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Monday, 14 April 2014

Making the Shift to “Conditions Necessary for Success”

From an historical perspective, our public education system is in its infancy, and inclusive education is something new. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the family was the basic unit where socialization and education took place.  Families were dependent upon the economic contributions of their children.  Any formal education in Canada during that time was the responsibility of religious orders and its focus was on catechism. In the early 19th century, the idea of formalized schooling began to gain some popularity.  With the advent of new and massive immigration along with the move from a rural to an industrialized society during the mid-1800’s, the push for public education became more prevalent. Legislation for Special Education only began to take root in the latter half of the 20th century. 

So while education often looks to be a static institution, it is actually an evolving entity that responds to the changing cultural forces in society.  As we move forward in the 21st century, it is my firm hope that we will no longer require a distinction for “Special Education” but rather, the focus will be on accessible learning for all students; i.e. the focus will be on “equity” rather than “equality”.

Note: This image was adapted by OEHR from the original graphic:
Currently, to support and guarantee just treatment for our identified students we use Individualized Education Plans.  But educators of the 21st century must acknowledge the uniqueness of all individuals and recognize that instruction and assessment should be tailored, or individualized, for ALL students.  Hattie’s research indicates that labeling students with an identification actually impacts their achievement negatively.  How much better education would be if we could do away with labels, and start focusing rather on the conditions necessary for success for each of our students!

Teaching and learning in the 21st century is shifting to a focus on Assessment FOR Learning and Assessment AS Learning practices.  With this shift to formative assessment, education will be learning-driven as opposed to achievement-driven.  21st century teaching and learning will be student-centered and begin with student assets and needs, thus making the IEP and formal identification superfluous. 21st century teaching and learning will make accessible to students the technology and teaching practices necessary for learning to take place and for all students to meet, and yes, even exceed their current potential. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Why Are You Blending?

Today I attended the On the Rise K-12: Enhancing Digital Learning Conference.  It was a great experience, and I met some really passionate people that I was truly inspired by.  One such person was Anthony Perrotta.  He led a session on Student Voices.

This year, some of our Secondary teachers were provided a new digital resource to support learning for an Applied-level course. The resource is really a digital text, with animations, applets, videos, bookmarking features, note-taking features, a calendar, quiz tools, etc.  Basically, it is essentially a Learning Management System, not just the e-text teachers were expecting to get.

The feedback on this resource has been pretty mixed.  While the teachers are seeing some merits to having this e-resource, they are also finding that perhaps we targeted the wrong students.  It has been suggested that students in an Academic course, who are perhaps more self-motivated might benefit more from this resource.  Overall, some of the teachers felt that the students in the Applied stream work better with a traditional text and traditional handouts.

I was surprised by this feedback. I believed that students who often struggle with dense text and who lack organizational skills would benefit from a blended learning environment.  But after today, I realized that not all blended learning environments are created equally.  Just because we provide teachers with digital tools does not mean that they will change their teaching practice.  The tools are only helpful if we choose to use them to teach differently.

A blended learning environment is not beneficial to all students all of the time.  Anthony Parrotta reminded me that it's not the Learning Management System or the technology or even the "blending" that makes school engaging and motivates students.  It's about using the technology and digital tools to permit our students to be the drivers of their own education.  When we provide teachers with new technology, we have an obligation to provide them with support that will help them consider how they can use those tools to teach differently.  There is no point in using a 21st century tool in a 20th century way.

For blended learning to positively impact our students, both teachers and students need to take on new roles in education.  The teacher needs to become a co-learner in the classroom.  Teachers and students need to be jointly responsible for the knowledge building that happens in the classroom.  This is a huge shift in paradigm for many of our teachers and our students; they need time and opportunities to discuss what this means and what it would look like in their classrooms.

Anthony said "Student voice is grounded in ownership".  I firmly believe, I in fact KNOW from experience, that ALL students can take ownership for their learning when explicitly taught how to do so and given the tools they need to be successful.  Digital technology can not only engage our students, it can empower them to be active participants in their learning rather than passive recipients of information.

Teachers need support to know how to teach this to their students.  It is not enough to teach our students content knowledge.  We have to teach them how to be learners.  The power of a Learning Management System is not in its ability to provide students with online content and its not in its ability to grade students or even for them to easily submit their assignments to a dropbox.  The power of a blended learning environment is in its ability to put students in the driver's seat, to empower them to become collaborators in their own learning, and to choose who they would like to connect with to share that learning and how they would like to share it.

How are you using a blended learning format to ignite a passion for learning in your students?

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Empowering Students Through Blended Learning

Last year, I used the Ministry's Learning Management System to teach my Grade 6 class through a Blended Learning format. It was the most exciting and inspirational year of my teaching career to date. 

Next week, my friend and colleague, Penny, will be joining me to present our experiences in using the D2L Learning Management System with our Elementary students at the On The Rise K-12 Conference. Preparing for this presentation has fired me up once again with the excitement that I experienced last year.  

I think Education is one of the most exciting professions that exists.  My motto is: If I'm not having fun, then my kids are not having fun.  And if my kids are not having fun, they are not learning to their potential.  If they are not thoroughly engaged and inspired, if they are not "lost" in the learning, they are not learning deeply enough.  

When I began to use the D2L with my students, incredible things started to happen.  My students began to take ownership for their own learning!  Having a Science background, I approach every new experience as an experiment.  I have often commented on the fact that I see the classroom as a laboratory.  Using the D2L then, was just one great big experiment, and as is always the case in Science, in order to learn, we need to make observations and collect data to definitively determine the impact of the changes we make to the environment.  

I had hypothesized that using a Blended Learning format would positively impact student achievement as measured by report card marks and EQAO scores.  For the vast majority of my students (but not all), this was the outcome I achieved.  But what I hadn't anticipated, was the impact the tools in the D2L would have on my students' Learning Skills.  With the exception of one student, the kids in my class became more self-directed and took greater ownership for their learning using the tools found in the D2L.  

When I began to notice this shift in their Learning Skills, especially their collaboration, communication and self-regulation, I had to pause and think why is this change happening? 

What hit home for me was the the impact of the Assessment For and As Learning practices, (or what I prefer to generally refer to as Formative Assessment practices), that we implemented in the classroom and how the tools in the D2L supported those practices. 

Last year, I really tried to change the format of discussion in my classroom from Teacher - Student - Teacher to Teacher - Student - Student - Student.  But we found old habits are hard to break.  It was easier to develop this flow of discussion using the Discussion tools in the D2L.  Not only that, but we could go back to the Discussion threads and USE THEM as formative assessment.  We could look at our conversations, and talk about how could we have said that differently to extend our peer's thinking or to gain a deeper understanding into their thinking, or how we could have expressed our thoughts more clearly.  As a teacher, I could look at the conversations my students were having and know so much more about what they understood and what they didn't understand so as to tailor my instruction more expertly to meet their needs.  I was able to find patterns in their misconceptions that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise. 

I think the other thing that led to the change was the fact that I could provide my students with more immediate feedback.  They used the paging tools regularly to let me know when they were struggling with concepts.  Students told me that they were more comfortable asking me questions through the D2L than aloud in class because no one but me knew that they were struggling.  However, as the year progressed, and they saw the positive impact their questioning was having on their learning, they began to ask the questions in class as well, and more excitingly, they began to answer one another's questions while I sat back and took on the role of observer rather than expert.

They started to pay greater attention to what helped them learn and what didn't help them learn.  Their communication to me changed from "I don't get it" to explaining to me exactly what they were having difficulty with "I don't get how you know whether you have to multiply or divide the decimal when converting to different units" to eventually saying "I watched the video to see how you solved it, but I solved it a completely different way, and my way is easier and works too because I got the same answer as you did". 

My students began to take ownership for one another's learning as well and truly became a community of learners to the point that they were letting me know which videos I had posted were helpful to their learning, and which ones weren't. They would search for alternative videos and additional links and urge me to share them with the class because they felt their peers needed to see them.  

Using the tools in the D2L, my students were making their thinking visible.  They became more metacognitive and paid attention to their learning.  The Blended Learning format gave my students a voice, and they learned to use that voice.  They were empowered, and teaching doesn't get any more exciting than that!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What's in a Blog?

I haven't blogged since the fall.  I really don't know why, but I've been missing it terribly.  Last night, I joined #etmchat on Twitter.  I'm so happy I did. #etmchat is a hashtag used by people who participated in last year's ETMOOC, (Educational Technology Massive Open Online Course).

To see some of our conversation, click here.

It was so nice to chat again with members of a wonderful PLN (Personal Learning Network); and their thought-provoking questions and tweets really got me to think about why I blog, what blogging does for me, and why I haven't blogged in such a long while.

I think different people blog for different reasons, but I can only speak for myself.  I blog because it helps me to think.  As you may, or may not know, this year I'm in a new role.  I no longer have a classroom of my own.

Last night, I started worrying that perhaps the fact that I haven't been blogging indicates that I haven't been thinking!  YIKES!

Mostly, over the last few months, I've been blaming my lack of inspiration on the loss of my students.  I felt I needed to be inspired by the kids; it is from them that I gain wisdom.

But if I'm really honest with myself, I think I haven't been blogging because sometimes I worry that maybe it is best to edit myself. Should I be sharing my thinking "out loud" even when it is not entirely positive? I realized suddenly that this has been my dilemma.  I am LOVING my job, and have been working with and meeting some amazing people.  I feel truly blessed.  But not all of it is positive and I guess that is the rub.

I find I am in a delicate balancing act where I am on the one hand working hard to build positive, collaborative relationships, but on the other hand, am also trying to apply some gentle pressure to get people to shift their thinking.  It is challenging, but it is also energizing and exciting.  I'm just not so sure how wise it is to blog about it!

In analysing my current drought, I stumbled upon a blog post by Beth Kanter. It is titled Nonprofit Blogging in the Workplace: Apologies or Permission? It thrilled me to see that someone else had put into words exactly what I had been struggling with but was having so much difficulty to name. To quote her blog, I have been wrestling with what I should and should not write, so it became easier to simply not write.  Last night, however, thanks to the  #etmchat Twitter chat, I realized that not blogging is not a solution! Blogging is cathartic for me, and maybe, just maybe, someone else needs to read what I write.

Late into the night last night, I sat with my iPad in bed, and jotted down all of the thoughts I've been curating for the last five months using my trusty Evernote.  It felt so GOOD to let it all loose!  Evernote is my Pensieve for those of you who are Harry Potter fans.

Dumbledore: "I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure.  It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form"

Harry: "You mean... that stuff's your thoughts?"

Dumbledore:  "Certainly."

I'm hoping to share my thoughts on 21st Century Learning in subsequent posts in the very near future, so long as I can manage to do it delicately.  Stay tuned.  I hope you'll come along for the ride.

If you are thinking of taking up blogging yourself, here are some useful tips and ideas from Evernote About Blogging. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

What's Wrong With How We Are Teaching Math?

Ontario needs to improve teacher training in math, the province’s Education Minister has said in response to standardized test results that revealed students are losing ground in the subject for the fifth year in a row.

The Globe and Mail

It seems all eyes are focused on Junior Math in our schools this Fall.  Everyone is asking, why are our scores dropping in Math?

For the last several years, the Education Ministry has been encouraging teachers to teach Math through problem-solving using a three-part lesson.  This mandate is grounded in research.  In our board, like many others, our Elementary teachers have been involved in the CIL-M (Collaborative Inquiry and Learning in Math) meaning they have been learning together, through a co-planning, co-teaching, debriefing model to learn how to teach Math through-problem solving using a 3-part lesson.

So why have the scores been dropping?  Over and over again I hear teachers saying "So, when are we going to admit that the 3-part lesson doesn't work?" And I hear parents saying "Teachers need to go back to teaching the basics.  They need to teach Math the way I was taught."

Are they right?  I've been thinking about this question a lot lately, and I have to say "NO!"  The 3-part lesson and teaching through problem-solving WORKS and it is the best method for helping students to develop deep conceptual understanding of mathematical ideas.  So, if I am right, why haven't we seen the scores improve in Junior Math on our EQAO Assessments?

I have several theories that might explain why the scores are not improving.  I believe that our lack of improvement is actually the result of several factors.

1.  Teachers have not fully bought into the 3-part lesson and teaching through problem-solving

  • What I have noticed during many of our co-teaching sessions is that teachers have a really difficult time "giving up the floor". The first part of the 3-part lesson, which should be a 15 minute introduction or "Minds On" tends to go on for closer to a half hour of straight teacher talk. This is because old habits are difficult to break and teachers don't fully trust that the learning should and will come out during the third part of the lesson, the Consolidation.  They feel that they have to provide students with enough information at the beginning of the lesson for them to be successful in solving the problem during the "Action" portion of the lesson.  They run out of time in their lesson, and the Consolidation ends up being only 5 minutes long, if it takes place at all.  So while on paper, the plan looks like a 3-part lesson, what is happening in the classroom is much closer to traditional teaching.
  • Some teachers see the 3-part lesson and teaching through problem-solving as a "Friday" activity and teach traditional methods during the rest of the week.
  • Teachers did not choose to be a part of the CIL-M, they were told to be a part of it.  I've asked many people to explain what their "inquiry" in Math is about and they don't even seem to know that they are inquiring about anything. I've also asked "What is the goal of your PD session today?" I've yet to meet a teacher who is a part of the CIL-M who can answer that question.  They are attending as a form of compliance not because they are hoping to learn something new.  Just like our students can be compliant with a learning task without knowing or understanding the learning goal, so can our teachers!
2. In order for teaching through problem-solving to work effectively, teachers have to be excellent at formative assessment
  • In order for teaching through-problem solving to work, the problems have to be in a student's zone of proximal development.  This can only happen if the teacher has good assessment for learning practices and knows exactly what his/her students are ready to learn next.  The teacher has to differentiate for students at different places on the Math learning continuum.  
  • Teachers need to be able to determine, through assessment and making learning visible, what students misconceptions are so that they can address them.  This leads to very tailored, explicit instruction, but again, requires that the teacher is an expert at formative assessment practices. 
3. Teachers have to themselves have an excellent understanding of the Math Curriculum 

  • Many of our teachers lack confidence in teaching Math.  They don't consider themselves experts in Math, and struggle to identify the "Big Ideas".  Teachers today were taught Math by traditional methods; many of them only have rote learning of mathematical algorithms, and don't have deep understanding of mathematical concepts.  Here is a small example of what I mean: how would you compare 6/7 to 7/8?  When I ask teachers this question, they automatically begin to create equivalent fractions using common denominators.  That's because they don't truly understand fractions.  They should be able to see that each fraction is one piece away from a whole, and the eighths are smaller pieces than the sevenths so 7/8 is the larger fraction.  
So what do we need to do about this?  Well we need to acknowledge that we have a problem of practice.  And saying that we are going to teach Math through problem solving isn't going to truly address that problem.  We need to dig deeper, be more specific.  What do we have to change about our teaching practice to address this learning deficit in Math?

I think we need to do the following:

  • We need to assess our students' mathematical understandings BEFORE we begin a unit of study, but we also need to assess them along the way to determine if we are having an impact.  We need to be responsive to our students' needs.  In order to do this effectively, teachers need to develop their formative assessment strategies.  I like Dylan Wiliam's Embedded Formative Assessment and our Ministry's AER Gains site for professional development on formative assessment.
  • We need to develop our questioning strategies to provoke thinking, elicit misconceptions, and scaffold student learning to address misconceptions
  • We need to use rich multi-step problems that are open-ended or have multiple paths to a solution; that way students have multiple entry points. Dr. Marian Small's resources help teachers to develop rich problems that address the Big Ideas and common misunderstandings that students have.  Here's a PDF that shares Marian's teaching strategies for focusing on the Big Ideas in Math through open tasks. 
  • We need to explicitly teach accountable talk in the Math classroom using prompts to promote student-to-student discourse and discussion. Cathy Marks Krpan's Math Expressions is a great resource to help teachers develop student thinking and problem solving through communication. 
  • We need to make Math concrete.  Students can't understand the abstract until they understand the concrete.  We have to stop saying,"Here are the manipulatives if you need them." No student wants to say they need something others don't.  We need to say, "Use these manipulatives to prove your solution." Students who are using an algorithm but don't have conceptual understanding will be forced to explore what the concepts really mean. 
Teachers can learn along with their students, but they can also learn with their colleagues through a co-plan, co-teach and debrief model.  Teachers need to get together to look at curriculum expectations along side their student needs before they develop problems.  Once they know what their students need to learn, together they can develop rich problems or activities for their students.  They need to moderate student work together to establish what they now know about what each student knows and can do, and where each student needs to go next in order to achieve the learning goals.   We need to be intentional in everything that we do!

But most importantly, teachers need to recognize that every classroom is a laboratory, and every lesson is an experiment.  We formulate a hypothesis, "if I teach this concept this way, the children will be able to ...." and like any good scientist, we need to observe the reaction; what are students doing?  What are students saying?  Then we judge the evidence.  Were we effective?  What impact did we have on student learning? If we're not effective, we have to create a new hypothesis and determine how to fine tune our teaching to meet the needs of the students in front of us.  

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Why Are We Looking at This Data?!?

Percentage of Students at Level 3 and 4
EQAO School Report September 18, 2013

Last year was my first year back in the classroom after working as an Instructional Coach for two years.  I really tried to put into practice all of the strategies I had read and learned about.  It was a wonderful year, the best year of my teaching career thus far.  My students and I had a blast.  In comparing assessments from September to June, I truly believed that my teaching had had a positive impact on my students' learning. 

Then the EQAO scores came out.  I was crushed! I fully recognized that the Junior EQAO Literacy and Numeracy Assessments really are just one type of assessment and can't possibly validly assess all that my students had learned over the past year.  My students had learned to work collaboratively to solve problems, share their thinking, and connect with others outside of their classroom to learn authentically from the world around them.  How can EQAO possibly assess that?  But still, I believed that all of those experiences would have had a positive impact on their ability to be successful on the paper/pencil EQAO test. 

That's probably because one of my very favourite books is "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day" by Dr. Seuss (with the help of Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith).  In fact, I have always read it to my Grade Six students on the first day of school.  In case you are unfamiliar with it, I've included a YouTube video of the story.  Basically, at Diffendoofer School, the students learn differently, and while they never prepare for the high-stakes test, they are more than ready for it because of their unconventional learning.  Oh - you've just got to watch it - it's still one of my very favourites!

So in my new role as a Curriculum Consultant I was recently at one of the schools I support conducting an Item Analysis of the EQAO data for the Primary and Junior Divisions.  Together with the School Improvement Team, we analyze the EQAO data to determine our students' needs because our student needs tell us where we, as teachers, need to focus our learning.  It is very public knowledge that the scores for Math in the Junior Division across the province are dismally low.  Why?  One of the teachers conducting the Item Analysis with me said "We've been asked to use the 3-Part Lesson in Math and to teach through Problem Solving.  When are we going to accept defeat and acknowledge that it doesn't work?"

And for the first time I had doubts.  I doubted the efficacy of teaching Math through collaborative problem-solving because of the low scores in my own school in Junior Math.  Had I been wrong?  Could everything I had been espousing been incorrect?  I couldn't answer that teacher's question; I couldn't blog - I felt like a fraud.

I needed to take a hard look at the data from the school in which I had taught. What could that data tell me?  What couldn't it tell me?  When we look at the data, we don't only look at the Achievement or Outcome data.  We also have to look at the Contextual or Demographic Data as well as the Perceptual Data.  That is why we shouldn't ever rank schools.  We have a Community Living Classroom in our school and those students are not physically able to participate in EQAO but they are still counted in the overall scores.  We also have a very high ELL population and sometimes have to exempt students who arrive from non-English speaking countries only weeks before testing.  When we looked at the percentages of participating students, our results were a bit better.  When I looked at the scores for my class alone the data looked even better still.  78% of the students in my class achieved benchmark levels in Math. Of course, when you are talking about only 22 students, it is difficult to talk in percentages, but I was relieved none the less. 

I am tired of hearing "these kids can't" and want to prove that these kids most definitely CAN! Last year I became convinced that Carol Dweck was correct in her theory on mindsets.  Basically, she says we can have a growth mindset, where we believe accomplishments are a product of hard work and dedication, or we can have a fixed mindset where we believe intelligence is a fixed entity that can't be changed.  Dweck's research demonstrated that teachers who have a growth mindset are better able to motivate and engage their students.   

Why do I pour over EQAO data?  Because it is one of the best tools we have in this province to reflect on our impact on student learning.  I think my class' EQAO data proves Dweck is correct.  Here's a concrete example.  I had one student who struggled all year in Math.  Early on in the year, she told me she didn't like Math (Perceptual Data).  When I asked her why not, she explained that when she had been in Grade One her teacher had told her she didn't have a brain for Math.  I told her her Grade One teacher was wrong, and I would prove it.  A couple of days ago, I called her at home to celebrate her level 3 on the Math EQAO scores.  She said, "So does that mean I am good at Math?"  I answered, "It means you can be good at anything you want to be!"

So why are the Junior Math scores so low in our province?

I have a theory about the Math.  Traditionally, teachers have always taught the Math lesson to the whole class, then assign a set of questions from the text, and then take up the questions with the whole class.  This teaching strategy has a certain level of effectiveness.  I believe teaching Math through collaborative Problem-Solving is more effective BUT ONLY IF THE TEACHER IS GOOD AT FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT.  If the teacher is teaching through Problem-Solving but does not begin with Assessment FOR Learning, the impact on achievement is lower than the impact of teaching with the text book.  I was able to positively impact my students' learning because I started by finding out what they already knew and what misconceptions they had; then I worked toward closing gaps and correcting misconceptions.  This style of teaching does not work if you don't first teach your students how to communicate their thinking in Math. You have to ask the right questions to elicit their understandings.  You have to know the significance of what they are saying.  If you only ask for an answer, you have no idea how they got there!

During one of the Item Analysis meetings at one of my schools, two of the primary teachers were discussing the following exemplar from the released EQAO Math scoring guides.  

They were having an excellent discussion about whether or not this should be considered a level 3 response.  (By the EQAO scoring system, is was considered a level 30 response).  We ended up discussing what the work told us about the child's understanding of the Math concepts.  Did the child in fact use critical and creative thinking to solve this problem?  What does this child's solution tell us about his/her understanding of Math concepts?  Are we just looking for the right answer?  Or are we assessing the child's level of understanding?

We need to know the kids that we are teaching.  We need to know what they know and what they can do.  We have to give them multiple opportunities to explore Math concepts until they develop deep understanding of these concepts.  
As long as EQAO is out there, I will be pouring over that data, analyzing it, trying to determine what pieces we are missing and how we can do it better.  The current scores in Junior Math tell me that we still need to learn a lot more about how students learn Math.  

I have a fantasy that one day we will live in a world where no one ever says "Oh, I'm not a Math person, I've never been good at Math."

Friday, 19 July 2013

Being Reflective Practitioners

"If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow..." - John Dewey

I'm currently reading "Instructional Rounds in Education - A Network Approach to Improve Teaching and Learning" by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman, and Lee Teitel.

 I actually picked the book up over a year ago because I was intrigued by the title.  As you may know, before going into Education, I was a nurse, and nursing rounds were a huge part of our practice.  So I wanted to know how the authors proposed to use the "rounds" process in the world of Education.

I just wished that I had read the book BEFORE this past school year. Why?  Well, this year, for the first time, I experienced our School Effectiveness District Review process.  This process is mandated by the Ministry of Ontario.  I actually learned so much going through this process, not just about the practice of teaching and learning, but also about human nature, relationships, and the pressure associated with feeling like you are "under the microscope."  I also witnessed the stress teachers experience with the advent of change.

Going through the review process gave the majority of the us the impetus to move our practice forward at a faster pace than we might have otherwise.  That was a good thing.  It also helped us to be much more reflective in what we do, why we do it, and the impact we have on student learning.  I just wish we didn't have to go through a "Review Process" to behave this way!

The first thing that we had to do for the Review Process, was determine a Problem of Practice.  I'd have to say that this was the most difficult part of the whole process. We used our classroom assessment data along with our EQAO data to determine what our Problem of Practice is.  What was interesting was how many people took issue with the term "Problem of Practice".  Many didn't like the insinuation that there WAS a "problem".

This is where Instructional Rounds in Education would have come in handy.  It paints a clear picture of what a "problem of practice" is.  Had I read it before going through the Review Process, perhaps I could have helped alleviate some of the tension.  From my current understanding, a Problem of Practice does not reflect bad teaching.  It simply reflects a need in the school.  For example, we realized that, in general, the students in our school have a very limited vocabulary.  We started there.  But as we continued to reflect, we also realized that the students in our school have difficulty comprehending texts. We wondered, was the reason they had trouble comprehending because their vocabulary was so limited?  Or was it a bigger problem?  Was it that they couldn't make inferences?  Were they having trouble visualizing?  Or is it that overall, they lack background knowledge?  We also noticed that in our Junior Division, our students had trouble solving rich, multi-step math problems.  Should we focus on Math?  Or was the issue with the Math problems actually related to a reading comprehension issue, they couldn't understand the questions?

It was really great to notice the change in the conversations in the hallway.  Teachers were having discussions about teaching metacognition, whether they should do it explicitly in the beginning of the school year, or towards the end and whether or not we were using a common language for Math instruction.

After determining our problem of practice, (we decided to go with reading comprehension), we had to develop an "If... then" statement about something we were going to change in our practice to meet the need we wanted to address.  Again, it would have been helpful to read Instructional Rounds in Education first because it helps outline how to do this.  It defines the "If... then" statement as a "Theory of Action".  Eventually, (it wasn't until JANUARY!) we finally came up with our statement.

The next step was for everyone to participate in professional development so that we could successfully implement the teaching strategies we outlined in our Theory of Action.  The interesting thing I learned from reading Instructional Rounds in Education is that, according to the authors, just because teachers plan together and receive the same PD, it doesn't necessarily follow that what will happen in their respective classrooms will be the same.  After observing classrooms, it became evident to the authors that teachers interpret and implement what they have learned in different ways.

Enter "Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Instruction" by Stephen Katz.  Katz describes the barriers we have as teachers to learning.

I could see all of these barriers in action this year at my school.  It is so hard to get past them.  We tend to look at something new, and say "oh, I'm already doing that, I just call it something else", and not really take the new learning seriously. The other thing I hear most often "that wouldn't work with the students I have this year".

Why is change so threatening?  Why are we so reluctant to teach differently?  These are the questions I hope to tackle this year.

Since we only came up with our Theory of Action in January, and then we had to have PD, we were still novices at implementing the new strategies by June.  We haven't even had a chance to reflect on whether or not they have had an impact on student learning.

As a school, we won't be reviewed again for another five years.  That is just too far away.   It is so important that as educators, we reflect on our practice regularly.  We need to look at our teaching practices critically.  What impact did we have on student learning?  Not just most of the students, but ALL of the students.  Which group of students were we not successful with?  What adjustments do we need to make next?

This seems natural to me.  Maybe that is because of my nursing background.  As nurses, we were each the Primary Care Taker for 10 - 13 patients on the ward (depending on the unit).  As the Primary Care Taker, we were responsible to make decisions about the care for our patients.  Although I had 10 patients, and they all just had some sort of surgery, their needs were very different, and they healed at different rates.  We met weekly to discuss each patient's progress.  If someone wasn't progressing at the rate we thought they should, we worked together as a team to come up with different strategies of care. No one took it personally, no one thought it was a reflection of their nursing practice if someone didn't recover at the predicted rate.  We weren't reluctant to try new strategies - new dressings, new medication pumps, new protocols for healing; we were willing to try anything to be successful, and we documented DAILY the impact of what we did on patient recovery.  We charted the patient's "complaint", our observations, our plan of action, and an evaluation of the impact of our plan.

I think our students deserve that same quality of care, that same reflective practice.  I hope in September, at the first staff meeting, my school will begin by looking at their Theory of Action again and recognize that as a theory, we need to determine what evidence exists, if any, to validate it.  What adjustments need to be made to the theory? How will we dig deeper in the coming school year?

I leave you with the following video that I find so inspirational.  It is time to move from an Industrial Model of Education to a 21st Century Model of Teaching and Learning.  That means we have to be reflective practitioners, practitioners that can define our practice and the impact that we have on student learning.  In the video, Mr. Lichtman says we need to be self-evolving learners and in doing so, we teach our students to also become self-evolving learners.  We can't be afraid to let our practice evolve along with the world as it continues to change at such a rapid rate.  Watch the video - be inspired!