Instilling the skill, will, and thrill of learning in students

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We all learn differently. Okay, so you already knew that.

Some of us are visual learners. Others learn better by reading or listening.

Over the past several years, educators have sought to identify their students’ singular learning styles, and then train them how to use their specific styles to their advantage.

While this approach is well intentioned, it’s also a mistake, says education expert, speaker, and author Peter DeWitt.

In a recent post on his Education Week blog “Finding Common Ground,” DeWitt argues that labelling students with one particular learning style unnecessarily discourages them from pursuing others, which in turn boxes them into one particular way of learning.

Instead, DeWitt posits, educators should focus on teaching students different learning strategies to make them more adaptable, and encourage them to grow in how they learn.

That, of course, will require teachers who understand effective learning strategies and a support system that encourages students to take a chance on new approaches.

Style vs. strategy

Labelling a student based on a learning style automatically places them in a box, says DeWitt.

As he writes in his post:

It’s not that we don’t have preferred methods of learning, but too often our students are boxed in by their learning styles as if they didn’t have more than one. … It became a big issue because students, and their parents and teachers, began to believe that students only had one way of preferred learning which prevented them from strengthening other styles of learning.

Instead of focusing solely on how a student learns and working from there, DeWitt says we should provide students with tools that encourage them to learn in different ways.

He identifies four types of strategies, based on the work of education experts John Hattie and Gregory Donoghue:

  • Cognitive: Strategies to deepen understanding of a subject. Think: Making students elaborate on what they’ve learned.
  • Metacognitive: Strategies to help students understand how they learn and what they need to do to be effective. Think: Helping students plan ahead.
  • Motivational: Strategies that motivate students to learn. Think: Instilling in students the confidence that they can accomplish a task.
  • Management: Strategies to make sure students work efficiently. Think: Finding the right resources for learning.

Of course, within each category, there are hundreds of ways to help students learn — and, students will have varying success using each one.

At their core, learning strategies instill in students what Hattie and Donoghue label the “skill, will, and thrill” of learning. That means that, before a new lesson, students have the skills they need, the proper mindset to make sure learning happens, and the motivation to deepen their understanding.

A community effort

New learning strategies don’t get adopted overnight.

But, if you do want to make a meaningful change in your students’ learning, consider focusing on strategies rather than style.

What does that mean for your district?

First, it means making sure your teachers are well-versed in the learning strategies that will help their students succeed. Do you cover the newest learning strategies in your professional development sessions?

Next, it means equipping parents to support the learning strategies at home. That means you need to better engage with parents about your new approach.

Most importantly, students need to understand that implementing new strategies will take time, and they might get frustrated.

Before you introduce anything new, make sure parents and students know why the changes are being made—and that they see the potential benefits.

Have you recently implemented new learning strategies in your classroom? How’d it go? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to introduce new learning approaches in your school? Make sure your teachers have the support they need.

Room for improvement: High-performing schools can do better

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“Nobody’s perfect.” Cliché? Yes. True? Also, yes.

 Need proof? Look no farther than America’s public schools.

New analytics and specialized data enable educators to more easily track where our school districts are excelling—and where they still need work.

Even the best-performing schools have their share of poor-performing students.

Enter the turnaround schools model, a progressive approach to resource allocation and education funding that focuses education investment on targeted areas of weakness, as opposed to across-the-board spending.

Every school, no matter its graduation rate or average test score, has groups of students who require special attention. In high-performing schools, it’s often easy for these students to get overlooked. The challenge is to identify those students and develop strategies for pulling them up, as this article in Education Week explains.

While no one strategy will work for every district, the article outlines some areas where high-performing school districts should consider focusing their attention. Here are three that stand out:

School leadership
New learning strategies only work provided you first identify the problem.

This can prove difficult, especially when a school performs well on holistic indicators, such as graduation or class attendance.

The federal Every Student Achieves Act (ESSA) focuses heavily on using aggregated data to recognize subgroups of students who are underperforming, as Education Week points out.

The idea: to close achievement gaps along socio-economic lines in all schools, rather than focus solely on under-performing schools.

With new definitions of school and student success and better access to data, it’s up to school and district leaders to identify those students who need help and provide solutions to effectively level the academic playing field.

Instructional transformation
Schools that are most successful at closing achievement gaps customize teaching approaches for struggling students.

Case in point: When Brimhall Elementary School outside Minneapolis set out to tackle its widening achievement gap, principal Penny Bidne and her staff knew they had to rethink their instructional approach.

“We put our heads together,” Bidne told Education Week, “and we really work hard at figuring things out and what we need to have in place for all of our students to be achievers.”

That included the development of grade-level staff teams who discuss specific student performance and new ways to engage struggling students. The school also instituted small-group instruction to give struggling students more focused attention. And it implemented a 1-to-1 instructional program for students falling behind in reading.

So far, those efforts are paying off. In four short years, the school has been designated a “reward school” for the progress it has made to close the achievement gap in Minnesota.

Culture shift
Closing student achievement gaps requires more than new program and initiatives. In many high-performing schools, it requires a culture shift.

High-performing schools get used to trumpeting success. That’s good. But it doesn’t preclude them from also admitting weaknesses.

The worst mistake a strong school can make is to overlook or undervalue vital support and resources that lagging students need to succeed.

Peers and parents can play a vital role in this change.

For example, as Education Week reports, Brimhall Elementary implemented a buddy system that empowers successful students to help their struggling peers.

School leadership also held fairs that encouraged student achievement as well as parent nights to make sure parents were equipped to aid their children at home.

Note: Parent and student engagement is vital to the type of student turnarounds we’re talking about here.

Does your school or district provide different ways for struggling students and their families to reach out in search of help when and where they need it? Giving students and parents a voice will help you identify weak spots early and prescribe interventions before students fall off the pace.

Do you work in a high-performing school or district? What approaches do you take to encourage student improvement? Tell us in the comments. Want to give students and parents a way to help you identify and close weak spots in your schools? Start by asking for their feedback.

5 steps to achieve stronger school climate

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By now, you understand how vital a positive school climate is to school success.

Throughout this week’s special series on climate, we’ve discussed the role that school climate plays in encouraging student achievement and we’ve offered up some suggestions for how to effectively assess perceptions in your school community.

But how do we take what we know about school climate and use it to affect concrete, long-lasting change in schools?

It’s important to understand that improvements in school climate or public perception don’t happen overnight.

Effective change requires a change in attitude, a commitment to community engagement, and careful strategic planning and execution.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of new policies and initiatives, especially as new rules and regulations from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act begin to take shape in your schools, you’re not alone.

School climate has become such an important issue in schools that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released a guide to help.

“Research shows that when schools and districts effectively focus on improving school climate, students are more likely to engage in the curriculum, achieve academically, and develop positive relationships,” the authors write.

ED’s Quick Guide on Making School Climate Improvements outlines 5 steps school districts can take to improve the climate in their schools:

1. Create a comprehensive plan of action
Before jumping into anything, create a timeline and strategy for tackling your school climate issues. This includes forming a dedicated team to lead those efforts. It also means thinking through what resources are required to effectively gather data and engage and inform your school community.

Speaking of engagement—it’s important to draft a comprehensive communications plan to ensure your community understands your goals and how their participation can help.

Whenever possible, make sure to align any new school climate initiatives with ongoing strategic school improvement planning measures.

2. Engage stakeholders
No school improvements stick without buy-in from the community.

Invite students, parents, and staff to weigh in on your strategy ahead of time. Kick off a running dialogue between your community and your school district. Do this both in person and online.

Help your community understand your information-gathering process and provide training, so that school leaders can use the data and information collected during school climate surveys to make meaningful change.

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to partner with community members and outside organizations to help power your reform efforts.

3. Effectively collect data
How you choose to collect data is as important as the data you collect.

Will you use a survey or focus groups to understand community concerns about school climate? Or, do you have other means of collecting candid feedback from your school community? Maybe a combination of all of the above?

Whatever your approach, make sure you’ve thought through the data-collection process to ensure you’re asking the right questions—and getting reliable answers.

Analyze that data and use it to create a clear plan of action, or to otherwise inform ongoing strategic initiatives. Let your community see and comment on the findings

4. Set your strategy
You have data and input from your school community. Now, it’s time to develop interventions that lead to lasting change.

Review all current and past reform efforts. For example, did your last teacher training program improve student attitudes? Was that the goal? If so, you might choose to continue that work. If not, the data might be telling you to try something new.

Decide what’s possible. Then, with input from your school community, develop next steps to turn your plans into a reality.

5. Evaluate your progress
Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s important to understand that not every action you take will lead to a stronger school climate—not right away.

That’s why you need to constantly assess your progress.

This means having a community-wide dialogue about school climate and constantly gathering new data.

Have you implemented strategies for achieving stronger school climate in your schools? How’s it going so far?  Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas for how to assess school climate in your district? Join us for our upcoming webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality, Oct. 12. Space is limited, so sign up now!

You can’t buy good school climate

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“She’s a smart kid, if only she’d apply herself more…” Sound familiar?

You’ve no doubt uttered this well-worn phrase at some point in your career. Few things are more frustrating than wasted student potential.

But students aren’t the only known squanderers of opportunity; schools have this problem too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that quality environments (aka schools) are as integral to student success as the desire to learn.

Unfortunately, as educator Jim Bellanca posits for the Solution Tree blog, many schools don’t fully understand the role of climate, particularly the importance of trust and familiarity, in the success paradigm.

Making climate matter
Turns out, the term climate is an apt way of describing the culture and environment of a school.

When students feel unsafe or disconnected from their teachers and other students, their school environment becomes “toxic,” writes Bellanca. Neuroscientists have done some digging into this, he says. What they found was essentially this: Toxicity pollutes students’ learning and negatively affects their success.

On the other hand, schools that promote a positive climate, often through better parent, student, and teacher engagement, display such qualities as creativity, innovative learning, and increased academic success and happiness.

Translation: How students perceive their schools goes a long way toward how they perceive themselves—and, by extension, their potential.

Time for an attitude check?
It might be tempting to think: “I don’t have to worry about school climate. We have new facilities, the latest security technology, and a healthy budget to spend.”

But money can’t buy everything, writes Bellanca.

Facility safety and strategic learning design can contribute to a positive school environment. But no amount of money can counteract negative staff attitudes or limiting teaching strategies or methods.

To prove this point, Bellanca and a team of researchers recently analyzed the results of student surveys from two schools, both of which enroll students of similar economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.

One school was deemed to have a toxic climate via student feedback; the other was deemed to have a positive, healthy one.

“With all other things equal, the positive, healthy climate allowed teachers and students to wade into the deepest learning waters and enjoy the fruits of instructional practices, which evidence tells us get the most powerful results,” Bellanca says.

The biggest difference between these schools? Simple, says Bellanca: attitude.

After analyzing the curricula and lesson plans of school districts with both negative and positive school climates, several patterns emerged.

For example, schools with negative climates over-emphasized memorization and test-taking. Schools with healthy climates emphasized problem-solving and investigation. Schools with negative climates relied primarily on traditional teaching methods, such as lectures. Schools with positive climates tended to promote collaboration and choice.

Make no mistake: Modern learning facilities and new technology can contribute to a positive school climate, assuming those resources are used the right way and with the right intentions. But the attitudes and perceptions of teachers and parents and students matter just as much, if not more.

That’s why it’s so important to ask your community what it thinks about your schools before you start writing checks. Here’s one way to start that conversation.

For more on the link between school climate and student success, don’t miss our webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality , Oct. 12. Space is limited, so sign up now!

States keep their eyes on school climate

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It’s hard to believe, but 2017 is fast approaching.

In the waning months of 2016, states and districts are working hard to develop plans for evaluating school performance under the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA rethinks how schools are assessed. While the law’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), depended almost solely on standardized tests to measure school success, ESSA seeks a broader, more flexible system.

Schools will now be held responsible not only for how well their students do on tests, but also for the learning environments they offer.

As states and schools decide what non-academic factors they’ll use in their school accountability plans—school climate is just one option—they’ll also have to decide how to measure them.

Several states are experimenting with good, old-fashioned observation—what they call school inspections—to evaluate school climate and environment, as a recent article in Ed Week outlined.

Observation and feedback
Modeled after school assessment in England and other countries, the school inspection approach invites a group of educators or education experts to observe a school’s climate, culture, and engagement, and provide feedback to teachers and leadership.

The goal is to go beyond blind data—and get a real sense of how a school functions.

“It felt very personalized,” Emilie Knisley, superintendent of Blue Mountain School District in Vermont told Ed Week. “It felt like you could take the recommendations and take action on them in a way that you can’t when you’re just getting a set of test scores.”

As Ed Week points out, Knisley not only received feedback, but also observed another Vermont school district as part of the state’s pilot program.

While on the surface it may seem invasive, Knisley and other school leaders said allowing outside observers to take an unbiased look at their schools helped them see opportunities for improvement that they had overlooked. And the observations have encouraged leaders from different districts to share their successful approaches to common problems.

Measuring school climate
School inspections are not designed specifically to measure school climate, but they may prove to be a great way to assess an area of school performance that is not easily measured.

While the National School Climate Center acknowledges there is no consensus on how to measure school climate, it breaks down what the assessment should measure into four broad categories:

  • Safety
  • Relationships
  • Teaching and learning
  • External environment

It’s impossible to identify a single set of data that will accurately measure a school’s climate. That’s why states and schools that want to use school climate as a non-academic accountability measure under ESSA need to develop a comprehensive strategy.

School inspections are one approach.

But school climate shouldn’t be assessed without input from staff members, parents, and students.

Engaging your community through school surveys, focus groups, and other methods will help ensure your community’s voice is included in whatever assessment you do.

Make sure to check back tomorrow as we continue to explore school climate issues and ways districts can evaluate their school environments.

And don’t miss our webinar “Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality” on October 12.  We’ll explore the link between school climate and student success, and the best ways to measure them. Space is limited, so sign up now!

Turning protests into teachable moments

Whether you follow football or not, you’ve no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding certain NFL players kneeling to protest police brutality during pre-game National Anthem ceremonies.

If you’re as rabid a fan as I am, you saw more than one player take a knee during the Star-Bangled Banner ahead of yesterday’s games.

As the debate over these protests continues on social media and in front of water coolers (Read: heroic activism vs. affront to military and service heroes), institutions and organizations across the country, including schools, are forced to consider what happens when the controversy reaches their doors.

The NBA and the NBA players’ associations, for instance, recently sponsored talks about how to deal with protests during the upcoming basketball season, according to recent reports.

Recent police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa will likely stoke the fires of protests even higher.

As educators think about how to address the issues in schools, the focus will be on how to balance teachable moments with respect for teachers’ and students’ personal beliefs and opinions, writes Education Week’s Evie Blad in her Rules for Engagement blog.

Whatever choices you make, giving students a way to vent and express themselves is vital, she says. Here’s a few of her suggestions for how to do that.

Taking advantage of a teachable moment
If you do encounter protests in your classrooms or at school sporting events, discipline might be the knee-jerk reaction. But think before you act.

In Naples, Fla., recently, a high school principal threatened to kick students out of football games if they refused to stand and be quiet during the National Anthem. A video he created about the policy ignited a firestorm in the local community, per the Miami Herald.

Hard-line policies seem like an easy solution for a lot of schools. But they aren’t always the smartest approach, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, tells Blad.

“Schools talk such a great game about wanting to produce civically engaged students,” he explains “This is something schools should be embracing as a teaching opportunity.”

Discussions about race, patriotism, and crime prevention are never easy. Each of these topics is sensitive, and requires a certain tact. But what better place than schools to start a conversation about acceptance and understanding?

“At a time when schools are increasingly advocating for student voice and calling on students to think critically about current events,” writes Blad, “educators could use these conversations as a chance to help students grow and learn.”

Starting the conversation
Whether your school district has faced protests around these or other issues or not, there’s no rule that says you have to wait for a headline to have a teachable moment.

Blad suggests confronting the issue head-on in the classroom, and in the broader school community.

She offers these suggestions for how to kick-off a dialogue in your schools:

  • Assign essays for students to express whether they agree or disagree with athletes’ protests.
  • Stage student debates over the issues surrounding the protests.
  • Conduct community-wide discussions on race and justice in America. This can include both students and community members.

Also, give students a safe place to privately express their thoughts and opinions. Online forums and inboxes work well. So, too, do one-on-one meetings.

Don’t wait for controversy or protest to erupt in your district. Take the opportunity to lead the conversation about these and other critical issues.

What steps do you take to manage and teach around student protests in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want to start a meaningful dialogue with students? Here’s one way to encourage thoughtful and productive conversations around sensitive issues.