Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What's Your PLC Adversity Plan for 2015-2016?

The annual Solution Tree PLC Summit in late February was beyond awesome! If you were one of the 2100 school educators in attendance, there was a palpable energy and hopefulness in the conference over the three days. It was an honor to be a part of such a high-energy positive event with great colleagues and presenters.

And then I failed. Like anyone who takes a stage and teaches students and adults, from time to time we may not be at our very best in responding to a question, or presenting our thoughts in a helpful and hopeful way.

For me, it occurred during my response to a question during the day-2 panel session.

How do we respond to a colleague who just refuses to collaborate? Refuses to participate in the teams’ activities? Resists the use of high quality common assessments, the review of data from those assessments, reflect together on how to score assessments, and in general, does not want to discuss instruction elements with the team and at times is confrontational when attending the team?

That was the question.

And my response was pretty weak, and a bit short with the audience. This is atypical for me, so I was trying to figure out how I could have responded in a more helpful way, and of course it came to me, about 35 minutes later, and by then I was the only person left in the ballroom! 

So, as part of a mea culpa, here is my improved response!

First, look at your teams’ conversations:

Confronting shortcomings and conflicts within the team requires a willingness to have tough conversations with certain people on the team. Tony Schwartz (2010) provides insight into the relational aspect of conflict:

Teachers and leaders who avoid conflict often cause more harm than those who are more direct. The key is to balance honesty with appreciation, always keeping in mind the value of the other person, even when being critical of a particular behavior. (p. 289)

JohnKotter and Lorne Whitehead (2010) describe a framework for identifying three primary forms of verbal attacks often used by team members that can undermine the distribution and discussion of good ideas:

1.     We don’t need your idea, because the “problem” it solves doesn’t exist.
2.     Okay, the problem exists, but your solution isn’t a good one.
3.     Okay, a problem exists, and your solution is a good one, but it will never work here!

These “implicit attitudes of the attacker” (Kotter & Whitehead, 2010, p. 106) highlight typical communication attacks team members may unwittingly use. These responses assume that each idea is in competition with another, but in fact competing ideas can all be very good ideas. 

The question for the team to focus on isn’t why any of the ideas won’t work. The question to answer is which of these ideas can serve the greater good—or is there a way to combine our ideas to better serve the greater good?

Notice how two of Kotter and Whitehead’s categories use the word but. This is one of the reasons we outlawed that word as part of our verbal conversations and replaced it with the word and. We wanted our PLC conversations to sound more like this: “Okay, that problem does exist, and how can we use your solution to also address the concern of [fill in the blank]?”

In a PLC culture, collaborative teams will work hard to take divergent thoughts from each member of the team, and combine them to make new and more meaningful ideas.

Second, embrace resistors to the vital PLC culture collaborative team behaviors

Identify the Skeptics, Cynics and Opposers to the full implementation of the teams’ efforts! And then respond to them, based on why they are resisting.


1. The Skeptic: Skeptics fear disappointing someone else or themselves. So they choose not to try. These are mostly the adults working from a fixed mindset for their abilities. The best remedy is to help them gain the confidence during the team time they need, to shift toward the vital behavior. How can you best help and support the current skeptics on your team?

2. The Cynic: Cynics fear accepting responsibility and facing accountability to the vital behavior. There will be no one else to blame. The best remedy for the cynic is to have a strong PLC team. The social motivation of the team is the best way to influence the cynic. How can you best help and support the current cynics on your team, to diminish their fear?

3. The Opposer: Opposers fear a changed power structure and removal of the status quo. They fear change itself and anything that disrupts the way they see the world. The best remedy for the opposer is to make the PLC culture become the status quo. How can you best “lean into” and support current opposers?
One way to help opposers is to have a clear and established Conflict Resolution plan as outlined next.
Third, care enough to confront

Every year there will be team conflict at some level. So, why not have a team adversity plan that kicks into action once conflict arose? We call this our “Care Enough to Confront” plan.

The plan consists of seven guidelines team members could follow because they cared enough to confront those not supporting the work of the team. We practice using the plan as an effective way to deal with the team adversity that is most assuredly going to occur every year!

1.     Confront ASAP. When a relational breakdown occurs between two people on the team, address the issues immediately. Further delay and unresolved issues only complicate the team dynamics.

2.     Separate the team member from the wrong action. Most team conflict issues are about a team member’s action that undermines the work of the team: for example, failure to be on time, failure to complete an assigned portion of the work project on time, failure to contribute in a positive manner, failure to act on an agreed-upon project or lesson assessment. It is the team member’s actions that need to be addressed, not the quality of the person.

3.     Give the team member the benefit of the doubt. It is important not to assume you know why the person was late, failed to deliver the project, or didn’t meet the deadline. Allow the person an opportunity to explain his or her actions.

4.     Avoid absolute words. Avoid using such words as always and never (“You always let the team down,” “You never show up on time,” “You never contribute to our team”). These types of statements are rarely true and diminish the speaker’s credibility.

5.     Avoid sarcasm. Do not use phrases such as “I know you just think you are too good for us” or “Maybe if you would try just a bit harder you could get it right next time” or “Well, our team knows what you’ll be doing while we work on this—nothing!”

6.     Tell the team member how you feel about what was done wrong. It is very important to let the team member know how his or her actions made you and/or the team feel. How does the action impact others? Often, offenders to the team norms and values do not fully realize the emotional wake they leave behind because of their actions or inactions in relation to team values and commitments.

7.     Keep a short account. Every team encounters some adversity as members debate and argue about important practices and methods for the teaching and learning. Once the care enough to confront discussion is completed, everyone on the team must let it go, move on, and keep a short mental account of the issue. Team members who harbor long-term resentments will be toxic to the team’s growth.

As the 2014-2015 season enters April, and this school year winds down, you can use some of these reflection tools to focus how your team might better embrace adversity in 2015-2016, answer the call of improving student learning, and solving the real and every day problems you face – together.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Great Adventure!

25 years ago this month, I was preparing for the April, 1990 NCTM Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the ripe old age of 38, I was in the process of a yearly tradition that would become a critical part of my professional life - The NCSM/NCTM Annual Meeting week. This would become the place where my friends and colleagues would gather every year as we learned from one another, and shared our knowledge and resources.

Back then, we did not yet have internet, twitter, facebook, texting or cell phones, so this opportunity to annually communicate and "Be" with other colleagues from across the nation was an imperative.

It was an incredibly exciting time too, as just the year before NCTM had launched The Curriculum and Evaluation Standards (1989) document, and the country was buzzing about the increased expectations and pressure on math teachers and students. How could we set such high standards for all math students? Various stakeholders went round and round on the debate for these new national standards. The Common Core debates today, pale in comparison to some of the rhetoric tossed out during the early part of the 1990's. Standards were not yet an actual movement as they are today.

And yet, here we are 25 years later, and so many of the arguments about how to best teach children mathematics are still relevant and often repeated once again. Other than the advent of the intense use of social media, not much has really changed in terms of the mission and vision of what we should pursue.

The message I prepared for the 1990 NCTM Convention and Annual meeting was called The Great Adventure! I was into catchy titles like that because I was hoping it would draw a crowd to my room! It did not always work out that way, but I digress...

I began with a brief history on Mathematics in the USA. Here it is:

1960's - The Age of Rebellion and New Math - Theme song of the decade "Born to Be Wild"
1970's - The Age of Disillusionment and Back to Basics - Theme song "Born to Run"
1980's - The Age of Information and A Vision of New Basics - Theme song "Born in the USA"

I then predicted that the 1990's would become the decade known as the Age of Authentic Reform. Based on the new standards from NCTM, based on the extreme equity case mounted by the MSEB in their 1989 booklet Everybody Counts and based on the NCTM Teaching Permanence Standards about to be released in 1991 (As part of the writing team in 1990, I had some inside scoop on the new teaching standards), I declared in my message that in the year 2000, there will be a radically different reality of mathematics teaching and learning:

An Age of Authentic Reform. We really mean it this time!

The rest of my message that day (encapsulated to save you some time)

1. The Great Adventure Mission: All students successfully doing mathematics using appropriate materials

2. Strategies to Achieve the Great Adventure Mission:

* An authentic and salient curriculum
* A vision of teaching that actively engages all learners
*A vision of student assessment that refuses to accept a "Selecting and sorting" mentality
* A vision of teacher leadership that fosters reflection, collaboration and self-efficacy

3. Student actions necessary to achieve the Great Adventure Vision:

Reason and communicate with each other
Work in teams with each other
Actively engage in the content with peers
Make connections and model with the mathematics lesson
Write about their thinking
Use technology

And students must do these things both during class and during their assessments. All of this was on my handout for this session on that April day in 1990.

I am pretty sure with some adjustment for 2015 language this exact same message would be of equal impact today. The Common Core standards, and the Mathematical Practices read and sound a lot like the messages from 25 years ago. It seems, we are all still on this Great Adventure of teaching and learning K-12 mathematics in ways that embrace and understand procedural fluency to be about problem-solving as much as it is about calculation (That age of "new basics" I mentioned almost 25 years ago).

Don't give up on the Great Adventure of Teaching Math! It is not too late to start! Our mission for 2020 really is no different than it was in 1990. Which is as it should be.

How you move along the great adventure road can be wide and varied - but the mission down at the end of the road - actively engaged children learning college preparatory k-12 mathematics in a meaningful and engaged way - may that mission never change.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Crossing The Teaching/Learning Divide Together!

Those that read this blog know that I have dedicated most of my professional life to the improvement of school leadership in general, school cultures, and most importantly my content discipline – mathematics. 

As a Chicago kid, I began my first teaching job out of college in 1973 in a very rural place called Stillman Valley, Illinois. I was the math teacher for grades 7-12. Yes, THE math teacher. For those readers from more rural areas you know what I mean! I initially took the job in the northern middle part of the state because I was also offered the boy’s freshman basketball and head boy’s baseball coaching positions. And I loved to use chalk! 

But soon enough I knew why I was really there. I had known since I was 17 years old and declared that I was going to be a math teacher – right there in our high school newspaper! Teaching was my passion. Math was my best subject and only later in life did the leadership stuff follow.

However, I also realized I did not really know enough mathematics to teach middle and high school math very well, at least not to all of my students. I was too raw to understand my teaching role in crossing the teaching/learning divide with students. During the 70’s there not only had been a “Back to Basics” mathematics movement, math wasn’t yet considered as necessary for everyone. You might find it hard to believe, but back then less than 50% of students were allowed to take Algebra 1 before high school graduation. And even of those 50%, far fewer actually passed the course. And to be completely revealing, algebra was a pretty boring course for most students.

I found this cultural mindset very disturbing personally – even then while in my twenties. I wanted my students to love math and find it exciting just the same as me. And, more importantly I assumed they all wanted to have a chance to go to college – at the very least Rock Valley College, our local community college just a few miles away. And in my world, mathematics (especially algebra) was a vital key to getting there.

So, I had a dual dilemma: How could I open the doors for more students to learn the mathematics needed for a chance to go to college (especially students who did not like math very much), and how could I convince my Principal and my community this was an important issue? High School mathematics (at least algebra and geometry) wasn’t for everyone they kept assuring me. From my perspective the lack of access to a college preparatory curriculum seemed like such a social injustice. This dilemma such a long time ago, is not so far fetched today is it? 

I lost on both counts during my six years at Stillman Valley. First I did not know how to teach differently than the straight lecture approach I had learned in undergraduate school. In general I only knew enough to study what was in my textbooks. I had to let the textbook do my thinking for me. And as the only teacher in the school, there wasn’t a lot of collaboration going on. Thankfully I had a mentor – Al Foster, willing to talk with me – a long distance call back then on a 4 party line! Second, I did not have the political skill or savvy to convince the community that college was not a threat to their sons and daughters. 

No doubt, there were a few victories along the way. More kids started taking math classes and the school district added a math teacher! We started a math club and a math team that rocked out! I met with many parents in their homes to change their mind about college – I was my own little crusader for a while. And I gained a lot of respect for  my elementary school colleagues and how hard it was to teach mathematics in elementary school as well.

Several themes emerged for me in those early years:

1. As teachers we never have enough wisdom – Of course back then we did not have the Carol Dweck Mindset research that supported the need for every teacher to embrace a growth mindset. And that there should be a deeply held belief that we can and should work to improve our own knowledge base every day as we seek out ways to cross the teaching/learning divide. 

2. Math class must be fun and engaging – I always thought that math teachers should think like an elective class teacher. You know, imagine students (K-12) didn't have to take math! What if it was optional? How could we make them want to be in math class?  How could we engage them in learning mathematics? Back then I remember being so inspired by Zal Usiskin’s (of the University of Chicago) teaching that mathematics needs to be applied and have relevance for students.

3. The textbook cannot be the sole authority – Many of our professional colleagues on the Mathematics At Work™ team are textbook authors, including myself. And I believe in what we write. And yet, this summer, a great friend and colleague - Rick DuFour - during one of our panel discussions at a PLC At Work Institute explained to the audience “If you take away the work, you take away the learning” for the teacher and the team. In my early years, I had become so book dependent, that my own learning became stunted a bit. The textbook is and should be a great resource, but just that – one of many resources used as your own knowledge and understanding of how to present the mathematics content develops and matures.

4. As teachers we need to collaborate and work together – Although I had no understanding of what this meant back in the 70’s eventually by the mid 90’s we knew beyond the shadow of any doubt, that the best strategy to achieve the expectations of mathematics standards was to create schools and districts that operate as professional learning communities. I just knew that I missed the opportunity in those early years to grow my own skill due to the lack of relating to and learning from the knowledge and skills of others – on a daily basis.

5. Every child has the right to be prepared for college – This social justice issue was ingrained in me. I am not sure why. Only that I observed a K-12 system that essentially sorted students out as early as 6th grade and that it was my beloved discipline – mathematics - that was often the root source of that injustice – especially among minority groups of children. I was too young at the time to understand it really. But I knew it wasn’t right. And, as a math teacher how much power did I have to change it? Was math really only for the selected and talented few? Was algebra for all just a catchy phrase?

By 1980 NCTM released a 29-page pamphlet titled an Agenda for Action. Click here  and go to the link provided. You will see that the 8 recommendations from 35 years ago still stand on solid ground today. And they are embedded in the writing, beliefs and the deep teaching of our Mathematics at Work™ team. Somewhere during this time, I decided to dedicate my career to those tenets – and to the hope they provided for all children.  

Almost a decade later in 1989 The Mathematical Sciences Education Board, and the National Research Council under the leadership of Lyn Arthur Steen released Everybody Counts: A Report to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics Education. You can read and review the report at this link 

This report, along with NCTM’s Curriculum and Evaluation Standards in the same year, has shaped our Mathematics At Work™ thinking and belief structures over the past 25 years. And represents the fundamental foundation of our thought leadership as expressed in our professional development series, Beyond the Common Core: Mathematics in a PLC At Work™ being released now.

Last week we launched our Mathematics at Work™landing page with Solution Tree, our work being released certainly stands on the shoulders of the giants and the thinkers in front of and all around us (a paraphrase borrowed from Newton), allowing us to stand taller and see further because of that thought leadership.  It is our hope that somehow, we provide a shoulder for you to stand taller and see further as well. As you pull children across the teaching/learning divide – one by one.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Growing Your Fixed Mindsets Mid-Year!

Happy New Year Everyone!  

As we reach mid-January though, it really isn't our new year in education is it? For us, it is Happy Mid-Year! And our main task as we transition from one Semester (or term) to the next, is to ask, how are we doing, and what mid-course direction do we need to take to best improve and impact student learning?

I have often referenced Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s application of Fixed and Growth “Mindsets” of students in the classroom (2007), but now Dweck applies her mindset theory to us as teachers.  The critical question, it seems to me is this: If I have a fixed mindset about my ability as a teacher, is it possible for me to make mid-course directions and grow in my ability to teach over the rest of this 2014-2015 school year and beyond? Can I really have a “New” year?

The answer is good news: A Resounding YES!

The following excerpt (boxed in) is taken from the Marshall Memo – a weekly K-12 educational research brief I would encourage readers to check it out. The author – Kim Marshall – does a terrific job addressing a variety of educational research summaries each week.

Here is what he had to say about Dwecks’ recent article, Teachers’ Mindsets: Every Student Has Something to Teach Me in Educational Horizons, December 2014/January 2015 (Vol. 93, p. 10-14),

By the way, at the end of this blog, is a link to a mindset "test". Sixteen questions. See how you do!

In this article in Educational Horizons, Stanford professor Carol Dweck applies her “mindset” theory to the problem of teacher attrition – almost half of new teachers leave the classroom within five years. All too many teachers, she says, have a “fixed” mindset about the profession – either you’re born to be a great teacher or you’re not. Here are some of the agree/disagree statements Greg Gero of Claremont Graduate University used with teachers to ascertain their mindset:

The kind of teacher someone is, is something very basic about them and can’t be changed very much.

Teachers can change the way they teach in the classroom, but they can’t really change their true teaching ability.

Some teachers will be ineffective no matter how hard they try to improve.

No matter how much natural ability you may have, you can always find important ways to improve.

Every teacher, no matter who they are, can significantly improve their teaching ability.

The value of trying new teaching methods outweighs the risk of making a mistake.

I discuss problems in my classroom teaching with others in order to learn from them.

Teachers who agreed with the first three statements had a “fixed” mindset and often got discouraged when they encountered difficult students and learning problems in their early weeks in the classroom. “So,” says Dweck, “instead of rolling up their sleeves, using every resource at their disposal, and assuring themselves that they could only get better, they probably concluded that they didn’t really have the talent in the first place or that the kids were intractable – and fled.

Teachers who agreed with the last four statements had a “growth” mindset. They cared more about learning than about having a good reputation as a teacher. They didn’t believe that a perfect, error-free lesson defined them as a good teacher. These teachers behaved in strikingly different ways than those with a fixed mindset:

They engaged in more professional development, read more professional literature, and constantly picked up ideas and teaching techniques.

They observed other teachers and volunteered to have well-regarded teachers teach demonstration lessons with their students.

They confronted their teaching problems head-on and asked for feedback from supervisors and colleagues.

Teachers with a fixed mindset feared being judged negatively and were reluctant to be observed by others or collaborate with colleagues. They assumed it was their job to go it alone and that innate talent was the most important factor in success.

Dweck says that teachers stuck in the fixed mindset see underachieving, unmotivated, disruptive students as threats to their self-concept as good teachers. “But in a growth mindset, those students are challenges,” she says; “they’re opportunities to hone your skills, increase your understanding, and become a better teacher.” Growth mindset teachers believe, “Every student has something to teach me” and some even tell their students, “Every time you make a mistake, become confused, or struggle, you make me a better teacher.”

Is the fixed mindset fixed? No! says Dweck: “Research has shown that it’s never too late to develop a growth mindset about your abilities. The first step is to get in touch with your fixed mindset. We all have some of it tucked away somewhere, and it’s important to acknowledge that.” It says things like:

You’d be able to do this easily if you were a good teacher
You’ll never be as good as that teacher.
You’ll never be able to get these students to learn this.
If you take that risk and it doesn’t work out, you’ll lose your status/control/respect.
You see, you took a risk and failed; don’t try that again. Stick to what you know.
Why not face the facts; you’re just not cut out for this.

Start talking back with growth-mindset thinking:

Nobody is good at this right away. It takes experience
I really admire that teacher. Maybe I can ask her to observe my class and give me feedback.
Maybe other teachers have some good ideas about how to teach this material more effectively.
Maybe I need to find some new strategies or set different goals.

Marshall then states: “Dweck suggests taking the mindset test to get a handle on the specific areas where you can change your thinking about growth and achievement.”

I would concur. It seems to me, that in a profession and a professional learning community culture, that asks your team to pursue ways to improve our work, the hope rests in the possibility we can all become Growth Mindset teachers and leaders.