Thursday, 24 November 2016

Learning Destinations and Making Dinner

I have been thinking about Carol Ann Tomlinson's column in the October 2016 issue of Educational Leadership for weeks. I know October wasn't that long ago, but I usually read Tomlinson's column the day the magazine arrives and then work my way through the rest of the articles as the month unfolds. I can't stop thinking about these two quotes:

"To create real learners, teachers have to reach the hearts, souls, and minds of students. Teaching a list of standards won't get us there."

"Right now, we often dish out raw ingredients when we should be making dinner."

Making dinner. Never have I heard a metaphor so perfectly describe what we do as teachers when we create an authentic and meaningful learning destination. When I create learning destinations for my students and think of myself as "making dinner",  I accept these things to be true:

  • Pre-packaged meals are never as tasty as those made from scratch. They're just quick and easy. They can't possibly meet all of the individual needs and preferences at my table.When I carefully craft learning destinations to meet the needs of my students, the learning is robust. Fine dining, not fast food.
  • If all you are serving is carrots, it doesn't matter how fancy those carrots are, how much fun we had curling them into strips, or even if they are organic and pesticide free... they are still just carrots and would make a better meal in a stew. A learning destination is more than one outcome taught in isolation. I need to thoughtfully select outcomes and group them together in ways that will nourish my learners. 
  • Everybody is coming to the table and we are all going to eat. The learning destination is for all learners. It's my job to clearly identify the learning destination and provide the samples, criteria, and feedback necessary for all learners to be successful.
  • Children can be picky eaters. Our learning destinations must engage our learners in meaningful ways. We need them to run to the table and pull up a chair.
  • The recipe is just the starting point; every good chef puts his or her own spin on macaroni and cheese. As teachers we use our professional judgment to enhance the curriculum - grouping curricular outcomes into big ideas, including the competencies, beliefs, and learning approaches found in the front matter of the curriculum documents, incorporating the ideas of noted experts, reflecting on past practice, and considering student needs and interests - all to create learning destinations that engage students at the highest levels of Bloom's taxonomy. 
Making dinner is always more fun, less work, and even more likely to be great when you share the work with others. My friend, colleague, and co-author (Lesson Study: Powerful Assessment and Professional Practice and this post!) Ruth Gaurvreau and I could have made this a very long post, extending the metaphor and appreciating the truth (and the humour!) in the connections. Instead, we decided to invite you into the conversation. 

In what ways are you "making dinner"?

Brenda and Ruth


Augusta, B., Gauvreau, R., and Hector, G. 2013. Lesson Study: Powerful Assessment and Professional Practice. Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing.

Bloom, B. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Tomlinson, C.A. 2016Lesson Plans Well Served. Educational Leadership, 74(2), pp. 89-90.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Connecting the Work of School Leaders and Classroom Teachers

For us, learning is in large part about listening, asking questions, and making connections. As we listen to the leaders whom we serve and support, here are a couple of the questions that we have been hearing.

Question: What does research show to have the most significant impact on student learning of anything ever documented?

If you have spent any time with us at all – in person, through our writing, or on our blogs – you know our response to this question. What we do as educators is built on the foundation of assessment and the seven actions that are collectively known as assessment in the service of learning or assessment for learning (William & Black, 1998).  By this we mean that all students, no matter how much they struggle will:

       Have a clear learning destination.
       Use samples to understand quality and 
       Participate in the co-construction of criteria.
       Be involved in self- and peer assessment.
       Collect, select, reflect, and project (set goals) based on evidence of their learning.
       Communicate their learning to others, both 
formally and informally.

Connection: School leaders facilitate the learning of teachers and support staff. These actions or big ideas are equally effective with adult learners. Just as teachers use these strategies to build self-monitoring and self-regulating learners, leaders use these strategies to build a culture of learning and collaboration where teachers own the learning and change is sustainable.  Examples include:

·      One principal of a K – 8 school modelled writing a letter for Grade Two students, making her thinking visible by talking about it as she wrote.  Her goal was to support teachers in their professional inquiry into the teaching of writing as a co-learner, leading the way by taking risks herself, so as to encourage teachers to take risks alongside her.
·      A principal co-taught with a teacher, modelling what it means to solve a math problem completely while colleagues observed and recorded data as requested by the co-teachers.
·      A secondary principal modelled, along with the classroom teacher and one of the assistant principals, what was important in a class discussion that leads to learning.  The students observed that demonstration and analyzed what the adults were doing, in order to establish criteria in that regard.

Question:  What if the school is too large for me to reasonably model in classrooms or I just don’t know enough about the subject matter or current teaching practices to model with students?

In a research study (Davies, Busick, Herbst, & Sherman, 2014) into the effectiveness of using assessment for learning as a leadership tool, the authors reported three key findings. One of them speaks directly to the ideas in this post:

“Leaders take action and move beyond words to deeds.”

The leaders in this study used the principles and strategies of assessment for learning in their leadership practice, modeling for teachers the big ideas they were looking for in teachers’ classroom practice.

Connection: When we work in alignment with teachers we implicitly and explicitly communicate a powerful message:

You are not alone in this change we are making as a school. We are all working toward this goal.

Examples from our colleagues include:

  •            Principals and vice-principals in a community of practice wrote clear and specific descriptions of what success would look like in relation to their school improvement plan goals in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. After considering the possible conversations, observations, and conversations to collect as evidence, the leaders gave each other feedback on the plans.
  •       A principal, whose school’s literacy goal included the importance of providing samples of proficiency and quality, began a session on writing report card comments with exemplars provided by the province. Together, the staff deconstructed the samples and co-constructed criteria on what makes an effective report card comment.
  •           A secondary principal and the school’s three assistant principals talked through the triangulated evidence that they were collecting in relation to their school improvement plan.  They shared this evidence during the staff meetings that coincided with each of the four reporting periods. They described the challenges that they were facing, in particular, with the collection of evidence from observations and conversations that “outlasted” the event.
As you consider these examples, you might ask yourself the following questions:

In what ways do these connections remind me of my leadership practice?
In what ways might these examples provide opportunities for me and my leadership practice?
What other examples could I add to the illustrative ones offered here?

As you respond to these questions, you are invited into a deeper reflection of the actions of an instructional leader. And you move, “lead teacher” to “lead learner” or “principal teacher” to “principal learner”.

Brenda and Sandra

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. 1998. Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan 80(2): pp. 1-20.

Davies, A., Busick, K., Herbst, S. & Sherman, A. 2014. System leaders using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process: Developing theory from practice. The Curriculum Journal, Vol.25(4): pp. 567-592.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Using Samples... Not Just Collecting Them

Years ago I read an article that caused me to wonder if I too was a human “doing”, rather than a human “being”. Like those described by the writer whose name I can no longer recall, I rarely just be. Mostly, I do. In early September, I shared an experience with my colleagues on the Louis Riel School Division Literacy Team in Winnipeg that reminded me of the value in taking the time to think deeply and collaboratively about things you’ve already done – before you DO something else.

In May of the last two years, this team asked schools in their writing project to do a school-wide write on various grade level specific topics, something many of you also do. Grade level teachers identified typical samples that were then deconstructed by teachers working in vertical teams. Charts were created that listed what was present in the work, and what the writer was able to do. In preparation for the session last May we discussed the purpose of the sample collection at the system level – our purpose as the team guiding the project divisionally.


Before jumping into the work of this year, we paused to review our assessment data and to consider what it might be telling us.  As you can see from the slide above, we collected evidence of both student and teacher learning. As befits a team whose role is support and not evaluation, we analyzed the samples from an assessment for learning stance.
  • What do you notice when comparing the 3 typical grade level samples from Year 1 to Year 2?
  • What might this mean for instruction?
  • What do you notice as you consider the typical samples across grade levels?
  • What evidence do we have of a year's growth between each grade?
  • How might this inform our classroom demonstration lessons this year?
  • How might this inform professional learning for the teachers this year?
  • What patterns and trends do you see in what teachers are noticing in the writing?
  • What might this tell us about next steps for teachers? 

We began with student learning and compared the three typical samples from a grade level after Year 1 of the writing project to those after Year 2.

What follows is a sampling of our learning based on discussion of the questions listed above:
  • As we compared the typical Grade 1 samples from the two years team members noticed students:
    • Were not afraid to make mistakes in their draft writing (Evidenced by the underlining of words they were unsure of spelling and continuing to write.)
    • Had greater sense of story (Evidenced by the presence of a beginning, middle and ending.)
    • Showed their thinking (Evidenced by re-reading, crossing out words and choosing others more interesting, clear, descriptive...)
  • After reviewing two grade levels we saw the value in the comparison and made a plan to dedicate more time to it. 
  • We recognized the power of the activity and decided to model it in an upcoming session for teachers. 
  • We noticed that our evidence consisted only of products. Knowing the value of evidence from conversations and observations, we made a note to discuss and plan for a way to broaden our divisional evidence.
  • Our second step was to consider the evidence from the vertical team conversations recorded on charts as the team analyzed the typical samples from one grade level. This time we noticed:
    • The vertical teams reviewing Kindergarten and Grade 1 samples noticed many characteristics that they categorized as conventions.
      • Is this evidence that it is difficult to see beyond conventions when looking at beginning writing?
      • Is this evidence of our instructions for the task?
      • Is this evidence that teachers need more "big picture" conversations?
    • Further discussion revealed that team members recalled the conversations connected to these particular lists of strengths and heard the vertical team talk about message, thinking about the reader, and revising to improve writing.

    • We made a plan to more formally triangulate the evidence of our learners - the teachers.
    • We noted that when we come together to do this again in May we would revisit criteria we co-constructed earlier about what writers do. We will use these criteria to really understand or change the categories we have been using to code the strengths we see in the writing. 
    ·     Just as classroom teachers around the country are gathering and reviewing assessment data from the end of last school year and the start of this one, we facilitators of professional learning and designers of district-wide projects apply the same principles to our own work. In this way, we all achieve the same end – baseline data that allows us to create learning destinations that meet the needs of our specific learners and to make changes in our own teaching.    

    Friday, 16 September 2016

    How Do I Start?

    I understand from the thirty thousand foot view, but how do I start?

    This is the question of the month for teachers. It is also asked by educators in leadership roles, those who support teachers in a myriad of ways and with a variety of job titles and descriptions – consultant, coach, facilitator, team leader, lead teacher, instructional support …

    Fourteen years ago, when I stepped out of my classroom and into the world of instructional support and professional learning, I asked myself the same question. The twinge of anxiety behind the question was fuelled in part by those around me who said,  “It must be really different (and therefore terrifying) to work with adult learners.” The implication being that this new job had nothing at all to do with what I had done as a classroom teacher.
    I am forever grateful that it did not take me all fourteen years to figure out that this is simply not true. While I no longer have a classroom and students in the traditional sense, and there are definite differences in supporting adult learners, I start with each new teacher or team of teachers in ways that are very reminiscent of the tenets that guided me as a classroom teacher.

    “Relationships Are All There Is.”

    This quote from Margaret Wheatley (2002, p.19), all five words of it, describes to what I attribute any success I have ever had as a teacher or consultant. Just as it was in my classroom each new school year, building relationships with the educators I work alongside is my first priority. If we are to do real work together, teachers and school leaders need to know they can trust me. They need to know that I honour their practice and believe in their ability and willingness to do all they can in service of their students. They need to know that it is safe to try new things and take risks in my presence.

    Gradual Release of Responsibility Works With Adult Learners Too

    I didn’t know what to expect the first time I taught a lesson in a classroom that was not my own, with the classroom teacher and other team members observing. It was not something I had ever experienced during my years as a classroom teacher. But from the moment teachers began to share their observations, I knew the gradual release of responsibility that had been a cornerstone of my teaching was equally essential in my role as instructional support. Modelling, shared practice, and independent practice are not artificial constructs that exist only in “school” learning. It’s how most of us learned to drive, what apprenticeships are based on, and how I think about professional learning. Seeing is more than believing, it is understanding. When we take professional learning into the classroom and do a demonstration lesson for others to observe and then debrief together, talk honestly about what worked, why it worked, what we might do differently next time, we are modelling. We engage in shared practice when we co-plan, co-teach, and look at student samples together. And, just as it does with students in our classrooms, this gradual release leads to more reflective independent practice.

    Assessment In The Service of Learning Does Not Have a ‘Best Before’ Date

    I use the principles of assessment for learning with all learners, regardless of whether they are under or over eighteen.  All learners need and deserve:
    •          A clear learning destination – where are we going?
    •          Descriptions of quality and proficiency – what can success look like?
    •      Triangulated evidence that we are making a difference with the changes we are implementing.
    •      Opportunities to self-/peer assess, set goals, and talk about our learning

    This is how I start – with the same good teaching practices that helped those who hired me believe that I could be of service to my colleagues.


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