“Learning Rounds” in Education

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The practice of medical rounds, where teams of doctors visit patients and then discuss how to best provide care is a relatively well known practice in the medical field.  We can visualize the team of doctors entering the hospital room as a group with white coats and clipboards to talk with the patient and then discuss a course of action.   Lives are saved when medical professionals share knowledge and help improve each other’s practice.  In education, this model has some great potential and recently, I had the privilege of  traveling to Harvard University to take part in their Instructional Rounds institute with 8 other learning leaders from our school district.

Essentially, instructional rounds, or “learning rounds” as we like to call it, is a collaborative process where, like medical rounds, a teacher or school identifies a “problem of practice”, then a team observes the classroom and they work together with the teacher to help support and grow their practice.  A key piece to this process is that it is voluntary to take part, it is initiated by the classroom teacher and it is non-evaluative.  It is formative and supportive.

The Instructional Rounds institute was a transformational experience for our team in many ways.  We have taken the best of Instructional Rounds and are developing “Learning Rounds” for our own context.   We have observed that powerful learning takes place when teachers work in teams and when learning is driven by inquiry.  Rounds takes this learning to the next level by bringing the work into the classroom to observe what the students are actually doing.  The debrief and analysis follows the observation and has strict protocol for keeping the conversation non-judgmental and formative.  So far, teacher feedback in our district has been very positive for those who have taken part.  “Best learning ever” commented a teacher after recently seeing the process for the very first time.

Our team is excited about Learning Rounds in how it will strengthen our “Pathways to Learning” education plan and particularly how Rounds will connect and support teachers and their practice.   We look forward to sharing our work as we develop our skills and knowledge in Learning Rounds and I have included a short video of a grade 3 teacher discussing how rounds have helped her practice and her team.   Stay tuned!

Yours in Learning

Paul Lorette.

Pathways to Learning

PathwayspicFor anyone who has the task of designing powerful and engaging adult learning,  you may know how challenging it can be to “hit it out of the park”.  Add the pressure of the event being the one day in the school year where you have an entire school district together in a large gymnasium for the purpose of creating common understanding, language and excitement for a new education plan and there might be just a little pressure to get it absolutely right.  On November 8, we held such an event in Sea to Sky School District 48 and yes, we hit it out of the park.  I was so inspired by the day I decided to share some reflections on what made the learning so powerful.

First some context.  Pathways to Learning is the name of our education plan and it was written last year using the principles of universal backward design by a group of 40 stakeholders including parents, teachers, principals and vice principals, district staff, trustees and aboriginal leaders.  We identified 5 “Competencies” for student learning and 6 “Pathways” or strategies that we believe will elevate and transform learning.  The purpose of our day together on Nov 8 was to create common understanding and language around our Pathways to Learning for the entire school district.   The following are my reflections on what made the day so successful:

1. Arranged seating.  Each table had a group of 6 and included a leader, elementary/ secondary teachers, and support staff.  School staffs were separated and in many cases, the group was meeting each other for the first time.  This created a very different dynamic for table work and discussion. Brilliant.

2. Most of the air time was given to table discussion and activities.  No keynote address or break out sessions, just a short summary to begin the day and then facilitation of the group work.  The tasks were engaging, and modeled strategies that could and should be used in classrooms, they involved reflection, dialogue and were crafted in a way that brought focus, depth and cohesiveness to the learning.

3. Rock solid content.   Collaborative models of support, teacher learning teams, flexible curriculum, project based learning, communicating student learning, flexible scheduling and instructional groupings;  presented under the umbrella of formative assessment and the question “What information in your classroom/school, drives action?” Great stuff.

4. Time for Learning teams.  Each school site organized one or more learning team with a specific site based focus for discussion.  All learning teams sat together for just over an hour to do site specific work and planning using the learning from the morning.  You could tell by the buzz in the room that this was focused, powerful team dialogue.  Many tables reported deep engagement and meaningful action plans.

5. Size matters, maybe.  Because we are a relatively small district, our numbers were just right for this kind of day, just over 400.  Not sure we if we could have done it with 2000 people, perhaps we could have…

6. Leadership matters.  The work and direct involvement of our entire leadership team, including our teacher leaders, school leaders, district leaders and our Board of Education has been stellar.  Much of the day was facilitated by our superintendent with support from the district leadership team.  It means the world to a school district to know that the lead educators are master teachers.

7. Continuity.  There are opportunities for everyone to engage in ongoing learning in our Pathways to Learning work.  Teachers can engage in several committees and teams, currently working to build and develop the pieces necessary to support the education plan such as an assessment team, writing team, communicating student learning team, early learning and play, collaborative models of support, instructional rounds and many more.

8. Teamwork.  From the very beginning Pathways to learning has been a team effort.  There have been numerous multidisciplinary, teams that have been engaged in building and refining the plan, seeking feedback and seeking the expertise of local talent and also drawing from outside experts.  There is deep ownership and engagement locally.

IMG_2414It is exciting that every teacher in our district can now engage with our education plan in a meaningful way, they can describe the big ideas and they can find an entry point to bring “Pathways” into their practice.   As our superintendent, Lisa McCullough said, “Our Pathways to Learning isn’t perfect, but it is perfect in its imperfection, it is perfect because it is ours”

Our Pathways to Learning plan and strategic plan

Our video about the development of our Pathways to Learning plan:

The Report Card Event

Right now, teachers across the province are working to prepare report cards.  The purpose is to “communicate student learning” to parents, and also to serve as record of learning in student files.  Teachers in school district 48 have been asking some big questions about the purpose of communicating student learning, the ways in which we communicate student learning, and what is most important on a report card.  My favorite question throughout this process is “How can we make communicating student learning less like an event that happens 3 times a year, and more about a continuous process involving multiple ways of communication?”

In a relatively short period of time, our teachers have come up with a format that meets legal requirements for student reporting set out by the British Columbia Ministry of Education, but some key pieces of information have been included that really elevate the level of information parents and students receive about learning. Emphasis is placed on what is most important by the order in which it is presented on the document.  Interestingly enough, letter grades are last, almost an afterthought. (we would prefer they were left out altogether)  Self regulation is first, followed by learning competencies: collaboration, creating and innovating, contributing and thinking critically.  Curricular outcomes are next and there are spaces for students to include their own learning goals which is one of the most exciting components.  The longer term goal is to continue to “tweak” the document and to really look at communicating student learning beyond just the triannual formal document.  It is very forward thinking work and many teachers will pilot the process this Month.

The next piece is to work with parents to deepen the understanding of what matters most in communicating student learning.  Letter grades have been around for 100 years and they do little to promote and inspire new learning, or to really communicate where a student’s learning is at.  They are not particularly accurate and may only reflect handing in assignments and organizational skills instead of real deep learning.  Congratulations to the visionary teachers in School District 48 who have done some great thinking on learning, how we communicate it, and how we inspire it.  I posted this video a couple of years ago but it is one of my favorites on this topic, because it is from the students themselves.

Here is a link to our Communicating Student Learning documents: http://sd48communicatinglearning.net/

Yours in Learning,

Paul Lorette

Parent Learning Partners

IMG_1255Last night, our first Parent Learning Partners event was held at Brackendale Elementary in Squamish.  We had a very enthusiastic group of parents in attendance, along with some School district 48 Educators, including our Superintendent, Lisa McCullough who provided opening remarks.  The purpose of the presentation was to look at some of the big challenges facing our learners in a changing world, and how our district is responding to these challenges.  We viewed a Ted Talk video featuring Tony Wagner from Harvard University (video is posted below), we looked at how our province is rethinking the structure of our provincial curriculum to enable schools and districts to better meet the changing needs of students, and we also discussed our own school district’s “Pathways to Learning” process.  Pathways to Learning is all about co-constructing, with our community partners, an educational vision and action plan using Universal Backward Design. We started with the question “What skills and knowledge do our learners need to be successful?”, then we asked, “What information or evidence will convince us that our students are learning and acquiring these skills and knowledge?” and finally, we asked “What strategies and structures in our district will best support our learners in this work?”  With well over 900 responses to these questions from parents, students, educators and community partners, I was struck by the similarities in the responses to what the leading experts around the world are telling us about what students need in a changing world.

It is crucial that as we move our school system forward to better meet the needs of our learners, that we engage not only our educators but our parents as well.  As we rethink what our report cards look like, our classrooms, our curriculum, parents are a critical partner in this work.   As Tony Wagner points out in his TED presentation, we must, as parents and teachers, together, create the conditions for our students to develop the ability to innovate, to ask good questions and to be intrinsically motivated to give back to society.  We do this by giving our kids more opportunities to play, to follow a passion, and to develop a deep sense of purpose as they grow and develop as life long learners.

Parent Learning Partners will provide opportunities for parents to talk about learning, to learn about the big ideas that are driving action in our schools and districts and how they can be partners in this work.  So as we question letter grades, as we question why we group students by age, and as we move toward increased inquiry and problem solving, projects with real world connections, opportunities to develop areas of passion and imagination in schools, and at the same time, stay focused on core learning areas like reading, writing and numeracy,  parents are educator’s most important learning partners.

Yours in Learning,

Paul Lorette.

Parent Engagement – continued…

We are experiencing an unprecedented wave of change in public education.  Many traditional practices are being challenged, from the assigning of letter grades to the way we organize classes, to the restructuring of curriculum.  We are moving from a teaching and curriculum focused system to a learning and knowledge building system.   It is critically important to engage our parents to deepen our collective understanding of what this change will look like and why it will better serve students.  As a parent from our school recently said, “We know how much work it takes for schools to change practice and the more parents know about this work ahead of time, chances are better that it will be supported”

This September our school opened a multi-aged intermediate classroom with children in grades 4-6.  It is a highly successful classroom with 30 students and a strong level of parent support.  The classroom teacher uses, inquiry, student goal setting, and feedback to promote learning and engagement.  The students work with Kindergarten learning partners and project based learning will be part of the year’s work.  Traditionally, one of the most common concerns that we hear from parents is regarding “split classes”  It is our hope that through promoting the concept of multi aged group learning,  in the context of engaging kids around inquiry and depth of learning, instead of a long list of grade based learning outcomes, the multi-grade concept will be more supported and understood over time.  The question remains, how do we engage our parents in these discussions?

We have tried social media and it has shown great promise, and our parents are beginning to ask for more educational time at PAC meetings.  A concept that I have been floating with our parents is a new structure that expands the notion of the school planning council to create a network of parents where engagement around student learning is the main focus.  This idea has had great feedback and we have a core group of parents who are showing leadership in this area.   I see other indicators that our parents are interested in and ready for this kind of engagement.  The feedback and input that we have received from parents through our district’s “Pathways to Learning” input process has been inspiring.  The input reflects what we as educators also believe to be true, that times have changed and so must we.  Feedback provincially seems to be indicating the same thing.

Earlier this week, I met with 10 highly engaged and interested parents to talk about these very issues and I was struck by their enthusiasm, support and sense of urgency to work together to find ways to develop a structure to further this work.  Evidence of our success will be when parents call in September to ask what multi-aged learning opportunities does our school offer?  Does our school use student centered reporting and assessment practices? Does our school measure the level of student engagement?  To what extent do students feel a sense of belonging in this school?   Our vision is that as our children, along with their families, will be able to advocate for the kinds of learning experiences they will need to be successful in a changing world.  There has never been a more exciting time to be an educator.
Yours in Learning,

Paul Lorette.

Where the Magic Happens – A Metaphor for Leadership

These days, we seem to be questioning almost every aspect of our public education system.  Change is coming, there is no doubt about it.  Why?  Because public education still resembles too closely what it was when it was first invented.  The world has changed and as the British Columbia Education Plan suggests, the way we teach our children should change too.  So why is change taking so long?  There is no easy answer to this question.

I don’t hold the belief that everything about public education needs to change, we do good work with kids, but we do need to leave behind the 19th century and move on with the 21st century.  What would school look like if we started from scratch?  Would we group children by age or would we have a home base for some learning and different groupings for other learning?  Would we make kids take disconnected courses, or would we allow them the opportunity to do independent project work where they could demonstrate competencies and skills in a multi-disciplinary environment with a coach?  Would we average out their learning and give them a mark, or would we give them feedback as they learn and help them set learning goals to reach for mastery of big ideas and learning standards?  Would we partner with the community and use real life problems and challenges to develop creativity and critical thinking or would we give them a text book (real or on a tablet computer) and have them simulate these same skills?  Would we ask all kids, introverts or extroverts, athletes or scientists, artists or leaders, to all learn in the same way or would we design different learning opportunities, etc.

The answer, to me, lives in realm of leadership.  Teacher leaders, parent leaders, student leaders, principals, community leaders, all have a role to play in building a shared vision of change in education.  Leaders must be able to bring people together and build a shared vision of what today’s students need.  I saw an image recently on the internet that resonated with me and it kind of represents the leadership challenge we face in public education: (author unknown)

Public education has been in a system wide “comfort zone” for a long time.  The day after I saw this drawing, I viewed a TED talk that illustrated this idea beautifully.  Composer Eric Whitacre wanted nothing to do with singing in a choir when he entered university but was talked into it by a friend.  He left his comfort zone and the rest is, as they say, history. (Click to hear more about this story, well worth it).   To move a stuck system forward, leaders need to focus on the space between the two circles.  The leadership challenge is to  clear a path that is compelling, supported and purposeful and to build a vision of what can be.  Transformation will happen classroom to classroom, school to school, community to community.  How do we work together and work with children and with parents and with community to get to the magic of learning in today’s world?  I am absolutely convinced that shared leadership at all levels is the key, and perhaps, stepping outside of our collective comfort zone.  In the words of the students from Mrs. Wick’s  9 and 10 yr old class in our school, “we don’t know what it is going to look like yet, but it is going to be awesome!”

Higher Learning

When it comes to navigating the information rich world of social media and blogs, putting on your critical thinking lens is a must.  I recently read an online article that struck me as particularly troubling as it perpetuates the myth that what matters in learning is the A, B or C on the report card. The article is called “University of British Columbia lowers the academic bar.”  One of the many leadership challenges in the work of transforming public schools into places of wholehearted learning is helping the public to re-think some old ideas that have become part of our education DNA.  One of these ideas is the belief that letter grades and percentages are an accurate reflection of who we are as learners.

Rethinking something that is as deeply intrenched in our school experience as grades and assessment will be a tough sell as it is hard for most to envision an alternative.  A sobering thought is that if education were the medical field and letter grades and descriptive feedback were both separate treatments to a life threatening condition, letter grades would be discontinued tomorrow.  The difference descriptive feedback makes in learning compared to letter grades and marks is that powerful.  So why don’t we just make that change?  It is beginning to change slowly but society still values sorting.  The Fraser Institute’s ranking of elementary schools is an example of this sorting mindset and it sends the wrong message to the public about what really matters in learning.

The article referenced above in my view, is based on the this same old fashioned sorting mindset and it refers to the university’s changes to their admissions policy as “an embarrassment.”  While I am no expert on admissions policies at British Columbia universities, the policy changes the author is highly critical of, if I am interpreting them correctly, seem quite forward thinking.  If UBC is saying that marks don’t always reflect a student’s true ability to achieve and to learn,  that students who may depend on spell checkers could be brilliant, that a child who begins a course with a 30, ends with a 98 and has an average mark for the term of say 64 is a very capable learner and perhaps it is the grading system that is broken, then, bravo UBC.

How then, do we help the public to abandon the sorting mindset and embrace change?  Engaging parents, students and the public on new ideas and beliefs about learning in the 21st century is critical.  The BC Education Plan website has done a very good job in starting a provincial conversation about the future of learning in this province.  Why is this important?  Because learning isn’t a competition.  It is a growth process that is dynamic and lasts a lifetime and it is for everyone.