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.

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.