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Friday, 19 July 2013

Being Reflective Practitioners

"If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow..." - John Dewey


I'm currently reading "Instructional Rounds in Education - A Network Approach to Improve Teaching and Learning" by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman, and Lee Teitel.

 I actually picked the book up over a year ago because I was intrigued by the title.  As you may know, before going into Education, I was a nurse, and nursing rounds were a huge part of our practice.  So I wanted to know how the authors proposed to use the "rounds" process in the world of Education.

I just wished that I had read the book BEFORE this past school year. Why?  Well, this year, for the first time, I experienced our School Effectiveness District Review process.  This process is mandated by the Ministry of Ontario.  I actually learned so much going through this process, not just about the practice of teaching and learning, but also about human nature, relationships, and the pressure associated with feeling like you are "under the microscope."  I also witnessed the stress teachers experience with the advent of change.

Going through the review process gave the majority of the us the impetus to move our practice forward at a faster pace than we might have otherwise.  That was a good thing.  It also helped us to be much more reflective in what we do, why we do it, and the impact we have on student learning.  I just wish we didn't have to go through a "Review Process" to behave this way!

The first thing that we had to do for the Review Process, was determine a Problem of Practice.  I'd have to say that this was the most difficult part of the whole process. We used our classroom assessment data along with our EQAO data to determine what our Problem of Practice is.  What was interesting was how many people took issue with the term "Problem of Practice".  Many didn't like the insinuation that there WAS a "problem".

This is where Instructional Rounds in Education would have come in handy.  It paints a clear picture of what a "problem of practice" is.  Had I read it before going through the Review Process, perhaps I could have helped alleviate some of the tension.  From my current understanding, a Problem of Practice does not reflect bad teaching.  It simply reflects a need in the school.  For example, we realized that, in general, the students in our school have a very limited vocabulary.  We started there.  But as we continued to reflect, we also realized that the students in our school have difficulty comprehending texts. We wondered, was the reason they had trouble comprehending because their vocabulary was so limited?  Or was it a bigger problem?  Was it that they couldn't make inferences?  Were they having trouble visualizing?  Or is it that overall, they lack background knowledge?  We also noticed that in our Junior Division, our students had trouble solving rich, multi-step math problems.  Should we focus on Math?  Or was the issue with the Math problems actually related to a reading comprehension issue, they couldn't understand the questions?

It was really great to notice the change in the conversations in the hallway.  Teachers were having discussions about teaching metacognition, whether they should do it explicitly in the beginning of the school year, or towards the end and whether or not we were using a common language for Math instruction.

After determining our problem of practice, (we decided to go with reading comprehension), we had to develop an "If... then" statement about something we were going to change in our practice to meet the need we wanted to address.  Again, it would have been helpful to read Instructional Rounds in Education first because it helps outline how to do this.  It defines the "If... then" statement as a "Theory of Action".  Eventually, (it wasn't until JANUARY!) we finally came up with our statement.

The next step was for everyone to participate in professional development so that we could successfully implement the teaching strategies we outlined in our Theory of Action.  The interesting thing I learned from reading Instructional Rounds in Education is that, according to the authors, just because teachers plan together and receive the same PD, it doesn't necessarily follow that what will happen in their respective classrooms will be the same.  After observing classrooms, it became evident to the authors that teachers interpret and implement what they have learned in different ways.

Enter "Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Instruction" by Stephen Katz.  Katz describes the barriers we have as teachers to learning.

I could see all of these barriers in action this year at my school.  It is so hard to get past them.  We tend to look at something new, and say "oh, I'm already doing that, I just call it something else", and not really take the new learning seriously. The other thing I hear most often "that wouldn't work with the students I have this year".

Why is change so threatening?  Why are we so reluctant to teach differently?  These are the questions I hope to tackle this year.

Since we only came up with our Theory of Action in January, and then we had to have PD, we were still novices at implementing the new strategies by June.  We haven't even had a chance to reflect on whether or not they have had an impact on student learning.

As a school, we won't be reviewed again for another five years.  That is just too far away.   It is so important that as educators, we reflect on our practice regularly.  We need to look at our teaching practices critically.  What impact did we have on student learning?  Not just most of the students, but ALL of the students.  Which group of students were we not successful with?  What adjustments do we need to make next?

This seems natural to me.  Maybe that is because of my nursing background.  As nurses, we were each the Primary Care Taker for 10 - 13 patients on the ward (depending on the unit).  As the Primary Care Taker, we were responsible to make decisions about the care for our patients.  Although I had 10 patients, and they all just had some sort of surgery, their needs were very different, and they healed at different rates.  We met weekly to discuss each patient's progress.  If someone wasn't progressing at the rate we thought they should, we worked together as a team to come up with different strategies of care. No one took it personally, no one thought it was a reflection of their nursing practice if someone didn't recover at the predicted rate.  We weren't reluctant to try new strategies - new dressings, new medication pumps, new protocols for healing; we were willing to try anything to be successful, and we documented DAILY the impact of what we did on patient recovery.  We charted the patient's "complaint", our observations, our plan of action, and an evaluation of the impact of our plan.

I think our students deserve that same quality of care, that same reflective practice.  I hope in September, at the first staff meeting, my school will begin by looking at their Theory of Action again and recognize that as a theory, we need to determine what evidence exists, if any, to validate it.  What adjustments need to be made to the theory? How will we dig deeper in the coming school year?

I leave you with the following video that I find so inspirational.  It is time to move from an Industrial Model of Education to a 21st Century Model of Teaching and Learning.  That means we have to be reflective practitioners, practitioners that can define our practice and the impact that we have on student learning.  In the video, Mr. Lichtman says we need to be self-evolving learners and in doing so, we teach our students to also become self-evolving learners.  We can't be afraid to let our practice evolve along with the world as it continues to change at such a rapid rate.  Watch the video - be inspired!


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