Month: July 2015

Are You a Pump or a Filter?

I recently had a great conversation with John Puglisi and Mike Vollmert, from the Rio School District.  We are both K-8 districts, neighbor each other, and face many of the same challenges to moving our instructional programs into the next phase of 21st Century teaching and learning.  Our students feed into the same high schools, so it behooves the students if we can work together to provide Rio and PVSD students the best possible instructional program.  We met because, as silos, our districts are not capitalizing on the collective knowledge and skills each of our districts possesses. We expect teachers to open their doors to other teachers at their school site, and we expect schools within our district to collaborate, share, and build each other up.

Why, then, don’t we expect the same of ourselves and other school districts?

This first meeting felt like a first date of sorts: each of us trying to figure out what the other one has in mind for our future together. How much should we share right away? Are there things we don’t want to necessarily share right away because they might indicate some imperfection?

As the conversation began to flow, we were ruminating on the critical role of the school principal.  There are many studies that indicate that the Principal is the linchpin for instructional growth.  Take the Wallace Foundation study, or Marzano’s seminal work on leadership, School Leadership That Works….both point to the immensely important role that principals play. District leaders can have the most amazing ideas and plans, and the principal decides- through their leadership- whether those ideas and plans die on the vine, or are turned into fruit bearing actions.

We spoke about the way that a principal can take an overarching theme or idea (i.e. make formative assessment an aspect of EVERY lesson) and magnify that idea by providing teachers the resources to try new forms of formative assessment. Mike referred to this in the conversation as “a pump.” We all know that pumps take something (usually a liquid) and moves the liquid from one place to another, usually with great force.

Conversely, the principal can choose not to emphasize the big idea.  Whether it’s through intentional ignorance or a lack of ability to understand and promote the idea, the principal is key.  Either way, this idea is moving toward a school, and either loses momentum, or is completely stopped before entering the school.  At this point, I said, “Like a filter.” An idea can be moving with great momentum, then be slowed or stopped.

There was a pause….a recognition that we had just characterized the role of the principal in a new way that made sense to us.  Having all been principals in the past, we recognize the absolute importance of the role. The principal can be what stands between a school and its forward momentum, or what stands behind gracefully pumping growth.


Working Together vs. Thinking Together

The idea that group projects are “project based learning” is untrue. Students have to THINK together in order for collaboration to take place. Students have to disagree, argue, negotiate, and agree in order for collaboration to take place.  Group work refers to hard skills, such as “who will type this part up,” or “who can put pictures in the presentation.”  Collaboration is a soft skill, which includes the ability to articulate ideas, discuss content, with the division of labor coming naturally from the higher order skills. Group work is the “dessert”- there are a few choices and it comes at the end of the main dish (i.e. after instruction).   On the other hand,  collaboration is the “buffet” (i.e. there are many choices to be made serves as the main source of learning).

I recently reflected on the importance not just of problem “solving” but also of problem “recognition.” To simply instruct students to solve a problem we have identified is not authentic. In your job, do you find yourself more apt to work hard on a problem that’s been assigned to you, or do you prefer to have ownership over the work you do? Do you think students are any different?

I think this presents a barrier to most teachers, who were trained and have practiced their craft in an age of prescriptive curriculum. Allowing students to work on a project that has never been done before requires the teacher to let go of some control; a very scary idea for some. Most teachers are comfortable with creating an project, and assigning the students to groups, and then asking them to ‘work together.’ This is not enough…students need the authentic practice of thinking together to identify a problem and generate a solution.

let it go

Problem Solving is Not Enough

I recently began the Leading Edge Administrator Certification through TICAL.  It’s been 2 years since I completed my doctoral program, and I was hesitant to once again be a student.  After just two weeks of being in Leading Edge, I am so glad that I took this step. While I have always maintained pretty voracious reading habits, the program is asking me to reflect on my ideas and goals.

A recent assignment asked us to formulate a vision statement for the year 2020- how do we want our organization to function in the future? As someone “in the trenches” it’s easy to get caught up in the immediacy of projects and problems.  By asking me to think ahead and dream big, I came to a particular realization. I was reflecting on how project based learning helps students become “independent problem solvers.”  There was something about this idea that felt incomplete.

It’s not enough to teach students the skills to SOLVE problems.  In order to be meaningful contributors to society, students need to be able to IDENTIFY problems on their own.  While problem solving is a worthy educational focus, we are not serving tomorrow if students depend on someone else to tell them what the problems are that need to be solved. How can we say we are developing innovators if we are not ensuring that students have the capacity to analyze a situation enough to recognize that there is a problem to be solved?