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Informal classroom observations – not just for principals anymore

classroom observationOver the past 10 years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of principals and central office administrators about their successes and challenges with conducting informal classroom walkthroughs—observations that are done for professional development coaching and monitoring rather than for formal evaluation purposes. While many of these school and district leaders say that there are benefits to doing these walkthroughs—such as improving PD effectiveness, increasing collaborative staff dialogue, and building a purposeful school community—they often struggle to find time to conduct the walkthroughs because of how much else is on their plate during busy school days.

A solution I’ve seen many successful principals employ over the last few years is to bring other observers into the fold, engaging instructional coaches, peer coaches, and other teacher leaders in the process. What these principals found is that sharing walkthrough responsibilities with these additional staff not only saved time, but it instilled higher levels of trust and transparency throughout their building and helped more of their instructional team members understand and rally around common goals and initiatives.

Benefits for coaches and teachers

Walkthroughs provide real-time feedback and an opportunity for staff to learn and grow by observing their peers’ classrooms and having structured peer coaching conversations. Staff become stronger leaders, improve their own practices, collaborate and share ideas and suggestions, and provide feedback to their peers, creating a collegial environment that supports professional growth and improvement. Protocols and tools that leverage the data can help staff deepen their professional dialogue using evidence, develop and achieve SMART goals, and self-reflect on their practices for professional growth.

Conduct video walkthroughs for coaching

If lack of face-to-face time impedes the ability to conduct walkthroughs, teachers can record a classroom lesson and send the video to designated staff members for time-stamped formative feedback, not just compliments and praise, on their instruction. This gives teachers an opportunity to receive feedback, but also to self-reflect on practice—crucial to their own instructional growth—by seeing the lesson objectively. Follow-up coaching conversations, in which the lesson is discussed, feedback is shared, and suggestions for more effective classroom delivery are provided (a glow and a grow), can help increase teaching efficacy.

Driving better PD planning, monitoring, and outcomes

Ultimately, the data gleaned from your informal walkthroughs will help your coaching and leadership teams better determine the professional development needs of your staff, gauge the value of PD sessions already delivered, and document outcomes needed for grant proposals and district reports. Perhaps even more importantly, the honest conversations your team has about the walkthrough findings can also introduce ideas for systemic changes within the school, creating a growth-oriented culture among staff members.

A supportive, visionary leader can build a strong team of instructional coaches and teachers who can help ALL teachers identify what they are doing well and areas where they need support.

6a010536aec25c970b01a3fd216cb0970bLisa Maxfield is a program manager at McREL who works with clients of McREL’s EmpowerED Suite, which includes the Power Walkthrough® informal walkthrough software, on effective protocols for supporting educators’ professional growth. Listening closely to clients’ needs and successes, she also works with the application’s developers on enhancements to the walkthrough platform’s templates, ease-of-use, and dashboard reporting functionality.

 


McREL’s EmpowerED Suite helps educators, from the classroom to the central office, maximize their potential to improve professional practices and make a difference in student achievement. The EmpowerED Suite, which contains five powerful applications—Power Walkthrough®, Coaching, Reflection, Evaluation, and Survey—collectively helps an entire school or district build a shared language and focus to deepen professional growth, expand skills, and improve instruction. Power Walkthrough can be used as an individual component or as part of the complete Suite. Learn more about McREL’s EmpowerED Suite.

Are great school leaders born or made?

leadershipWhen we think of great leaders, we often think of those who seem as if they were “born to lead.” But is leadership really a fixed trait, or is it an acquired skill? In the May issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein explore the research on how school leaders become great leaders.

Recent studies support the idea that leaders’ performance does indeed change over time—though not always for the better. One study of 197 elementary schools found that significant changes in principals’ performance were linked to better school improvement capacity and higher student growth rates (Heck & Hallinger, 2010). However, a similar study of 39 elementary principals found that leaders changed how they spent their time over a three-year period—but that schools where principals focused more on managerial tasks had higher achievement, while those where principals focused more on instructional leadership had lower achievement.

Goodwin and Hein note that the results of the second study were correlational and not causal, and that perhaps low performance prompted the principals in those schools to focus on instructional leadership, rather than the other way around. How effective a leader is, it seems, depends largely on the situation. For example, Fiedler (1997) found that, in high-stress situations, experienced leaders were more effective, but in low-stress situations, those same leaders tended to rely on their experience and how they’ve always done things, which led to performance plateaus.

One final piece to consider, say the authors, is the role of coaching. Studies clearly show that principals who are coached by more experienced administrators become more reflective and proactive and perform better. In the end, Goodwin and Hein conclude, effective leadership—regardless of context—appears to require a balance of nature, nurture, and guidance.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

Schools in Guam hold first-of-its-kind STEM underwater robotics competition

A year ago, high school teachers across Guam attended a McREL training on how to make STEM come alive for students through underwater robotics; on April 21, that work resulted in a successful first-of-its-kind competition. Teams of students from six high schools used remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) they designed and built to collect and transfer items from a pool, simulating reef cleanup and recovery. “This builds the confidence of our kids as far as STEM careers go,” said STEM Project Director Leah Beth Naholowaa. “There’s a lot of jobs on the island that cannot be filled because we don’t have the workforce, so this program helps create awareness.” A member of the winning team from Tiyan High School will now be able to attend the 2017 MATE International ROV competition in Long Beach, California.

Read the article here.

Differences, not disabilities

learning differences

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

Perhaps it’s that the research has yet to catch up with an idea that, at its core, makes common sense. Learning styles have been hard for researchers to pin down: More than 70 different frameworks exist, much of the data relies on unreliable self-reporting, and the styles themselves appear to be changeable (i.e., people can have multiple styles and switch among them). However, say Goodwin and Hein, a new generation of neuroscience studies are using brain scans and eye tracking to support different learning preferences.

The key takeaway for educators, the authors conclude, is to reflect on their approach to instruction planning. Do you plan based on how you prefer to learn, or on how your students prefer to learn? Do you consider the preferences of some of your students or all of them? Getting inside your students’ heads is, ultimately, what learning styles—and effective teaching—is all about.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

What does it really take to personalize learning?

personalized learningEmma is an 8th grader who loves horses. For a school project on animal behavior, she learned all about their intelligence and complex social dynamics—and then, with her teacher’s guidance, designed an experiment to see whether horses were smart enough to learn how to read. More specifically, she showed horses one board painted with a circle and another board painted with a rectangle to try to teach them to choose the circle in order to get a treat.

This is personalized learning at its best: Students learn what they need to learn (how to design a science experiment) while getting to choose how to go about it based on their interests (horses) and curiosity (are they smart enough to read?). But, asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, how effective is this kind of learning? Does it work for everyone? What does it take to implement it well?

Goodwin points to some promising studies that show benefits, particularly for low-achieving students. A 2015 RAND Corp. study, for example, compared achievement levels of 11,000 low-income and minority students in personalized learning environments with that of similar peers nationwide and found positive effect sizes for both mathematics (0.27) and reading (0.19). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that students who started off below average on national assessments were scoring above average just three years later.

But, Goodwin says, there’s a flip side: Rigorous research is limited and, in some cases, studies showed no effects or even negative effects of personalized learning on achievement—possibly the result of uneven implementation. For personalized learning to succeed, Goodwin cautions, a number of shifts must occur:

  • Teachers need to re-imagine themselves less as information providers and more as learning coaches
  • Curriculum must be rewritten as competencies or pathways that students can master at their own pace
  • Schools must embrace a “fail forward” mentality, allowing students to try and fail and try again

Only then can personalized learning help all students learn not only what they need to learn but also what they most want to learn—like whether horses can read (which, it turns out, they can).

Read the entire column.

Supporting students’ growth mindset and effort

“What makes a student successful?” If you ask students in your classroom this question, how would they respond? Would they say that a student is successful because she is smart, or because the teacher likes him, or because she is lucky? Would students suggest that taking good notes, studying for tests, or doing homework can lead to success?

Often, students attribute success to things that they consider beyond their control, like luck or intelligence. But student effort is often overlooked or minimized as a factor in future success. The more immersed students are in a school and classroom culture where effort is a focus, the more the messages and examples of effort will resonate and bring about positive change for them.

How, then, can we establish an effort-focused classroom culture? First, when teaching students about the relationship between effort and achievement, be explicit. Share stories about people who worked hard to be successful and help students identify the specific actions that contributed to their success. Then, talk with students about what they want to succeed at; help them identify their steps toward success, providing explicit guidance about what it means to expend effort. Be clear about what is necessary for success in your classroom and help students practice those skills. Finally, ask students to keep track of their effort and achievement. Rubrics or graphs depicting effort and achievement can help students to see the correlation between the two.

It’s also just as important to remember that effort is not the only factor that influences student achievement. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need a repertoire of approaches – not just sheer effort – to learn and improve.  It’s VERY IMPORTANT to keep in mind that students need to be learning! If we’re praising students for working hard, especially when they’re not learning what they are supposed to learn, then something needs to change.

That’s the crux of the issue. When you help students make the connection between effort and achievement, they begin to see that intelligence is not a fixed attribute that some people have and some people don’t. They’ll also begin to recognize that expending effort with perseverance and resiliency will not only help them achieve their goals, but will also expand their intelligence through the processes of decision making and adaptation. Teachers who understand and demonstrate the connections between effort, a growth mindset, and achievement will help students unlock their own learning, leading to higher achievement and better success.

 

Bissonette_Terri_2015_Terri Bissonette, Ed.D., is a consultant at McREL International and a former classroom teacher and teacher leader specializing in effective instructional practices and instructional coaching. At McREL, Terri primarily works with State Departments of Education and schools to improve student learning and close achievement gaps for underserved minority student populations.

Teaching our students to think critically in the era of fake news

Critical thinking has always been key to academic and career success. But in the information age, it’s more important than ever, as students struggle to keep up with and process the copious amounts of information coming at them constantly.

In the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin looks at what critical thinking really is and how it can best be taught. Its complexity—a mixture of dispositions and skills including valuing inquisitiveness and other points of view, using logical reasoning to support arguments, and examining our own beliefs and changing them based on new data—may explain why schools, and even colleges, often do little to develop it.

However, Goodwin says, research shows it can be learned, using two key approaches. First, critical thinking skills should be taught directly. Marin and Halpern (2011) showed that students in low-performing high schools who received explicit instruction in such skills (how to develop arguments, parse correlation from causation, identify stereotypes and mental models, and predict long-term consequences of decisions) demonstrated significant gains in critical thinking, while students who took a course in which critical thinking skills were embedded but not taught directly showed no gains. Second, critical thinking should be explicit but not taught in a vacuum. Abrami et al. (2015) found three elements needed to be in place: classroom dialogue and discussion; complex problem solving; and mentoring.

Goodwin concludes that perhaps the best approach, then, is to help students develop critical thinking skills through explicit instruction that is interwoven into course content, not as a standalone endeavor. This approach, combined with simple strategies such as asking students to support every answer they give with the word because, may be the best deterrent to fake news we can offer.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

White Paper | Let’s Rethink Online Learning (2017)

In this white paper, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Erika Twani from the Learning One to One Foundation propose a new way of looking at online learning—not just as a different way to deliver standard classroom instruction, but as a way to provide personalized learning to students who may not thrive in typical school settings. Goodwin and Twani argue that low success rates in online schools may be, at least in part, the end result of translating a typical Carnegie-unit approach to a digital learning setting, rather than personalizing the learning process to encourage problem solving, curiosity, and real-world learning. The paper describes a research-based framework for creating learning paths for students based on their abilities, interests, and preferred learning styles, while leveraging the promise of education technology to serve struggling groups of students.

Goodwin, B., & Twani, E. (2017). Let’s rethink online learning. Denver, CO: McREL International.

Download the white paper.