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Change the practice by changing the words!

George Couros is a thought provoking educator whose blog is a daily read for me. His post of today titled, “5 Terms We Need To Rethink In Education” has inspired me to write (which is one of the main reasons I read blogs!).

In his post, George asks us to rethink the terms we use in education, to unpack the perception of their meaning and the possibility of what they SHOULD mean. I agree completely, and write to extend the thinking.

My proposition is that our educational reality is strongly shaped by the words we choose to use. Let me illustrate.

A few years ago I was tasked with leading a K-12 school, which had not previously considered itself a “K-12” school. It had always had a Kindergarten program, elementary grade levels, middle school classes and a high school. It was lead by a Director, an Elementary Principal and a Secondary Principal. But they had been “Divisional” principals. The culture had never been K-12.

So upon my arrival, with the leadership structure changing to include a K-12 Principal, I changed the words.

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We began to use the word “sub-school” instead of “division”. There was no longer an elementary division, or a middle school division or a high school division. We deliberately chose words to reinforce the thinking required to build a K-12 culture. We referred to the elementary sub-school, the middle school subschool, and the high school sub-school. A little bit wordy, but important. Now in year three of making that seemingly simple change, we are almost at the point where the word “division” is no longer used. Almost!

We also discussed the idea of banning the word “homework”! Not banning the activity of homework, but banning the word “homework” to describe the activity of doing school work at home. Instead, I was suggesting the terms “preview” and “review” be used. The ensuing discussion was one of the most animated, charged, emotional, informative, full-participation discussions I have ever experienced in a faculty meeting! Just to change a word!!!

A school-wide blanket ban of the word “homework” was a bridge too far for the present faculty, but a number of faculty members DID rename their school-work-at-home and reflected that it did result in some changes in their practice.

As George prompts us to reimagine or rethink what the words we use in education mean, I am prompting you to be very critical when choosing which ones you will use. Words are very powerful influencers of practice.

What practices in your school or classroom can you change by changing the words you use to describe them?

 

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The Principal as Co-driver

I love the use of analogy. It causes the reader/listener to think and put the two pieces together, comparing and contrasting at the same time. So, at the risk of asking you to put a couple of things together, here we go.

A good principal is like (or should be like) the co-driver in a rally car.

Rally Driving is my favourite motor sport to watch. Not that I’m a big motor sports fan at all, but if I’m flicking through the TV and land on some rally driving, I’ll stop for a bit and watch. It’s fast, its dangerous, it’s exciting and there are two people in the car. The on-board-camera is the most interesting for me. You get to see the driver and the co-driver interacting. The driver has feet and hands going everywhere – brake pedals, accelerator, hand brake, gears, clutch, steering wheel. He’s flicking that car around like a rag doll, sliding in and out or corners, taking off over crests, hitting blind corners at amazing speeds. And the co-driver? He’s reading. Out loud!

If you have never watched a rally, then at this point you might be a little intrigued. Is he sitting there reciting Dan Brown, trying to untangle the DaVinci Code? Is it a map? Is he making sure they stay on the right track? Take a few minutes to watch this video.

He is reading race-notes. Race notes that he and the driver have written themselves a couple of days earlier. These notes are extremely precise. Distances. Turns. Speeds of turns. Road conditions. Inclines. Declines. Etc. These race-notes describe to the driver exactly what he will be facing next as he races along the track. The driver’s job is to listen to the co-driver and adjust accordingly. If “100 L2” is the call, the driver has to slow down to 2nd gear for the left turn coming in 100 metres. Very precise, timely, informative information.

And now the Principal…

Schools are full of very smart people. Students, teachers, administrators. As the Principal, it is your job to presume this, to expect this, to create this. Of course there are some who are not. Presume anyway. And to this end, be precise with your race-notes.

Your race-notes are how you talk to people. Be precise with the language you use. Give your teachers, students, colleagues the information they need to be the best they can be. The precision of the language you use is extremely important, as it can influence the way things get done, now and in the future. Your choice of words can have a direct impact on how a teacher continues to grow and develop their teaching practices, and your choice of where you give those words can have just as much impact.

Consider this scenario…

The Principal is sitting in her office talking to the HS Social Studies teacher about a lesson she observed. The summative assessment was not good! She hands him an article to read saying, “Here’s some information on summative assessments I think would be helpful for you to read.” The teacher, listening, hears her say, “I think your summative assessments are poor and I need you to read this.”

Now, with a rally driving co-driver twist.

The Principal has entered the HS Social Studies teacher’s classroom and has asked where they should sit. They sit. The Principal passes over the article on summative assessment and says, “I saw the effort you had put into your summative assessment and it reminded me of one of the articles I have on summative assessment best practice. I thought you might like to add it to your assessment resources. It’s great to get new ideas to add to your own practice.” The teacher, listening, hears her say, “I saw your effort. I read a lot of articles. I presume you do to. Here’s how this one will be helpful.”

With this twist, the teacher is in the drivers seat (his classroom), the principal has shared that she does a lot of reading, the principal has shared she expects him to be building similar resources, and the principal has told the teacher how she expects him to use the information from the reading.

So, the analogy…

The principal should be the co-driver when working with teachers, just as teachers should be co-drivers when working with students. Both the principal and the teacher should be strapped in for the ride, committed to reaching the end and working together to get there. The principal should be very precise with his/her race-notes, which should give the teacher everything they need, and more, to make their own decisions about how to turn the corner. And if they crash, the co-driver should be there to help the driver get out of the car.

Perhaps, being a principal should be like being a rally co-driver.

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