Author: Bill Zima

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
Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 12.21.19 PM

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…)

Lens 2: Action Planning

July 10, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 9.34.37 AMIn earlier posts, I attempted to describe an overall 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 in both education and business. The framework is built around four lenses through which leaders’ practices must pass. When the lenses are aligned and what we do passes through, our work is focused on our vision. The four lenses of leadership are building a leadership team (discussed in an earlier blog post), action planning, meeting facilitation, and culture. This post looks to further describe the lens of action planning.

A well-built leadership team must identify and share what they will do. What actions will be taken to help our organization in the process of continuous improvement. In Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt states that actions are what give strategies traction. Without well defined action steps, you have wheel spinning.

In years past, my school’s leadership team met prior to the opening of school and set goals around how we taught, assessed, and supported our learners. The vision was of a school that asked the teacher to differentiate more and more while the system continued moving students in age-like cohorts whether or not they were ready for the next year’s curriculum. Once we realized this was not improving learning for all students, we created a vision of a school that included the statement, “Students working their way through a well defined continuum of learning using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the learning.” Borrowing a term from Switch by Dan and Chip Heath, this new vision became our “postcard destination.” Now we needed to identify and script the critical moves to make it a reality. (more…)

Lens 1: Building A Great Leadership Team

June 7, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 3.44.50 PMAs my responsibility changed from a single classroom, to a team, to the full school, I attempted to be the expert in everything from assessment to ventilation. I assumed I was hired because I had the answers. I also felt responsible to get the work done. How could I ask others to do it if I was not willing to do it myself? The work and the stress piled up. The attempt to be the lone expert in each and every room began to deteriorate my energy, and worse, my working relationships with my colleagues.

Then I listened to Creating Magic by Lee Cockerell, the once Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort. He suggested that the higher a person goes in an organization, the less of the actual work they do. He said leaders need to empower their direct reports by giving them a voice in how the job gets done. This allows for the innovative procedures and processes to be created.

Who were my direct reports? Schools are not designed as companies with departments with various levels of management. In my school, there are 61 teachers distributed amongst three grade levels: sixth, seventh and eighth, special education, and our Exploratories, with an assistant principal and a principal. Leadership teams in many schools are often constructed because someone fits a role instead of having leadership abilities. “The third grade representative is leaving, no one is interested, so I am going to do it” is not an uncommon statement. Another is, “Can we rotate the position for the year?” Both of these lead to a lack of consistency needed to build a well functioning leadership team.

I now find the leaders, and then have them assume the role. So my conversations might sound like, “Part of your responsibilities on the leadership team is to check in with the sixth grade teachers and see how they are progressing on our goals.” This also keeps the focus on the goals and the ownership of progress on the teams. (more…)

Leadership in a Competency-Based System

May 18, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-05-18 at 1.06.32 PMAt what point did leading a school through a continuous improvement process become so confusing? In my educational leadership classes, I spent a great deal of time focusing on what leadership is and developing a philosophy that would guide me. I thought I had it all figured out. I learned the difference between first order and second order change. I was told to have a vision, communicate it regularly, and work to make it a reality. I also needed to remember that I would be leading people and not machines. They will no longer respond to top-down dictates. If you want to make lasting change to improve education, you must include people in the conversation so they can weigh-in before they buy-in. Okay. Simple. I earned an ‘A’, completed my master’s degree, and felt ready to change the world!

Then I became a building leader, and suddenly someone had put a giant slab of granite in front of me, and I could not see a path forward.  I shared my vision, but people pushed back. No matter how hard I tried to communicate, they became more confused, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Even those initially excited about the reforms became skeptical of their possibilities. I was at a loss.

I began to read more and more from leaders and business consultants on how to become a better leader. The words of Bob Sutton, Dan Heath, Lee Cockerell, and John Wooden, amongst others, allowed me to begin forming theories of how I could lead my colleagues. A big breakthrough came when my district chose to partner with the Reinventing Schools Coalition who entered with the “tools” to drive change. Now I had the why, the how, and the tools to do it. (more…)

Wait…Don’t…Oh, missed it.

March 8, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 2.33.03 PMThose who have had the experience of living or working in a large city know the rush of seeing your subway train in the station and believing you can make the dash to the door before they close. Moving and dodging past passengers, you begin to feel great. “I am going to make it,” you think. The crowd begins to cheer. You can already feel the celebration. Will you spike your briefcase or simply do a quick shuffle dance. Then out of nowhere, you smash into something. Your nose is throbbing. After a moment you realize the doors have closed. You can see the driver looking at you with a smile on her face. Not in a mocking way but in an apologetic, “Sorry, the trains must stay on schedule” way. As the passengers glance up, you can sense the sympathy in their eyes. They know that feeling of being on the outside looking in.

The same crushing defeat in our Superbowl of ordinary, time-based challenges could be said for air travel, elevators and rides at Disney World. But it should not be felt by our students in our schools.
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Assessment All the Time? Why Not?

February 4, 2013 by
zoomers

1970′s ZOOM from website

When talking with people who are not educators, I often think of Fannee Doollee, a character from the Zoom television series, which ran on PBS in the late seventies, who has a fascination with double letters. Fannee Doollee loves one thing but hates something very similar. For example, she loves swEEts but hates candy (notice the double EE in sweets). Similarly, in my conversation with parents and community leaders, I am always amazed at how they can advocate for one thing while mocking a possible solution.

For example, last week I found myself at a round table with eight influential community members. Then it happened. One of the leaders begins talking about her granddaughter in Virginia and how the school gives students a chance to “do over” an assignment until they get it right. She looked at me and pleaded, “Bill, tell me your school does not do that.” All heads nodded in support, and then slowly turned toward me. Enter the image of Fannee Doollee; “They love having students prePPed, but hate giving them time to learn.” (more…)

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