I Call it Accountability

Recently the province of British Columbia has tackled an age-old problem through applying proven behavioural and research techniques to change behaviour.  It is no secret and there is no shortage of research from parents, psychologists, therapists, behaviour strategists and teachers that holding a person accountable for their choices leads to changes in behaviour.

To be accountable means to be responsible or answerable to someone for something. It involves taking responsibility for your own actions and being able to explain them.  

We also know that this accountability becomes even more powerful when we are required to be accountable to the people we care most about in our lives (parents, children, spouses, teachers, friends, relatives).

In school, we use this personal accountability to support children in learning new ways of behaving and to encourage them to make more positive choices.  We require them to “own” their behaviour and to answer to the people who care most about them. We illicit an emotional response which is the most powerful factor in determining future behaviour.  We ask them to remember how they felt when….

As adults we can look back on events in our lives, good and bad, and we always remember how we felt.  This has a lasting effect on future choices.  ie. “I am not going to make that mistake again because I don’t want to feel that way again or have to answer to those people again.”

Being held accountable is THE most powerful way to change behaviour.  So why all the backlash in British Columbia?

Selling alcohol to underage children is the problem behaviour the province wants to change.  Holding the sellers accountable to the people they care most about is the way to change this behaviour.  This is how it works, this is the proven way to change behaviour.

The method the province has chosen to hold people accountable for selling alcohol to underage children is to have them post a sign in their store window for 2 weeks that states, “I SELL ALCOHOL TO UNDERAGE CHILDREN.”  This is the right thing to do.  In no uncertain terms, it holds the seller accountable to the people they care about; in this case their customers.  The two-week timeline is also right.  It allows for people to have another chance, to take the sign down and do better.


Funny thing about it, critics don’t like it.  Critics call it shaming.  Critics don’t believe holding people accountable for their choices is what we need to do.  My assumption with this is, critics don’t want this behaviour changed or critics would know this is the right thing to do.

Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

For many years as I taught grade school then transitioned into school administration we always seemed to talk about on and off task behaviour.  In fact, I can remember people coming into my classroom with a stop watch and timing the amount of on and off task behaviour a student displayed over a half hour period of time.  To this day, when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home.  It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.

It hasn’t been until now, that a number of pieces of information, a few different books I have read, and the latest Professional Development I have been involved in did it become apparent to me that on or off task behaviour was not necessarily the fault of the child.  In fact, off task behaviour in most cases falls directly on the shoulders of teachers.  We as teachers cannot make a student be more on task, but we can design tasks that result in an increase in student engagement.  In fact, in most cases, when tasks consists of elements that engage students, guess what?  Students are engaged.

But why should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement?  Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them?  This visual clearly speaks to the role of the teacher and the requirement for effective teaching.  I realize there are many qualities that meld together to create a “high-performing” teacher but there is definitely no argument that one of the key qualities is the ability to design tasks that result in student engagement.

So just what are tasks that result in high levels of student engagement?  What are the attributes, components of these tasks? To answer these questions, I will include the information the staff at Erin Woods School recently compiled. In a two-hour work session, our staff came together to think, discuss, and synthesize the following information.

Here is the trick to changing off-task behaviour:

Lessons that are designed to engage students do just that!  Listed here are the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement.

Low Level of Engagement

Medium Level of Engagement

High Level of Engagement

  • Listening
  • Teacher telling
  • Watching the teacher do
  • Copying
  • Individual tasks
  • Memorizing
  • Not challenging – student finishes quickly and easily (low-level thinking)
  • The task is not easily differentiated (except by making less work or more work)
  • All students have the same task (no student choice)
  • Is teacher made (or made by a publisher)
  • Has right or wrong answers
  • Not linked to personal interest


Work sheets – pre-made

Yes/no tasks (one right answer)



Fill in the missing word

Write  a word 5 times

Word Search

  • Combination of two learning modalities (ex: visual and tactile)
  • Looking for information
  • Partner work
  • Students doing
  • Some self or peer assessment
  • Increased use of visuals
  • Combining some personal knowledge to the new information


Mad Minute

Personal Dictionary

KWL Charts

Any searching, finding, looking for answer

Making Words

Work with more than one right answer

  • Linking to prior knowledge
  • Student generated/student created
  • Game-like
  • Meaningful or related to the student’s life or interests
  • Working together with peers
  • Results in a piece of work the student is proud of
  • Challenges the student but is attainable
  • Considers learning styles
  • Allows for student choice – completed work looks different
  • Can be extended or broadened into further learning
  • More than one right answer


Games or challenges

Hands on or multi-modal

Solves real life problems (math, social studies)

Experiments (with a hypothesis and solution)

What this information tells us is task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behaviour from students.  In the end, it is not the student who is at fault.  When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off task behaviour I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behaviour.  As educator Phil Schlechty says, There is a 0% chance that children will learn from work they do not do.”  And we know they will not do boring, un-engaging, un-related, senseless tasks, would you?

What Your Rules Say About You

Rules, rules, rules, everyone knows the key to success in school is to follow the rules.

Unfortunately, this belief persists in many of todays classrooms and schools.  Next time you are in a classroom take a look at the posted rules.  Are they rules such as “no talking while the teacher is talking, stay in your desk during work time, raise your hand if you need help?”  If so, I think these rules say a lot about the teacher, the work environment and the level of meaningful engaging tasks.  They imply that the teacher is the only one who holds the knowledge, the teacher will give you great wisdom and knowledge if only you will listen and the work you undertake will be solitary and designed to measure how well you listen.

Rules for Students Fall 2009-2

Rules for Students Fall 2009-2 (Photo credit: mick62)

Why is it that some classrooms need these types of rules and some do not?  For the teachers that do not post these types of rules what is the difference?  How can they manage without them?

One answer to these questions is to take a look at the type of tasks the student is being asked to undertake.  To analyze the planning and preparation the teacher has given to design tasks which result in high levels of student engagement.

Think of it this way, if a teacher designs tasks that engage the student in meaningful learning will the student be wandering around the classroom disrupting others, off task, doing any of the other million things teachers often complain about?

But just what goes into meaningful learning and task design that results in high levels of student engagement?

I would like to give credit to the amazing staff at Erin Wood School in Calgary AB who worked together yesterday to answer this question.  When analyzing student engagement, and tasks that result in high levels of student engagement we were able to effectively answer the question, “What are the attributes of tasks that result in meaningful learning and high(er) levels of student engagement?”

Tasks resulting in higher levels of student engagement consist of these attributes:

  • Meaningful or related to the student’s life or interests;
  • Working together with peers;
  • Incorporates games;
  • Created by the student (authentic);
  • Result in a piece of work the student is proud of and wants to share;
  • Challenging (but not so challenging it is unattainable);
  • Considers learning styles;
  • Allows for student choice;
  • Can be extended by students;

Tasks resulting in lower levels of student engagement consists of these attributes:

  • Easy and quick to complete (requires low levels of thinking);
  • Is teacher designed (such as a worksheet);
  • Has right or wrong answers;
  • Considers none or all of the attributes of high engaging tasks.

When considering student engagement and the types of tasks students are asked to complete, I wonder if students who are given tasks designed to be highly meaningful and engaging do teachers really need to post rules such as “stay in your desk during work time?”  Do these such rules imply that you have just entered a classroom of low-engaging task design?  In my opinion, teachers who strive to design meaningful tasks that engage students are more likely to post “Work hard and do your best, or Respect yourself and others.” on the walls of their classroom.

Rethinking High Stakes Exams

One has to ponder the question “why,” on many occasions.  A recent “why” has come to me this month as January is the mid-term point of the school year and most high schools are in the midst of exams that mark the end of term one.  “Finals” as they are called run for three weeks.  Three weeks of no classes, and no learning.  When we know better, why do we do this?  Why do we persist in this practice?

The ironic part is we know better.  We know that high stakes, final exams that provide no opportunity for feedback or further learning are not representative of a student’s knowledge or understanding, and do nothing to further a student’s knowledge or understanding which is arguably the point of school.

Students taking a test at the University of Vi...

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An argument that is often launched for those who believe in and rely on final exams often goes something like this… “How will I know what they have learned, if I don’t give them an exam?  How will they prove that they have learned anything at all?”  To those, I offer up the following response:

  1.  Formative Evaluation – In his book Visible Learning by John Hattie, the effects of formative Evaluation were found to have a d = .90 or standard deviation of .90.  Hattie describes this effect size as, “…a 1.0 standard deviation increase is typically associated with advancing student children’s achievement by two to three years, improving the rate of learning by 50%…” (pp 7 of Visible Learning).  Thus, formative evaluation strategies in the classroom would not only give teachers information about what a student knows, but work to increase a student’s rate of learning by almost 50%.
  2. Self-reported Grades d=1.44 where Cohen argues, “…an effect size of d=1.0 should be regarded as a large, blatantly obvious, and grossly perceptible difference…” (pp 8 Visible Learning).  Hattie found that even without tests, “…high school students have a reasonably accurate understanding of their level of achievement… This should questions the necessity of so many tests when students appear to already have much of the information the tests supposedly provide…” (pp 44 Visible Learning).
  3. Feedback (d=.73).  “When teachers seek, or at least are open to feedback from students as to what a student knows, what they understand….then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful.” (pp 173 Visible Learning)

When assuming the reason for a final exam is to find out what students know or best case what students have learned, my question back to a teacher would be “Why don’t you already know?”  I believe that if effective teaching and learning practices such as formative evaluation, self-reported grades and feedback are consistently and appropriately utilized by teachers, a final exam would simply provide them with a weak, irrelevant example of what they already know.

Hattie, John, Visible Learning A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge, 2009.

So What is Visible Learning Anyway?

So What is Visible Learning Anyway? Thoughts and Understandings From a School Principal

As with most fall meetings, this fall started off with direction setting meetings, visions, missions and re-establishing what we are about.  It was during these meetings that the notion of Visible Learning, as described by John Hattie came across my radar.  What was this Visible Learning?

So, I ordered the book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement and cracked it open when it came. Wow, the book is not what I was expecting and not like I have ever seen before.  I find it is not a book you can read cover to cover, it is more like a reference book.  I gleamed information out of it and let it set until today when I participated in the Visible Learning webinar through The Leadership and Learning Center, facilitated by Douglas Reeves.

Visible Learning is now beginning to take shape in my mind, I am beginning to understand new information and think about applying it in my own context.

Lightbulb moment: Changes in teacher practice effect changes in student learning (Douglas Reeves).  Okay, maybe not a lightbulb moment but a critical thought none-the-less.  Even today, as we were working through some behaviour issues with elementary aged students, could it be that if the teacher changes the approach and the practice, perhaps the students behaviour would change as well?  Let’s focus on the teaching (and I mean teaching, not teacher), rather than on the behaviours.

English: A teacher teaching something in Da Ji...As stated by Douglas Reeves: Linking specific teaching strategies with specific student results is Visible Learning.  As mentioned in the example above, would there be a way to incorporate specific teaching strategies and measure specific results? I think so.  The key at our school is that I think we are very good at identifying what is wrong and what we need to be different.  I think we know what the preferred state would be.  I think we have many resources and teaching strategies (perhaps too many) but I DON’T think we know how to measure the effectiveness of specific strategies.

In regards to the teaching strategies, our goal has been to focus on those high impact strategies.  I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new John Hattie book Visible Learning for Teachers to ensure our understanding and implementation of high impact strategies.  As a side note, feedback (d=.72 effect size) is a high impact strategy I previously blogged about (see Feedback or Feedforward).

As mentioned in The Walk-About we have our observations in place – in other words, teachers are observing teachers each day.  We now need to make those observations systematic, objective, and precise (Douglas Reeves).  We need to observe for high impact strategies and the effect they are having on student achievement.  We need to gather specific data about specific practices.

Our goals with Visible Learning are:

1.  To raise awareness.  ex:”This is what feedback and engagement look like in our school and in your classroom.”

2.  To set targets. ex:”Now that we have this information, what are we going to do with it?”

3.  Practice. ex: “Last month my feedback to students consisted primarily of ______ and this month it consists of_____”

4.  Measure the effects of our practice.  “This teaching practice, resulted in this improvement (or not)!

5.  Keep what works, get rid of the rest!

Perhaps through Visible Learning, our understanding of what quality teaching really is will become more specific, objective and precise resulting in a greater understanding of knowing why we are doing what we are doing in the art form called teaching.

Feedback or Feedforward

Teacher talking to student at LSI

Image via Wikipedia

Recently we have been focussing on the notion of feedback vs feedforward.

We started by taking a look at Dylan Wiliam’s Formative Assessment Key Strategies.  In a nutshell:

1.  Know your learner;

2.  Feedback designed to move the learner forward;

3.  Everyone knows the success criteria;

4.  Peers Supporting Peers;

5.  Agency, students owning their learning.

From these 5 strategies we decided to begin understanding and processing them one by one with “Feedback” being the first one we tackled.

Dylan Wiliam has some wonderful podcasts on his website.  The podcasts are him presenting information; I find it very valuable to hear him speak directly.  You can check it out at: http://www.dylanwiliam.net/ or if you just google Dylan Wiliam you will see links to podcasts and You-Tube.

Anyway, he identifies feedback in the following three ways:

1.  Data (which is not feedback, its just data).  This sounds like: “You got a “B” on your test.”  “I’m waiting for three more people to get their books out.”  It points out to the learner a specific piece of information.

2.  Thermometer (which is not feedback, its just a thermometer).  This sounds like: “Next time you will  get a “B” if you add more details.”  “You will be finished as soon as you get your title page done.”  It points out to the learner where they are now and where they need to be.

3.  Feedback System – which is FeedForward.  This includes what students need to do to improve and the VERY important HOW to go about it.  This FeedForward encourages the student and gives hope that they will do it and you will help.  This sounds like: “Now its time to do your title page; lets get the examples I showed earlier and decide which components you want to add to your title page.”  “I noticed on your planning sheet you listed many details about your main character; now we have to incorporate these details into your story. We will use your planning sheet to help us.”

All of this is based on the work of Dylan Wiliam.  Here is an other link that adds more information: http://www.journeytoexcellence.org.uk/videos/expertspeakers/feedbackonlearningdylanwiliamtrans.asp

Now, because I work with teachers and other staff, I have been trying to take this information and apply it in the context of teacher development.  Right now what I am noticing works well for me is to phrase my feedback in the form of a question:

“How would you take the information you just told me about what you observed and apply it in your own classroom?”

“When you were observing Mrs. XX you noticed that she provides extra support and instruction to a few children during silent reading, when are the times in your day where you would have time to provide extra supports to students?”

I find with adult learners, and probably with many children as well, in the context of asking them to change their practice or do something different, just telling is simply that, just telling.  “You should work with XXX while the others are silent reading,” just doesn’t come across the same way!

Professional Learning Communities…

A new Landaff teacher in the 1940s watches as ...

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It is said by the Dufours  that successful PLC’s are the one, single most powerful force in creating school improvement and increasing student achievement.  This sounds simple, but…  Teachers and school staff cannot participate in and achieve high functioning PLC’s themselves, it is contingent upon me as Principal to provide teachers with the tools, skills and capacities to perform as high functioning PLC’s.  To this end, here is what I know, what I do and what I think….


Our PLC’s began several years ago by grouping teachers together to meet once a week to talk about students…. simple as that.  Quickly I realized that to get to the guts and deep understandings about student learning, and to create engagement and participation by all teachers, we needed a protocol.  This led to the next two years of PLC meetings, with a protocol or meeting format, with requirements for engaging in discussions about student progress and by incorporating teaching and learning strategies to support students.  We were doing our meetings, as mandated, and we were learning together.


It’s a dangerous thing to read books and articles because I quickly realize what I do not do and what I do not know.  This realization spurs me into immediate action to change and do differently.  Luckily, I have a staff who accepts that I constantly change my mind, change how I want things done, and constantly look for a better way.

This fall was no different.  Beginning this year our PLC’s had three teachers in them.  I chose three so each teacher would have a voice, have a chance to participate and have time to talk and listen.  More than three I feel is too many because inevitably someone will not have a chance to be heard.  I also choose to have multi-grade PLC’s.  This is for a variety of reasons.  Mainly so that the meetings do not turn into grade level meetings talking about planning and prepping.  However, we are finding many hidden gems and benefits of having multi-grade PLC’s.

The case for multi-grade PLC’s:  I like PLC’s with teachers from different grade levels.  I find that this grouping allows teachers to be exposed to curriculum and teaching styles and skills from different grades.  This assists teachers in incorporating strategies they many not otherwise.  For example: when a grade 3 teacher talks to a kindergarten teacher and realizes the strategies and resources a kindergarten teacher uses to support their learners, this often enables the grade 3 teacher to think about how to use these strategies in their own classrooms.  Multi-grade PLC’s results in the opportunities for teachers to share knowledge about students they have taught in past years.  This type of PLC also builds capacity in teachers.  When a grade 3 teacher looks at a writing sample from a grade 1 student or grade 5 student, they build their understandings of how students develop from year to year.

Bringing PLC’s to Life

A variety of twists and turns with budgeting and staffing led to the opportunity to have teachers supported with an additional staff member after the year had begun.  As I am steadfast about this PLC work and I know that what you give time and energy to is what improves, I devised an idea to bring PLC’s to life.  What I mean by this is that now teachers have a chance to observe their PLC teaching partners as they teach.  Once every six weeks, a teacher will be provided with the “additional teacher” so that they can leave their classrooms and observe their two other team members for half a day each.  To make this meaningful, we have worked together as a staff on many occasion to build our understandings of the purpose of PLC’s and also have formative assessment.  This led to a PLC Observation guide which supports teachers in “looking” for certain things while they observe.

PLC Observations   Click here to take a look at our PLC Observation Guide.

Following the week of PLC Observations, the team members meet together to debrief, explain their learnings, ask questions or “wonders” and set a teaching goal for themselves for the next six weeks.

Where We Are Today

Last week I had the opportunity to watch a webinar presented by Solution Tree featuring the DuFours and AllthingsPLC.com.  This opened and challenged my thinking about how we will move the PLC’s into more everyday ways of being and working.  I bought their book Learning by Doing and am just beginning to read and think more about how to continue to grow and develop into High Functioning PLC’s.  On my previous post The Walk-About I detailed one of our next steps we are adding to our processes. 

Where We Are Going

The path we are going down is the pathway to ensure that each student is appropriately programmed for each day.  We seek to understand our learners and their learning needs.  We strive for Personalized Learning that provides an appropriate, purposeful and engaging education for each child, each day.  Our work in PLC’s supports us in understanding what students need to learn, how we will know when each student has learned it, and how we will respond when a student experiences difficulty.

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