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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Have Leaders Asked These Questions Before Adopting a New Initiative?

By Peter DeWitt — December 10, 2015 4 min read
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The word “Initiative,” despite the number of letters, is often seen as a 4-letter word. Depending on how long we have been teaching, we have seen many changes over the years, and not all of them have been for the good. The pendulum has swung from one end to the other, and back again...

Perhaps it was the implementation was flawed, while other times it was the idea or the curriculum. We’re not innocent in the demise of the word initiative. Whether we were district, building or classroom leaders, we have contributed to the negative connotation of the word. We have all tried things that didn’t work, and instead of blaming our implementation, we blamed the initiative.

Working in a high poverty school district in Ohio a few weeks ago, one of the teachers mentioned how happy he was that he had the same principal for two years in a row. It wasn’t sarcasm. It was reality. I taught in some higher needs schools, but I had the same principal for most of the time, so this statement was eye opening. He followed up by saying...

We have been on a new 5-year plan every 2 years.

Too often initiatives mean new textbooks or curriculum, which is fine as long as it means challenging...and then changing...our teaching practices in a way that fosters higher student engagement and deeper learning. We may not need textbooks at all. I’ve seen many teachers do it with the Google Docs they make available to students...which aren’t in the form of textbooks at all.

New initiatives should be about inspiring students to “know what to do when they don’t know what to do.” John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, refers to that as “assessment Capable Learners” because they know what to do when they get stuck and an adult isn’t present to help them.

Instead of looking for the next shiny piece of curriculum that comes our way, we should start looking at what we presently do with our students, and figure out how we can change it if it isn’t working. That doesn’t necessarily mean new textbooks or computers. We need to fix practices first.

In Know Thy Impact: Visible Learning in Theory and Practice, John Hattie writes,

Many years ago, Alessi (1988) reviewed more than 5,000 children referred to school psychologists because they were failing at school. Not one located the problem as due to a poor instructional program, poor school practices, a poor teacher, or something to do with school. The problems were claimed, by the teachers, to be related to the home and located within the student. As Engelmann (1991) claimed "An arrogant system would conclude that all the problems were caused by defects in the children, none caused by defects in the system" (p. 298). Instead, Engelmann challenged teachers and schools to ask: • Precisely where have you seen this practice installed so that it produces effective results? • Precisely where have you trained teachers so they can uniformly perform within the guidelines of this new system? • Where is the data that show you have achieved performance that is superior to that achieved by successful programs (not simply the administration's last unsuccessful attempt)? • Where are your endorsements from historically successful teachers (those whose students outperform demographic predictions)?"

Some additional questions may be:
How will this help increase student engagement? If the teaching is the same but the curriculum is different, will this really increase student engagement...or is this just another way to bore students to tears?

How will this create a way for us to talk about learning and not about curriculum and pacing? When we look at students as the receivers of new curriculum and not as people we need to help figure out what learning really means, we have lost what education is really about. Curriculum is one tiny part of learning.

What are the flaws of the new initiative? We can always learn from flaws. Learning from error is important. Where are the gaps...where does the implementation dip usually take place? How can we help use our collective knowledge to bridge the gap? Let’s face it, nothing is perfect.

Have those in charge of adopting the initiative used it in their own practices when they were in the classroom? If not, why not? Yes, I’m picking on school leaders here. After all, what makes the leader the expert of the classroom over the teacher who is still there? Did the leader pick up on a common theme that centers around the needs of teacher, which is why this initiative was chosen...or is this just the next shiny thing? Make this a part of the conversation or teachers will not be on board.

Does this foster dialogue among our students...or more compliance? We no longer need new ideas which really just lead to more compliance. We need initiatives that will foster student voice...like student voice!

How will leaders provide the essential resources to make sure the initiative works? Initiatives aren’t a one time purchase. New resources are always needed, and that may not come in the form of new stuff...but may require time and planning, which are not always easy to come by.

How are we sure that this will not be one of those 5 year plans that we get every 2 years? If we wonder why teachers supposedly hate change, it may be due to the fact that they have to adopt a new initiative every time the wind blows. How can we be sure that this won’t happen again? One of the reasons why Hattie focuses so much more on learning than curriculum is due to the fact that focusing on learning offers so many more benefits to the student than new curriculum does.

How will this meet the needs of our students better than what we were using? Will this fill in a gap or is this merely coming out of left field. Are we doing it because it will benefit students, or because it’s something that “State” thinks we should do, which is usually due to some political reason.

In the End

If you have been in education for more than five years, you must be a little tired of all of the noise that has been taking place. Our conveyor belts are filled with curriculum and initiatives that weren’t worth our time. We need to adopt new ideas because they are good for the collective thoughts of the group and not because one person rallied the troops to think the way they do. As a consultant I would want schools to ask me the questions before they readily accept what I may be offering.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.