Background- I agreed to take part in a grant initiative for my district called Professional Growth Specialists (PGS) wherein a bunch of teachers from around the district are being trained in reflective conversations and will then be tasked with leading those reflective conversations with other teachers at our sites. It's part of the district's efforts to make improvement practices more teacher-centric and divorce them from the traditional Observation/Evaluation cycle. It's peer-based, non-judgmental, collaborative, and voluntary. Today was Day One of a two-day training (which will be followed by a four-day training later in the summer), and one of the things we talked about struck a note with me, so I needed to write about it to process what I thought. Some of the ideas presented herein that I identify as Improvement Science might not actually be identifiable as such, but they're all getting lumped in under that heading for now until my understanding changes.
Let's get this out of the way first- I can not stand the "building the plane in the air" metaphor we're subjected to in many training. I think it's a terrible metaphor mostly because it doesn't hold up to any close inspection. I mean, most metaphors don't, but this one is really bad. Like, how is the plane flying at all if it's not built? Because our plane should be built. Maybe we're updating things or changing things en route, but the plane is the plane. Rebuild the plane when it's on the ground. That's safer.
I was given a name for the kind of thinking that, in my mind, also should hate that airplane metaphor- Improvement Science. Here's what was presented to me as Improvement Science in a nutshell-
Set a Big Goal --> Set sign post goals --> affect small change --> after a short amount of time reflect and assess on the effectiveness of said small change with easy data --> adjust small change/remove small change and affect different small change --> reflect with data and adjust --> repeat.
What I like about this process is the speed of it, and how surgical it is. To openly state my bias towards this process- it's basically how I run my classroom. It's how I try to teach individual lessons, and then also how I try to think about overarching units and themes.We're always playing jazz, listening to the students around us and changing the tune to fit what they're playing. We don't want to get to the end of the song and then say "Ok, what song were all of you playing? Because I was playing YYZ and it sounded like I was getting Walk This Way over here and Bring the Noise over here and were you playing Lust For Life on kazoo? That was nose harp? Huh. Good to know."
For the above process to work data is needed, but it needs to be easy to collect, quick to collect, and actionable. Which is its own challenge right there. That means, ideally, you're not running a ton of tests to catch the data. Could it be observational? Probably, as long as your able to observe, record, and teach at the same time. Which we are, because that's what we do. Some of us (read- me) would just need to be more intentional about the recording of said observations.
The action taken because of the data would also need to be fast and flexible. I'm thinking it would be the kind of thing, again, like I try to run projects. The end goal is X. How you get there is on you. We would need to avoid prescribing actions, which should satisfy teachers because that means boxed programs as they are wouldn't work. We'd get to, instead, do my favorite thing and break those program until they work for us. Gimme this, gimme that, lemme tape this to this, ok cool. Now this works with the quick data I've got and should help. But it's taped together so that the next time data is collected it's easy to take apart without destroying (unless you tape things like some of my students tape things, in which case the verb "tape" should be replaced with the verb "laminate").
And the goals need to be small enough to be viable, but big enough to matter. I think a major part of that process would be spending a lot of time on the Big Goal at the outset, and then letting the sign post goals be alive and letting them move. That can be one of the issues with SLGs (Student Learning Goals) if your principal is a stickler. You set goals at the start of the year, then the kids change, but you can't adjust the goals enough to reflect that.
One important aspect of the goal setting and evaluation process needs to be a close, honest exploration of intent and impact. In the training that's how it was written "intent and impact". I don't read that phrase that way. I correct to it "intent vs impact". Too often we allow good intentions to overshadow what actually happened, or what was actually said. What you mean to say or do only matters to you, what you actually say or do is what the result is and that's what matters. And then honestly looking at your intent, your action, and the result and reflecting on if what you said or did actually led to what you wanted. And if it didn't, what did you do wrong? Not what's wrong with the data, but where was your mistake.
The things a school would probably need to fully implement something like this is, and always is, buy-in. Ain't that always the first sticking point? You have this great idea and then you see a vision of That Teacher/That Group and you think, "Crap, how am I gonna get them not to complain about this?" By going around them. I don't think you aim for big buy-in. It's too hard. Start small. It's a giant cliche at this point and everyone has seen it, but I'm gonna mention it anyway- That Shirtless Dancing Guy/First Follower video is a pretty strong metaphor for this whole process. Go small, grab a few followers and let it trickle in. Maybe you don't catch everyone, some resist, and that's cool. Doesn't make them bad teachers. Do what you can with what you get and be patient. Which creates a cool dynamic within the program- it moves fast internally, but it can be allowed to grow slowly.
You also need an admin who is cool with all of this. Which, you know, is hard to control. And with that comes the look at privilege inherent in your school and the system. It's super easy for me to say "We should change things, shake things up." I get away with a lot. White guy, hi. I'm basically trained to be ok saying that kind of thing and trying it. I mean, it's always been my personality, but I'm seeing more and more why that is and why it's not so easy for others. So there's an understanding that with all of this there's trust that needs to happen. And trust is hard. But starting with the small group would help with that too. A few trust me, then others trust the ones that trust me, and so on.
The key to all of this is the ability to accept and understand one thing about all of it, every action that we take and every choice me make-
It's possibly wrong and definitely incomplete.
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.