Author: Bill Zima

Keeping the Why

July 8, 2015 by

TeacherRecently, I found myself at a conference sponsored by the Maine Curriculum Leaders’ Association. The purpose: to discuss where we are as a state in our ability to award diplomas based on proficiency of concepts and skills. Since each district is tasked with defining their own plan, it was a welcomed opportunity to hear the challenges and successes other districts have been encountering. It was a wonderful day of professional collaboration minus the single moment someone shared that they were excited about the move to proficiency since “students will now be ready when they get to me.” The grade level of the teacher who spoke is not relevant because I saw nodding heads of agreement from teachers of all levels. Is this really why we are doing this? So we know that students are ready for us? My mind took off.

I have heard this phrase uttered before. And, in full disclosure, I would be untruthful if I said those simple words never passed over my lips nor that I gave a head gesture in an attempt to emphasize my point that competency-based learning is worth making a reality. That was before I realized the importance of starting with WHY (thanks Simon Sinek). What was the reason we want this shift in education? In my more recent history of the competency-based movement, I have solidified my deeper understanding of why I want to shift from a system that awards Carnegie Units based on seat time and subject grades to one that asks students to demonstrate competency of skills and knowledge. The truth is, competency-based in not about making sure kids are ready for the next level’s teacher. Maybe that is a good why if you think only of how skills are to be taught. But, by simply adding the words “learner-centered” in front of proficiency-based, we make the reforms in the systems of schooling about what the student needs. In other words, we tag a student’s proficiency not because we want to know they are ready for us. We tag so we know what to prepare so we are ready for them. The difference between the two phrases might seem subtle, and at first glance may even be synonymous, but the effects on the system are not the same. The Why and how we teach and assess shifts when we begin with the learner.

Doug Finn, an educational coach for ReInventing Schools Coalition (RISC), has offered a great explanation of the differences. He shared that the teacher-centered structure, common in most schools, starts with a teacher and then assigns age-appropriate students to build the teacher’s schedule of classes. In contrast, a learner-centered approach starts with identifying what the students’ current needs are, grouping them, and then finding an adult to guide them to the next level of the learning progression. (more…)

Navigators of Learning

January 8, 2015 by

CompassImprovement comes from knowing where you are going, where you are starting, and the strategic steps to get you there. This is true whether you are retooling a business or choosing towels for a newly redecorated bathroom. When my district began to move to a learner-centered, proficiency-based educational system, we met with the community of parents, learners, educators, and business leaders to set the vision for the school. We now use this vision to create the action plans we will follow to get us to the vision.

But when working with students, we stray from this plan. Teachers’ goals are simple: improve students in their thinking and skills. The execution is the tough part. Giving students a letter grade is not a strategy for improvement. It is as helpful as a coach telling a team they lost without reflecting on why the loss occurred. Athletes know the goal of the game is to win, and reminding them of this is not a strategy.

Tony Dungy, the former head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts (as described in Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries for Leaders), knew that if he was going to win the Super Bowl, he would need to not just measure how many wins or losses the team had. Instead he would need to measure penalty yards and turnovers. He then gave the athletes strategies on how to improve those areas. If they executed the strategies, he theorized they would win. He was right. Teachers need to do the same. We cannot simply give students a final grade when they are not even sure what strategies they can use to improve – or worse, aren’t even clear on what they are trying to improve. A well-crafted progression of competencies can give the teacher and the student the guidebook needed to create successful strategies for continuous improvement. (more…)

ReInventing Schools at the District Level

November 10, 2014 by
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Bill Zima

In 2012, Maine established policy for schools to award proficiency-based diplomas starting in 2018. As the years passed, it became clear that some districts, including mine, needed more time to get all the pieces in place. In April of 2014, The Maine Department of Education agreed to allow extensions for districts as long as they met specific criteria demonstrating the district was moving forward. There were six options ranging from no extension to taking a full three years.

My district chose option five, which required us to partner with a coach to help with the transition to a learner-centered, proficiency-based system. We decided to partner with the ReInventing Schools Coalition. This decision was made based on their affiliation with Marzano Research Labs and their proven record of supporting schools through the transition. Also, the middle school, of which I am the principal, already had a working relationship with them. We have found them to be tireless in their commitment to support us through the process of meeting our vision.

With our limited funds, the decision was made to begin the district work with leadership teams from each of the schools in the district. The groups met for a single day over the summer to talk about the ReInventing Schools framework. While it was nice to only spend a single day on this topic, I would not recommend it as the norm for the introduction. Since the ReInventing Schools Coalition is well-known in Maine, having worked with many school districts in the past six years, their framework is familiar to many educators. Add to this the catalyst of the proficiency-based diploma law, and it gave our coach the ability to move quickly, leaving only a few of the school leaders needing support in the days that followed. (more…)

Let the Lifting Begin

September 11, 2014 by
weight lifter

From wikicommons

This is the second post in the series on how to get started in converting your school to competency education. See Part 1, Just Start.

Futurist author Joel Barker said, “Vision without action is merely a dream.” Once upon a time, I had a dream of being an Olympic weightlifter. My name is called. I slowly rise. I adjust my weight belt as I approach the barbell. The red jumpsuit is really uncomfortable in all the wrong places. I squat with my back straight to make sure I use my knees just like my former supervisor told me when we unloaded boxes at the grocery store. I know he would be happy that his obsession with proper lifting had finally sunk in. I make the necessary grunting sound and heave upon the rod that connects the mere 350 pounds. Unlike the Olympic athletes I watched as a child, my barbell does not even budge. Sure I have a grand vision for how to clean and jerk that weight, but a vision is only the first step on a path to the true heavy lifting.So now that you have a great purpose statement for why your school or district exists –  something just short of “To make the world a better place” – and you have determined HOW you will work to realize that purpose, it is time to get to the heavy lifting.

To help move the purpose and the vision of the school from the dream state to a reality, we needed action. We created a three-year professional plan, identified what needed to happen the first year, and then created action plans for those items. The primary activities were developing a framework of skills, scoring scales and assessments. (more…)

Just Start

August 19, 2014 by

Just startWhat do Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Bill Belichick, and Anshul Samar have in common? Sure, they all had a vision of what they wanted to accomplish. But more importantly, they got STARTED. The difference between a great idea and an idea that makes a great difference, is someone executed it. To engage in the process of continuous improvement, the crux of leadership, one needs to begin. As investor and motivational speaker Robert Kiyosaki said, “If you are the kind of person who is waiting for the ‘right’ thing to happen, you might wait for a long time. It’s like waiting for all the traffic lights to be green for five miles before starting the trip.”

The person most responsible for the construction of the path to change for any school is the principal. Too often administrators try to line up all the pieces so there is a guarantee we do not make a mistake. After all, we are working with young minds. A simple mistake could ruin their future. So we analyze, plot, analyze again, get new information, see how that informs our decision, analyze again, make adjustments, analyze the adjustments, which causes the need for more decisions. All of this is hypothetical since we have nothing tangible to adjust. Voltaire warned, “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” We need to not worry and simply apply what we know today. The fear of hitting the magic switch and turning our students into thoughtless zombies left to wander aimlessly in a land of lost potential is unfounded. What school leaders need to do, regardless of role, is get a vision of their postcard destination, map the critical steps to get them from where they are to where they want to be, and then take that important first step. (more…)

A Tide of Understanding

April 10, 2014 by

MLately, I have been pondering how to help educators better visualize a progression of learning targets while warning them to avoid the linearity that seems so obvious. When first observing a progression, the continuous increase of complexity is hard to miss. So it is easy to conclude that students should finish the first step, then move to the next, complete that, and then the next, constantly ascending the ladder of learning. The problem with this vision is it does not represent how thinking and learning occur. Learning is not a constant. It ebbs and flows like the incoming tide on a coastal beach. Missing this can lead to using the progression as a checklist of skills and not fully using the advantage given by having a well-defined continuum of learning targets.

The power of a progression lies in its ability to make clear to student and teacher which learning outcome is centered in that student’s zone of proximal development. Without knowing what students have already mastered, been exposed to, or are just beginning, educators risk attempting to engage students in learning that is too low or too high. If we assume all students are at the same level of readiness simply because they are all in the same grade, we risk boredom or stress. In an earlier post, I talked about the stress caused by a lack of clarity in teacher expectations. Learners need the right level of stress in order to foster the attention needed to have a good performance. Too little pressure and we are bored; too much and we become fatigued and exhausted on our way to a breakdown (see graph). Learners need to be in the comfort zone. A learning progression will help identify where that is for each individual. (more…)

Piecing it Together

January 16, 2014 by

piecing it together photoLately, I have been reflecting on my past experiences. Not because of illness or a milestone, but because I read something in a Tweet. Seems as though some people are concerned about proficiency-based learning. The worry is that it can lead to the creation of “microstandards” which kill deep learning and replace it with simplistic, discrete tasks that students master and check off before moving on to the next. While I have seen schools take standards and create worksheet factories so students can demonstrate mastery of the standards by simply completing the packet, I do not blame the breaking down of the standards. I believe it is good practice to identify the foundational knowledge a learner needs to apply to demonstrate understanding of a learning target. Instead, I believe the issue lies in educators not putting the pieces back together.

This revelation is what has caused the flashbacks to my previous work experiences. I did not start out as an educator. Before finding my way to the principal’s office, I worked as an engineer, a research scientist, and an animal trainer for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Regardless of the special skills required for each job, I approached issues and challenges the same. I needed to know my intended outcome, identify from where I was starting, break down the gap to script the critical moves to get me there, execute the script, and then put the pieces back together. (more…)

The Power of Clear Expectations

November 4, 2013 by
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Brandon Busteed
Executive Director, Gallup Education

This August, the school year began with the staff watching and discussing a speech by Brandon Busteed, Executive Director, Gallup Education. We were asked to think about how his thoughts informed our work of creating a learner-centered, proficiency-based system. I had watched the video several times over the previous month to pull driving questions to guide the conversation. But on this day, in front of my colleagues, I had a thought that sparked like a transformer being hit by lightning. Brandon asked, “What is the ultimate outcome of education?” I paused the video and asked the educators to discuss it at their tables. I never thought twice about the response, “to create a love of learning.” That was until now. “That is wrong,” I heard myself say. “No. It is right,” I responded. “How can anyone argue against being a life-long learner?” Suddenly I had an argument so fierce in my neurons it was as if they were celebrating the Fourth of July again.

When my focus returned to the room, I was pleased no one had noticed my momentary, self-inflicted argument. Somehow, I managed to hold the outburst inside. As I continue to reflect on that day, I have become more convinced that preparing life long learners is not a role for education. Rather, a better response to Brandon’s question is, “The ultimate outcome of education is to nurture a student’s already implicit love for learning and keep them engaged in their formal education.” What I have come to realize is that humans naturally possess a love of learning. It is as intrinsic a quality to being human, as is having hair. In his book How the Brain Learns, author David Sousa argues that if schools stopped existing today, we would not have a land of thoughtless zombies tomorrow. Students will continue thinking and learning. He says educators should not worry about teaching how to think but about teaching how to think more efficiently. (more…)

Lens 4: Culture

August 8, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 3.33.40 PMIn earlier posts, I described a framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before. The framework is built around four lenses. They are building a leadership team, action planning (both described in earlier posts), meeting facilitation, and culture. This final post looks to further describe the lens of culture.

Culture. It is not part of the game. It is the game. Does your building believe all students can learn? Do the educators have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset? Do they believe they have a say in how the school operates? What are those measurable values and truths your school emulates?  Dr. Henry Cloud in his book “Boundaries for Leaders makes it very clear, “Culture is established through what the leader creates and what the leader allows.” I have too often listened to school administrators find every reason to explain away their poor culture. They blame the Department of Education, the parents, Central Office and even the students. I too blamed the external environment until I realized that the culture of my school is the one thing I can impact directly. Once I understood that culture is the organizational values, what people believe and are willing to work for, I realized that I can affect what is happening for our students. By focusing on school culture, I can impact student achievement, graduation rates, and teacher effectiveness. This is why I assess culture early and often. (more…)

Lens 3: Meeting Facilitation

August 1, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 11.43.02 AMIn earlier posts, I described a framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before. The framework is built around four lenses. They are building a leadership team, action planning (both described in earlier posts), meeting facilitation, and culture. This post looks to further describe the lens of meeting facilitation.

I remember the excitement I felt the night before my first team leader meeting. I laid awake visioning different scenarios of how I should act. I could sit quietly and listen to the experts discuss teaching and learning. I could share some thoughts of my own? What should I share? What do I know? Would I say something stupid and lose their respect? Did I even have their respect? The night went on but sleep did not.

The morning came. I hurried to the meeting carrying my Team Leader Binder under my arm as though I was tasked with delivering the Magna Carta. I pushed the door open and found an empty room. I took my seat and waited. People trickled in like a slow drip from the kitchen faucet. They gave me a cordial smile and took their seats. With one minute to go, the assistant principal entered the room. She did not sit. Instead she stood at the head of the conference table and opened her binder like a maestro getting ready to lead the orchestra. She watched the clock. As the clock struck eight, she began.

“Looking at the agenda, we have picture day next Monday. Any questions?” She glanced around the room, but it was clear she was not looking for any. Instead we moved to the next item. “Grades will close on January 23. Any questions?” With the same interest in hearing input, she moved onto the next item, then the next. When all the agenda items were covered, she closed her binder and said, “See you next week.” Without even looking at the leaders, she vacated the room. The leaders followed, congratulating each other on finishing the meeting in under 15 minutes. I sat in my seat wondering what had just happened. (more…)

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