Clearing the Clutter

Shared on Flickr by Jimmy Brown

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
                                                 ~Stephen Covey

Lately, a common theme has emerged from conversations with educators. The theme sounds something like this: Where do I start?; What do these terms mean in practice?; How do they these ideas fit together?; How do I make time for all of these?; How can I do all of these well?; Where does what I have always done fit in?

To sense make, to break new ground, and to connect old to new, can all be daunting propositions. Especially when we are attending to already established initiatives. Especially when we have children in our care who deserve our full attention and presence. Especially when the educational landscape is shifting daily, with new words, concepts, approaches, practices, and projects.

We may, like squirrels in fall, launch into action and gather up as many new projects as possible. Everyone else is doing it, right? Don’t want to get left behind! Before we know it, we are knee-deep in initiatives. We are keen and fearless but somehow we don’t make the head way we imagined we would. Quite frankly, we end up dabbling only superficially with each new initiative and before we know it, our interest and enthusiasm wanes. Eventually, our new initiatives lie abandoned, like discarded oxygen canisters at the base of Everest, varied in colour but empty none the less.

Is there another way? Can we reduce the clutter? Can we come together to create a cohesive story for what is at the heart of the matter? How do we navigate the increasingly cluttered educational landscape?

Articulate Your Big Picture 
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
~Greg McKeown

If you don’t have a big picture of what you are after, get one. Make it detailed. It doesn’t have to have every detail. You can fill in as you go. Make it big, but not too big. Make it big enough so that all the smaller initiatives can fit inside.

The big picture (or call it vision, the why, or big rocks) should get to the heart of the matter of what you do. It should clarify for you what you are after. It should describe what you are trying to create. It should inspire you. It should stretch you just the right amount.

The big picture should add clarity to everything you do. Everything you do should be in service of this big picture. If you can’t come up with a big picture ask someone you trust and respect to help you with this process. If you don’t have such a person, rely on research based principles such as the OECD principles of learning.  Or look out into the educational field to thought leaders and see what they are saying. Regardless of the source, work towards articulating the big picture in your own words. Make it meaningful to you. This is important.

Refer to this big picture every day. Refer to it several times a day. Write it down on index cards, on rocks, on posters. Just refer to it. All the time.
My big picture looked like this:

  • Make space for student ownership
  • Play school less, play learning more
  • Create a self-sustaining community of self-regulating learners

    Part of the picture I was trying to create included making space for student ownership.

These simple statements helped me to judge whether a new initiative was worth my time and energy. Just because a new initiative appeared on the landscape, didn’t mean it was going to serve the big picture.  I needed to ask myself if the initiative revealed more detail about how to create the big picture, or did it create another pile of clutter?

For example, even though Jupiter Grades was extremely popular at that time, I didn’t jump on board. I decided that Jupiter Grades wouldn’t help create the big picture I was after. In fact, Jupiter Grades would have maintained the status quo I was hoping to move away from. Jupiter Grades didn’t make room for student ownership. Jupiter Grades was really good at playing school but it didn’t help to create clarity about learning. Jupiter Grades wasn’t an obvious yes, so it was an obvious no!

To recap, some ideas for clearing clutter:

  1. Articulate your big picture – Make it meaningful, make it yours, and make it visible. Use it as a filter for identifying clutter.
  2. Before you add, let go – Just as with children’s toys, entrance way closets, and kitchens, we need to edit on an ongoing basis. Decide what practices might be vestigial and let go. For me, this was elaborate daily quizzes, marking absolutely everything, and huge assessments. Eliminating these practices freed up time for me to introduce new routines to create the big picture.
  3. Stop to synthesis – Reclaim some time to think. Use any found time to sense make, to think, to fill in details. As with students and the internet, we have to rely on our brains to be the filter for the irrelevant and the clutter.  Your big picture is valuable. Don’t let junk obscure it.
  4. If it isn’t an obvious YES, then it’s an obvious no – If a new imitative doesn’t jump out at you as helping to create the big picture, then walk on by.
  5. Treat your time and energy like money – Protect the asset of you! Scrimp and save for what really matters. Say no to the cheap and small items. We have finite energy units to spend on creating the picture we are after. Spend those energy units wisely.




































The Gift of Competence


Competent                                                                                                                Shared on Flickr by djemili amin

That you do for me, without me, you do to me.


One small bone of contention between my husband and I is the unloading of the dishwasher. If I begin to unload the dishwasher but pause for a second, say to rearrange the pot drawer or maybe wipe a spill on a cupboard door, he swoops in to complete the task.  In that moment he sees himself as being so helpful. In that moment, I see him as being very unhelpful! He is doing for me what I wanted to do myself.  And in that moment, I feel incompetent.

In comparison, if I bring to mind a context of when I feel competent, say like planning a lesson or creating a vision for a learning experience, boy, do I feel like a different person. I am open, I feel positive, I want to help, I want to add to. I feel like a good human! I even feel so good I might consider unloading a dishwasher!!

When I look back to my first year of teaching, my principal at the time helped me to see my competence. He presented me with the contexts in which I was becoming a competent teacher. At a time when I was uncertain about my competence as a teacher, he created the space for me to move into my struggles and missteps, rather than away from them. I felt empowered to find workable answers, I felt valued and valuable. I felt I could do for myself what I needed to do to be competent and I began to believe I was a competent teacher!

The gift of competence was not in what was given to me. Rather it was the space that was created for me to move into, to see myself, to know myself.

To this day, I still feel his gift of competence. Of course, the competency was mine, but he held up the mirror, he created the space for me to own it, for myself. He never did for me what I could do for myself. He pointed out my competencies, and in doing so, he created a place for me to identify my next steps forward, for myself.

To a large part, he helped define for me the contexts in which I felt successful and competent. I recognized that I felt confident and competent when I could forge relationships. I came to understand that I felt confident when I could connect and make real-time meaning with people. I came to see that my confidence grew when I knew I was making a difference. His gift wasn’t that he told me that I was competent. His gift of competence was that he helped me to identify and shape the contexts in which I was competent.

And I wonder:
What contexts and experiences might allow all leaners to see and feel their competence? What contexts might reveal the specific and individual competence of each child, for that child?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear the dishwasher cycle ending.




10 Reasons to Consider Standard Based Grading (#SBG)

The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones. 
~ Todd Rose

When we begin to tinker with classroom assessment practices, there are many changes we can consider. Maybe add an exit interview? Or maybe increase the formative assessment opportunities (using quizzes as feedback instead of as a mark to collect)? Or maybe create a re-do policy? Whatever you choose, it might be easy to change or add a single practice. However, it might be trickier to shift from a culture focused on points to one focused on learning. Enter standard based grading (or outcome based assessment)! And if you are looking for some #SBG articles to get started, scroll way down!

Some reasons you might consider #SBG as you continue to tinker with assessment:

1. Shifts the focus from points to learning:
Previously, my conversations with students revolved around how many points they did or did not get. With the conversation was an implicit power struggle: I had points to give and they wanted them. When learning standards entered our conversations,  the focus shifted from points to what students did or didn’t understand. Our conversations began to explore what activities or experiences might grow their understanding or competency. We were now talking learning, not points!

2. Represents learning as a process instead of as a product or task:
When points were used, students saw learning as a single test, assignment, or answer. I did the test, got those points, and the learning is done. Moving on!
When learning was explicitly connected to learning standards and tracked over the course of several activities, students began to consider learning as something that developed over time and through various experiences. Suddenly, there was value in point-free activities because the activities helped with learning. The new meter stick for whether an activity was valuable of not, was no longer the points assigned, but how the activity helped with the learning. Magic!

3. Conveys a growth mindset:
When learners have only one shot to show what they know, we convey the belief that ability is fixed. When students have the opportunity to see their learning change over time, they begin to recognize that their learning is impacted by their efforts, and that their ability is not fixed. Mindset shift!

4. Redefines assessment as an ongoing conversation instead of as an algorithm:
Almost every course outline I created had the break down: homework 10%, labs 30%, tests 60% (or something similar to it). It was a formula which represented how the final mark would be calculated. I entered marks into these bins and then pressed calculate. I was free and clear, the computer did the work.
When I started with #SBG I had to talk to students, a lot. I had to talk to them all the time. I had to find out from them, what was going for them. I didn’t have numbers to hide behind or algorithms to prove the accuracy of the mark. Instead, we knew, by way of conversation, observation, and assessment, where learners where at in their learning journey.  

5. Makes opportunities for differentiation obvious:
When all the standards are in play all the time, learners can pick and choose which standards they are developing and exploring. This might sound chaotic, but no one is more aware of what they can and cannot do, than learners themselves. When students realize they can tackle a concept again, and one that they previously were challenged by, they are motivated to try again. It might not be the exact the moment that seems convenient to us, but if we believe that learning takes time, learners learn at different rates, and all students are capable of learning, #SBG allows us to put these beliefs into action. Amazing!!

6. Improves the specificity and detail of feedback:
Nothing says general and nonspecific quite as quickly as comments such as, very good, keep it up, or try harder. When standards are used to describe the learning instead of a number, feedback is unique and specific to each student, and unique to each situation. Conversations can now clearly communicate how each student is experiencing success and where they are challenged. Conversations can move away from justifying a number.

7. Provides authentic self-assessment opportunities:
With #SBG students can track their own learning journey. Gone are awkward statements such as, the computer calculated the mark and I don’t know why you got 64%! (I am ashamed but I actually did say that).  Instead, I talked with students to find out what was going on for them, from them. No one can tell you more about how a student is doing, than the student themselves. Although it may be at first unfamiliar to them, students are capable of accurately and honestly talking about their areas of strength and weakness. When learning is not about point collection and power, students open up about where they hope to improve and where they need support.

8. Shifts the ownership of learning to students:
There is nothing as demoralizing as when learners ask repeatedly, what’s my mark?  It is as if you are the one who is magically granting them the mark and it has nothing to do with their learning. When students are given the standards and they begin tracking their learning, it is now a question they can answer for themselves. Presto!

9. Makes the big ideas obvious to all:
When I started teaching, I had columns and columns of marks. I thought that if I collected enough marks, the average at the end would be accurate! But how many times did I find myself in the middle of marking something, thinking that the questions were trivial or in fact unrelated to the big ideas of the course. Many times!!
Once I worked through the curriculum and pre-determined the learning standards, projects and activities that were busy work became blatantly obvious. Now we could focus on what really mattered!

10. Communicates that learners are multidimensional in their abilities:
In Todd Rose’s phenomenal book, The End of Average, he talks about the jaggedness principleHe says:  “Human beings don’t line up perfectly There is no average learner. They have strengths and weaknesses. Even geniuses do.”

Related image

When we talk about learning in relation to learning standards, we can represent the individual learner and their unique jaggedness.

How are you shifting the culture of learning in your classroom or school?

Resources Round Up

What story of learning are we telling the learners in our care?


‘There’s a difference between doing things right & doing the right thing.’
                                                                                       ~Peter Druker

Reflecting back on teaching Biology 12, I spent a lot of time improving the tests I was creating.  I linked the learning outcomes to each test question, I created detailed test outlines, I did intense review sessions, and I simplified test instructions.

In my mind I had nailed test creation!

And in fact, I was improving the tests I gave.  But was I changing the story of learning for the learners in my care? Was I telling a new and updated story?  What did using tests, as the sole way to reveal student learning, say about what I believed about learning?

As I look back now, I see that although I was improving a practice, I wasn’t necessarily changing or examining the beliefs that underpinned the practice. I recognize now that the real change I was after didn’t reside in the updating of tests. Rather, the real work resided in me understanding and exploring my beliefs about learning. The work lay in reflecting on and examining my practices, and teasing out what story of learning I was telling the learners as a result of these practices.

I was doing things right but I wasn’t necessarily doing the right thing.

“An important leverage point for transforming education is changing mindsets that gave rise to the system in the first place.”
                                                                                                                     ~Todd Rose

Imagine you are in a dimly lit room trying to read a fascinating story. Every time you get to the best parts of the book the lights go out completely. Finally, someone enters the room and hands you a nimble and unobtrusive clip-on reading light. You snap the handy light on to your book and presto! You are reading the story effortlessly! 

Then, your handy light goes out. Another person enters and offers you a massive, bright, free-standing spotlight. They turn the light on and you are immediately blinded. You squint as you try to read the next couple of words but it is near impossible. All you can do is to remove yourself from the glare of the light and huddle in the corner with your back to the light. There you try to get a few more pages in.  

As we navigate the myriad of educational initiatives out there, which initiatives will be like the nimble and adaptable snap on light, and reveal the story of learning for our learners? Which initiatives and practices will be like the blinding spotlight, and act to overpower the story of learning?

Sometimes it seems that “the light” becomes more important than the story. How might we create environments where “the story” is at the center?

Before we even consider which initiatives to undertake, we might want to determine what story of learning are we currently telling the learners in our care. Will Richardson challenges us to do a story audit to reveal the story we are telling learners. He suggests going out in to the hall and walking into your classroom. What do the posters on the classroom door say about learning? Then, walk into the room and look around. What does the arrangement of the furniture and presentation setup say about the story of learning? Sit down in at desk or table, look around. What story of learning is being told from this perspective? Continue on through the day from the learners’ perspective.

What story of learning are you telling the learners in your care?
How will you tell the story of learning to the learners in your care?

Resource Roundup

A collection of belief sets complied by the ILT in SD23

8 Cultural Forces That Define Our Classrooms based on the book Cultural Forces by Ron Ritchart