A couple of weeks ago, I was able to bring my senior education team to Calgary as part of our CASS Leadership Network and spend a day with Simon Breakspear. Since first meeting Simon a few years back, I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to get together with this visionary leader and what I would suggest “provoker” of educational thought. Maybe it is because of his Australian accent or his good charm, but Simon has the ability to really push your thinking beyond the comfortable. Yesterday, at our own Learning Leadership Team meeting, I was able to use an activity that we had done with him.
To begin with, we need to commit to the basic premise that every child needs to gain a year’s worth of academic growth in a year. That in itself, will likely ruffle some feathers or at the very least elicit a number of excuses. “What about context?” “What about kids with special needs?” “What about…whatever?” My response is not to dismiss those excuses but to consider them exceptions rather than the rule. I would hate as a profession that we would organize around “can’t” or “won’t” and instead, believe in “could” and “will.” Our default therefore, becomes that every child (or at least most) should gain a year’s worth of academic growth in a year.
So now the question becomes, “In order for every student to gain a year of academic growth in a year, what practices should be seen in a class every single day?” This question is a great conversation starter because it requires us to reflect on what needs to happen (what a teacher does) every day in every classroom. The result is the “floor” or the minimum standard necessary to reach the basic premise. These practices need to be agreed upon as a school or system and then they become non-negotiable. The agreement of the “floor” also allows clarity for instructional leaders and promotes honest professional conversation amongst staff on their practice. It also eliminates any excuses until after first reflecting on one’s practice.
But minimum standard is not something we should shoot for in education and so we must be prepared to raise the floor. Raising the floor is simply getting better at what we should be doing in our classrooms every single day. For example, formative assessment is a floor activity in itself! Every teacher should engage in formative assessment every single day. However, there is significant variation in teachers’ ability to assess for learning. School improvement comes from a concentrated effort by everyone to assess for learning better i.e. raising the floor.
Every system I know has pockets of excellence- teachers or classrooms who have raised their own floor to hover around “ceiling” practices. They are innovative and creative and their pedagogy is stellar. Sometimes we get lost by only seeing improvement through the lens of those innovators in our classrooms- “If only they could teach like them!” I love getting into those classrooms and observing that pedagogical genius. It would be unfair however, if I assumed that all teachers could simply leap to the ceiling of practices. Getting to the ceiling requires us to concentrate on raising the floor, one effective practice at a time.
This is not a simple task but one that as a learning leadership team we will continue to discuss because ultimately, our expectation should be “one year’s academic growth in one year!” I would encourage schools to engage in this conversation, define everyday practices and then raise the floor!