Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Walking the Talk

In March I co-presented with Anne Davies and Sandra Herbst in Mississauga on the topic of Facilitating Adult Learning. It was an anniversary of sorts, as the first time I had the honour and pleasure of working with them was at the very same location almost three years ago. That first session was designed for school and system leaders with Leading the Way to Assessment for Learning: A Practical Guide included in the participant package.

At the time I was a consultant in a large school division in Winnipeg, with duties that included providing professional learning and support to fourteen schools. As a system we had spent ten years working on assessment for learning. In that summer Institute almost three years ago, I came to the realization that I had presented the profound and significant ideas of assessment for learning but I had not explicitly modelled them in my own practice and made my learning and thinking public.

This quote from Leading the Way filled me with new purpose:
Lead learners are prepared to learn alongside others, making public their emerging learning challenges. Though they may not have a classroom of students, they provide a model in their own practice of the “big ideas” and principles of assessment for learning. When leaders mindfully use assessment with the adult learners they serve, everyone achieves more. Walking the talk requires changing habits. (p. 13)

This sentence from my notes during the Institute spurred me on to action:
As leaders we need to be prepared to risk our own significance.

At the Institute last month I shared one way that I found to walk the talk of assessment for learning. Like many of you, each year I fill out a professional growth plan that details my learning goals for the school year. The goal I set for myself in the September following my epiphany was to collect triangulated evidence related to my effectiveness as a consultant and to use the evidence to set goals for the following year.

I began by describing the goal to my team, including the assistant superintendent I reported to, and asking them to brainstorm with me about what counts - what is important in the role of curriculum consultant in our school division.  Our initial list included:
  • clear and open communication
  • trust
  • providing opportunities for reflection
  • modelling best teaching practices
  • teacher willingness to take risks alongside me
  • linked to student work
  • relationships
  • contributes to change in practice
  • focused on teams
  • responsive
Knowing my deeply held belief in Margaret Wheatley’s statement that “Relationships are all there is.” (Wheatley, 2002), we talked about collecting evidence on relationships and decided that I should start with simpler topics. Later, as I looked at the list and thought about what really made a difference in my ability to do the job well, I knew I could not leave out the quality that for me was the most important - simply because it might be difficult to measure. I encourage teachers to measure all that is important in their work with students, not just that which is easy to measure. I needed to persevere.

After sorting and categorizing the criteria t-chart looked like this:

Responsive to teachers’ needs and goals
  • providing opportunities for reflection
  • outcomes
  • flexible agendas

Focused on professional learning as a community
  • focused on teams
  • norms of collaboration
  • facilitate team conversation
Contributes to change in practice
  • modelling best teaching practices
  • linked to student work
  • research links

Directly linked to student learning
  • explicit practical strategies
  • includes co-teaching/modelling in classrooms
Builds and maintains relationship with adult learners
  • clear and open communication
  • trust
  • teacher willingness to take risks alongside me

I took four of the criteria and created labels for two pocket folders:
  • Responsive to teachers’ needs and goals
  • Focused on professional learning as a community
  • Directly linked to student learning
  • Builds and maintains relationship with adult learners

Now I was ready to collect observations, conversations, and products as evidence of the degree to which I was meeting each of these criteria. I decided to use an existing structure – the three reporting periods – as a time to pause, reflect, and select evidence as well as in an ongoing fashion as evidence presented itself and time allowed.

The next step was to find authentic reasons to share my portfolio, not in a “look what I did” kind of way but more of a “when I tried this, here is what I discovered…” or “I wanted to engage in self-assessment alongside you and …” or “as a reflective practitioner, I needed a way to self-assess and set goals…” . I shared it with teachers, consultant colleagues, and with my assistant superintendent as part of the evidence for my evaluation. An unplanned for, but with the benefit of hindsight, obvious benefit was that I felt more involved in my own growth as a professional and the evaluation of my performance. My professional growth plan was a living document. I actually followed it and tracked my own progress toward the goal. And that gave me even more to talk with teachers about.

Davies,  A., Herbst, S., and Parrot Reynolds, B. 2012. Leading the Way to Assessment for Learning: A Practical Guide. Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing.

Wheatley, M. 2002. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.