Being a student of your own school. #LearningWalks #InstructionalRounds #Pedagography

We are a School of inquiry, innovation, and impact. Grounded in Christian values, we prepare all students to be college ready, globally competitive, and engaged citizen leaders.

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School Mission

How are you studying your own school? In what ways are you being a student of your own school?

Certainly you send folks to conferences like bees sent to collect pollen. It’s likely that you send faculty to other schools to learn from their practices, too. Incredible stories continue to emerge from systemic school visits (see bullets below). Of course, there are countless virtual opportunities, as well. All of these techniques are critical parts of professional learning, for sure.

But how are you ensuring you have an effective “honey production” capacity, back at school, with all of that pollen you are collecting? Are the bees only set up in their own relatively isolated honey-production facilities (“classrooms”), or are you intentional about connecting those glorious hexagons into a fully optimized honeycomb (“learning community”)? How are you tapping the wisdom and experience of your faculty as they intentionally live at the nexus of research and practice?

MVPS Norms Promote Productive Postures

At Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation, we are intentional students of our own school. As a School of inquiry, innovation, and impact, we are as purposeful about living out those qualities in ourselves as adults as we are about nurturing them in our student learners. And that makes all the difference.

Our norms empower us in numerous ways to take on this work and define the postures to help us collectively succeed:

  1. Start with Questions
  2. Fail Up
  3. Assume the Best
  4. Share the Well
  5. Have Fun

From such postures and commitments to inquiry, innovation, and impact, we study ourselves in a number of systemically connected ways. Two primary methods include learning walks and instructional rounds.

Learning Walk and Instructional Rounds

design as changing existing situations into preferred situations

– from Debbie Millman interview with Joe Marinek

Mount Vernon is a community of educational designers. Consequently, we feel emboldened to use design to intentionally and purposefully change existing situations into preferred situations. As designers and design thinkers, we create and employ various auto-ethnography tools to help us meet the actual needs of the users for whom we are designing. These tools help us in optimizing our honey production.

Learning walks provide us with broad surveys of our teaching and learning ecosystem. Instructional rounds provide us with deeper dives into our pedagogical practices. And our particular brand of learning walks and instructional rounds enable us to map our learning operations as a school.

  • Shelley Clifford, Head of Lower School, shares practice of learning walks with parents
  • The “MVPS Learning Walks and Instructional Rounds” primer document, available on Scribd and embedded below, gives an overview of these integrated practices at Mount Vernon. At the bottom right-hand corner, you will find some additional resources linked, so that you can explore things more fully. Below the embedded Scribd document, there is a link to Bo’s Diigo library list for “Instructional Rounds,” as well as a Twitter archive of a winter #ISEDchat on instructional rounds, moderated by Chip Houston.

Innovating Instructional Rounds –> Pedagography

At Mount Vernon, we are innovating the practices of learning walks and instructional rounds. Learning walks have been a part of the MVPS culture for awhile.

This year, though, we began piloting new iterations of prototypes for learning walks, and we added instructional rounds to our repertoire. Almost immediately, we started to innovate instructional rounds beyond how they exist at any other school.

In the Middle School, our Heads of Grade identified a wildly important goal for themselves, and they worked with the Head of Middle School Chip Houston, the Director of 21C Teaching and Learning Katie Jones, the Director of the Center for Design Thinking Mary Cantwell, and me (the Chief Learning and Innovation Officer) to establish a system of observing each other for intensive feedback and discussing the feedback to develop practice.

We relied heavily on the instructional rounds work of Elizabeth City and Richard Elmore, we threaded in Japanese lesson study, and we also incorporated a mapping project into our IR work. While observing, we committed to collecting data that would allow us to more accurately map our teaching and learning core, just like Lewis and Clark mapped the Louisiana Purchase with the Corp of Discovery, or just like Google is working to map the Earth. We call this learning-culture mapping “Pedagography,” which is derived from work I initiated and led at Unboundary called “Pedagogical Master Planning.”

As a team of eight, we embarked on a journey of engaging in pedagography. Chip, Katie, Mary, and I served as the first four-person observation team for the Heads of Grade – Stephanie Immel, Maggie Menkus, Amy Wilkes, and Alex Bragg. During the visits, we collected narrative notes that draw on clinical observation as a methodological basis. These notes are reviewed by the observed teachers, and the recordings serve as the lenses through which we reflect on practice and debrief as a team. These Middle School Heads of Grade pioneered this new approach to instructional rounds and pedagography, and they provided invaluable insights into the development of the practice.

To conduct a thorough pedagography, in addition to the narrative notes field, we use a number of other capture prompts that we aggregate over time to help us see more holistically our teaching and learning ecosystem. Currently, we call the entire Survey Monkey tool “Proto 3,” and we are in the process of iterating to Proto 4.

Survey Monkey Tool – Proto 3

Expanding the Instructional Rounds Practice

After tremendous first-semester work among the #MVMiddle Heads of Grade IR Pilot Team, Houston decided to expand the practice to a widened circle of educational innovators. Leveraging the experience of the pilot team, additional Middle School faculty were engaged in another start-up of the pedagography experiment.

Additionally, we decided to expand the work into another division, as well. Head of Lower School Shelley Clifford and Director of 21C Teaching and Learning Nicole Martin pulled their Think Tank and Heads of Grade into the instructional rounds + pedagography. Like ripples in a pond, more teachers were being invited into this honey-production capacity building.

Conducting the Instructional Rounds Debrief

For the initial pilot of instructional rounds in the Middle School, we made the decision to jump in and get started immediately. Whereas some schools spend months prepping and training for new initiatives, Mount Vernon thrives in a “lean start-up” and entrepreneurial energy, and we believe in shipping innovations and learning by doing and iterating.

In the fall, the debriefs of the instructional-rounds observations were relatively unstructured, and we experimented with various methods for debriefing as we evolved the experiment. We learned a great deal from those debrief sessions, in terms of our meta-cognitive approach, and we applied that learning to the Lower School expansion.

For the Lower School, we started the debriefs as we did in the Middle School – the observed teacher reviewed the field notes and began the first debrief by thinking aloud about the notes and observations. Quite rapidly, though, we’ve moved to a developing protocol that asks the observed teacher to highlight the key reflections in the narrative and prepare a problem of practice objective to dig into during the debrief. Because of the hour-long time frame of the debrief and the need to discuss multiple observations, we focus each teacher debrief at about 10-15 minutes. Most recently, we’ve added “chalk talk” to our debriefs, and we systemically review the dynamic of the curriculum, instructional methods, learning space setup, and student engagement.

The Lower School Heads of Grade – Eileen Fennelly, Sherri Kirbo, Andrea McCranie, Chris Andres, and Jenny Farnham – have been an amazing team of rounders and pedagographers, especially in the ways that they are accelerating the protocol advancement of the debriefs.

What has also been profoundly rewarding is a bit of serendipity. At the same time that the Lower School was taking on the instructional rounds piloting, they also launched three book-study cohorts focused on Carol Dweck’s Mindset. As we jumped into more intensive feedback surrounding the instructional rounds practices, we found it incredibly helpful to also be studying the growth mindset as an entire division of faculty making honey together.

Beginning to Explore the Pedagography Maps

This year at the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) Annual Conference 2014, I unveiled some of the data visualizations that we are starting to build from our pedagography at Mount Vernon. Grant Lichtman and I partnered for a session that explored Zero-Based Strategic Thinking and practices such as pedagography that can be utilized in such self-study as a school learning community.

Chip Houston, Shelley Clifford, and I are already planning to devote an entire session at next year’s NAIS Annual Conference to the practice of instructional rounds and pedagography (provided our proposal gets accepted).

Recently, Houston, Clifford, Nicole Martin, and I spent time digging into the aggregate data that we have collected from 350 ethnographic visits and observations across two divisions. In the near future, we’ll reveal more about what we are learning from these mappings of our teaching and learning ecosystem.

Using External Visitors, Too

During this academic year, Mount Vernon has hosted over 40 schools for visits to our campus. Early on, we realized the incredible advantages and benefits to inviting our visitors on learning walks with us. As a final leg of these host-visitor learning walks, we debrief the visit using such visible thinking routines as “See-Think-Wonder” and “Rose-Thorns-Buds.” The insights provided by our visitors are proving invaluable as we compare and contrast what they observe and share with our own archives from instructional rounds.

More to Come – A Mea Culpa

Reading back through this post, I realize how incomplete it is as a true record of the incredible work that the Middle School and Lower School leaders have been engaging to study our school and develop our learning community. However, I’ve been about to burst at the seams to start telling the story here, so I hope you’ll forgive the errors of omission committed by me in my excitement. Any gaps are the fault of my writing and not the fault of the incredible professionals forwarding this work —

Chip Houston, Katie Jones, Shelley Clifford, Nicole Martin, Mary Cantwell, the Middle School Heads of Grade, the Middle School IR Network Group, the Lower School Heads of Grade, Emily Breite, Kelly Kelly, and a number of others who support our work.

We look forward to sharing more of the well with you as we continue to innovate around professional learning and practice at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation.

Connecting Learning and Value: Zero-Based Strategic Transformation #NAISAC14 #boandgrant

Description, Slide Deck & Storify (#boandgrant)
from the #NAISAC14 session that Grant Lichtman (@GrantLichtman) and I facilitated
Friday, February 28, 2014

NAIS Bo Fri4 2.28.14 #boandgrant


Storify (tweet collection): “Connecting Learning and Value: Zero-Based Strategic Transformation #NAISAC14”

PROCESS POST: Mission, Vision, Strategies, Tactics, and Logistics

“We are a house of exceptional height whose purpose is to keep its inhabitants safe and dry.”

“We will raise this house so that it is impregnable from flood waters.”

“We will utilize beam and tie jacks to increase and enhance the height of this abode and build a more formidable foundation.”

Mission, vision, strategies, tactics, and logistics. These words – these objectives and means – spur a great deal of thought from me. To be most honest, I am working to discern the important differences in these words – these means and objectives. I am convinced that a school must continually strive to ensure that its people have shared understanding and shared values around these words – that when someone talks of a school’s mission, or when someone speaks of strategy and tactics, we are operating from a deep sense of mutual understanding. It’s not just semantics. Shared meaning of this language – mission, vision, strategies, tactics, and logistics – ensures that members of a school community work together more harmoniously as a team, with less negative friction at the points of movement and change.

House Raised 2013-08-03 06.57.59

On many mornings, as Lucy (my dog) and I are walking, we venture past this house that is being raised. The house is in an area of Atlanta that floods fairly often, and I can certainly understand the homeowners investing in a different foundation system. A number of other houses in the neighborhood have done the same.

Because of my work for the past decade (in school innovation and transformation), I feel I am constantly trying to get a better handle, a better grip, on “mission, vision, strategy, tactics, and logistics.” This house – as a metaphor – is helping me do so.

As I walk past this house, I imagine what the mission and vision of the homeowners might be. Perhaps that mission or vision is represented in the quotes that opened this post. Perhaps not. I try to imagine the conversations and planning that certainly occurred among the homeowners and the experts who are lifting that house with those beams and ties. I can hear them talking strategy and tactics and logistics, and I can hear them working out a shared understanding of those means and objectives. I think how critical it must be for the workers on this project to have a shared sense of the strategies, tactics, and logistics!

Then, I begin to wonder if the owner of the lifting company talks of the mission of his/her company. I become curious if the lifting company’s mission and vision is actually more of a strategy or tactic in the view of the homeowner. I ponder how confusion over these things might result in a less than optimal house transformation. Or worse – a house toppling.

If you’re still with me, God bless you! If you’re wondering what in the world I am writing about, then I would challenge you to listen more intentionally to conversations and meetings at your school. Listen as people talk about mission, vision, and strategy. Consider how faculty and admin are approaching the tactics and logistics to achieve the strategies that will ensure success of the mission and vision. Perhaps your school’s mission is only written in aspirational terms, loose and general terms, that make strategic design a significant challenge for teachers, parents, and students. Simply listen for the words “strategy” and “strategic” and note if different people speak of the very same actions being different rungs of the strategy, tactics, and logistics ladder.

Listen as teachers talk of lesson plans and classroom activities. Listen as students respond to questions about what they are learning and why. Listen as parents discuss where the school is headed and how it plans to get to such a destination.

Try to discern when people are talking with clear, shared understanding around mission, vision, strategies, tactics, and logistics. For a school to strive for common language around these means and objectives – such effort could have significant consequences on the trajectory on which a school intends to be. Such effort around common language and shared understanding could be a real difference maker in the “if and when” a school will accomplish its mission and achieve its vision.

What’s your school’s mission? Your vision? Your strategies? Your tactics? Your logistics? In what ways are these ends, means, and objectives aligned and misaligned? When students, parents, alums, faculty, staff, surrounding community members and administrators talk of the change you are undertaking at your school, do they speak with common language and shared understanding?

PROCESS POST: What’s your “moonshot” at your school?

Some dots in my mind are forming stronger connections among them. All of these particular dots relate to the visioning and implementing processes that schools undertake.

In my research and practice, and in my work at Unboundary, I’ve called it Pedagogical Master Planning. Essentially, PMP utilizes strategic transformation design to engage a school/learning community in the construction of “as-built blueprints” and transformation plans for it’s teaching and learning core – its pedagogical ecosystem (purpose, leadership, professional learning, instruction, curriculum, assessment, and learning environments). It’s like campus master planning or design-build architecture, but for the system that really makes a school a school  – not the buildings but the teaching and learning core/corp.

My close friend and colleague Grant Lichtman has recently coined the term and led workshop experiences around Zero-Based Strategic Thinking. On May 11, he wrote about it here. Like zero-based budgeting, Zero-Based Strategic Planning takes on more of a “start from scratch” mindset. Instead of assuming the present condition and tweaking it slightly for next year, it assumes a future-back mindset and builds to systemically accomplish that ideal future state.

Another friend and colleague Chris Thinnes may be the most beautiful writer about this moment of transition and transformation in education. The beauty, for me, resides in the creation of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pieces that lend poetic turns to very deep thinking about the crossroads we face as school leaders and educators. As just one example, Chris writes here about “Alves, Dewey, & Rinaldi on Our ‘Season of Design.”

A third, even more recent, stretcher of my thinking is Thomas Steele-Maley. On May 14, he published “On Mutation in Education.” He provokes us readers to consider the dynamic ecology composed largely of education, content, and hours. And he reminds us that “the individual is the kernal of energy for educational design.” I wonder which individual? If I might be so bold, much of the structure of school seems to be based more on the adult individual efficiencies and conveniences than on the “user experience” or “user interface” of the student learners. (As just one test of that – find me an adult workplace, other than school, that is organized in time schedule and content structure like a school.)

Also on May 14, Scott D. Anthony and Mark Johnson published an HRR Blog Network piece titled, “What a Good Moonshot is Really For.” It’s been a serious mental-marble ringer for me in the last 24 hours.

Organizations should have their moonshots. They’re a keystone of what we call a “future-back” approach to strategy, which unlike the “present forward” nature of most strategic-planning processes, doesn’t operate under the assumption that tomorrow will be pretty much like today, and the day after pretty much more of the same. In stable times, present-forward approaches help optimize resource allocation. But in turbulent times, these approaches can lead companies to miss critical market inflection points.

At the heart of the future-back process is a consensus view of your company’s desired future state.This isn’t scenario planning, where you consider a range of possibilities. This is putting a stake in the ground — specifying what you want your core business to look like, what adjacent markets you want to edge into, and the moonshots you’ll try for. And, as Kennedy did, a good future-back strategy goes well beyond the three-year planning horizons that typify most corporate strategy efforts.

Anthony and Johnson go on to explain that a moonshot has three traits: 1) it inspires, 2) it’s credible, and 3) it’s imaginative. But to me, the very most important insight from them – “At the heart of the future-back process is a consensus view of your company’s desired future state.” Do you want compliance or commitment to realizing your vision as an organization? If we want purposeful commitment, we have to devote tireless energy to establishing the consensus view. In PMP, this is why I stress the power of the visualization in the design. It enables a community to exercise collective voice in creating the desired future state and it enables them to SEE a common understanding of what they intend to build and create. It’s why architectural blueprints are so effective for building and renovation. The various sub-contractors can SEE all of the sub-systems and how they interact and connect with each other.

Finally (this is just a 10-minute time-limit process post), I am convinced I need to do a deep-dive study into Otto Sharmer’s Theory U. An executive summary lives here.

My time’s up. We need a MOONSHOT in schools. And it needs to come from backwards design of the future we want for our citizenry and learners and the wisdom we have about brain science, engagement, psychology, flow, play, passion, and purpose… and the challenges we face as a society and the degree of commitment we have to innovating and creating toward the resolutions of those challenges.

What’s your moonshot at your school? I’m quickly growing to believe that new schools have them, and existing schools mostly lack them.

Visualizing instruction in our school ecosystem #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

A major aspect of Pedagogical Master Planning involves generating an “as-built set of blueprints” for a school’s pedagogical ecosystem, so that a school can see itself in ways it likely never has before. The pedagogical ecosystem is comprised of the interconnected sub-systems of 1) purpose, 2) leadership, 3) professional learning, 4) instruction, 5) curriculum, 6) assessment, and 7) learning environments.

One way we are conceptualizing the as-built blueprints involves the use of “infrastructure polygons,” inspired originally by Candy Chang’s work.

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 2.57.16 PM

In this example, in which Chang visualizes the contrasted city infrastructures in Nairobi and Dakar, one can quickly see that Dakar possesses a much higher density of piped water, electricity, and toilets than Nairobi. For example, about 19% of Nairobi’s population has access to piped water, compared to 84% of Dakar’s residents.

Recently, TED uploaded Jessica Green’s TED2013 talk, “We’re covered in germs. Let’s design for that.

As another great example of using info-graphic polygons, Green employs these visualized data tools to compare and contrast the microbes in various rooms in a building. (You should watch the talk, just to see how this method of data visualization works. It’s fascinating.) The information polygons make it easy to see how classrooms compare with offices in terms of microbial “footprints” or profiles. [Stick with me if that last sentence made you want to click to the next post in your feed reader or email!]

With Pedagogical Master Planning, a dimension of the Discover phase involves capturing information about instructional methodology. Through classroom observation, interviews, self-reporting, etc., we collect data about instructional modes like lecture, lecture and discussion, demonstration, simulation, case study, PBL, role play, graphical creation, etc. After aggregating the data, we can visualize the information using polygons similar to those used by Chang and Green.

Imagine a polygon put to use as an info-graphic that summarizes the instructional methodologies used throughout the school. In a very oversimplified example, one might show that 78% of instructional time is spent in lecture, 11% in demonstration, 5% in case study, and 6% in graphical creation. What invaluable information for a school that is working strategically to become more student-centered and student-directed in its pedagogical approach.

And imagine the power of such visualization in an actual school situation. We could potentially visualize the following:

  1. A student’s user experience as an individual throughout a day. Such an info-polygon could show the instructional modalities that “Suzie” experienced in a day of attending classes. Or a week, or a month.
  2. A particular department’s aggregated picture of instructional methods. Such a picture might reveal strengths in a department so that members of that department become mentors in that methodology for other departments less familiar in practice with that mode. It might also reveal areas for targeted professional development.
  3. An ability to overlay instructional methodology polygons with learning environment set ups (e.g., seating arrangements like seminar, cooperative, senatorial, etc.). Internal action research could be conducted regarding how modifying the classroom layout influences instruction over time.
  4. An in-depth look at how the predominant instructional methods relate to desired outcomes in certain skill sets such as the so-called “Cs” of 21st C learning – communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, etc. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how much time students actually have to BE primary communicators in a week of school, if the school believes it wants to help students develop advanced capabilities in various communications. [Think about the 10,000 hour rule of developing mastery. Do you know how much time students actually spend practicing these skill modalities?]
  5. Time studies for a school, showing how their instructional methods evolve over time once they become more systemically engaged in studying something like this as a school working to shift or enhance a culture of diversified pedagogy.

Such ideation around information polygons and “as-built blueprints” are only one piece of the potential for Pedagogical Master Planning. By being able to see more clearly what is happening in the actual pedagogical ecosystem, a school can be more strategic in developing it’s integrated sub-systems for the learning that can happen. Being able to see provides clarity from which to plan for innovation and development. Being able to see can help reduce resistance as people are able to gain greater understanding about the current reality of instructional methods used compared to the desired learning outcomes for students. It’s a bit like turning on the lights in a darkened room. The light shed on the situation helps us navigate more agilely and purposefully. We’re less likely to need to shuffle our feet slowly and wave our arms in from of us to keep from running into something unexpectedly.