4 Reasons Why Practitioners Should Be Researchers

practresearch-2As teachers and leaders, we don’t often think of ourselves as “researchers.” After all, when we think of research, we think of academic outsiders studying borderline interesting topics and writing long, confusing reports about their discoveries. We don’t typically think of practitioners as doing the work of “researchers.”

It shouldn’t be that way. We need to change this mindset because practitioner research is especially valuable in a profession where educator voice needs to be heard. As practitioners, we have a unique insider perspective that strengthens the dialog around the changes our schools so desperately need. Our unique insider voice has not been invited nor heard by leadership and policymakers. We can and must change this.

This past week I experienced two events that reminded me of the value and importance of practitioner research in education:

  1. the conclusion of the college semester at Moravian College where I taught a graduate course for the third year titled Teacher as Inquirer.
  2. the presentation of a research project I’m currently involved with in Salisbury around the critical factors that support teachers in designing transformational learning experiences.

In this post, we’ll focus on WHY practitioners should study their work. In a follow-up post, we’ll focus on the HOW, including examples from my own experiences as a superintendent and clinical adjunct professor of education.

Practitioner research doesn’t need to be “academic,” resulting in a journal article or dissertation defense. Our research can be as simple as asking rich questions to identify problems of practice; researching, choosing and implementing an action plan; collecting some form of data and reflecting on and sharing the results. The basic process is then repeated with the same or a new problem. These are the essential components of practitioner research and we should make it a part of our work. Here are four reasons why:

  1. Improve our practice – By studying our work, we identify in a concrete way what is working and what can be improved.
  2. Model inquiry – The approach we take to studying our practice is based on inquiry and models the personal ownership we want our students to take with their own learning.
  3. Model a growth mindset – We live in a world of rapid change, both inside and outside of school, that requires a growth mindset and openness to constant learning. Effective practitioner research is grounded in wanting to grow in understanding and skill for the betterment of learners.
  4. Share our work with a larger audience – When we improve our practice and share it with our colleagues, school, and the educational world through blogs and social media, we make a contribution to improving education on a scale larger than our classroom or school.

In the follow-up post, look for some specific steps you can follow to become a researcher of your own practice.

Do you take a systematic approach to studying your practice? Why or why not?

Connect with Randy on Twitter.


Published this week: Podcasts and A PD Story

  With this post, I wanted to share some new content posted online this past week. My colleague, Lynn Fuini-Hetten, and I published three new podcasts at TLTalkRadio and a blog post on Edutopia.

Last February, we traveled to an Apple What’s Next: Implementing Research Practices event to work with the Apple team including Ruben Puentedura and Boston College researcher Damian Bebel. We designed an action research project that included two research questions… <read more and listen to the podcast…>

In this episode, we welcome Barbara Bray!  Barbara is co-founder of Personalize Learning, LLC (with Kathleen McClaskey), co-author of the book Make Learning Personal, and founder/owner of My eCoach. As a creative learning strategist, Barbara is passionate about writing, bringing creativity and passion back to learning and empowering educators to… <read more and listen to the podcast…>

In this episode, we welcome Don Wettrick, a thought leader on Innovation and author of Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% time to the Next Level.  Don is an Innovation Coordinator at Noblesville High School, just outside Indianapolis… <read more and listen to the podcast…>

Look for more podcasts on TLTalkRadio in the near future featuring innovative educational thought leaders!

The Edutopia post provides a glimpse into the professional development that has supported our 1:1 digital transformation in the Salisbury Township School District.

Digital transformation requires more than the introduction of computing devices into the learning environment. It requires a shift in mindset and in the daily practices of school leaders, teachers, and students. In order to support school leaders and teachers to become their most effective at using digital technologies with new pedagogies… <read more >

We hope you enjoy listening and reading! We’ve had a great time doing the work and sharing.

How do we make our schools amazing places for learners?

amazingOn this blog, we’ve previously looked at how an analysis of our district assessment and evaluation efforts resulted in identifying challenges we need to address to move our digital transformation work forward. One of our focus areas this year is to more clearly articulate a vision – to answer the audacious question, How do we make our schools amazing places for learners? Certainly there are lots of amazing things going on in our schools already! How do we make “amazing” systemic?

Because of this focus, I was drawn to watch Will Richardson’s recent TEDx talk, The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools. In this post, I’ll briefly share Richardson’s questions and his proposed process to a solution followed by my thoughts on applying his ideas in my own practice as a school leader.

Richardson’s Thoughts

The question: How do we make our schools amazing places for learners?

Richardson poses this and several additional ambitious yet actionable questions about the current state of our educational system:

  • Why is there a disconnect between what we believe about the conditions for powerful learning and what we practice in our schools? Why do we continue on the path that creates a disconnect between what we believe and what we practice?
  • Why does the learning students do on their own look so different from the way they learn in school? How might we rebuild schools for real-world learning?

A path to a solution

Richardson believes we already know how to make schools amazing places for learners. He asks whether we have the courage to take the following actions:

  1. Assemble educators, parents and policymakers to articulate beliefs about how kids learn best. These beliefs should be articulated and publicly shared as in the examples of Lakes Grammar School, Melville Senior High School and Science Leadership Academy.
  2. Align teaching and learning practices in the classroom to the articulated beliefs. Richardson briefly shares three schools where alignment is evident: The Mosaic Collective, Northern Beaches Christian School, and Science Leadership Academy.

My Reactions

Applying the solution in practice

As practitioners, we know this two-step path is easier said than done, but it is a valid approach to bring about systemic change. As I reflect on the two-step solution and how it applies in my own practice, three considerations surface:

    1. Leadership is critical. Making systems amazing places for learners requires leadership at the top of the organization to not only have a clear destination in mind, (to “get it”) but the skills and influence to build consensus among all stakeholders about what they believe about teaching and learning. Without engaged leadership, change will continue to be limited to pockets of classrooms and teachers. Last spring, I visited one of our elementary parent organizations to engage them in an activity to uncover their beliefs about learning. The process was productive and the results were valuable and interesting. I am looking forward to repeating this process with parents and educators this coming spring and sharing it out on this blog.
    2. Listening to learner voice is critical. We can learn a lot from the “end user.” As beliefs and values are articulated, leaders must be certain to engage the voices of students. Over the past several years, our district leadership has scheduled regular conversations with diverse groups of students, K-12. This year, our focus has been on better understanding how learners learn, collaborate and communicate inside and outside of school. We plan future conversations around a design challenge, schools of the future, and their thoughts on the inquiry, What does the future of learning look like to me?
    3. Aligning classroom practices and beliefs is the most challenging work. While it may be enough of a challenge to gain consensus on a set of beliefs and values, the heavy lifting comes with bridging the gap between the vision and actual practice – developing and implementing action plans for change. While we haven’t reached this step yet, I anticipate we will explore major shifts in instruction and operations such as (1) use of time, (2) systems of assessment and evaluation, (3) student-centered instructional strategies, (4) use of technology, (5) changing roles of teachers and learners, and (6) new learning from our Innovate Salisbury project. Additional complexity will come to the process from the prioritization of the articulated changes and shifting our use of professional learning time to best prepare our staff for the implementation of the action plans.

Be sure to take 15 minutes to watch the full talk, The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools. I’m sure Richardson’s powerful ideas will prompt some new thinking for you as they did for me. We can make “amazing” systemic!

How are your schools already amazing places for learning? How are you making “amazing” a reality in every classroom throughout the system? If you’re not the top leadership in your school or district, how do you lead up? (More on leading up in a future post…)

3 Key Components of Digital Transformation – Pt. 3: Evaluate it

evaluationTwo weeks ago, we started to explore the key components behind a successful digital transformation. In Pt. 1, we focused on the foundation of every digital transformation – Lead it. Last week in Pt. 2 we emphasized professional learning as a key piece of Support it. In this third and final week, we’ll explore facets of Evaluate it. As mentioned in Pt. 1, while these components are presented in a linear fashion, the process of digital transformation is recursive and never ending. The challenge of digital transformation is balancing and addressing all three components simultaneously on some level – Lead it. Support it. Evaluate it.

Evaluate it.

There are many reasons you will want to evaluate your digital transformation: to understand how and where teaching and learning are evolving, to determine if the financial investment is paying off, to measure progress toward meeting project goals, and to support shifting action plans with data. To best support your efforts to evaluate your transformation, you’ll want to focus on two areas: (1)  adopting an evaluation framework or process; (2) using the results to move your transformation to the next level.

Your evaluation framework

As a result of monitoring our digital transformation for several years, we developed a framework to help guide us through the process of evaluation and assessment. Our framework includes the following:

  • What are the goals of the transformation? Goals are too often overlooked! What are you working for? What changes in teaching and learning do you want to see in the classroom? Clearly identify these so everyone is clear on where the work is heading.
  • Who is your audience?  Decide who needs to know about the progress of your digital transformation. Community, school board, teachers, parents, taxpayers? This is important to know since it will guide you in your data collection, analysis and reporting.
  • What data will you collect? When answering this question, think about your goals and the data sources that will be most helpful in demonstrating progress. We’ve used a variety of tools to collect a robust sample of data throughout the school year: classroom walkthrough protocol; parent, student and teacher surveys; stories of teaching and learning; honor roll and GPA data; and commercial tools such as the Apple Educational Technology Profile, Apple Educational Leadership Profile and BrightBytes Clarity survey.
  • How will you analyze the data? Ideally, analysis of the data, especially if you have lots of it, should be a collaborative effort. The group should aim to identify strengths and challenges. We have started working with principals to use a data protocol for data analysis and engaging conversations with building leadership teams.
  • How will you share the results? Think about your audience. Will you share at faculty meetings (teachers), school board meetings (school board) and/or on a public web site (community, parents and taxpayers). We have shared the results of our assessment/evaluation at the building level, at school board meetings and on the web.

What’s next?

The most valuable outcome of an evaluation is a snapshot of the transformation at a particular moment in time. The snapshot is what helps determine the evolution of the transformation and how to navigate the changing landscape of “college and career readiness.” As a result of our careful assessment and evaluation, here’s “What’s next?” for us:

  1. Action Research – We want to see more transformational learning opportunities in our classrooms (as defined by SAMR). The questions driving our inquiry are (1) What are the critical factors of success for our teachers who are creating transformational learning experiences?; (2) What factors of success can district and school leaders foster? We have interviewed teachers and will be reporting out on this project in December. We foresee this action research having significant implications for our work in the first area presented in this series, Lead it.
  2. Innovate Salisbury – Thinking long term, we know that we need to explore the “uncommon dots” in education – those ways of “doing” teaching and learning that are not yet common in schools and classrooms – and embedding relevant and appropriate innovations into our vision for teaching and learning. We are currently working with a group of 15 teachers to explore the “uncommon dots.” This exploration will result in a more clearly defined vision for our classrooms in 2020 and the outcomes for our ongoing digital transformation.

For me, there are two important takeaways on the component of evaluation in a digital transformation:

  • Every digital transformation should have clearly defined goals and a plan to document progress toward those goals. Taken together, clear goals and a plan for evaluation are the rudder of an effective digital transformation.
  • Evaluation and assessment require a significant investment of human resources, particularly in the area of time. However, the data collected and results shared will be invaluable in informing the short-term and long-term vision of the initiative.

How has the evaluation/assessment process informed your school/district digital transformation – long-term and short-term? What process have you followed? What have you learned from evaluating your initiative? What are your next steps?

3 Key Components of Digital Transformation – Pt. 2: Support it

supportsLast week we started to explore the key components behind a successful digital transformation. In Pt. 1, we learned some ideas about the first key component – Lead it. In this week’s post we’ll focus on the second component – Support it.

Support it.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  ~Alvin Toffler

Simply providing a digital device for students and staff does not a transformation make. To reach the goal of transforming teaching and learning through digital tools, teachers (and students) will need to learn, unlearn, and relearn. They’ll need to be supported to turn vision into reality. Without regular professional development for teachers and leaders, and rethinking human and financial resources, it is impossible to yield an effective transformation.

Professional Development for Teachers

Be prepared to provide a variety of learning opportunities that align with the goals of your initiative. Just like our students, teachers are at different places in the journey and should be supported wherever they happen to be.

Here’s what we’ve done and are currently doing for our teachers:

  • Build a common language around technology and pedagogy – In the early days of our transformation, professional development took the form of a cohort model over three years, with approximately a third of the teaching staff each year receiving professional development to build common language around both technology and pedagogy.
  • Provide differentiated PD opportunities through choice – Our current goals focus on developing transformational learning opportunities with technology as defined by the SAMR framework and Webb’s Depths of Knowledge. To reach this goal, we are supporting our teachers’ learning by providing a variety of differentiated opportunities through weekly team/grade level meetings, department meetings, Summer Academy and attendance at conferences such as PETE&C, ISTE, the Bucks-Lehigh EduSummit and various Edcamps.
  • Don’t forget the innovative teacher leaders – We are also providing opportunities for our most innovative educators, the Innovate Salisbury Team, to produce their own instructional innovations in areas such as genius hour/20% time, makerspaces and project-based learning.

Professional Development for Leaders

In the first post in this series, we focused on the importance of leadership in the digital transformation process. Your leaders need to be supported, too!

In Salisbury, the leadership team participates in their own professional learning. The team meets monthly in a lunch and learn format. Past topics have included

  • The SAMR framework – As we have implemented our walkthrough protocol focused on SAMR and Webb’s Depths of Knowledge, we have had to “norm the group,” making sure that we have a common understanding of levels of technology use and rigor.
  • Webb’s Depths of Knowledge – Administrators were led through a series of activities to develop a rich understanding of rigor and the Webb’s hierarchy in preparation for leading professional development for teachers. On last year’s opening day, every administrator was responsible for leading a session to introduce the full staff to Webb’s Depths of Knowledge.
  • Transitioning to PA Core – The administrative team participated in various book studies including ASCD’s series on Common Core. This new learning was valuable for administrators to engage teachers in conversations as curriculum was rewritten or updated, depending on content area.
  • Numerous technology tools – Through the years the leadership team has received professional development on the various software tools used by our students and teachers. One of the most memorable, though, was an impromptu professional learning session on Twitter which occurred in the middle of winter. As a leadership team we took good advantage of a 2-hr cold weather delay!

Rethinking Resources

We want our teachers and students to be creative and innovative, designing new products and processes that have value. How can we use your human and financial resources in ways that will more effectively support your digital transformation? How can we model creativity and innovation?

As a result of asking these questions several years ago, we discovered some innovative ways of using our computer technicians and librarians to support our professional development and digital transformation.

  • Computer technicians were hired with expertise in software applications in addition to computer repair.
  • The changing role of the librarian was documented in an updated job description.
  • A new administrative position was created, Supervisor of Instructional Practice, to coordinate the support mechanisms of the digital transformation.

These varied job roles came together in the formation of a support group (we call it TLC, representing technicians, librarians and coaches) to best identify and support the professional learning needs within each school.

For me, there are two important takeaways on the component of support in a digital transformation:

  • Frequent opportunities for professional learning keep your digital transformation goals at the forefront with everyone in the organization focused on transformational learning, professionally and for our students.
  • While everyone needs a common language around technology and pedagogy, effective supports meet teachers and leaders where they are and challenge them to embrace a growth mindset for continuous improvement. Building and district leaders must work collaboratively to ensure the individual and collective needs of teachers and leaders are being met.

In what ways have supports been critical in your school’s digital transformation? How have you approached supporting your teachers and leaders in innovative ways? What additional components of support would you add to this list, such as instructional or technology coaches?