an environment.

They are precious cargo.

This teacher’s comments capture how important it is for us to try and be more loving as educators. One way we can do that is by watching ourselves on recordings. Video helps us see the simple things we do that foster or inhibit emotional connections.  We can see whether we act in ways that destroy connection–rolling our eyes, making sarcastic comments, talking down to students, power tripping, cutting students off, looking uninterested in them.  Just as important, though, we can see the simple actions we do that encourage connection–simple praise, smiles, words of encouragement, simple signs of respect, genuine interest and concern. Then, with a clear picture of what works and what doesn’t, we can work to be more loving.

If we are more loving toward our students, it can only help them and us.  Most likely, it will help us with all of our relationships.  And who wouldn’t want to live in a world that is filled with more love?

Learning By Watching Part Four: Video Study Groups

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

The availability of inexpensive HD video cameras, such as iPhones or Flip Cameras, and easy-to-use, inexpensive film editing software, like iMovie, opens up many opportunities for professional learning (in fact, all kinds of learning) in schools. One powerful way to use these tools is to create video study groups.

My friend Jean Clark from Cecil County Maryland has taught me a lot about how to set up video study groups, and pretty much everything I’m going to describe here is something Jean did as instructional coach with teachers at Bohemia Manor Middle School.  Jean loves video, and if you spend much time with her, you will likely find yourself in front of a camera being filmed.

Video study groups bring together teachers who wish to watch and discuss video recordings of themselves teaching. Here are some of the elements of effective Video Study Groups (VSGs) that I have learned from Jean:


In Jean’s school, the VSG was one of several options for professional learning offered for teachers on their monthly late-arrival days.  Thus, only teachers who were open to this experience participated. (I suspect that if teachers were forced to participate in Video Study Groups, they might not be receptive to the learning.)

Common Teaching Practice

In Jean’s group, all the teachers were implementing the same teaching practice (a teaching routine to ensure students master concepts), and the VSG was a way by which they all deepened their understanding of how to teach the routine.

Recording a Class

Prior to each meeting, one teacher volunteered to prepare and share a video. To prepare the video, volunteers recorded themselves using the teaching routine. Sometimes Jean helped by recording the class, but often teachers simply set up the camera where it would catch them teaching.

Editing the Video

After recording the class, teachers loaded their videos into iMovie.  (Each teacher in the VSG eventually did this.) The teachers then edited the film, with the goal of identifying aspects of the lesson that went well and a section of the lesson that they wanted to improve.  Teachers watched the film multiple times and edited the film into a short movie. While editing the film, teachers had to watch their lessons many times, and, according to Jean, those repeated viewings led them to see many fine details of their lesson that wouldn’t have been obvious after watching the lesson just once.

Sharing the Video

At the Video Study Group, after the film has been edited, the volunteer shares her video with the group, showing each section and asking for comments.

At the very first group meeting, Jean guided her team to collaborate and identify values they would work from while discussing each other’s video. Thus, comments about lessons were positive, honest, constructive, and useful.

Usually the volunteer shares the two positive clips first. After showing each one, she comments on what she saw and asks her colleagues for feedback. During the final video, teachers ask questions as much as they commented.

The Benefits of Video Study Groups

VSGs are valuable for at least four reasons.

1. Teachers learn a great deal by watching themselves teaching, especially after they have watched several times.

2. VSGs provide follow-up to professional learning such as workshops.  We know that workshops by themselves do not lead to significant change in teaching practice. BRIEFLY IDENTIFY Marshall Goldsmith, for example, gathered data from 250,000 workshop participants and found that without follow-up, people do not change.  Members of a VSG commit to implementing a practice and then have multiple opportunities to explore different ways it might be implemented.

3. The dialogue that occurs during VSGs deepens group members’ understanding of how to teach the targeted practice and often introduces them to other powerful and often subtle teaching practices while watching others teach and listening to team members’ comments.

4. When teachers come together for such conversation, they often form a meaningful bond simply because the structure of a VSG compels everyone to stand vulnerably in front of their peers and to engage in constructive, supportive conversations.  Those bonds may ultimately be more important that all of the other learning that occurs.

All in all, Video Study Groups can propel teachers forward as they work to provide excellent instruction for every student every day.  If teachers have the time and the technology, Video Study Groups are an exciting alternative to more traditional forms of professional learning.

Learning by Watching Part Three: Real Learning Index

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Using a Flip camera can help us uncover data we might not otherwise see in our classrooms. In fact, data can focus our attention so intensely that we see patterns that might not otherwise be possible and, therefore, help us in effective decision-making.  However, when we focus our attention in one area, we may miss what is happening in others. For this reason, while we can use data to get a snapshot of what it going on in our classroom, it is important that we do so knowing data’s limitations.

Such is the case for the Real Learning Index, one way of gauging the learning that is taking place in your classroom. The Real Learning Index (RLI) combines two forms of data: (a) learning time and (b) student engagement. By combining these two data sets, we can get insight into what is happening in the classroom. However, the RLI is a gross measure, and does not account for either the quality of what is being learned or the depth of engagement.  The RLI is a very powerful tool for identifying simple ways to increase student learning, but it is only one tool and, it does not measure the relevance or impact of the learning occurring. As a result, it is important to use it along with other ways of reviewing what is happening in our class.

To gather the Real Learning Index, you will need to set up your Flip camera to record your students’ reactions as you teach. You should set up the camera to see all of the students if possible.  After you have recorded the class, you can review the recording to develop the RLI.

The first data set in the RLI refers to the percentage of time that is dedicated to actual learning during a class period. To calculate learning time, record the class you’d like to study, and then review the class with your trusty cell phone timer or other timer in hand.  Then, time every second when there is downtime (any time students are not learning), such as taking roll, transitions, off-task conversations, student preparation to leave class, and record how long it takes.

Once you have reviewed the entire class and you know how much downtime there is, calculate the percentage of learning time by (a) subtracting the downtime from the total class time, which gives you the total learning time, and (b) divide the total learning time by the total time to give you a percentage. For example, if 15 minutes of a 50-minute class were downtime and 35 minutes were spent on learning time, then the percentage of learning time would be 70%.

The second data set to be gathered for the Real Learning Index is student engagement, or time on task; that is, how many students look like they are engaged.  To gather these data, set your cell phone on vibrate and set your timer to go off every 10 minutes during your class. Then when feel your phone vibrate, make a quick glance around the room to note how many students are not engaged and record that number.  Continue throughout the class period.

At the end of the class, average all of the numbers signifying students off task and subtract the average number from the total number of students in class.  Divide the average number of engaged students by the total number of students in the class. That will give you a percentage of time on task.  If, on average, 21 out of 30 students are on task, the average time on task is 70%.

The RLI is the combination of both of these numbers. In the ideal situation, 100% of students are engaged and 100% of the class time is learning time.  If that were the case, the RLI would be 1.00.

To calculate the Real Learning Index for your class, write both percentages as fractions. Thus, 70% learning time becomes .70 and 70% time on task becomes .70.  Then multiply the two numbers: .70 x .70 = .49.  In other words, if 70% of students are engaged and 70% of the time is learning time, 49% of the potential for learning is being realized, or less than half of the total potential real learning time.

Teachers who want to increase their RLI can work on one of two things: student engagement or learning time. If you increase either of these or both, you increase the authentic learning that is taking place in your classroom. What the RLI does, in my experience, is make you more aware of student engagement and instructional time.  The Real Learning Index is only one way of seeing the class, but like other forms of data gathering, it sometimes helps us see patterns that otherwise would remain invisible.

Learning By Watching Part Two: Asking Questions

Monday, October 18th, 2010

“The important thing is not to stop questioning”    –Albert Einstein

Asking questions is an important part of the art and craft of teaching. A good question can open up learning, be a catalyst for spirited dialogue, and can lead both the person asking the question and the one answering to new insights that wouldn’t have been possible without the question.

The type and level of question you ask are both important. I will write much more on those topics here in the upcoming months–if you need information on that topic now, you can download a free manual about effective questions here.

But how we ask questions is also very important. If you watch recordings of yourself teaching, one thing to watch for is how you ask questions. There are at least four things to pay attention to:

1. Curiosity. Ask questions with authentic curiosity. By asking questions that we genuinely want to hear the answers to, we communicate respect and show faith in our students because we show them that we value what they have to say.

Curious teachers are truly excited to see what their students have to say, and often they are delighted by their responses. Students, for their part, sense their teacher’s authentic curiosity, and this encourages them to offer sincere, thought-out responses.

2. Asking to Hear the Students Answer. Questions may be asked for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes questions are meant to be catalysts for dialogue, such as “Who is a leader that you respect, and why do you respect her or him?” At other times our questions are meant to confirm understanding, such as “How would you paraphrase this paragraph?”

When our questions are meant to confirm understanding, we must careful to refrain from telling the answer while asking the question. This is where video recording ourselves can be helpful because it allows us to watch ourselves to see if our facial expressions, tone of voice, phrasing, or other subtle communication practice gives away the answers before anybody has a chance to respond. Simply put, if we ask a question, we should genuinely want to hear the answer from somebody else.

3. Attention. Good questioning is as much about how we listen as it is about how we talk; in fact, listening may be the more important of the two. When we listen attentively, we communicate to students that they matter and that their words count. On the other hand, when we lose focus and fail to pay attention (which is easy to do), we communicate a lack of respect and a lack of interest. Also, when we go through the motions and fail to be mindful as listeners, our actions suggest to students that just putting in time and going through the motions is OK. In short, if we want student engagement, we too have to be engaged.

I’ll write about listening techniques here in the future, but an important first step is simply deciding to listen. Much has been writing about eye contact, body language, paraphrasing, empathy, and so forth, but if we really want to hear what somebody has to say, those things will take care of themselves. People can tell if we are listening, and if we just decide to truly hear what our students say and honor their comments, that simple action can go a long way toward raising the quality of conversation in the classroom, and thereby increase the meaningful learning taking place.

4. Silence. Part of effective questioning is to leave room for everyone to say their part. Susan Scott in Fierce Leadership describes this as the “sweet purity of silence.” Others call it wait time. Whatever you call it, pausing for a few seconds after asking a question is a critical part of effective questioning.

This is much easier said than done. Many of us feel the need to fill the gap whenever there is silence. In our daily lives, we are surrounded by sounds — television, music, motors, conversation — and tend to feel a bit edgy when there is a pause during instruction. But if we feel the need to jump in and talk to fill up any silence, we have to be careful that our filling in doesn’t lead to shutting out. Some students need to time to process their response.

Parker Palmer has written beautifully about this:

I now understand what Nelle Morton meant when she said that one of the great tasks in our time is to “hear people to speech.” Behind their fearful silence, our students want to find their voices, speak their voices, have their voices heard. A good teacher is one who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken—so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence …

What does it mean to listen to a voice before it is spoken as Palmer writes? It means making space for the other, being aware of the other, paying attention to the other, honoring the other. It means not rushing to fill our students’ silence with “fearful speech” of our own and not trying to coerce them into saying the things we want to hear. It means entering empathetically into our students’ worlds so that they perceive us as some one who has the promise of being able to hear another person’s truth.

How to Watch
The easiest way to see how well you carry out these teaching practices is to use your Flip, iPhone, or other micro-camera to record yourself asking questions. To do this, you’ll need to set your camera up somewhere in the room from which it will be able to capture you as you teach. If you move around a lot, you may find that you move in and out of the camera’s view, so you may want to ask someone else to record the class for you. However, most of the time a camera placed in one place can yield a lot of valuable information.

Questions to Ask While Watching Yourself

Do I look genuinely curious about all students’ responses?

Am I giving away the answer, or the answer I want?

Am I 100% present during the lesson?

Am I allowing sufficient wait time?

Do my students offer genuine responses to my questions?

Are my questions challenging without being too difficult?

Feel free to add or make up your own questions. The important thing is to watch and learn. Since questions make up such a large part of what teachers do, watching yourself asking questions can be a very valuable learning experience by dramatically increasing your ability to perform this vital teaching practice.