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Outdated Practices that Must Go

Schools, like all organizations, are dynamic and ever-changing.  Some changes come as a result of procedural necessity, some as the product of a top-down decision, some as the result of a shared consensus or majority.  Still other changes come about as the result of outside influences such as parents, communities or policy-makers.  Some changes lead to positive results, while others produce unintended negative consequences.  Some changes have been made proactively, while others have been reactive.  Despite the fact that so much has changed within the larger social and economic landscape, there are some outdated practices that still persist in schools that we know to be wrong, yet we do them anyway.  The purpose of this week’s blog is to identify  five outdated and ineffective practices that schools must immediately abandon.

1) Teacher-centered instructional models– While teacher-centered instruction is an essential strategy, a teacher-centered instructional model is wholly inappropriate and ineffective.  The difference in the two is that the strategy serves as one instructional practice within a larger context of multiple practices, skills, learning strategies and modalities.  The instructional model, however, serves the belief that the teacher should always be at the center of the learning.  A teacher-centered instructional model enables students to be passive, disengaged spectators to the learning process.  Teacher-centered models result in compliance rather than learning.  In this day and age, teachers must prepare daily lessons that put the students at the center of the instruction, and employ a variety of instructional strategies aimed at engaging students and challenging them to think critically and insightfully about topics of importance.

2) Assessment for the sole purpose of grading–  Effective teachers assess their students on a daily basis, using  a variety of effective strategies such as self-assessment, peer assessment, feedback, eliciting evidence and sharing learning expectations.  These strategies are part of formative assessment, or assessment for learning.  Formative assessment serves to empower teachers and students with information about their progress in regards to the knowledge and skills being studied.  While “formative assessment” is the current buzzword, I like to think of this practice simply as “good teaching”.  Effective teachers have long known that the best way to elicit and gauge their students’ understanding is through questioning.  Essentially, that is what formative assessment aims to do, in a variety of ways.

3) Sacrificing depth for breadth- Students must be given opportunities to think deeply about a wide range of topics.  Teachers are charged with the responsibility of facilitating this process, not restricting it.  Too often, however, teachers are restricted to covering a certain amount of material over a certain amount of time.  This can result in students being merely exposed to material, without ever demonstrating true mastery over any one area.  This varies depending on several factors, including subject area and student readiness level, but taken in a broad context it is a shame when teachers sacrifice opportunities for learning extensions and deep analysis at the expense of coverage and exposure.

4) Top-down decision making– Educational leaders such as myself can fall into the trap of feeling as though they must solve every problem and produce the answer to every question.  I can certainly think of times when I have fallen victim to this approach myself, and I believe this is true of other leaders as well.  Leaders must fight the urge to produce the solution to every problem and instead promote a culture of shared leadership and empowerment where teachers, students and parents have a voice in the decision-making process.  Students should have a forum to voice their opinions and concerns about school.  Teachers should have a say in the professional development they receive, and the programs that the school offers.  When school and district leaders facilitate the decision-making process for the purpose of tapping into the shared knowledge of the entire population, the result is a more vibrant and inclusive learning environment.

5) Compartmentalized learning– The practice of following a set bell schedule of compartmentalized classes, with little to no intentional alignment to each other, is at best outdated and at worst harmful.  Today’s workforce demands flexibility, teamwork, and the ability to multitask.  Modern workers must adjust to an environment that demands they synthesize information and recognize patterns and trends as they relate to a larger mission or problem.  School schedules should actively reflect this reality.  Student schedules must explicitly reflect the need for students to work in cooperative teams, and make clear connections between among the different subjects they learn.  Students must be compelled to show how the various tasks they complete serve a larger purpose, and how they have reflected on their work and become increasingly self-aware, knowledgable and independent.  Furthermore, teacher schedules must include sufficient time for them to converse professionally about their practice and analyze student data.  Teachers must be expected to align their instruction in a way that is not only vertically within their departments, but also horizontally with other subject areas, in order to more closely mirror the experience of their students.

Sometimes the best way to improve is to identify what not to do.  I fully believe that if we can simply eliminate practices that are known to be outdated and ineffective we will see significant improvements.  As we begin a new week, I’ll ask that we all consider the potentially harmful or ineffective practices that we currently use, and that we think about how we can make the necessary changes in order to positively impact ourselves and those around us.  Have a great week, everyone!

-Rob

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The 9th Grade

I remember my first year of high school.  I remember my primary goal that first year was to make it from September to June without messing up too badly.  It was more a matter of survival than anything else.  The first few months were spent trying to navigate the many new social and academic challenges.  I could not get over how much older and (seemingly) more mature the other kids were.  I remember feeling like I was on an island within the school- Freshman Island.  I remember this experience, and it rings especially true in my current role as a high school principal.  Current ninth graders are not much different than I was at their age- anxious, defensive, fearful.  In speaking to other veteran educators, it is almost universally agreed upon that students rarely establish their true identity during their freshman year.  Rather, it is in their sophomore year when students truly establish their place within the school environment.  While this is not true in all cases, it is the norm in a general sense, and it begs the question: is this detachment a given for 9th grade students?  Or, can something be done to improve the transition between middle school and high school?

Our school data mirrors the national trends for ninth grade students, in that our freshman are more likely to fail courses, attend summer school and be retained than any other grade level.  This is true by a wide margin and it has persisted for several years.  Attempts have been made over the years, with some success.  The questions most commonly asked are: 1) how can we better prepare students to adapt to the changing academic and social cultures of high school?  How can high schools and middle schools work collaboratively to ensure continuity between grade 8 and grade 9?  3) How can we establish and maintain a culture of acceptance among our student body to ensure that new students are supported and cared for?

The process has been slow, but there has been progress in some areas.  For one, we have become much better at using data to identify at-risk students and using progress monitoring and targeted intervention strategies to make improvements.  The RtI process, which was relatively recently established, has helped significantly in the ninth grade.  We have also created a ninth grade academy, a team of teachers who meet regularly to discuss common concerns, plan lessons and provide supportive interventions to struggling learners.  The academy setting has also given teachers time to meet and discuss solutions to common issues that they see among groups of students.  Finally, we have recently committed to a much more comprehensive and strategic transitional process for prospective students.  This process will include hosting events for grade 8 students and families to allow them to get to know our school better, and instituting a peer pals program where older students oversee a group of freshman and provide guidance and assistance when needed.  We still have much work to do, but the steps taken so far serve as a start to a conversation that will hopefully yield significantly improved results over the next few years.  With a continued focus in this area, I am confident that we will see a freshman class that is more confident, prepared and academically successful than ever.  Have a great week, everyone!

-Rob

The Math Problem

Since I became principal of North Smithfield High School five years ago, the topic that has triggered the most consistent discussion, action and debate has been math.  In those years our team, which has included our curriculum director, department chairperson and teachers, have worked diligently to collect and analyze data, identify gaps in our curriculum and instruction, and implement new programs and interventions geared towards ensuring that all students are able to meet at least the minimum requirements for graduation.  The change effort has been gradual, and the results have been positive, but underwhelming.  While our results in English Language Arts dramatically grew after our direct interventions, math has seen a slower, less noteworthy level of growth.

At the high school level, the “math problem” is perhaps the most challenging, most frustrating, yet also most exhilarating problem facing principals and teachers today.  Students are required to demonstrate a minimum level of math (and reading) proficiency on state tests in order to graduate.  Unlike reading, however, which is a skill that is reinforced in every class, every day, math instruction rests solely on the shoulders of a single teacher each year of high school.  While students practice reading (whether explicitly or implicitly) throughout the school day, they literally interrupt their school day for roughly 50 minutes to practice their math, a discipline that requires a unique level of precision, focus and attention to detail.

Similarly, high school students typically see math as one of, if not the, most challenging subject matter in their schedule.  Students often struggle to see the point of math, and they often accept as a fact that they “are no good at math” (which I have always found somewhat interesting- in that you would rarely, if ever, hear a student or parent speak so bluntly about being “no good at reading”).  Students often view math with a fixed mindset- that they are either good at it or not good at it- with individuals possessing little ability to improve themselves if they are not good.  They also typically express disillusionment with why they have to take math- that they “will never have to use this information”.

These are real challenges facing high school educators today.  Math is challenging in its own respect.  It poses an even greater problem when teachers have to not only teach the challenging content, but also have build the confidence of students and parents, make up for gaps in their previous experiences, and sell students on the relevance of the material.  Despite these barriers, I believe they can be overcome.  To do this I have a few helpful suggestions:

1) Schools and families must be partners in the process.  When schools and parents bicker unnecessarily, students suffer.  Schools must make effort to reach out to parents and engage them in the discussion about math standards, curriculum, instruction, expectations and resources.  It is vitally important for schools to establish these lines of communication, and for parents to reciprocate by supporting teachers and encouraging students to work hard and believe in themselves.

2) Teachers must be receptive to feedback about their teaching and must be willing to examine data, utilize best practice instructional strategies and commit to explicitly teaching the standards embedded in each course.

3) Student attitudes towards math must be shifted through adult reinforcement of the fact that math is an important skill that is cultivated through hard work, discipline and focus.  Students (especially at the high school level) also must be explicitly shown how the math they are learning applies in different contexts.

4) School and district leaders must embrace this challenge and effectively communicate and facilitate the change process to all stakeholders.  Leaders must support teachers by providing them with time and resources needed to fully buy in to the necessary changes.  Leaders must also remain visible and accountable to parents and students through effective communication.

I believe the “math problem” at the high school to be as a much a problem about attitude as it is about math.  The sooner we are able to shift attitudes, and the sooner we all get on the same page with where we are going and how we are getting there, the sooner I believe we will see truly remarkable results.  I am excited to take on this problem, and I am confident that despite the difficulties that exist, we will be successful.  Have a great week!

-Rob

Proud to Fail

In my office hangs one of my all-time favorite quotes from one of my all-time favorite historical figures- Winston Churchill.  The quote reads: “Success is the ability to move from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”  I chose this quote for a specific reason: I fail a lot.  During my tenure as principal, and before that as a teacher, I can’t begin to imagine the number of lessons, meetings, conversations or presentations that I have walked away from thinking that I could have done better.  I remember some of my first meetings as principal, and I recall spending hours afterwards re-hashing the meeting and thinking how I could have presented the information more clearly, or how I could have done more to engage the group to get them to own the solution to the problem.  I think of times when I could have delegated leadership, rather than taking everything on my own.  I think of times when I could have provided better feedback to a teacher, or could have articulated my opinions more clearly.

The fear of failure can cripple individuals and organizations.  The tendency to always do what is “safe” and “traditional” can lead to the greatest failure of all- the failure to grow and adapt to changing conditions and circumstances.  Moreover, in the context of schools, a culture that does not embrace failure runs the risk of settling for low expectations, passive engagement and rote instruction.  School leaders must establish and maintain learning environments that value new ideas and expect improvements and changes to come from different sources.  Teachers must embrace risk in the sense of challenging themselves to pursue and execute new instructional strategies to engage students and push their thinking.  They must not be content with doing things the way they have always been done, or with remaining in their comfort zones.  Sometimes the best learning experience is when a new approach is attempted, but falls short.  Experiences such as these teach us where our shortcomings exist, and how we can improve on them in the future.

Students must also embrace failure.  At the high school level, I have repeatedly seen a tendency of students to obsess over “the grade”, while losing sight of the fact that their education should be about their personal journey of self-fulfillment and reflection.  I have heard students carry on about how they will never use the information they are learning in “real life”.  Adults can agree, however, that “real life” frequently presents us with personal and professional challenges that must be overcome in order to meet our goals.  The lesson school teaches us, beyond the content of algebra, or US history, or world literature, is the degree to which we are able to persevere through struggle and hardship, and emerge as better, more complete individuals.  This realization does not occur if we always “play it safe” and never experience setbacks and failures.

I am sometimes disheartened when I suspect parents are disrupting this process for students.  I believe that, as adults, we must push our students to fight through struggle, to persevere through difficult times.  To pick ourselves up and try again when we fail, rather than making excuses for why we fail.  We must remember that life does not promise anything to anyone.  Success must be earned, and in my opinion, success is earned one failure at a time.  I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder.  Have a great week everyone!

-Rob

For educational leaders:

1) Do all the new ideas come from me?

2) Do students, parents, teachers, staff members feel empowered to bring forward new ideas?

3) Is there a culture of self-reflection and personal inquiry present in your school/district?

For teachers:

1) Do I reflect on my practice on a daily basis?

2) Do I consistently attempt new ways to reach all learners?

3) Am I open-minded to feedback about my practice?

For students:

1) Do I embrace challenging work, or avoid it?

2) When I don’t do as well as would have liked, do I take ownership or do I blame someone else?

3) Do I view my education as about the grades I receive and nothing else?

For parents:

1) Do I allow my child(ren) to take risks and learn from their experiences?

2) Do I give my child(ren) excuses for their failures?

3) Do I communicate to my child(ren) that failure is an essential part of the learning process?

Is Career Transitioning Getting Lost in the Shuffle?

Like many high school assistant principals, my assistant principal, Tim McGee, handles most of the discipline issues at North Smithfield High School.  One of Tim’s greatest strengths as an administrator is his ability to earn the trust and respect of the students, especially those who find themselves frequently in his office for demonstrating less than exemplary behavior.  Tim is able to do this because he takes the time to listen to students and consider and understand their perspective.  He treats them fairly and with dignity, and he always holds them accountable for their actions in a way that is nonjudgmental and consistent.  I’ve worked with him directly for the past five years.  I trust his judgment and perspective as much as anybody else I work with.  Recently, he spoke at length with me about the need to provide students with real career exploration opportunities.  Too often, he said, he deals with students who possess the potential to excel in “hands-on” skills that require the application of learning to actual scenarios.  Frequently he cites his frustration with the fact that so many disengaged students could be successful if we could allow their skills to be showcased.  Himself a builder, Tim speaks frequently of the fact that his students could learn and apply high-level math within a career-oriented program.  Rather than force-feeding them algebra and geometry in a traditional classroom, he contends that they would best be able to apply these concepts in a setting that simulates an “on the job” experience.

It saddens me when student strengths cannot be displayed to their full extent.  Students who may excel at web design, applied technologies, multimedia applications or other career-oriented skill areas are being short-changed in today’s educational climate.  In North Smithfield, we have seen significant cuts in recent years that resulted in the loss of our block schedule, the reduction of teaching staff, and the loss of elective offerings for students.  Furthermore, the new standardized testing requirements have compelled us to offer ramp-up classes in math in order to remediate the skill deficiencies for students who are entering high school.  This shift has further diluted the elective offerings for students.  The subject areas most affected by these changes are applied technology, family and consumer science and business.  When students are not able to study content and apply knowledge in areas that are of genuine interest to them, it weakens a school and leads to further disengagement and struggle.  Tim sees this on a daily basis, as this disengagement, which exists primarily in a relatively small (but consistent) minority of students, manifests itself in negative behaviors.

So what can be done about this?  Can the forces of limited budgets and increased emphasis on standardized testing be overcome?  Is there room for career-focused programs in today’s typical high schools?  These are the questions that we at NSHS will be exploring at length in the coming months.  One thing is certain: in today’s fast-moving economic climate schools cannot afford to deprive students of real opportunities to research and explore potential career fields prior to graduating,  In all likelihood, we will have to consider “outside the box” solutions such as the school-within-a-school approach.  Perhaps there are also opportunities to join with neighboring districts and offer regionalized options.  I am convinced, however, that the time has come to begin addressing this issue and moving forward with real solutions.  Enjoy the week, everyone!

-Rob

Technology Integration- Challenges and Possibilities

Yesterday I was one of many fortunate Rhode Island educators who attended the Innovation Powered by Technology Conference at the Rhode Island Convention Center.  Even though I was not able to stay for the entire conference, I felt that the sessions I attended were well worth my time- engaging, interesting and thought-provoking.  One panel discussion that was particularly interesting to me was the session on RIDE Wireless Classroom Initiative.  The presenters did an excellent job explaining the legislative underpinnings of the initiative, as well as some of the major challenges and possibilities.  I will attempt to briefly summarize the significant points brought forth by the panel, and then I will offer my humble arguments for how we, as public school educators, can truly take advantage of this opportunity.

In case you are unaware, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a $20 million bond in June of 2012 to provide wireless access for every classroom in Rhode Island.  Since this monumental decision, RIDE has been overseeing the planning, procurement and implementation phases of the initiative.  They are charged with the task of reviewing over 1300 proposals from 355 public schools throughout the state, providing guidance and support through the process, accepting and reviewing vendor proposals, reviewing school and district plans and guiding implementation at the district level.  Considering all this, it is not surprising that they are concerned about making sure the $20 million investment is used wisely.  Having said that, the expected payoff is potentially staggering: wireless connectivity for every student, in every classroom in every school.  It is no wonder that policy-makers and politicians jumped at the opportunity.

As I was listening to the panel discuss the implications of the initiative, I found myself thinking deeply about the concept of technology integration- that is, the seamless connection between technology and learning, where technology is not merely a tool, but rather an integral part of the learning process.  This is what I am primarily interested in: true technology integration, where technology is not merely used sporadically- “today we are going to the computer lab”- but rather serves as an indispensable resource that complements and enhances learning.  For this to occur, three essential characteristics must be established: 1) a district-level commitment to supporting technology infrastructure and support, 2) school and district leaders willing to model technology use, and 3) a learning environment committed to constructivist teaching strategies.

My esteemed colleague Eric Butash, our technology director in North Smithfield, is known for posing the question- “when will districts consider paying the technology bill the same way they pay the electric bill?”  His point is obvious and correct.  Until school districts understand that technology integration is an integral part of their overall mission, that it is indispensable to the learning process for today’s students, we will never truly achieve our goals.  Despite this, our technology budget in North Smithfield, like so many others, is woefully underfunded.  While the wireless initiative will go a long way in improving this, districts will still need to invest significantly in human capital to coach, support, and manage the ever-expanding technology needs that will be flowing into schools.

The importance of leadership in the cultivation of a healthy and vibrant learning environment is well-documented.  District and school leaders must model and communicate the use of technology in their daily practice.  Leaders must accept the fact that it is their responsibility to embrace technology as an essential tool to optimize their performance and efficiency.  Furthermore, they must model its use and promote and encourage teachers and students to use technology to further their learning.  Perhaps the best way to do this is to create a professional learning network on twitter.  A PLN is a simple way to collaborate with other educators around topics of interest.  It is also a way to “tap into” the collective knowledge of a group in an easy, efficient way.  Drawing on personal experience, twitter has allowed me to gain perspective and guidance from other educators who are dealing with many of the same issues I am, and who share resources and ideas that I would otherwise not be aware of.

The adoption of school-wide constructivist teaching practices are essential to the successful integration of technology into the learning environment.  Constructivist teaching is rooted in the belief that all learning is based on prior experience, and that authentic learning occurs when individuals connect new knowledge and skills to prior learning experiences.  In this model, learning functions as an ever-expanding spiral of questioning, collaborating, performing and reflecting.  It is in such an environment that technology integration flourishes.  Teachers who regularly integrate technology-based tools such as blogging, social media, skype, google docs and wikis typically do so in service of their goal to foster student skill-development through open exchange of information and inquiry-based instruction.  Teachers who effectively use technology function more as a facilitator of knowledge, with students directing their own learning rather than recording and reciting facts provided by the teacher.  Perhaps the most poignant example of this was provided by a high school history teacher, who challenged her students to study three of America’s most influential wars- the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II, as part of a singular inquiry into the common elements that led to commencing of each, and to argue the underpinnings of military combat as fluid and consistent, rather than isolated.  It is this type of approach that technology integration is most likely to take root.  It must begin with the learning environment.

To truly integrate technology into our learning environment we must first look at the necessity of technology in meeting the goals for our students: that they must demonstrate the ability to think independently, synthesize information from a variety of sources and construct reasoned arguments based on relevant facts and careful analysis.  Until we truly adopt this approach, technology will continue to serve as something we “do” rather than something we “own”.  We must break the pattern of focusing on devices alone of the benchmarks of technology integration.  We must strive to truly marry technology with learning in a culture of inquiry, collaboration and authenticity.  I will leave you with some interesting links to constructivist teaching practices.  Have a great week, everyone!

-Rob

Excerpts taken from: Konig, Johannes (Ed.) Teachers’ Pedagogical Beliefs; Waxmann 2012

http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/

http://www.niu.edu/facdev/programs/handouts/constructivism.pdf

http://imaginationsoup.net/2011/01/what-is-a-constructivist-classroom/

Student motivation and engagement

So here we go- my first blog post!  I thought the topic of student motivation and engagement would be a good place to start for a couple of reasons.  First, this topic consumes so much of my time in conversations with colleagues, teachers, students and parents.  Second, there seem to be be so many contrasting opinions on the topic (i.e. teachers think students are not motivated enough or “too lazy”, parents think students are too “stressed out” or “overworked”).  Third, there seems to exist such a fine line between the two.  I purposely framed the title of this post as motivation and engagement because I think those two words represent the two sides to the issue- teachers want students to be motivated, students want their teachers to engage them in the material being taught. This is the common ground that exists.  So where do we go from here?

Like most principals, I try to make a habit of visiting classrooms on a daily basis.  When I visit a classroom of highly “motivated” students the teacher tends to be using effective teaching practices strategically aimed at engaging students in the learning.  The fascinating thing to me is that these strategies are typically very simple in their design and execution.  Despite (or perhaps because of) their simplicity, it is clear that the teacher has given very specific thought to two crucial questions: 1) What is it I want students to specifically know and/or be able to do as a result of today’s lesson? and 2) How will I know the students know what I want them to know and/or be able to do?  These two questions establish the focus of the day’s work keenly on the students and their learning, not on the teacher and his/her teaching.

This student-centered mindset results in a classroom environment that is more dynamic, engaging and fun.  Students are challenged to think deeply about topics that interest them.  Students are given multiple opportunities to express their opinions or thoughts introspectively, with their peers or with the whole class.  Teachers are able to closely monitor student performance on a daily basis, in an ever-changing cycle of instruction, assessment and feedback.  What’s more, student motivation is higher because students see that the work they are doing is meaningful and interesting.

In closing I would like to offer a few questions aimed at specific groups, as well as a few links to engaging teaching strategies.

For teachers:

1) Am I designing student-centered lessons on a daily basis that are aimed at specifically targeting knowledge and skills to be learned, rather than content to be covered?

2) Am I utilizing dynamic instructional strategies that engage and challenge students to think deeply about topics of interest and importance?

3) Am I utilizing effective practices of both formative and summative assessment to measure student understanding on a daily basis?

For students:
1) Am I prepared each day to think deeply about complex topics and actively participate in my own learning?

2) Am I willing to take risks and learn from my mistakes?

3) Am I understanding of the fact that the best questions have no “right” answer and that my opinions only matter when supported by relevant facts?

Here are some engagement strategies that you may find helpful:

http://curriculum.northsmithfieldschools.com/content/student-engagement-strategies

http://www2.pvc.maricopa.edu/hs/docs/strategies_for_student_engagement.pdf

http://www.marzanocenter.com/blog/article/5-ways-to-get-and-keep-your-students-attention/

Have a great week, everyone!

-Rob