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School Growth: Small Changes Lead to BIG Impact

“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.” — Dylan Wiliam

NOTE: I am continuing to use my blog as a way to be transparent and share my learning within my professional growth plan. One of my goals is to support staff professional learning and drive learning forward through instructional leadership in the area of literacy. To view my current growth plan goals (still developing), click here

During my years as an administrator, one of the big mistakes I have made is trying to do too much too quickly. This has caused burnout, disengagement, lack of focus… and an overall lack of progress. The staffs I have worked with have been very supportive and patient with me and provided me with regular feedback with how things are going. I remember in my first few years as a principal, our teacher-librarian pulled me aside and said, “Chris, we love the ideas you share… they are exciting and likely great for our school… but we can only do so much in order to do them well. How about we focus on one for a few months and then go from there.”  This feedback changed me as I realized that in order to do something well in a school, there must be focus, depth, collaboration, and commitment. By trying to do too many new things, I was actually moving staff away from the goals and ideas because I was stressing everyone out!

I met Simon Breakspear almost 10 years ago at a BC Principals Conference. I really liked what he had to say about creating change in education. I have continued to follow Simon and we have connected a number of times at various conferences and through various platforms of communication. His thoughts on “radical incrementalism” really resonated with me as a way to make small changes to create big growth. My friends Cale Birk (District Principal in Kamloops) and Neil Stephenson (Director of Instruction in Delta), mentioned the term “Learning Sprints” a number of times and recommended that I attend another session with Simon to check out his work on sprints. Last year, I attended a session with Simon and then I followed up this year at the BC Principals and Vice Principals Association fall conference to dive deeper into Learning Sprints.

From the Learning Sprints website:

Engagement in Learning Sprints supports the adoption of evidence-informed practices and enables educators to collectively plan, act and evaluate their impact. The approach is aligned with the existing research evidence into the features of effective teacher professional learning and the science of behaviour change.

…The process has been designed to be simplerelevant and manageable for already overloaded teachers and their leaders. Most of all, it is designed to be adaptable to your school context and focused on the challenges specific to your classrooms and learners.

(check out the site for free resources, videos, and support)

As I wrote in my last post, I moved to a new school this year and this school has a strong foundation of literacy and self-regulation along with an effective collaborative culture. The idea of Learning Sprints seemed like a good fit to build on the wisdom and strengths of the staff to help drive professional growth and student learning in the school. I also liked how the sprints framework encouraged small changes based on evidence-based practices while also focusing on instruction and involving a reflection and evaluation to see if the strategies were successful. The cycles of trying a new idea were short; if the strategy was not successful, the teachers could try again for another 6 weeks or move on to trying a new strategy. Simon talks about “failing small”; too often, we try a new strategy or idea for a long time (1 or more years) and then look back to see if it worked. The fact is that if the strategy is tried for a long period of time and does not create the intended outcomes, it is failing big because of the time and efforts taken to try something that didn’t work. By running shorter cycles, we can “fail small” and if something does not work well within the context, we can reflect and then either pivot and continue or stop and move on to try something different.  I presented the idea of Learning Sprints to teachers and they seemed to appreciate the autonomy to choose an area of needed growth for their classroom (as long as it worked within our action plan goal of reading) and they liked the idea of working collaboratively with colleagues to possibly learn new teaching strategies. We also discussed the idea of failing small and trying new ideas that involved less risk for students (and higher reward).  The sprints process would build on the expertise within the school, use evidence-informed practices, have a short 6-week cycle focused on clear goals, encourage collaboration, and involve reflection and assessment.

At each staff meeting (we meet every couple of weeks) through the first 2 terms, we spent a chunk of time on our sprints. It is important to follow the phases of PREPARE (Design, Define Assess),  SPRINT (Teach, Monitor, Support), and REVIEW (Analyze, Transfer, Reset). We were able to participate in two sprints this year (some groups chose to pivot slightly and continue on with the first sprint as well). As this was not only about the professional learning within the sprints but also about the sprints process as well, we had the following successes (based on observations and the survey with teachers) :

  • Focused collaborative learning teams.
  • Allowed for deliberate practice with instruction.
  • Didn’t feel like “one more thing” to add as it built on what we were already doing or hoping to do.
  • Created action/change in the classroom.
  • Led to positive results for student achievement
  • Led to more successful strategies learned to be added to the teachers’ toolkits.
  • Was a good reminder of the importance of assessment
  • Allowed for ongoing, collaborative learning and a chance to spiral deeper in an area of professional learning

And the following challenges:

  • Narrowing down the learning outcomes (we improved upon this for the 2nd sprint)
  • Trying to maintain the focus on sprints through report cards, reading assessments, etc
  • Keeping the sprints goals at the forefront of instruction
  • Having clear assessments (at the start) to determine if the strategies were working (this was my error and something that we improved upon for the 2nd sprint).
  • Needed to spend more time in the REVIEW phase
  • We need to find a better way to include non-enrolling teachers and support staff in the process (music, learning commons teachers).
  • We need to use common resources for ideas on evidence-based practices (we will be using research as well as Jan Richardson’s book, “The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading” next year).

The results of the Learning Sprints teacher survey were:

  • 88% of teachers said that “Learning Sprints helped me to focus on a small, manageable idea/strategy with my students.”
  • 81% of teachers said that “The Learning Sprints process helped with collaboration between grade group colleagues.”
  • 81% of teachers said they “saw a positive impact on student learning as a result of our efforts within the Learning Sprints process.
  • 75% of teachers said, “I was able to add a strategy to my teaching practice because of our efforts within the Learning Sprints framework.”

Although this was a learning year for the Sprints process, we have already seen success and it is clear that teachers found the process to be helpful in driving professional growth and student achievement in the school. When we surveyed teachers about the successes and challenges of our school action plan, a number of teachers also shared on their own that learning sprints was a key piece that we need to continue with as we move forward into next year.

Too often in my career, I have seen schools, districts, and provinces make huge changes without really knowing if they will be successful. When we make large changes, we take big risks as these changes require so much capital (funds, time, resources, etc) and if we do not achieve the intended outcomes, it is a big loss for all those involved. Learning Sprints allows us to bring in evidence-based practice for a short cycle to determine if it has a positive impact in our context. If it doesn’t work with our context, it is not a significant loss and we can pivot or reset to take a different path to support teacher growth and student learning. By making these small changes, over time, we begin to see big results… and a significant impact on school growth.