A Principal Reflects on Making Real Change in Education

By MARK SONNEMANN

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

Change is hard. In fact, if Mary Shelley had it right, there is perhaps nothing more difficult. Nowhere, I would argue, is this more true than in the field of education, a place where change is so painful that it is a subject few can look at directly, as if it was some sort of intellectual eclipse. Instead educators rely on the change theories of other disciplines, or retreat to the interpretation of information based on standardized testing to denigrate the effectiveness of alternative pedagogies.

This perhaps may explain why growth of practice is so difficult to enculture; what change is considered is largely based on theories that cannot speak to the context of education without doing great violence to its values and vision or that only considers a narrow set of data that usually validates existing practice.

The Fall brings change in more ways than one to Ontario. Summer vacation is over, school begins anew, and the province publishes the results of the province-wide literacy and numeracy tests for Grade 3 and 6. It is a stressful time for educators; the results are, after all, seen as a reflection on the quality of instruction in schools (though no one will admit this perception exists). Based on these results, the province sets priorities for the coming year — essentially they decide how to improve instruction as a lever to raise the level of achievement. This is not a bad thing — it is important to have goals and a plan on how to achieve them. However, it seems a rather arbitrary and naive way to plan for change and improvement, equivalent to a teacher teaching to the average student, and I think Todd Rose has done a good job of showing us what the instructional consequences of this is:

In Ontario, even though it looks like we contemplate and plan for meaningful change, what we really get is professional development designed for the average teacher (pssst, there is no average!).

We also seem to subscribe to the idea that change is both beneficial and stacking, that when we develop a new skill or understanding that it enhances our overall ability and has a ripple effect on other parts of our practice. Take for example the practice of developing three-part math lessons: if we adopt this kind of approach to portions of our math pedagogy, the thinking is that it is a step along the process of becoming awesome. Each change in practice is assumed to inform other parts of our practice, and each new initiative is assumed to build upon the last one.

But is this really true? If we, as educators, took on and mastered the bits and pieces of practice that we are shown as ‘best’, would we transformed into some sort of uber-teacher? Or, would we become the pedagogical equivalent of Frankenstein?

We know that people learn best when we as teachers have a trusting relationship with them, when we understand their profile as learners, and when we connect the content in meaningful ways to their lives. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with current models of professional development for teachers, largely because they all ignore the elements of good instruction I have listed above. I walk into your class. I have never met you or barely know you. I talk at you, alot. I show you some sort of presentation that crams much too much information into one sitting. I gloss over much of it. I may let you try something once or twice. I may let you talk to your peers for short periods. Then I either leave you with a resource, or with nothing and never return. There is no chance for talking about problems of practice as they occur, no opportunity for feedback, and no way to evaluate the instructional impact. Even in the best situations, where time and care is taken to spread the learning out, release time and support are provided, and collaboration is built into the process, we make moves that undermine the learning. We never, ever, take into consideration the learning profiles of the teachers — there is no natural connection between the teacher and the content or skill. We allow external pressures to dictate what is taught and how and when. When we engage in this kind of instruction with students we see rote memorization, shallow learning, a lack of ability to apply concepts, and almost no long-term retention. We teach the teachers poorly, and then expect practice to change — this is insanity.

But even when we do it well, what are we accomplishing? If a school or system does a particularly effective job at developing, for example, subitizing, how does this improve and influence the overall pedagogy for the average teacher? And when next year you focus on proportional thinking, and the following on authentic problem-solving, are you really building towards something more, or are you creating a practice of borrowed parts that don’t necessarily function together — that are more monstrous than masterful? These examples are simple, and confined to one subject — math. A typical teacher will engage in multiple pedagogical inquiries in a single year, and in a variety of areas, sometimes simultaneously. Pedagogically, it is amazing that teachers recognize themselves in a mirror after year after year of this kind of learning.

Effective change — change that ripples and is sustainable, is change that is connected to the context of the learner. Consequently, change of this type can only happen at the level of the learner, not the level of the system.

So let me make a modest proposal (not of the Swiftian variety) on how to develop the practice of teachers.

Understand them as learners

Teach and learn alongside them

Suggest PD as it makes sense to their journey

There are no shortcuts to the first suggestion. Anyone who has worked in a classroom in any capacity knows that it takes time and effort to understand a learner. Understanding the learning profile of a teacher is no different. It requires trust, open communication, respect, close observation, and some sort of evidence collected over time and in different contexts. Traditionally, this is done by observing the teacher working in the classroom. But the classroom is not the only world we live in or that influences us or informs our choices, and so what we get when we rely on classroom observations is a rather shallow view of the teacher as learner. Instead, we need to expand our horizons to encompass the breadth of contexts that come together in our teachers. After all, it is these contexts that they bring to the classroom. How do their hobbies and passions influence their work? What does their background, family life, and other life experience reveal about their values and perspectives? What brings them joy? Where do they feel the most confident or vulnerable?

As a school leader it is critical for you to find and create your own pathway to this kind of knowledge. For me, it is about conversations before school, staff events that include spouses and kids, self-deprecating humour, service to staff, sharing my journey, asking for help, and a million other little things that technically have zero connection to my job as principal. I also use polls and Google forms, and take photographs and make notes — all the standard things that supervisors do. It is the intersection of these observations and data and conversations (sounds familiar doesn’t it?)

Copied from Melody Russell’s web page and Growing Success (http://cohort21.com/melodyrussell/?p=65)

that one can build a comprehensive understanding of a learner.

It is one thing to watch, and quite another to do. We know this as educators, and we work hard to find ways to get students to share their learning, collaborate meaningfully, and apply and extend skills. There are few things more instructional (and inspirational) to me than to co-plan, co-teach, and co-assess a short unit, project, or workshop with a teacher. You should do this at least once a year, with as many of your teachers as you can. Period.

Finally, if you have done the first two things, you should be at a point that you understand your teachers and learners and can place the PD at the appropriate place and time for them. This takes courage and finesse. Systems aren’t typically sympathetic to your personal opinions on professional development. Don’t try to stifle the learning they get from the system or indicate that it doesn’t matter. Instead, try to understand how that training is likely to impact your teachers. Some will take that learning on and extend it to their practice in meaningful ways. Some will feel overwhelmed by it. Some will feel that they have mastered it already. Some will feel that it doesn’t speak to their practice. These responses are all OK. We know that our young learners don’t all master the same skill at the same time or to the same extent — we shouldn’t expect anything different from our teacher learners. But I digress. This article is not about how to support system initiatives, it’s about how to select professional development that is likely to develop professional capacity in your staff.

Professional development is learning, and learning should be about transferable skills and competencies. It is not enough to simply buy a new resource, or send someone to a conference. Based on what you know about the teacher, based on what you have observed in teaching with them, and based on what they have told you about their approach to the art of teaching , their current wonderings, and their profile, where do you think they need to journey to next? Just as important, where do they think they need to go next? When you can answer those questions, then the conversation should move to what they learning will look like in the classroom and how it will support student learning and achievement. Make them independent and accountable, just like we expect from our students. Be clear with them that learning isn’t about success, but growth. Professional development that doesn’t result in a bump on test scores is not a failure, and you aren’t looking for a silver bullet or magic wand — they don’t exist!

(Episode 11 has a great discussion about innovation, failure and learning that you should check out. Steve Brophy talks to Tom Barrett — great conversation)

If there is pressure from your community about the impact of a particular initiative or avenue of professional development — take grading less, or going gradeless as an example, it is critical that you work in concert with the teacher to come up with a plan that everyone is comfortable with at the outset of the journey. What is the reason for the change? Is it supported by research? Who will handle questions from parents? What will the messaging be? How will you keep stakeholders informed along the way? What accountability measures will be put in place?

Professional growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it happens in community, and the work should be shared with and felt by the community. It is important that you are transparent with other stakeholders about what is going on. You should make sure that there are entry points for other staff if it is appropriate. You should provide opportunities at staff meetings for educators to share their learning, to get the kudos and support they deserve, and to let their excitement for their learning flow out to their peers. You should invite community members in to see and feel what is going on in the school, and engage them proactively in conversations about the instructional work being done.

Everyone’s context is different, and this is mine, I fully admit. I would challenge you to consider yours. It is very easy to say that something can’t be done, or build a tower of obstacles that prevent you from making an attempt. But as we tell our students, no attempt is wasted. Learning is about failure and growth and risk even more than it is about success. Make the attempt. Make an attempt for goodness sake, and keep at it. Look at pedagogical change in your school directly, take a deep breath, and make the first step on the journey.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: We welcome Mark Sonnemann as a new and significant contributor to Community Works Journal. His thinking is on the mark, and his writing engaging and clear headed.

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One Response to A Principal Reflects on Making Real Change in Education

  1. Bob Sornson says:

    Mark, thank you. This beautiful piece of writing is on the mark, especially as it relates to the inadequacy of most schools as places of learning for the educators. We’re the professionals, right?

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