Monday, March 18, 2013

The Habits of Effective Administrators

1.    Balance management with leadership.
School administration involves both management duties and leadership opportunities. The management side tends to be the stuff that one has to do. Leadership is the stuff that one chooses to do. It’s very important as an educational administrator (especially a rookie) to remember these two things i) to be a leader you need followers and ii) to gain followers one must complete management duties in a timely and efficient manner. Teachers will not care what you have to say about educational leadership if you don’t manage effectively.
2.  Envision the ideal, but focus on the doable.
Effective school leaders have a vision of what their “ultimate” school looks like. This vision helps create the culture and atmosphere of the schools in which they work. But a clear path directly to this goal is rarely, if ever, discernible. Leaders must pick their way toward this goal one small step at a time, focusing on ideas and changes that can be implemented now, ones that may take a year or two and ones that may take 5 years. The ideal is never achieved because it always evolves, but it’s the incremental changes made working toward the ideal that improve learning for students.
3. Act as a representative for the missing voice.
A big part of being an administrator is helping sort out other people’s conflicts. Parents will come to complain about teachers, teachers about kids, kids about teachers etc. With interpersonal issues, getting one side of the story never suffices in shedding enough light on the situation, of course it’s imperative to get views from all possible sides in these matters. But in the interim, while listening to the initial report of any conflict, effective leaders try to understand the missing person’s point of view, and keep that in their mind as the discussion progresses. Adopting and, where necessary, representing the missing person’s point of view helps in keeping the discussion focused and moving toward settlement. Too readily accepting the initial complaint at face value often leads to more awkward situations later on.
4. Listen and interpret.
People will usually say what they mean, but often mean more than what has actually been said. Often they’re simply shy about “sharing everything”. A student who admits to going to bed too late can be expressing numerous things, from anxiety issues to more esoteric ailments like “screen addiction”. A teacher complaining about too much marking may be asking for help in planning or looking for ways to work more efficiently. Effective administrators pick up on this and, using communication techniques such as paraphrasing, try to elicit the full meaning of what is being communicated. It’s only after frank discussions with all necessary information available that effective feedback, and help where necessary, can be provided.
5. Reflect constantly.
After every action, interaction and decision, the best administrators will always ask “How could that have been done better?” Whether something has gone extremely well, or the flaws in planning and/or execution were evident for all to see, a cycle of constant reflection upon their work allows these administrators to improve their practice every day.
6. Plan for your own departure.
It’s nice to think of one’s self as indispensible, but the aim of an effective administrator should be the opposite. After all, the essence of true leadership is building capacity within an organization.  If there’s a process or procedure that’s important to the running of a school, strong administrators will ensure that they are not the only people within the building capable of completing the task.  Whether it’s something as mundane as turning off the bells for a holiday or as complex as building a timetable, building redundancy into the system is a critical part of creating a robust and sustainable leadership structure.
7. Improving student learning is our sole guiding principle.
This may seem like a truism, but nevertheless we often find ourselves asking “What’s best for ________?”. I’ve seen this simple question work miracles, from diffusing extremely tense conversations with both teachers and parents, to kick-starting what seems like a stalled professional development conversation. Everyone in the field of education works from the premise that we’re here to help students, we all just need to be reminded once in a while.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Ideal of Intrinsic Motivation for All Learners

Here's a question we don't think about often enough. "What motivates students to be engaged at school?"  The answers to this vary dramatically and have a huge impact on each and every student.

Let's start with the obvious line of answers. "everyone goes to school," or "everyone needs an education in this day and age".  Though there is a certain amount of truth to these cliched responses I would posit two thoughts.  First, though yes, most jobs do now require at least a high school education or the equivalent, there are ever increasing ways to achieve "the equivalent" without spending days in the traditional bricks and mortar secondary school.  Second, and most importantly, if one of these "'cuz everyone does it" type of responses is the best reason a young person can present for going to school, it's no wonder these same kids do not engage and simply do school because school is the done thing.

Senior students often invoke the "I have to do well at school in order to get into university" mantra when asked about reasons for attending and doing well.  This can be a genuine motivational factor, especially around here where the familial and social expectation is academic and career success.  But again, is this the answer we really want when we pose that question?  Doing well simply to get to the next level is fine when playing video games, but it hardly seems inspirational as an educational goal for a secondary school student.

There are myriad other reasons students give for attending school, all of them valid.  As with any question around motivation, answers to this question can be divided into two categories: intrinsic reasons for attending school and extrinsic reasons.  By now many people will have read Dan Pink's book Drive or at least viewed the related TED Talk, so most people understand that extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are not equal.  Intrinsic motivators have a profoundly greater effect on engagement, it's through intrinsic interests that people achieve great things, including great learning.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this phenomenon of total intrinsic engagement in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  The ideal class would have every student engaged in productive, stimulating and interesting work 100% of the time.  Of course that's purely an ideal, but ideals can act as guides and though I believe that with the BCEdplan we're headed in the right direction here in British Columbia, there are many education systems which still rely too heavily, and to an increasing degree, on extrinsic motivators to entice kids to engage in school.

Prevalent assessment practices are probably the most obvious example of how we rely too heavily on extrinsic motivators.  As long as we evaluate more than we assess and as long as we provide grades more often than we provide feedback, student motivation will come from the collection of this "currency" that we call marks.  Those richest in this currency will be afforded the best opportunities come the end of high unfortunate but true fact of life as things stand.  We've all run across the students who are "mark sharks" these are the kids who focus solely on their grades, often to the detriment of true learning.  But they're simply the ones who have truly taken to heart our message that good grades, as opposed to quality learning, are the primary goal of our systems.

There are also more subtle ways in which our current paradigms hinder the incubation of intrinsic motivation.  Whether it's being forced to teach to standardized tests or being bound by overly prescriptive curricula, teachers are often restricted in what they do in the classroom.  Prescribing curricular content any more than absolutely necessary robs teachers, and students, of the freedom to choose material that truly engages and inspires them.  Rather than demanding that teachers "cover" material, to be of much relevance for the future our goals must be focused around higher order thinking outcomes, leaving as much of the choice of course material as possible to the teachers, and the students to decide for themselves.  This will facilitate far greater engagement and hence far greater intrinsic motivation amongst students.

Lack of motivation is the reason that any of us quit anything, school is no exception. Extrinsic motivation is far preferable to no motivation at all, we've all needed it to get us through one thing or another.  But extrinsic motivators don't get student truly engaged in their learning.  They make school analogous to a's something that has to be done.  If we want our systems to be as strong as they can possibly be we need to talk about and explicitly foster an intrinsic motivation in each of our students.  Only students who are intrinsically motivated to be engaged in school will end up truly challenged, enriched, energized and ultimately fulfilled by their experience.  Yes it's an ideal, but it's worth keeping in mind.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The BCEdplan: I like what I've seen so far.

For the people of BC, particularly those in education, the existence of the BCEdplan is old news by now.  After getting off to a bit of a shaky start thanks to some unfortunate timing (the roll out coincided with teacher job action)  and the premature publication of some tentative and unrealistic timeline goals (which have since disappeared) the plan seems to be gaining genuine momentum.  Most tellingly, people and bodies who had initially been skeptical of the plan (many of them reflexively) have been increasingly silent as time has passed.  I can't help but take this as a sign that the open and collaborative approach being taken by the ministry is gaining converts.

The ministry has been actively seeking feedback using discussion forums on the web as well as hosting a series of feedback gathering sessions in numerous regions across the province.  Having helped organize the session in Richmond, and collate the feedback, I experienced first hand the genuine interest of our community in the directions that public education will be taking in the future.  All the feedback gathered so far has been summarized here.  Reading this report, I realized that the silence from those who had previously been naysayers in this process stems from the fact that the ideas expressed and the proposals being aired make sense.  In other words, there's been precious little to argue against.  I'm particularly heartened by this sentence from the "Next Steps" section;

"We recognize that transforming our education system involves more than just giving you a space to talk and then writing fancy reports. We must also act on what you’ve told us.  And we’re doing that."

Those who know me understand that it's my nature to be, shall we say, "suspicious" of government initiatives, especially as they pertain to education.  With that on the table I do have to admit that I've been very impressed thus far with the openness and candour with which the Ministry of Education has approached this initiative.  And though I don't often use "the T word" the direction that the ministry is taking promises to be truly transformational for the education system and for future students in the province.

The wholly unofficial word on the street is that it will be at least another two years before this plan is presented as a cohesive whole, and that's a good thing.  Reimagining and transforming something as large as a public education system, particularly given the stubborn tenacity of some of our industrial age structures and paradigms, does not come quickly or easily.  There are still far more questions than there are answers, and given the ever changing nature of society's expectations of education, I don't imagine that we'll ever have all the answers.  But if the ministry remains dedicated to this process, as the quote above would seem to indicate, then whatever's coming promises to be challenging, exciting and, to some "traditionalists", a little worrying.

Friday, March 1, 2013

6 Common Misunderstandings About Assessment and Evaluation

Over the past two decades there has been a lot written, and much discussion, around the use effective use of assessment in the classroom.  Unfortunately many educators, particularly at the secondary school level, continue to cling tenaciously to “traditional” practices which are, at best ineffective and at worst, counterproductive to the goals of modern education.  Here are six common misconceptions about assessment and evaluation that we need to abolish.
1.    “Assessment and evaluation are the same.”  No they’re not! Too many people, particularly those not employed in the field of education, conflate these two and too often within the field we evaluate student work and tell ourselves that what we’ve done is assessment.  Assessment involves timely, detailed  feedback based around clearly defined learning outcomes.  Evaluation is “giving a grade” to a piece of work, usually based on normative criteria, but too often in comparison to the work of other students.
2.    “Most assessment is summative.”  Well, unfortunately that may still be true in many quarters, but it should not be.  As we’ve learned over the past two decades or so assessment can be a very powerful learning tool in and of itself.  As Dylan Wiliam has been saying for years, we need to constantly assess both student work and our own teaching, adjusting as we go, such that by the time we get to the end of a unit of study students have already had an opportunity to rethink and revise their work.  There are still far too many teachers who rely too heavily on one single summative assessment at the end of each unit and then move onto another topic no matter the outcomes.
3.    “Assessment is one way communication, the teacher gives feedback on student work”.  Well, yes that’s true, but the most productive assessment should be a dialogue.  In traditional assessment and evaluation models students complete a task, the teacher assesses the work and tells the student how they’ve done and, in formative cases, how to improve the work.  But when students engage with the teacher to discuss work, talk about what they’ve done and why, both student and teacher stand to gain far more from the experience.  Modern technology makes two way communication between teacher and student much easier and far more ubiquitous, let’s start using it more effectively.
4.    “Assessment is for grading purposes.”  This is one of the most pervasive and potentially damaging holdovers from bygone eras in education.  Yes, final grades should reflect some of what has gone on between student and teacher regarding assessment.  But the “collecting of marks” to arrive at the final grade is counterproductive in many ways, here are just two.  First, the collation marks too often includes work which was done before students had mastered the material.  As has been said by others, when we redo things like driving tests we don’t “average” the results, why do we do this with school work.  Secondly, every teacher, especially in secondary schools, is aware of how the pursuit of ‘marks’ often distracts students’ focus from the work at hand.  This is doubly damaging because neuroscience is telling us that brains under stress from external stimuli can have significantly diminished learning capacity.
5.    “Student work should be given a mark”.  In summative situations, or where marks are necessary, this assertion is true.  But too often we put a mark on student work when we’re hoping to use the work formatively, which is a mistake.  As soon as students see a grade on a piece of work, be it a letter or number grade, the focus is immediately taken off of any meaningful feedback and, in the student’s mind, that piece of work is complete.  It’s time to move on.  No matter what the teacher intends grades imply a finality that’s hard to overcome in students’ minds.
6.    “If assignments are late I deduct marks.  There is no pedagogically defensible reason for doing this.  This is simply trying to modify behaviour using coercion through grades.  There is nothing wrong with having some consequence for late work, but the assignment of grades (when necessary) should reflect student learning, nothing more.  Put another way, if a student hands in work worthy of an A today, is that work somehow different if it were handed in tomorrow?

My experience has been that when teachers rethink and reform their views about what assessment is about, and what its primary purposes are, their feedback is invariably positive.  When we pry the “mark book” out of the collective hand of those in the teaching profession, and allow individual teachers the freedom to use assessment in more productive ways, we find that assessment becomes far more authentic and fruitful and far less about the drudgery (and judgment) of marking.