How do you know when classroom practices are changing? How do you know when the impact of leadership reaches the classroom level? These are important questions that serve as the focus for the work of secondary administrative leaders in Abbotsford this year.
Leadership behaviours influence student achievement when the leader understands and promotes practices that have leverage with student achievement. There is no ‘silver bullet’ in education that magically transforms teaching and mystically improves student achievement. Rather, the research says that when schools strategically work on research-based initiatives that do support student learning, the combined effect will lead to an improvement in student achievement across the board.
Secondary school leaders have begun conversations in their schools around six areas of inquiry over the past two years. The six areas – assessment practices, inquiry-based learning, teacher collaboration, blended learning, social/emotional learning for grade 9 and choice programs (careers and academies) are topics of conversation in all of our secondary schools. In some cases, considerable time, effort and money has been invested to expose our teachers to new practices. The return on the investment has been impressive so far as there is compelling evidence that classroom practices are changing. One conversation or one conference, however, does not a system change make! Time, persistence, patience, and drive will make the difference over time. And this will take some time.
On February 4, secondary leaders met with teachers who showcased their work in areas of teacher collaboration, assessment practices and inquiry-based learning. We heard from teachers at Abby, Bateman and ATSS about the value of collaboration time. They like the opportunity to meet and to discuss their work with students. They reported that they are learning a great deal about more effective ways to collaborate on some of the best practices they are learning. Pam Van Kleek said, ‘This is the most powerful innovation in my 30+ years of teaching.’
Jeff Ritchie (Math) and Sara Bacon (Science) modelled their approaches to assessment. Both have moved away from ‘everything counts’ to outcomes count. They have replaced completing tasks (homework, assignments) with attaining outcomes. Interestingly, in both cases, grading is replaced by evidence of learning. In Jeff’s case, the only mark he ’officially’ assigns is the final mark. Students in his class have replaced competing for a grade with attainment of the concept. As Jeff stated, ‘The mark, 85% or 90% is not as important to me as is the knowledge that the student has demonstrated learning.’ Sara has allowed herself to move away from highly structured final examinations. Increasingly, her senior science students engage in demonstrations of learning in a variety of interesting and creative ways.
Nora Apelt and Reena Dhillon showcased their inquiry approach to Socials 10 on First Nations and the federal government. Using a project-based design that they learned at the PBL Institute, these teachers engaged their classes in learning some otherwise ‘dense’ material in collaborative, research-focused, student teams that addressed the guiding questions. Both teachers reported a lot of trial and error as they ‘bumped’ along the new curriculum design. However, with support from Michelle Middleton of the Curriculum Department, they agreed that the learning was deeper and more engaging for all students. Interestingly, they noted that the most reluctant learners were most engaged!!
We came away from the showcase with a greater understanding of the importance of this work in our classrooms and for the benefits it has for our students. We also recognized that these teachers are representative of a growing group of teachers across the district who are engaged in transforming secondary classroom culture. It is our intention to have the networks of best practice grow in all of our schools, and we look forward to next year when secondary schools will engage in a common pro-d day that explores assessment and inquiry. Now, that will be fun!