Moving Forward with Visible Thinking: Deepening, Embedding, and Outreach

A Reflection:
I have come to this conference to tap into another opportunity to connect with a group of action researchers who continually deepen the Visible Thinking at their schools- something I wish for any school in which I am involved.

My involvement with Project Zero goes back many years and it just gets better and more exciting. Struan, my close working partner and action packed collaborator in learning, trustingly made his way over to Amsterdam to experience his first Visible Thinking conference. Get a sense of his passion and energy for this by reading his blog. And then get a copy of Ron Ritchhart’s book, Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters. I can assure you that this reading matters a great deal and will shift your understanding of what the story of learning should be.

A few teachers at ISB have taken the plunge and started to dabble with the VT routines…I see it up on the walls and hear them discuss the learning and thinking that goes on in their classrooms. We do make an effort to use the VT routines during professional development time when we meet as a faculty. We have also introduced a few of the routines over the course of the year to the leadership team at ISB. So far, so good…but how do we steep the learning and create a culture of thinking?

How can Visible Teaching Shape Teaching and Learning?
What are some of the changes we have noticed?

Ron shared with us some of Harvard’s recent research work and findings.

1. Students’ conceptions of thinking
What might be going on in the heads of students? Students were asked to map their thinking and Project Zero looked at many mind maps. From a research perspective,
four major categories of responses emerged:
• Associative- responses associated with thinking but not really thinking itself
• Emotional- revealing an affective connection to thinking (emotions and feelings)
• Strategic- comments about a specific action one takes when engaging in thinking such as knowing, remembering, finding answers, retrieval of knowledge; general and non-specific categories; self regulation and motivation; thinking strategies and specific processes- the mind moves to build understanding- deep and focus approaches to learning (making sense of new material)
• Meta- responses that demonstrated a greater awareness of the nature of thinking. These focused on epistemology, the nature of understanding, and conceptualizations of building knowledge.

Further, they found:
• Younger students’ mind maps focus significantly more on associative responses
• Older students report significantly more strategies than younger students
• There was no significant difference between grades in either emotions or meta thinking comments
• There were similar developmental tendencies in the post test maps

The largest decrease in associative comments was found among students in grades 3 & 4, followed by 5 & 6.
The largest increase in strategic comments was found among students in grades 7 & up followed by grades 3 & 4.

As we make thinking more visible, do students become more aware of thinking?
Until you can name a process, you can’t control it! Once it has been labeled, you have more tools at your disposal, giving more control.

2. Students’ perceptions of classrooms
As classrooms become cultures of thinking, do students recognize the changes?
Students perceive differences. These include teacher goals for mastery (learning), performance (work), collaborating for learning, academic efficacy, and a press for thinking (reasons for ideas etc).

3. Teacher change: three connections
• Teachers’ sense of connection to other teachers increases as they move from “soft” (friendliness/collegiality) to “hard” collaboration (talk about teaching, ask questions, feeling at times vulnerable, challenging ideas, and learning from one another).
• Teachers’ sense of connection to themselves (knowing themselves as teacher) as confidence in their own teaching grows and their efficacy is enhanced – giving themselves a professional voice!
• Teachers’ sense of connection to their students increases as come to know them as learners and thinkers –and being reenergized!

4. Classroom shifts
How do classrooms change when teachers create a culture of thinking?
• More voices are heard as students who previously lacked confidence in their academic abilities find their ideas are valued- it’s about ideas and thinking, not just having the right answer
• More questions get asked and classroom discussions become richer and more involved
• Students own ideas and questions are more integrated into the curriculum
• ESL and LD students become more active participants (routines give structure for working with language)
• Students become more engaged as learners rather than just workers

So what?
What difference does Visible Thinking make?
In small groups we brainstormed what we as practitioners see happening in classrooms and schools where Visible Thinking is being used. Here follows the observations from around the world.
• Teacher does not get hung up about curriculum
• Learning is deeper because it moves from shallow to deeper thinking
• Thinking is not seen as “work” but more collaboration and discovery
• Misconceptions become more apparent, learning community “teaches”
• Learning is the responsibility of all
• “Learning curriculum” is driven by the students
• Documentation on the wall is about thinking rather than project work
• VT taps into uniqueness of student thinking and ideas (not all thinking
and learning is the same!)
• Powerful and improved practices
• Teacher as facilitator
• Collaboration, culture of inquiry, connections
• Colleagues support for and learning from one another
• Student comfort in asking questions and facilitating discussion/ideas
• Helps people come together (study groups across schools/divisions; meets once a month)
• The learning is documented; we look at documentation
• Increase in student confidence
• Intrinsic student motivation
• Greater conceptual understanding
• Deeper and more reflective ideas
• Improved quality of interaction and discussion
• Students use routines spontaneously
• Teachers understand their students better
• Teacher self esteem and morale improved
• Teachers as researchers/coaches
• Truer learning communities
• Reflection on documentation and data (between teachers, teacher and students, students and students)
• Students fall into routines to solve issues that occur out of school
• Students reflect on procedures of routines to help them concentrate/learn- “it makes me see things more clearly”
• Teachers see a shift in their role as teachers of thinking
• Participation of students who would previously shut down as talkers or writers
• Rather than questions such as “What are the content gaps of these students?” to “What types of thinkers do I have in my room?”
• Kids are more able to talk about their own learning and provide the ability to make connections to big ideas and to real world.

Is this what it’s going to be like?
I know so…I have taken the opportunity to revisit Visible Thinking and be exposed to some new routines. What’s the magic/power bit to really take notice of?
Thinking routines both create thinking and reveal thinking. And the thinking that gets both created and revealed actually carry us into new, further, deeper learning territory.
Students feel their thinking really matters. When the routines are used flexibly, and the edges soften just a little bit…something starts to take hold, making a powerful move that will advance learning. Can we make this our picture of practice?

Brutal Conversations- Shift Happens!

We prize ourselves as being a school with a strong culture of life-long learning. You know what I am talking about- teaming, resources, professional development…

I guess there are many who see teaching/learning as a matter of doing what people already know how to do well. We spend so much time searching for (and acquiring) the best programs, the best ideas, the best materials, the best resources, and more- more is better, right? And still we continue to wonder what will make the learning deeper. But being the best in education is more a process of inquiry and innovation rather than “accumulating” resources and skills and doing more!

Our leadership team has started to have some brutal conversations focusing on what could and should be different… we have believed we were traveling down that yellow brick road only to find that we had a road map that was so busy and complicated that the directions themselves hindered our destination of deep learning. Since October we have started to bypass the “known” milestones of past success by engaging in fierce conversations about learning and the “unknown” path.

It has not been easy. There are forces that make it easier or more difficult to act in “new” ways in an organizational setting. Adjusted learning and new thinking calls for continuous openness to learning through action, brutal feedback, as well as deep, honest reflections. We have spent hours in small groups teasing out and processing our thoughts, ideas and beliefs, holding onto our sacred cows or allowing the slaughter. In this often painful and challenging path, we are truly integrating work and learning, and emulating a true learning culture.

Nowadays, our leadership meetings are starting to present authentic learning and leading opportunities through our conduct in open, exploratory, and inquiry-orientated manner. We are far from achieving an ideal culture of learning, but at least serious steps are being taken in that direction with substantial positive consequences of building understanding in our organization.

How brutal are the conversations at your team meetings? What enhances new thinking, innovations and learning? What hinders leadership for learning?

This is the dawning of a new age of hiring…

Each year talent searching and recruiting seem to start earlier as administrators are bombarded by applications that find their way into our email boxes. My first email arrived on September 17. (Is that early?)

Even without definite position openings, I somehow find myself participating in both formal and informal interviews as candidates pass through town! While unexpected, nothing was more mind blowing than my first virtual recruiting experience. It all started with a simple (free) Skype conversation- a teacher at the end of a school day in his classroom in conversation with a principal on the other side of the world!

Our dialogue began but a parent who entered the classroom interrupted us. Parent and teacher discussed how things were going and she thanked him for everything he had done for her child. I was able to follow the conversation! The parent departed and the teacher and I were back to our conversation. By now I had already seen and heard the respect and appreciation between the teacher and parent.

In the background I could see the classroom that contained the context of the teacher’s craft. Our conversation along with the capability of Skype naturally evolved into a virtual tour of the classroom. I could see how different this space was and how it enhanced the learning described so vividly by the teacher.

An idea came…I was asked whether I would be interested in watching a lesson “tomorrow”- via Skype. Well, of course I was…but I added, I was equally interested in talking to a few students after the lesson!

On arrival at school the next morning, I received per email a rubric and a number of Internet sites related to the lesson I would follow later that day. The power point presentation that would be used during the lesson did not make it through the email. Too bad!

I invited a few colleagues to be part of the virtual “lesson”, “learning”, “observation”- what would we actually call this???
After connecting via (free) Skype we sat and watched…taking notes…for 35 minutes. But the power and WOW came after the lesson while talking with the students. These two students clearly articulated their learning as we continued to ask them about their learning. The main points included:
We are learning about the freedom fighters…that people have choices. We have learned about the traits of freedom fighters. Some of these people are famous like Gandhi or Malcolm X…but we are researching some of our own “heroes” who have similar traits….It’s about non-violent communication…
This year we are learning new ways of learning…our teacher doesn’t ever want to tell us, he wants us to THINK about it. He asks a lot of questions…the big questions are not yes/no questions, they are questions that make us think, they usually do not have right or wrong answers…we have learnt to listen to the opinions of other people…

These students were obviously emotionally involved in their learning. Their reflections revealed to us something much deeper about their learning than a teacher could in any interview. This was real! This was instant! This was different!

That evening I followed up with another (free) Skype reflection- this time with the teacher. I asked him what the students did well, what they learned and the evidence he used. He discussed what hindered the learning. He shared the changes he could have made to enhance/deepen the learning. This teacher demonstrated the ability to deeply reflect on best practice and clearly articulated his own learning.

It is clear that this teacher is a risk taker, comfortable with technology (he used a SMART board), has an open door to his classroom, invites everyone in, and wants to talk about, reflect on, and learn from his work. You can tell all of this instantly without asking one question!

And what have I learnt?

We can engage in different hiring strategies by observing student learning in their classrooms AND tap into student reflections AND follow up with teacher reflection and, and, and…this is endless…and VERY exciting!!!

Finally, my new tech learning is how to RECORD all of the above Skyping!!!

If we can virtually step into any teacher’s classroom, do we need to go recruiting?
I wonder whether recruiters and/or applicants see any real alphas or deltas to the choices we have when it comes to hiring strategies.
What are the essential elements when we go searching for talent?

I’ve been GEEKED!

During the past weekend I joined the geeks and participated in a Learning 2.0 conference at Concordia International School in Shanghai, China. In the distant past I would have shied away from what could be perceived as an intimidating environment. But in today’s world, we have no time to allow our fears to overtake our learning opportunities….within the first session I was twittering and ninging- instantly learning a little more about what it means to be 21st century literate!!!

I can’t recall in the past as a young(er) teacher ever being totally “blown away” by conferences….but it has happened numerous times now that I have come home feeling WOWed (and overwhelmed) by new learning. Is this a sign of the times? (and I am wondering whether our students get WOWed on a daily basis, but that’s another topic).

We educators have a huge responsibility to our students and learning for an unknown future. This is not an easy responsibility. We seem to be learning “just-in-time” skills that are outdated as soon as we learn them! We continue to fumble along…we can only guess! But the more we are aware of how this world is unfolding and evolving, the better our guess will be. And I am afraid that if we are not guessing right, we will be deeply hindering the learning.

So what will it take to move out of our industrial aging schools and to ascertain a bold learning environment that fully embraces the technological changes upon us? How long can we wait? How can we be smart about what we know and what we do not know?

I have returned from the Learning 2.0 conference to my own safe space to ponder! Technology is changing everything. While I do not believe that I need to be a technology geek (by the way, I love their humour), I do know I must be a passionate appreciator of technology. I also know I must re-imagine the learning and my work as an educator. We must develop a new mandate to pursue. What will that be?

Jumping ahead to find the cutting edge, here are some questions I am messing with:

  • How can we brand our school?
  • What innovative ideas can we develop?
  • How can we re-imagine our role as educators?
  • What part of our industrial aging school can we dismiss?
  • How can our learning hub truly support and inspire learning?
  • How can we use technology to truly blast learning into 21st century?
  • How can we ensure bold learning?
  • How can we take parents on this ride to the future?

Can you add to the vision? Please share any creative ideas that may help us (re)design a brand new school of thought and action?

Technorati tag: learn2cn

Distributing the Leadership

If technology has “flattened” the world then what will “flatten” leadership?
How can we produce a flat(ter) school where everyone who wants to “plug in” can “plug in”? How can our schools become greater adapters of knowledge, skills and resources?

Of late I have become particularly interested in the concept of distributed leadership. It is one of those terms that gets kicked around and can mean different things to different people.

The distribution of leadership, as I see it, is the invitation to look outward towards shared responsibility and engaging the leadership of others. I believe it is about opening up the stage for teachers to creatively explore and participate outside the  “isolated classroom of learning”. It’s about what we can learn from each other. But ultimately, it is about sharing and looking for learning together and responding to that learning. What it takes is innovation related to improving learning.

The lone principal or leader simply cannot do it all, neither does she possess all the skills and knowledge necessary. In our school for 2007-08, we are embracing an evolving model of greater distribution of leadership. What will that look like? We hope it will look different. For the moment, we have invited teachers to the circle of leadership, to explore possibilities, and to become partners in learning of targeted projects. Here is an incentive to develop a new “product”….

I would like to take the concept of distributive leadership a step further…to an innovative level … I believe we could have a break through of ideas if we can encourage each other to tap into abilities and attitudes that matter most- those that are born out of intrinsic motivation and pure passion- these are the designers of education for the future. It’s about having everyone focusing on their individual added-value!

It takes the distribution and contribution of many talents, skills, knowledge and leadership to deepen learning and sustain successful schools. Can distributed leadership be a force to “flatten” our school?

I’m all for developing vision, taking risks and conceptualizing what could be.
Who knows? It could just powerfully transform our school.

What do you know that could help or inspire us into deeper action?

Thinking Conference

Two years ago I attended the 12th (my first) International Conference on Thinking in Melbourne. I would say that this week was one of those turning moments in my life as an educator. For five evenings after full days of workshops, thinking and discussions I shared my new intense learnings with anyone who had three hours to listen to the rave! I remember those evenings of processing the WOW! The thinking and passion this conference evoked in me continues to thrive and drive.
Some snippets of thinking from Melbourne that inspired me to envision new possibilities….

•    If we want our students to learn well and develop deep understanding, we must create cultures of thinking in our schools that actively engage students in thinking on an ongoing basis. These classroom cultures need to be based on care, respect and empathy (Ron Ritchhart).
•     How can students be encouraged to develop their critical thinking in environmental/sustainability subjects?
•    Edward De Bono- believes that 90% of errors in thinking are perception based. We need to teach thinking skills otherwise perception will control.
•    Three ways of thinking: Looking out (creative thinking), looking in (reflective), looking at (critical)
•    We need to focus on the development of actionable knowledge rather than the acquisition of information.
•    How can we better prepare our young for a changing and more complex future?
•    Resourcefulness is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.
•    Change is difficult because we only see what we are prepared to see.
•    Nothing changes until we pay attention to it.
•    It’s about letting go, letting come.
•    Be comfortable with who you are and what is beyond you….and miracles will occur.
•    What we can do together is more than what I can do.
•    To be constantly engaged in collaborative conversations
•    Find win-win situations
•    Laugh hard and long
•    Attitudes are more important than processes
•    To act and remain open minded as educators
•    Got to step outside what you know, explore the unknown
•    This means we need to be courageous – go to unfamiliar places. Habits are obstacles
•    Mix and mingle ideas
•    Can’t reduce education to what we can quantify (standardized testing)…can’t measure passion, patience, imagination, fear.
•    Provide every student with regular experiences of ecstatic learning.
What will I be doing in June when school gets out? I’ll be on my way to Norrkoping, Sweden for the 14th International Conference on Thinking.