“I’M STILL LEARNING.” ~MICHELANGELO
Learning from Suzanne
A new grandmother’s reflections on learning
Suzanne, now seven months old, made her first visit to an aquarium over the holidays. She was entranced by the penguins, the brightly colored little fish, and the giant sharks. Her response to the jellyfish, however, was one of profound awe. Suzanne was instantly mesmerized by these amazing creatures – by their colors, their movement, and their ever-changing shapes. She seemed to sense that these beings were wonderous and unique.
Research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson names awe as one of the ten positive emotions that position human beings to thrive as individuals and in community with others. She says:
Awe happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness. By comparison, you feel small and humble. Awe makes you stop in your tracks. You are momentarily transfixed. Boundaries melt away and you feel part of something larger than yourself. Mentally, you’re challenged to absorb and accommodate the sheer scale of what you’ve encountered. (p. 46)
I feel a sense of awe every time I watch Suzanne interact with and learn from the world. She is miraculous, and I’m so grateful not only for the overwhelming sense of joy that she inspires in me but also for the important reminder that every child, every adult is equally wonderous and special.
I treasure the opportunity to witness Suzanne’s awe of the jellyfish. I want to hold on to this emotion as my lens for viewing and experiencing life.
Ideas to ponder:
A Learning Mindset in Action:
Engaging in and Supporting Action Research
Ongoing spirals of job-embedded professional learning, tenaciously focused on the link between teacher actions and student growth – this is Action Research. Its purpose is to maximize student learning. But action research offers a special bonus; it builds capacity in the “researcher” as well as the system that she or he is a part of.
According to Cathy Caro-Bruce and Mary Kiehr (Eston, 2015, p. 60), action research is “an iterative form of inquiry though which participants actively engage in examining their own educational practice, systematically and carefully, using research techniques in order to impact teacher and student learning.” The action research process is known by a variety of other names including a lab approach, classroom investigation, teacher inquiry, lesson study, and as education-leadership expert Douglas Reeves is fond of calling it, a science fair for grownups.
Action research offers a host of benefits to teachers and education communities:
- It builds teacher efficacy by showing teachers the impact they are capable of making.
- It supports teachers in reflecting on their practice and promotes the habit of intentionality in instruction.
- It sharpens educators’ eyes to evidence of learning, and it builds teacher skill and confidence in formative assessment.
- It creates professional knowledge and grows expertise which will serve individual educators and the larger school community well into the future.
- It reinforces a learning mindset in the individual “researchers.” When enacted collaboratively, it helps to build a learning mindset culture within the school or organization.
There are multiple books that describe the process of action research in detail (see resource list below). However, the steps in conducting a simple action research study are straightforward:
- Identify your research question.
- Determine what data you will collect to answer your research questions and how you will collect this data.
- Determine what you will do as a teacher to promote the targeted student learning.
- Implement your action plan and gather data about its impact.
- Reflect on the results of your investigation and decide on next steps.
| An Example of an Action Research Study |
Research Question: How can I help students learn to persevere in solving challenging math problems?
Data and Data Collection Process: After working on a challenging problem, I’ll have students self-assess their level of struggle and their level of perseverance on a scale of 1 to 5. I’ll also ask them to journal about strategies they used to persevere and whether these strategies were helpful. Finally, while students are working on the problem, I’ll take anecdotal notes about indications of cognitive struggle as well as observed perseverance strategies. I’ll repeat this process during a math lessons once a week for a month.
Teacher Action to Promote Targeted Student Learning: I‘ll do a mini-lesson to introduce students to the concepts of productive struggle and perseverance and to brainstorm strategies they can try when they recognize that they are struggling and feel like giving up. We’ll list these strategies on an anchor chart and add to this list as students discover additional strategies that help them to persevere. We’ll spend a few minutes during our class discussion at the end of a lesson having students share their experiences pushing through feelings of struggle.
Reflection, Analysis, and Next Steps: Students’ self-assessments and journaling show that most students have gained confidence in their ability to persevere when learning is challenging. However, several students still shut down easily. These students have gaps in foundational math understandings and likely need more scaffolding than they’re currently receiving. They may also benefit from some one-to-one coaching related to the skills of academic risk-taking and persevering. I will schedule time to meet individually with each of these students to gather more information and to help them set personal goals related to perseverance.
Action research embodies a learning mindset. Visible learning researcher John Hattie tells us that effective teachers believe, “I am an evaluator of my impact on student learning.” Teachers frequently report that they intuitively use the action research process at an unconscious level. Intentionally enacting an action research study, however, can accelerate both student and teacher learning.
Action research is not just for teachers. Education leaders, too, can and should use an action research process to hold themselves accountable for promoting teacher learning and its resulting impact on student learning. How can I help my teachers learn to ask questions that build critical thinking? How can I help my teachers to understand their curriculum standards at a deeper level and apply this understanding in their instructional planning? How can I help my teachers to become more aware of the impact of their own mindsets on students’ mindsets?
Moving Into Action
So, how will you ready yourself and others with the learning mindset required to take full advantage of this powerful vehicle for professional learning? Here are some exercises to help coaches and school leaders choose and maintain a learning mindset as they facilitate and support teacher action research or even engage in an action research study of their own. Following these self-reflection exercises you’ll find strategies to help teachers choose and maintain a learning mindset as they work to improve teaching and learning using the action research process.
Exercises to Check Your Learning Mindset
Exercise 1: What’s the best that could happen?
For the action research focus you or your teachers have identified, what’s the best possible outcome that could occur? What does success look like? How likely is this to occur? What are some things you might do to increase the chances of success for the teacher researchers and for students? What role will your own mindset and the mindsets of others play in enabling or inhibiting this success? How will you support stakeholders’ learning mindsets throughout the project?
Exercise 2: Expect the Unexpected.
Are you ready for a learning adventure? That’s what action research really is. Obstacles pop up. Results surprise you. This is all part of learning and the complexity of teaching. How can you regulate your mindset in advance and when you’re caught off guard to enjoy rather than bemoan the twists and turns in the road you will inevitably encounter? How will you help teacher researchers to adopt this same ready-for-learning stance?
Strategies to Support Others in Choosing and Maintaining a Learning Mindset during the Action Research Process
Strategy 1: What’s your ‘why?’
Tap into teachers’ passions, their reasons to choosing a career in education. Invite teachers to journal about one or more of the following questions:
Then have a conversation with the teacher or teachers. Help them to turn this passion into a research question.
|In The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Professional Development: Coaching Inquiry-Oriented Learning Communities, authors Nancy Fichtman Dan and Diane Yendol-Hoppey suggest that teachers apply this “litmus test” to their research questions to determine whether they will lead to an effective classroom investigation. The Wondering Litmus Test Is the wondering specific? Is the wondering focused on student learning? Is the wondering a real question (a question whose answer is not known)? Is the wondering a question about which the teacher is passionate? Is the wondering a “how can I” wondering? Is the wondering free of judgmental language? And, is the wondering focused on the teacher’s own practice? Is the wondering more complex than a yes/no question? Is the wondering clear and concise? And, is the wondering doable?|
Strategy 2: What does the learning look like?
Sometimes our perception is limited by our existing mental models. A case in point: when educators hear the term “learning data,” they often think only of test results. The learning required by today’s curriculum standards involves invisible cognitive processes. Many educators have not yet developed the understandings and skills needed to gather meaningful evidence of this learning.
Provide your teachers with experiences which will help them acquire the habit of thinking deeply about their learning targets, including the “soft skills” and habits of thinking that are essential to student success (e.g., taking academic risks, recognizing the learning value in mistakes, asking questions).
Help teachers identify a clearly defined learning target for their action research study. Together operationalize this learning target. What does it look like and sound like? Brainstorm a list of observable indicators. Pick one or two to use as data points and design a simple data-gathering tool and process.
The ability to think deeply and broadly about the types of learning data we have access to not only helps teachers plan effective action research studies, it also builds their muscles for ongoing formative assessment.
Strategy 3: Questions as Feedback
Once the data has been collected, we need to review and make meaning of this data. In our busyness, however, we tend to jump to conclusions and move too quickly into action rather than taking time for thoughtful data analysis. One way to slow down our data analysis process is by asking questions about the data. Questions help us to hold varying lenses on the data, to think about alternate explanations, to consider the need for further investigation.
We can engage a group in this process using the following protocol:
- Display the data.
- Provide plenty of sticky notes to all participants.
- Invite participants to silently write clarifying and/or probing questions on sticky notes, one question per note.
- Participants read the questions, or someone reads them aloud. Based on the questions posed, the group discusses the data.
If working with an individual, the following coaching question can support thoughtful reflection and analysis of the data: What questions might we ask about this data?
Strategy 4: What are we learning?
Educators are always on the go and, as a result, always looking for ways to save time. Unfortunately, this sometimes means we abridge the time we should spend reflecting on our learning. Reflection is critical to our ability to take our learning forward and apply it in new contexts. You can help your teachers acquire the habit of pausing periodically to reflect on their learning by supporting their reflections as they wind up a classroom investigation. You might use sentence stems such as these to start a conversation:
|How will I find time? The Ten-Minute Meeting Principals are expected to serve as instructional leaders but it’s challenging to find the time needed for instructional leadership amidst a multitude of other responsibilities. And yet, action research is unlikely to have a significant impact on teacher and student learning unless a school leader actively demonstrates her/his value of the process and its aims. So, how can we make time for this important responsibility on our calendars? Authors Janice Bradley and Dana Cargill of Give Me Five! Five Coach-Teacher-Principal Collaborations that Promote Mathematics Success suggest a structure they call The Ten-Minute Meeting. Before the meeting, the meeting organizer/facilitator clearly identifies the purpose of the meeting and crafts three specific questions to be addressed during the ten-minute meeting. During the meeting, she gives a copy of the three questions to meeting participants, documents agreements, and keeps track of time. After the meeting, she sends a copy of the meeting agreements to participants and schedules a follow-up meeting to assess impact. The ten-minute meeting structure allows busy school leaders to support and stay in touch with the various action research studies that are an inevitable part of a learning school culture.|
Bradley, J., & Cargill, D. (2017). Give me five! Five coach-teacher-principal collaborations that promote mathematics success. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.
Caro-Bruce, C., & Kiehr, M. (2015). Action Research. In L. B. Easton (Ed.), Powerful designs for professional learning (59-68). Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.
Dana, N. F., Thomas, C., & Boynton, S. (2011). Inquiry: A districtwide approach to staff and student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Dana, N. F., & Yendol-Hoppey, D. (2008). The reflective educator’s guide to professional development: Coaching inquiry-oriented learning communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Hattie, J., & Zierer, K. (2018). 10 mindframes for visible learning: Teaching for success. New York: Routledge.
Reeves, D. B. (2010). Transforming professional development into student results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Resources worth checking out
Coaching – A Special Focus Issue of The Learning Professional
I love the journal The Learning Professional! Like Learning Forward, the organization it represents, this publication is dedicated to achieving equity and excellence in teaching and learning through high-quality professional learning. Articles are both research-based and practice-based, offering usable ideas that can make a lasting difference in schools and classrooms.
Learning Forward is known for its expertise and advocacy related to instructional coaching. It’s no surprise, therefore, that this organization has given us this amazing compilation of the latest and most important professional knowledge about coaching and its impact. It’s also no surprise that this issue has attracted so many coaching gurus as authors.
Take a look at some of the featured authors and titles:
- – You can coach for equity anywhere, with anyone
- – On the path to ‘becoming’: Awareness of their own mental models can help coaches stretch and grow
- – Students on the margin: How instructional coaching can increase engagement and achievement
You’ll also find articles on the following critical topics:
- Peer-coaching, co-teaching, use of video in coaching
- Coaching specific to science instruction, social-emotional learning, and early childhood classrooms
- Leadership for coaching
And, yes, there’s also an article co-authored by yours truly and my amazing colleague Mary Mitchell: Steps to self-reliance: Coaching process strengthens math students’ confidence. Mary and I are especially excited about this article because it provides a peak at strategies we’ll be sharing in our upcoming book on mathematics coaching due to hit the market in October 2020.
Typically, issues of The Learning Professional are available only to Learning Forward members or for purchase. However, at this moment, this entire issue is available as a free pdf download at https://learningforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/the-learning-professional-december2019.pdf. Check it out!