Four Steps to Transforming a School

It seems as though it really comes down to four. Four practices that, taken together, create a transformational school environment. What do I mean by transformational? An environment where students are achieving academically and taking ownership of their learning: exhibiting agency.

  • These environments can look many different ways, but are based on certain characteristics: they have a focus on academic rigor;
  • They create learning experiences that allow students to experience “flow”, where time and space drop away;
  • And they develop their own best instructional practices rather than trying to follow someone else’s checklist or pacing guide.

And they follow four higher level practices that entail their school culture.

Data-Informed Instruction

I say data-informed rather than data-driven, not to imply any lessening of rigor, but rather to emphasize the role of teacher judgment in instruction. In fact, rigor is what data-informed instruction is all about.

In many ways, teachers have always used data-informed instruction in the form of formative assessment – things like quizzes used to find out what students know and to re-cover areas where students are still confused. Today however, with technology, teachers have access to more data than ever and can drill down to get a more complete picture of what students do and don’t understand. For example, many software programs like McGraw-Hill’s Thrive support students working independently at their own pace, and sends an alert to the teacher if students are having trouble in a particular area. The teacher can then pull those students aside for immediate feedback and help.

The software also provides reports showing details of a particular student’s performance, the whole class’s performance, or performance on a particular question. This data shows up as a side effect of students working through their learning, without stopping learning to take a quiz or test. It is a form of “stealth assessment” that doesn’t make students feel as though they are being tested. This data used to be laborious to collect, but with technology it becomes automated.

Automated reports become incredible time-savers in data-informed instruction. They become the basis for instructional conversations. These conversations may be with the Principal as instructional leader – this approach is beautifully described in the book Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo. The conversations could just as easily be with peers in a data meeting or Personal Learning Community environment. The key is to first analyze what individual students are missing or places where the whole class is confused, then to tailor instruction to get students caught up before moving ahead to new content.

Student-Centered Pedagogy and Approaches

There are innumerable student-centered pedagogical approaches from Project-Based Learning to Inquiry to Making to Game Based Learning and so on, each with its own slightly different focus. The many X-based learning approaches do have some critical things in common though when done well, and it is these common denominators that make them so powerful:

  • Teachers gradually release control to the students, becoming coaches rather than keepers of information
  • Students take ownership of their learning
  • The conditions for intrinsic motivation are in place:
    • Autonomy. Control of what they work on, where they work on it, how they do it, when they do it and/or who they work with
    • Mastery. The opportunity for the deep learning that comes from a state of “flow”
    • Purpose. The learning is authentic and based on questions the students consider meaningful
  • There is a public presentation of student work to authentic audiences (Watch Ted Dintersmith’s Most Likely to Succeed for a great example from High Tech High)

There is a simple, yet incredibly difficult shift of mindset required for teachers to support student-centered learning. There is an uncomfortable giving up of control to students while providing a framework within which the students will work. This mindset is the core of the student-centered learning approaches and can always be applied to teaching and learning, transcending any particular pedagogy. And once teachers get used to it, they find their enjoyment of work as they can focus more on true teaching than controlling student behavior or laboriously pulling students along.

Continual Improvement and Innovation Process

Mastery of data-informed instruction and student-centered teaching can never be fully achieved.  That is a goal that can only be approached, not reached. There is always room for improvement and responding to a changing environment. To approach mastery, three elements are required:

  • Reflection
  • Experimentation
  • Analysis

A self-reflective practitioner will take time frequently to consider how their data-informed instruction and student-centered approaches are working. Are they achieving their goals? How can outcomes be further improved? Are the working goals the right ones, or do even the goals themselves need to evolve? This reflection often occurs intentionally as part of school-based Personal Learning Community meetings.

Then the practitioner will experiment with new approaches, analyze the results, and look for ways to refine his or her practice. He or she will share new insights with the rest of the community, look for feedback, then keep the practices that improve outcomes while discarding those that don’t.

Secret Sauce

The three practices listed above are the result of intentional practice and reflective process. However, there is one more element that is critical to making the others effective.

Every student must be known by a caring adult in the building, both academically and as a person.

Without this ingredient, the recipe for success falls flat.

Putting It All Together

When a student is known, when a student is intrinsically motivated, when a student takes ownership of his or her own learning, and when a student is caught up on concepts and understanding before moving on, that student is engaged in transformational learning.

It is common, when given a list of to-do’s to somehow leech the meaning out of them and believe you are following them when, in fact, you are still doing things the old way and simply renaming them.

So how do you know if you are truly on the path to transformation? Consider:

  • Are all four practices in place?
  • Do you hear conversations about student work and reflective practice in the break room?
  • Do teachers, students, and parents insist they could never go back to the old way?
  • Are there conversations about how goals are evolving in PLC’s?
  • Are teachers truly letting go of control? How do you know?
  • Are agency and academic growth equally valued and given equal priority in day to day decision making? How do you know?
  • Do students have voice and choice in what they work on, when and where they work on it, how they work on it, and with whom they work?
  • Are you seeing continual improvement in your data-informed instruction practices? How do you know?
  • Are teachers regularly experimenting with new approaches or instructional techniques and keeping what works?
  • Are teachers and students enjoying their work more than ever while accomplishing more than ever?

If most of these elements are a normal part of your culture, and all are “side effects” of putting the four practices in place rather than coached behaviors, then you are on the path to transformation.

For more blogs by Marie, check out:

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