As a passionate learner and teacher, I deeply embrace the power and import of being reflective. Additionally, I am a veracious consumer of pedagogical, developmental, and psychological (child and culture focused) content which I love sharing, discussing, and “wrestling with” with my team. The combinations of these two characteristics leads to a fairly steady flow of reflective dialogues with teachers about curriculum and instruction, relationship building and connections, and personal growth plans and goals. These continued interactions, combined with tangible shifts in student assignments, activities, and learning, give my insight and feedback as to how my leadership is impacting the school. But how do I really know?
The impetus for this post came, when I was reading a reflection one of our teachers posted as part of their personal professional development plan focusing on Eportfolios. While I am only one piece of the administrative team she refers to, I could not help but reflect personally on how my impact and my vision was being heard and/or actualized.
“Over the past several years, the overarching culture of the school seems to have been in transition. As subject area teams re-evaluate curriculum content and delivery methods, the administrative team is directing the “ship” to navigate new waters that are project based, student centered, and technologically advanced. Pappas’ Taxonomy of Reflection reminds that each of us, at all levels, must be engaged in the reflective process for the effectiveness of meta-cognition to guide us. We must be constantly stepping back to evaluate and assess whether what WE’RE doing is providing effective learning experiences and opportunities. Dr. Arthur Ellis, in his outstanding lecture on reflective learning, reminds us that modeling the behavior is more critical than implementation in the classroom. Ellis provides excellent strategies for teachers to begin transitioning from grade-based assessments to opportunities for regular engagement with meta-cognition. Perhaps the most valuable “side-effect” of reflection is setting up opportunities for low-achievers to become self-motivated high-achievers. The psychological make-up of our students is much too complex to simply categorize them into Dweck’s “Mindsets” and hope to change their outlook. Parental pressures for higher education based on test results and grades, developmental differences, anxiety levels all impact a student’s ability to have a growth mindset. Reflective strategies, however, enable us to get a foothold, especially in the middle grade years when the expectations for success become significantly more stringent.”
Wow…There is a lot in the short paragraph that causes me to reflect.
I believe that enhancing and caring for the culture in which our teachers, students, and community interact is one of the most essential tasks I am faced with. It is also one that is closest to my heart. I ardently strive to facilitate and foster a culture that: enables passionate teachers to feel support and appreciated so they are free to share their passion, creativity, and professionalism with students, colleagues and parents; creates a safe place where failure is recognized as a meaningful tool in the learning process; is made of members who are committed to modeling learning for students through their own continued professional growth; and, embraces dissenting opinions as great sources for data on alternative perspectives. Over the past 4 years I have met with teachers individually multiple times a year for “check-in” meetings with the hopes of addressing some of these cultural beliefs and ideals. Additionally we have brought in wonderful educators to share and learn with the administrative team and full faculty team on the topic of culture as well as creating our own learning experiences on these topics. Faculty meetings have transitioned from factual transmissions of administrative minutia into learning sessions with thought provoking and often intentionally controversial issues being discussed openly to improve mutual understanding and connection. One of the key concepts that the school has endorsed to facilitate the safe space for dissention in these meetings and in our culture is a Nondiscussables policy.
“Nondiscussables are subjects sufficiently important that they are talked about frequently but are so laden with anxiety and fearfulness that these conversations take place only in the parking lot, the rest rooms, the playground, the car pool, or the dinner table at home. Fear abounds that open discussion of these incendiary issues—at a faculty meeting, for example—will cause a meltdown. The nondiscussable is the elephant in the living room. Everyone knows that this huge pachyderm is there, right between the sofa and the fireplace, but we go on mopping and dusting and vacuuming around it as if it did not exist. The health of a school is inversely proportional to the number of nondiscussables,” (Roland Barth The Culture Builder via John D’Auria MASCD Conference December 1, 2011).”
I am not naive to the fact that nondiscussables still exist and will always exist in any culture where more than one person works, but by engaging in this agreement, far more of these are brought forward to the table where mutual perspective awareness can be reached if not mutual agreement.
Project Based, Student Centered
I am a huge proponent of the academic, social, and potential leadership benefits that project based (and social action based) learning present.
“In Project Based Learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student “voice and choice,” rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products & presentations,” (Project Based Learning for the 21st Century, BIE)”
Offering students’ opportunities to practice creativity, public speaking and time management skills in the solo and group projects are most often larger long term benefits than the content on which the project is based. By incorporating these skills in a format that often allows for student choice of presentation style and tool, student interests and talents are engaged and thus so are the students.
Group projects encompass a set of learning goals and skills of their own. While these can be difficult for some students based on the same nondiscussables and culture pieces mentioned above, as well as the maturity and developmental stages of the children engaged in them, they are important opportunities for students to practice collaboration. Very few of the projects and/or activities that I do in my adult life are done solitarily, and I believe this is likely the case for most adults. It is therefore essential that we help students navigate the potential discomforts, potential inequities, and potential communication barriers that exist in collaborative projects.
and Technologically Advanced
The goal MUST always remain the learning. Just yesterday I was discussing with a teacher his deliberation regarding incorporating more technology into his lessons. He said that each year he want to include more tech, and so he makes a list of the positives and negatives that would occur from incorporating more tech into a given unit. He said, “The issue is that, what has been working for the past four years is working, and I know I will have to substitute something out to incorporate more tech in.” He is correct. All choices come with an opportunity cost and all instructional decisions reflect decision on other directions we chose not to follow. Unfortunately, he is correct as well on the idea of substitution, as this will be the case the first year he makes the choice to integrate. That being said, the focus must be the learning. If the integration will unlock the possibility for greater, deeper, more meaningful learning, then substitution is just a phase that we must go through in integrating the technology to unlock this more permanent learning.
Our students are immersed in an ever more digital environment. It is no longer there future; it is there present. Harnessing the increased engagement, increased depth of understanding, and increased potential to connect and gain feedback from authentic and global audiences is essential for schools. This by no means advocates for elimination of books in the library and classroom, time spent outside playing in the dirt, the amazing learning that can be facilitated by a teacher sitting on the floor and reading a book with his/her class community. Tech is not the answer. Learning is.
The last two years we have be sharing Carol Dweck’s amazing work on Mindset with our teachers, parents, and students.
“Much of who you are on a day-to-day basis comes from your mindset. Your mindset is the view you have of your qualities and characteristics – where they come from and whether they can change.
These following two mindsets represent the extreme ends on either side of a spectrum.
A fixed mindset comes from the belief that your qualities are carved in stone – who you are is who you are, period. Characteristics such as intelligence, personality, and creativity are fixed traits, rather than something that can be developed.
A growth mindset comes from the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort. Yes, people differ greatly – in aptitude, talents, interests, or temperaments – but everyone can change and grow through application and experience,” (Mindset, Carol Dweck Link).
While as a society, I feel we so readily fall in to comments that enhance and continue the fixed mindset by drawing attention to results over process (“nice game” “beautiful art” “good boy”…etc), I clearly see the amazing benefit that can come from process oriented feedback that enhances the growth mindset. Recognizing the better positioning that a goalie had in a soccer game, the use of contrasting colors in a piece of art, or the way a student incorporated more complex sentences into their writing offers a student feedback on their strategies which has the potential for far greater impact on their successive attempts at that particular endeavor.
But philosophical agreement about the approach and benefit are not the challenge. How do you shift to a process oriented feedback system in a results oriented student, parental, collegiate and corporate world? I understand the dilemma the teacher raises in her reflection. The interesting, though not surprising, result of embracing a growth mindset, in which the learning and the process are the focus, is that the results wind up being better. Students who are less concerned about grades and more concerned about knowing and growing wind up performing better on the same assessments that those with fixed mindsets are perseverating on.
Where Am I Leading?
A proactive culture of honesty and transparency is not a culture of bliss. It means progressing from all is good, to a non-stop process of making learning, environment and yourself better each tomorrow. I welcome the challenges that tomorrow will bring as I know they will be lessons for my own learning, and I hope that my personal growth contributes to the team, school, and community.