Observation to transformation: The power of classroom data for teacher growth

What we see depends mainly on what we look for. ~ John Lubbock

In my posts about my school’s teacher growth model, a growth-focused coaching initiative which sits alongside other professional development and evaluation work at the school, I have tended to focus of our use of Cognitive Coaching and the Danielson Framework for Teaching. As our model is being implemented this year, however, another aspect of the process is emerging as transformative in its own right: classroom data.

To explain how we use data in our collaborative coaching cycle, a one-year cycle looks like this:

a visual look at our coaching-observation cycle

a visual look at our coaching-observation cycle

  1. Self-reflect: Complete self-reflection against Danielson Framework for Teaching.
  2. Touch base: Pre conference with Teacher-Coach, identifying possible foci, deciding on type of lesson data to be collected.
  3. Collect data: 2 x 20 minute observations.
  4. Reflect & Plan: Post conference with Teacher-Coach following the Cognitive Coaching reflecting-into-planning conversation map and using Danielson Framework for Teaching.
  5. Repeat 2, 3 and 4.
  6. Self-reflect: Complete self-reflection against Danielson Framework for Teaching.

In this post, I would like to focus on Step 3, data generation.

You’ll notice that we use multiple short observations and the Danielson Framework for Teaching, as supported by the findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching study. A number of short observations mean that teachers build up a series of snapshots of the kinds of lessons in their classrooms, liberating them from feeling like ‘this 20 minutes is representative of all of my teaching all of the time.’ It is a moment in time on which to reflect.

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What classroom data is generated?

Generating lesson data is a crucial part of our coaching teacher growth model. While all teachers are expected to have classroom data collected for the purposes of their reflection on practice, this is differentiated in the sense that the teacher decides what sort of data will be collected, depending on what they would like to know about their lessons. Below are the main types of lesson data we have been using.

Non-inferential observation notes

These notes usually look like verbatim scripting. That is, the observer takes down what they see and hear in a lesson. No judgements. No praise. No criticism. Just observed sights and described sounds. They include times and may also include mapping of students or classroom movement. Our coaches are trained in this kind of observation note taking. It can be challenging to take self and own biases out of lesson data, leaving just what happened for the teacher to do their own reflections and evaluations.

Observation notes are useful for looking at instructional clarity, questioning, student discussion and student group or individual work. In the case of the latter, the observer may go to students or groups and observe them or interact with them, recording interaction and responses. This means that observers can record those parts of the classroom where teachers are not. It also means that an in-class observer can glean details of student work and conversation which a video would not pick up.

A caution about this kind of note taking is that the observer bias does appear in what the observer chooses to take down. For instance, in a fast paced classroom discussion, often an observer needs to make a choice between capturing the teacher’s or the students’ responses.

The benefit of notes is that the run of the lesson is written down in black and white, without the distractions of watching multiple elements in a video.

Video

We have a few video options available to teachers for the purposes of lesson data collection. Still video. 360 degree video. SWIVL video. These each have their pros and cons, and require choices to be made, such as whose audio is picked up, or whose movement is tracked.

The 360 degree video is a more obvious piece of equipment in the classroom, but it simultaneously shows teacher and students. The SWIVL makes it easy for teachers to collect data on their iPhone or iPad, but as the camera follows the audio lanyard it privileges the person wearing it, usually the teacher.

Video is great for teachers wanting to see their own teaching, including movement and wait times. Our Physical Education, Music and Languages teachers love it, but so do those in other learning areas and various year levels.

Audio

Some teachers want laser like focus on what is said in their classrooms. They are keen to listen closely to their questioning or instructional clarity, and to their students’ responses, for instance. Like verbatim scripting, by isolating audio, teachers can pick up on very specific aspects of their teaching, although others will be missed.

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Supplementary data include planning documents, goals and reflections, student work samples, student feedback and student achievement data. All data have their inherent biases, benefits and disadvantages. We are finding that mixing up the data so that teachers experience their classrooms in a variety of ways may be more effective than continually repeating the same data collection strategy for the same teacher.

Importantly, all data are owned exclusively by the teacher for their reflection and use. They are not for coaches or managers to use or publicise outside of the coach-coachee relationship. Focus groups with coached teachers at the school have revealed that teachers appreciate the choice and ownership over their classroom data. The trust in the coach-coachee relationship is paramount.by @debsnet

So while I have been focusing my own practice on refining my coaching skills, something else has been happening alongside. The data has been a tool for teacher learning and development, both in its own right and as part of the coaching cycle.

I’ve noticed that when, as coach, I get the data right, the conversation seems to almost take care of itself. The data, in these cases, has set off the teacher’s thinking, reflection, planning and action, before I turn up for the post conference.

In other conversations, looking at the data in detail, with well-crafted questions, can bring teachers to the point of an ‘a-ha’ moment or a change in practice. At times it is looking closely at the Danielson Framework for Teaching rubrics which allows teachers to see alternative teaching and learning possibilities, and refines their precision of language around practice. Other conversations require deeper coaching questions which drill into why lessons went the way they did, how teachers made decisions in their classrooms, what criteria they used to make those decisions, or what might have be going on for particular students in the lesson.

The data also provide an important ‘third party’ in the coaching conversation, allowing the conversation to be depersonalised and focused on the data, not the person.

Data is powerful stuff. And lesson data ‘done right’ – owned by the teacher, objective and giving the teacher a new perspective on their classroom, themselves and their students – can be transformative.

Good One, by @debsnet

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Developing reflective practitioners: a conversation with Charlotte Danielson & Cindy Tocci

As our understanding of teaching expands and deepens, we need a vocabulary that is correspondingly rich, one that reflects the realities of a classroom where students are engaged in learning important content. Such a framework is valuable for veterans as well as novices as they all strive to enhance their skills in this complex work. ~ Charlotte Danielson, 2007

fall colours

fall colours

Brilliant fire-coloured fall foliage frames Princeton’s historic Nassau Inn, where I sat in a booth with Charlotte Danielson, creator of the Framework for Teaching, and Cindy Tocci, executive director of the research arm of Educational Testing Service. Somewhere in the wooden table is Albert Einstein’s name, where he carved it when he was a visiting professor at Princeton. After explaining my school’s journey with our teacher growth model, we talked about coaching, the Framework for Teaching and the challenges of maintaining a reflective transformative professional culture.

What is a coach?

One question raised was about the level of expertise of the coach: was conversation expertise enough, or was it more useful to also have content expertise? Our team of teacher coaches will often work with those outside their own area of expertise; this builds connections across school boundaries and allows the focus to be on pedagogy and the teacher’s own reflection, rather than on content. Another related question was raised about the potential space between a feedback-based (judgement given) approach to coaching and a reflection-cognition-based approach (no judgement given).

Charlotte challenged that “the opposite of judgement is not ‘do nothing’.” A collaborative approach was suggested as an alternative, in which teachers work together in a conversation to solve problems of practice or generate ideas for improvement, in which both teacher and coach are participating in the conversation as reflective educators. This speaks to some feedback we have had from teachers about their coaches not being ‘in’ the conversation and feeling that being Cognitively Coached was a one-sided unbalanced experience. In a coach-as-collaborator conversation there would need to be clarity around how much of the coach’s self it is appropriate to insert into the conversation, and how much content expertise the coach would need to meaningfully contribute to the discussion. There would still need to be restraint in resisting the urge to solve another’s problem for them and in the tendency to advise someone to teach using your own teaching preferences.

For us, I think the default position for the coach still needs to be the facilitator-of-another’s-thinking role, but there may be room for collaborative approaches to the parts of the conversation. Is collaboration appropriate for us in this context? Or perhaps peer collaboration in which teachers really work together in this way is an appropriate strategy for our teachers to pursue for their growth outside the official coaching conversations?

Princeton leaves

Princeton leaves

How to apply the Framework for Teaching?

Charlotte and Cindy both noted that, while it is important to strive for accuracy when using the FFT, it is important that teachers, coaches and managers not get too caught up in the micro-analysis of detail, or looking for all the dot points. In fact, Charlotte has been developing a more holistic, less broken-down ‘clusters’ model which encourages teachers to look at the big ideas of the Framework, as an alternative to the original document. This alternative might be a way for our teachers to focus on the big things happening in their classrooms, rather than minute details of lessons.

How to develop understanding of the Framework for Teaching?

Master Coding of teaching videos was explained as a difficult but powerful exercise in developing an attuned, precise understanding of the Framework for Teaching and forging shared understandings of its language. Videos of classroom practice are useful for teachers in showing how the Framework components translate into practice, and for coaches in developing a common understanding of the Framework and what particular levels of performance look like in practice. Collecting video footage of lessons involves:

  • Choosing a range of short lesson snippets (e.g. 10 mins) which relate to particular Framework components;
  • Ensuring audio, as well as visual, quality is good, especially if students are doing group work (how do you capture what students are saying? How do you decide which groups to listen to?)

Videos should be watched and independently scored, followed by conversations around the reasons for those individual scores, in order to reconcile individual perspectives into a group agreement.

Videos of coaching conversations also have a place in helping coaches to deepen and develop their coaching practice.

These kinds of rigorous processes take time. Charlotte and Cindy both highlighted the importance of a slow implementation process in which groups develop their understandings together.

We also talked about using the Framework for Teaching for teacher self-reflection purposes and also for student reflection on the sorts of learning and environment of their classroom. My school has been experimenting with different teacher self-evaluation tool possibilities, as well as perception surveys, but hasn’t developed a concrete approach to asking students how their classrooms rate against the Framework for Teaching.

How to encourage regular reflection between formalised processes?

Another challenge raised was that of developing the learned skill of reflection in teachers in between these formalised reflective processes. How do we know teachers are reflecting regularly on their practice in order to grow their practice? How can we make sure teachers are asking themselves:

  • What did my students learn today?
  • What did I learn about my students today?

Any model of teacher growth has this challenge: outside of the formalised process, how do we encourage and ensure meaningful reflection and growth on an ongoing basis?

IMAGINE

IMAGINE

Transformational adult learning and growth: a conversation with Ellie Drago-Severson

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware. ~ Martin Buber

Columbia University

Columbia University

It was my privilege to meet in New York with someone whose writing has shaped my PhD research and my school-based work in building a teacher growth model: Ellie Drago-Severson.

Ellie is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education Leadership and Adult Learning & Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her ‘four pillars’ of professional learning are: teaming or partnering with colleagues within and outside the school; providing teachers with leadership roles; engaging in collegial enquiry; and mentoring (or coaching).

While I have read her work (including Helping teachers learn: Principal leadership for adult growth and development, 2004; Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development, 2004; and Learning for leadership: Developmental strategies  for building capacity in our schools, with Blum-DeStefano & Ashgar, 2013) it was most interesting to hear her stories of working with teachers, school leaders, schools and districts to help them apply learning theory to practice. One example was of a school which, after working over time on the learning of its teachers, now consistently achieves the highest student achievement scores in its district.

Teachers College

Teachers College

Ellie’s examples of working with educators were based in some fundamental principles:

  • Teachers are adult learners who own their own learning and should be provided with choices. They should be able to choose if they are ready for growth. Even in mandated programs they should be able to choose their own paths.
  • Developmentally, learners may initially want ‘the answers’ or to be told how to improve, but the aim of adult learning should be to develop self-authoring individuals. Coaching should aim to grow individual capacity (e.g. Developmental Coaching, Cognitive Coaching).
  • Talk defines and drives behaviour (similarly to the beliefs of Adaptive Schools I explored here). Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (2002) looks at how language determines feelings, governs action and impacts learning. As well as talk, the quality of listening has been confirmed by research to be a developmental support for learning.
  • Change should start at a slow pace, with volunteers, building momentum and reach over time.
  • ‘Push back’ (resistance or questioning) should be welcomed and explored.
  • The key to learning is a trusting nurturing environment in which people feel ‘held’; they need to be simultaneously supported and challenged. It is vital to spend the time building culture and developing group norms and ground rules for confidentiality.

Strategies that Ellie uses when working with educators include:

  • Exercises from Developmental Coaching, such as those which help individuals to identify the underlying beliefs driving their behaviour and build a plan to address those beliefs;
  • Informal ‘drop in / drop out’ lunches to which staff are invited but not required. Lunch time conversations based on professional readings and the question ‘What might this look like in your practice?’
  • Journals for teachers / coaches / leaders as a sacred technology-free space for thinking.

There are many affirming ideas here for my school’s work in designing and implementing a teacher growth model, including the importance of a trusting environment, the role of talk and language, deliberately going slow, and providing scaffolds for ownership and differentiation of learning.

Some questions that arise are:

  • To what extent are we differentiating our teacher growth process for teachers? Is it enough for their experience to be one of meaningful, self-driven ownership?
  • What further strategies might we employ to build the cognition and engagement of teachers in their own learning (such as optional journals and online portfolios, or informal lunches to talk about teaching)?
  • How might we support those staff who are not yet self-authoring learners to develop their capacity for self-directed learning?
trust & rapport from the High Line: Eduardo Kobra's mural

trust & rapport from the High Line