Tuesday, April 25, 2017

We are what school should be

In today's staff meeting we were talking about how ASB is different.  With around 40 other "international" schools in Mumbai, what really sets us apart.  We talked about the idea of a value proposition - a promise of value to be delivered.  For example we have often said that ASB students set themselves apart by the quality of their character and the high caliber of their holistic education.  But is that enough?  Today in our staff meeting we talked about the things that make ASB great:  our STEAM programme, the collaboration and relationships we build, the talent of our teachers.

In all we talked about the 6 aspects of ASB that clearly differentiate it from the rest of the schools in Mumbai, and from most international schools around the world.  These are:

  • Being intentionally international
  • Our remarkable educations
  • Our educational ambiance,
  • The pursuit of dreams
  • Individualized pathways
  • Life beyond the classroom

We're going to make a video about each one of these, but here's the first - we are intentionally internationally.  Enjoy!

Photo Credit:  Artwork by Kindergarten Students at ASB

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Staying in Day 1

Following our R&D Meeting today I searched for Jeff Bezos's letter, published a few days ago to Amazon shareholders, about keeping a company great.  He sums this up as a Day 1 approach, and writes that he's been reminding people that it's Day 1 for a couple of decades.  He writes:
Day 2 is stasis.  Followed by irrelevance, Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.  And that is why it is always Day 1.
I've been thinking about this in terms of schools.  Today I was talking to a colleague who told me the next move she makes will be to a "tier 2" school.  She talked about the pressure of being in a tier 1 school, and the toll it takes on her life and family.  However I disagreed.  Having once worked for a tier 2 school I realised how much it sapped my energy being mediocre.  I don't think I'd ever choose to work at a tier 2 school again.  But then I started to think about how schools change - some become much better and others stagnate.  And I started to make the connections between tier 1 schools and Bezos's ideas about staying on Day 1.

Bezos writes that when companies become Day 2 organizations, the decline happens in slow motion - it could take decades, but the final result (decline/death) would still come.  How does a school or a company keep the vitality of Day 1?  Bezos's answer to this is to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings and double down when you see customer (student) delight.  He also points out that the outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won't or can't embrace powerful trends quickly.  He writes, "If you fight them, you're probably fighting the future.  Embrace them and you have a tailwind."

Last week at ASB we hosted a showing of Most Likely To Succeed, a documentary about education and curriculum reform.  The movie explains that our school system was designed over a hundred years ago to produce a workforce for the industrial age, which prized conformity and standardization.  Today the same education system is crushing the creativity and initiative that young people will need to thrive in the 21st century - one where automation is likely to do away with many white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs.  Basically the message is that American schools are failing their students, leaving them without the ability to think critically, and unable to contribute to an innovation economy.  And to be honest American schools are not doing too well on standardized tests either:  the USA is ranked at 24th in the developed world for reading and 36th for maths (well behind countries such as Estonia, Vietnam and Poland) - in fact the maths scores in the USA are actually declining!  In Bezos's terms, American schools have already moved into Day 2 (or possibly Days 3 and 4 if these are associated with irrelevance and decline). And my question is, are international schools doing any better, or are we still pushing forward with an irrelevant curriculum, based on knowledge and skills that are no longer valuable?

For those who haven't seen it, here's the trailer for Most Likely to Succeed.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds Flickr via Compfight cc

People on the edge

In our R&D Meeting today we continued to discuss the diffusion of innovation, this time focusing on opinion leadership.  Last month I blogged about innovators and early adopters,   It's the early adopters who are often highly respected as opinion leaders.  When the early adopters endorse an innovation this is what gets the innovation out to the majority.  There could be many reasons for this, for example they could have greater exposure to mass media or social media.  Today we were talking about how these opinion leaders are often people on the edge - bringing new ideas from outside their social group to its members.  They are not the people at the top, not the leaders of groups, but instead they are the people who move between groups, as they have extensive interpersonal network links. The role of the innovation leader in a social system is to reduce uncertainly abut the innovation - therefore these people must be seen by others as having good judgement about adopting new ideas - and after the opinion leaders in a system adopt an innovation, it may be impossible to stop its further spread.  We talked about how school leaders will often want to get the opinion leaders onboard in order to role out a new initiative, and about the people in school who could be seen as early adopters.

Are you an opinion leader - someone on the edge?

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Developing my skills as a Cognitive Coach

Twice a week, every week, I meet with a colleague at ASB and we practice coaching.  Sometimes we coach each other, sometimes we talk about specific skills, and sometimes we watch videos we have made of us coaching other people and talk about ways we can improve our craft.  Chapter 3 of the book Cognitive Coaching is all about the mediator's skills, and about how both linguistic and non-verbals can foster cognitive development.  There are 5 types of verbal responses that a coach can give that help to mediate thinking:

  • Silence - wait time and listening
  • Acknowledging - both verbally and non-verbally
  • Paraphrasing
  • Clarifying
  • Providing data and resources
I remember when I did the training learning a little about status - I came back to this again in Chapter 3 where it states that the coach assumes teachers know more about their students, the content they teach and their own skills and strengths than the coach does.  They coach conveys this by listening empathetically and questioning rather than telling.  

Non-verbals are more important than verbal cues - nearly 2/3rds of meaning is conveyed non-verbally, for example with eye contact, nodding, matching voice tone and pace, using gestures and so on that contribute to building rapport.  It's also important to use the approachable voice when questioning, as the credible voice can feel to the coachee like an interrogation and can shut down his/her thinking.

Silence also indicates a productive conversation.  In fact when my colleague and I are reviewing our videos we are looking for the pauses which communicate respect for the time the other person is taking to think and reflect and which then results in higher cognitive processing.  Pausing also conveys the message that the coachee is valued and respected and that the coach has faith in the other person's ability to continue to think and then respond.  

One thing I'm working on at the moment is paraphrasing.  I know I need to work on this skill because in general when I look at the amount of time I spend talking compared with the colleagues that I am coaching, I find I'm doing a lot of talking!  I need to be more concise and to get to the heart of what they are saying.  Paraphrasing is important because it lets the other person know that you are trying to understand them and value what they are saying.  And just as using the "wrong" voice when asking questions can shut down thinking, questions that are preceded by a paraphrase can do the opposite - they can lay the ground for inquiry.  One thing I've tried over the past few days is writing down my paraphrases and then trying to cut them down in length - this is also helping me to consider the beliefs and values behind what a person is saying and this helps me to make more abstracting paraphrases.

So far as a coach I've rarely been called on to collect data (I'm thinking perhaps I need to offer this more during the planning conversations).  Data is often a very "neutral" way of giving feedback as, along with mediative questions, it's non-judgemental.   Other forms of feedback are not successful in encouraging the coachee to think - inferences, interpretations, personal opinions and evaluations may lead to mistrust or even fear.

Videoing myself is scary - sometimes I really dislike looking back at the videos because I feel I've done poorly or missed the mark.  But it is really valuable - and it is helping me to develop my skills and get better.

Photo Credit: sundaymay Flickr via Compfight cc

Developing my identity as a Cognitive Coach

My aim is to read through all 15 chapters of Cognitive Coaching before Days 1-4 of the Cognitive Coaching seminar being held at ASB at the end of this month.  Chapter 2 is about identity and I'm going to start with a quote right from the beginning of the chapter:
Identity is the mental model each of us constructs of who we are as a unique self.  This is an important concept because identity informs decisions and behaviours.  The most sustainable way to change behaviours is to change identity ... The self is fluid.  It is not a thing; rather it is a process.  One's identity is in a constant and imperceptible gradual state of transformation.  We create meaning from our interactions with others and with the environment.  Identity emerges from the web of those interactions.
I was interested to read that there are actually 3 forms of identity.  Personal identity is a person's expression of his or her individuality.  Cognitive Coaching deals with how the personal identity shapes perceptions, values, beliefs and behaviours.  In other words, "identity is the story we tell ourselves of who we are".  Then there's the social identity - people have several of these such as ethnicity, nationality, age, gender and so on.  Social identities can also influence behaviour, especially when with a group that you identify with.  Finally there's role identity which is relational, for example husband, grandchild, boss, student.  These are temporary, situational personas.  The interesting thing is that what starts as role identity may grow into personal identity - and this has been found to be true for those who develop their sense of self as a mediator - the identity associated with Cognitive Coaching.
The Cognitive Coach, having an identity as a mediator, forms and applies values (fostering the intellectual development of others), beliefs (resources for growth lie within a person being coached), capabilities (mental maps to guide conversations and knowing when and how to use certain skills), and finally the application of coaching behaviours (developing rapport, pausing, paraphrasing, posing questions), the use of which is conditioned by environment.
Photo Credit: Pensiero Flickr via Compfight cc

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Exploring the theory behind Cognitive Coaching

Almost 3 years ago I started on my journey to become a Cognitive Coach, and although I was initially skeptical about the transformative power of coaching, within the first day or so I was hooked. I could see that I could apply to all areas of my life, not just to my role as a tech coach, and I wanted to learn more.  I completed the 8 days of the foundation course, took the advanced course, went to the Presenter's Forum and started scribing days 1-8 with a view of starting to take on some of the co-teaching.  This time has now come!  So for the last few weeks I've been digging a little deeper into the theory.  I find I learn best when I write, as this enables me to clarify my thinking, so the next few blog posts will be about coaching as I get myself mentally prepared for the upcoming seminar.

The aim of cognitive coaching is to produce self-directed individuals, and so the coach develops his or her identity as a mediator to empower the cognitive functioning of others, allowing them to reflect on and solve their own problems.  A coach is not a teacher, and I'm discovering that a coach is also not a mentor which both imply superior knowledge or skills and therefore power.  A coach helps others to learn from situations - "from telling to inquiring, and from finding strength in holding on to finding strength in letting go."
It's a dialogue that provides space for self-reflection, for revising and refining positions and self-concepts, where a colleague is invited to see him/herself in a new light. (Costa and Garmston)
Cognitive coaching is built on the belief that growth is achieved through the development of intellectual functioning - the coach will question the coachee's thinking (perceptions, beliefs and assumptions) and so it's important to establish and build rapport and trust.  The reason a coach focuses on thinking rather than behaviour is because Cognitive Coaches believe behaviour is determined by a person's perceptions and so a change in perception is vital in order for there to be a change in behaviour. Because a coach is there to serve others, a coach has to set aside his or her own unproductive ways of listening, responding and inquiring.

At the mission of Cognitive Coaching is to produce self-directed persons who function well both individually and in groups, the concept of holonomy is a key one that is introduced early on Day 1 of the foundation course.   I'd never heard of this word before starting coaching (it's a combination of 2 Greek words), but basically it refers to the study of parts/whole relationships.  We are all unique individuals, yet are part of many groups such as families, friends, work colleagues.  Each of these groups and systems influences us as individuals, and in turn individuals can influence the systems.

In the first chapter of their book Cognitive Coaching, Costa and Garmston address why coaching can be so powerful in schools.  Teachers need and want support, and research shows that engagement in mentoring improves both teaching practices and student achievement.  Coaching enhances the intellectual capacities of teachers, leading to them becoming more adaptable and flexible and more able to tolerate stress.  They are more likely to empathize with their students, vary their instructional strategies, and give more feedback to students, and as a result these students are more cooperative and involved in their work.  Other studies have shown these teachers show greater commitment to the individual student and employ more generation and use of data.  There is also evidence that shows that high-concept teachers are more effective with a wider range of students, including students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

I was also interested to read that few educational innovations achieve their full impact without a coaching component.  This made me think more in terms of instructional coaches who are responsible for supporting the introduction and implementation of new programmes or standards.

This year I'm mentoring a new teacher and I'm learning how to navigate between coaching and other support functions.  I have come to see how important skillful feedback is - and that when in a coaching role judgements and advice can reduce the capacity of the coachee to reflect.  Studies in California showed that after 3-4 years of service, beginning teachers mentored with Cognitive Coaching gradually assumed significant teacher-leadership roles.

Perhaps one of the most powerful impacts of Cognitive coaching is on interpersonal relationships, for example working effectively on a team.  We know that adult interactions in a school influence the climate of the learning environment, and in turn the instructional outcomes for the students. Cognitive Coaching can promote the norms of honest and open communication that enable everyone to work together in respectful ways.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Creating the Optimal Conditions for Creativity to Flourish

I think I must have decided to focus on presentations on creativity at NESA as I went to another 4 hour workshop led by Garfield Gini-Newman from the University of Toronto and the Critical Thinking Consortium.  Garfield is the author of the book Creating Thinking Classrooms.

At the start of this workshop I was introduced to a new word - creatical which means critical creativity.  Garfield pointed out that to  innovate you need a deep understanding - innovation requires that students use knowledge in new ways and in authentic contexts. You cannot innovate in an area you know nothing about. Creativity can also encourage social entrepreneurism - students can explore ways to solve problems or develop products that have value in their community (locally, internationally globally). It's good for students to explore challenges without limits or boundaries.

We were shown some diagrams (I tried to reproduce them below) and asked about our ideas of critical thinking and creativity - are they separate - overlapping - or is one a subset of the other (and if so which one)?

Barriers to creativity
  • A belief that standardized assessments do not align to creativity - teachers believe they have to teach content through transmission.
  • Creativity is seen at odds with the need to cover the curriculum.
  • Misunderstanding of what defines creativity - it is in fact profoundly purposeful as it is always driven by a goal or purpose.
  • Perception of creativity as the generation of novel ideas without judgement. However creativity always involves judgement and criteria is central to the creative process.
Creativity requires
  • Something is produced - a person cannot be creative if they have never created something
  • The creation is novel (it can do something in a different way)
  • The creation adds value, has significance or solves a problem
5 Keys to creating optimal conditions for creativity
  • Quality thinking - we must pay attention to the community of learners and thinkers, we have to creative opportunity for creativity, we have to teach intellectual tools for quality thinking. We must teach kids that there is not a “right” answer - there are different answers - we need to create the climate. You need to create a safe environment where students can take chances and know they can throw out ideas. Tools needed for quality thinking include:
    • Background knowledge - this is not prior knowledge - it’s the knowledge needed to engage with the challenge.  Students still need content.  Innovation builds upon this.
    • Criteria for judgement of what makes a good idea, what is useful and which ideas have the most merit.
    • Critical thinking vocabulary - this is not the language of the subject.  It’s words like assess, evaluate, appreciate etc.
    • Thinking strategies - information is not enough.  It needs to be organized, and managed to make sense.
    • Habits of mind - 19 habits - we don’t teach lessons on this, they are habitual.  Curiosity, open-minded, perseverance, risk taking.
  • Opportunity - how we frame our questions and the power of constraints. If there are no constraints or too many constraints both can cut off creativity. Try to find an authentic audience and an authentic task. Design thinking starts with empathy for audience.
  • Fluency - Generate lots of ideas. 
  • Verification - provide clear criteria for quality (success, qualitative not descriptive)
  • Time - you have to allow time for creativity

Photo: My daughter with Rodin's Thinker in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Teaching Creativity in a Standards-Based World

The title of this keynote at NESA by Douglas B Reeves intrigued me as on the surface it seems hard to encourage creativity when you then have to assess students according to rigid content standards.  Douglas started off asking us what we thought creativity is, and he gave us a definition - creativity is the process of experimentation, evaluation and follow through, which leads to a significant discovery, insight or contribution. He pointed out that this definition doesn’t say original or novel, however we do need to honour innovation as well.  Creativity is the result of hard work, many failures, lots of feedback, criticism and disciplinary mastery and the entire brain is involved in creative effort.

People may disagree on what is beautiful, original and useful. However, Douglas said that perhaps we can agree on certain teaching and leadership practices that either support or underline creativity, because for sure students need mentors and wise guides.  He also pointed out that constraints can lead to creativity, or as Howard Gardner said "You can't think outside the box until you first understand the box."

Assessing the creative environment in the classroom
Douglas talked about a study where K-12 schools and college evaluated themselves on an 8 dimension scale, with 4 levels on each scale.  The dimensions were research, multidisciplinary perspective, source material, clarity, product, process, collaboration, practice and error.  He elaborated on some of these:
  • Research - we want our colleagues to use latest and best research and to avoid anything unsupported by research 
  • Multidisciplinary perspective - we want students to expand the scope of their work to include different perspectives and disciplines, instead of work being narrowly focused on a single standard.
  • Collaboration - the scale distinguishes between those working together and alone as working together leads to more creativity
  • Practice and error - allowing multiple attempts - the evidence is that students learn from their mistakes so it's not ideal to try to get it right first time.
Practices that undermine creativity
  • Punishing mistakes and risk taking by using the ‘average”
  • Practice as perfection - when students get 20/20 is usually a waste of time - it shows students have already mastered something and have not moved on
  • The ‘good girl’ effect - elevating compliance over performance (girls don’t necessarily perform better but they get better grades). We need to encourage risk taking over compliance.
Teachers need to create the environment and opportunities that will foster creativity.
  • Evaluate students on their final performance, not their average
  • Feedback needs to be part of the process of learning and creativity.  Feedback is one of the most powerful things that teachers do. It needs to be fair, accurate, specific and timeless. It leads to immediate changes in student performance. Feedback needed in the class itself rather than afterwards.
  • We need time and space to explore something deeply. Students need to explore and have their passions fed.
  • Collaboration works best when it’s differentiated. It needs to be practiced so students get better at it. The result of a group effort should be better than doing it alone. However you need to ensure individual accountability together with group responsibility.
And here's an interesting (and sad) finding: the most creative students are often the least popular. How are we as teaching supporting these students?

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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A great teacher by design - not by chance

Last weekend I was at the NESA Spring Educators Conference in Bangkok.  On the first day I attended the Keynote by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.  During this Keynote, the following quotation was shared:

Every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance but by design.

Douglas and Nancy commented that we leave a lot of education to chance - we need to focus on how to design really powerful learning for kids.  They talked about walkthroughs and instructional rounds which focus on the teacher, the students and the content students are learning. They also talked about what happens when these areas overlap.  For example teachers and students overlap as “relationship”. John Hattie's studies show that student and teacher relationships are very powerful. Students will take risks and grow when they are part of nurturing, growth producing relationships.

Other areas of intersection are teachers and content - in this model the overlap produces clarity. Teachers need deep knowledge and need to be able to communicate it clearly.  However Douglas and Nancy also made the statement 
We need to spend more time looking down at what students are doing and less at what teachers are doing.
When we look at the intersection of students and content we find challenge.  However, instead often what schools look at is what works at the surface level (skills and concepts) for example summarising, reading comprehension, vocabulary and so on.  Yet we also need to look at what works at the deep level - making connections, relationships and schema, for example  concept mapping, class discussion, student questions. To move learning from the surface to deep you have to change the instruction and change the task.

What we also want is the transfer of knowledge - this is the long-term aim of all education - to be able to use what you have learned in new contexts (Wiggins & McTighe).  Activities that promote transfer include socratic seminars, peer tutoring and problem solving, for example project and problem based learning.  At this point it's also worth considering complexity and rigour.  When we talk about difficulty in terms of learning, it's really just about the effort needed, whereas complexity is about thinking, action or knowledge necessary to complete a task.  You can also compare difficulty and rigour in assessment:  difficulty is about how many people can do the task, whereas rigour is to do with how many different ways it can be done.  All of these are important when considering the intersection of what teachers and students are doing with the content - this is where the learning happens.

Finally we were shown a grid comparing complexity and difficulty.  It looked like this:

Our aim is that students become fluent - that they move from finding things very difficult to finding them easy - the analogy here could be driving a car which in the beginning is very difficult and complex but with time it becomes something you can do easily and automatically.  Ideally we want students to experience learning in all 4 quadrants.  Low difficulty - low complexity builds fluency and automaticity (habits).  High difficulty - low complexity, for example research projects, build stamina.

What learning engagements are you designing for your students?  Which quadrant do these engagements mostly fall into?