In November, I finally found the opportunity and time to view the acclaimed educational film Most Likely to Succeed. I was surrounded by education majors and a few education professors in a darkened amphitheater at a fairly traditional university -- although presently in the process of positive disruption -- that is searching for the answers on how students succeed. Discussion after the film was facilitated by then- Commissioner of Education, Dr. Virginia Barry.

Watching the film brought to mind a quip a former colleague of mine made her personal mantra: “Education is endlessly fascinating.” This film certainly did not disappoint in the area of fascinating, but for me, I did not find the silver bullet to education in the 21st century. Instead, I found a source of additional questions to add to my ever-expanding list of questions I have about just what kind of educational experience is best for all students to be successful. What I walked away with is a reminder that education is complex and never as simple as presented by anyone in any medium.

Greg Whitely, the producer of the film, creates a catalyst for the discussion, beginning with his educationally disenfranchised daughter’s experience during her fourth grade year. I believe Mr. Whitely’s thesis is that if educators would just facilitate the personalization of learning, students would increase their capacity for creativity and innovation, thus increasing engagement in learning. He makes no claims in the film about student outcomes. The film’s clear message is that public schools are not teaching what students need to know to be successful in the 21st century.

The executive producer, Ted Dintersmith, eludes to a simple solution:  If content is readily available, then developing “critical skills” is the answer to the needs of the 21st century student and employee; specifically, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, analysis and communication. The film is also clear in its view that this is not the solution for all children and that parents, even those who choose to send their children to the film’s focus school, High Tech High in California, still question the limited focus on content over the significant focus on problem-based learning and critical skills. They are also concerned whether their children will do well on traditional measures (think SATs) in order to get into the college of their choice.

I wonder if emphasizing Dintersmith’s critical skills over content will prepare our students for the future they face. By creating such a singular focus on his identified critical skills, perhaps another skill goes missing:  What knowledge, not information, does the student bring to the group that he or she is collaborating in?

The parents’ perceptions on the lack of content appear to be based in deep levels of learning in one content area versus shallow levels of learning in many areas of content. Dithersmith would argue that having a degree or multiple degrees, does not necessarily mean competence and a pathway to success. It means they may have content knowledge only without the ability to analyze, synthesize and apply that knowledge. If statistics were the only measure of success, High Tech High students perform 10% above the state average and 98% of students get into college.

The question I wonder about is how do we create an environment of innovation for our students? Tony Wagner (2015), an educational researcher and author of the book the film was based on, argues that “if we are to remain globally competitive in today’s world, we need to produce more than just a few entrepreneurs and innovators. We need to develop the creative and enterprising capacities of all our students” (p. 4). Dithersmith recognizes that there is not one approach for every student. Real education is messy and any attempt to standardize it through federal and state regulations will lead to a compliance-based mindset. Humans are complicated and making change in education is also complicated. A High Tech High teacher explains the process as one where “we need to grow, evolve, and change as a school and as people. The industrial model is about standardization. Education is much more like gardening than engineering. If you create the right conditions the thing grows itself.”

It appears that if we continue on our present path of first order change by essentially keeping our schools the same, but making small tweaks in an attempt to improve student outcomes, our students will struggle to become the learners, innovators and leaders we need today and in the future. If we attempt to create second order change in education, it will be a complicated process. As Hyland and Wong (2013) make clear in their analysis of change, “It is futile…to change just one aspect of a national policy, institutional plan, classroom approach or beliefs of one group. Stakeholders need to ‘learn change’ together” (p. 3).

In facilitating the conversation at the end of the film, Dr. Barry responded to a question about the barriers to innovation in schools with the following statement:  “We are removing policies that create barriers. Schools that are focused on performance and interdisciplinary systems are going to far exceed what and how we are assessing today. The survival of an institution will be based on its ability to show proof points that their graduates are able to succeed in the real world.”  She closed with the comment:  “We must change the conditions of learning.”  Well said, Dr. Barry, but we cannot mandate those conditions, nor can we mandate change. We have tried for decades with limited success.

For me, one of the most thoughtful questions that came up in the film is what do we want to be held accountable to --  test scores or high quality work? If Dintersmith’s goal is to create a conversation, he certainly has most likely succeeded. Continuing the conversation, whether you agree with Dintersmith’s thesis or not, is our only hope to foster continuous improvement in education.

Cited sources

Hyland, K., & Wong, L. L. (2013). Innovation and change in English language education. Routledge.

Wagner, T., & Compton, R. A. (2015). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. Simon and Schuster.

Commentary by Nan Parsons

Nan Parsons is UVEI's Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the Program Faculty.  Nan's other commentaries can be read on the UVEI.edu website at:
http://uvei.edu/blog/319-get-smart
http://uvei.edu/blog/325-more-than-dollars-and-cents
http://uvei.edu/blog/335-from-both-sides-of-the-table

As a classroom teacher, one of my favorite pastimes was participating in professional development.  I visited other schools, attended workshops and took online courses.  I especially enjoyed workshops, since they were a chance to connect with professionals from all over the country.  The resources and excitement in those days, weeks or weekends were reinvigorating, especially in the middle of the New Hampshire winter. However after returning to my classroom, the afterglow soon wore off.  Although it was better to attend with a colleague (with whom I could bounce ideas off later), the lack of sustained focus and follow-up led to, more often than not, the materials and energy quickly fading from view.

At UVEI, we approach professional education differently.  How is it different?  Through sustained coaching and inquiry cycles, educators immersed in their practice receive feedback and reflect with the help of a coach.  Cycles last several weeks, months or even a full year.  Instead of a “one and done” course, we spend time in each school to observe, model, debrief, plan and facilitate peer coaching and reflection.  We are currently partnering with several school districts, bringing coaching and inquiry cycles to a team or an entire school, where teachers and administrators engage in inquiries such as balanced literacy, differentiated instruction, and project based learning.

One of our current partnerships is with Holland Elementary School, which is as close to the Canadian border as you can get without going through customs.  Each week, I make the drive north to work with the teachers and students at this tiny pre-K through sixth grade school.  Through weekly observations and coaching sessions, teachers aim to move their practice closer to “gold standard” project-based learning.  Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alum (and current UVEI Curriculum and Instruction candidate), helped bring our faculty into a district-wide partnership focused on project-based learning.  By the second meeting with teachers, I was already feeling new energy and momentum building as these educators brainstormed new units and approaches.  As we journey forward together, our shared goal is to reinvigorate teaching practices that are valuable and sustainable.  

This photo of Kate Underwood and her K-1 class was taken by Becky at Holland Elementary School earlier this fall.

Commentary by Becky Wipfler

Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of the faculty.  You can follow her on Twitter @bmwipfler. Other commentaries by Becky can be found at http://uvei.edu/blog/287-my-evolution-as-a-literacy-coach and http://uvei.edu/blog/318-project-based-learning-why-it-matters

I attended UVTI (before we became UVEI) from 2006 to 2007 as a teacher intern, taught math in Seattle for five years, then returned to the Upper Valley and began working at UVEI in 2014. Quite a bit has changed here in ten years, but one constant has been our commitment to competency-based education.  In my capacity as Registrar, I prepare transcripts -- the documents that describe to employers, licensing bureaus, etc. what our graduates have achieved.  Because our graduates are assessed as to whether they are competent as a beginning teacher, one of my challenges is to find a way to write those descriptions so that they can be understood by a wider audience, including those only familiar with a traditional grading system. I must admit that there are days when I catch myself thinking “if only we gave grades…”

Recently, I was able to expand my thinking when I attended a panel discussion on competency- based education, led by administrators from several local school districts. The audience for this discussion was not educators - it was the 2016-2017 Leadership Upper Valley cohort of community members (myself included) from all industries and professions. Many people in the cohort  had not been in a school in many years, yet the planners of this “education day” had decided that competency-based education was important enough to share with us. After all, replacing the traditional Carnegie unit method for measuring student progress with a method based on competency or proficiency has become an educational priority in both New Hampshire and Vermont.  

The discussion started with the “what”, then moved into the “so what” and “why”, delving into questions and challenges associated with this approach to education. Here are some worthy takeaways:

  1. Competency-based education focuses on mastery of skills rather than time spent in school -- every student will work at a different pace and have a different trajectory as they reach mastery. It attempts to close the gap between theory and application.  For example, a skill would not be just knowing/memorizing the Pythagorean Theorem, but using it in a practical way, such as building a truss.

  1. Some schools view the move towards competency-based education as one that changes the teacher’s role from “imparter of knowledge” to facilitator. The new “teacher as facilitator” system can be modeled, at least in part, on what is already taking place at local technical centers.

  1. Competency-based education necessitates thoughtfulness and flexibility on the instructor’s side (adjusting level of scaffolding, for example). The traditional educational system (bells, grade levels, etc) poses a challenge, as the competency-based approach requires time and flexibility.

  1. “Report cards” will also be different in a competency-based system. However, higher education policies, funding requirements, and other traditional systems pose a challenge as the reporting of student progress changes focus.

  1. K-12 schools generally do not have all of the answers to what a competency-based system will look like. The good news is that school leaders are generally “on board” with this approach as a way of better serving all students.

A final moment from the education day comes to mind. It was when Joanne Roberts, superintendent of the Lebanon School District and one of the education day planners, pointed out that none of her work is done in isolation.  This rings true also for our work here at UVEI. As we continually strive to improve our competency-based approach, we are working alongside a multitude of other educational communities that have similar goals. As we move forward and encounter challenges along the way, there will likely be other schools encountering similar challenges. As competency-based education moves into the mainstream, I believe that dialogue among our organizations can help us all move in a positive direction, and I’ll daydream no more about taking the easier path and awarding grades.  

Commentary by Marie McCormick

Marie McCormick is UVEI’s Registrar and Librarian, and a member of Leadership Upper Valley’s Class of 2017.

I spend a lot of time talking with teachers about what they care about and want to improve on. I also spend a lot of time in classrooms--both with interns and veteran teachers--seeing what’s important in their practice and what they’re working on. And in the last few years I’ve noticed that across grade levels, geography, school contexts, and stage of career, teachers are converging on the importance of helping students develop their agency as learners, and they are attempting to use instructional strategies that promote this. (In this case, agency refers to the knowledge and authority students have to take action in their learning.)

These teachers see both the importance and need for students to take ownership of their learning, to be self-determined and self-directed, and to learn how to learn. In essence, they want students to act metacognitively throughout their learning. Metacognition, broadly defined, is “thinking about our thinking.” Being metacognitive means asking the right questions when we’re solving a problem, reflecting on what we know and don’t know, monitoring our learning throughout a process (such as how we’re comprehending text), setting realistic goals, planning a design process, and evaluating our performance and learning. It also involves knowing the appropriate times and places to use different strategies to learn effectively (a component of agency).

It’s quite easy to talk about metacognition, and it’s equally difficult to help students become metacognitive! That’s because students’ metacognitive capacities develop over time, and, more importantly, they need to be catalyzed and nurtured by educational environments. In other words, we can’t assume that students’ metacognitive skills will just appear when the bell rings, the educational waves washing over them. On the contrary, as students age, their brains are increasingly receptive to more cognitively challenging tasks and more metacognitive thinking. However, if they’re not challenged, they won’t develop. Although the process of learning language is different, the concept is the same--use it or never develop it.

This means that classroom tasks and environments need to sufficiently promote students’ metacognitive development. Here we often see a mismatch. A classroom poster might hang that encourages students to self-assess their learning, to explain their thinking, and to plan before problem solving, but unless students are engaged in solving actual problems, pressed to explain their thinking through thoughtful and guided questioning, and have practice with tools that help them self-assess, it’s unlikely that their metacognition will develop in intended ways.

Teachers are increasingly aware of the need for this match. Just this fall, I observed first graders self-assessing their understanding of the daily mathematical learning targets at the end of a lesson. They were challenged to think about how well they could use a counting frame for single digit addition. Almost all students put their Popsicle stick into the “I can teach it to others” jar, so perhaps there is an overestimation of their understanding (which is common in young children), but the full potential of this practice can’t be realized in one lesson. Over time, practice--and feedback--with self-assessment creates for these young learners a habit of reflection, of turning their mind’s eye on itself, of generating knowledge about their knowledge. Hey, that’s metacognition!

But effective metacognition is more than habits--it’s an awareness of these habits. Otherwise, without awareness, we have little agency in use of this knowledge. Teachers tell us to self-assess, and we self-assess. Teachers tell us to use a graphic organizer to plan our essay, and we follow directions. Do we know why? Do we know how we might transfer these skills to other settings? Perhaps we’re being metacognitive about our learning in that task, but an awareness of the metacognitive skills we’re applying helps us be metacognitive about our potential as lifelong learners. A true hallmark of agency.

For more information on the research on and practice of metacognition, please read Chapter 2: Key Findings in How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice by Donovan et al. (1999)

Commentary by Christopher Ward, PhD

Chris is UVEI’s Graduate Studies Coordinator and member of the Program Faculty.  Along with colleagues at the University of Washington and Vanderbilt University, he received the Best Article of the Year award for the article, Situated Motivation, published in the journal, Educational Psychologist.  For more, see http://tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00461520.2015.1075399

 

 

As in most schools, finding time to collaborate is a challenge. The day is so jam packed, we as teachers often forget that there is a brain trust right in our building. Furthermore, when we do collaborate, we rarely focus these discussions on instructional changes to improve student outcomes.

That is why -- when we created our Action Research project in UVGSE’s Master of Arts in Teaching program -- we decided to study the connection between collaboration and sustained change in instructional practice. Over the course of the year, we were able to practice and reflect on new skills in facilitation, coaching, data collection and analysis.  The time spent processing with other participants in our UVGSE seminars helped us to learn from the collective experiences of our fellow master’s colleagues. The coaching was supportive, but definitely challenged us to examine and grow our practice and beliefs outside our comfort zones.

Given the opportunity to practice the skills we learned in class and apply them to real life situations, along with receiving constructive feedback on what went well and what we could do next, was really helpful. Learning how to speak with other teachers and in group meetings to move the conversation along purposefully allowed us to establish a collaborative environment in our school. We plan to continue building an atmosphere to strengthen collegial bonds and, most importantly, improve our student outcomes by collectively improving instructional practice.

Story by Ann Deturk and Emily Morrison

Ann Deturk and Emily Morrison both teach at Hartland Elementary School.

Over the past decade, I had had the privilege of working with the Upper Valley Educators Institute’s (UVEI) administration, faculty, and students and, as a result, I have learned first-hand the impact of their philosophy:  learning by doing.  UVEI is a place where the art of teaching and leadership is learned through practice, and its programs heavily engage candidates with colleagues and mentors in real-life situations over extended periods of time.

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Commentary published in the Valley News on April 26, 2016:  With the passing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, there has been much discussion about the end of the No Child Left Behind era and the shifting of policy prerogatives back towards state and local decision makers. This gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves a fundamental question anew: What might lead to the schools we hope for and want? In many ways, traditional arguments about the right state or national policy levers for improving schools fail to answer this question satisfactorily. State-driven accountability and top-down mandates have not (and are not likely to) lead to better schools for kids. In fact, a growing body of evidence indicates that while policies may aid or hinder improvement efforts, they are not the main event at all.

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I started my internship at UVEI at age 34. Despite a promising career in book publishing and mothering a four-year-old, I had always wanted to teach, but going back to school seemed unrealistic. When I heard about UVEI, my desire to become an educator was reignited—and the possibility that I could actually become one was within reach.

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In my role as Literacy Coordinator at the Richmond Middle School, I wear many hats, one being a literacy coach. Planning and collaborating with, observing, and providing feedback to both new and veteran teachers is a complex undertaking which I hesitated to jump into until I more fully understood the many facets of coaching. Professional development can so often be disconnected from our daily work in schools. What I found at UVEI/UVGSE was a group of professionals who gathered in the evenings or on weekends for classes which had a direct and practical connection to the work I was doing on a daily basis at Richmond Middle School (RMS). I learned how to consider, examine and articulate each phase of the coaching process. Although it took some time for me to feel comfortable with the stances of a coach and the process of working with a colleague who wants to improve their practice, my participation gave me the boost I needed to gain confidence and take the leap into instructional coaching.   

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Jim Nourse

During my ten years as principal in area schools, the UVEI graduates I hired were all exceptional, and they enjoyed a significant competitive advantage in the application process over other teachers with less than five years of experience.  UVEI graduates stand out because:

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Heidi Magario

“Can I have a calculator?” asks Dylan, “I want to see what I got.”

“What do you mean, ‘what you got?’”  I ask.

“The average.  What’s my overall grade?”

Inspired by my time at UVEI, I have spent the better part of the last year training my students to think beyond the traditional single-grade system. Though I still have students like Dylan—those who care more about the grade than the quality of the learning—he is the exception.  Most of my students say that they like the change.

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