Sunday, July 24, 2016

Summer Reading: Good to Great

After ten years of teaching at my current high school, I found myself cleaning all my stuff (wow, does it ever accumulate!) out of my classroom and office in preparation for my new role with the board next year.

This is exciting - this September will be the first in 15 years that I don't step into the classroom as a teacher (and, as my husband pointed out, it will be the first in 35 years that I don't step into the classroom as either a student or a teacher).

What will my focus be for the new year? 
Who will I be in my new role? 
What concept(s) will I embody?

My first summer read was Good to Great, by Jim Collins. I became familiar with the book a few years ago when one of my friends was reading it. I understood it to be a business book - how to get ahead in the industry - and it is. But after seeing a number of educators refer to it online, I thought I'd give it a read. Turns out, it was the perfect pick to get me thinking how I can answer these questions.

In short, Collins discusses how good companies became GREAT companies in their respective industries. He looks at leadership qualities, how to build a great supporting team, the role of technology and how to create finely-honed goals... a lot of which can be applied directly to an educational forum.

The Three Circles & the Hedgehog Concept

The biggest take-away for me, was the idea of the three circles: how they create your hedgehog concept and provide focus for your big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG).

The three circles: Three dimensions to help identify your core values, and focus your efforts or role within an organization/industry.

Hedgehog concept: A simple, crystalline concept that reflects deep understanding of the three circles. It's a go-to concept that guides decision-making and how you address challenges.

BHAG: A huge and daunting goal, of almost scary proportions. Without realizing the background of the BHAG, I've tried working toward some in previous years, with some exciting results.

Julie Balen (@jacbalen) recently gave my thinking a push by adapting the three circles to apply to leadership in education as opposed to leadership in industry. In her own reflection, she re-wrote the big questions as: 

My answers?

What is my educational passion?
Connecting with learners of all ages to help them push their boundaries and discover new passions.

What drives the educational engine of my position?
Allowing and supporting teachers to become more innovative.

What am I best at? 
(This was by far the hardest one for me to answer)
Leading by example and trying new things.

I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about my answers to these questions. I have yet to crystallize my Hedgehog concept or my BHAG for the next year, but it's wonderful to have some focus heading in to September.

Mental note - it will be interesting to see how/if these answers change as the year progresses!

Getting the Right People on the Bus

This coming year, our board is moving toward implementing a different kinds of professional development by means of collaborative inquiry projects. Good to Great discussed the importance of getting the right people on the team, and in the right roles; I'm looking forward to working with principals to make sure the right people are on the collaborative inquiry project buses, and sitting in the right seats.

With the right people in place, a solid collective vision will form and the motivation will come from within. I can think of no better model for PD than to have teachers drive their own learning.

Technology is an Accelerator, not a Deciding Factor

All of the good-to-great companies mentioned in the book made use of technology to become great, but they didn't use technology for technology's sake. They didn't jump on technology bandwagons and try to harness each new fad as it came about. Instead, they looked at how technology could help them answer their driving questions, or help them achieve their big, hairy, audacious goal. They were slow and deliberate, choosing only a handful of tools to focus on. Mastering those, they were able to skyrocket to "great" status.

I was reminded of this graphic that a colleague and I used in some of our board-level PD this past year:
What we do with technology has to have the end goal in mind. We're not using it because it's there - we're using it because it makes a good lesson even better. Next year, what technological tools will I use to help me reach my goals? And how can I introduce the right technology into collaborative inquiry projects so as to help those teachers achieve great things?

Wherein Lie my Passions?

The last chapter of the book is one of the most motivational. Collins talks about how while these ideas can take a company from good to great, they can also be applied to other endeavours: coaching, small business, volunteering. He asks, what other areas of your life can be made great using these same concepts?

I'm passionate about my work, but that's not all. I'm passionate about my gymnastics team. How can I make use of the three circles to come up with a Hedgehog concept and a BHAG for the team next year? We're on the right track, having won a provincial championship last season, but now I'm looking to build on that momentum. What questions should we, the coaches, focus on as we look to expand on our successes?

I'm also passionate about singing. I'm not looking to become the BEST singer, or even a "great" singer, but I am always looking to improve. I wonder how I can use a pared down version of the three questions to choose a method of improving my technique and sound over the course of the next concert season?

There's a lot more to think about yet, particularly how I can help coach these new project teams in the fall, but it's great to have a framework with which I can help take those teams from good to great.

What are you reading this summer?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Creating Mental Bedrock

I was speaking with a colleague a little while back, when the topic of conversation turned to changes in the focus of education. How important is it, we discussed, to have students learn and master basic concepts in elementary school? Things like multiplication tables, core vocabulary, or common calculations.

He shared an interesting metaphor on building knowledge that resonated with me, not the least of which because it was geological!

He suggested that building up one's base knowledge is like creating mental bedrock. Bedrock is created by layers of sand and sediment being superimposed on each other over time, usually underwater. When the sand is initially laid down, it's still free to move around - some of it could be swept away by turbulent water, or disturbed by a fish swimming by. We can imagine this sand as new bits of knowledge when we first come across them.

But over time, as we learn more things and use those bits of knowledge in different ways (connecting them to other pieces of knowledge in other disciplines, say), more sand gets laid down on top of the previous layers. Only after lots of sand gets added, and we have the pressure of the water above it (lots of practice or use of that original knowledge), do those formative layers of sand harden and become bedrock - rock so hard that it is nearly impossible to chip away... a far cry from the easily-moved sand when it was originally laid down.

The top layers, my colleague argued, were the new knowledge we are continually gaining every day. It might sit in place in our brain for a bit, or it might get swept away if we don't use it regularly. But all that new knowledge is held up by the mental bedrock underneath it: knowledge that now comes to us quickly because of years of use and experience.

I like the idea that building this bedrock of knowledge takes time and effort. You can't just learn something once to have it stick - it has to be revisited, reconsidered, and re-applied. Mastering something new isn't always easy, but if we can persevere and work through the initial learning curve, what we end up with becomes, if I may say so, rock solid.

The question then becomes: how thick should our base layer of bedrock be? How can we, as teachers, continually reinforce what students have previously learned so that one day it comes easily to them? In a world where all sorts of basic knowledge is at everyone's fingertips, how can we make sure our students have a good foundation upon which to build future masteries?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Teachers: What are you Learning?

At the end of May, a group of educators from across the province came together in Wikwemikong to launch a writing project aimed at giving principals the tools for becoming leaders of learning in online environments.

Though online curriculum is, course-by-course, the same as what is taught in-class, there are obviously different practices at play when a teacher potentially never sees their students face-to-face. Our task was to look at how an eLearning teacher's teaching practices could be assessed by their local administrators. 

When principals walk into a traditional classroom, they can immediately pick out what is working well, and what might need some help/encouragement/leadership to change. But can a principal walk into an online "classroom" (be it a Google Classroom, a D2L shell, blog, etc.) and make the same assessments?

We started by looking at the five domains of the provincial Teacher Performance Appraisal (TPA), and the competencies associated with them. We refined and "e-ified" the competencies, and arrived at 10 questions that principals could ask their teachers (or teachers could ask of themselves) to assess their online teaching practices.

(This week, we have gathered again as a group to really examine these questions, pare down the "big ideas" behind them, and create a resource that both teachers and administrators can use to better their practice.)

Throughout the original process, there were two big questions which - though refined during our brainstorming process - really stood out to me as questions ALL teachers (online or not) should be asking themselves:

What are you learning?

How do you share what you are learning?

Two simple questions that pack a lot of reflective punch. 

There's value in reflecting on the culture of teaching as a culture of learning, be it learning to lead, or co-learning content with our students. As teachers, take a moment to ask yourself these questions (as I find I'm also asking myself): 

  • When was the last time you learned something new as it applies to teaching? 
  • When was the last time you tried something new in the classroom based on something you learned/read/heard about/experimented with? 
  • Are you learning on a regular basis, or only occasionally? 
  • Are you learning on purpose, or do you pick up new ideas passively? 
  • Are you learning as much as you'd like to be learning?
  • What could you do to learn more?

And if you are learning, can we learn along with you?

  • Do other teachers in your school know what you are doing? (And oppositely, do you know what your colleagues are doing?)
  • Do you have a digital portfolio?
  • Do you keep a blog of what you're learning and trying (both what works and what doesn't)?
  • Do you use social media to share?
  • If you aren't sharing, why not?

Check out what other Ontario educators are learning and sharing - there are great lists of Ontario edubloggers here and here. And if you learn something new, pass it along...