Author: Bill Zima

The How to Your Why

September 11, 2017 by

So much has been said about the importance of an organization having a purpose for the work they do. Schools have crafted purpose statements often containing phrases like “life-long learners,” “productive citizens,” and “successful members of society.” This is best done following a series of meetings with all stakeholders to capture their thoughts on what the experience of school should be for the community. At RSU 2, our purpose statement is “Cultivating Hope in All Learners.” We wanted a lofty commitment that falls just short of saying, “We want to make the world a better place.” All decisions we make, from allocating our resources to scheduling our learners, must be done in a way that shows we support our purpose.

But how do we know we are supporting the purpose? That question has been on my mind lately, causing me to ponder the middle ring in Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, the “How”: how we do the things we do in support of our why. If your actions do not reflect your why, you should either change your actions or change your why. Left as is, people will begin to see hypocrisy in your organization. And once they believe you are not being true to the work, they will find evidence to support their doubt, even if it is falsely interpreted. Leaders will find themselves in a constant mode of management.

What I have come to notice is to get at the “how we will work together to meet our purpose” requires agreement on common language and common approaches. The stakeholders responsible for the implementation of the plan must spend time to truly understand it so the purpose can be realized. These understandings must include agreed upon definitions and tenets.

Recently, I watched a five minute New York Times Magazine interview with comedian Jerry Seinfeld in which he described his process for writing a joke. When you listen, his rules of thumb of joke creating and telling come out loud and clear. They are:

  1. Write about nothing
  2. Think of something you think is funny
  3. Be funny right away
  4. Write on yellow pads with a Bic pen
  5. Look for connective tissue to link the story
  6. Biggest joke at the end
  7. The wronger something feels the righter it is

While some of these might be typical for all comedians, some may be true for Seinfeld alone.

The same can be said for how a school realizes being a personalized, competency-based system of education. Our rules of thumb, lets call them tenets, the principle or belief held as true by the members of a group, will be both similar and special to the district who defines them. Said in another way, what are those things that we agree need to happen to reach our vision? No system is exactly like another. Whether it is demographics, geography, or traditions and superstitions (like writing every episode of Seinfeld with a yellow pad and a Bic pen), schools have personalities. That is what we mean when we talk about school culture.  That is why every school and system needs to invest the time and energy, in productive struggle, to build understanding of how they will put the learners and their learning at the center of everything they do. (more…)

Proficiency is for Hope

February 3, 2017 by

PathwayI recently found myself discussing the latest round of State test scores with a group of Maine superintendents. There was concern that we are not realizing the overwhelming success we had wished for when we began the march to proficiency-based education. As a result, they want to leave proficiency-based grading and return to traditional grading and reporting. I wonder, does how we report student progress truly have an impact on Standardized test scores?

What we are trying to create in a true learner-centered or personalized school is not improvement on a snapshot of academic achievement. We want young people to see a future they desire and persevere to make it real regardless of the obstacles that lay ahead of them. We want a world of thinkers and not simply knowers. Learners who know life’s pathways all have struggles, but see them as mounds to get over or go around. We want students to have hope. The research is clear, the level of hope a student has is a far better predictor of future success in college and life than aptitude or achievement scores. I argue that you cannot get there unless you have clear learning expectations and success criteria. Those bones come from being proficiency-based.

How can schools have a positive impact on a student’s perception of what lies ahead? The answer might be found in a definition created using the brilliant work of Shane Lopez in Making Hope Happen. Shane reports that hope has three core competencies: goals, pathways, and agency. Hopeful people believe the future will be better than the present and they have the power to make it so. Also, people with hope are aware that there are many pathways to their goals and none of them is free of obstacles. A school system that is truly learner-centered, competency-based can help create the goals, agency, and pathways that build students’ hope. (more…)

Speak Like You Are Right; Listen Like You Are Wrong

August 30, 2016 by

TeamRecently, I found myself stumbling out of a hotel and into a parking lot. My eyes were glassy and my gait was erratic. No, I had not been drinking. Instead, my lack of clarity was caused by something far worse; a parade of lawyers. I had just finished the end-of-year rally with the school lawyers. The way it works, we hear from fifteen lawyers, each given ten minutes, to share everything we need to know about changes in State or Federal laws. This was not drinking from a fire hose. This was drinking from the discharge viaduct of the Hoover Dam! From rental contracts, to special education, to collective bargaining, and everything in between. It was all laid out for us.

As I drove home, finally regaining my breath, I began to ponder how I, as a single individual, finishing my first year as superintendent, can get this done. Even with more years of experience, it seems daunting. How can I monitor all the things I need to monitor while also helping to lead the district to a learner-centered, proficiency-based system? I needed to buy land for a new school. I needed to sell the budget so it would pass referendum. I needed to hire new principals who could lead and also manage our schools as we continue to improve. I needed to… My heart rate increased again and my breath became shallow. Where was my brown paper bag? (more…)

Keep the Vision in Your Sights

January 6, 2016 by

aloOne cannot deny the energy that has grown in support of competency-based learning. While it is still not the practice of the majority of educators, it increases by more believers every day. At its core, it is a great conversation about how to make the shift from a time-based system to one focused on learners demonstrating understanding of learning competencies. For me, the true power of competency-based education can be actualized when connected with a true learner-centered approach to learning. One that customizes the learning experience and drives our students into the realm of deeper learning. It can be more than a linear checklist for students to complete. The competencies can be used to support learners in becoming critical thinkers and effective communicators. We need to keep both together when visioning with our stakeholders.

I do not mean to say that having a well defined progression of competencies – increasing from the simple to the more complex and making sure students are proficient before moving to the next target – is not an important step forward for learning. Thanks to John Hattie, we know that two of the best strategies a teacher can use to improve learning is to have clear targets and then provide feedback on how students are doing at meeting those targets.

But I believe the competencies can help educators go further. Help us reach the ever-elusive four-leaf clover of education, the deeper learning experience. This is when students are asked to apply their knowledge and not simply be tested for its existence. While it is not a new concept, and is certainly being realized in pockets of classrooms around the world, we can do more to make it common practice.

In order for all students to have the motivation to expend the extra energy required to think deeper and reason with knowledge at a higher cognitive level, a sentiment usually expressed during the visioning phase of system change, the learning opportunities we create need to be more relevant with clear expectations to the students. That is why learner-centered, competency-based systems need to be connected if we are to reach the vision. To stop improving our educational systems once we have the competencies will limit the full potential for all students. (more…)

True Voice and Choice at Kettle Moraine Perform

October 19, 2015 by

KMPerformCan you envision a high school without courses, semesters, or trimesters? A school where students build their schedules every four to six weeks, choosing seminars, workshops, internships, projects, and the like that are interesting to them?

A school where students are not moving through a schedule created for them nine months before the academic year even begins?

What if instead you take the competencies from math, science, reading, writing, and the like, and then put them together into interdisciplinary learning opportunities that students can choose?

What if students were so knowledgeable about their learning that they could add competencies to existing seminars so they were meeting their learning goals, or creating seminars to co-teach with school faculty so their fellow students can meet their learning goals?

Well, I have not only envisioned it but I finally got to see it in action last week when I visited Kettle Moraine Perform in Wales, Wisconsin, a 170 student performing arts high school inside the larger 1400 student legacy high school. (Click here for more on the model.)

Abby, our student tour guide, was a senior with enough credits gathered to graduate. But instead of leaving high school, she decided to stay to make herself more competitive for the college of her choice. This is a wonderful model of true voice and choice.

I look forward to going back.

See also:

About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at zimaw (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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…)

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