A Principal's Reflections

Reflections on teaching, learning, and leadership.
  1. A great deal of time is spent developing and providing feedback on lessons with the goal being student learning. Regardless of the terminology that is used, virtually every plan follows a format to help achieve this outcome. As I have discussed previously, the anticipatory set at the beginning and closure at the end are critical strategies that can assist any teacher or administrator in determining the efficacy of a lesson. More importantly, both serve the needs of learners in terms of overreaching purpose. As much as these elements are critical to effective instructional design, what’s more vital are continuous checks to determine if students understand.



    Checking for understanding consists of specific points during the lesson or task when the teacher checks to see if the students understand the concept or steps and how to enact them to achieve the target. It clarifies the purpose of the learning, can be leveraged as a mechanism for feedback and can provide valuable information that can be used to modify the lesson. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey offer the following thoughts on why this strategy is pivotal to lesson success:
    Checking for understanding is an important step in the teaching and learning process. The background knowledge that students bring into the classroom influences how they understand the material you share and the lessons or learning opportunities you provide. Unless you check for understanding, it is difficult to know exactly what students are getting out of the lesson. In fact, checking for understanding is part of a formative assessment system in which teachers identify learning goals, provide students feedback, and then plan instruction based on students' errors and misconceptions. Hattie and Timperley (2007) identified these phases as feed-up, feedback, and feed-forward. Note that checking for understanding is an important link between feed-up and the feedback students receive as well as the future lessons teachers plan.
    Why does checking for understanding matter so much? Consider this from Dylan William:
    "Does the teacher find out whether students have understood something when they [students] are still in the class, when there is time to do something about it?" 
    Now let's talk about some sound strategies. Formative assessment at the end of the lesson is a no-brainer. This can be incorporated as a part of a closure, monitoring during cooperative learning or individual work, independent practice (worksheet questions, problem-set, writing task), or through the use of technology. One of my favorite edtech tools to accomplish this, where higher levels of thinking can be measured, is Formative. While all of these are great options to determine whether or not learning has occurred by the end of a class, I want to focus on some simple and easy to implement ideas that can help check for understanding throughout a lesson.

    Questions, questions, and more questions are a rule of thumb. Asking, working with, and answering questions is at the heart of facilitating learning. Learning must be an active process. Asking a question is an action. In my role as I coach, I almost always see teachers asking questions. The key here, though, is to make sure that they are focused not just on the recall of knowledge and facts, but whether kids genuinely understand the concept being addressed. 


    Posing verbal questions to students throughout a lesson goes without saying and should be done consistently. Some students will raise their hands while others will be randomly called upon. In other cases, a few might be selected to go to the board and solve problems while the others watch. However, how does one know if all the kids actually understand? Below are three easy to implement strategies to improve checks for understanding in ways that ensure all kids have the opportunity to respond to verbal questions:

    • Provide each student with access to an individual dry-erase whiteboard to respond.
    • Purchase desks or tables that have a dry-erase surface
    • Use available technology. Some of my favorite tools include Pear Deck, Nearpod, and Padlet, where the teacher can see each individual student's response. They also cater to the answering or open-ended questions.  Then there are game-based options such as Kahoot, Quizizz, QuizWhizzer, and Gimkit. Other tools such as Menitmeter and AnswerGarden, allow for whole-class participation in a more informal manner. If there is not equitable access to technology, then Plickers is your best bet.  

    The above strategies represent three practical options to improve checks for understanding that involve all learners. Therein lies the key point of this post. All means all. 
  2. There are many opinions as to what constitutes effective leadership, something that I have written about extensively over the years. However, my perspective is just from one lens. I often pose a question on what is it that great leaders do in the workshops I facilitate, and many consistent characteristics emerge. Some of the top responses where there is consensus include communicate, listen, innovate, have a vision, risk-taking, and focus on relationships. It is tough to argue that any of these are not necessary when it comes to successfully implementing change. Success, however, lies in a leader's confidence and execution to move people where they need to be through empowerment.

    Great leaders who empower those they work with are confident. Poor ones are insecure. Lolly Daskal wrote a fascinating article highlighting the characteristics that embody the insecure leader. She identified the following seven characteristics:
    • Shying away from challenges
    • Positioning yourself to look good
    • Aversion to helping others grow
    • Disrespect for others
    • Being a know-it-all
    • Staying behind a closed door
    • Refusing to handle conflicts


    After reading the article, I reflected on a story that an educator recently shared with me. The gist of it was about a statement that was made by his principal, where a shot was taken at the predecessor. During a meeting with the staff to open up the new school year a statement was made something to this effect (disclosure – I am not using the real name), "I am not going to throw many things up against the wall like Mr. Smith did and see what sticks." Not a very motivational way to open up the school year, in my opinion. What was more troubling was how the statement made the educator and his colleagues feel as the consensus was that the statement portrayed the principal's lack of ability to implement his own agenda. Comments like this that either place blame or undermine previous administrators bring to light leadership insecurities.

    A confident leader would not have made a statement like that. The story above falls into the know-it-all and disrespect category. Here are som of Daskal's thoughts.
    Insecure leaders are petrified of coming across as insignificant or incompetent, so they overcompensate by pretending they know it all. They rarely ask questions--and when they do, they almost never wait for the answer.

    When you're insecure, you work hard to gain respect for yourself--sometimes even by belittling others to put yourself ahead. If you feel inadequate, disrespecting others can help elevate your own status. 
    The bottom line here is that insecure leaders point blame everywhere but themselves. If change doesn't stick or is not embraced by staff, the insecure leader then passes the blame to others both internally and externally.  Needless to say, this is not healthy for school culture. How a leader deals with a lack of confidence speaks volumes about his or her ability to inspire, motivate, and empower staff as well as to lead sustainable change. There are practical ways to build confidence. The Vantage Consulting blog highlights the following dispositions that leaders should practice to accomplish a confidence boost:

    • Courage
    • Humility
    • Teachableness
    • Clarity
    • Engaging conflict
    • Being a facilitator of others' success 


    When it is all said and done, the buck stops with the leader. Confident leaders help to build the confidence of the staff. When times get tough, it's easy to point the blame elsewhere. Real leaders own their culture, for better or for worse. If it is the latter, then they take the needed actions to get the ship right.

  3. There are many pedagogical techniques that run the gambit when it comes to instruction and learning. In a previous post, I discussed the importance of opening lessons with a bang, using an anticipatory set. Whether you call it a set, hook, or bell ringer is not the issue. What is, though, is the value the strategy has as part of a comprehensive lesson. Here’s why:
    The anticipatory set is used to prepare learners for the lesson or task by setting their minds for instruction or learning. This is achieved by asking a question, adding a relevant context, or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, and initiate the learning process. A good do-now activity can accomplish this.
    While the opening moments with students are crucial, so are the final minutes. Think about this for a second. What’s the point of an objective or learning target, whether stated, on the board, or students have the opportunity to later discover for themselves, if there is no opportunity at the end to determine if it was met or reflected upon? Closure matters, yet virtually every lesson I observe in schools across the country are missing the crucial component. Here’s why. Learning increases when lessons are concluded in a manner that helps students organize and remember the point of the lesson. Closure draws attention to the end of the lesson, helps students organize their learning, reinforces the significant aspects of the lesson, allows students to practice what is learned, and provides an opportunity for feedback, review, and reflective thinking.



    Kathy Ganske provides this take.
    As in a puzzle, an effective lesson has many pieces that must fit together. We typically give considerable thought to how we initiate lessons: activate or build background knowledge, teach essential vocabulary, engage learners, and set a purpose for the lesson. And we carefully select tasks or activities and texts for use during the lesson. But closure is often given short shrift or omitted entirely. We need to be sure we plan time to cycle back to the what, why, and how of students’ learning to help them actively synthesize the parts into a whole. Lesson closure provides space for students to digest and assimilate their learning and to realize why it all matters. Closure is a component of planning and teaching that we can't afford to leave out.
    A Google search will turn up a slew of ideas on how to close lessons. I prefer to keep it simple. First, make sure it is planned for and that at least three to five minutes are set-aside at the end of every period or block. Second, consider the following questions that students should answer or reflect upon in relation to the objective or learning target.

    • What exactly did I learn?
    • Why did we learn this?
    • How will I use what was learned today outside of school, and how does it connect to the real world?

    Whether exit tickets, journals, whiteboards, or technology are used doesn’t really matter. What does is that closure is prioritized.
  4. Storytelling has quickly become a vital leadership tool in the digital age, something that I have written extensively about in Digital Leadership. Social media and a variety of other technologies allow for the mash-up of text, hyperlinks, audio, images, and video to craft compelling narratives that showcase all that is great in education. The tools we now have available allow for the creation of supercharged stories that can be shared with a vast audience near and far. For these reasons, it is crucial for educators to become the storyteller-in-chief to not only share but, more importantly, to celebrate the work that is done in schools across the globe.

    So, what makes a great story? There are many pieces of advice out there that one can peruse through a Google search. However, I believe the image below captures the essence of what not only makes a good story but one that also effectively conveys a powerful message that caters to your stakeholders or a specific group you are targeting.


    Let’s take a look at each of these elements that together create a blueprint for a great story.

    Audience

    It is essential to know for whom you are writing. Depending on your position, this will vary, of course. I like this point from Crystaline Randazzo:
    But the truth is you have to give people the kind of content they want in order to keep their attention. And in order to give them what they want, you need to get to know them better. Once you start giving your target audience content they want, they are more inclined to engage with your other content.
    Knowing what your audience cares about or is interested in is key, but it is equally as important to listen and understand what they want to hear and how they want to engage in the story. The act of listening will allow you to create a message that has more meaning. Consider their goals and priorities, not just yours. Doing some research on who you are trying to reach and why will also go a long way to crafting an impactful story.

    Subtlety 

    How you tell a story will make or break it. No one likes bragging — even those who humblebrag stick out like a sore thumb. The key to a great story in education is to make sure the message resonates in a way that doesn’t turn the audience off. To avoid this, make sure you follow the golden rule, which is “show, not tell” from multiple perspectives. Subtleness creates the conditions for more two-way dialogue

    Inspiration

    It goes without saying that for a story to be remembered and have an impact, it should be inspirational. Tapping into emotions is part art and part science that dramatically impacts not only a connection to the message but also more of a willingness to share it. An article in Scientific American sums it up nicely:
    Stories stimulating positive emotions are more widely shared than those eliciting negative feelings, and content that produces greater emotional arousal (making your heart race) is more likely to go viral. This means that content that makes readers or viewers feel a positive emotion like awe or wonder is more likely to take off online than content that makes people feel sad or angry.
    Truth

    It is easy in today’s digital world to vet anything, including the content, ideas, points, and strategies inherent in any story. Honesty is a virtue, and a lack thereof will discredit both the message and the person conveying it. In other cases, many stories in education just share a positive outcome or point. While this definitely caters to a particular audience, being truthful about the journey and the challenges that are overcome along the will only strengthen the narrative. Substance and results matter in education, and stories should convey as much. 

    Promise

    In BrandED, we discuss the importance of delivering on a promise to those we serve, most notably our learners. We define this as a compelling core connection to the value educators, school, or district guarantees to their community.  It’s about benefits, not features, that have a unique value and that work to develop pivotal connections with your target audience. So, what does this really mean? Below is an excellent synopsis from Emotive Brand that I have edited slightly:
    A contemporary promise articulates an idea that goes beyond the rational benefits that worked in the past and extols a higher-order emotional reward. It’s not a slogan, logo, or headline. It is not, by definition, a public statement (though it can be as long as you and the work truly live up to it). Indeed, its uniqueness and differentiating power comes not from what it says, but how it transforms the way you or your school creates strong and meaningful connections with people.
    What the above statement conveys is the blueprint of a great story and how the promise establishes and sustains relationships. The best way to integrate this is to dive into your vision and think about how you can combine mission, goals, personality, values, and results in a deliverable story for stakeholders. 

    As you begin to embrace or improve in your role as storyteller-in-chief, I hope this blueprint helps. In the words of the America Press Institute:
    A good story is about something the audience decides is interesting or important. A great story often does both by using storytelling to make important news, information, ideas, and events interesting. A good story, however, does more than inform or amplify. It adds value to the topic.
    You build relationships by making good stories great. 
  5. There are many factors that inhibit change. In some cases, comfort is the enemy of growth. We teach the way we were taught or lead the way we were led. Now I am not saying that this is bad per se, but the bottom line is whether or not the practice is effective. The same could be said for the status quo. Doing what we have always done might seem like a sound path forward if the results you are judged on are good or increasing. Herein lies one of the most prominent challenges schools and educators face, and that is perceived success based on traditional metrics and methodologies. 

    Achievement is great, but it is one piece of the puzzle. How the structure and function of a learning culture lead to improvements in achievement and outcomes is where change efforts should be focused. This leads to the point of my post. Where is your learning culture? Think about this question in the context of the world where your learners will need to thrive and survive. Will they have not just the skills, but the competencies to succeed in a world that is in constant flux? 


    New jobs and fields require learners to be both dynamic thinkers and doers where they have the competence to think in complex ways and to readily apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, learners can use extensive experience and expertise to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. As I have written in the past, we are well into the 4th Industrial Revolution characterized by automation, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and disruptive innovation. Seismic shifts in the society and the world of work compel us to take a critical lens to our practice, as improvement is a never-ending endeavor.

    So how do we begin to transform culture? The journey starts with being honest about where you are in order to chart a path forward to get to the place you want to be. Reflection is a powerful tool for growth. Take a look at the image below and reflect on it for a minute or two.

    Image credit: Awaken Group Revolutions

    Where does the culture of your school fit into these categories, and why? Think about what needs to happen to make needed shifts to practice that aligns with the 4th Industrial Revolution. Success, in terms of achievement only, can, at times, be a mirage. A learning culture should best prepare kids to meet the demands inherent in the new world of work. The first leg of the process is being honest about where you are.