Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Value of Leadership, Part I

It is not possible to underestimate the value of leadership. Real, actual leadership. This is as true in school districts and buildings as it is anywhere. "In fact, research has established that leadership is second only to teaching among school-related factors as an influence on learning" (Educational Leadership, Apr 2013, p. 23). Forests have been decimated in the pursuit of the secret to leadership success.

A blurb on leadership at Psychology Today reads
Peter Drucker famously stated that "management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." Great leaders possess dazzling social intelligence, a zest for change, and above all, vision that allows them to set their sights on the "things" that truly merit attention. Not a bad skill set for the rest of us, either.
I've been thinking a lot about leadership in education, especially in K-12 education. I think it's true in any organization and in any business area that the higher one goes up the ladder, the easier it is for other people to think they can do a better job. Potshots from the ranks are not that unusual unless, I suppose, the person at the top really is a good leader.

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books and articles on the specific number of steps to be successful as a leader. When I have a whole bunch of time I don't know how else to use, I'm going to do a literature review of those resources and all the other literature reviews that have tried to narrow the field of success formulas. But first I want to share a bit of perspective based on this recent article titled "7 Things Successful Leaders Do Differently."

Thing 1: Relationships first. I remember being profoundly affected by a pastor who managed to focus on the one person to whom he was speaking and be genuinely engaged in that conversation. People loved him for that and it was one of his best strengths.

Thing 2: Meaning matters. People talk about giving back in meaningful ways. The cover article in the recent issue of Time magazine was about service, a concept applicable to everyone. Schools scrambled onto the service learning bandwagon for a while. The Peace Corps struck a powerful chord in people in the 60s as have organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, Big Brothers & Sisters, and hundreds of other local, national, and international organizations. Not only do leaders understand how their work fits into a broader context, but there are mechanisms in the work place to enable their employees to discover the same.

Thing 3: Humor. This is a balance thing. I can choose to be angry, depressed, and anxious or I can choose to see the brighter side. That's not be delusional or in denial, but it's choosing to use humor to smooth the edges and gain some perspective.

Thing 4: Strengths. This is another balance thing. I have certain strengths that I should maximize to do my job well. When I'm fortunate, I have colleagues whose strengths support mine and whom I can support with my own strengths. We need to be honest and self-aware of our strengths, skills, and talents, which means we also need to be honest and self-aware of our limitations.

Thing 5: Pessimism. The upshot is focus, "embrace the suck," and compartmentalize. I focus on that which is mine to manage and control; I acknowledge that things are going to go sideways sometimes and that's just reality; and I don't let bother in one area impede another.

Thing 6: Be grittier. Proceed with passion. Don't back down from challenges. Don't allow failure to define who one is. Don't quit.

Thing 7: Manage energy. This doesn't mean starting the day with some energy drink or taking a bump or two in the afternoon. It means knowing the ebb and flow of my body to know when to take a break and when to take advantage of that natural high performance state.

What's interesting to me about these 7 things is that none focus on the actions of the leader in leadership. All of them focus on the leader and the sorts of qualities and actions of the leader to be a leader. Which suggests that being a leader is, in fact, being a leader.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Work place readiness skills

You have to love Yahoo! for its insightful and incisive news. Okay, maybe not, but I do commend them as an aggregator of some interesting, even useful, news.

The story that caught my eye is "4 workplace skills you need right now." From a writing perspective, that's a deliciously provocative headline designed to do what it did: get my attention. As for the skills, well, they're kind of interesting.

The first skill listed is coding. Because it's first, one might assume it's the most important and/or valuable. As a former computer programmer and systems analyst, I had to raise my eyebrows at that one. But I read further and thought more reflectively and critically as I read, good Common Core skills, by the way. Because of our increasingly digital dependence, I suppose knowing how to code in HTML makes sense or at least being familiar with HTML, what it does, what it can do, where and how it's used now. I suppose I'd go a bit further to make sure individuals had a passing knowledge and understanding of XML as well as Java because of their ubiquitousness in our digital world.

The second skill listed is data literacy. We've talked about data in education for a very long time. For several years one of our prime directives seemed to be data-driven decision-making. Every PD company worth its salt made sure to offer something related to data-driven decision-making. Educators at all levels learned to aggregate and disaggregate data and oh how we gathered data! But part of data literacy is knowing what data you need. Figuring out how to gather it, report it, and analyze it--to find the signal in the noise--are completely different components of data literacy.

The third skill is social media savvy, which should come as no surprise to anyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the past several years. That savvy means being aware of the trendy new social media outlets that are more than fads--those channels that seem to have some reach and staying power: Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Learnist, and dozens if not hundred of others make social media savviness a challenge.

The last skill is empathy, and this one is not to be underrated. I can offer the best possible service and skills, I may know more than anyone else about a particular thing, but if I don't have any empathy for the people with whom I'm working, I'm not going to be effective. No way, no how. Personally, I think this is a shadow side of social media savvy because there are plenty of folks who are personable and affable on social media but have too few or no personal relationship skills.

I completed a survey the other day and a lot of the questions were related to how well I connected to others, what I think is important in a leader, if I believe myself to be a good listener, if I think it is more important to be respectful or collegial or some other things with colleagues, etc. So many of those skills are related to empathy and yes, there's a lot to be said about the value of empathy in the work place.

For those of us in the business of thinking about what it means to be college and career ready, these skills are something to consider. Perhaps not in a direct sense--I don't recommend we all go out to learn how to code. But I do recommend that we consider being mindful of some of these possible technological and collegial shifts and expectations.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A little more MOOC madness

For now, MOOCs are mostly in higher education. But virtual schools are eyeing the concept for growth possibilities, especially in elective courses. And I’m detecting a ripple of conversation about MOOCs as a means of offering professional development.

Right now the majority of MOOCs are offered for free; I just signed up to take a course through MIT or Georgetown, maybe it was Harvard. I’ll complete the assignments, take the tests, and, if I pass, I’ll get a certificate with my name on it and the name of the sponsoring university. That has some cache. If universities figure out to monetize a MOOC, there could be some interesting movement. And what if those Stanford humanities graduates who become high school teachers are able to do so through a MOOC or through a model like the $7K computer science degree through Georgia Tech? Yes, Georgia Tech. Some of the “what if” scenarios are a little dizzying if we take a few minutes to contemplate the impact of that route of alternative certification.

edSurge published some opinion pieces recently about MOOCs. I was at an event at University of Illinois at Chicago recently and the topic of MOOCs came up at lunch. Some professors were skeptical; a couple were intrigued, even enthusiastic to try.

In his piece "How a MOOC could be a faculty's best friend," Dr. Joshua Kim states "The best thing about a MOOC is not what it does for the learners engaged in the course, or the faculty member teaching the class, but what the MOOC does (or should do) for every course on campus." Dr. Kim believes that MOOCs focus on teaching.

Another opinion piece wonders if MOOCs are truly the future of higher education and if they might end up collapsing the professorate. The author of this piece is Cathy N. Davidson, author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Davidson writes,
In the present mood of high polemic, hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort out the questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a national or international level: Is now the time to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and open access to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yet another cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from tax payers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be the public good of higher education? 
Because Dr. Davidson is a researcher and an educator, she's offering a course in January 2014. As she continues to examine MOOCs and understand them better, she is blogging about her experience and what she is learning. The MOOC experience itself will be, for her, a means of examining that much more closely the pros and cons, the affects and effects of a MOOC. To that end, she'll be teaching an on-site, face-to-face version of the same course. A truly mixed method research approach.

I think there is much ado about MOOCs, and considerably more to learn and know about MOOCs before we start declaring the sky is falling, before we determine if there is or isn't value, before we pass judgment.

I'm going to be one of the thousands who sign up for Dr. Davidson's course in addition to my other MOOC. I want to be part of this grand experiment, be part of the conversation these students and educators have about the MOOC experience and its value.

Educators have been debunking online education since the mid-90s, declaring that its model is spurious and proclaiming the imminent demise. Given the rise of social media and all things digital, I don't think online learning is going anywhere. The longer we do it, the better we get at it. The more we learn about learning and what we need to be teaching and ways that students CAN learn, not just how student do and should learn, the more likely we are to create models and environments of teaching and learning that are, in fact, relevant, meaningful, purposeful. Provided, of course, we are willing to embrace those changes.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lexiles & Reading Levels: Nothing New

Hand-wringing over Common Core has nearly reached a tipping point. Or so we can hope.

Recently I read a post about how Common Core dumbed down public curriculum, and then I saw a post about how Common Core is raising expectations for student capabilities.

Just for a moment, let's set aside the absurd notion that we should be using standardized tests to determine if a teacher is good at her job. Let's also set aside the ridiculous idea that teacher evaluation can be modeled after the way businesses execute performance and merit reviews. Never mind that such reviews might be done on a quarterly basis rather than an annual basis and that the reviews are based on the employee's performance based on specific goals and tasks associated with the employee's job and job description. Just for a moment, let's think about school reform.

If you will, please, travel with me to MetaMetrics, an educational research and measurement organization founded in 1984. They've been doing studies and research on Lexiles and text complexity for over thirty years. Well before Common Core was even the germ of an idea. Major publishing and educational companies have been using Metametrics' work for reading assessments for decades. And they do work in mathematics, too.

So what's the big deal about Lexiles and text complexity? I'm so glad you asked, but I'm going to focus first on Lexiles, which is only one component of text complexity. It is, however, one that's easily misunderstood. And please, PLEASE, keep in mind that Lexiles and the related research pre-date Common Core by a generation or so.

The Lexile Framework for Reading was designed to help educators match students with texts. I know, this is horrible, but stay with me. The idea, as many reading teachers and reading specialists can attest, is to figure out a student's reading level and match the reading level with the reading level of the books the student is reading. If the teacher knows a textbook, for example, is above a student's reading level, he can figure out ways to provide supports for that student to be successful, perhaps even working with a reading coach or specialist. You know, like we've been doing for a decade or so.

Please keep in mind, too, that MetaMetrics is not a Common Core stooge, though anti-Common Core conspiracy theorists will scoff at that. Keep in mind that reading levels and figuring out factors that can help kids read with better comprehension and fluency has been the stuff of education before educators even had words like "comprehension" and "fluency" to apply to reading instruction.

What MetaMetrics helps teachers (and could help parents and politicians) understand is that there are many factors that influence a student's interaction with a text. That speaks to text complexity and more on that in a different post.

When Harry Potter was all the rage, many of us knew kids who were reading the books who would not normally have lugged around a 700-page novel. The first Harry Potter book measures 880L, so it's an 880 Lexile book. Word frequency and sentence length are two factors that influence that level, but also the content, the age and interest of the reader, and more. Again, those also speak to text complexity.

So what does that mean? As you look at the 2nd column of the chart, you'll see that 880 falls in the 6th grade but is also the leading anchor score for the 7th grade. An overlap makes sense for a lot of reasons. If you look at the 3rd column of the chart, you'll see the target reading levels based on Common Core and you'll note that 880 is in both 4th grade and 5th grade.

Now think about the kids you saw lugging around that first Harry Potter novel. All those 4th and 5th graders. And that was 10 years ago! So those 4th and 5th graders were reading above their grade levels. They were reading at today's Common Core levels! Did they understand every word? Nope. Did they get the general idea of the story? Of course they did. And that is much of what comprehension is all about.

"A high Lexile measure for a student in one grade indicates that the student can read grade-level-appropriate materials at a very high comprehension rate. The student may not have the background knowledge or maturity to understand material written for an older audience. It is always necessary to preview materials prior to selecting them for a student" (MetaMetrics).

Now one more thing from a paper MetaMetrics published for Scholastic, yes, a purveyor of reading materials and reading assessments. The paper was published in 2008, alas, before Common Core was on the scene and making all of those silly references to being ready for college and the work place.

In 2006, the National Association of State Boards of Education had published Reading at Risk: The State Response to the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy. What they learned is that there was a gap between students' reading abilities and the requirements of college or the work place. That meant that students would be unprepared to be successful after they graduated from high school. The study went so far as to measure that gap and, as shown in the chart from the MetraMetrics Scholastic study, identified the Lexile ranges of reading materials at certain levels. Even in 2008, the Lexile range for reading materials at the university level was about 1150 to 1600 with the majority of university-level materials between 1300 and 1500. Go back up to that Lexile chart and see the target reading level for 12th graders in the 3rd column: 1185 to 1385. Just about enough to be successful in college.

From a paper published in 1999, when a construction worker needed to read at a Lexile level of about 1080 and a teacher needed to read at about a 1400, the average high school student read at an 1150. Based on a study conducted of students during the 2010-2011 school year, most high school students were reading at a 5th grade level.

Maybe Common Core isn't the perfect solution to the problem, but if it helps teachers and parents focus on this problem of reading capabilities, then more power to it.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Analytical & critical thinking: Yin & yang of thinking?

Analytical thinking. Critical thinking. When I talk with educators about "critical thinking," I often ask them to explain what they mean by that term. It's funny how many can't really explain it. This seems to be the premise of Ben Johnson in his article "Teaching Students to Dig Deeper." (And thanks to my colleague and friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach for sharing this article, one of the movers and shakers behind Powerful Learning Practice.)

Johnson notes that critical thinking is different from analytical thinking. He even does the etymology thing! Callooh callay!, she chortled in her joy. He suggests that one cannot analyze something unless one understands. Well, we can hope so.

But I think we get a bit circular in our thinking about thinking. I'm not really sure that we can think critically about something--critiquing it--without doing some analysis.

In 1987, the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (I kid you not) defined critical thinking thusly:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness (emphasis mine).
In the original and revised versions of Bloom's taxonomy, there is no category for critical thinking. There is, in the revised version, levels for analyzing, evaluating, and creating. As educators have gone through iterations of identifying specific verbs that correlate to each of those levels, it is clear there are overlaps. And that makes sense as we think about the learning process.

If you want learning to be tidy, well, methinks you'll be disappointed. With learning--and I don't pretend to have any neuroscience to back this--it seems that we do many processing tasks, often without realizing it. I read something and as I read my brain is busily making connections. There are times I must stop and exert cognitive effort to reason through things and as I am doing that I am applying other learning, testing theories, bringing together various bits and pieces of knowledge and information I have and in often non-linear and chaotic ways analyzing and synthesizing.

It's like mental puzzle pieces hurtling through my synapses: "Does that fit there? No? Maybe? Oh, what if? Yes, put that there and then that fits. But oh, there's this piece, so take out that first one. . ." and so on and so on.

This is, I think, why we struggle to explain "critical thinking." It's not just one thing, but many things that can occur nearly simultaneously. That's why I think analytical thinking and critical thinking are a kind of yin and yang of thinking. Though I don't think they're contradictory forces, I do think analytical thinking and critical thinking are interconnected and interdependent and very much complementary to each other.