Monday, February 24, 2014

Collaborative Inquiry and Professional Learning

Professional learning is the catalyst for school improvement. An emphasis on learning reflects the reality that learning never stops and that the most vibrant and successful schools are those where everyone acts on the need to continue to improve. The most successful professional learning involves educators in more collaborative activities to examine their work and improve practice. Activities like book study, looking at student work, instructional rounds and collaborative work teams reflect these new norms. There is a growing recognition that when a school faculty comes together around a shared vision and a collective commitment to improved student learning, the results are meaningful and long lasting. 

Learning Forward, formerly the National Staff Development Council, recommends that professional learning focus on clear results and include activities that promote the growth and learning of teachers and administrators.  Activities should be based on standards, and they should be thoroughly woven into the job, rather than simply being an activity that is done as an “extra,” possibly outside of work hours or on staff development days. In other words, learning activities should be results driven, standards based and job embedded (NSDC, 2001).

Many schools use professional learning communities as a way to engage in professional learning.  A professional community of learners is a school where teachers and administration continuously seek to learn and grow professionally and then act on what they learn (Astuto, 1993; DuFour,, 2010). The goal is improve student learning by improving effectiveness and PLC's reflect these characteristics (Eaker, DuFour & DuFour, 2002; Hord & Sommers, 2008)
  • Collective Inquiry: Teachers and leaders work collaboratively to examine data about student learning and develop a plan to address students’ needs.
  • Results Orientation – There is clarity about outcomes with a “laser light” focus on achieving the desired results.
  • Supportive and Shared Leadership: Power and authority is shared by inviting teachers and families to provide input into decision making about improving student learning.
  • Action Orientation: There is a willingness to try new things and adopt a “whatever it takes” stance in support of student learning.
  • Focus on Continuous Improvement: Teachers and leaders recognize the value of routinely examining practice and making changes when appropriate. 

A post in a recent Education Week blog discussed collaborative inquiry as a way to nurture and develop teacher leadershipThe post makes a powerful case for collaborative inquiry as perhaps the most empowering feature of an effective learning community. I'd enjoy hearing from you about your experience with collaborative inquiry and PLC's.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Recognizing the Students Your Serve

I'm a voracious reader and am always looking for strategies and tools that teachers and principals can use to improve the educational experience of their students. This blog post from edutopia reminded me of how important it is to get to know the students in our schools and classrooms. When they know we know a little about them as an individual, not just part of the larger class, it's both motivating and engaging. In this post Heidi Olinger suggests three strategies for doing just that. Here's a brief summary. Read more in the complete post.

  • Ask students to write about themselves. The blog includes prompts that have worked with students of all grades.
  • Have a one-on-one conversation with students and ask them about how they experience the class.
  • Remember your time as a student and the nonacademic issues that competed for your time. They may be a springboard to learning.

I'd enjoy hearing from you and strategies you use to motivate and engage your students.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Intuition and Professional Learning

Great teachers and principals have an intuitive sense about both good instruction and their students. That's really valuable and important to nurturing and sustaining quality schools. But too often I've worked in schools where people want to rely solely on their intuition, or their experience, to make decisions about school improvement. Ever heard someone say "I've been teaching for 20 years and I know . . . " That's almost always an indicator that the conversation will focus on the individual and collective experience of the staff rather than on research, data and information about best practices.

In mid-January I read this blog post from the Center for Teaching Quality, What Role Do Hunches Play in Professional Learning Communities. It does an excellent job of advocating for deliberate reasoning when making school improvement decisions and challenges the idea of relying on "gut" reactions and hunches.

I hope you find this post helpful in your work as a school leader.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Instructional Coaching Tips

One of the blogs I follow is the  Culture of Coaching: Change Thinking . . . Change Practice . . . Change Schools blog at PIIC (Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching). It's funded by the Annenberg Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The posts always make me think more deeply about instructional coaching and the way it can transform professional learning in schools.

Here are some recent posts I found helpful.

I hope you find this blog helpful as you work to improve instruction in your school.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Marker Spaces" - Promoting Student Creativity

At Monticello High School in Albemarle County (VA) high school the traditional library has been transformed into space where students can design and create their own work. The idea is to provide students with a place to gather, collaborate, study, read and do other creative work. For example, part of the library is now a music studio. Elsewhere they created a "hacker" room for computer programming, and a "genius bar" where students help one another fix problems with their computers. Students can use these spaces before and after school, during free periods or during lunch.

It's a program called "Marker Spaces" and the staff reports that the library has become the hub of the school. It's a place where students can pursue their own interests, different hobbies and activities and collaborate on creative activity like music composition and TV or video production.

Details about the transformation are described in an article from a local television station. I'd enjoy hearing from you about your response to "Marker Spaces."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A New Social Operating System

I'm fascinated by the way technology and social media have transformed the way we communicate, nurture and sustain relationships and expand our learning. That interest made Networked: The New Social Operating System by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman a good read. Rainie is Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, major researchers on social media trends, and Wellman is a Professor at the University of Toronto.

Many worry that this new environment isolates people. But Rainie and Wellman suggest that social media actually expands our connections and creates larger, loosely connected circles of friends and colleagues. These networks expand our opportunity to learn, solve problems, seek advice, and become familiar with new ideas. It frees us from the natural limitations imposed by physical proximity.

Of course expanded networks require that we enhance, or even develop, skills to develop networks, maintain connections with others and balance what can be multiple, occasionally overlapping, networks. In my case I've limited my Facebook network to friends and family. I use my Twitter account to expand my professional contacts and my professional learning. LinkedIn is used to network with professional colleagues and others who share similar interests or backgrounds.

I'd enjoy hearing from you about your use of social media and how it's transformed your personal and professional life.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Parent and Family Engagement

The evidence about parental and family engagement with school is clear. When parents are active partners with their child’s school there is a positive impact on things educators care about, things like achievement, attendance and aspirations for the future (Epstein,, 2002; Henderson & Mapp, 2002). Virtually all educators recognize the importance of parents being involved in their child’s school but still struggle to develop viable plans for promoting such engagement particularly among families of limited means or who may be recent immigrants. This brief will discuss parent and family engagement but the primary focus will be on how teachers and principals can develop and implement plans that increase parent and family engagement among all parent groups but especially among these underserved populations. 

Joyce Epstein from the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at John Hopkins University ( synthesized the research on parent engagement and found that:
  • Just about all families care about their children and want them to succeed. They also want better information from their child’s school so that they can be good partners with the school.
  • Almost all teachers and administrators want to involve families but many do not know how to go about building positive and productive partnerships with parents and families.
  • Virtually all students at all levels, elementary, middle and high school, want their families to be more engaged with their school and knowledgeable about the schools programs. Students say they are willing to be active partners in supporting communication between home and school. (Epstein,, 2002)

The research also shows that affluent communities have more robust family engagement than economically distressed communities. It also shows that schools in more economically distressed communities more frequently contact parent about problems and difficulties than positive accomplishments. Further, single parents, parents employed outside the home, parents living far from school, and fathers are generally less involved.

The Good News - However, when schools develop and implement appropriate grade and school level practices each of these barriers can be reversed. Parent and family engagement is strong in economically distressed communities when teachers and administrators build positive relationships with students’ families, develop balanced partnership programs including contacts about positive student accomplishments, and scheduling school activities and opportunities for involvement at times and places that fit the needs of diverse parent communities.

Here are two resources that provides tools and strategies for increasing parent and family engagement.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Leading Schools in an Era of Declining Resources

American schools have been hit with a tsunami of budget cuts and retrenchments that have buffeted most, crippled some and devastated others. At the same time, they face demands for ever-increasing accountability for student performance, major curriculum revisions and more public scrutiny and criticism for lapses in performance.

Howard Johnston and I receive lots of requests from principals and other school leaders about how to respond in this environment. This led us to write Leading Schools in an Era of Declining Resources as a guide for leaders who must make practical decisions about how to adjust to, and even prosper in, this new economic environment.

Neither of us is an expert on school finance. But we've been in the same position as so many of today's school administrators---having to do more with less, sometimes a lot less, and sometimes quickly and definitively. We've both worked in states that experienced tremendous economic hardship and both faced the stress of cutting personnel, reducing or eliminating programs, and working with angry staff and anxious parents and students.

Our new book will is now available for pre-order at Routledge, or It will be available in early June.