Relationships: The Yin to Feedback’s Yang

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

This week marks the kick-off of my school district’s second annual yearlong mini-conference; a progressive approach to professional development which grants teachers an opportunity to deepen their learning of a topic of their choice. I facilitate the cohort version of this conference.  For better or worse, when teachers choose my course they are with me all year. Therefore, my goal is to ensure an engaging and worthwhile program.

As I prepared the first session of this year’s cohort, I had a flashback to last year when I received my class list.  I immediately noticed my building’s Assistant Principal, Courtney Goodman, had signed up for my course.  She would be a member of our cohort and “observe” me facilitate all thirteen hours of the professional learning I had planned.  Even though Courtney and I had worked together for several years, when I initially saw her name on my roster, I was quite nervous.

Well, fast forward one year, and this time when I saw Courtney’s name on my class list, my initial response was, “YES!”  The reason for the change in my reaction is simple; the feedback Courtney offered me throughout last year’s course proved invaluable. In fact, with each subsequent session,  I looked forward to receiving her emails and having conversations about the sessions. Courtney’s feedback helped me go deeper in my facilitation, and her questions helped me reflect on both my participants’ and my outcomes.  Additionally, having frequent opportunities to converse with Courtney strengthened our relationship.

One Sentence Can Change Our Learning
Recently, I heard a keynote speech by Jo Boaler (founder of Stanford University’s YouCubed and math mindset guru.). Boaler shared results from a recent study of high school students regarding feedback:

“All of the students wrote essays and received critical diagnostic feedback from their teachers, but half the students received an extra sentence on the bottom of the feedback. The students who received the extra sentence achieved higher grades a year later, even though the teachers did not know who received the sentence and there were no other differences between the groups. It may seem incredible that one sentence could change students’ learning trajectories to the extent that they achieve at higher levels a year later, with no other change, but this was the extra sentence,

I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you.”

The results of the study Boaler referenced provide another example of the correlation between relationships and feedback. As I work to apply my learning from John Hattie’s meta-analysis of highly effective instructional practices, what becomes more and more apparent is how effective influences work in conjunction, not isolation, to positively affect student achievement.

Feedback and student-teacher relationships rank amongst the practices with the highest effect sizes at .75 and .72 respectively (above a .4 is considered effective).  (Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers)

Statements like “I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you” contribute to a safe environment where mistakes are considered opportunities to learn. Students know the teacher is genuinely interested in their learning and therefore quickly build trusting relationships with them. When students (like all humans) trust and respect the person giving them feedback they are more likely to implement the comments.

In addition to a strong relationship, the feedback in it of itself must be considered. All feedback isnot created equal.  Feedback done right is reciprocal; it should enable the student to go deeper, and simultaneously inform the teacher’s next steps. Additionally, feedback only works when a goal is mutually established and understood by the teacher and student (you can read more about goal setting here). Once a goal is set the student must have a solid idea of what success looks like (success criteria) and the steps to achieve success. (learning intentions).

Hattie explains that there are four levels of feedback:

1) Feedback related to the task (for new learning/right or wrong)

2) Feedback related to the process (some degree of proficiency)

3) Feedback which promotes self-regulation (high degree of proficiency)

4) Feedback which elicits reflection

Additionally, quality feedback should answer one of three essential questions: Where am I going? How am I getting there? Where do I go next?

The level at which feedback is given will vary based on student need. As students delve deeper into their learning, the feedback should align accordingly to challenge and engage students appropriately.

Last year, my assistant principal gave me task feedback (participants were engaged…) however, she primarily gave me feedback at higher levels (I wonder how you can reiterate… to ensure a shared understanding…).  This was the feedback pushed me.  I never felt defensive or dismissive about the comments. I felt thankful.  I valued what Courtney shared as I knew she cared about the learning of our participants and about my growth as an instructional coach.

Our students have similar needs. They also thrive when offered personalized feedback.  For many teachers, providing this level of detail to students seems unattainable; doing so seemingly takes copious amounts of time.  This is one reason the majority of teachers tend to give task-based feedback only (scores, grades, progress toward a standard, etc.).  While task-based feedback is certainly necessary for students to set goals and get started, other levels of feedback are needed for students to go further in their learning.

Perhaps you have heard or even said something along the lines of, “I would like to provide this level of feedback, but, I don’t have enough time to do so…..”  Well, you are not alone.  “There just isn’t enough time” is a common sentiment amongst educators.  In fact, a recent survey of 20,000 teachers conducted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that 76% of teachers cited time as the thing they wanted most.

But, I am not sure time is what’s needed. Instead, we need to use our time differently. I often wonder, when we cut out giving feedback to “save time”, for what are we using that time? The answer, I believe, is to allow for more content coverage. But, this is like running in a hamster wheel.  Students have a constant picture of where they are, but no path and no opportunity to go any further.

So, rather than concentrating on all the content that “needs” to be covered, shift the focus to assessing students’ current reality. Work with students to ensure they know where they need to go, strengthen your relationship with them along the way as you offer feedback at stopping points.

When students receive feedback suitable for their needs, they feel valued and are more likely to apply the given feedback.  Ultimately, building relationships while providing targeted, actionable feedback will significantly increase the probability of student growth.

While changing the way we provide feedback may seem like a difficult undertaking, remember, “The greater the challenge, the higher probability that one seeks and needs feedback” (Hattie 21). Collaborate with a trusted instructional coach, colleague, or administrator.  Or, reach out to me. I am happy to provide more information, examples, direction, and feedback.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Do your EdTech Tools Really Innovate Student Learning?


In 2009, after a brief hiatus to stay home with my young children I returned to the classroom. I taught a 6th grade gifted integrated English language arts and social studies program. Right out the gate, I asked students to write a narrative essay describing the theme of their life. I used this piece as both a baseline assessment of their writing skills and an opportunity to learn more about my students as people. While the assignment helped me accomplish my goals, my learning was much greater; by giving this assignment I also discovered Google Docs.

No one taught me about Google Docs. I didn’t hear about it in a training. I didn’t read about it on Twitter.  My students and I “found” Google Docs by conducting a Google search for “share papers without printing or emailing.” My students and I had a problem. We were equally frustrated with the tedious process of printing or emailing essays back and forth as attachments. So, we found a solution.

No one in my building had even heard of Google Docs. Moreover, some of my colleagues (at the time) questioned the safety and integrity of using a web-based medium for student assignments. Nonetheless, my students and I pressed forward with using Google Docs. Initially, (and by initially I mean for an entire school year) we used Google Docs entirely wrong. I had all students log into my account and create documents with their names, rather than create accounts and share with me. But, this was a start. 

Google Docs (now G Suite for Education) continues to revolutionize innovative possibilities for both teaching and learning. I could write a blog post on this alone. However, with the quantity of EdTech products of on the market (2174 available products to be exact) I find too often that anything “technology” is oftentimes considered to be an “innovative” learning tool, and frankly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Basically, I see that there are three types of EdTech tools:

1) Tools that allow for student and teacher innovation (examples: movie making tools, blogging tools, infographic makers, Google Apps for Education)

2) Tools that can make the tasks that surround student learning more efficient (adaptive assessments, student performance platforms, Google, YouTube)

3) Tools that make teaching more efficient (automatic grading programs)

There is absolutely a time and place for all types of tools.  But, I caution all educators to ask themselves:

“Are your EdTech tools innovating student learning or are they trying to replace the teacher?”

Specifically, is there a tool that you are using to make your job easier but adds little or no value for students?

I think back to my impetus for using Google Docs. My students and I had a mutual need; we wanted to be able to collaborate on the same document, we wanted to be better able to manage drafts of papers, we wanted to avoid printing issues. We found a tech solution that met that our need in Google Docs. Google Docs enabled more effective and efficient collaboration methods and feedback capabilities. However, it still allowed me (the teacher) to gain insight about my students and discover their passions. Having this information was critical for me. I needed this knowledge to help students pursue their passions (view examples here).

Teachers and students will always have needs and will always look for solutions. For example, I recently saw a tweet from an educator who asked for recommendations for the “best app or program to grade essays and short answer questions.”  Many people responded with suggestions, but it seemed that even more offered words of caution about using a tech tool for a skill that really requires the human brain:  sentence length can cause erroneous scores,grammar errors that are actually correct are highlighted as being wrong, no ability to understand student voice or inflection. Regardless of the disclaimers, apps that have been created to grade student writing may make teaching more efficient but they certainly do not promote innovation or help foster a growth mindset in our students. In fact, due to the lack of appropriate feedback and removal of the human relationship piece that is vital to learning, I believe tools like this may be detrimental to promoting creativity, which is a key component of innovation.

I do realize the problem automated grading systems solve: having to physically grade.  In the traditional sense of the word, grading takes a lot of time… for the teacher. Writing can also take a lot of time…for the student.  Time is an extremely valuable commodity, but so is learning. If a tech tool only makes teaching more efficient it really isn’t an innovation tool at all- it’s simply a way to remove the teacher from the assessment process.  Of course, there are times when this can be helpful (i.e. multiple choice items, true/false questions, etc.).  But when students are being asked to share their thinking through writing, a computer algorithm just can’t do what a teacher can do with regard to critical feedback or feedback beyond spelling and grammar check.

Think about it. This may not be a popular notion, but it’s true. Some tools may solve a problem only for teachers which is totally fine. But, some of these tools do so at the expense of student learning.

Therefore, I caution educators to give great consideration to the Edtech tools that are used with the intention of helping increase student learning. Instead of looking to tools to solve all issues, reach out to your PLN for potential solutions which might not involve technology, but will require a true innovator’s mindset- solving a problem in a way that, at first, you didn’t realize was possible.

I’ll get the ball rolling, besides using automated grading systems, what other methods have you found helpful to efficiently give students adequate feedback? Please share.

Actually, I Wasn’t Listening to Anything You Said


This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why–sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking.” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek

I didn’t do my homework last night.

I think our house is haunted; has anyone ever died here?

I cannot find my keys.”

These were three comments made by my children just this morning (ok, one was from my husband).  And, these were three bids for attention from my family that I did not acknowledge appropriately. I reprimanded my son, diminished my daughter’s annual autumn fear of ghosts, and I ignored my husband. Until recently, I wouldn’t have given my responses a second thought.  My family spoke, I responded appropriately. Therefore I was listening to them. However, this wouldn’t be accurate or fair to them. I heard the words they said, but I wasn’t listening.

I could make an excuse and say, “family is different. I don’t need to use the same listening skills with them that I try to use with colleagues,” but, the truth is, good listening is a full-time job. We can’t turn it off and on again. I made this realization last spring after attending Jim Knight’s Better Conversations workshop and reading his book by the same title. Knight suggests that we aren’t always objective self-evaluators. He writes:

One way to improve conversations is to identify what we really want to believe about how we interact with others.  We are not slaves to our beliefs. We get to choose them, but to do so, we must surface our current beliefs and then consider what alternative beliefs might better describe who we are and who we want to be.”

My belief was that I was a good listener. I actively listened to what others were saying, let them drive the conversation, and responded accordingly. In an effort to confirm my beliefs, I filmed myself facilitating a roundtable discussion with other instructional coaches, and I was shocked when I watched the footage. I saw myself falling prey to some of the biggest listening predators: interrupting, asking questions from my point-of-view, and offering solutions disguised as questions. (For transparency’s sake and to model vulnerability, you can view a clip here).

Why did I do this?

Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says that highly effective listeners:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Covey explains, however, that the majority of people do just the opposite. They seek first to be understood, to get their point across. Most people prepare answers without actually listening to their conversation partner because they listen autobiographically. When people listen in this way, they typically respond in one of four ways: by judging (speaker is right or wrong), by probing (asking questions from their point-of-view), by offering solutions, or by analyzing based on their personal experiences.

I realized I had spent years listening autobiographically. I had also spent years thinking that this was an effective way of listening. I also realized, that sadly, I had also probably spent years listening autobiographically to my students. To me, this was the biggest shame.

Educators have the unique opportunity to shape the next generation of adult listeners by modeling effective listening with their current students. Teachers and administrators (including me) often claim we encourage students to advocate for themselves. But, the question is:

When students advocate for themselves are we actually listening?

I would venture to say that surely some educators are listening, but, on the whole, we have room for improvement. Simply put, listening with the intent to understand can be even harder to do with children than with adults because of inherent differences in life experience and status. Therefore, adults may unproductively listen to children in one of the following ways:

  • With superiority: The teacher is in charge. The teacher needs to be understood before the students can express their thoughts.
  • By being defensive: Students comments and questions (why do we have to learn this?)may feel like an attack. Therefore, we stop listening to what students are saying to prepare our rebuttal.
  • By presuming: We assume we know what or why a student is saying something without asking clarifying questions to truly understand why. (I didn’t do my homework/student forgot).
  • By not being present: The timing of questions/comments from students may not be ideal only increasing our urge to prepare answers without fully listening.

Due to such listening blocks, many students’ attempts to advocate for themselves fall on deaf ears. Even though educators may not intend to listen inattentively, the results are the same. Students will eventually stop trying to engage us in conversation, and we are perpetuating the use of ineffective listening.

What can we do to become better listeners?

We can make a concerted effort to be better listeners to anyone with whom we engage in conversation: adult or child. We will likely find that our students learn more, we will learn more, and our students will more productive conversations with each other. If we can suspend judgment, let go of status, and really listen, we undoubtedly will be better able to meet the needs of all students. The biggest success, however, will likely be that our students will grow up to be more effective adult listeners.


Try this in your classroom or school this week. As you respond to students:

  • Keep an open mind and assume positive intent.
  • Be present, (as hard as it may be) and don’t multi-task when talking to students. If a student approaches you at an inopportune time, offer another time to talk and follow-through on that meeting.
  • Ask unbiased questions (Can you tell me more? What makes you think that? Why did that happen?) rather than leading questions (Did you hear what I said? Did you forget again?)
  • Respond to student responses with additional questions rather than statements (What would happen if you did that? What does that look like to you?)
  • Try not to take student comments about expectations or assignments personally, (when will we ever need to know this?) and refuse to become defensive. Instead, ask questions  to try to understand the impetus for why students make such comments. Look at the comments as suggestive feedback. Maybe something can be done.
  • Don’t be quick to offer a solution. Instead, collaborate with students to problem-solve.
  • Seek to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.

What else can you suggest? I encourage you to share your questions, successes, and struggles; I’m listening.


Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

How to Differentiate for Success on Standardized Tests


This post was originally published on Corwin   Connect


Recently I wrote a guest blog post on differentiation for Peter DeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in EdWeek. I corrected five common misconceptions regarding differentiation and offered suggestions for implementation.
The response to the post was in large part quite positive, however, there were a handful of critics. I expected as much, as differentiation is a highly debated concept. I was able to compartmentalize all of the critiques except for one. Many teachers explained that standardized tests prevent them from differentiating because ultimately all of their students take the same test.
This perceived barrier to differentiation is both inaccurate and potentially counterproductive to student learning. In fact, the only way all students will be prepared for standardized tests is by differentiating instruction before the test. If instruction is not differentiated, many students will take state/national tests after months or years of feeling apathetic or discouraged toward learning. Regardless of testing, neither mindset is advantageous for students and contributes to negative self-fulfilling prophecies like, “It doesn’t matter how I do on this test, school will always be boring for me” or “I always do bad on tests, and this will just be another example of that.”
Please know, this post is not a promotion of standardized tests. The reality is students are required to take them. There is a time and place to debate the effectiveness, validity, and application of these tests, but for now, I prefer to direct my energy into employing methods that meet the needs of students and promote a love of learning without compromising test scores.
So, how can we differentiate the content (what students learn), process (how students learn) and product (how students demonstrate learning) and still expect them to do well on a standardized test? We do this by not focusing on the test, but by focusing on our students’ learning needs instead; achievement is a natural byproduct of differentiating.
In Getting Started with Rigorous Curriculum Design and in this short video author Larry Ainsworth explains how a systems approach to planning units of study centered on assessment for learning and appropriate differentiation ultimately prepares students for (summative) standardized tests.
Let’s look at an analogous situation: annual physicals and bloodwork. Every July I visit my doctor for a physical. In the twelve months in between blood tests, I do not wake up every morning and think “I am going to eat healthily and exercise today to get a 198 on my cholesterol test.” Rather, I try to eat relatively well and exercise regularly because I know what steps I need to take to reach my goal of being healthy.
That being said, one year my cholesterol was elevated. Considering that my husband also sees the same physician and also had high cholesterol, I assumed my doctor would prescribe the same treatment: medication. But, he didn’t. My test results suggested a different intervention would be more appropriate. My doctor simply suggested I change parts of my diet. The result? Three months later my husband and I had our cholesterol levels rechecked and we were both in the normal range.
When I think of standardized tests, I think of them like my cholesterol test. I don’t look at the number as my goal—my goal is for students to learn. The number on the test is simply a way for me to check that my students are learning. The tests are one measurement of my effectiveness as a teacher. Truth be told, some years I was more effective than others. During my “less effective” years, I never thought I was a “bad teacher”. I thought I had an opportunity to reflect on my practice and make some changes.
Similar to how numbers are not my goal as a teacher, a number on a standardized test is rarely an authentic goal for a student. But, learning goals tied to testing can be hugely impactful for student growth if properly set. A happy medium can be found. I find the following rules of thumb to be quite effective for goal setting with students:
Create the context: Have an open and honest conversation with students about the test. I always told my students that the test is just one measure of their success. I even admitted that when I was a student I performed better on other types of assessments. I explained that my goal as a teacher was for them to learn and become critical thinkers and that tests in them of themselves are exercises in critical thinking. I promised them that all the learning activities will prepare them for the test even though we wouldn’t take a whole lot of tests throughout the school year.

Ensure a common understanding of the test: My school district gives the NWEA MAP test. I administered the MAP reading test to my students which gives information on three strand areas: literature, informational text, and vocabulary acquisition. Every year I had many students who either couldn’t remember or couldn’t explain/give an example of literature vs. informational text. Therefore, students and I met one-one to ensure a common understanding of what exactly would be assessed (standardized tests or otherwise). Without a comprehensible understanding of these terms goal setting would have been done in vain.

Collaborate on goal setting: The most attainable goals are goals that are feasible, measurable, and sustainable. By measurable, I am referring to a way for the student to determine if they are meeting the goal, not a number on a test. Every year my students would amaze me by setting super creative goals. For instance, one student set a vocabulary acquisition goal for herself. This student was going to “acquire vocabulary” by keeping a dictionary in her bathroom. Every morning when she brushed her teeth she taught herself one new word. Then, she used this new word in class later that day (orally or in written form). This student never missed one day. Furthermore, when I planned instruction, I had information to better tailor group work to offer and monitor opportunities for this student to grow in her goal area as well as the other skills/standards assessed.

Discuss this process with your team or PLC. I had the luxury of having students in their reading class. However, standardized test scores are an accumulation of learning in ALL classes, not just reading, writing and math. All teachers who teach students should know students’ goals and plan to reach their goals so they can plan instruction accordingly.

As differentiation expert Rick Wormeli said, “Differentiated instruction and standardized tests are not oxymoronic… Students will do well on standardized assessments if they know the material well, and differentiated instruction’s bottom line is to teach in whatever way students best learn.”

Instructional Coaching: Finally, an Easy Choice

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground contributor Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

A few years ago, I read The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. I was fascinated by the effect choice has on the human psyche. My learning from this book has changed my approach to simple tasks like grocery shopping and more complex manners like child-rearing and teaching. Schwartz writes:

“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”

In other words, having choice is vital, but, too many options to choose from is destructive.

In the field of education, choice is a commodity frequently cited as one most valued by teachers. The 2014 study Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found:

“those [teachers] who choose all or most of their professional learning opportunities are more than twice as satisfied with professional development as those with fewer options.”

Additionally, there has been quite a bit written, both formally and informally, on educators’ desire to discontinue “one-size-fits-all/sit and get” professional development as this method is met with resistance and is ineffective at producing change. Instead, self-directed professional development options are being promoted for teachers.

Choice in professional development allows educators to learn more about areas of interest and tap into perceived strengths. Both of these factors build teacher self-efficacy and in turn positively impact student growth. Fortunately, in today’s educational landscape there is not a shortage of choice (for professional development and otherwise).  Let’s take a look at some numbers:

  • 353 – number of weekly education Twitter chats
  • 2174 – number of EdTech Products available for educators (most with PD/training options)
  • 4,050,0000 – number of Google Search results for “Instructional Strategies”
  • Too many to count – number of EdCamps, Voxer Chats, Pinterest boards, books, blogs, podcasts, YouTube tutorials, etc.

The mere quantity of choices available to teachers could overwhelm even the most resolute of educators. Schwartz suggests that being faced with too many options causes many people to choose nothing which, ultimately, leads to disappointment:

When asked about what they regret most in the last six months, people tend to identify actions that didn’t meet expectations. But when asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.”

Here we see a paradox. How can we accommodate teachers’ desire for choice and minimize the insurmountable task of evaluating all the available options?

The answer to this question is yet another reason why instructional coaching programs are crucial components to successful professional learning and growth of students. (You can read about other reasons for instructional coaching programs here.)

Instructional coaching’s foremost thought leader, Jim Knight of the Kansas Coaching Project says,

Effective coaching makes it easier for teachers to learn and implement new ideas. Indeed, without follow-up such as coaching, most professional learning will have little effect.”

Knight’s research is corroborated by the meta-analysis done by John Hattie author of Visible Learning For Teachers . Hattie found that when instructional coaching is conducted over-time in conjunction with data team analysis of how students learn to inform instruction student growth is impacted with an effect size of .51 (anything with an effect size above .4 is considered effective).

Instructional coaches form long-term, non-evaluative, mutually beneficial partnerships with teachers and administrators to support the implementation of research-based best practices through coaching cycles. Choice is an essential part of coaching cycles and is one of the seven instructional coaching partnership principles outlined by Knight.

When teachers (individually or in teams) partner with a coach, the coach supports the teacher to identify a goal. The teacher may have already come to the coach with an idea they want to explore. Or, sometimes the coach will engage in some preliminary learning on behalf of the coachee(s) to determine options. Instructional coaches are not experts on all things content and instruction, but, they do have significant training on how to determine if resources are aligned to research-based effective strategies and can decipher suitability of strategies. Either way, the coach and the teacher will discuss the possible courses of action and the coachee will choose how and what they will do to achieve their goal.

The learning phase continues with the coach modeling and/or co-teaching the chosen strategy followed by the teacher putting the strategy into action. The learning portion of the coaching cycle culminates when quantifiable improvement on the stated goal is noted. Typically, growth is confirmed by comparing evidence collected before the cycle, during the cycle, and at the end of the cycle. Sustainability of the goal can also be ascertained by continued check-ins and partnership on subsequent goals.

With the paradox of choice teachers face on a daily basis, instructional coaching as the primary vehicle for professional development makes perfect sense. Whether a teacher is well-versed in the available options and readily participating in self-directed professional development or conversely if a teacher does not know where to begin, an instructional coach will accommodate the needs of the teacher and ensure that teachers reach and sustain their goals.

In the words of my favorite coach, Mike Ditka, “I think it’s a wise choice.”
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Last I Checked, Compliance Isn’t a Learning Standard

compliance or learning final (1)

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

For five years I took the same route to work. I was comforted by the familiar surroundings. I could listen to music, drink my coffee, and be alone with my thoughts. I never considered whether or not this route was the most efficient way for me to get to work. Then, one day there was an accident on the highway. I needed to find an alternate route. I entered my destination into Waze (I love this app!) and immediately learned there was a much quicker way, one that would save me time regardless of a back-up on the highway.

As I usually do, I connected this personal experience to my professional life. When I was in the classroom, how many practices had I utilized out of habit without evaluating their effectiveness? The answer was simple- too many.  I required my students to keep reading logs even though the logs did not provide insight into my students’ reading development or interests. I gave all students summative vocabulary tests every ten days regardless of their readiness. I assigned final products with mandatory components without student input. This reflection led me to make the larger realization that many of the tasks I required students to complete were exercises in compliance rather than learning.

This summer, for the third time, I read Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie. In his book, Hattie shares the results of a meta-analysis of 15+ years of research involving thousands of students to provide evidence as to what really works to improve learning. Hattie writes:

“The aim is to get the students actively involved in seeking this evidence: their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains. This includes evaluating their own progress, being more responsible for their learning, and being involved with peers in learning together about gains in learning….fostering active learning seems a very challenging and demanding task for teachers, requiring knowledge of students’ learning processes, skills in providing guidance and feedback and classroom management. The need is to engage students in this same challenging and demanding task….start lessons with helping students to understand the intention of the lesson and showing them what success might look like at the end.”

Hattie stresses that teachers and students must have a clear and shared understanding of both the learning intentions and success criteria. Students need to know what to do to be successful, and they need to see examples of what success looks like. In Visible Learning, Hattie uses a driving analogy to illustrate the importance of success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

With this perspective, let’s re-evaluate having students complete reading logs. I asked my students to keep reading logs to “ensure” they were reading independently. My learning intention was to foster my students’ love of reading while simultaneously strengthening their reading skills. I didn’t ask myself what success would look like for this task and therefore required students to complete an assignment that was misaligned to the learning intentions. With reading logs, students succeeded by reading an arbitrary number of pages each quarter. This task certainly did not foster a love of reading for my students, and moreover, the logs didn’t provide any insight into the progression of their reading skills.

Now, with the availability of research like Hattie’s, we can better determine the effectiveness of the practices we employ in our schools and classrooms.  We need to dig deep and ask ourselves the right questions. We need to be prepared for the realizations we make when we look critically at ourselves. Inevitably, we will recognize some of our practices promote learning and others do not. What we may find is we can group practices into two overarching categories: those that cultivate learning and those that promote compliance. Items rooted in compliance hold students accountable regardless of learning. Those created using research-based high impact methods encourage academic and social-emotional learning, growth, and success.

In addition to applying educational research, we must also leverage the power of personal reflection and collaboration to determine the effectiveness of our teaching practices.

I find self-reflection followed by collaboration with a colleague to be the most powerful way to make sustainable changes to the way I teach. To guide my reflection I ask myself the following questions:

  • Why am I asking students to complete this task?
  • How does this task provide information about students’ progress toward the success criteria?
  • Does this task promote collaboration (student-student and student-teacher)?
  • Does this task promote student ownership?
  • Does this task take student readiness into consideration?
  • Does this task promote a positive rather than punitive learning community?
  • How will I know this task is effective?
  • What will happen if I stop having students perform this task?

After I answer these questions honestly, I take a deep breath and consider the changes I need to make. I remind myself that change is a difficult but necessary part of life. I also tell myself that making a change does not mean that what I did in the past was “bad.” Rather, making a change means I have received new information that is too valuable for me to ignore.

When I am ready, I share my reflections with a trusted colleague. I collaborate with this person to determine a plan to guide the change I seek to make. I attempt to adhere to my plan even when there are bumps in the road. I try to look at setbacks as opportunities to improve further rather than reasons to stop. Most importantly, I strive to keep my eyes on my success criteria: the growth and success of students.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman

The Next Great Tool for Teachers? Instructional Coaches


“When teachers stop learning, so do students.” Jim Knight, Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction

Instructional coaching might be the best non-technological advancement to the field of education since the advent of the classroom. Many other industries see the benefits of coaches on a personal level. We often seek the counsel of personal trainers, financial advisors, and life coaches. With the rapid evolution of the ways we access information and the variety of ways students can demonstrate learning, teacher utilization of professional coaching is long overdue.

How can educators possibly keep up with all of the research, technological advances, and mandates? This is where instructional coaching made a marked difference in my teaching practice and now, as an instructional coach, I continue to seek feedback and learn from members of my team.

Instructional coaching is a non-evaluative partnership between teachers, coaches, and administrators. These relationships are mutually beneficial to all participants. While most instructional coaches are experienced educators, they are not experts in all aspects of teaching. Instructional coaches learn alongside teachers to stay up to date on research-based best practices. Moreover, instructional coaches can help visualize practices in the classroom via modeling, co-teaching, or video recordings. Instructional coaches can help teachers reflect on and discover unrecognized intricacies of their practices through coaching cycles, which include a learning piece. During this learning piece, instructional coaches work with teachers to make effective pedagogy a tangible entity.


Additionally, instructional coaches can serve as a liaison between teachers and administrators. Now, this is the part that sometimes makes people uncomfortable. The thought that pops into people’s minds often is: “Wait … I thought you said instructional coaches are nonevaluative?!” Well, rest assured, we are. Many school districts have strategic plans, and building, team, and individual teaching goals. Administrators and coaches alike have a responsibility to ensure the entire faculty understands the district’s vision and works together to achieve those goals. The difference between administrators and instructional coaches is that administrators are 1) evaluators and 2) have about 1 million other things on their plates. Coaches can focus their attention on individual teachers/teams and work as partners addressing components of The Big 4 as outlined by Jim Knight: classroom management, content, instruction, and assessment.

We do not exist in isolation in any facet of our lives. We reach out to others for a variety of reasons: child care, advice, recommendations, etc. As a professional educator, reaching out to your instructional coach can render the same results. As an administrator, leveraging the capacity of instructional coaches will help guarantee you meet your personal and building goals. Whether you are a teacher or an administrator, when you collaborate with an instructional coach, you have an impartial partner in a shared journey to best meet the needs of students. Together you and your instructional coach can determine your goal(s) and put them into practice.


This post originally appeared on The Otus Student Performance System blog.

Read other posts on the powers of instructional coaching herehere and here.

Yes, Differentiation is Hard. So, Let’s Get It Right. 

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Today’s guest post is written by Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

I must admit, I love a good challenge. I love the learning that comes from trial and error. I love hitting roadblocks and finding detours. This probably explains why I also I love differentiating instruction. I equate differentiation to a giant jigsaw puzzle with student needs being the pieces. Once I fit the first pieces together, the next few pieces fall into place. There are moments of frustration as mistakes I inevitably make mistakes and completing the puzzle may take a while, but the result is always worth the effort.

Like puzzles, differentiating instruction can be a complicated endeavor. In fact, a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute found that 83% of teachers nationwide believe that differentiation is “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement. Subsequent differentiation statistics support the 2008 finding; educators continue to consider differentiating instruction as strenuous. These results are not surprising. As one of differentiation’s foremost experts, Carol Ann Tomlinson explains,”I absolutely understand that differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I’ve never felt that teaching should be easy.”

Teaching is not easy. Teaching is a career that requires a physical, emotional, and mental commitment. Teachers are used to things being “hard”. So, why should differentiating instruction be the exception? This leads me to wonder: “Is watching students struggle because their needs are not being met easier than differentiating?”

In January of 2015, educational expert Rick Wormeli tweeted, “far from being a detriment to student learning [differentiated instruction] is the only way we can teach all students, not just the easy ones.”

Wormeli’s tweet is a call to action. Differentiation is our puzzle and as dedicated educators, we certainly can solve it…one piece at a time. We just need the right pieces. Ironically, I have found this is precisely the issue with many educators’ perception of differentiation. They have the wrong pieces of information. Teachers operating under a set a fallacies will often disregard differentiation entirely or ineffectively implement with no clear benefit to students.

To avoid exerting coveted time, energy, and resources for naught, I would like to clarify some common misinterpretations of differentiation.

#1: “Differentiation means I have to plan something different for every student.”

Clarification: Differentiation means that your students are engaged in learning that is appropriate for their readiness level, and they can learn at their pace. Differentiation also considers student interest and preferred learning style. These criteria can be addressed without planning for each student individually.

Now, what?  Pre-assess students. Look for patterns of performance to initially group students. Then, formatively assess students and regroup them as their needs change. To incorporate student interest, look at The Common Core Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 framework as a gift. The majority of these standards are concept or skills-based rather than rooted in specific content. Use standards as a springboard for planning relevant, skills-based learning experiences. Allow students to have an influence on the content by asking them targeted questions to determine their interests relative to standards being assessed.

#2: “I differentiate by grouping students by reading ability and giving them leveled readings.”

Clarification: This may seem like differentiation, but in actuality this is tracking within the classroom setting. Leveled texts don’t necessarily address the specific needs of students which are often unrelated to reading ability. All students deserve access to challenging and interesting material. Differentiation comes into play with how students interact with the text.

Now, what? Differentiate the process (task) and product (how learning is demonstrated) for students. Consider the level at which students will engage with the text and how they can best show their understanding. The same text can be used by most students by compacting the curriculum for high-achievers and scaffolding for students who need more support. Refer to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and Bloom’s Taxonomy in conjunction with student conferencing to co-evaluate student progress and co-design their learning process. Not only is conferencing a type of formative assessment, but it is an opportunity to model effective questioning, gain insight into students’ thought processes, and offer students ownership of their learning.

#3: “I can differentiate effectively using one data point.”

Clarification: Impossible. First of all, there is quantitative data (think numbers) and qualitative data (think observations). To differentiate most effectively a combination of data types should be used. Additionally, multiple formative assessment results need to be examined to allow for flexible pacing and grouping which are the hallmarks of differentiation.

Now, what? Think about the data you are currently using. Is this data giving you information about the whole child on a day-day basis? What does this information tell you? What other information do you need? Work to eliminate meaningless data points, offer a multitude of formative assessment types, and use academic data as well as affective data to get a clear picture of each student.

#4: “Differentiation is easy, just give the high students more and the low students less.”

Clarification: Differentiation is not more or less. Differentiation is challenging a student just enough so that it neither impedes learning if too hard or causes apathy if too easy or redundant. (Cash, Richard).

Now, what?  Think quality over quantity. It is quite possible that one high-level question is more challenging than twenty low-level questions. Plus, being asked to show mastery of a concept or skill twenty times builds frustration for high-achieving students because they don’t need the practice and similarly produces frustration for struggling students because they are practicing the skill incorrectly 20 times.

#5: “I don’t need to change anything about my instructional practices to effectively differentiate.”

Clarification: Frankly, the factory model of teaching is not appropriate for today’s learners. If at any point while reading this blog post you thought, “Well, I can’t do that because what would the rest of the students be doing…?” this misinterpretation may be subconsciously preventing you from truly differentiating for your students.

Now, what? Don’t beat yourself up; you are not alone. The first step in change is recognizing the issue. Take small steps and allow yourself time to learn and practice. If your district employs instructional coaches, partner a coach in an authentic coaching cycle.  If your school district does not have instructional coaches, partner with a colleague. Engage in a book study and try something together. Lastly, I encourage everyone to build a global PLN (professional learning network) by connecting with other educators on social media.

As you begin the school year, try to reconcile these misconceptions by attempting to implement one of the clarifications. Be patient and if a piece isn’t fitting, reflect and try another piece. Differentiation may never be easy, but it will always be worth the effort.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman.

Boys will be boys

little girls boys editedLast week I participated in the Twitter #tmchat moderated by Aziz Abdur-Ra’off and Connie Hamilton Ed.S. The topic “addressing the needs of boys in our classrooms” is one that is near and dear to my heart as I have a grade-school aged son who defies the classic definition of a “good student”.

The chat was well-attended and participants were eager to discuss the needs of our male students. I was happy to be surrounded by articulate and creative educators who are bound and determined to see that male students are successful.

Right from the get-go some contributing teachers and administrators suggested learning style differences between boys and girls as one explanation for discrepancies between male and female performance in school. Connie Hamilton quickly cited the work of John Hattie in Visible Learning which shows a negligible effect size (d= 0.15) of male/female learning difference and this nominal effect actually favors boys.

On pages 89-90 of Visible Learning, Hattie references a study done by Psychology Professor, Janet Hyde. Hyde summarizes 124 meta-analyses of millions of students. The results of this study showed that boys and girls do not inherently learn differently. Rather, as a whole, boys and girls receive a higher effect from different characteristics and skills. Boys had a slight edge in the categories of achievement, social/personality, negotiation, helpfulness, and outcome. Girls had an edge in the categories of communication, effort, attention, and ability to manage impulses.  As Hattie writes, “the differences in how students learn is not related to their boy or girl attributes, and while the labeling of ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ may appease some, it is not based on actual differences.”

I was pleased that Connie pointed this fact out as I think that many educators falsely assume that there is a physiological difference between how boys and girls learn. There is not.  However, this information gives educators yet another reason to rethink “one size fits all” teaching and learning.

This all being said, almost a week later, one of the chat questions is still so prominent in my mind that I felt compelled to write more than my original 14o character answer:


My goal is not to offend anyone with this answer. Furthermore, I am not accusing anyone of intentionally crushing male students’ motivation. But, because of outdated teaching practices and the confusion of student skills vs. academic performance, inevitably, the crushing of boys motivation occurs.


We crush boys motivation by implementing behavioral systems and consequences that disproportionately target them. We crush boys by fearing and managing their propensity toward restlessness and exuberance. We crush boys by not tapping into their natural curiosity. We crush boys by requiring them to read novels with female protagonists when they want to read non-fiction or assuming they want to read about “boy” topics.

As I was preparing to write this blog post, I looked up the definition of “motivate”. While I was not surprised by the definition, I was caught off-guard by the sentence example:

motivate snagit

I took this example as a sign that this post was meant to be. I then asked myself: “Is it the job of a teacher to motivate children?

After much thought and reflection, I stand firm in my opinion that it is not the job of teachers to motivate children…it is the teacher’s job to discover what intrinsically motivates children and tap into that natural inclination.

George Mason University Psychologists, Martha Carlton and Adam Winsler in volume 25 of The Early Childhood Education Journal describe how children are born with an innate curiosity to learn. This motivation is intrinsic, and the child requires no outside rewards for its continuation. However, as children start formal schooling (even preschool), much of their motivation has been lost or replaced with extrinsically motivated learning strategies. Here within lies the problem.

So, why, with no physiological difference in the way boys and girls learn, and no need to use external motivators to appeal children, do we as educators think we need to motivate boys?

I go back to my original answer:


We need to celebrate the skills and interests boys arrive at school with on the first day of kindergarten. We need to implement instructional strategies that don’t favor students with strong impulse control. We need to celebrate boys’ inclination to negotiate and offer them learning opportunities where negotiation is mandatory rather than penalized. We need to harness boys’ intrinsic motivation. We need to stop trying to change boys’ display of enthusiasm only to later try and rebuild it with extrinsic forces.


Thank you for making me cry

crying pic

My first year teaching was one of the best and worst years of my career. I was hired to teach 7th and 8th grade gifted humanities in a small suburban community just north of Chicago. The teacher that held this role previously, Diane*, had been promoted to Director of Engaged Learning for the district. In her new role, Diane was to work with ALL teachers (veteran and new) on their instruction. Diane was beloved by students, parents, teachers, and admistrators. She was a living legend.

I on the other hand, like most 22 year-olds, thought I already knew everything.  I mean, I had a lot of educational experience. I had just completed 17 years of school as student and was still taking grad school classes.  I knew what to do.  I taught my students the way I was taught. Since the students were high-achievers I simply gave them “harder” and “longer” assignments. I did not tap into Diane’s expertise. I was FINE on my own.

Then, November came and I experienced my first parent/teacher conferences. I spent extra time preparing to meet with the parents of a student who I believed was not putting forth effort and was misplaced. Frankly, I had no idea why Joey* was in the “gifted” class. I remember sitting across from the parents of this 7th grade boy and telling them that their son could benefit from putting forth more effort, completing his homework, and being more respectful to his classmates and me.

I expected the parents to apologize on behalf of their son.  I expected them to feel embarrassed by his performance. But, this is not what happened. Instead, the parents started asking me questions like: “Is it possible that Joey isn’t completing homework because the homework is not useful? Do you think that Joey would be more respectful to you if you were more respectful of his needs?”  As I stumbled over my answers trying desperately to defend my professional actions and authority, the father of this child interrupted me and said:

“You have some big shoes to fill and from the looks of it, you will NEVER be able to fill them.”**

Ouch! What a blow to my ego and a test of my emotions. I bit the inside of my cheeks as to to not break down and cry in front of them. Finally, the conference ended. But, my journey was just beginning…what was I going to do now?

Luckily for me, conferences directly preceded a 5-day Thanksgiving break. During that break, I spent two days crying, two days being angrily defensive, and on the fifth day something changed. I asked myself:

“Could these parents be right?” 

Perhaps the homework I assigned was irrelevant. Come to think of it…I hadn’t ever thought about student learning needs; I was simply focused on covering content. Then it hit me.

Maybe, just maybe, I was the one who needed to change and not the student.

This was a very scary realization. I had absolutely no idea what this change would look like or where to start. I knew I wanted to teach in a way that would best meet the academic and social emotional needs of each of my students, but how in the world would I do this? Plus, what if the other parents didn’t agree with my new approach? What if they were upset that I was no longer going to give homework for the sake of giving homework? What if they were upset that their child was assessed using a different method than one of his classmates?

The following Monday, I arrived at school early. I knew Diane (my predecessor with the big shoes to fill) would be there early as well. I told Diane everything that happened at conferences. I rallied off all of my fears and questions. Diane listened and asked insightful questions in response. Diane acknowledged my concerns and said:

“These are the experiences that mold us as educators. You can choose to try something new or you can continue doing what you are doing and see what happens.”

I chose to try. This was the best decision I ever made. Diane partnered with me to ensure that I was able to meet all of my students’ needs. This was in 2002. This was a time before terms like instructional coaching,  mindset, and differentiation were commonplace. But, that is exactly what this experience exemplified. I had a growth mindset. I set a goal regarding differentiation with an instructional coach. I spent time and put forth the effort to complete successful coaching cycles with Diane as my partner.

Although change occurred rather quickly, I did not complete just one coaching cycle. I completed many over the next several years because learning in this capacity was invaluable for me.  With Diane’s coaching, I set goals around instruction and assessment. I aimed to meet my students’ cognitive needs and ability levels. I was determined to do this by offering appropriately challenging content without sacrificing student interest.

I was also able to see why Diane was so revered in the district. Diane was a visionary who was able to affect change by engaging others in the process.  I never felt that Diane was judging me. I never felt like she was competing with me. All Diane wanted was to see every student benefit from high-quality instruction. I was so fortunate to be able to learn from her.

Last week, my instructional coaching team and I gathered for two jam-packed days of learning facilitated by our coach/Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, Becky Fischer. We participated in a storytelling activity, and I told this story. I prefaced my story with an apology for anyone who had heard the story before. When I finished telling my story, Becky, like she always does, asked me a thought-provoking question.

“You mentioned that you have told this story in the past. Why do you keep coming back to this story?”

Becky offered me an opportunity to reflect. I took some silent think time and here is my answer.

I tell this story because it is my “why”.  This story explains “why” I am a proponent of differentiation.  This story describes “why” I wanted to become an instructional coach.  

I learned to differentiate because doing so was emotionally compelling to me. I hadn’t read about it in a book. I didn’t differentiate to comply with the district strategic plan. I had an experience that was so poignant I saw no other option.

I needed to differentiate and reevaluate instruction, homework, and assessment.  I needed to differentiate to avoid future conflict with parents and more importantly, I needed to differentiate because that was what my students deserved. Above all, this story reminds me that we are all capable of change and sometimes the most difficult changes garner the best results.

*not their real names

**Joey’s father apologized to me for his statement at the end of the school year. He also said that my feet were growing.