Data as Knowledge

In titling this post as such, I have likely just created more work in explanation than I ever anticipated.  However, that effort will be well worth it if, through our conversations, we are able to create some common understandings about how we can turn the now massive store of facts about student achievement into useful information about what works.  Mike McKay wrote in a recent post, “Thoughtful practitioners don’t simply wonder why, they don’t blame, or talk about “if only.” They consider possibility.  It is good to see more and more places where educators are collectively engaged in enquiry, action research, risk taking and embracing our profession’s responsibility for monitoring and adjusting based on results”.  Clearly, we have the means and together we can build the capacity.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know that a particular intervention, program, or style of teaching has resulted in extraordinary gains for students.  Through the lens of appreciative inquiry, we can celebrate the very best of our profession and inventory the practices that make an extraordinary difference in the lives of students.  Imagine the powerful knowledge generated when we track assessment results over time and form highly accurate predictions about where and when students will need interventions to support and enhance their learning.  As a young teacher, I could have only dreamed of the capacity we now have to inform practice and identify those learning situations that perform well beyond expectations.

This week, for example, I worked with our District Education Team to review district goals and targets in advance of finalizing the Superintendent’s Report on Achievement.  With the help of the  Minsitry’s Data Mobilization Achievement Division that was able to customize some information for our needs along with our own district data collection, we were able to identify cohort learning needs down to individual groups of students.  Now, we are able to have key conversations about specific learning needs that students will have over the next two to three years.

The knowledge about student achievement, learning needs, and successful interventions is key to our effort to be more flexible, adapatable, and responsive as a learning community.  What we are able to learn and know about our student needs will inform our district resourcing, professional growth, and planned interventions.  This is the power of moving data from an array of facts to a knowledge base about how we are doing.  And then, once we have the knowledge, we are able to act with accuracy and intent.

What Should We Be Good At?

John Hattie’s Visible Learning (2009) will undoubtedly gain a significant amount of traction in our districts – or at least it should.  Hattie defines the conversations that count and those that don’t when it comes to instructional leadership and effective teaching.  The results will raise more than a few eyebrows and commonly held assumptions about what is good practice.  In a previous post, I introduced the concept of educators becoming consciously skilled.  Visible Learning answers the obvious question, “Skilled at what?”  If we want to get good at something, to master it, we need to know what to pursue as component parts of our repertoire and Hattie gives us an amazing glimpse at what that should be in our business.

Ranking at the top of Hattie’s list for effect on student achievement are the following:

  1. Feedback
    1. Seek feedback from students as to what they know, understand, where they make
      errors, what misconceptions they have, and when they are not engaged,
      synchronized and powerful learning takes place.
    2. Teacher provides information specifically related to the task or process of
      learning that fills a gap between what is understood and what is aimed to
      be understood.
    3. Feedback is information with which a learner can confirm, add to, overwrite, tune,
      or restructure information.
    4. The most effective feedback relates back to learning goals.
  2. Comprehensive interventions for Learning Special Needs Students
    1. The important instructional components include attention to sequencing,
      drill-repetition-practice, segmenting information into parts, controlling
      task difficulty through prompts and cues, making use of technology,
      systematically modeling problem solving steps, and making use effective
      reading strategies.
    2. Direct instruction and strategy training models of instruction.
  3. Reciprocal Teaching
    1. The emphasis here is on teachers enabling their students to learn and use
      cognitive strategies such as summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and
    2. The aim is to help students actively bring meaning to the learning and to
      assist them to monitor their own learning and thinking.
    3. This learning and thinking is expressed back to the teacher through effective
      feedback loops.
  4. Teacher Clarity
    1. The importance of the teacher to communicate the intentions of the lessons
      and the notions of what success means and looks like in relation to the
    2. Clarity involves organization, explanation, guided practice, and effective
      assessment of student learning.
  5. Spaced vs. Mass Practice
    1. Students often need three to four exposures to the learning over several days
      before there is a reasonable probability that the concept will be
    2. Deliberative practice can involve specific skills and complex illustrations of
      knowledge.  It should be motivating not “drill and practice” repetition.

Fortunately, we are enriched in our district by a fabulous tradition of inquiry into professional practice and a recent visit from Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert has helped to solidify commitment to framing school growth around professional inquiry.  Our journey will be informed by research like that presented by John Hattie.  The ultimate goal in developing our district is to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with educators that possess the skills and attributes that motivate, enrich, challenge and inspire their learners to reach academic and social goals that are set high.

Remember the Power of Relationships

I recently had the opportunity to be part of a process of restoring that most basic of critical factors in our enterprise – the connection between learner and educator. 

The conversation was not about the completion rate trajectory of the learner or the latest report on progress; it was, at its core, a very human experience of restoring a connection.

Long story, short – Here is what I learned and will place in my “Always Remember” list:

1.  Regardless of the label we place upon it, we are in the business of serving people not numbers and we must always find ways to care.

2.  Our commonalities far exceed our differences when partnering with parents, families, and community.

3.  It’s sometimes best to start with the success of the next day rather than trying to plan for the year – that will come.

A key component of this interaction was the powerful act of recognition.  In this case, recognition of effort and challenge for all and a move toward an empathic understanding of the other – simple, yet powerful.  Edward M. Hallowell, in his recent book, Shine, includes recognition as one of the five elements of what he calls the Cycle of Excellence.  He writes, “Recognition is so powerful because it answers a fundamental human need, the need to feel valued for what we do.”  Leaders are in a position to give or withhold recognition and, building on previous posts, to give recognition is to operate from a care mindset and to withhold is to operate from the perspective of power and control over.

21st Century Leading


I was energized by a recent District Education Committee meeting where stakeholders considered personalized learning in relation to where we are and where we need to be as a district and how we might join together to make it a reality.   Sometimes the best leadership is to simply listen – to suspend the temptation to jump in.  If the focus and wisdom in the room that day are any indication, we are well on the way to a meaningful dialogue about educational transformation. 

Emerging are insights into Curricular Leadership – Creativity, Choice, Challenge.  Professional Development Leadership – professional critical thinking, stages of development, and 5 Minds for the Future.  Community Leadership – partners, far reaching inputs, collaboration and crossing borders. District Leadership – generating belief in ourselves, capturing the energy, and setting the purpose.  All of these just to name a few of the thoughts and insights of the meeting – Wow.

It is my hope that we will see multiple and sustained inputs into conceptualizing our way forward.  It’s important to find relevance in the structures that exist and nudge the system from within – together in collaboration and community.

More flies with honey…

I am thrilled to see the chatter around the release of the PTC – A Vision for 21st Century Education (PTC).  It’s also important to note the questions around how we are going to lead this effort in collaboration and community with the host of others that are critical to success. 

Sometimes a piece of the puzzle appears and answers, if only in part, a key part of the question.  I was driving between two communities in our district today and picked up a conversation with Dan Pink on CBC.  He was discussing what the keys to the motivational enterprise will be in leading change.  A great RSAnimation (here) could easily be a centrepiece to any discussion on the topic.  Pink argues that three habits of leadership are critical to the effort:  1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives. 2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.  Think of the power in giving our people the autonomy to create, the time to master their craft, and the space to find purpose in making a meaningful difference in the lives of students, each other, and our communities. 

Also, Margaret Wheatley’s 1996 A Simpler Way offers some insight into a refreshing way to frame this journey:

Stability is found in freedom – not in conformity and compliance.  We may have thought that our organization’s survival was guaranteed by finding the right form and insisting that everyone fit into it.  But sameness is not stability.  It is individual freedom that creates stable systems.  It is differentness that enables us to thrive;


All systems do insist on exercising their own creativity.  They never accept imposed solutions, pre-determined designs, or well-articulated plans that have been generated somewhere else.  Too often, we interpret their refusal as resistance.  We say that people inately resist change.  But the resistance we experience from others is not to change itself.  It is to the particular process of change that believes in the imposition rather than creation.  It is the resistance of a living system to being treated as a non-living thing.  It is an assertion of the system’s right to create.

We have an awsome and exciting challenge ahead and it is one that  requires a refreshed view, a courageous willingness to allow the living system to express itself, and a tolerance for ambiguity along the way.  It’s clear that we will attract more success through the strategies identified here than we will with rigid and imposed solutions that attempt to expediate superficial change. 

Care or Control – A Leader’s Decision

Throughout my career I have observed, experienced, and studied the effects of care and control systems of belief in educational leadership.  While it needs to be understood that we rarely find a purist in either area and different situations call for different approaches, we can generate greater awareness of our habits and inclinations through the consideration of extremes.  The dichotomy of care and control is particularly relevant today as gone are the days of absolute acceptance of power and authority.  Across sectors, younger generations of employees are expecting that they will have creative input into what an organization is and how it responds to their needs and desires.  We need to adopt new habits and challenge our assumptions about effective leadership as a consequence. 

At the outset, I will declare my preference for care over control.  This is predictable as an educator and I would imagine that most would locate themselves here because it makes sense – care for students, staff, parents, and the district as a whole is our business, but it may not be that simple.  It is evident that our systems of belief and world views move us toward unintended habits of control and that we need to be conscious and self aware.  To be conscious we need models of understanding against which to evaluate our self-observations.  When we do this, we grow as leaders.  While a particular title (eg. principal, department head, assistant superintendent etc.) may lend itself to elements of control, it is a higher calling that moves us toward the mindset of care.  I believe that the skills of care are essential to the change effort we are about to see in education and that care is, in fact, the harder but more effective path to leading change.  Let me explain:

Mental models help us move from unconscious reactions toward conscious actions where the impact of our decisions are carefully considered.  Within the model of care and control, it is useful to self-reflect and locate ourselves along the continuum in order to makes sense of peoples’ reactions to our leadership attempts.  I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Tom Gougeon at the University of Calgary from 2002-2005 while I was researching and writing my dissertation and many of the following thoughts were formed as a result of my learning and collaboration with him.

The habits of care are measured by looking at the extent to which we show empathy, listen, encourage, and collaborate.  When we are acting within a mindset of care, we allow others to feel relaxed, in alignment, and free to innovate and create.  We are seen by others as helpful and guiding and we are concerned with relating to others in deep and authentic ways.  Kouzes and Posner gave us Encouraging the HeartSergiovanni wrote about The Lifeworld of Leadership, and Lipman encourages Thinking in Education just to name a few of the major thinkers around care. 

Alternatively, the habit of persistent control leads to stifling the creative and growth orientations we so desperately need in our organizations.  When operating in control, we feel the need to fix, rescue, participate in everything, and protect our image.  When in control, we feel anxious, fearful, and tired, and we are viewed by others as manipulative and controlling.  When trying to control we are concerned with being right, having immediate solutions, and requiring extensive details.

On this topic, Margaret Wheatley in Turning to One Another writes about the necessity of relationship building and care.  She argued that, “Even though worker capacity and motivation are destroyed when leaders choose power over productivity, it appears that bosses would rather be in control than have the organization work well.”  Wheatley reminds us that it is our peoples’ creativity and dedication that makes our organizations successful.  As leaders, it is important to find ways to celebrate and care for ingenuity and the spirit of growth we find all over if we have the wisdom to look.  We always have opportunities to recognize and care for others in this business and the frequency with which we take up the challenge will be a mark of our success.

Branding – An Evolution

A professional brand is a representation of that which you stand for and are passionate about.  It needs to be current, recognized, and respected by those in the field and it cannot be fixed in time never to be changed.  When I started in this business and headed to a remote teaching job in northern British Columbia, it was enough to have a good interview and a reasonably good practicum report.  A picture on your resume was regarded as innovative.  Now, it seems, we aren’t in Kansas any more – Twitter, RSS feeds, Facebook etc. etc.  Email is now considered to be outmoded, slow, and cumbersome by those that have embraced the newer technologies and, guess what, all of our new teachers have and most of our young and mobile leaders are engaged, networked, and frustrated with a system that is slow to move and catch on.  We now need to represent our statements of values and beliefs in entirely different ways. 

I wrote in my doctoral dissertation back in 2004 at the University of Calgary that to be successful in education we need to take a stance that engages our skills within our consciousness.  That was to say that we, as educators, can learn to be better through our professional relationships and networks.  Only seven years ago, this concept was received well and appeared to contribute to the field of thought at the time, yet today it is a given: professional learning, networking, and connection is everywhere and expected not only within our schools and districts but across all geographic and policital boundaries.  Indeed, Thomas Friedman, the world is flat! 

We can and must grow and it is largely our mindset that will determine our successes.  Carol Dweck ( deals with the perils of a fixed mindset and the potential of a growth mindset in her book, Mindset, 2006.  Additionally, I am inspired by those around me that are on a deeply professional journey and, in particular, right now I am intrigued by the work of a principal in our school district (  So,  here it goes – a journey to re-brand and stay current: 1.  Twitter account (@sbenwell1), 2.  Edublog account (this is my first post); and, 3.  A Curriculum Vitae that is a living document that reflects our new professional landscape with statements of purpose and action.

These are but a few small steps and the technologies themselves are not what will make a difference.  What we do with them will.  These are exciting times!