a ‘think aloud’ for instructional leaders

It was nice to see my blog post / reflection on staff development garner a few comments.  The conversation is what it is all about for me.  I decided to post my reflections for my PQP2 course on my blog in order to make my learning more open, as I mentioned in a previous post.  Earlier today, Will Richardson posted about the importance of leaders making their learning transparent:

So here is the money question: What two things (and only two) would you tell educational leaders are the most important steps they can take to lead change today? I got that one from a professor at Oakland University last week, and after pausing for what seemed like an excruciatingly long time, I answered “build a learning network online, and make your learning as transparent as possible for those around you.” And while I really think the first part of that answer would make sense to most leaders out there, I think the second would have them running for the hills.

A timely coincidence!  I agree whole-heartedly with Will’s response.  This is one of my goals as I move into a leadership role within my own district.  I don’t want to adopt a preachy stance on it, but I will choose to model transparency in my own learning, partially through this blog.  

be the change

I know that everytime I model, there will likely be at least one early adaptor in the group who will ask questions and, possibly, join in the conversation and begin to think about and try out some open learning.  There are already at least 4 Principals and Vice-Principals within my district using Twitter.  My aim is to ‘be the change’ that I would like to see happen around me.  

I recently found this video on YouTube and, without commenting on the product being advertised, found that it really resonated with my thoughts on leading learning and changing to a higher degree of transparency within my learning.  I would never expect anything to change without jumping in and making the change within myself and my own instructional and learning practices first.

not a big shift

Something else that Will mentioned in his discussion on the value of transparent learning struck a chord with one of the strategies that we use every day with our students:

Transparency can support all of the ways in which my kids must be able to acquire expertise, act ethically, display creativity, respect diversity, and synthesize and make sense of information.

Reading this I was reminded of an instructional strategy that we use every day to help students acquire solid high-order thinking skills: the think aloud.  When teachers use the think aloud strategy, they model their own thinking and questioning of a text.  In other words, they make explicit – transparent – the cognitive processes that go into making sense of the text by inferring meaning, asking questions, finding important details, etc….  Teachers and students use the think aloud to talk through the text.  Learning becomes more conversational and more social.  

Asking instructional leaders to do the same is, in that sense, not a big shift at all –  What it asks us to do is to replicate that which we want to see in our classrooms across the curriculum.  Using a PLN to extend professional learning through online tools such as Twitter and blogging is, really, not that different from thinking aloud.  Be the change.

staff development

This week we were to reflect on the staff development standards issued by the National Staff Development Council (NSCD) in terms of what staff development would look like in our own school when we assume the role of Principal or Vice-Principal.  After reading through the 12 standards, I decided to narrow my reflection to three:  Design, Equity and Learning.


Staff development that improves the learning of all students uses learning strategies appropriate to the intended goal.

Far too often, teachers find themselves sitting through lengthy (and well-intentioned) workshops where the design and delivery of content reflects the ‘sage on the stage’ model of teaching.  It is not learner-centred, multi-modal, interactive or engaging.  Although teachers are intended to provide instruction for students that is personalized to their learning needs and styles, the staff development designed for them is typically neither.  As an instructional leader, my goal would be to model throughout staff development opportunities the type of learning environment that I would hope to see throughout the building.  Here are some thoughts:

  • Student work would always be at the centre of staff development (teacher moderation & planning).
  • Staff would be encouraged to develop a Personal Learning Network using social networking tools such as Twitter (see Twitter for Teachers) to personalize their learning.  See the National College for School Leadership paper on networked learning.
  • There would be opportunities for job-embedded learning built into the day so that teachers could work together to support each other in their learning.
  • TEams would be encouraged and given the opportunity to lead staff development and to model effective instructional practices.


Staff development that improves the learning of all students prepares educators to understand and appreciate all students, create safe, orderly, and supportive learning environments, and hold high expectations for their academic achievement.

Until I know that every staff member truly believes that all learners can achieve success, a learning environment cannot be said to be equitable.  I am thrilled that the Ministry of Education will be releasing a new version of the Education for All document in the near future.  As instructional leader, I would ask each of my colleagues to join me in honestly and critically examining the biases, assumptions and beliefs that underpin our teaching.  I would model this by assuming a position of vulnerability by demonstrating my own self-reflection.  I would ask questions such as:

  • How does my teaching and learning embrace diversity (gender, race, socio-economic, religious)?
  • How do my daily interactions with staff and students demonstrate my commitment to equity?
  • How do my hiring practices model my belief in creating a safe and supportive learning environment for all members of the community?


Staff development that improves the learning of all students applies knowledge about human learning and change.

We need to continue to learn about the human brain and how it learns.  Knowledge about how we think and learn is an exploding field.  It is imperative that teachers have access to current information on what teaching practices will be most effective for learners with a variety of life experiences, learning styles preferences and learning needs.  We know that our students need multiple opportunities to develop and hone their higher order thinking skills.  I would want to use staff development opportunities to:

  • engage in conversations around how teachers feel that their students learn.
  • model my own professional learning about human learning and change.
  • demonstrate how my own learning has changed and continues to change.
  • participate in inquiry into how the brain works and what our students need to learn well.

toward the ideal classroom – conversations

I’m going to start here by asking my poor, neglected blog to forgive my absenteeism of late.  Clearly I need to re-commit myself to sharing my thoughts here and participating in the ongoing conversations by commenting on the blogs of those in my mostly twitter-based Learning Network.  My lack of participation lately has not been due to a lack of interest. Finishing a project that sucked hours out of me every day (and I’m still working on convincing myself that it was time well spent – creating storyboards for learning objects for the Ontario Educator’s Resource Bank) and a laid-back March Break full of nothing but family time with the kids and my hubby, I feel like I’m back in the game, so to speak.  

Although my own thoughts on the ideal classroom and the purpose of school are ‘works in progress’, I thought I would share some ideas that have really got me thinking lately.  Perhaps others will add to the conversation by taking the time to post a comment including some of their ‘ideals’.

passion-based learning community

There has been a lot of talk about the purpose of school and what needs to change.  Last month I attended Expanding Our Boundaries in Toronto and spent two days learning with Will Richardson, as well as a sizable group of Ontario educators who are interested in how technology is working within education.  There were great conversations started and/or continued there – either in the room, face to face – or via the backchannels using the #expbound hashtag on twitter or the chatzy room dedicated to the event.  Attendees and PD podcasters extraordinaire Nathan Toft and Jane Smith included a conversation with Will in their PortablePD.ca Podcast #7.  Have a listen to the podcast – it is well worth the listen and asks the question: What does the ideal classroom look like?  Richardson offers some of his thoughts on what the elementary classroom of today should look like:

“I’m looking for places where (kids) can connect to their passions, really – where the teachers in the room are willing to give them a wide variety of experiences, connect them to teachers, other kids, resources from around the world and really in the attempt to help them find what it is that they want to really learn about.  I just really believe that in the context of that passion, if they find it, that we can teach a lot of the stuff that we teach, that we need to teach kids and that they will be more enthusiastic about it, more motivated to learn instead of just, basically, doing the worksheet thing everyday”

Richardson’s thoughts resonate strongly with Ken Robinson’s ideas articulated most recently in The Element.  As I mentioned in a previous post, this book has had a profound influence on my thoughts recently.  I am so excited to be moving into a Vice Principal role next year and to be taking on a greater leadership role.  I am deeply committed to sharing my own passion for learning with staff and students on a school-wide level.  I am excited by so many of the possibilities out there!  I think that the idea of finding and encouraging The Element within every student is a tremendous and inspiring goal for any educator.

classroom as studio

In a recent post called “Recanting…& Remodelling My Ideal Classroom“, Brad Ovenell-Carter, assistant head at Island Pacific School on Bowen Island, talks about how his vision of the ideal classroom changed after listening to an EdTechLive talk by John Seely Brown.  Ovenell-Carter talks about the classroom as studio looking something like this:

“So, if I could make my ideal classroom now, it’d look like this:

  • 1 laptop per student
  • 1 very large SMART board or better yet, a touch display of some kind
  • software displaying a window mirroring each student’s work, say 15 screens on display at once, like a TV wall at an electronics store; at a touch I can zoom in any one student’s work and display it full screen

I imagine a project where the students are working individually or in groups to create a comprehensive understanding of a piece of literature, a physics problem etc. They don’t need to be working on the same format: some could be editing video, others text and so on. As I move about the class coaching and critiquing each student, the rest of the class can see the material I am reviewing on the classroom display. If the discussion becomes especially important, we can stop other work and zoom in on one example.”

I really enjoy this vision of classroom as studio.  I’m excited to see what shows up on the horizon in terms of multi-touch technology and its’ uses in education.  Also, the studio setting puts the students into the role of designers, creators, developers.  It does seem to me that the very design Ovenell-Carter articulates would not only facilitate, but perhaps even necessitate the higher-order participatory, collaborative and inquiry-driven learning that we strive for in our classrooms.  Brad, when you build it, I want to come for a visit.

I also think that learning spaces need to be flexible.  I love watching colleagues grapple with the physical layout of their classrooms.  It is always exciting to see how we think and then re-think in order to make the design work to achieve our desired environment.  At my school, we are in the process of installing two flexible-space rooms in our school – each will have an interactive white board, a bank of 10 computers and an open flexible space where groups can meet, pairs can work together or where the teacher might lead a lesson.  It will be very interesting to watch how these spaces are used once they are ready.

what else?

So, what else do we need to add to the mix?  What are the key requirements for creating the ideal classroom?  Just thought I would get back into and extend the conversation 🙂

What is the Purpose of Learning? (reframing the question)

What is the Purpose of Education?

This conversation sprang out of the Friday night panel at Educon 2.1 (no, I wasn’t there in person…) and continues to reverberate around the web.  This morning Karl Fisch blogged “What is the Purpose of School?” and included responses from both David Warlick and Seth Godin.  As Fisch points out, both responses include critiques of current education, as well as thoughts on what education might become.  The question got me thinking…

I think what we need is a move away from School as Institution or infrastructure to organize children and Education as Curriculum, to an understanding of Learning as Process or experiences through which we acquire skills and knowledge.  As I see it, School as Institution and Education as Curriculum are on the way out.  The new purpose of Learning must be the acquisition of the capacities necessary to thrive in the digital age.

21st Century Learning

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills recently released their white paper on 21st Century Learning Environments:

21st century learning environment as an aligned and synergistic system of systems that:

·  Creates learning practices, human support and physical environments that will support the teaching and learning of 21st century skill outcomes

·  Supports professional learning communities that enable educators to collaborate, share best practices, and integrate 21st century skills into classroom practice

·  Enables students to learn in relevant, real world 21st century contexts (e.g., through project-based or other applied work)

·  Allows equitable access to quality learning tools, technologies, and resources

·  Provides 21st century architectural and interior designs for group, team, and individual learning.

·  Supports expanded community and international involvement in learning, both face-to-face and online ( 2009, p.5) 

As an educator, I can use the Framework for 21st Century Learning to help me align my teaching and learning with the student outcomes necessary within the context of the accelerated and digital age.  In other words, I can reflect on my practice and strive to make change happen within my own circle of influence – my classroom, my staffroom and my PLN.

Let the process begin.