Teachers are surrounded by the greatest professional development resource ever created: other teachers. So, doesn’t it make sense to team up for mutual support and growth? In this white paper, we describe the research that supports peer coaching and lay out the components of an effective coaching triad, with participants taking turns coaching, being coached, and observing. While school leadership can promote an environment that values and encourages trusting working relationships, the real work of coaching needs to be planned and executed by teachers themselves, the authors say.
Principals are super humans, but they’re being asked to perform a superhuman range of responsibilities, and that’s not fair—not to them, not to teachers, and not to students. In the March edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin asks how school leadership got so overly complex and demanding. He believes the phenomenon dates to the 1970s when researchers first started describing principals as “instructional leaders”—a catchall phrase that had unintended consequences.
As the body of research around effective school leadership traits grew over the decades that followed, so did the understanding that specific leadership traits showed more promise than others in their effects on achievement. Further, the role of collaboration in shared leadership gained new importance and we began to seek “transformational” leaders who might usher in a new era of educational effectiveness.
As we talk with more and more educators about the importance and power of curiosity in teaching and learning, a question we often hear is: How does curiosity differ from creativity? Creativity is on many teachers’ minds as they prepare their students for real-world experiences. It consistently shows up as a desirable attribute many employers seek in the modern workforce. Check out any airport bookstore and you’re almost sure to find books and magazine articles upholding creativity as an ideal way to transform everyday interactions into sources of both joy and profit.
McREL’s focus on curiosity doesn’t preclude creativity—far from it! It’s just that we agree with Erik Shonstrom, in Wild Curiosity: How to Unleash Creativity and Encourage Lifelong Wondering, when he says that “to be creative one must first be curious. Being in an environment that fosters curiosity is vital to the creative process.” In other words, curiosity is the precursor to creativity.
Even in the most supportive of middle schools, students’ performance in math and science can decline sharply. With a larger peer group to judge themselves against, many students who exuded confidence in elementary school no longer feel they can measure up, and stop trying—harming not only the students but society at large. Fortunately, new research from McREL and IMPAQ International shows that math teachers can help by significantly boosting their use of formative assessment, without sacrificing other responsibilities.
Curiosity Works™ is what McREL is calling our new approach to school improvement and innovation. It incorporates our existing What Matters Most® framework that for years has been helping educators worldwide to spend their time and effort most effectively, and it adds an exciting new focus: harnessing the power of curiosity to drive ever-greater performance from students, teachers, and school leaders.
No two schools are alike—heck, no two school days are alike. So, in keeping with McREL tradition, the aim of Curiosity Works is decidedly not to impose a rigid program that must be followed unimaginatively. Rather, it aims to inspire teachers and leaders within a school to grow the courage and capacity to make things better without waiting for orders from the outside.
Nevertheless, our decades of consulting and research work have shown that many school leadership teams (we call them research and innovation teams) undergo similar phases of development when they get serious about improvement and innovation
In Major League Baseball, game data have been a constant, with RBIs, batting averages, and ERAs long-serving as measurements of player and team performance. The end goal for all teams, year after year, has also been a constant: win a World Series championship. What has changed more recently are the metrics: measurements that are used to track and assess the status of progress. Thanks to Moneyball, most of us know the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team and their relentless commitment to dissecting player data in new ways, which helped them assemble a low-budget ball club that won more games and eventually entered the playoffs. Since then, many teams across the entire landscape of baseball have changed the way they do business. They’ve found a better way to use data to identify good players who were previously undervalued.
What if an entire region of schools and districts took a similar approach to addressing challenges with early literacy? What would that look like?
The Reading Now Network of West Michigan and its ongoing work on addressing challenges with early literacy could provide a glimpse of what is possible.
An anecdote at the end of a recent New York Times article caught my attention because it raised the question of what constitutes meaningful student work. For a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in a Michigan high school were given a choice of assignments: give a regular class presentation (meh) or use a 3-D printer to illustrate a theme from the novel (super cool!). The teacher proudly Tweeted one such student artifact: a 3-D gavel that illustrated the novel’s theme of social justice.
Or … is it?
Without wading into the thornier issue that the assignment was slyly related to a side business the teacher was running out of his basement (the focus of the Times piece), I had a question about the educational value of the project: What do we imagine students are thinking about when they engage in this sort of exercise?
Learning to use software and a 3-D printer to manipulate shapes and objects is a perfectly valid objective. But this was supposed to be an opportunity to think about themes from the novel. The student who chose the printer assignment probably didn’t put much thought about social justice into the task.
We know from cognitive studies of how our brains process information that we must at some point concentrate on what we’re learning to develop long-term memories. As University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states: “Students remember … what they think about.”
A few months ago, we began working with a new principal who was in the process of getting to know her school. She knew that students came to school ready to learn, teachers were prepared to teach, and families were supportive of their school. The school was a welcoming place that served as a focus for community activities. But despite these positive supports, she explained, students were not meeting learning expectations. Academic progress in both English language arts and mathematics were below the state average, and she was concerned that families might soon lose confidence in the school’s ability to prepare students for the next level of learning.
During our consultation with this principal, we asked her if she knew whether the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum (GVC). She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she responded with a question, “How would I know if the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum?”
To determine whether a school has a GVC, we must first describe it. A “guaranteed” curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do. The word “all” needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment.
The 5th-grade class gathered by the creek that ran between their school and neighborhood, reminiscing about years past when it was safe to play in and around this water. The creek was now stagnant, cloudy, thick with algae, and foul-smelling. Thus began their yearlong GreenSTEM project that used STEM concepts and processes to investigate the problem with the creek, and inspired students to design and carry out a solution.
Recently, I’ve had some enlightening discussions with colleagues about the concept of an inside out approach to school improvement. Many of the meaningful exchanges in these conversations have centered on opportunities to learn from bright spots within our schools and districts. Often in school improvement planning, we limit ourselves to discussing challenges, ignoring the bright spots. By doing this, we’re missing a great opportunity to expand and replicate the greatest aspects of our schools, our existing strengths.