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Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Wellman’

dennis sparks

I started my teaching career in the infancy of the Internet information age. At the time, information on how to improve one’s practice was scarce.  I relied heavily on books, monthly magazines, face-to-face professional development opportunities and the advice and mentorship of colleagues. Over the first several years of my career a few individuals became key influencers. I am sure it is similar in other professions, but I would look to several educational leaders with great awe and admiration — they were the “rock stars” of education in my books.  The list was quite short. There was Barrie Bennett (he is responsible for me using and overusing the place mat activity); Richard DuFour (Mr. Professional Learning Communities); Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton (when I stand away from the item I am talking about to separate myself from the data, they are responsible) and Dennis Sparks (his regular articles for the National Staff Development Council were a source of information and inspiration).  If I were building a Mount Rushmore for my education gurus, they would definitely be the leading candidates.

I have had the chance to interact with each of them in recent years, and it was with nervous anticipation when I responded to a recent interview request from Dennis Sparks.  In the Internet age, many education authors who have made their living off of books and presentations have struggled to figure out a new model. Why I love Dennis (and others like Bruce Wellman and Grant Wiggins) is they have embraced the blogosphere where they share information for free knowing that it will actually increase their credibility and ability to secure presentations, or sell books.

Dennis has a great blog here and he “gets” it; as on his blog and on Twitter he is fully engaged with his audience. I shared some of my thinking with Dennis, which he published in a recent post.  You can read the full post here.  Below, I have reprinted some of his questions and my answers:

What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school change from participating in it, observing it, or studying it?

I have learned that every school needs to go through its own process.  It can’t be speeded up because we need to have the conversations. We can’t microwave school growth and evolution.

Context really matters – from where schools are located, who is on the staff to what the history is of a school.  In particular, we need to honour a school’s history.

I would also say that every little encounter matters.  As a school leader a meeting might be a low priority for you, but it may be the most important meeting for the person you are with.  You build credibility with the little things.

What would you say to a principal or teacher leader in his or her first year on the job?

Smile and listen.  As nervous as you might be in the new role, others are also anxious about what it will be like to work with you.  The first thing you need to do is reach out and build relationships.

From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work? 

They are continually curious and comfortable with ambiguity. They understand that doing things differently is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that we were doing things “wrong” in the past. Instead, it’s part of the rapid change we are seeing in education and our society.

What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?

I think leaders need to step back and consciously let go of control. This can be terribly difficult, but something that can be practiced.  Leaders need to consciously give up control – even over small things to start – and to be curious rather than focused on trying to be right.

There seems to be agreement that experimentation and risk-taking on the part of leaders is desirable. In what ways were you encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, and what was it like for you to do so?

Risk-taking and experimentation are absolutely part of what we need in our leaders.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who encouraged a culture of risk taking.  As a new teacher I was encouraged to take on new courses and teacher leadership, then encouraged to take on new roles. In turn, I have tried to do this for others and model it through my “Culture of Yes” blog.

It is terribly scary to take risks. I tell leaders to remember how risk makes us feel as we encourage our students and those we work with to take risks.

A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?

I think teachers are willing to engage in new practices if they believe the practices will make a difference for students.  I don’t know of any teachers who do not want to improve the life chances of their students, and teachers are willing to go above and beyond when they believe doing things differently will be better for those they work with.

I think we need to keep the focus on students. How will using technology in the classroom benefit students?  How will an inquiry-based approach better engage those in our classrooms?  How will a commitment to self-regulation better prepare students to be ready to learn?  We can get caught up in bigger conversations around new practices, but we should always come back to students.

From your experience, what are the most important things a leader can do to influence teaching and learning?

School leaders should focus on being learning leaders themselves. They should position themselves as the lead-learner in the school.  Principals and teacher leaders should model learning and be continually focused on improving learning for students.

It sounds obvious and simple, but we often become distracted. That’s why I encourage school leaders to focus on a small number of things that resonate with teachers across subject areas, such as using inquiry.  It doesn’t mean this is all that is important, but it is crucial to have a focus.

I am also curious about what you regard as the areas of greatest leverage in your own work as a system leader.

I think the greatest power I have is as a connector and a storyteller. I have the amazing benefit  of being in all of our schools and talking with students, teachers, administrators, trustees, parents and the community.

Sometimes, teachers and schools feel like they are on their own – I can help connect them and remind them they are part of something bigger. As we move in the same direction with a fair bit of flexibility and autonomy, we are far more than independent contractors who share a geographic region.

My thanks to Dennis for inspiring me early on in my career and for continuing to be someone who pushes my thinking to this day. Having leaders like him engaged in professional learning in our digital world brings depth and credibility to it.

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When students are invited to our Community Forum, the students inevitably become the stars of the event. Take for instance last week’s final community forum of the current school year. Also attending was Education Consultant Bruce Wellman, and it was wonderful to work with him on this project.  The question we asked students, parents, teachers and administrators was, “What does the class of 2022 need to succeed?”  The conversation focussed around the necessary changes, and roles each person would have to help move our system to the system we want for 2022.  To encourage open discussion, we set up mixed tables of students, teachers, parents, trustees and others in the community and the interaction, the observations and the insights that emerged from that mix were telling.  The input from the students was particularly powerful.

A sample of some of the “takeaways” that participants left with included:

  • The importance of trust in the process of collaboration between teacher, student, and parent and the need to value everyone’s input
  • “Personalized” does not mean customized all the time — it is about the “human” in there
  • Be prepared to take risks and try something new
  • We need to build urgency into the system. We (our kids) can’t wait
  • We have to figure out how to communicate in ways students, parents and educators are on the same page
  • Parents need to be “involved” in some very different ways
  • We are talking about how things will be different some time from now, but what about changing something now? (Grade 5 student)

Here is one particularly thoughtful extended reflection from Jane, one of the local students who participated in the forum:

Tonight was the night of the Community Forum “What Does the Class of 2022 Need to Succeed?” hosted at Rockridge Secondary School where teachers, parents and students were invited to discuss the aforementioned topic and explore ideas such as how students will own their learning, how parents can support this learning and what teachers will do to guide this learning.

This opportunity was first presented to me by my challenge teacher, Lynn Chartres, in an email explaining the purpose of the forum and how students were being invited to participate and that I was one of those chosen students. Eager to attend a meeting of such sorts, I happily complied.

I happen to be particularly enthusiastic about events such as these where students are allowed to take part in these collaborations because I really feel that we have a lot of valuable ideas about topics such as this. I mean we are the third link in the chain, and I personally think that we as students have both a lot of experience and a lot of opinions about our education system, but most importantly, we take pride in our education and have a lot of ideas about what we can do to strengthen our system.  We are the ones that are being taught after all!

This brings me to my next point: how students will own their learning. And it is so vitally important that we do, for we do not all learn the same way and our strengths as individuals all lie in different places. I believe that it is the shared responsibility of the teacher, the student and the parent to help students explore that place and learn how to use the talents stored there to become a successful student and a successful individual.  However, we cannot be expected to fully embrace ourselves as passionate, knowledgeable learners if we are not given the tools and the inspiration to go the lengths it takes to get there.  Yet I am proud that I can say that we are taking action and that we are part of a healthy and dedicated educational system.

Furthermore, another key aspect is how parents can support this learning process. One of the important points that came up in conversation was that parents, especially in our society, need to give their children “breathing space” and recognize where to draw the line when supporting their children with school.  To learn, you need to makes mistakes and we need to be able to make our own mistakes. By over-protecting a child, you’re only really going to end up causing them harm in the end. If every step we take is monitored and calculated so that we can’t possibly end up treading off the path leading us to what is seen as “ultimate success,” then we ourselves will be unsuccessful as we will have no experience with the difficulties and conflicts that will arise in our adult life. What I believe parents can do to be as constructive in their child’s life as possible, is simply ask intuitive and stimulating questions about what their child has been learning and discuss what they too have been learning as an adult, then finding links between themselves, their child and the world around them.  This adds to the idea of holding on to the “dinner table ritual” and engaging the family in routine conversations – whether or not they be at the dinner table – that provide everyone with a chance to reflect upon what they learned that day and share newly formulated thoughts and ideas together. It’s a process that everyone gains something from.

My final point is – what will teachers do to guide this learning? With changing times come advances in modern technology, different forms of communication and a shift in the values that we honour as a society. And with such rapid, extraordinary change and overload of constantly expanding information at our fingertips, it is difficult to stay grounded.  As we change and move forward, our school system must evolve and adapt to the changes that are taking place. We must discover new ways of teaching a complex and technologically centred generation of young minds, while remaining true to the educational values that have been passed down to us by our predecessors. And, although I agree that it has come time to let go of our old traditions and teaching methods so that we can embrace the new generation of modern education, we mustn’t entirely disregard the ways of the past. Our old traditions gave us structure and form; something to hold onto that was unchanging and, although the time for those ways has ended, they should be always be remembered, honoured and respected.

Additionally, I feel that this “new era of education” encourages collaborative teaching methods that allow the teachers to share some of the power with their students and inspire creative and individual thinking. It is not reasonable in this day and age to simply tell students what they need to learn, what to do, how to do it and leave it at that. With that “one-size-fits-all” method of teaching, how would a group of entirely different learners and thinkers be expected to function? It is imperative that students have a chance to take in information, process it and then demonstrate their knowledge in their own, distinctive way. When given knowledge, one is given power and when the creativity and unique minds of a student come into the equation brilliant things occur. It is just a matter of providing an inspiring and passionate learning environment.

Overall, the questions that challenged how students will own their learning, how parents will support this learning and how teachers will guide this learning sparked a multitude of intuitive and innovative ideas that allowed the topic “What Does the Class of 2022 Need to Succeed?” to be analyzed and from a variety of viewpoints that lead everyone to better understand the original topic.

We are continuing to have great conversations as we help our system evolve, trying to follow the advice of Daniel Pink, “Talk less, listen more.”

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