Recently, there has been an increase in the sense of urgency in our school district around the notion of improvement in student achievement. Some of these conversations have been motivating in nature as educators we are asking ourselves if we are truly seeing the impact of our work on student achievement (above that which is expected to be gained each year) – asking ourselves, as Hattie suggests, to evaluate if the impact is equitable and valid, and the magnitude of that impact (Hattie, High Impact Leadership, ASCD, 2015). These educators see themselves as agents of change and are attempting to determine increasingly effective practices for their learners. As a learning leader I am fitting myself into this group as I review data from this past year in an effort to determine if the work that we engaged in is the “right work” and if we have, as Katz and Dack (2013) has taught us, been focusing on our fundamental and most urgent challenge of practice. Some of our fellow Leadership Learning Team educators have been asking critical questions about making lasting change occur in our district, thus providing us with some feedback about where they see our system currently at. They have asked questions such as:
How do I help pendulum people fully engage in practicing the Conditions for Learning?
Why are some people more resistant to change than others?
Why are some people struggling to realize that we need to change our practice as our students have changed?
How do I help educators to be motivated themselves?
I sincerely appreciate these questions as the leaders, both informal and formal, are demonstrating their learner mindsets and their desire to see change occur. These questions, combined with my blog posts from the last couple of weeks have led me to think deeply about the relationship between professional learning, motivation, teacher efficacy and ultimately, how authentic and permanent change happens in our learning environments.
Consequently, I have started to enhance my own learning around these topics. I revised the “Teaching Effectiveness Framework” from May of 2009 (available online), as this document spells out for us five core principles that provide a foundation for an effective teaching practices framework. I see this document as critical as it outlines what our professional target should be as educators – this is where we want each of our learning environments and our learners to be – this is the ultimate goal. As learners and people who are immersed in a changing system, we need to know what “success” looks like – as I articulated in my previous post about the need for “success criteria”. Knowing what success looks like and sounds perhaps helps to motivate us as we can now see where we are heading, can engage in our own personal self-assessment, and can set goals for our own individual growth/improvement. As the School Effectiveness Lead, it is important to note that our “Ontario School Effectiveness Framework” can be used in a similar way; however I chose to use this document due to its simplicity and the fact that the Five Core Teaching Practices have been articulated in a useful rubric.
Five Core Teaching Practices
- Effective teaching practice begins with the thoughtful and intentional design of learning that engages students intellectually and academically.
- The work that students are asked to undertake is worthy of their time and attention, is personally relevant, and deeply connected to the world in which they live.
- Assessment practices are clearly focused on improving student learning and guiding teaching decisions and actions.
- Teachers foster a culture of interdependent relationships in classrooms that promote learning and create a strong culture around learning.
- Teachers improve their practice in the company of peers.
As a district, we have discussed each of these core teaching practices on a number of occasions and in a number of professional learning groups. Our Conditions for Learning are embedded and reflected throughout these practices and need to be put into place if we are going to be successful at achieving these practices. These practices remind me of what it means to have a “Learner Centered Environment and Pedagogy”. However the questions from above still remain, why are we struggling to achieve these core teaching practices? What are our educators telling us?
At this time, we have evidence that some educators (let me be clear – we have many educators who are deeply entrenched in the change process) are seemingly resisting changes that research has shown are important for our students and for student achievement. Some have stated that they are “waiting for the swing of the pendulum”. As we try to understand this stance, Willingham, (2009, in Katz and Dack, 2013) reminds us that we are “far better programmed for survival than for learning” (pg. 16) and that we will avoid change by nature. “In fact, people regularly commit “thinking errors” (Stanovich, 2009) to trick themselves into preserving the status quo of beliefs, understandings and practices.” (pg. 16) “People have a natural propensity to surround themselves with others who are similar to them and tell then what they want to hear. In contrast, they put distance between themselves and those who would likely challenge their cognitively comfortable status quo.” (pg. 16) Muhammad, in Transforming School Culture (2009) names this group as the Fundamentalists as their goal is to maintain the status quo (pg.30). “Fundamentalists are staff members who are not only opposed to change, but organize to resist and thwart any change initiative. They can wield tremendous political power and are a major obstacle in implementing meaningful school reform.” (Muhammad, pg. 29)
Muhammad (2009) also describes three other types of educators and what their goals are: the Believer aims for academic success for every student (and the Fundamentalists actively work against them); the Tweener wants organizational stability as they are usually new to the school and are trying to learn the norms and expectations of the school’s culture, and potentially may leave the school quickly as they are not tied to the community; while the Survivors have emotional and mental survival as their focus – they are educators who are “so overwhelmed by the demands of the profession that they suffer from depression and merely survive from day to day” (pg. 29). In our small schools with few staff members, how do we help all educators, from the Fundamentalists to the Tweeners, to understand that change is necessary …without losing our sense of efficacy? How do we help them to shift totally into the “learner mindset” that is necessary to break downs the barriers that seem to crop up? Muhammed (2009) suggests that each group requires a different approach to be supported through change. How are we, as leaders, helping to support each of these members of our team so that we can achieve our goal of a culture of learning for all?
I think that we need to begin by understanding and acknowledging that learning is difficult and that the urgent learning that is involved in this change that we need to undertake as described in the Five Core Teaching Practices is uncomfortable, messy and will take time. Katz and Dack (2013) tell us that, “when people start to get that dissonance or discomfort, their temptation is often to interpret the feeling as a sign that something is wrong. Instead, they need to learn to embrace the feeling and understand it as a signal that something is right. In other words, that feeling means that learning is coming!” (pg. 21) This is a critical piece of the culture of learning that we are trying to establish with our Conditions for Learning; in all learning environments, we are asking learners to be risk takers and to share their thinking as we need to put this thinking to the test. It is only through this type of discourse that we are going to make real and substantial change. We have work to do, work that needs to be increasingly “personalized” to support those “learners” who require it. Muhammed’s work helps us to begin planning for this.
Until next week…teacher efficacy is another critical piece!