Culture of Learning

I am currently reading the book Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan.  If you haven’t read it, I strongly encourage you to take the time.  While reading this book I began to think about my current school’s culture and the impact it has on teacher and student growth.  I also began thinking about what kind of culture I would want to have in my building.  If you have read any of my previous blogs you know that I am all about learning.  Learning is essential for anyone and any organization to grow.  Why you and your employees or colleagues learn, is probably the most important question to be asking yourself.

Let’s think about that for a second.  Many people are focused on WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW everyone will be learning the next Professional Development or whatever it is that we are teaching our class the next day.

How often do you stop and think about why you learn in general?  Do you learn because you have been told you must learn a specific topic?  Do you learn because your friend or colleague has learned it, and you don’t want to be left out?  Do you learn because you love learning and continuously seek further knowledge?  The reasons we learn are extremely important to the culture of your building, classroom, or business.  I would be willing to bet, that even in the educational setting, most people are learning because they have been told they must learn by someone of authority.  What happens in these organizations when there is no pressure to learn something from the higher ups?  In most cases the learning STOPS!

Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan are strong promotors of a different culture.  A culture where all of your colleagues, employees, and employers are learning because everyone is pushing them to learn, or better yet because they want to learn for their own personal reasons.  In a culture like this, people are constantly either pushing each other to get better or pushing themselves.  These are the highest functioning cultures of learning and what every organization should be striving for.

So, how do we create such a culture in the educational setting?  I believe the best way to create this culture would be through a healthy balance of personalized professional development for all teachers and using a framework for teachers to collaborate and support each other around improving their instruction, assessments, and student produced work.  By personalizing the PD for all teachers you are giving them the freedom to learn about the things they feel are important to them and treating them as professionals.  By using a framework for teachers to collaborate and support each other a culture of learning will be created where the employees are holding each other accountable by pushing each other to be better at all times.

Currently at Callanan Middle School we are working towards creating just this.  With the help of some vital people from the district office we have created a rubric that scores tasks that our teachers create for students.  These tasks are scored on 5 different hallmarks.  The hallmarks are Prior Learning, Cognitive Level, Integrated Skills, Relevance, and Authenticity.  We then created a framework to guide the conversations our teachers have around improving each of these hallmarks for the tasks they have created.  Our next step would be to create a rubric and framework for improving our student work and instruction.  But first we must build a culture of trust so teachers feel comfortable sharing their instruction and receiving feedback to improve from each other.

To personalize the learning for each teacher we are using Marzano’s Instructional Framework and coaches to support our teachers.  We ask that teachers pick a couple of areas to focus on improving.  After they have chosen the areas in which they would like support in improving, the coaches will go into the classroom and provide specific feedback on what level they are currently at within the categories of their choice.  They will then coach them through a conversation on how they can improve in these areas and offer support in finding resources for them.  Although I do not feel this is a perfect way to personalize the learning for each teacher, I do believe it is a step in the right direction.

What are the next steps for you?  What are you currently doing that is not supporting the culture or learning you want?  What do you need to do now to begin supporting this culture?


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Let It Happen Organically

A couple of years ago I was hired to be the principal of the 6-12 Collins-Maxwell school in Iowa.  The Superintendent, Jason Ellingson and I both had a passion for Personalized Learning and began to create plans on how to develop this system within the Collins-Maxwell school district.  It was exciting and a lot of fun.  We had a plan that allowed for the system to change over time organically.

After two years at Collins-Maxwell I decided to take a position closer to home that would allow me to spend more time with my wife and kids.  I am now the Vice-Principal of Callanan Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa.  Since making that move, I have been thinking a lot about how a school district the size of Des Moines could make this same change to Personalized Learning.  Some believe that change can’t happen in a district this size without a step-by-step plan that is incremental.  Start with A, then go to B, and so on.  I would like to challenge that and say it will never happen with a step-by-step plan that is incremental.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a plan that lays out all the components necessary with the steps needed to make this happen.  I’m saying that if we think we are going to create a 3-5 year plan to make this happen and then think that by flipping a switch it’s just going to magically appear before our eyes we are sadly mistaken.  And, if this is what people are expecting, the whole plan will fail.

I believe that the only way to change any system over to a Personalized Learning environment is in a more organic manner.  I believe that there are things that must be put in place to support the change, and then from there it is about changing the philosophical views of all those in the organization one person at a time and giving them the supports necessary to change their practices.  I believe this will also build like a snowball rolling down a hill.   Below I will outline some of the things that I believe need to be put in place to make this kind of change happen over time.  Keep in mind that these are not necessarily in chronical order.  I’m not sure that they necessarily need to happen in any specific order.

  1. There must be leaders and pockets of teachers (I like to call them Facilitators of Learning or FOL’s), with strong influence who believe that Personalized Learning is the vehicle needed to help every child reach their full potential. These people must share the same vision, mission, and values.  They must be creative, risk takers to try new things in their classrooms and share out their successes as well as where they came up a little short so that we may learn from them.
  2. Trust must be built within the organization to allow for open and honest conversations to occur around changes in philosophical beliefs.
  3. Conversations must occur about the Vision, Mission, and Values to ensure that everyone is moving towards tighter alignment over time. Conversations must occur about the best vehicle(s) that should be used to support the Vision, Mission, and Values.
  4. Technology must be purchased at a one-to-one ratio to support both FOL’s and learners.
  5. FOL’s must receive personalized professional development on how to use technology to support the learners in their classroom.
  6. FOL’s must be trained in Standards Based/Referenced Learning (SBG/SRG) and how to align and increase the rigor of their Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments. By using SBG/SRG all learners and FOL’s have a clear focus of what they know and are able to do.  They also have a clear focus of what they need to know and be able to do.  The majority of the standards in the Core are skills.  By focusing on these skills, FOL’s can better personalize for each learner by giving them a voice and choice in how they learn and demonstrate these skills.  SBG/SRG helps FOL’s move away from the one size fits all project/assignment mentality and helps to support a more personalized approach with each learner.
  7. FOL’s must be given and trained how to use a framework within their Collaborative Groups to help focus constructive conversations around the improvement of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments. Once FOL’s begin discussing and supporting each other in the improvement of their Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments they will begin to learn from each other’s successes and begin to organically change over time.

It is my belief that if all of these things are put in place a more Personalized Learning environment will begin to take shape organically and gain momentum over time, one classroom at a time.  This is a big shift for all learners in the organization and must be given the time and support needed to be successful.   At some point, administration will need to consider the thought of releasing some barriers the traditional school places on its learners such as: semester time limits, bell schedules, grade levels, and others.  When that will need to happen, I’m not sure.  The leaders will know when it is right because the FOL’s and learners will become frustrated by the limitations of the current system.

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Passion = Fuel

All of us have had things we needed to do that we struggled to get done.  Not because they were difficult or that we couldn’t find the time, but because we didn’t have the passion to do them.  Passion is the fuel that drives us.  If we are passionate about something, excuses seem to magically disappear and we immediately begin finding solutions to getting the project done.  When I think about this, I immediately begin trying to find ways in which I can use this knowledge to better support all learners and educators.

Think about the traditional classroom…  Each educator has their lectures, assignments, labs, projects, and assessments.  We all know that the vast majority of them are not things the learners want to do.  What is it that motivates them to get them done?  This motivation is different for each learner.  For some it is the drive to make their parents happy, others have an internal drive to do well on whatever they work on, and then there are grades, college, future careers, relationships with friends and educators, and many more.

There is one motivation that they all have in common.  That is passion.  The problem is… We as educators rarely tap into this motivation.  I believe one of the main reasons we don’t tap into it is because of a fear of loss of control.  In order to truly tap into each learner’s passion we would need to listen to the learners and allow them to have some say into what they are learning about.  I know, I know, there is that Common Core thing that we must all follow.

Really take a look at the Social Studies standards and you will see that they are comprised of a lot of skills.  These are not countries and time periods.  The Language Arts standards are also a list of skills that are needed.  Why can’t we use this to our advantage to allow our students to tell us what they are passionate about and let them come up with a project they would like to do?  Or, present the students with a project then be open minded enough to listen to the students if they ask to do something similar aligned to what they are passionate about.  We can then tell them what they will have to do through this project to meet the standards.   Who knows… you might even be able to fit some of the math and science standards into that as well.

So, if passion = fuel I say we start filling our learners up with some highly combustible passion that will take them wherever they choose to go.  I can just about guarantee you they will get much further and faster with this than anything else you fill them up with.


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Differentiation vs Personalization

Differentiation has been the buzzword for many years.  Everyone has been saying that we must differentiate our instruction for our students to support their individual needs.  Recently personalization has become the new buzzword.  I have had many conversations with people about personalization and it seems to me that the majority of people are using these two terms interchangeably.  Are they the same thing?  If not, what’s the difference?

I believe that the two are very different.  Teachers differentiate for their students by giving alternative assignments or modifications to assignments for students to better support a student’s needs.  It is the teacher that makes the majority of the decisions for differentiation.

Facilitators of learning, (i.e. teachers) personalize learning by giving learners, (i.e. students) both a voice and choice in their learning.  Learners are pushed to take more ownership of their learning and are not just given choices, but allowed to have a voice in what the process looks like.  No, they are not permitted to skip over Common Core learnings.  Instead they are given the standards, benchmarks, and proficiencies they must learn and given the freedom and ownership to have a voice and choice in how they learn them and how they demonstrate mastery of the learning.  The facilitator of learning will make the final decision on whether to approve the learner’s process and demonstration of learning both before proceeding and after completion.  The facilitator will also be able to give suggestions on how to move forward, but the ownership is shared by both the learner and facilitator.

This has a very different feel than differentiation.  When you talk about personalization, what are you really saying, meaning, and hearing?

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What is Personalized Learning?

When you hear the words “personalized learning” what do you think about?  Stop and really take a moment to think about this before you continue reading.  I believe it is important for us to have many conversations around this topic.  We must challenge and support each other through these imperative changes in education if we are going to get it right for all of our children.  After reading this please leave a comment to let me know your thoughts.

To me, personalized learning means giving students what they need, when they need it.  It means allowing students to progress through learnings at their personal pace.  And… it requires us to feed every learner’s passions and interests to motivate them and help them see the purpose of learning.  To create such a learning environment we will need to give all learners a voice and give them a choice in their learning.

Many educators have transformed their classrooms to create a more personalized environment.  The following are some of the strategies that have been used: adaptive learning, blended learning, differentiated instruction, the flipped classroom, 1:1 learning, project based learning, individual learning plans, and learning labs.  In my opinion, I do not believe that any of these are truly personalized learning if they stand alone.  I do, however, agree that each is a more personalized environment and is an improvement from the traditional classroom.  Below I will explain my reasoning.

Adaptive learning is a great start towards a personalized learning environment.  With adaptive learning it is important that every student have access to some form of technology.  Today’s technology has allowed programmers to create programs that adapt to fit each and every learner’s needs in every moment by responding in a way that supports the learner based on their previous responses to questions.  If a learner has forgotten a specific learning target, the program will take them back and re-teach that learning.  If a learner has mastered a learning target the program will move them on quicker.  The problem with adaptive learning is that it doesn’t work with every subject and many people believe it does not support higher order thinking.  How does a computer program support the learning of debates and arguments?  This is an essential learning for all of our students to master.  How does this program support the student that needs more face-to-face interaction with a facilitator of learning?  How does this program give each learner a voice and choice in their learning?

Blended learning is a step up from adaptive learning.  With blended learning students could be engaged in an adaptive learning program, but also pulled away from the computer at times to receive more direct instruction from the instructor with a small group of similar ability peers.  Students are getting to move at their personal pace and receive the instruction the computer program or instructor feel they need at the time.  However, the learner has no voice in how they learn.  The computer and/or instructor decide how the learner learns with little to no input from the learner.

Differentiated instruction is a strategy the teachers use to change assignments to meet the students’ needs.  Assignments can be manipulated by the teacher to become easier or harder depending on the needs of the student and their ability level.  The issue with this is that the teacher more often than not, makes the decisions with no input by the student.  The assignments more than likely do not meet each student’s interests because the student is never given a voice or choice in the assignment.

The flipped classroom is a new big buzzword.  In a flipped classroom students are viewing the instruction in the comfort of their own home for their “homework” and then engaging in the problem-solving phase of instruction in the classroom.  This allows the instructor to support each student at the time they are working on their assignments in a more individualized manner.  However, students still are not given a voice or choice in their learning in most instances.  They are many times permitted to move at their own pace and view instruction at different rates and times, but are required to do the same assignments no matter what their interests are.

1:1 learning is occurring all over the world at an increasing rate.  In a 1:1 environment every learner has access to some form of computer at all times.  This computer can be used in the classroom for students to send and receive assignments, research on the web, use applications that support their learning, or work on an adaptive learning program to support their learning.  All of this is better than the traditional classroom with no technology.  I believe that a 1:1 learning environment is essential for personalized learning to occur, however without teachers giving students a voice and a choice in their learning, the 1:1 learning environment still does not rise to the same level as personalized learning I would like to see.

Project based learning is an environment that requires learners to research and work on a project that answers a driving question.  In this environment learners are given a voice and choice in their project and once approved by the instructor the student is released to begin working on it.  Several conferences with the learner may occur throughout the completion of the project to support the learner and insure that they are progressing in a way that will meet the requirements of the learning.  The issue I find with this environment is that there are many students who will need more concrete practice and instruction to meet their learning targets and to retain the learning.  What supports does this learning environment give to these students?

Individual Learning Plans are designed for each student to keep track of what each student’s interests and needs are, so that educators can better tailor the learning environment to meet each child’s needs.  It is not the same as an Individual Education Plan, which has been designed to support only those students with a learning disability.  Every student has the opportunity to have an Individual Learning Plan, and every student and parent has a voice and some choice in the development of their Individual Learning Plan.  In order for a personalized learning environment to exist every student would need an Individual Learning Plan.  However, just having a plan would not be enough to create a truly personalized environment.  Learners, parents, and teachers would all need to continue to work together with the assistance of technology to find the best path for each learner to achieve success.

Learning labs have been created to give learners an environment that supports more hands on activities and encourage students to problem solve and find solutions to real world problems.  These labs have potential to becoming a Personalized Learning environment, but fall short without the student voice and choice in their projects and without a more personalized environment to support the learning of concrete skills needed to solve specific problems.

I believe that Personalized Learning can only be achieved through the use of all of the above.  All students’ roles should change to learners and teachers’ roles should change to facilitators of learning.  Through the help of a 1:1 learning environment we can adapt and blend the learning to meet each of our student’s needs.  We can then also flip our classroom so that students are receiving the instruction when and where they want to.  Through Individual Learning Plans and the support of technology to adapt the learning we can also differentiate our instruction and assignments to meet the needs and interests of our learners.  We can also allow students to have a voice and choice in their projects through project based learning and learning labs to allow them and support them in solving real world problems that they are passionate about themselves.

How do we create the best personalized learning environment that supports students’ learning by tapping into their interests and passions and unleashes the full potential of every child?

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Lead From the Side

Most of us are leaders of some kind or another.  Whether it be the leader of your family, a group of friends, a team, or even a person that someone looks up to, you more than likely are a leader whether you want to be or not.  Think back on all the leaders you have had and which ones have had the greatest positive impact on your life.  I would be willing to bet that many times the people who have had the greatest positive impact on your life are those that walk with you as opposed to those who either walk ahead or behind you.  By giving people the power of choice, helping them think through their choices, and then walking on the path with them, strong relationships are built.

I have made the mistake of leading over a group of people and as a result hurt many people and injured many relationships that I am still struggling to repair.  It takes a great deal of time and energy to build strong, trusting relationships that are needed to help move any one person and any organization forward.  Yet, it only takes a moment and one action to destroy them.

When you are leading, where do you lead from?  Are you leading from above, watching over everyone and talking over people?  Are you leading from in front or behind, pulling and/or pushing people along when they don’t want to move in the first place?  Are you leading from below, holding people up that are continuously sinking on their own?  Or, are you going on a journey with the people close to you, helping them, supporting them, and creating stronger relationships along the way that only create stronger people as a result?

You might be thinking that pulling, pushing, and holding people up are the most efficient ways to get them to move, even if only a little bit.  And, you are probably right when looking at the short term.  However, if you want to nurture someone to become independent, resilient, creative, and a problem solver on their own, you must take the longer path and enjoy the walk with them.  The payoff in the end will be much higher.

So, the next time you find yourself in a position of leadership, take a look at yourself and make sure you are only leading from one place, right next to the person or people you are working with.  Lead from the side!  The payoff in the end will be huge for everyone involved.

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Trust Nurtures Creativity

Have you ever tried to be creative around someone you know doesn’t trust you, or someone that you don’t trust?  If you have, and you are anything like me, you probably found it very difficult if not impossible to be creative at all.  Trust is extremely important in fostering and nurturing creativity for everyone.  We have to be able to trust and know we are trusted in order to take risks we normally wouldn’t have taken.

Just the other day I had a conversation with a fellow educator whose building and district were requiring all teachers to give common end-of-unit assessments.  These common assessments were created by an individual or small group of people to insure that all students are held to the same standards district-wide.  After thinking about this further, I began to question deeper what impact this could, and probably will, have on education and, more importantly, our students and future leaders.

To me, this implementation of common end-of-unit assessments says something to all of the educators required to give them.  It tells them that their leaders don’t trust them.  Their leaders don’t trust that the teachers know and understand what levels of mastery their students should be held to.  They don’t trust that they will even teach the standards at all.  They don’t trust that they will hold all of their students to the same level of mastery.  They don’t trust that their educators can and will create strong assessments aligned to the standards.

Why don’t they trust all of this?  What other supports could be put in place to help educators hold students to a common standard, teach and assess from the Core, and create strong assessments, yet still tells everyone involved, “I trust you.”

Why not push your teachers to have conversations in learning communities about each of these things?  Give them the resources needed and have the conversations around each of these things that stretch and push each other.  And, if someone is not holding his or her students to an appropriate level, then have the conversation with him or her about this and take care of it in a way that doesn’t stunt and stifle the level of trust everyone else deserves.

Our teachers need to feel trusted.  They need to feel free to take risks and try new things.  There hasn’t been a time in education before where creativity was needed more.  Our students don’t operate the same as they did in the past.  They now want and need things to be more relevant to their interests.  They need to know and see why it is important to learn.  And, they expect the assessments to have some kind of value to them.  In order for all of this to happen, our teachers must have the ability to create personalized assessments that still hold each and every student to the same level.  That takes incredible levels of creativity.

Teaching used to be called an art.  Some of us are now trying to make it a science.  Why can’t we have the best of both worlds?  We must be careful with the message we are sending with our initiatives.

What initiatives are you currently doing that limit trust?  What are you going to do about them?  Trust your teachers and nurture the creativity inside them.  This will pay off royally later.  Trust me.

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