What Are Your Staff Beliefs About Student Learning?
If we believe that reading is fundamental to school success, how do we get students to read more during the school day? This is a challenging question. Many school leaders are posing questions like this to their learning communities to determine what they believe about learning and how this influences practice.
Andy Greene is a middle school principal in Half Hollow Hills Central School District in Long Island, N.Y. Greene challenges his staff to examine core beliefs about student learning. Like all great leaders, he asks fundamental questions about the mission, vision and values of his learning community. For example, he began one of the first conversations he had with staff when he arrived at Candlewood, a middle school of 1,100 students in Dix Hills, N.Y., with "How do you think students learn?" Greene provided background reading about learning principles to guide the discussion and build consensus. This background knowledge was essential in order to guide the learning community in the right direction.
Greene presented his staff with articles by Ron Brandt that describe the conditions for powerful learning, and others by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, writers who outline a set of learning principles as part of the Understanding by Design protocols. The goal was to establish some touchstone values that a united and focused staff could use to form an action plan for improving learning and applying best instructional practices. During this process, staff mulled over basic ideas about learning, such as "Students need user-friendly and timely feedback to evaluate their progress on important and meaningful learning tasks."
Greene challenged his staff with follow-up questions: "If we believe that timely feedback is key to learning, what would this look like in your classroom? What would students be doing? What would teachers be doing?" Subsequent questions prompted staff to identify gaps between key values and current reality. Action plans to plug gaps were put in place. A truly collaborative, goal-oriented culture was established, based on standards for instruction against which practices are evaluated.
Of course, teachers don't always move in the desired direction at the same time. Every school has its skeptics, fence-sitters, and other teachers who hunker down to resist change. Greene knows that the power of a simple statement can help to move these teachers along. After the faculty had agreed on the key mission and vision statements, he borrowed a term from Wiggins and McTighe to diffuse the natural defensive posture that teachers adopt when they are questioned about favorite lesson plans that nevertheless should be shelved: "It's nothing personal, but ..." He reminds teachers of the key beliefs about learning and teaching that they developed with their colleagues, and challenges them to evaluate their questionable practices in light of these values. In this way, he can coach, prompt, or push teachers to abandon ineffective approaches in favor of those that are acceptable to the learning community.
In "Examining the Teaching Life," published in Educational Leadership in March 2006, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe describe a Learning Bill of Rights. This examination of core beliefs can help teachers and administrators to evaluate instruction in light of what they know about professional best practices. As a leader, you can present staff with such a list to move the group forward. The key is for the learning community to pick principles that all can agree upon-and then to hold teachers and administrators accountable to these beliefs. Learning principles may include concepts such as these: Skills and knowledge must be applied or transferred in meaningful learning experiences. All students must actively engage in these experiences. Successful transfer of knowledge and/or skills depends upon the identification of big ideas or essential learning that connect disparate concepts. Learners need timely and quality