Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Journey as an Instructional Coach

Photo credit: Wally Gobetz,
 "La Pyramide Inversée du Louvre"
In my current job, facilitating professional development is an expectation. But, I hope to do more than that: I hope to facilitate professional learning.

The differences are huge: PD is something done "to you" or it's the next big thing that's happening in education and is often disseminated in a "top down" manner. Professional learning, on the other hand, is largely self-directed; you choose your own adventure in learning. It's inherently "bottom up". And, because you have chosen to engage in some form of learning, if the process is agreeable and authentic... well, then the learning should follow.

Fundamental to the notion of engaged professional learning is the assumption that teachers directly impact student achievement. I think John Hattie's meta-analyses, Visible Learning, prove this assertion. Thus, if teachers hope to positively affect student achievement, they need to adjust their teaching to best meet the needs of the learners. Of course, there is no one magic instructional strategy that will drastically change student achievement; teachers need to experiment and use research-based strategies and approaches that will meet the needs of their students. In my view, this is great fun: try a new teaching/ learning strategy! Run an experiment! Your students are the guinea pigs! (I'm somewhat metaphorical here -- it's not like we're conducting science experiments on them.)

One of the ways I hope to engage teachers in their own professional learning is through coaching, which is relatively new in our board's secondary schools. More specifically, I hope to do this using an appreciative inquiry stance, as advocated by the Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) Network (more about this in part 2).

For a couple of years, I have been involved in my own learning as an instructional coach. Much of the learning has been through reading a variety of references (especially Jim Knight's Instructional Coaching) and practicing with colleagues (thanks in part to a Teacher Learning Leadership Program [TLLP] funded by the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers' Federation).

Additionally, I have frequently been exposed to the notion of collaborative inquiry, especially as espoused by Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack. They argue for "clear and defensible foci" and instructional leadership to help pursue "collaborative inquiry that challenges thinking and practice" (7).  In fact, Katz and Dack argue that "learning is a permanent change in thinking or behaviour" (vii); unless PLCs, collaborative inquiry projects, or any other initiatives are helping teachers make permanent changes to improve their practice, then really, what has been learned?

We continue to offer large scale PD sessions, mostly as they are seen as cost-effective means of disseminating ideas. We pull together the appropriate audience, deliver a message, ask them to plan how to use the ideas in their schools, and then attempt to monitor the implementation of the ideas. Intentions are great: people try to implement, but messages get lost, or people were "voluntold" in the first place... Some learning occurs, but often, we don't have the impact we should.

Knight's instructional coaching approach facilitates change in teaching practice through "working one-to-one, listening, demonstrating empathy, engaging in dialogue, and communicating honestly" (8). Moreover, instructional coaching, which uses "seven principles of human interaction: equality, choice, voice, reflection, mutual learning, dialogue, and praxis" (14). Fundamentally, I like this approach: I love the job-embedded nature (bottom up) and the problem-solving approach which focuses on student need (and therefore impacts student achievement). I also like that it focuses on trust-building and self-direction. Theoretically, it's a partnership approach whereby participants are viewed as equals; ideally, both are situated as learners or co-learners. However, in practice, too often the coach becomes positioned as an expert in instruction. Rather than co-learning about an instructional strategy or learning approach, the coach is instructing the coachee.  I think this starts to detract from the self-directed notion.

Over the course of the year, the application of my learning led me to conclude that I needed something different -- a new approach that will work with the structure of collaborative inquiry and PLCs, but will engage teachers on a personal level, while maintaining the co-learner stance (I don't like being positioned as an expert on anything -- I am still learning, too!). Thus, I began my journey with the PLP Network as a Connected Coach.

please see Part 2: My Journey with the PLP Network


Hattie, John (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Katz, Steven, & Dack, Lisa Ain (2013). Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice. Corwin Press.

Knight, Jim (2007). Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction. Corwin.

Monday, July 22, 2013

My brain on new knowledge: Reflecting on my learning

I have been fortunate to be engaged in some deep learning over the past few months. It began with an excellent AQ course, Integration of Information and Computer Technology in Instruction, run by Brenda Sherry. Through Brenda, I became aware of the Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) Network, and am now taking a course on Connected Coaching.

I am very thankful of the learning with my colleagues in the AQ course. I learned so much -- new tools, tricks and tips ranging from software to online apps. I look forward to continue sharing my learning with other educators. I feel so much more capable of answering their questions about tech tools to support effective instruction. Knowing the tools means that I can ensure that teachers focus on effective pedagogical use of the tech tools.

I still wonder how to best help teachers focus on effective pedagogy with technology.  This is an ongoing concern: many teachers want to simply put the technology in the hands of kids and let them demonstrate their learning. I agree that some kids have the capacity to figure out the technology and use it to demonstrate their learning. But not all will be able to do this. Our students need direct instruction in how to use tech tools if they are going to demonstrate successfully their learning. I think that exploration of tech tools is a great thing and that students should be given opportunities to try different tools, even if the teacher doesn't always know how to use that tool themselves. This is learning. However, I worry that teachers ask students to demonstrate their learning in a video and then evaluate that video as evidence of learning. This can be problematic: did the teacher instruct about how to create a good video? What are the evaluation criteria? I worry that the slickest video will get high marks, even if it's not based a deeper understanding. This isn't necessarily a new problem -- many students have learned how to create good looking posters or presentations, but the content was cut and pasted from the internet. 

I want to learn how to help teachers effectively assess and evaluate student work while promoting a deeper understanding of material. We need to ensure that teachers are giving students opportunities to demonstrate their learning in creative ways, using technology, but with guidance and feedback. I think it's important to ensure that teachers understand things like the TPACK model in order to use tech mindfully. 

I want to learn how to best utilize my new knowledge to engage other teachers in their learning. I am truly impressed with some of my colleagues learning of late; I am discovering that nothing is moving teachers to learn like the advances in tech tools. I want to capitalize on this interest and the explosion of self-directed professional learning. To that end, I enrolled in the Connected Coaching course with PLP (taught by the wonderful Lani Ritter Hall) and I am hopeful that it will combine some of the things I think are so important in my current role: supporting teachers in their professional learning, promoting effective instructional practices (especially using technology effectively), developing understanding about good assessment and evaluation practices, and advocating literacy (esp. beyond Ontario's standardized tests run by EQAO). Additionally, I am loving the challenge of changing my mindset to focus more on an appreciative inquiry, strength-based approach.  

I am really hopeful that I can do all of this through the effective use of technology as I continue to build my PLN: I have finally started this blog, I am continuing to build my school board's Literacy Committee's website, and I am active on Twitter, trying to build #ugdsb. Thanks to my learning from Brenda Sherry's IICTIP1 class and the coaching I am experiencing in my PLP Connected Coaching course, I finally felt confident enough to start my blog and put myself out there a bit more. Next step: focusing more on specific elements of coaching to hone those skills.

Image courtesy of: Gengiskanhg

What is learning?

"Learning is now truly participatory in real-world contexts. The transformation occurs in that participation, that connection with other learners outside school walls with whom we can converse, create, and publish authentic, meaningful, beautiful work" (Will Richardson). 
Social media clearly has much to offer learners, be they students in elementary schools, secondary schools or dare I say it, in teacher education courses.  I am amazed by the quantity and quality of work appearing on Twitter, which has become my social media platform of choice over the past few months. I love that I can read the micro-blogs of renowned thinkers in education. Most important, though, are the links to detailed articles and blogs on education.  I find that I am clicking on links from people I highly respect, and this is a key component of my learning -- I am self-selecting the readings, finding things that are important to me and my current practice. Eventually, once I am more comfortable and confident, I will begin generating content; that is, doing exactly what Richardson argues learners need to do today. Effective educators have had students creating and publishing "authentic" work for some time, with varying definitions of "authentic"; what is authentic to one student (or teacher) doesn't necessarily resonate with another.

Richardson argues that self-direction is key to defining learning: that it "suggests a transfer of power over learning from teacher to student—it implies that students discover the curriculum rather than have it delivered to them. It suggests that real learning that sticks—as opposed to learning that disappears once the test is over—is about allowing students to pursue their interests in the context of the curriculum. And it suggests that learning should have an authentic place in the world, that it should be shared with the world." I like this definition; I can think of many lunch hour conversations with my secondary colleagues where we bemoaned the lack of transfer of skills from one classroom to another.  It often seemed as though students would forget the the logic used in their math classes when they entered my English classroom. I often wonder if perhaps allowing more self-direction in their learning would help with the transfer of the skills we teach between subjects and would help solidify some of the learning.  Again, authenticity or relevance would be key.

I have had the opportunity to hear Dr. Steven Katz a couple of times now, and I find what he says about learning intriguing:   he suggests that it is a permanent change in behaviour/practice.  That people only truly learn something if they somehow create a change in their actions (I am paraphrasing). I have been thinking a fair bit about this definition and how it relates to secondary schools.  I'm not always sure that what I have asked students to learn has lead to a permanent change in their behaviour.  As an example, I have spent considerable time asking students to improve their essay writing skills. We would dissect exemplars with highlighters, we would discuss various essay structures, formats, purposes, etc., but not all students would be able to transfer what we were talking about to their own writing.  Too often, the topics would be too far divorced from their own perspectives, even when they were self-selecting (and oh, how painful self-selection could sometimes be).  Too often, the writing of an essay didn't seem relevant to the students.  I think the answer might lie in the authenticity piece: students who were writing for an authentic audience (such as a scholarship or university entrance essay) were more engaged in creating a really good piece of writing.

Technology clearly can play a role in creating authenticity, as Richardson also argues.  I like the TPACK model as a response to the challenge of guiding student learning: the students I have had blogging were somewhat more engaged, but were floundering when they didn't have concrete direction about content.  When given too much freedom, not all students could produce quality work. The TPACK is a helpful tool to consider when trying to guide student learning. I think I will need to plan with it in mind to see if it helps with the engagement of learning.  I like that it provides a broad guideline or scope to help plan for learning (and that it applies to all learners of today).

Reference: Will Richardson (Mar. 2013).  "Students First, Not Stuff."  ASCD. Vol 70, No. 6. pp. 10-14.