October 31, 2011

To all the leaders in the crowd...

Deirdre Bailey

The topics of ‘leadership’, ‘mentorship’ and ‘coaching’ have come up frequently in recent conversations, often related to experienced and extraordinary teachers helping other teachers to become better. I am that ‘new’ teacher; a prime candidate for improvement, the perfect example of inexperience. At the start of this year (3 months ago), I had never taught in a classroom.

My teaching partner, on the other hand, is the perfect example of 'experienced and extraordinary;' an award winning educator with an extensive understanding of inquiry, assessment and the curriculum. People often ask me if I was intimidated to start the year partnered with such an overwhelmingly successful teacher. I wasn’t. I love learning: I was excited to pick her brain, to have her feedback on my teaching and her guidance as I continued to develop my understanding of how to create optimal learning opportunities.

I thought I would be happy to follow her around, emulate her teaching, take notes on her ideas and in the process, become the kind of quality teacher she undoubtedly is already. But this teacher didn’t tell me what to do. She didn’t give me her lesson plans or an outline of her best ideas, she asked questions. An incredible, powerful and meaningful thing resulted from those questions... I started to think. I’d have ideas and I’d ask her questions about my ideas and she’d give feedback based on her experiences and we’d modify theories together. Then she’d share her ideas and ask for feedback based on my experiences. My ideas were instantly empowered and I couldn’t stop having them. I would literally go home and research. I couldn’t wait to debrief my changing understanding so that my teaching partner could provide her perspective and together we could expand and dig deeper than we might have alone.

Sometimes I’d add something to a lesson that just didn’t work the way I expected. I’d run it over in my head a million times reassessing what went wrong, and then try to break it down with this expert teacher's guidance. It became most valuable however, because she never shut it down with a “Yeah that never works,” or “I wouldn’t have done that” or “well at least you won’t do it again”. Instead she gave me a thumbs up for trying something new and then for reflecting on it effectively and she reminded me that learning anything has to include a couple of mistakes because of how valuable they are to the process. She recognized that I already knew what hadn’t worked and had already reflected on why. Restating my obvious ‘failure’ would only have made me feel bad and likely would have shut down further attempts at innovation.

What I desperately want to impart to all leaders out there is how incredible it has been to work with one who never ‘told’, ‘implemented’ or ‘delivered’. I hesitate to say that I was ‘taught’ by Amy Park. Rather, she empowered my learning by recognizing that I had something to share and encouraging me to share it. I believe that every individual is a sum of their understanding and experiences. If Amy had explicitly ‘taught’ me everything she knows I might have become a spectacular teacher, but a version of Amy Park. Instead, she legitimized my thoughts and I became a much much better version of myself. As a pair we became more important because we were able to combine the best of two different thoughts, ideas and perspectives.

I recognize that titles which imply leadership historically represent an ‘elevated’ or ‘powerful’ status and are as such often accompanied by a well-deserved promotion of importance, of ability or of ‘wisdom.’ I am indeed in awe of the school principals and learning leaders I follow on twitter and of the community leaders and creative geniuses that astound me daily with their ways of thinking. In some small way, I have been inspired by every single one. However, the leaders that have made the most difference are those that have recognized that, though I may not have yet earned a spot among them, I might still have something of value to share - a new perspective, a different way of thinking. To those that have treated me as an ‘equal,’ you have made all the difference.

My ‘inquiry into teaching’ has been of value because I was not robbed of my own ‘A-ha!’ moments by a mentor who wanted me to use theirs. Instead, I got a 'thumbs up' every time I made it one step further. Sometimes it was a thumbs up: ‘Yes, you got it!’ Sometimes it was a thumbs up: ‘Way to go, you made a mistake but no big deal you figured it out.’ Sometimes it was even a: ‘That’s a really cool discovery, I never thought of it that way...’ and those were the best of all!

As an inspired student whose entire way of thinking has been revolutionized these last few months, should I ever find myself in a leadership position, I will endeavour to never provide the answers but rather questions, guidance and positive reinforcement. I will make it my goal to look outside of my academic circles for those who are attempting to understand and I will celebrate every step of their success along the way. I have learned that if you are looking to change people’s thinking, you must first inspire them to think. You just can’t do that if you’re too focused on being their ‘leader.’ I am inspired when the leaders I look up to notice, listen, comment and consider. Even as a teacher, in a position in which I have theoretically earned the right to assume my students have nothing to share that I haven’t already considered, I have learned that when I listen to them, often they do. In so many ways, my students are more brilliant than I am and if I am willing to give my ego a break in order to recognize that and encourage it, have I not done the world a greater service than if I had replicated my thoughts in them 25 times over, never having asked for theirs?

‘We are all on a quest to be a genuine actor on the stage of life, rather than an indistinguishable face in the crowd, or worse, an anonymous spectator in the audience’.
-Rob Starratt

October 23, 2011

Permanent State of Re-Invention

I turn around and look at the teacher I was in August and my perspectives have changed so dramatically that I have some difficulty remembering exactly what it felt like 'before'. I remember sitting down to plan with Amy Park in August and being confused about how to allow for openness in learning while restricting inquiry to the curriculum topics. I remember answering a question about 'inquiry' in our first staff PD and feeling uncomfortable with the answer. I remember driving to the Shuswap reading Fosnot and having the feeling that we were on to something big by introducing conversation and conjectures in mathematics but being terribly unsure of how to properly explain the necessity of cultivating understanding vs. memorization. On my own journey of inquiry into how best to construct a classroom of passionate exploration and powerful educational experiences, I have had three important conversations that stand out.

The first was two days before the school year began as I sat down to plan a year of learning with my new teaching partner. I had not yet given lesson design any thought, I knew Amy knew inquiry and expected the direction to come from her. We began with a look at the curriculum and I was instantly lost between a desire to open the topics completely and the feeling that we would be better to address each area of study bullet point by bullet point. Unsure of how to connect these, I asked Amy if, in an inquiry classroom, the teacher knew where they were heading. 'Absolutely,' was the response. 'If you don't know where you're going, how do you know when you get there?' First lightbulb! Start with 'what do I want them to 'get', see, appreciate or understand.' Ask questions but understand that directionless questioning will result in directionless exploration and people disengage without a destination. I love analogies, so here's an analogy of how I was suddenly able to appreciate an inquiry-based lesson design.

'Class, there's a mountaintop. We need to get there... It's pristine and inspiring. It will give phenomenal views of the valley and a new perspective on the world." 

My second 'A-ha!' was during our first PD of the school year as I returned my 'what is inquiry' sheet to our PD and Outreach Coordinator Neil Stephenson. We had been asked to identify examples of inquiry in the work we had undertaken in our classrooms. I struggled to find examples. I wasn't sure they were good ones. I wasn't sure I had hit the nail on the head in my explanation of what inquiry was. I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was partly wrong. 'I'm not happy with my answers' was my comment to Neil as I returned my sheet. 'That's fine, you don't need to be' was the response. It was the first time that I considered there to be value in acknowledging an unknown. By identifying the fact that I was unsure about the answers I allowed for possibilities. Neil's response provided a challenge and opened a space in which to inquire. The topic of inquiry, what and how, became exciting because it was presented as uncharted territory. No one had given me an absolute answer and I was lead to believe that a permanent definition might not even yet exist. Second lightbulb! A 'hook'. Identify that there might be more than one way of answering a question or uncovering a solution. Suggest that there might even be strategies yet to be discovered. Suggest that a fresh approach might be pivotal, that our way of thinking could be the answer...

'I know there's at least one way to get there. I'm not sure if it's the fastest way. I'm not sure if it's the only way. I just know that mountaintop is worth getting to.'

The third lightbulb came over a weekend away at the Shuswap in which I took Fosnot's Young Mathematicians at Work - Multiplication and Division  and David Perkins' Making Learning Whole and then tried to explain to my husband the irrelevance of 'training' children to memorize mathematical equations and concepts. I remember announcing with gusto 'It's just not good enough for them to tell me that 7x3 is 21 if they have no idea what it represents!' To which he responded: 'But if they can answer the question, why is it so necessary that they understand exactly what they're doing?' I remember being most frustrated by my inability to answer his question with authority. 'I just don't exactly know yet' was my mostly huffy response as I rushed back to the books I'd brought with me to blend a Fosnot/Perkins perspective into an answer. I didn't get an absolute answer for Scott from my reading. But I did get an appreciation for the things you learn on the path of discovery. And two weeks later, as Amy and I tossed around some questions for Math over the phone, I finally had that next 'A-ha!' as we reflected on the difference between teaching them answers and asking them questions... 'Are we getting kids to think, or are we telling them what to think?" was her question as I elaborated on how I had arrived at the idea that rather than give them strategies for each multiple, we ask them which to discover their own. I finally had an answer for Scott and was one step deeper into understanding the process.

'Is the path most traveled up that mountain the fastest? Is it the most rewarding? Can it connect to other paths along the way and in what way or how often? Explore. Imagine. Share what you discover along the way and remember that the experiences that change you along the way are what will make the top worthwhile.'

Through connecting with other brilliant educators on twitter, by reading an insane amount of blogposts, and trying to justify my new understandings to everyone I meet, I have had hundreds other lightbulb moments, but these three still stand out as transformative. For other teachers on the trip up the mountain, though I am still nowhere near the top (and am starting to think that getting there might not even be the point) I'm high enough that I've had glimpses of the view and man is it powerful. Inquiry is worth it.

"The re-invention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps."       Bob Black

October 8, 2011

Why Math?

To recognize the crucial features of a problem, uncover latent assumptions at play, think carefully, devise symbols/diagrams that aid such thinking, and to communicate clearly and precisely...        Sam Otten

by Dan Meyer

Teaching Math: Knowing vs. Understanding

Deirdre Bailey

Each day in this process, I get a clearer idea of what powerful learning looks like. I have started to recognize what is becoming a blatant difference between kids who 'understand' and kids who 'know'. We have told them in class, we don't want 'parrots'. Parrots can recite anything we ask them to. It is not what we're looking for. Yesterday I observed a conversation in which teachers described their frustration with the time it was taking their students to 'uncover' mathematical solutions. They called it a road block and then admitted that to overcome the 'road block' they removed the problem and, 'gave them the answer', or in this case, the skills necessary to arrive at the solution.

What we, based on our prior experiences and education and even based on the way education is 'taught', assume, is that when somebody is told how to do something, they 'understand' how to do it. They don't. There are people all over the world that are capable of doing things without understanding how they're doing it, or why. As a simple analogy, how many skiers understand the physics involved in executing turns of a shorter radius than their ski? How many skiers understand that their skis have radius? As a more frightening example, how many first world home owners understand how their light switches work or understand the electrical circuits in their homes? How many adults have had mild shocks attempting to change a lightbulb because they were confused by these circuits. They can operate switches, but could they fix them? Could they pull them apart and put them back together?

Do we want schools to provide students with the necessary skills to survive or do we want schools to provide students with the ability to think, to create, to expand on what they know through critical consideration of what is possible? We believe the latter. Here is documentation of our first attempt to give power to students' own ideas instead of imparting our own.

October 7, 2011

Documenting Powerful Learning

Amy Park

The process of inquiry can seem "undefinable" at times, however, through the process of documentation, it becomes clearer and more tangible - for students, teachers, and parents. This week, we spent a significant amount of time producing a documentary showing the journey students went on in developing deeper mathematical understanding. Although hours have been spent creating this, the process has deepened our own understanding of teaching and learning. Through reflection and conversation, we as teachers, are able to determine next steps in our practice and how to enrich the learning for all of our students - regardless of ability.

By posting our work to the greater community, we are hopeful that parents will continue the learning at home with their children. We are also hopeful to give evidence of powerful learning and teaching using inquiry, to the education community at large.