Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Lead Your Individual/Collective Teaching/Learning by Asking the Right Questions

Yesterday I had a wonderful conversation with our new school superintendent. He invited me in to talk about a number of points related to teaching and learning. In general, I shared my thoughts related to communication, distributed leadership, decision-making processes, and curriculum. As I think about the meeting, I find myself thinking more specifically about asking the right questions.

As we talked, the issue of questions came up. I noted that a question important to me is "How do we best teach students who fall one, two or  more grade levels behind the expectations for a grade level?" I am interested in this question as I want to really look deeply at what creates this situation, and how we might support these students in ways that matter. As I think about this topic in relation to the elementary level, one factor that contributes to the academic divide is the date children join our school system. It seems that many of our students who fall far behind, join well after kindergarten thus missing out on our terrific, developmental programs to teach basic skills. In light of that, I'm wondering if we need to conduct a more thorough assessment of students joining our schools after kindergarten and perhaps even add some transition learning programs to help these students move up in skill/knowledge to meet or get closer to grade level expectations.

Of course to decide well would mean taking a much deeper look at these students with the following questions:
  • How many students at grades 3 through 8 fall more than one year behind grade level with respect to standards' mastery? (What metrics would you use to figure this out?)
  • At what age did these students enter the school system?
  • How many of these students are identified as special education students, and what special education needs do they have?
  • Are there other identifying factors that relate to these students such as class, family income, residence location, culture, gender, physical/mental health factors . .?
  • Do we note a rise in this population from grades 3 to 8 or does it fall or stay steady?
  • How many of these students leave the school system, and if they leave where do they go from grades 3-8?
Knowing specifically who your students are that don't make the grade-level standards is important. Once you know who the students are, then you can look closely at how our current efforts make a positive or not-so-positive difference with the following questions:
  • Of the students who made substantial gains in closing the gap between their performance and expected standards, what do we know about them in terms of gender, culture, geography, class, health, programming, extracurricular activities and other factors?
  • Of the students who did not make gains or even fell more behind, what do we know about them?
From this analysis, can we identify who we are reaching and who we are not reaching? Can we clearly identify factors that make a difference, factors such as specific programming, supports, educators and more? Can we identify particular students we are missing and why? 

This is an important question, one that greater, more targeted analysis will help us to solve. 

And, as I think of my work as an educator in general, I am thinking about the questions I ask and work to answer. I am thinking about the depth and breadth of those questions and what I do to use those questions to lead good work. Currently the questions that will lead my work at the fifth grade include the following:
  • Which areas of math did our students demonstrate good learning overall, and which areas do we need to teach better? I will use MCAS metrics in conjunction with Symphony Math, Khan Academy, observation and class assessment data to help me answer this question. Then I'll think about the timeline, learning experiences and structures that supported this work. I'll reach out to colleagues and others to help with my analysis and resolve. For example data points already demonstrated to me that we did a pretty good job with geometry, but could have done a better job with numerical expression. I will dig deeper into the data to see why this is true and use what I learn to uplift our teaching in the days ahead in this regard.
  • How can we deepen cultural proficiency in our programming to support student success? As a team we are going to use our past efforts in this regard to develop continued endeavor in this area. For example, we are going to elevate our orientation and intake processes to develop stronger relationships with students and families as research demonstrates this is critical to culturally proficient programming and student success. I will also look deeply at the data points to see where our cultural proficient efforts worked and where we can do better. 
  • What is the most effective way to teach math? This question stands at the center of my teaching efforts. I continue to develop my repertoire in this area with analysis of student work and result as well as reading and studying related literature--research that is reflected, in part, on this blog, via our TeamFive math website, and through the learning experiences I create, find, revise and utilize with students. 
  • How do we build optimal class community and students' SEL? We know that strong communities and SEL leads to optimal learning and teaching so that's why this is a central question for me. I am collecting teaching/learning ideas and efforts to support this on this Learning Behaviors, Mindset and Attitude website
In summary, it's identification of the most important questions that leads our work well. As system, school, grade-level and class teams, we need to identify those questions and then choose good processes to lead to development.

For my own work, I use the following process to develop response to my central questions:
  • daily reading and research
  • regular updates to guiding websites, learning experiences and advocacy
  • regular collegial observation, discussion, share and debate in real time and via my professional learning network (PLN)
As a system we are continually developing the processes we use to respond to the questions central to our efforts. The elements we use now and can continue to develop include the following:
  • data analysis: we currently use many data points, and I think we can continue to deepen, broaden and enrich our use of formal/informal data to identify and develop good questions to lead our collective work.
  • share: we currently have opportunity to share best practice, but I think we can develop our share and networks in ways that will better our collective effort and result. This will take research, discussion, trials and development
What questions are the central question of your individual and collective practice? How do you develop the answers or response to those questions in ways that matter? These questions are central to the work we do to teach students well each day.