Design Thinking as a Means of Realizing the Constructivist Ideal and Developing Critical Habits of Mind

This summer I will be back in the beautiful Pacific Northwest to present at a Global Symposium on Innovations in Education. The topic will be Design Thinking. I’m sharing the abstract for my paper and presentation here. If you’d like the full length paper, feel free to contact me via email – the address is on my “About Me” page on this website. Read and enjoy!


Despite a rapidly changing global environment, K-12 education in the United States has remained frozen in time. Educational ideas and innovations come and go, with minimal impacts on student achievement outcomes. Despite these ideas and innovations, classrooms look remarkably similar to what they looked like at the beginning of the 20th century. Even the most significant change in schools, the introduction and integration of technology, has served to only change procedural aspects of learning in most schools and has had only spotty success in significantly changing student learning at a foundational level. But it is not just stagnation in our teaching and learning that is the only concern. Certain new deficiencies have emerged or have become more notable in recent years as a result of societal pressures, changes in student populations, and popular psychology for parenting. Employers have provided overwhelming evidence pointing to a lack of innovative thinking and a lack of perseverance in today’s graduates. Theorists have provided a strong research basis pointing to the need for learning experiences that cultivate stronger creativity, that foster an innovative spirit, and which cultivate greater resiliency in our students.

How might we instill a sense of self-efficacy and self-regulation in our students while continuing to provide content knowledge seen as essential to success later in life? Design thinking provides a potential avenue by which we can foster a spirit of innovation and resiliency in students while simultaneously instilling a passion for learning and knowledge. As defined by David Kelley, one of the originators of the process, design thinking is “a deeply human process that taps into abilities we all have but get overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.” In other words, design thinking is a structured approach that fosters creative thinking in situations where it may otherwise be overlooked. It integrates elements of many “best practices” in educational pedagogy and methodology, including but not limited to inquiry-based learning, metacognitive strategy use, problem-based-learning, and collaborative learning.
This presentation will focus on the origins and principles of design thinking, as well as sharing the relevant literature regarding design thinking. Finally, possible approaches for the integration of design thinking into established programs, schools, and curriculum will be shared.

Maslow’s Hierarchy in Education

As I scrolled through my Twitter feed a few weeks back, I stumbled upon THIS great article about Maslow’s hierarchy and how it might be extrapolated to the classroom setting. I had to admit, I was interested.

For most educators, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not new or revolutionary, and so the pyramid itself was not the a-ha for me. My a-ha came from the realization that many teachers and leaders, all of whom were at least acquainted with Maslow at some point in their studies, forget to incorporate routines or structures in their day that allow for the meeting of basic needs for learners and collaborators.

In any case, I appreciated both the “educationalization” of the pyramid so that it might be applied to classroom use and the very friendly provision of some guiding self-reflection questions. For each tier, basic suggestions are shared about how to meet needs at each level. This could apply to classrooms or faculty gatherings. Also provided are some good “Questions to ask myself” that help a practitioner to become more self-reflective about where they might stand in the ordering of things for each level of the pyramid. An interesting twist could be to educate students about the levels and the indicators for each level, and then lead them through some reflective dialoguing about their status or state of mind/being on a weekly basis. With all of the discussions “out there” about grit, metacognition, self-regulation and self-efficacy, this would appear to be a  slam-dunk way to engage students in meaningful thinking about how they are learning within the context of how they are doing in terms of their needs being met. As the research shows, this is precisely the kind of reflective practice that helps students develop long-term skill sets that set them up for future success in “the real world.”


Curating Makes a Difference

I have always been a big believer in displaying student work. First, there’s just nothing else that really communicates what is going on in the classroom or with student learning to those who are not in your classroom each day like seeing visual representations of the work that has been recently accomplished. Second, you get instant parent buy-in to your teaching and classroom when they see their kid’s work displayed publicly. And third, and most important, the twinkle of pride that you see in a student’s face when they recognize that their work is being displayed… well, there’s no substitution for that. The delight is obvious with younger students, that is true. However, upon displaying student work at the high school, I always noticed a palpable shift in attitude and behavior from those students who had their work up on display. It’s such a simple way to boost student morale and get a “buy in bump” from students.

In recent years, the display of student art has emerged as an art form in and of itself. I know that during a recent visit of many innovative schools, we saw student art formally “curated” around the school community. It was incredible! I also know that as we looked on this incredible and impressive displays of student art, that many in my group felt like it would be truly impossible to undertake “curation” of student work; it was just too complicated, required too much time, and would require tools and items that weren’t readily available at the school.

Well, I am here to say that is definitely not the case. Student work can be curated very simply and very easily. Some basic guidelines on curating student work include:

1. Symmetry. Find 2 or 3 projects or visual items that are the same size and/or same proportion, and display them together in a group of 3-5 items. Be sure they are hung evenly with good spacing between individual pieces. Voila!

2. Pattern. You can take differently shaped items and “frame” them within a given size on a wall. Have the outside edges of a few of the items create the “corners” and “edges” of the large area and place items of different sizes within the bigger space.

3. Get kids involved. Students love owning creative process and love having their work displayed. Give them a space and a few guidelines, and you will soon find that they will transform the area into a gallery. This could even be incorporated as part of the overall exhibition of learning or project: demonstrate your learning with visual representations in this designated space using these guidelines. As a part of their learning process, students could visit or research curating works so that they understand basic design principles themselves. Kid involvement can be a very teachable moment when it comes to curating their own work. 

4. Make it interactive. There are no rules that say curated work must only be looked upon and not interacted with by the viewer. The interactive component could again be used as a design challenge for students.

5. Make it elevated. Take a look at how several museums (especially modern art museums) display visual pieces and emulate their approach. It is clean, well organized and arranged, and interesting. Simple pre-cut frames add an element of sophistication. Proper arranging makes student work look like treasured art. Having small information cards that are printed on cardstock, of identical size and formatting, for each piece again lends to the feel of museum quality student display.

In short, you don’t have to spend hours of time curating student work. This two-minute “how to” video walks you through some of the basics on how to curate student work effectively. There are many low-cost, low-time ways in which student work can be shared with the greater school community in a meaningful, classy, and empowering way. And remember, no construction paper backers unless your last name is Matisse! 🙂

Go on, give it a try. And please share your results!


Recently there has been quite a media hubbub around “mindfulness” or the “mindful revolution.” Someone has dubbed 2014 as the “year of mindfulness” and even TIME Magazine ran a cover story on the concept. Until recently, I will admit that I did not buy in to meditation… mostly because I was limited by my mind’s eye perception of just what meditation was and what it involved. To me, meditation conjured up visions of hippie-garbed individuals clustered in a very earthy setting, sitting with their legs crossed and indulging in chanting “ohm”s and breathing deeply. I guess it just seemed to me that the “look” of meditation had become more important than the actual effects of meditation; at least, that’s how it appears from the way it’s been portrayed in media and by proponents of the movement in earlier iterations.  Meditation also always seemed to have some element of religious underpinning to it that focused the process in a particular bent, thereby limiting the outcomes of engaging in the practice. That just didn’t hold appeal for me.

However, there is an emerging new look at just what meditation really is, what it can look like, and the benefits of engaging in such practices. The term “mindfulness” seems to help clear away prior contexts traditionally assigned to the word “meditation,” thereby allowing the concept to transpose traditional boundaries and emerge into the daily lives of people from all backgrounds. The gist of mindfulness is that it does not have to be limited to yoga retreats, religious rituals or specialized settings or times. One can engage in mindfulness just about anywhere, anytime. It would appear that traditional approaches to meditation are giving way to a new, more generally applicable approach. This is interesting.

In essence, mindfulness is engaging in heightened self-awareness as well as engaging in objective reflection. As you know from prior posts I have made, the idea of individual reflection and awareness or tenets that I believe in deeply. Mindfulness is not something that must be done in a particular place or in a particular way. It is simply being aware of yourself and opening your thoughts to reflect and process what has happened or to future-vision what might yet come. It is a way by which one can process complexities presented and frame mindset in a more positive light.

I think what is most compelling about the mindfulness revolution are the stories emerging of how mindfulness is significantly impacting those who practice it. Specifically, I’m interested in the use of mindfulness techniques in the schoolhouse. Several schools have begun incorporating “mindfulness moments” or other structured meditative sessions during the school day with astonishing results. From students about to take the GRE to kids in impoverished inner-city settings, mindfulness has shown to help students gain greater focus and clarity, thereby improving academic achievement. It’s also led to less anxiety and stress (both in terms of anecdotal reporting and in scientific measurement of the stress hormone in several tests).  Axonal density in the brain also appears to be improved through the regular practice of mindfulness. Studies have shown that other effects of mindfulness include reduced depression, better sleep, and greater compassion for others.

It would appear that while I see many upsides to the introduction of mindfulness into the schoolhouse, I have yet to see downsides presented. Some questions I have around the practice come around how schools would gain buy-in from what I imagine to be rather cynical teenagers; I would like to better understand the “how” by which schools begin such a program and ingrain it into the school’s culture. I would be very interested in seeing how schools effectively implement a mindfulness program into their school and sustain it over the long haul. The benefits certainly seem to outweigh whatever difficulties might be encountered during the inception phase.

What do you think about the mindfulness movement? Have you seen it at work in schools? What thoughts do you have about implementing such a program?

Cave Diving Class = Professional Learning Experience

There’s a lot of conversation going on out there about internship learning, experiential learning, real world learning, deeper learning…. each appears to be a slight variation on a theme: Learning that happens out there, in the real world, with real purpose or meaning, is learning that sticks.

I can’t argue with the premise. I have done more “seat time” than most anyone I know in pursuit of my own educational edification, given that I’ve pursued formal education up through its highest levels. All of my formal education has been in the area of… well… education and educational leadership. And don’t get me wrong, I have learned a lot and I’m glad to have had the professional learning journey that I’ve had. My theoretical basis of understanding is vast and fairly deep. I am able to conduct and interpret research in ways I couldn’t have done before. My eyes were opened to thoughts and ideas that wouldn’t have crossed my path without my experiences at the various schools I attended.

But when I think about the learning that has most profoundly impacted my professional practice, ironically enough, none of my formal learning has prepared me nearly as well as informal learning that I pursued, of my own accord and on my own time (and at my own expense) for something that was completely NOT educationally related. Surprised? I know that when I first stumbled upon that realization, I was first surprised… but then it all made sense.

So then, the obvious question is: where did I have the most profound professional learning experience resulting in an impact to my practice? Well, it happened in a cenote (sinkhole) in Mexico. A cenote is a pond created by a collapse, and is fed freshwater by underwater aquifers, usually found deep within the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. These cenotes are linked to one another in many instances… connected by underground, underwater passages.

In 2003 I was a pretty active diver, enjoying regular dives in the cold waters of Puget Sound. A friend shared their experiences doing a wild and dangerous thing called “cave diving”… I was immediately interested… and researched the topic a bit… and before I knew it, I had signed up for a cave diving course in Mexico. The next January found me floating in a cenote, about to do my first ever cave dive. I was scared, nervous, my brain was firing messages like crazy. I think all of these physical reactions  combined to deliver a powerful and impactful punch to my system. I survived the first dive, even when my instructor switched off my powerful HID dive light and made me exit the cave in complete, blinding darkness.

The rest of the course focused heavily on safety related measures, and featured hour upon hour of in-water practice of safety drills and procedures inside and outside of the cave systems. By the close of the experience, I was proficient and deemed safe enough to go off on my own. Since that time I’ve logged over 300 cave dives and regularly navigate complicated maze-like systems in a confident and capable manner. But back to the topic at hand… what about my cave diving course and experiences made it the most impactful learning for me as an educational leader? The simple answer is:  everything. The more detailed answer includes these elements…

1. I learned that hands-on learning leads to “muscle memory”. And muscle memory is good. When I had to do drills repeatedly, I built what we refer to in diving as muscle memory, meaning that you begin to anticipate where you need to put your hand to look at your gas gauge or find your regulator if it falls away from you. In my work, muscle memory is the thing that allows me to navigate creating a new document in GoogleDrive or easily move through the steps of balancing staffing budgets. If you repeat an action enough times, it just becomes part of learned information. Learning by doing has merit.

2. I learned that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. There will be instances when the world around you becomes frenetic and overwhelming. There will be a time when crisis hits. Rather than be reactionary, be careful and thoughtful. In cave diving, a crisis can kill you, so we train to remain cool, calm, and collected when things go south. Our mantra is “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, meaning it is better to move slower but more precisely to fix the problem rather than hurry up and likely miss something important. In times of crisis or frenetic work days, pause, observe, and move slow but sure through the things that must be done. This approach will get more done than being gut-shot reactionary.

3. I learned that guidelines are better than rules. Rules are restrictive and make people stop thinking. Guidelines are interpretive and invite dialogue and discussion that usually lead to better solutions. In diving, we have guidelines, because diving situations are different for different environments, and there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to necessary equipment or team configurations. Schools are much the same. Unapologetic purpose, good structures, strong and regular communication and room for interpretation lead to a more dynamic educational program, stronger sense of team, and a greater sense of purpose for the whole organization.

4. Stop. Breathe. Think. Act. This is the mantra for solving problems on a cave dive. Because of the environment, a diver can’t just bolt for the surface when things go wrong. Oftentimes there are thousands of meters of passage between you and air. You have to cultivate a strong sense of mind over matter, and be cool under pressure. Given the numerous tough situations that go down in schools day in and day out, this has been the most impactful on my professional practice. Prior to learning how to cave dive, I sometimes lived by “ready, fire, aim!” with disastrous results. These days I stop, I take a deep breath, I think, and then I act. And that is a recipe for success, at least for me.

There are several other things that I learned as a result of cave diving beyond these four items listed above. But the powerful thing to me is that this experience I pursued for totally separate reasons from my career has come back to really change how I work in my schools now. And it has me wondering why we don’t more avidly pursue hands on, internship styled learning for our kids. Powerful life long lessons may result that help guide them. I had to wait until I was almost 30 to have that kind of experience; what if I’d had that when I was in high school? Interesting to think about that. Being a pragmatist I get that there are a lot of logistical things and hiccups that can interfere with creating experiences like this. But if you knew the experience could change a kid’s life… forever… wouldn’t that be worth it?

What experiences away from work have impacted you and your work life? Impacted the way you go about doing what you do? What are your thoughts about internship experiences for kids?

Interesting perspective on management

Sometime soon, I will pen more in-depth thoughts I have regarding leadership versus management, as well as the idea of what makes for an effective organization. There is an enormous pile of books on the topic, many of which I’ve read at some point. The volume of writing on the topic of effective leadership or effective management or effective organizations tells me that numerous organizations struggle with functioning at a high level while simultaneously maintaining healthy organizational culture. Schools are no exception to this. We struggle with engagement, productivity, results, and accountability. And our world is undoubtedly getting remarkably more complex in this day and age with loads of new requirements, mandates, expectations, and outcomes.

I don’t have an answer to the dilemma of effective leadership, effective organizations and how to increase productivity and engagement and outcomes… but I stumbled across this TED talk, and found the paradigm shift in terms of approaching the problem to be refreshing and interesting. Yves Morieux focuses on industry, true. But a lot of what he discusses in his “Smart Simplicity” paradigm could apply in the educational context too. When he described the “hard” and “soft” approaches and how they are obsolete, and then focused on the need to focus on cooperation, I found myself nodding my head. I  also liked the idea of managers being “integrators” who have high levels of discretionary power and few rules so that they’re able to empower everyone to use their skills and talents to move the work forward and move to cooperation. And the concept that blame is not for failure, but is instead for a refusal to help or ask for help is interesting to contemplate. Finally, the spirit of cooperation being the focus is a fascinating concept to manage complex landscapes without creating complicated systems.

Cooperation, it would appear, is king. What do you think?

Cleaning up your hard drive

Before I dig into this particular post I will disclose that while I’m pretty handy with computers, I am not one of those people who can build their own computers or write code or who is highly fluent in what I refer to as “the language of beep”.  So bear with me on this one… I promise that there is a more important lesson to be gained from this post aside from tech-speak.

After writing the entry about reflective assessment, I reflected on what I shared and also on my day in general. I build time into my day every day for reflection and thinking; I actually calendar it out, as I feel it is that important. While a small number of people process instantly and their best thinking comes on the spur of the moment, I find that my very best and most thoughtful ideas come after I have had time to process information that I’ve taken in. I akin this percolating process to cleaning up a computer hard drive.

On a computer, you need to routinely go through the hard drive and chuck out space-hogging files and applications that you don’t use, as well as deleting or moving that ancient 20-song album you bought but haven’t listened to in four years, so that the hard drive doesn’t get overfull thereby slogging down your computer’s performance. Sometimes you need to run a disk utility or repair permissions to clear off or fix files and apps that aren’t working properly. Once you do these things, you almost always see a noticeable improvement in the performance of the machine.

I find that I need to similarly take time to clear out space in my mind and sort through the myriad information that lives up there. I try to toss out unused information, I re-sort  information I have, and attempt to forge logical connections and “file names” for the many pieces of information that might be valuable but uncategorized at that point. This doesn’t just magically happen for me. I need time and focus to make real meaning of information and sort it into the proper place so that I’m able to come to solution on whatever question(s) is/are at hand. I find that if I have this dedicated time, I contribute at a higher level to whatever is at hand, be it a professional or personal issue, conversation, or decision.

For me, this processing time can take a variety of forms… but more often than not my very best thinking comes when I’m physically busy and can be mentally “empty” and it is best for me to not engage in conversation with others while the process is taking place. For example, running on a treadmill provides me a physically engaging activity that allows my mind time to wander and sort through information. Other activities that seem to provide good think-time include housekeeping, walks and/or hikes. At work, I try to take what I call a “hot lap” around the school when I know I need to process information. Just the act of walking and thinking does a great deal to help me find the solution or sort through information much more effectively.

I’m sharing this little insight into how I tick because I believe that we all need time for metacognition or “thinking about thinking”.  Some need it more often than others, but at some point, reflecting and forging connections is a vital activity for all of us. So… How do you clean up your mental hard drive? How do you offer opportunities to your students to clean up their mental hard drives? Just something to reflect upon and think about… how you provide time for yourself and your students to engage in metacognition… you might find that both for yourself and your students, a little dedicated reflection time could lead to great things.

If I could do only one thing to improve student learning, it would be…

I often ask colleagues this question: If you could undertake just one improvement or innovation (and ONLY ONE), what would you do? The responses are as varied as the schools in which these colleagues work. More often than not, the latest and greatest innovative idea or practice is brought forward in those responses.

Those who know me know that I am a big, big fan of innovative ideas and practice, and I strongly support approaching teaching and learning from an angle of innovation. I am loving the emerging research and resources around PBL, design-thinking, tech integration, and STEM or STEAM approaches to teaching and learning. It’s exciting stuff and in many situations the application of these ideas/approaches undoubtedly leads to improved results for kids. And so it does not surprise me one bit when I hear these innovative practices or approaches suggested as a means by which we would improve learning for our students.

Ironically, however, while I am intrigued by and involved with innovative approaches and practices, my response to the question at hand would not involve any one of the innovative practices above. Yup, I’m 100% serious, it wouldn’t! So, then, you ask… what IS my response to this?  Well….

If I could do just one thing to improve student learning, it would be to systematically embed reflective assessment into the daily classroom practice of students and adults.

So. Before I dive into talking about this, I should probably share upfront that reflective assessment was the topic of my dissertation study. Which means I am rather interested and passionate about the topic of reflective assessment, and it also means that I could probably write a long, long time about it. Instead of bowling you over with a huge post now, I’ll introduce the idea and give you a solid home-run strategy to make use of the technique in classrooms today. Later on down the road I’ll return to this topic and I’ll return to it with more details, more strategies, and more information from time to time.

What is reflective assessment? In short, reflective assessment is the practice of having students reflect on their learning on a regular basis. It is considered to be an informal formative assessment practice. There is a pile of literature that supports the use of reflective practice in student learning, and that literature goes clear back to Socrates up through Renaissance philosophers, and into the 20th century educational thought leaders including Dewey, Habermas, Vygotsky, Piaget, Stiggins and Wiggins, among many others. Reflective assessment may be a rose that is called by many other names, but at the end of the day I am talking about a regular, ongoing practice of having students intentionally reflect on their learning (both product and process) and share those thoughts with their teacher. It can be large-scale in nature, being a lesson in and of itself. It can be as simple as an exit task wherein you ask students to share their take-aways from the day’s learning.

Why do I feel reflective assessment would powerfully improve learning? Research and theory both point to the fact that reflective people are both more self-regulatory (they organize tasks and plan) and they have greater self-efficacy (they have an internal belief that they can do the task at hand)… and that those students who cultivate strong self-regulatory behavior and who hold high self-efficacy do much better than their non-regulatory, non-self-efficacious peers. If someone told you that one simple action each day could give your student a statistically significant jump on their future success, wouldn’t you do it?

Other reasons I feel that reflective assessment is a powerful tool include: the body of quantitative research continues to point to a correlation between the practice of reflective assessment strategies and improved student learning. In my study, kids who were exposed to reflective assessment for four weeks not only outperformed peers on post-tests, they retained the information better for longer. Even more powerful, students who were involved in reflective assessment activities for periods of time reported out that they enjoyed the action of reflecting on their learning. Teachers report that they gain enormous insights about the learning style of their students, as well as attaining valuable information about whether or not students “got” the lesson or learning for the day. And finally, in exit interviews for both my personal research and from research done by others, students and teachers both report a stronger sense of team spirit and stronger emotional and personal investment in themselves and their peers in their classes after experiencing reflective assessment activities over the span of several class periods. These things, among many other reasons, are why I believe reflective assessment would lead to powerful results for our kids.

What’s a simple strategy to get started? Hopefully I’ve caught your attention and have your interest on the topic of reflective assessment. So how do you get started using it in your classroom? It’s easy. A great strategy is called the “I Learned Statement” and here’s how you do it:

1. With five minutes remaining in your time with students, ask them to complete the following prompt: “Today, I learned…..” This can be done in writing on a slip of paper or it can be digitally recorded and submitted. There is no right or wrong way to complete the prompt. The only rule is that the student must keep writing for the entire time. When class is over, the teacher should collect the responses.

2. The teacher needs to review the student responses and provide feedback prior to the next class session. This can be very quick and easy by writing a plus (+) saying “super, thanks” or a question mark (?) saying “I don’t understand your reflection” or if time permits, put a supporting comment or ask a question in return to the student.

3. At the start of the next class session, spend 3 minutes sharing one or two examples that hit the mark in terms of what the teacher hopes to see.

4. Repeat as often as possible. Be patient. Initial reflections might be pedantic or off-base. With feedback and sharing, you will quickly see the quality of responses and depth of insight will get deeper and deeper.

This strategy is effective in elementary grades all the way through college. Really!

Reflective assessment rocks and it leads to improved learning outcomes for kids. Give it a try.

Closing note: In addition to having my dissertation research focus on the topic of reflective assessment, I have written several published articles on the topic over the past several years. An undoubted master of the impact and strategies for using reflective assessment is Art Ellis, professor at Seattle Pacific University. If you’d like more information about reflective assessment and/or how to make it a living practice in your classroom or school, contact me!

How do you measure “effective teaching”? (part 1 of many to come)

Last year, I was charged with a large project for my current school comprised of 4000 students and 400 faculty: take a deep dive into the research and then craft a new evaluation system to evaluate all of our faculty. Our school was facing the same challenge as a number of schools out there: we were using a poor instrument and an even worse process that provided little substantive  feedback and which did not provide a genuine evaluation of what was going on in the classroom. Unlike many schools, however, our problem was slightly magnified because we were using a “home brew” evaluation that had gotten its start over eight years ago and which had been adjusted and tweaked and adjusted heavily along the way… and those adjustments were made with the objective of making it more efficient rather than making it more aligned to research or increase its effectiveness. There were widely varied interpretations of how the system worked and how teachers should be handled in the evaluative process. The majority of teachers were only truly evaluated once every three years. It was, to put it simply, a mess. The project I was tasked with was desperately needed (and since the project is still in process, it is still desperately needed). But when I sat down to begin thinking about how to eat this very complicated elephant, it felt like the elephant kept growing and growing in complexity rather than having that first bite becoming clearer and clearer as I mulled it over.

Over the past two years I’ve engaged in an enormous amount of professional reading, discourse with colleagues around the world, conversations with those who are “experts” in the field, and I’ve also spent hours upon hours examining what’s currently being done in a variety of schools both in the US and internationally. After all of this, I am sorry to report that in fact there is no silver bullet when it comes to teacher evaluation. There isn’t even a true definitive list of criteria of what should be examined, how evaluation should be undertaken, and how we even define “quality teaching” much less measure it. In the end, with the help of a brilliant and thoughtful colleague, I crafted a set of considerations. Because I think they could be helpful for others, I’ll share them here:

1. Evaluation goals should align to the direction of the school. Grant Wiggins recently wrote about the fact that effective evaluation systems align to what the system is focusing on in its larger work. While we all educate kids, we all go about it in very different ways. Schools should have an unapologetic culture and vision/mission about the way in which they do their work. They way in which the school evaluates its teachers really needs to line up with that vision. Most vision/mission statements have some supporting documents or strategic plan that demonstrate the “how” or “what” behind the vision. The evaluation of teachers should line up with that “how” or “what”.

2. Teacher evaluation needs to use a standards based approach. If it works for students (and it does), then it is a great way by which to measure the performance of teachers. Not only do teachers understand standards-based assessment, it is a fair and humane way by which to measure performance. Why? Because like with students, we provide the criteria and examples of successful attainment upfront. There is no guessing about what is being used as evidence, or about what constitutes good performance.

3. Multiple measures that form an evidence-based approach. Complementary to #2 above, in order to determine performance on the standards, multiple sources of evidence need to be considered, and evidence needs to be accumulated over time to cultivate a solid basis from which to form a summative determination of performance. I know the debate is raging around what multiple measures should be used. Much like the core of the system, I would contend that evidence and the weight put into certain pieces of evidence should align to the work of the school and it should make sense to stakeholders. Something else that should be considered is balancing the “burden of proof” for this evidence between the evaluator and the person being evaluated. What I mean by this is that both parties have to come to the table to produce evidence so that honest discourse on the standards can then be had prior to a summative determination.

4. Having a well crafted, standards based tool and process is important, but inter-rater reliability is EVERYTHING. Without proper training of evaluators (and providing comprehensive communication and training for those being evaluated), any evaluation system is doomed to failure. One thing we know is: teachers talk. And if there is a quantifiable or qualitative difference in the way in which teachers are treated in the evaluation process, then faith in the evaluators plunges. Prior to piloting or beginning a new process or system, evaluators need training and they need to develop a baseline of consistency in terms of scoring, procedures, process, and language. In many cases, evaluators also need training about the art and mechanics of effective conferencing and discourse on teaching and learning.

5. Transparency. This can be difficult because transparency also means total and complete honesty. And when you have an underperforming staff member, it is very, very difficult to have the crucial conversation about lapses or gaps in performance. But those conversations must be held. And teachers must be treated respectfully and with integrity in those situations. Conversely, those teachers doing well also need to be provided with quality feedback that rewards their efforts but also inspire them to push the envelope and go to the next level. Transparency also looks like being honest about the motives behind evaluation. It also involves a solid feedback loop that provides a circle of communication about evaluation, performance, and the process between evaluator and those being evaluated. This will allow the evaluation model to meet the needs of those being evaluated as well as meet the needs of the system as a whole.

6. Focus on teacher growth and development. A system that provides a strong avenue for conversations around growth and development is vital to the health of a school, and it’s vital to drive performance of teachers within the system. If the culture around evaluation is that the process or instrument is crafted to “get rid of teachers” or as a “gotcha”, the system is doomed to fail. So honestly crafting a system that is focused on continuous improvement as well as growing teachers is vital. Communicating that purpose honestly is also vital. And executing the system and process in such a way is also vital. I have found that when teachers are engaged in critical analysis of their craft, they are usually very spot-on in evaluating their performance. Focusing on continuous improvement allows those conversations to emerge. It also will help teachers self-identify when they are not a good fit for a system or when they are not meeting the expectations of the school community. A final part of this is to embed professional learning within the system as part of the evaluative process. As areas of growth surface, professional learning opportunities should be focused on those areas to push the continuous improvement loop further.

7. Attend to the “human side” of evaluation. This takes on a variety of roles, including communication of the system to teachers, ensuring the evaluators are trained in the art of difficult conversations, ensuring evaluators are objectively critical when examining evidence, ensuring teachers know the outcomes of the evaluation system, and continuous education about the purpose and intent of evaluation in the system. At the end of the day, teaching and learning is an inherently human endeavor. As such, we would be remiss to look at it as a purely technical exercise. We must take care to ensure that the people involved are informed, feel secure, and feel valued.

8. Ensure the evaluation system is actually “do-able” and employ effective technology in that pursuit. If all we had to do was craft a system that was theoretically sound, evaluation would be a piece of cake! But the reality is that the caseload of evaluators is often wieldy and enormously time-consuming. As such, using technology platforms and being creative about what kinds of evidence and how evidence is discovered are essential components to include in an evaluation system. Honest conversations with those doing the evaluating need to be held. But the focus cannot be on efficiency; it has to involve a sincere conversation about desired outcomes, intent of the system, and THEN talk about how to manage the logistical challenges. By staying rooted in theory but pragmatic in approach, an evaluation system has the chance to accomplish its ends. There are a number of incredible technology tools that help make that a reality.

9. Feedback loops and  re-examining the system. Finally, it is of paramount importance that the process be re-exmained and evaluated itself. Is the process giving the desired outcomes? Do teachers feel that they are getting valuable feedback that is growing them? Are teachers who are not a good fit figuring that out and moving on? Are professional learning opportunities correlating to the needs of teachers and aligning to areas that need improvement (both at the teacher and system levels)?  If the system is not meeting the needs of teachers and the school, then a re-assessment of criteria, evidence, and process needs to be undertaken. There is no shame in redrafting on the fly. In fact, it is vitally important so that the work of the school moves forward in a positive direction.

While I know this post did not solve the world’s problems around teacher evaluation, I hope that it gives you some good “think abouts” as you consider how to best approach teacher evaluation in your school. In the future I will share more of our current work about how we came up with the standards for assessment and evidence, and if you need or want more information, feel free to contact me.


Begin at the Beginning

“Begin at the beginning!” was the counsel I received when thinking about how to approach cultivating a blog to share my thoughts and reflections about learning and leading, as well as sharing my professional and personal journey of living and working in schools. The enthusiastic advice I received got me thinking… just what would count as my “beginning” when it comes to education?

I became a school administrator at the age of 29. That was definitely a new beginning and boy, did I learn a lot as a high school assistant principal… if you think the job is difficult, you should try doing it as a blond 29 year old single female. It adds a certain… twist… to the work, that’s for sure! But that job was really just continuing a journey I’d started when I became a teacher several years earlier.

I suppose I could drift back to my first day as a classroom teacher. With my heart racing and my stomach churning, standing in brand new clothes that I used my very last saved-up dollars to buy, I stood up in front of six classes of ninth graders and somehow managed to get them to believe that I was, in fact, their teacher for the year. I have some distinct memories of that day, including having a student throw up during second period, me managing to mangle at least 1/3 of my new students’ names on roll-call, and not being able to eat my lunch due to my unsettled nerves.

I could hearken back to my first day of student teaching even, when I was but 21 years old standing up in front of a room full of high school seniors who were just barely younger than I was at that point in time. My first day of “teaching” (and I use quotation marks here liberally given the circumstances and what actually transpired in the classroom that day) came at the 11th hour when my cooperating teacher let me know at 4am on my third day at the school that he was called away due to a family medical emergency… and that I’d be taking on all of the classes that day. I can’t say that quality teaching and learning happened on that day in the classroom, but I can say that I survived, and my students managed to emerge without harm.

I could go back to my countless beginnings as a student… college, high school, middle school, and the six different elementary schools I attended as a young child; I was perennially the “new kid” as my family moved each and every year of my childhood. Each beginning held its own challenges and triumphs, but none of them is where I began learning.

But for me, thinking about “begin at the beginning” in my life in education, I think that I would really have to go even further back that my first day of kindergarten, all the way back to early, early childhood. If you’ve ever taken an early childhood development class, you quickly realize that some of the most profound learning comes in the early years of life. The curve is steep and the outcomes incredible, and all of this happens with no formalized educational context around the child. It’s pretty amazing to think about, really. I imagine that those formative years were my true “beginning”.

And so when I think about and share thoughts about learning and leading, I will of course generally do this within the context of formalized education. But I will also look to discuss larger educational questions and pursuits in posts and discussions. Why? Because not all learning happens in the school house. In fact, the majority of “real life learning” happens out there, in the “real world” that is away form the school house. Plus, if you believe what research is pointing to recently, it becomes clear that realistic, meaningful, experiential learning is what leads to long lasting impact and retention for students. Given that context, and the probability that blending formal and informal venues of learning will be where education moves in the coming years, I will do my best to smudge the line between those two venues and provide thoughts and considerations accordingly.

If you’re here reading this, and you have thoughts to share, please do so. I look forward to engaging in conversation with you. Who knows… along the way we might just stumble on to some things that could change learning for kids and adults for the better.

Finally, before I forget: Photo credit and genuine heartfelt thanks for the  banner photo gracing this page goes to Adrian Collier photography ©2012. Adrian is a very talented photographer in the Seattle area and I will happily provide you with his contact information if you’re interested in his work!