In the world of education, reflection is an important and yet sometimes overlooked action. Educators are busy people and because of the hectic pace of our lives, we may find ourselves planning and acting without taking the important step to learn from our actions and to assess the impact of our efforts so as to inform our next steps. As I prepare to transition from being Director of Education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) in January, I have plenty of reasons to reflect. Seven key insights have emerged for me over the last five and a half years and in my last blog post as Director of Education, I would like to share them.
My first insight is Culture is a powerful force. No matter how talented people are or how effectively they are implementing various strategies, the culture in classrooms, schools, departments and entire districts can enhance effectiveness or it can be an obstacle to effectiveness. In terms of HWDSB, we have been focusing on creating an effective learning culture that honours the professional contribution of each staff member. At the heart of this learning culture is a commitment to collaborate, to persevere in the face of challenges, to share expertise and to work together to answer difficult questions in terms of improving student learning. We have focused on creating high expectations for students and staff, and we have worked explicitly with our parents/guardians so that they hold high expectations for their children as well. Trust and positive relationships are at the core of our culture. Being willing to admit what we do not know is equally important to sharing our expertise. We do not always agree in HWDSB, but our norms allow us to work through any disagreements in a constructive way. Our culture invites professionals to take risks, in the safety of their community of colleagues, with a powerful commitment to improving student learning and well-being. This improvement cannot happen in a prescriptive culture; rather, improvement can only happen when all staff own the learning, the direction and the goals of the organization.
Student learning, school improvement and district effectiveness rely on focus and precision. In terms of focus, Achievement, Engagement and Equity Matter in HWDSB. Further, in order to improve achievement and engagement, and to ensure equity, we have made a commitment to “know our students, know our staff and know our parents and communities.” This “knowing” is not simply being aware of our students, staff, parents and communities; rather, we know each student individually and we provide what is needed so that each student learns successfully in a caring and supportive learning environment that also enhances well-being. This is the precision part. Within this focused and precise context, we expect that each staff member will learn in teams, that everyone in the organization will engage in a collaborative inquiry process focusing on how instructional practice will improve, and that each teacher, principal and superintendent determines together what evidence will be accepted showing how learning has improved in the area of focus determined for each student in the classroom, each staff member in the school, and each school in the district. In other words, we expect everyone to engage in a process leading towards improvement rather than expecting that every school will be working on the same system outcome goals. We describe our system as being intelligent and responsive. We describe “intelligent” as clear and focused system direction which provides a strategic way forward and we are “responsive” in terms of ensuring that the focus of all system support is the classroom and the school, not central office. Focus and precision may sound like clinical terms that conjure up images of rigidity or even top-down prescription, but in reality, without some clear parameters, innovation and creative practice might never be able to have the impact on student achievement and well-being that we desire.
This focus and precision extends to our service departments. We ask all staff in our service departments to learn together and to engage in the type of inquiry that allows them to tackle challenging issues in service of our strategic direction. All of our service departments reflect on their efforts using the question “How is our work supporting achievement, engagement and equity?” Our service departments are now engaged in the focused and precise work expected of all staff in HWDSB.
The importance of innovation and creativity in the context of clear and strategic parameters is the next significant insight I would like to speak about. We speak often about “Transforming Learning Everywhere” in HWDSB, and we use the word “transforming” very intentionally. I would suggest that in the world of education we most often make adjustments to our plans as opposed to creating real transformation. We struggle to make changes that depart too much from the way that education has always happened. I surmise that the reason for this reticence to transform, may come from the fact that our identities as educators are very much connected to those amazing teachers we have known from our childhood who inspired us to follow them into education. Innovation is not changing things for the sake of change; rather, innovation respects long standing practices that help students learn better and understands what our world may require from our students today and tomorrow that warrants change to our practice.
Specifically, when we think about transformation in HWDSB, we are focusing on transforming classrooms, relationships and learning opportunities. The classrooms of the past positioned desks in rows, with students working independently or participating in whole class instruction with the teacher often standing in the front of the room. Today in HWDSB, we are creating classrooms that facilitate the learning tasks that students are engaged in, sometime individually, sometimes in groups, and sometimes as a whole class. The classroom needs to be flexible so that the structure of the classroom supports student learning. Transforming relationships is also key to the learning that is happening in our classrooms. Teachers play a pivotal role in this process, but their relationships with students is changing so that the voices of students influence the learning process in the classroom. The teacher’s expertise is important, and the teacher helps students access the global experience that may be found through the use of technology and digital resources. Further the relationship between students is significant because together, students are able to create, evaluate, synthesize, and learn from each other in ways that can only happen when the teacher provides opportunities for this type of collaboration between students to occur. The final focus in terms of our transformations is transforming learning opportunities. Historically, education meant that you were taught what the teachers decided based on the curriculum, you memorized facts, you may have engaged in reading or writing tasks individually or in groups and then you were evaluated through quizzes, tests or exams. By transforming learning opportunities, we are inviting students to engage in learning that is connected to their interests, that allows them to develop skills and attitudes that are necessary for the world in which we live, and we are inviting them to create new knowledge that may have a significant impact on their school, community, nation and beyond! Learning is not a static process where we invite students to regurgitate already existing facts; rather, transforming learning means that in the context of clear parameters and strategic directions, students are invited to create new learning and new knowledge on the foundation of existing learning. This new learning and new knowledge may impact the world outside of the classroom, which makes the experience more relevant for students. I would argue that there is nothing more engaging and exciting than this type of learning opportunity.
Technology is an important accelerator for this transformation, but not the driver. We live in a physical and digital world. It is imperative that schools join together with parents and guardians to assist our students to be healthy citizens in the world that presently exists, not in the world that once existed. Being healthy citizens means that sometimes we need to ask students to set their technology aside in order to engage in a rich classroom discussion for example. Regardless of our own
personal perspectives about technology, its presence is causing change. Preparing our students to engage this change is crucial. Further, technology broadens learning opportunities for students because they have access to information and experience that extends beyond the walls of the classroom while still being supported by teachers in the classroom.
This discussion about transformation relates to my fourth insight that effective instruction is imperative for student learning to improve. I am sure that no one would disagree with this statement, and yet I am not sure we collectively articulate how complex it is to provide effective instruction and learning opportunities for each student. This means that the teacher understands each student’s interests, strengths and needs. It means that teachers know how to program effectively for students in order to maximize learning, they understand how to diagnose where students are in relationship to what is expected, and they know how to intervene when the students need more support to achieve. Effective instruction includes the power and importance of effective assessment. I believe that every educator understands intellectually what I am saying about effective instruction, but in reality, providing effective instruction to every child is about educators engaging in a process of inquiry individually and collectively that allows them to expand their own tool kit to maximize student learning.
Student voice is at the heart of this transformation and is the fifth important insight I learned as Director of Education. We speak often about the importance of student voice, and yet if we look at our experiences in schools, how often do we give our students authentic choices in terms of how they learn, when and where they learn and even what they learn? I do believe in the importance of standards and expectations, and I agree that students may not know what they need to learn which is why the role of educators is so important in this process. Having said this, we need to provide opportunities for our students to create significant questions that they wish to answer and identify important problems they wish to solve, and in this context teachers “deliver” the curriculum. We know how important engagement is to achievement, and when students have voice and ownership in the learning process, engagement improves leading to more successful outcomes for students.
My sixth insight is that school districts possess an important responsibility to provide equitable opportunities for all students that contribute to their achievement. Further, the system needs to be sure students have access to these opportunities. In many ways, equity of opportunity, access and outcome might be one of the most difficult goals to achieve. As I reflect on why this may be the case, a few thoughts come to mind. As a society, I am not sure we believe that all students can learn. This commitment to equity necessitates that everyone believes that all students will achieve given the proper conditions. I also believe we, as a society, are used to creating separate spaces for those who have unique needs, and we are influenced by the reputation that develops around various schools which could potentially exacerbate exclusion. Specifically, some schools become known as the school for university bound students, or students with special needs or students who are new Canadians. A system is moving toward being more equitable when it listens to the voices of all, not just those who are the loudest. Another example of an equitable system is that all students may find their place in all of our schools as opposed to having to go to a special school that offers what they need in a separate way. When we start with each individual student, understand who he/she is and what he/she needs, and do our best to provide this programming in their community school, we have created an environment where each student may achieve. I am not suggesting we have realized this goal entirely, but an equitable system continues to strive for this.
My seventh and final insight is the importance of leadership. I have always defined leadership as creating conditions for wonderful, effective, brilliant and powerful things to happen for our students, our staff, and our communities. I also believe leadership is about influence as opposed to being about authority. In terms of creating conditions, effective leaders know that expertise exists at every level of the organization. In order for this expertise to influence system direction, those in formal leadership positions coordinate this expertise and provide opportunities for the insights, experience, and contributions of many to have impact. Another important contribution of those in formal leadership positions is to assist with the creation of a common language and to work towards common understanding so that there is a coherence and a cohesion in the system leading to improved outcomes for students. Many systems have wonderful experts working to improve things, but unless there is a coherent, cohesive and aligned framework, these experts may only have the ability to influence in very small ways, not systemic ways. Effective leaders influence others to work strategically and effectively. Their leadership offers clear direction and still supports innovation, creativity and the expertise of many to flourish.
As I reflect on my tenure as Director of Education in the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, I have realized the key insights I have described above. In order for student achievement and well-being to improve, I have learned the following insights:
Focus and precision are necessary.
Innovation and creativity need to be exercised in strategic environments.
Effective instruction is at the core of our achievements.
Student voice needs to be a powerful influence in our work.
Equity of opportunity, access and outcome is at the heart of our mission.
I have learned so much as Director of Education and much of this learning comes from our strategic trustees, our amazing staff, dedicated parents and community and of course our talented students. My closing message to HWDSB may be found here
The insights I have shared here highlight what I believe are the important considerations when providing effective learning environments for our students.