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.




From Followers to Friendships

Fist bump – from http://flic.kr/p/7XiTUz

Many of us have written about how our PLN (personal learning network) has helped us get through challenging times.  I wanted to share some experiences of how people I have met through social media have impacted me in my day to day life and even moved from followers to friends.  I am not a fan of lists of people and this is not meant to include or exclude but more to share some recent positive experiences resulting from social media.

As I head back to work and reflect on the summer, some key moments with friends stand out… moments that would not have occurred had I not been using social media as a tool for professional learning.

People who do not use Twitter and Social Media often state that “real relationships” cannot be formed through these avenues.  This summer was a clear example of how friendships CAN result from relationships formed through social media.

At the beginning of the summer, George Couros, division principal in Alberta, planned a few days stop over in Vancouver on his way to a speaking tour in Australia.  We planned to hang out for a day and then meet up with a few others that evening.  I picked him up at the airport (I was a bit late… although I did a drive by and he was too busy tweeting out that I was late to notice me driving by) and we spent the day chatting about all things life, education, and social media.  In the evening, we met up with a few other amazing educators (whom I have also met through Twitter) for some dinner and in depth chats about technology, education, and professional learning.   The weird thing is that this was only the third time I had ever met George face to face.  We have ‘spoken’ through Twitter, Facebook, email, SMS, Skype, etc for a few years but because he lives in Alberta, we rarely get to meet.  George and I hung out like we were university buddies… often it felt like we were catching up by sharing old experiences and bouncing ideas off each other.

Brian Kuhn, the technology leader in Coquitlam, is someone whom I met through Twitter and blogging a few years back.  I originally went for breakfast with Brian to pick his brain about developing a tech vision for our district.  What resulted has been regular (EARLY!) breakfast meetings throughout the year that include dialogue not only about technology and education but also about family and life in general.  We often meet up at conferences or events and I follow his travels around Europe and mountain biking trails via Facebook and he follows the growth of my young daughters.  Today we attended an Edcamp together and he made a comment “It is so cool to see photos of your daughter growing up… feel like I am watching family”.   Brian is a bit of mentor to me but also has moved to a trustworthy buddy that I can chat with about anything.

Another connection with Kuhn.

A few weeks ago, I was heading up to a family reunion in Salmon Arm and the route to there took me through Kamloops.  Cale Birk, a principal in Kamloops, invited me to stop by his place on the way back.  His house was a perfect pit stop for my family (you cannot get very far with two 20-month-old daughters in the car) so we popped in for a few hours.  Again, hanging out with Cale was like being with a buddy that I played hockey or basketball with.  We chatted about everything until finally my wife gave me the signal that we had to head out.  The crazy part of this is that our wives had actually connected through Facebook a few weeks prior as they are both dance teachers.  Further, Cale has 2 beautiful daughters (2 and 4) who immediately connected with our daughters.  The best part of this meeting was the fact that I had never met Cale face to face before.  We had also used a variety of tech to communicate with each other so we knew each other quite well but meeting face to face created that friendship.  Cale, Lori, Paige, and Kate stopped by our place for lunch the following week, en route to Victoria, and we are planning some more gatherings in the near future.


Meeting the Birks

The last example I want to share does not involve a face to face meeting but more of someone whom I keep in touch with on a regular basis.  Darcy Mullin, a principal in Summerland, and I have been Skyping once a month for the past year.  In addition, we chat via Twitter, Facebook, email, and text messaging.  Although our attempt to meet up this summer (which would add up to a whopping 3 times) did not work out, Darcy and I kept in touch by Skyping a few times and texting throughout the summer.  The best thing about our conversations this summer is that the focus was not just on education but mostly on our families.  Darcy has twins as well so the stories of my daughters really bring him back; too, I enjoy his narratives of his family outings throughout BC and Western USA – the excitement in his voice when he speaks about his wife, son, and daughter is truly contagious.

Meeting with Mullin

To me, the learning that results from the connections we have with people is obvious.  This post is by no means meant to be a cheesy shout out to George, Brian, Cale, and Darcy nor is it to exclude the many other people and friends I have met through social media; it is to share and highlight the potential deeper relationships that can arise from the effective use of social media.

Connecting through social media is not about the quantity of followers or ‘friends’ that a person has but it IS about the deeper, trusting relationships that can result if you take the time to make these relationships happen.  These guys have had a huge impact on me – and I probably would never have met them without social media.  I look forward to deepening the relationships and learning with a few more folks in the near future. Thank you to all those that have taken the time to connect with me to help me both as an educator and as a person.

For another example of how followers can turn into friends, please check out Stacey Garrioch’s wonderful post on #edcampkinder.



Challenge Me

Help me grow. Image from http://bit.ly/n89fga CC

In his book Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni tells us that if you have a team that sits around and always agrees, you are not a real team.  Teams must challenge each other to be better.  There is no innovation if everyone agrees; agreement equals status quo.

I have recently read a few posts by educators whom I consider leaders in the the world of professional learning communities – Bill Ferriter and Cale Birk.  In Ferriter’s post, he quotes Dyer, Gregerson and Christensen (from the book Innovator’s DNA) when he writes

Recognizing that the best ideas are the by-product of intellectual collisions, true innovators constantly seek out sources of personal and professional challenge.

For my first few years as an administrator, I had battles with colleagues around assessment and student motivation.  I would come away from meetings angry and frustrated.  If someone debated me, I would take it personally.  I would defensively REACT rather than professionally RESPOND.   I strongly believed in my philosophies and would become offended if someone challenged me.  I felt there were some colleagues that i just did not get along with.

In 2009, I opened up a Twitter account and began blogging.  It took a lot of time and building of confidence to put my ideas out there but eventually, I did.  I starting writing about rewards, discipline, awards, assessment, and homework (among many other topics).  People immediately began to challenge me and I was not sure how to react.  I realized that I better have research and experience to back up my thoughts.  As I grew in the blogging world, I began to mature as an educator.  I started to love being challenged on topics and engaging in professional debate with people online.  However, in the face to face world, I still took things too personally.

This past year, I realized that I should be THANKFUL to those that have challenged me both online and in person.  It is THESE people that have helped me to grow and see education through a different lens.  Those who have asked powerful questions around student motivation and assessment have actually helped me to either become more confident in my philosophies or reflect and alter my views.

It is only through this challenges and intellectual collisions that I have grown.  To those who have challenged me within our school staff, our district or online: thank you.

It is acceptable to disagree with a person at the table but it is UNacceptable to ignore them when they have a different view.  It is important to have people in your professional learning community/network who continually challenge you and the team to be better. When someone disagrees, do not take this challenge personally and then react.  Instead – listen… reflect… respond.

I am addicted to learning and it is through respectful, challenging educational dialogue that I see the most growth.

Pernille Ripp challenged me to write about how blogging has changed my world.  Blogging had led me down a path to meet so many educators who continue to engage with me in dialogue around student learning.  The lessons I have learned from these intellectual collisions have transferred from the computer screen to face to face meetings.  Now, instead of taking things personally, I have begun to take things professionally and use the disagreements as a way to grow as an educator and as a person.

Help me continue to grow. Challenge me.



Moving Forward While Romanticizing the Past?

Photo from http://bit.ly/oaU0qL

We often look to our past through a lens of  ‘that is how things should be done today’.  This past week I have read a few articles and posts about how we need to return to the old, better ways of doing things and how ‘kids these days’ are lazy and have such a sense of entitlement.

New math equals trouble, education expert says – Canada – CBC News (via David Wees – see David’s response here)

Inside the entitlement generation – The Globe and Mail

There are very few things that get me more frustrated than when I hear stereotyping of our future generations and the criticism of the new way of teaching.  Cale Birk (@birklearns) wrote a brilliant post in response to the Globe and Mail article title “Uphill Both Ways in A Snowstorm” that is a must-read.  In it, Birk states:

In my opinion our students of today are as intelligent and motivated as students at this age have ever been.  I would also say that students are much more well-rounded than I ever was–they are more socially responsible, more globally aware, and more tolerant than any generation before them.  When graduates cross our stage at commencements, I absolutely marvel at how involved they are in their academics, the arts, athletics, the school, and community issues.  I wish I went through high school with the same verve and alacrity that our students do and have done.

The belittling of our students and the newer forms of pedagogy does not help with the intergenerational relationships nor does it help with our sense of community.  Are some people trying to get our kids to fit in a box that no longer exists?   I wonder how many of us look back at “the way things were” and remember all the great things but possibly forget some things…well… not worth remembering?  How many of use try to move forward by romanticizing the past?  Do we criticize the new way of doing things because it is foreign to us and we fear the unknown?

Last spring, our district held a forum around 21st Century Learning that included educators (elementary, secondary, post-sec), community members, parents, and students.  At one point we were discussing the way things used to be.  A parent and a teacher spoke of how things were when they were growing up 20-30 years earlier.  A student then spoke – he said,

When I was a kid, we played all day long…  pick up football, baseball, biking, swimming.   We didn’t wait for adults to organize stuff for us. We would play until the street lights came on.  We weren’t so wrapped up in video games like kids are today.  We got off our butts and did stuff.  We weren’t always on the computer talking to each other, we were out there meeting with each other.  It’s a lot different now.

Then, with a whispered question from my assistant superintendent at the time, Scott Benwell (@sbenwell1), it hit me.  This student was barely 18 and he was saying the same things that other generations were saying.  So I asked the question, how often do we unintentionally forget about some of the less productive things we did and portray our childhood as something that is a bit different than it actually was?

I began to reflect upon the number of video games I played as a child – Commodore 64, Tandy, Coleco, Atari, Nintendo – I played it all and my parents were ALWAYS on me to get outside and play.  Do I ever talk about the glory days of playing Blades of Steel or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out? Nope!  According to my stories, my childhood only existed of building forts in the bushes, mountain-biking in the trails, and playing street hockey with the hose-running so we could get a drink and then complaining about having to go in when it was dark.  I have been part of MANY conversations where I have romanticized my past as something that was close to perfection and failed to mention the ‘less constructive’ activities in which I was involved.

Last weekend, I went for a jog around my community (and believe me, I do not run very far) and here is what I saw:

  • kids reading in the park outside the public library
  • a mountain bike track with kids waiting to get on
  • a lacrosse box full of kids playing ball hockey
  • a mom and 3 daughters jogging with their dog
  • 3 elementary aged children on the climbing apparatus outside the school
  • a skate park FULL of kids being active

Have things changed? Indeed they have.  Do we have different challenges? Definitely…. but slamming our current practices as well as our future generations by labeling them as lazy and less educated because they have learned to do things differently does nothing more than drive a huge wedge in our relationships.

Can we actually move forward as a society by romanticizing the past?  We definitely need to learn from our past but the key is to make sure that we are realistic about what actually occurred during these times.  Personally, I don’t think my generation and those before me have done a bang-up job of creating a clean, peaceful, and equitable environment for our children so maybe we need to be careful on how we remember our earlier years.  Should we actually be moving toward a traditional “back to the basics” model of education that may or may not have created successful students of previous times or should we continue working toward creating an environment for our students to be successful now and in THEIR coming years?  Eric Hoffer wrote:

In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

In order to move forward, we need to support the future generation in a way that we create an environment of learners rather than those that have learned.  Education never ends for us; there is no point when we suddenly become educated and stop needing to learn. We need to be careful when we judge new ways of doing things as being inferior to ways in which were done when we were at that age.  So, as Cale Birk wrote:

…the so-called ‘entitlement generation’ is THE generation that is going to lead us over the next several decades in technology, innovation, research, and global issues.

Are we going to support them by romanticizing our past, stereotyping, and telling them they need to be like we were 20-30-40 years ago or are we going help them move forward by learning from our past and working with our students to create an environment for them to flourish NOW?

Thank you to Scott Benwell, Cale Birk, and David Wees for inspiring this post.



Kent Elementary – 10 Picture Tour

Inspired by Cale Birk’s (@birklearns) post encouraging bloggers to post 10 photos of their school, I went around my school Friday and snapped some pics.  Here is a quick tour of images (actually 12 pictures) from Kent Elementary School in Agassiz, BC.  Enjoy!

Our school sign currently promoting "Identity Day" next week!  Thanks @gcouros for the idea!

Our school sign currently promoting "Identity Day" next week! Thanks @gcouros for the idea!

The back field of our school.  Our interemediate playground is just around the corner.  We have a beautiful view of Mt. Cheam.

The back field of our school with beautiful Mt. Cheam towering over us. Our intermediate playground is just around the corner.

We do not give out awards at our school.  We recognize and honour each student for their strengths.  Next year, I am hoping to line our walls with posters created by students that showcase their strengths and passions.

We do not give out awards at our school. We recognize and honour each student for their strengths. Next year, I am hoping to line our walls with posters created by students that showcase their strengths and passions.

We are extremely proud of our gardent - designed, created, and sustained by staff and students. ("borrowed" this pic from another season)

We are extremely proud of our garden - designed, created, and sustained by staff and students. What a brilliant place to learn! ("borrowed" this pic from another season)

Our housepost at the front of our school, designed and created by local Sto:lo artist (Chehalis) Rocky Larock.

Our housepost at the front of our school, designed and created by artist Don Froese who currently resides in Seabird.

One of our classrooms is packed most lunch hours with knitters.  Our knitting club began after a huge interest was observed in our CHOICES program.

One of our classrooms is packed most lunch hours with knitters. Our knitting club began after a huge interest was observed in our CHOICES program.

Our model of a racing canoe that hangs in one of our clasrooms.  Designed by local Chehalis artist, Rocky Larock, it reads "Mekw' wat i:xel" which is Halq'emeylem for "pulling together" - a motto at our school.

Our model of a racing canoe that hangs in one of our clasrooms. Designed by local Chehalis artist, Rocky Larock, it reads "Mekw' wat i:xel" which is Halq'emeylem for "pulling together" - a motto at our school.

Intramurals/House Games are huge at our school.  Run by a few teachers, they go Monday-Thursday at lunch throughout the year for our intermediate students.  The boys each get recognized at some point with a little photoshop poster - just for fun!

Intramurals/House Games are huge at our school. Run by a few teachers, they occur Monday-Thursday at lunch throughout the year for our intermediate students. The participants each get recognized with a little photoshop poster - just for fun!

Our librarian helps to promote literacy by asking students from each division to recommend their favourite books for others to enjoy.

Our librarian helps to promote literacy by asking students from each division to recommend their favourite books for others to enjoy.

To increase collaboration, teachers have added more tables and couches.  This teacher has removed the desks.

To increase collaboration, teachers have added more tables and couches. This teacher has removed the desks.

A board in a classroom that highlights all the strengths and passions of each student.  Posters, crests, and images like these are found in most classrooms at Kent School.

A board in a classroom that highlights all the strengths and passions of each student. Posters, crests, and images like these are found in most classrooms at Kent School.

Oops - how did this one get in there?  A poster that is prominent in our hallway - GO CANUCKS GO!

Oops - how did this one get in there? A poster that is prominent in our hallway - GO CANUCKS GO!