Category Archives: Blog

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.

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.

Higher-order questioning inspires higher-level thinking

It’s a typical morning in your American History classroom. Today’s learning centers around the Revolutionary War and you want to help students engage by connecting with their senses and emotions. How can you do this successfully? Try asking your students to imagine, explain, debate, and interpret—from their perspective—the experience of crossing the Delaware with George Washington.

 

Teacher: You are floating down the Delaware River and you are seated behind George Washington. What do you hear, feel, smell, and see?

Students: I hear the waves crashing against the boat. I feel anxious and scared. I smell body odor. I see George’s white hair.

The next day, begin with a reminder of their imagined journey on the boat; then review and check for understanding. The students could have simply read a passage and answered questions about George Washington’s river crossing, but this simple immersive exercise promotes deeper relevance, engagement, understanding, problem-solving, comprehension, and retention.

Why does this exercise work so well?

Asking higher-order questions requires more time for students to think and articulate their answers, and can greatly extend classroom conversations and learning. When students are challenged with higher-order questions, they draw from their own experience to formulate their answers. In other words, their understanding becomes personalized. Thought-provoking questions not only encourage deeper discussions in the classroom, but also help students develop skills they can use in real-life decision making. Asking a variety of questions helps students actively and broadly engage with and deepen their understanding of the content. The questions invite students to respond based on their thoughts about the content, relying not just on basic recall but actual experience, helping students learn how to think rather than what to think.

McREL_Blooms_infographic

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

It’s a powerful instructional strategy, but classroom observation data collected with our Power Walkthrough system shows that teachers aren’t using higher-order questioning very often. In fact, we found that teachers are asking questions at the lower three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy a whopping 71% of the time. Why might that be?

In the interest of time, teachers often perform a quick check for understanding, asking specific questions that require a simple right or wrong answer. Sometimes, teachers don’t know how to ask higher-order questions, or feel that they don’t have adequate time to generate more provocative questions during a lesson. Advance organizers can help students understand the expectations for each lesson and facilitate a higher level of classroom questioning. In Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd ed. (2012), our McREL colleagues recommend asking inferential questions and using explicit cues to activate your students’ prior knowledge and develop deeper understanding of the content. You can also prepare sentence stems that help you craft higher order questions on the fly during classroom discussions.

Another way to focus classroom effort on higher-order questions that make learning memorable is to teach your students about the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, emphasizing how higher-order questioning promotes deeper learning. Once they have an understanding, they can then articulate at what level their questions are occurring. Try creating a poster of Bloom’s Taxonomy with your students for your classroom. Then, during classroom discussions, place a sticky note at the level of Bloom’s in which the students are working. This will help guide discussions, and serve as reminder for you and your students to stretch learning by reaching for the highest level of discussion. In our experience, most students would rather imagine themselves in a different time and place than sit and read a passage and complete a worksheet.

As a teacher or administrator, how have you inspired classroom curiosity through higher-order-thinking questions? Please share your great ideas.

6a010536aec25c970b01b7c7c12852970bCheryl Abla is a managing consultant at McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good TeachingClassroom Instruction that Works with English Language LearnersUsing Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at cabla@mcrel.org.

 

6a010536aec25c970b01a5116524ea970cLisa Maxfield, program manager, manages McREL’s EmpowerED Suite, which includes the Power Walkthrough® informal walkthrough software. She has been working with the Power Walkthrough software since its inception in 2007, and she works closely with the developers on enhancements and improvements. You can reach her at lmaxfield@mcrel.org.

Teachable Life Lessons: Hula hoops® and fishy handshakes

student handshakeHow do you know when you’ve made a positive impact on a former student? As a teacher, there isn’t anything much more rewarding than receiving an “out-of-the-blue” message via phone call, e-mail, social media, or a personal visit from a former student. While I’ve yet to be contacted about how wonderfully I taught a specific subject or lesson, I have had former students tell me about the life lessons they learned in my classroom that made a difference or had an impact on their successes.

Educators do so much more than teach content and prepare students for assessments. Yes, we teach A LOT of content in the short time we have students, but when we take a step back and objectively look at who, what, and where we want our students to be as adults, it becomes easier to slip quick life lessons into the classroom throughout the year. Life lessons can have an impact on students as they mature into adulthood or as they apply for that first job. Research tells us that lessons that tap into our emotions have a much greater chance of being retained, so creating funny or engaging scenarios—such as a fishy handshake or sharing stories from real-life—can help students recall specific social awareness skills they learned in the classroom.

Former students who have contacted me have affirmed their positive memories of classroom life lessons, saying:

“I knew how to look my future employer in the eyes as I shook her hand. I stood up straight and tall and presented myself confidently, even though I was scared to death.”

“I am very skilled at paraphrasing and listening to colleagues as they share.”

“I realize that every small task in college is just one step closer to finishing my degree; the finished project.”

Here are a few powerful, quick exercises I used in my classroom over the years to help students become responsible, respectful, caring adults:

Hula Hoop

Life Lesson: Respecting personal space

Using a small hula hoop, I demonstrated the boundaries forming the invisible personal space around each person, explaining that most people aren’t comfortable when others get inside their hula hoop, unless they invite them. Throughout the year, we practiced this exercise in pairs (don’t forget to laugh!), while reminding each other about respecting personal space.

Fishy Handshake

Life Lesson: Greeting others with respect

In this exercise, I paired students up and sat them together, one as Person A and the other as Person B. I asked them to stand and shake hands, then sit down and watch me. A volunteer would come up and we’d address one another with a hand shake. I’d offer my right hand with the limpness of a cold, floppy fish. I would then ask the volunteer to tell the class what it felt like to shake my hand. In the risk-taking, honest, put-it-out-there, classroom environment we’d already firmly established, students never had any trouble describing my handshake as limp and very unimpressive.

Then, I’d greet the student with an overly zealous, extra firm handshake and get their take on that. Usually, the student would take a step back and freely express that the over-confident version was equally unimpressive. Finally, I would demonstrate a firm, look-you-in-the-eye, welcoming handshake and have the student describe the difference, explaining why the third one felt the most comfortable. As a class, the Person B students then practiced walking up to the seated Person A students. As the Person A students were approached, they stood and practiced the “just-right” hand shake. Throughout the school year we would occasionally take a brain-break from our studies to practice our handshakes.

Body Language

Life Lesson: Being an engaged listener

I’d begin this exercise while seated in a chair at the front of the classroom. I would invite a student to approach me and share a story about their night; for example, their experience in a sporting event. As the student spoke, I would look everywhere but in their eyes, crossing my arms and legs, and acting completely disengaged from their story. As the class snickered and I continued my act, the storytelling student kept trying to get my attention, regaling me with tales of his superior athletic moves.

In our debriefing, I asked the storyteller to talk about how my behavior made him feel. The class chimed in, providing their personal observations. As a group, we would then brainstorm what engaged listening looks like and feels like, and, in pairs, we learned to paraphrase each other, appear approachable, and act engaged even when we didn’t feel it.

Perseverance

Life Lesson: Persevering through effort

This simple exercise offered several opportunities throughout the lesson for students to learn about grit, effort, and stamina, some of the most important skills they’ll need in life. I’d show online video snippets of people demonstrating effort in their daily lives. Students would then share effort stories about their own families, movies they’d seen, and times when they, themselves, persevered through a trying period. It was enlightening when students from other countries shared stories of their families’ struggles and perseverance in America. This not only illustrated effort, but celebrated the many cultures present in our classroom, creating a circle of care.

Educators: I’m sure you can add to my list! Please comment and share some of your most powerful classroom activities for teaching life lessons.

6a010536aec25c970b01bb083ab04d970dCheryl Abla is a managing consultant at McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good TeachingClassroom Instruction that Works with English Language LearnersUsing Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at cabla@mcrel.org.