Thank you, Iowa ASCD Competency-Based Education Conference!

Iowa ASCD Competency-Based Education conference - June 27, 2013

"Standards-Based Grading and Competency-Based Education - What's the Connection?"

Session resources here.
Session summary: SBG vs. CBE

Thank you for an engaging seventy-five (75) minutes of learning!

Visible Learning for Teachers - An abbreviated reflection

I recently completed reading Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie.

One of the reasons I decided to read this book is because I looked back at the books I've read during the past twelve months and realized my reading has focused primarily on leadership and assessment/grading.  As the "Director of Instruction" in my school district, I am constantly challenged to read widely on a variety of topics.  I hadn't read a good book on pedagogy lately, so Hattie's book which came recommended by a few respected professional friends, caught my eye.

Rather than reviewing the entire book, I thought I might instead share a few quotes and my immediate reaction/application.

Moving away from "best practice" towards "better practice"

"...if the criterion of success is 'enhancing achievement', then 95 per cent of all effect sizes in education are positive.  When teachers claim that they are having a positive effect on achievement, or when it is claimed that a policy improves achievement, it is a trivial claim, because virtually everything works..." (p. 2)
Early in my educational career, my ears perked up when I heard the phrase "best practice."  I couldn't help but wonder who decided which practices were the best.  In some contexts, there was no support for the claim.  In other contexts, it may have been based on a person's action research.  In still other contexts, a person outside the classroom used some standardized measurement tools to assess what's going on in the classroom.  Eventually, I realized the phrase "better practice" might be more appropriate for my own use.  Hattie alluded to this on p. 5:
"...there is no fixed recipe for ensuring that teaching has the maximum possible effect on student learning, and no set of principles that apply to all learning for all students.  But there are practices that we know are effective and many practices that we know are not."
The premise of Hattie's book is that some practices are more effective than  others, although it's important to note his rank order is based on meta analyses that may often include standardized tests as the gold standard.  If one doesn't believe standardized tests measure anything worth measuring, well...this book probably isn't for you.  I took this with a grain of salt and decided to keep on reading.

Teachers should be learners, too
"The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers" (p. 18).
I earned my worst grade as an undergraduate when I took a calculus-based statistics course.  Fast forward two years and my first job out of college was in a high school teaching Geometry, a few computer courses and you guessed it, Statistics.  To this day, I feel bad for the four students who enrolled in the first Statistics course the high school had ever offered.  The textbook was brand new.  I was new.  As I started to teach these four students about correlation coefficients, confidence intervals and hypothesis tests, my confidence (no pun intended) in the content grew immensely.  I became my own teacher of the content.  As any first year teacher likely does, I also learned a lot about my own teaching strengths and weaknesses during those twelve months.  The minute I started to reflect less on my teaching as a practitioners, the less effective I am guessing I became.  Sure, this may seem like common sense, but I think there's a bit of irony involved:  Reflective people often reflect on their recent lack of reflection time...and begin to do something about it.

Grading showed up in this book!
"There are certainly many things that inspired teachers do not do; they do not use grading as punishment; they do not conflate behavioural and academic performance; they do not elevate quiet compliance over academic work..." (p. 36).
Long time readers of this blog know my thoughts on grading.  Enough said.

Learning Styles are no longer in vogue
"One of the more fruitless pursuits is labeling students with 'learning styles'....Learning strategies? Yes. Enjoying learning? Yes. Learning styles? No" (p. 89)
I wonder how many hours I've spent in workshops, classes and professional development being exposed to learning styles.  Hattie's suggests labeling students in this way is not of any value.  In a way I feel betrayed if this is true.  I didn't spend too much time sifting through this conjecture, but I've promised myself to read more about it in the future.

On-the-fly changes
"During the lesson, the teacher needs to be able to react to where the students are as they progress from what they know (their prior learning) towards their desired learning (successfully achieving the intended learning of the lesson)" (p. 120). 
I chose this quote from the book, because I was not good at doing this as a teacher and am in awe when I observe it in one of our teachers' classrooms.  I consider myself an introvert...a planner.  If I had a strength in this area, it may have been thinking through how students may respond during the lesson planning phase, so that I could plan appropriate instructional alternatives based on student reaction.  When I was thrown for an unexpected loop by one or more students, my tool kit was often empty and I usually defaulted to plowing forward as planned.  With experience, I believe I was able to improve in this area, but it was an ongoing area of improvement.

Learning isn't always easy
"If learning were easy, then schooling would be a walkover" (p. 126).
Teaching is an utterly difficult profession.  If all of our students were headed to Harvard without our help, we probably wouldn't have jobs.  I remember one day in my second year of teaching when I told a relative who is also in the education profession, "Why do we get frustrated when students aren't learning?  It's our job to help them learn!"  It was refreshing to vent, but it didn't the job any easier the next day in the classroom.

Relationships, relationships, relationships
"One simple way in which to turn students off learning is for them to have a poor relationship with the teacher" (p. 158).
I believe teaching is as much an art as it is a science.  Developing a positive rapport with a group of students takes time, patience and often more than an education credential can teach.  My supervisor sat me down less than six months into my first year of teaching.  His message, "'re doing a nice job presenting the content, but you need to focus on students." It hit me like a train wreck.  In all of my lesson planning, I had not planned in time to get to know my students.  "Don't smile until Christmas" was my unwritten rule.  Well, it was past Christmas and apparently I hadn't smiled enough in the eyes of my principal.  Last month a former student who recently graduated from high school wrote me a very meaningful note.  I can't assume with much confidence that I had a tremendous relationship with every student, but at least one took the time to write about it.

Bringing it all together: Leadership matters
"A major reason why teachers stay in a school or stay in teaching relates to the support by the school leaders so that teachers can have a positive impact" (p. 174).
I'm no longer a full-time classroom teacher.  I miss the students, but hope I can have an indirect impact on them through the adults I influence in my role as a district administrator.  Tom the Teacher feels unsupported?  That's largely my bucket to fill.  My role should continue to be helping teachers visualize the learning process.  I need to model how I'm learning, so that others will do the same.  I plan to share this reflection with all of the educators in my district as the first step in turning a new leaf over in 2013-14.

Synthesizing PLC, PLN and Communities of Practice

Every once in a while I see a reference to PLNs, PLCs and communities of practice that makes me wonder if I understand the similarities and differences between these three phrases.  While I admit that I do not have a full understanding of these ideas, I thought it might be helpful for my own thinking to flesh out a few ideas in writing.

Personal Learning Networks (PLN)
"A personal or professional learning network (PLN) involves an individual's topic-oriented goal, a set of practices & techniques aimed at attracting and organizing a variety of relevant content sources, selected for their value, to help the owner accomplish a professional goal or personal interest." -David Warlick, slide 4
"Personal learning networks (PLNs) are not new. We have long relied on our families, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances to supplement our knowledge about the world. Our professional learning also comes from reference books, the textbooks we carried home from college, the television and radio stations we tune in to, and the professional and personal-interest periodicals to which we subscribe. And we have been connecting with people and information through the digital realm for decades. But the times are still changing. Information and communication technologies (ICT), including an ever growing repertoire of open source applications, have freed content from the printed page, giving voice to the ideas of people we have never had access to before and enabling us to reshape our information experiences to suit our learning needs. Harnessing these new technologies to create and grow our own PLNs is imperative for educators who want to stay connected to the changing world we are charged with introducing to our students." -David Warlick (pdf)
Based on Mr. Warlick's definitions, a coin collector could have a personal learning network as might a doctor and elementary teacher.

While technology can play an important role in expanding and accessing additional resources in our personal learning network, I don't think today's digital tools define a personal learning network.  As an example, prior to joining Twitter several years ago, here's a snapshot of my PLN:

My goal was to improve as a high school math teacher.  I utilized professional journals, professional development (PD) opportunities, read publications and interacted with colleagues near and far.

Today, I am also able to learn through reading blogs, listening to podcasts, following conversations and links through Twitter, interacting with new and old friends face-to-face at conferences and video chat or talk on the phone with my siblings (and siblings-in-law) who are educators.  A PLN involves humans we interact with in person or virtually as well as the resources they create (i.e. blogs, journal articles, podcasts, conference presentations).

Professional Learning Communities (PLC)
"The idea of improving schools by developing professional learning communities is currently in vogue. People use the term to describe every imaginable combination of individuals with an interest in education - a grade-level teaching team, a school committee, a high school department, an entire school district, a state department of education, a national professional organization, and so on.  In fact, the term has been so ubiquitously used that it is in danger of losing all meaning."  - Richard DuFour 
So, what is a PLC?
" ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve" - DuFour, DuFour, Eaker and Many, p. 11
From p. 14 of Learning by Doing, the essence of the PLC process is captured in three big ideas:

  1. The purpose of our school is to ensure all students learn at high levels.
  2. Helping all students learn requires a collaborative and collective effort
  3. To assess our effectiveness in helping all students learn we must focus on results -- evidence of student learning -- and use results to inform our professional practice and respond to students who need intervention or enrichment.
In other words, a professional learning community is a group of educators who are working together to improve student learning.  From my vantage point, PLC is an education-specific term.  The adults who form a collaborative team within a professional learning community would likely share one or more of the following in common: students and/or content.  For example, a team of third grade teachers or high school science teachers may form a collaborative team working towards the ideals set forth in the PLC process.  It would be less likely that a secondary P.E. teacher, a first grade teacher and a guidance counselor would form a collaborative team within the PLC framework.  In my experience reading about and leading a PLC process, these educators are often a part of the same building or school district, but may also cross building or district boundaries.  Three physics teachers from separate districts could form a virtual collaborative team that uses evidence of student learning to inform professional practice.  

Communities of Practice
"Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." - Etienne Wenger
This group of people have an identified shared interest.  As Wenger suggests, "In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information." To use a phrase from the term itself, this group of practitioners share their resources and experiences with each other for the conscious or unconscious rationale of collective improvement.

Communities of practice appear to be present in education, government, professional membership associations, and in many other sectors.

Synthesizing PLC, PLN and Communities of Practice
First, I think it's important to note that at least two of these three terms are not specific to education. None of the three require digital communication tools, however these tools can surely enhance and expand opportunities for learners.

I think the definitions and examples above help me better understand the differences between these three terms, but how do they overlap and interact with each other?

Enter a fictitious middle school social studies teacher, Jane:

Jane is assigned to a collaborative team with other middle school social studies teachers.  This team regularly uses student assessment results to inform their professional practice (PLC).  Jane regularly lurks on Twitter and spends time consuming content through her RSS feed and several email lists (PLN).  On Saturday mornings, Jane meets for coffee with a friend from church.  They regularly discuss their shared hobby, quilting (Community of Practice).  Jane often shares the resources from her PLN with her PLC when brainstorming new instructional strategies to help students learn at higher levels.  Every once in a while, Jane shares her passion for quilting with her students and middle school social studies colleagues, because it's part of who she is as a person.

Wrapping up
The purpose of this commentary was to write down my thoughts surrounding three phrases that, in my opinion, are sometimes inadvertently used synonymously. It was also to suggest how they might often overlap and can supplement each other.   Last, I hope it served to deepen my own understanding of these three phrases so that I might become a better learner and help others do the same.