Posts Tagged ‘student engagement’

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

Words: The Power of a Shared Vocabulary

Friday, April 5th, 2013

The Eskimos have 52 words for snow because it is so special to them; there ought to be as many for love. Margaret Atwood

We tried to talk it over, but the words got in the way. Leon Russell

Margaret Atwood is right, of course. We could communicate more effectively with more words to describe different kinds of love. But having just one word is infinitely better than none. Words, despite their limitations, help us talk about topics we would not otherwise be able to discuss, and see things we would not otherwise be able to see. A word is a candle held up in the darkness to help us move forward.

Words might be humanity’s greatest invention. A shared vocabulary helps us share emotions, share ideas, learn, grow. And this is just as true in conversation in schools as it is in conversations at home.
An important shared vocabulary in schools, as Phil Schlechty has explained, could be developed around student engagement. Teachers can have meaningful conversations defining and acting on the terms authentic engagement, strategic compliance, and off-task behavior. And once the words are defined, teachers can share ideas and strategies to increase authentic engagement.

Educators can also benefit from coming to a shared understanding of positive reinforcement, and defining such ideas as growth mindset, ratios of interaction, and positivity. When people develop clear definitions of positive and negative reinforcements, they begin to see interactions in a clearer way in the classroom. Some words make the invisible, visible.

Powerful professional learning also happens when teachers agree about the meaning of other words, such as those describing reading strategies, like text-to-self or summarizing, or writing concepts such as sentence fluency, coherence, or voice. The simple act of talking about a word like voice, and working to develop a shared, deeper understanding, can be very meaningful professional development.

Teachers, of course, are not the only people who need to develop a shared vocabulary. When administrators and teachers do not share a common vocabulary about the meaning and importance of observations, admin evaluations have little positive impact on teaching and learning. What good is an administrator’s evaluation when the teacher and administrator can’t authentically talk about what was observed? Worse, what good are observations when observers can’t clearly define what they are seeing?
A clear picture of reality is an essential part of growth, but the picture does have to be clear, and people need a shared understanding if they are going to talk about it.

Students should also be a part of developing a shared vocabulary. When students understand authentic engagement and strategic compliance, they can give meaningful feedback to their teachers on what works and what doesn’t work for them. Sandi Silbernagel, for example, a teacher in Slidell, Louisiana, learns a lot by asking her second graders for their feedback on their level of engagement.

No doubt Leon Russell was right. Sometimes the words can get in the way. But without words, we can’t talk. Language is the means by which communication takes place. And as in life, so in schools. We should do all we can to develop a shared vocabulary. When we can truly talk about what we see, important learning—for teachers, administrators, and students—can really happen.

Flow Experiences: The Sweet Spot For Learning

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is one of my heroes. His book Flow is one of the ten non-fiction books that has most influenced my life (and it occurs to me that I only say that about this book).  The book taught me that the question “What am I passionate about?” is much more important to ask than “What will this get me?” when we make decisions about our life’s work.  Flow teaches that engagement is crucial for happiness and success, so if we follow our passion, the rest often works out.

Csikszentmihalyi came to our center at the University of Kansas as a consultant back in the early 1990s.  To position this in time, since we struggled to pronounce his name, we called him the “Flowmeister.” He is a wonderful man, whose knowledge and mind were a delight to experience during his visit.  When he was at KUCRL, he shared his research about optimal experience, what we do when we are at our best, which he also calls a flow experience.

What the Flowmeister explained was that there are many subjective and structural elements to happiness.  When we are at our best, time flies, we feel in control, we are not self-conscious, and we are 100% engaged.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, when we are in what I call a sweet spot for learning, we are tackling a challenge that is perfectly appropriate for the skills we bring to the task.

In situations where our skill level is low, he said, for an optimal flow experience, we need a challenge that is pretty easy. A highly challenging task that we are underprepared for, however, usually makes us feel anxious or frustrated.

At the same time, when we are highly skilled a too easy challenge keeps us out of optimal flow experience (we called this the Flow zone!).  If we are really skilled and the challenge is one we can do in our sleep, chances are, we will be bored.  Too challenging or too easy = no flow experience.

The best situation is one where our challenges are appropriate for our skills.  When we tackle a challenge that pushes a us a little beyond our skills, we are in the sweet spot. If we are to stay engaged, the challenge should increase always as our skill increases.  The folks who create video games totally understand this.  Any video game starts off so easy your grandmother could do it, but as you get better, the game moves you to ever increasing higher levels of challenge.  The result is an activity that keeps kids engaged for hours.

The importance of balancing challenge and skill has significant implications for the classroom. If we want student engagement, we need to do our best to put them in the  sweet spot. This requires using (a) something like assessment for learning to determine how skilled our students are and (b) direct instruction in learning strategies so they learn how to learn and thus are able to take on meaningful challenges.

The sweet spot also applies to our own learning.  If we tackle something that is way beyond where we currently are, we can end up frustrated, anxious or disappointed.  But staying the same and not challenging ourselves leads to boredom, which leads inevitably to resignation, burn out, and a lack of faith in our own abilities.

Growth and learning are the fuel that fire radical learners. But we need to grow at our own pace, in our own time, in the way that works best for us.  And, of course, so do our students.

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.