Sunday, July 31, 2022

Transformational coaches and why they matter

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts the past year or so. One that has particularly intrigued me is Against the Rules with Michael Lewis. The second season was about coaches. The first season was about referees, which was also interesting. I recommend the podcast. Period.

But for this blog post I want to focus on the last episode of the second season, "Aim Higher." And not just because he interviews Bette Midler and Emily Blunt, although that is a bonus. As Helen Zaltzman of The Allustionist podcast might say, there is a Category A swear. 

Yes, you should listen to the podcast yourself, although not right now. Or you can bop over to a Medium article that gives you a generalized synopsis of the entire season and the coaching stages I'm discussing from a specifically educational perspective.

For example, at the very beginning, Lewis notes that he's learned a couple of things about coaching because of the series. First, good coaches can make an impact. Please note the adjective "good," but also note that there might be an implication that more of us need coaches. If you listen to any of the other episodes, that will become clearer although I will go on record here that in a prior episode Lewis seems to imply that anyone can be a coach and I might dispute that.

The second thing he learned is that the "people who get the best coaches aren't always the people who need them the most."

I will also note that, to me, this is the most self-indulgent of the episodes but I appreciate that Lewis puts himself through the coaching process with conflicting emotions. In my work as an instructional and administrative coach, I think there are many who have a similar sense of conflict in that they feel like they don't really need a coach so they put up with the process.

So keep that in mind: he put himself through the coaching process with some reluctance as much to be coached as to explore the process and his own response to it. As a coach, I got some really interesting insights.

A little more context: Lewis chooses to work with a voice coach and not just any voice coach, but someone who has worked with people like, well, Better Midler and Emily Blunt. Eric Vetro. Why? Lewis perceived a weakness he knew he could not fix on his own. 

In February 2018, I wrote a blog post about instructional coaches. At the end I remind folks to look for these qualities in a consultant/coach: "mentor, listener, encourager, researcher, curator, disseminator, PD coordinator/collaborator, partner, and learner." Most of that remains the same although I might put less emphasis on PD coordinator/collaborator unless that's what's important to the teachers and the school. I think it's imperative that whoever is a consultant/coach is also a learner. 

Let me note here something about transformational coaching. The model may have first been popularized by Elena Aguilar, author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (2013). Aguilar's model focuses on three domains: beliefs, behaviors, and being. She offers strategies to help the client understand his or her own sense of being--non-verbals and emotions are key indicators. She includes strategies to help individuals understand their behaviors, how they affect others, and what might need to change. Throughout, the transformation coach assists the client in a clearer sense of their being--who they are and who they want to be. Aguila stresses the importance of a coach being a non-judgmental mirror.

In the first 90 seconds, we learn Lewis's strategy has been to hide his weakness. Huh. Now, some of us might say that means we are trying to work to our strengths. But what if our weakness matters? What if that particular weakness interferes in some way with our ability to do our jobs or to pursue our passions? Depending on the weakness, a coach may be the way to rectify the situation OR to find better ways to manage the weakness. Just food for thought.

While Lewis's journey is an interesting one, what I found more interesting is that he identified five stages of being coached.

Stage 1: Mutually beneficial

Vetro won't take someone as a client unless he believes he can help them. Would that be true if he were at the beginning of his career? Based on Vetro's own story, I think so. And based on Vetro's telling of a person with whom he chose not to work, I think that if he believed he could not help someone achieve what they needed and wanted, he would choose not to work with that person. So despite Lewis's self-deprecation, a self-defense mechanism many of us use, Vetro was willing to see Lewis again. And even though Vetro is an amiable and easy-going guy, he has expectations and will hold Lewis accountable.

But here is something else I noted. Vetro gently pushed Lewis to identify what he wanted to accomplish and why. Because Vetro is an experienced coach, he knew there were certain things they needed to do and Vetro likely does with all of his clients. We heard something similar in other episodes as coaches asked a lot of questions to get to the heart of what the person really wanted to accomplish, really wanted to do, really wanted to learn.

So yes, the experience must be mutually beneficial, but if the coach doesn't listen well and doesn't ask good questions and keep listening well rather than mentally crafting a solution, the coachee, the person being coached, is not going to benefit.

Stage 2: The coach gradually takes control

In education, the coach-coachee relationship has got to be a partnership. The classroom teacher has more expertise about what's going on in her classroom than I do because she's with those students every day. And if she's an elementary school teacher, she's with those kids all day every day. The building administrator knows far more about his building than I will ever know. Unless he is new to the district, he knows the history of that building; there are influences affecting him that he doesn't even realize. Yet. The superintendent quite possibly spent her entire career in that school district. She may have taught in one building or even in more than one. She may have been an assistant principal in that or a different building. And so on. She knows something about every single building in her district. She has stories. She knows stories she's forgotten she knows. As a coach, I know what I see and hear from that teacher or administrator or what I observe based on the day or few days a week or a month I am able to be on site, if being on site is even an option.

If my coaching is completely virtual, my only lens may be that person and that person may not be completely honest with me. The dishonesty is typically unintentional for so very many reasons, so my job is to ask questions and to listen very, very carefully. All. The. Time.

At some point, however, the coachee recognizes the partnership and trusts the coach really does have his or her best interests at heart and in mind. Any time there is a need for a courageous conversation, the coachee knows that the coach is pushing for the coachee's best.

In the podcast episode, Vetro sounds a bit exasperated when he asks Lewis why he's still drinking carbonated beverages when Vetro has told him not to. Lewis deflects and tries to joke about it, and while Vetro goes along with joking, it's possible to hear how serious Vetro is. Maybe it seems stupid to force a grown man to stop drinking carbonated beverages as part of his journey to become a better singer, but is Lewis really going to argue with all of those stars who have worked with Vetro?

While the Medium writer identifies this as "controlling behavior," I see it as the coach forcing the coachee to make a choice. 

You want to improve at this thing. You have entrusted me to help you. I have some expertise and I see what you cannot see about yourself, so you have to trust me when I say to stop (or start) doing this thing.

And that will eventually lead to Stage 3: Buy-in

At some point, the coachee decides the coach really does know what he or she is doing and really does have the individual's best interests at heart. If there is more than one coachee in a building or in a district, they will talk among themselves. When they learn the work of the coach is not boilerplate, there will be even less resistance because they realize the coach isn't working with Emily exactly the same way she's working with Bette.

Coaches have to understand that getting to Stage 3 will take time. It is rare that a coachee welcomes a coach with enthusiasm, but it does happen. Whenever the buy-in happens, there will be a noticeable shift in attitude and behavior because the person being coached now gets it and is further invested. It's also possible the coachee will push for more and other because they will have captured a vision of the possible; they will have seen how they might transform and how it will benefit their students.

Stage 4: Connecting to Your Center

In the podcast, Lewis notes that this is the stage at which there is a shift to wanting to be sure the coach isn't disappointed. That is true in some fields and disciplines, but I think less so in education. When the people I coach see me as a partner in their work, they trust me to hold them accountable and, by the same token, they are willing to hold me accountable or challenge me if they think they need to be pushed more. Of course, I'll also hear about it if they think I'm asking too much of them and that's a different conversation. I have to keep in mind that their reasons and expectations for being coached are ultimately about their work with students. This has nothing to do with a spotlight center stage.

Stage 5: Wandering About

Lewis notes that an outcome of a good coach is the coach can persuade the coachee to shift the focus on their attention so they are exploring "who [they] are or might be" (41:00-41:18). 

In the episode, Lewis talks about wandering about after a lesson and that he just keeps singing. That's not really an option for educators, but reflecting on what they've done, what their students have done, and what they all might do differently could be a form of wandering about, at least in the teacher's head. Reflection on a "performance" matters. Reflection about what worked and what didn't and why it did or didn't work is movement towards change and improvement.

Why transformational coaches matter

At some point, an educator recognizes the power of the coach as a mirror, as a trusted partner, and as an accountability partner. Teachers who want to improve their craft are just like any other professional who might get coached to improve their craft or to adjust something in how they do what they do. Think about golfers who have swing coaches and putting coaches. Every sport has multiple coaches for positions and for specific functions of the game.

Teachers are lucky if they have access to one instructional coach once a month. Good coaches know that there may be a list of things that could be changed or improved or eliminated, but it may be that only one thing will help transform how the educator perceives her work, her craft, and her students. So the coach works to get to that one thing even if it takes all year and they touch on other things along the way. Even a small step forward is still a step forward.

Anyone who has done coaching has stories of those who are just going along for whatever reasons and those who are genuinely interested in improving. 

Teaching has always been harder than it looks because the really good teachers make it look easy. I think teaching is just going to get harder and for far too many reasons that don't matter to this particular blog post.

But the teachers and administrators who are willing to try, willing to get coached,  and become willing to participate in the process, will understand how a good transformational coach can help transform at least one thing they do in the classroom. And then they have something on which to build so the transformation can continue.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Inner Game and the Educator

Most educators and parents are familiar with negative self-talk: that inner critic whose voice is constantly demeaning, undermining, and otherwise self-sabotaging, though sometimes attempting to excuse an expected poor performance. We can all be victims of negative self-talk.

Teachers are often combating student negative self-talk, and I think there are times they say something without realizing the damage it's doing to them. I had a student who, at the beginning of the school year, would preface every comment with "This is probably wrong, but. . .". Was it wrong? No, it was his opinion and perspective? Did that perspective sometimes need more evidence? Sometimes, but his thinking was "wrong."

Students learn to say "I'm so stupid" when they struggle with something. Is every student adept at math? No. Does that make them stupid? No, it makes them less adept at math than the person who thinks calculus is amazing. Is every student a great writer? No. Does that make them stupid? No, it might mean they haven't figured out they should take that time to go back to proofread their work to fix those fragments or they haven't taken the moment to learn how to recognize a fragment. A student's struggles with something in a content area doesn't make them stupid or bad at that thing, it just means they are struggling to learn that thing and that they're probably putting too much pressure on themselves because they are also comparing themselves to parental expectations or their friends or the teacher isn't very good at coaching or the student hasn't focused enough on learning that thing or. . . . the list goes on and on and could be a combination of a bunch of things. But being stupid isn't one of them.

The other day I listed to a podcast episode about the inner game, which led to how an entire industry of inner mind coaching has developed to combat the inner critic but also just to help people learn. Because the original focus on the inner coach seemed more about focusing on the learner than the instructor.

Tim Gallwey seemed to be a typical tennis instructor when he first began. As I listened to the podcast, I was reminded of my experience with a golf instructor. 

My somewhat short aside. The first time I played golf I was in college and went out with two of my roommates, one of whom was at USF, Tampa on a golf scholarship. We were just out. I was doing okay although I have zip recollection of the score; we were having fun. Somewhere on the back 9 a guy on a golf cart shouted out a pointer or two. The rest of the game was less fun for me. Fast forward some years later and a friend of mine and I would go to the driving range; she had base privileges at the time at Patrick AFB in Satellite Beach, FL. I think she actually played golf, but I was fine going to the driving range and whacking balls as hard as I could and as far as I could. Fast forward some more years; I was (and am) living in IL. Another friend of mine and I decided to go to the driving range; she actually played occasionally as part of a foursome and wanted some practice. I'm in my happy place of whacking balls as hard as I can as far as I can. It's a good stress reliever, that. Then she suggested we take lessons. Okay. Sure. My first lesson the golf instructor was on and on about my head, my chin, my hips, my knees, and I don't even know. But I do know I left that day with blisters, in spite of the golf glove, and incredible frustration. I haven't touched a golf club since.

However, as I listened to the podcast, I also reflected on my approach as an educator and as a coach. I'll just say there were some revelatory moments.

The Coach in Your Head is a really good episode, although it does come with a language warning. And there were some bits I will fast forward through when I listen again as I, personally, didn't find the on-demand coaching bit all that helpful. However, the parts with Lewis's daughter I found really interesting.

You might also watch this MasterClass with Tim Gallwey or this TED Talk with Brett Ledbetter who interviewed 15 coaches who had over 8,700 wins and 21 national champions among them to learn that  "they focus less on the result, more on the process, but they recognize that character is what drives the process which drives the result"

In fact, in distilling Gallwey's work, one of his primary points is that individuals should not focus on the result or the outcome, but on the process. There's a great example in the podcast of Gallwey working with a professional tuba player. It's wonderful and perfectly illustrative. Lewis asserts that maybe that means that everyone can be a coach, and maybe everyone can be a mind coach, but probably not. ;)

The example with the tuba player, with Lewis' daughter, with others is that they were focused on the outcome: being able to make a particular sound, being able to clear the bases, etc. That's outcome. Gallwey's point is that we need to focus on the process first and there is clearly considerable support for that.

So when a student struggles with calculus, it may be partially because that's a level of math in which they're not really interested, but it could also be because there are details and nuances of the process to solve a particular problem they just don't understand. When my students tell me they are terrible writers, well, honestly, that could be true but that's focusing on the outcome not on how they approach any given writing project. Often those students compare themselves to others for whom writing is easier or who just write differently. 

When teachers gush over the student who writes in a particular way, those who don't write that way feel stupid and incapable. But the student I'm thinking about preferred shorter and sparser sentences, akin to Hemingway. So write shorter sentences, I told him. There is no rule that says all essays have to have compound-complex sentences or that an essay that is only compound-complex sentences is better than anything else.
I have several points:
  • We do a disservice to our students when we model something and say something like, "See how easy that is?" It may be easy to us but it may still be opaque to some of our students. We need to be mindful not to give more fodder to their inner critics.
  • We need to help students focus less on the outcomes and more on the process. That's an uphill battle for many of us because of benchmarks and testing, but we all know in our teacher hearts that if students learn the process of solving that particular calculus problem or if they really understand the events that informed a particular historical event or if they have developed strategies to recognize active voice and identify rhetorical choices, the outcomes of their work will be fine. AND, even more important, they will have established a foundation on which to continue to build as they continue to build.
  • Because learning should be, I think, about the process of learning.
  • As we continue to help them develop those skills and strategies and figure out the process, we can also help them learn to quell their inner critic.
For me, this is also a matter of being more patient with students. Just as I do with coaching a teacher or administrator, I have to listen to the student. I have to pay attention to the words they are saying, but also all they are not saying that is expressed in their facial expressions and body language.

At some point, I think I also have to be honest with them they have to do their part as well. I've told students I'm willing to work them but they have to work with me. I know I do them a disservice when I find ways to enable the process so they get the outcome they want. And we all know that helping students to unlearn the value of the outcome is hard work.

If we can help students focus not on the outcome but on the learning and the process to achieve the outcome, they are more likely to achieve the outcome for which they have capability and capacity, which might not be an A or a home run or whatever they think measures their intelligence or worth.

I have one last story (at the moment, for this topic). I was working with a second-grade teacher in a school with a lot of challenges. A second grader was trying to complete a math worksheet in a workbook, so they could look up information or look at examples if they needed. She threw down her pencil with disgust and said to me, "I don't know how to do this!". And when I kneeled down and told her the point of this activity was to learn and reinforce learning, she clearly did not believe me. When I helped her find what she needed in the workbook so she could reason through the problem and solve it, she still wasn't sure. When she checked with the teacher, she decided I wasn't lying to her. When I talked with the teacher, we both realized that even in second grade, students had developed an expectation that they were supposed to know stuff they had not yet learned. That they were already focused on the outcome rather than the process of learning.

Just sit with that for a moment as you reflect on your preparations for the upcoming school year, whether an administrator or a teacher. I know I've revamped lessons four times as I keep thinking about my expectations for my students and my purpose in being their professor in whatever class I'm teaching.

Monday, February 12, 2018

About That Instructional Coach

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about coaching and how a good instructional coach can make a difference for teachers and administrators. It's entirely possible you agree with that but aren't too sure what to do next or that you've had an experience with an instructional coach that wasn't all that positive but your gut tells you to rethink this proposition. Whatever brings you here. let's talk about instructional coaching.

You'd think most folks would understand instructional coaching--what it is and what a good instructional coach can accomplish. Experience tells me that's not the case.

The wonderful image to the left explains a lot of what instructional coaching is all about and one of the most important elements is non-evaluative feedback. One hopes it's on a regular basis, but that can be a challenge. But let me back up a bit.

In 2015, the incomparable Jennifer Gonzalez wrote about being an instructional coach. As she points out, there are reading coaches, math coaches, literacy coaches, and technology coaches. Then there are those of us who are generalists who can and do work with classroom teachers across grade ranges and content areas. My work is about pedagogy and, where it makes sense, an effective integration of technology. Gonzalez interviewed others to get their perspectives on coaching and reports what Elena Aguilar told us in The Art of Coaching: work on the relationship AND listen more than you speak.

I know the teachers with whom I work have expertise and experience. I cannot underestimate that. My job isn't to tell them how to teach; my job is to help them gain perspective on themselves and their students so they can maximize their skills and abilities in the classroom. My job is to help teachers figure out ways to help their students use their natural curiosity to learn how to learn.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron found herself making the transition from classroom teacher to instructional coach, and once that role became a full-time one, she notes she was able to mold the position to meet the needs of her site and her teachers. It's no surprise that the first function she lists is that of mentor. Again, listen more than you speak as you build that relationship. I find the teachers with whom I work often need me to help them filter the thousand-and-one things flying through their heads, and to help them brainstorm and to focus on ideas that they can make work. Unlike Ms. Wolpert-Gawron, I'm not permanently located in a district so my teachers see me once or twice a month. And though I'm available electronically, we make much more use of our face-to-face time.

One of the other roles listed by Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is that of professional development coordinator. When an instructional coach is really listening to a teacher, the coach can calibrate the professional development to meet the needs of a group of teachers or as many teachers as possible. Though we know one-size-fits-all is not ideal, our only option is often meeting with all faculty. So one of the things we need to be able to do is speak generally but engage specifically. In a word, differentiate.

What else do instructional coaches do? Again, Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is spot on: research, curate, and publicize. Most of the districts with which I work have created an email account for me so we can create an internal Google Classroom so I can share resources with teachers. And I can model how to organize and use Google Classroom at the same time! I use Edmodo for another district because that's what we started with three years ago.

I very deliberately called my company p20partners. My original goal was to work with teachers PreK through university level. I've been privileged to work with educators at the PreK through 12 levels, but still trying to break through that resistance at the university level. That's actually irrelevant because the most important part of my company name is "partners." I can't and won't tell a teacher how to do his or her job. I don't know their kids as well as they do and a few observations here or there doesn't give me deep insight into how they teach. HOWEVER, what I do know is that the teachers and administrators with whom I get to work count on me to help them think through their challenges, to come up with tools and resources to help them maximize their time with their students, to be available when they have questions or want to share out ideas via email or text, and to support them through their learning curves without judgment. And when they let me show their kids some new tools and resources to help students and teachers get a sense of the value of that tool or resource, that's just extra chocolate syrup on top for me.

Not too long ago I did a PD session with a group of teachers and we talked for quite a while about the 6 Qs: IQ, EQ, PQ, CQ, CRQ, and IMQ. The 6 Qs have a logical place in the corporate space, but it was clear that the teachers were quite thoughtful about the implications of these Qs not only for them, but for their students. They were particularly interested in the passion quotient and the courage quotient because they struggle with kids who aren't willing to persevere and they wondered if it's because they don't have the courage to fail. Teachers talked much longer than I expected; it was rich and so insightful for me. In fact, that conversation went so well, I'm planning to introduce some administrators to the concepts to see what they think and how the 6 Qs might influence how they interact with their teacher leaders.

I think a key role of an instructional coach is learner. When I have a teacher ask me about something and I get to scurry around the internet looking for resources or crowdsourcing colleagues to see what they know or have used. And then I get to play to figure out what might be best for that teacher and those students. But then I get to share that learning with others who may not even know that's a question they wanted to ask.

Whenever I learn something new, I get to think about "my" teachers and who might find what the most useful. I share with everyone, but I might send a separate note to a specific teacher because I want them to remember that even though I'm not always with them, I'm usually thinking about them and I want their very best for their students.

I always tell my teachers that our time together is not my time, but theirs: it's for their learning and growth, it's for their support and encouragement, it's for them to let me partner with them to help find some solutions or help them think through tools and resources that will meet a learning objective or help their students stretch.

Peg Grafwallner, writing for Edutopia, underscored how often the instructional coach provides that opportunity for processing. Just recently I was reminded of the one-legged interview, one of those strategies I'd forgotten--which reminded me of the conversations I often have with teachers who have forgotten effective strategies they used to use because their immediacy was crowded with all the new stuff. So the one-legged interview is called that because the conversations should last as long as you can stand on one leg. The questions are designed to invite teachers to process or to reflect. Non-judgmental; non-evaluative. A short conversation that may remind me of something or spark something for the teacher or lead to a longer conversation that invites more processing and reflection, more opportunities for me to rummage around the internet and find cool stuff.

So when you're thinking about hiring an instructional coach, either full-time or as a consultant, keep these roles in mind: mentor, listener, encourager, researcher, curator, disseminator, PD coordinator/collaborator, partner, and learner. Your teachers will thank you.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Personalized Learning: More than Student Choice?

Before we can assess how well it is working and what changes, if any, need to be made, we have to know what it is. In this case, the “it” is personalized learning and personalized learning has caused educator quite a bit of agita over the years.

In October 2014, Sean Cavanaugh of Education Week attempted to provide some discernment in his article “What is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity.” For many, technology provides the fulcrum for personalized learning. Eliot Soloway was quoted as saying “Many technology-based approaches to personalized learning amount to nothing more than tailoring or personalizing the reading of texts to students of different abilities—rather than personalizing a mix of activities that give students a richer and more meaningful educational experience.”

Teachers are often asking about different reading levels or lexile levels. As Soloway notes, they want different kinds of texts for different reading abilities. Teachers seem to conflate differentiation with personalization but that may also be because personalization seems too daunting. So rather than ask what personalized learning is, perhaps the better question is “What is personalized learning supposed to be?”, or, even better, “What could personalized learning be for students and their learning?”.

In 2017, Audrey Watters, she of Hack Education who likes to rattle comfortable ways of thinking, presented at an OEB Midsummit in Iceland and said, among other things, “But I contend you cannot analyze digital technologies and the business and politics of networks and computers without discussing how deeply embedded they are in what I’ve called the “Silicon Valley narrative” and in what others have labeled the “California ideology” – and that’s an ideology that draws heavily on radical individualism and on libertarianism.”

She has a point. Let’s look at who is investing millions of dollars into personalized learning: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Why? Well, because they can, of course. The more suspicious of us would see marketing opportunities behind the alleged philanthropy. On the other hand, we know that online organizations want access to a lot of our information and they already gather beaucoup amounts of information through every transaction and every click online. Why? In theory so they personalize the ads we’re shown. And they do. It’s eerie, and a trifle annoying. (“Stop showing me ads for stuff I’ve already bought!” I tend to shout at my laptop, when I actually pay attention to the ads, which I rarely do.) Anyway, we can see the direction in which personalization is heading and has been heading, since back in the day when Burger King first started telling us in 1974 that we could have it our way.

Cavanaugh reported that Andrew Calkins, then deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, asserted that “[t]rue personalized learning calls for a ‘rethinking and redesign’ of schools, which could require them to overhaul classroom structures and schedules, curricula, and the instructional approaches of teachers.” We all know the on-going argument that teachers’ roles much change so they are “more like those of coaches or facilitators than ‘content providers.’” We also know the practical complexities of that model, especially for younger grades.

What we do know is that software is only one component of providing students with a possible pathway for personalized learning. But there is more to consider.

We also know that teachers and administrators still struggle to understand what personalized learning is or can be. Too many think it requires individualized lesson plans or requires 1:1 access for students. Kenya Ransey observes that ‘[l]earning is the primary focus, and technology can be along for the ride—or not. What does it look like when technology is not at the center of a personalized learning experience?” She also asserts that “it’s critical that we realize that once we all consolidate around a standardized definition, it will no longer be personal.” I’m not sure I agree with that, but I’m not yet sure why.

There are certainly plenty of educators who are not fans of personalized learning. Most of that resistance seems to be based on a lack of understanding of what it is and can be; that is, a lack of a concrete definition and clarity of expected outcomes. However, plenty of educators echo Audrey Watters’ concern that it’s simply an opportunity for large organizations to gather information about users for their own capitalistic purposes. Well, there is that and, let’s face it, every edtech organization wants to gather data on students for a range of reasons.

Robyn Howton is one of those teachers who crashed and burned a few times on her way to implementing personalized learning in her classroom. She did research, tried and failed a few times, made adjustments, and kept going. In her ISTE article, she refers to the Rodel Teacher Council Blueprint for Personalized Learning in Delaware as a resource. At the time she worked without 1:1 in her classrooms and realized that she made some errant choices about which technology to use when. Howton had some great a-ha moments when she analyzed her lessons and realized when and how she might have used technology more effectively which helped her determine which tools to use. (She refers to some great tools, too!)

One of Howton’s most important lessons was to give her students choice: “Class often starts with a mini-lesson, which then flows into students making choices about what they need to do next to meet specific learning targets aligned to the standards.

Writing for the Christensen Institute, Elizabeth Anthony notes “the magic of blended learning lies in the instructor’s ability to leverage technology to personalize learning rather than the mere use of certain software programs. A classroom can incorporate technology without actually changing the classroom model and the way students learn.”

What is interesting to me is how often blended learning is mentioned in connection with personalized learning and how occasionally there is reference to competency-based learning in conjunction with personalized learning. We have a lot of trends in education and that causes much of the confusion. Can you implement personalized learning without blended learning? Is competency-based learning an option in personalized learning? Should we be implementing competency-based learning instead of personalized learning?

But wait. This is about personalized learning and trying to figure out what that is and what it means. I don’t mean to oversimplify but I think Robyn Howton found an important key: student choice. Every teacher has objectives or learning outcomes for every lesson. The question to be asked is whether or not students have to demonstrate their learning in the same exact way and if they have to follow the same exact path to get there? If not, students have choice.

I think another challenge is that teachers think personalized learning, like blended learning, needs to be something they do every day for every lesson. That doesn’t make sense. Younger students won’t have the learning tools yet and some high school students may lack the maturity to make good decisions. And not every teacher can implement personalized learning in the exact same way every year. In fact, for middle and high school teachers, they may not implement personalized learning in the exact same way in every class.

I also think personalized learning is an aspiration for some teachers and they cannot be expected to make that transition overnight. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate Howton’s article and her reflection on her transition to blended and personalized learning. In fact, I think she offers something of a template for teachers interested in trying to implement personalized learning in their classrooms.

Teachers should start small, with one lesson. It’s not just teachers who have to learn how to conduct a class using personalized learning. Students will need to be taught to think differently about their learning and trust that it’s okay for them to have choice.

No one should expect dramatic changes overnight. It will take time and patience. And it will have to be okay to blow it every now and then, and then learn from the experience and what students can report from their perspectives. After all, it is about the students and their learning and what makes the most sense for them to be successful.

Cavanaugh, Sean. (2014). What is “Personalized Learning”? Educators Seek Clarity.

Christensen Institute (2018). Squaring Personalization and Digitization in 2018. Guest blogger Elizabeth Anthony.
Herald, Benjamin. (2017). The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning.

Howton, Robyn. (2017). Turn Your Classroom into a Personalized Learning Environment.

Ransey, Kenya. (2017). What personalized learning is not.

Watters, Audrey. (2017). The Histories of Personalized Learning.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Ladder of Inference & Instructional Support

The Ladder of Inference reminds us that we too often fail to reflect on what we observe and what we infer from those observations. We are often unaware that we are too selective of the data we choose to observe or we simply don’t consider any data other than that which we have immediately or presently observed, so that data may be completely out of context. The Ladder of Inference is used a lot in business but also has application in instructional support and coaching as well as other areas of education.
Systems Thinker
It’s important to note that traversing the ladder of inference takes moments so being aware of how fast and how easy it is to move from the bottom rung to the top is important so that we slow down to assess and reflect. That way there is far less risk of any kind of injury.

Available data
As a coach, I have to take into consideration what I observe and experience. Just as the teacher can’t watch all of the students all of the time, neither can I so I have to be careful to sweep the room to try to see what the majority of students are doing. I also need to refrain from making any inferences or passing any judgment until I talk to the teacher and, even better, talk to the kids. Even then, as I’m gathering data from the kids, I have to be careful not to ask leading questions but general questions to get learning context and perceptions from them.

Select data
As a coach, I have to be careful about selecting data. I try to take notes on everything I see and hear, which is another reason I take pictures and video, and another reason I try to be with a teacher from the beginning of the class through to the end of class. When I select data, then, I try to select that which reflects a majority or close to a majority of the students but I might also select something that I was a superb teaching moment or one during which the teacher faltered and struggled to get back on track. Or all of the above because throughout a class period, there are always good moments and not-so-good, even bad, moments.

Paraphrase the data
At this moment in time, I have to pause to think about how I’m filtering what I see and hear. Did I come in with preconceived notions or specific expectations? Do I have some sort of bias about this teacher and, if so, what is it? How do my filters and other white noise influence what I see, hear, and select to discuss with this teacher? This is not about me, but about this teacher and the impact this teacher has on these students.

Name what’s happening
I have to be honest with myself about what I’m characterizing and how, the assumptions I made about this teacher and this teaching, the assumptions I made about the students and their experiences. I have to be crystal clear with myself so I can remove the detritus of my assumptions and filters.

Explain and evaluate what’s happening
Am I making excuses for me? For the teacher? For the students? Am I clarifying the data for the benefit of the teacher? For the benefit of the students? Or am I mentally trying to sabotage something? Is it possible I’m drawing conclusions based on past experience or what I’ve heard from others? Is it possible I’m not giving this teacher the benefit of the doubt because I’ve seen similar behavior and actions in the past?

Decide what to do
This is pretty clear. Once I’ve climbed thoughtfully up the rungs of this ladder, I can make a decision about what to do. I can revisit the data now that I’ve clarified my motives, questions, assumptions, perceptions, expectations, and anything else so that I can have an honest conversation with this teacher.

I can also frame my questions and my observations in ways that are helpful in moving a conversation about this teacher’s growth and success.

Adapted from

Additional resources

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Teachers Who Saved Us

I was one of several consultants conducting district workshops on a Saturday; I was with a group of teachers who weren't very happy to be there. Maybe because it was a Saturday; maybe because the topic was something with which they already felt somewhat familiar.
I just wrote about Angela Duckworth's research on grit and some of the responses to her research and her book. I'm not alone in finding this a topic worth discussing. Well on this particular Saturday, one of the videos in the deck was Duckworth's TED Talk. I had to be a bit gritty to show the video to that particular group of predominantly African American teachers whose students often arrive at school hungry and whose lives outside of school are, at the very least, difficult.
Yesterday I read a story about a New York principal who showed some grit when she was inspired by one of her own students. The New York Post article is here, but you can also find two 2015 versions of the story by The Atlantic and by PBS. Let me tell you: that's one amazing woman, and she has grit. Yes, she has talent, but there is one line in The Atlantic video that made me catch my breath. "I tell my teachers all the time that we are chosen to be here because we're supposed to transform a community that doesn't believe in themselves."
To do that work day in and day out, especially without the spotlight of television cameras or the attention of journalists and daytime talk show hosts, requires grit. But here's a bit that's lost in the story about Ms. Lopez: Vidal Chastanet. Yes, that student got a scholarship, but that might not have happened were it not for the chance encounter that prompted him to answer a question about who has influenced him the most. As Ms. Lopez says in The Atlantic video, Vidal could have named a family member, but he chose to name his principal.
When I was meeting with those teachers on that Saturday, and we were talking about grit, about helping kids become #futureready, about how important yet hard it is to create a safe space for kids knowing the situations from which many of them come and to which many of them return. We know we can't do much for them outside of the time they are in our care, but during that time. . . 
And so we talked about the teachers who saved us and how rare it is that those teachers ever know. An astonishing number of us grew up in abusive households. Many students survive varying levels of poverty, chronically difficult family situations, and more. Those of us who manage to get through school, even go to college and carry on to have reasonably productive lives can probably point to an educator and say, "That teacher saved my life."
In my case, there were a few teachers. Miss Gibson, my 4th grade teacher, who took no nonsense and insisted we take care of our things, but had a heart-gripping compassionate side to her. I remember the day she came to my house after I'd gotten sick. I distinctly remember being awed that she would bother to do that for someone like me. Then in 7th grade it was Mrs. Moen whose influence continued into 8th grade. In high school, probably when I needed them the most, again, it was Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Gamble. They each invested in me in different ways, but they invested in me and clearly believed in me when I did not or could not. My life out of the classroom didn't enter into anything because the classroom was the only space they could influence. And they did so by insisting I be my best self, and then helping me, in ways they cannot imagine, to become my best self.
Here's an example. Mrs. Hawkins, one of my English teachers, returned a paper to me. She put it on the desk and tapped it with her finger as she looked at me until I looked her in the eye. Then all she said was this: "I know you can do better than this."
Daniel Engber of Slate titled his review of Duckworth's book "Is 'Grit' Really the Key to Success?" I was intrigued by Engber's closing remarks as well as his initial question.
In education we talk a lot about student success, but we are terrifically inconsistent when it comes to offering any clarity about what we mean by "success." Grades? Proficiency or mastery of the standards? Creativity? Collaboration? Critical thinking? Problem solving? What if I'm a student with loads of creativity, can demonstrate mad problem solving and critical thinking skills but barely push past a C. Am I successful?
Duckworth offers some steps for exhibiting grit successfully, and it is these to which Engber alludes in his closing sentences: "If you want to win forever on the football field, or join the military, or write a book about a big idea, then it might be best to stay on target, compete in everything, and finish strong. But others find their path through mindful wavering and steer away from simple answers." Sweet bit of snark in that last phrase, by the way.
So here is my big takeaway from Duckworth's TED talk: "Failure is not a permanent condition." Sure, I got a D in Foundations of Math I in college and I got that D because, once again, a teacher invested in me and coached and coaxed me across that finish line. I was never so proud of a grade because yes, I stayed focused and finished strong, so I did well enough to pull my grade up to a D. What's so amusing is that many years later I taught math. Because I am a reformed mathphobe and because I'd done poorly in college (and high school) math, I understood my students' anxiety.
Teachers saved me. In every sense of the word. And they saved me because they believed in me, because they saw something I couldn't, because they would not let me quit. Because they coaxed, encouraged, and sometimes even badgered me into keep trying and to try harder. They willed me to be gritty. 
I learned valuable lessons from those teachers, the least of which is the importance of not giving up and that failure is not a permanent condition. Was I successful with that D in college math? You bet I was.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Focus. I can. . . squirrel!

They call it multitasking. It isn't. It's being distracted.

A lot of us joke about. . .squirrel! It's funny, but not really. We all suffer from it. We're Pavlovian in our response to the ding, chirp, or ring tone that signals a new message. It could be important and I have to know NOW.

When I'm trying to focus, to really dig in and get work done, I turn off any chimes, dings, whooshes, chirps, or other noises that will notify me of some message. . . on Facebook, on Skype, on LinkedIn, on email, on Twitter, on anything. I must disconnect to focus.
Important research compiled on the effects of students multitasking while learning shows that they are losing depth of learning, getting mentally fatigued, and are weakening their ability to transfer what they have learned to other subjects and situations.
In that same article (May 2013), educators recognized the double-edged sword of technology in the classroom. It's a useful tool, but it's a distraction. But one teacher also acknowledged that it's likely "that many students aren't being challenged and engaged enough to stimulate their brains in class." She wonders what would happen if teachers were "given more leeway at all levels. . . to teach important concepts in-depth, students would find the learning we are doing more intriguing and would be less likely to head to Facebook for a distraction."

She raises a good point. And the teacher who wants her students to boldly take risks without technology underestimates, I think, the importance of students knowing how to use their technology most effectively as they take those risks. Let's face, the Internet makes one heckuva discovery tool.

But the concern for learning to focus is, as noted in this article, "Age of Distraction: Why It's Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus," well, crucial.
The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention,” said Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and other books about social and emotional learning on KQED’s Forum program.
There are two things in this article that seem particularly alarming. First, the relationship between concentration and empathy. “'The circuitry for paying attention is identical for the circuits for managing distressing emotion,' Goleman said. . .This is also the part of the brain that allows people to control themselves, to keep emotions in check and to feel empathy for other people." I can infer that those who have little ability to focus will have little ability to manage their emotions and to feel empathy for others. The consequences of that are stupendous.

Dr. Goleman goes on to say that the ability to focus "is more important than IQ or the socio-economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health” and teachers observe that "students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems." Now, some of that student comprehension could be the students, could be the materials, and could be the teaching and/or the teacher. But, for the sake of argument, let's say it's true that students have more difficulty comprehending texts and partially because they struggle to focus.

The implications for teachers and education are profound; the implications for our future is even more profound.