Revisiting: How Schools Learn

Four years ago, I had the pleasure of joining a CAIS accreditation committee at a school in Bermuda. Fuelled by my conviction that the exercise in earning CAIS accreditation was a story worth telling, I wrote the following blog from my hotel room overlooking Hamilton Harbour. This coming Sunday to Wednesday, I’m heading out west to join the committee for another school visit. CAIS and the accreditation process help make KCS and other CAIS schools outstanding places to teach and learn. Here’s how:

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Our website, newsletters and social media channels explain in detail how our students learn. A nod to how our teachers are learning was given in the recent blog ‘Embrace Learning’. There’s one more pocket of learning worth knowing about. A critical part of the value offered by independent schools, it’s a process that would bring untold value to all if this practice could only spread.

I’m rarely away from school. This week, however, I’ve joined a Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) Visiting Committee, where six peers from across Canada and I will play a part in one school’s learning. It’s a process required for CAIS accreditation and represents the high bar in demonstrating school-wide commitment to excellence in education. All told, it’s a process that takes about two-and-a-half years and repeats itself every seven.

CAIS has identified 12 Standards which together cover every area of functioning within a school: vision, mission and strategy; learning environment; academics; facility; finance; health and safety; and commitment to school improvement, to name just some of the Standards. Within each Standard, undeniable effective practices are listed. Under effective practices are questions designed to prompt and provoke schools into being accountable for their efforts.

One year prior to the visit such as I’m on, schools mobilise their whole community to collect evidence on their effective practices. The preparation of the Internal Evaluation Report includes feedback from all staff and faculty, parents, students, board members and administration. The document is rarely less than 200 pages and can be hundreds more. Designed to be an exercise in thorough and honest reflection, the report includes not only an account of strengths but also self-identified challenges and next steps. By design, this exercise is about school-wide learning. This process identifies schools which demonstrate an exceptional commitment to learning and makes note of their achieved excellence.

During our official visit, the committee will spend four days meeting with teachers, administrators, parents, board members and students, verifying what’s in the school’s Internal Evaluation Report and asking about any unreported areas of note. When we leave, we’ll be writing up our observations, and include commendations, suggestions and recommendations. Our report then goes to the school, where they will have 18 months in which to respond to the recommendations. It also goes to CAIS for a decision on accreditation.

Two-and-a-half years of every seven spent answering to the profession’s highest standards fuels an undeniable engine for learning. It sets in motion work and learning that fills the interim four-and-a-half years. And by mobilizing the whole community, and bringing in professionals from outside the school, all involved learn and become better able to serve the students in their midst.

Parents with children in CAIS schools can be confident that they have invested in a school which strives for excellence. Wishing all children could be so lucky, parents with children in non-CAIS schools are encouraged to ask the question, “How do their schools learn?” It’s the kind of provocative question that our entire profession should be accountable for answering.

Andrea Fanjoy,
Assistant Head, Academics
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @afanjoy.

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A Great Year to Come, By Design

I make no secret of my enthusiasm for what happens at KCS, and what’s happening in the profession. I have an exciting vantage point, in the midst of determined teachers and students as they embrace learning, within a profession that is evolving in notable inspiring ways. The evolution I witness daily isn’t always smooth – “messy” is the word often used in professional dialogue. Like the work of a sculptor, through (responsible) mess, beautiful things emerge.

Last week, all KCS faculty were introduced to design thinking. Blog readers may recall that we introduced design thinking two years ago in the form of a unique model of student-staff collaborative leadership, called KCS By Design. This initial experience with design thinking made clear that it was worth adopting school-wide.

While design thinking has origins in the late 1960s, it has gained increasing attention since the turn of the century for contributing to remarkable innovation, both in the corporate world and in addressing some of the world’s most challenging social issues. One remarkable article published by the Harvard Business Review shares how design thinking helped create a middle class in Peru. Impressive indeed! In schools, design thinking not only equips educators with a problem-solving tool, it equally develops in students mature critical and creative thinking skills, and so much more.

Design thinking insists on certain mindsets. Based on the work of the international driver of design thinking, IDEO, here are the mindsets shared with faculty last week:

Creative confidence
Make it (Bias for Action)
Learn from Failing
Empathy
Embrace Ambiguity
Optimism (love the problem!)
Iterate, iterate, iterate (small actions, big change)

Fuelled with those mindsets, design thinking requires a disciplined multi-step process. Also based on the work of IDEO, here is the process we’re following:

What is the design challenge?

  • What problems are you aware of that need fixing?
  • What challenges are you aware of that are worth addressing?
  • What opportunities have occurred to you that are worth pursuing?

What do you need to know?

  • Who is affected?
  • What are their perspectives?
  • What research can inform you?
  • What can you learn from others’ experiences?

What ideas address your design challenge?

  • What can you think of?
  • Which are win-win for all?
  • Get feedback from a larger group

Act

  • Pilot at a small scale
  • Reflect and iterate
  • Expand to address the challenge

Annette Diefenthaler’s TEDX talk ‘Teachers as Designers’ was part of last week’s introduction. This was followed by a creative brainstorming exercise that was rooted in KCS survey results and research. The design challenge for all was to find new ways to do better in various areas.

Most gratifying were the comments from faculty that “this is how we’ve done things for years – now we have a name for it.” What was also gratifying was to see the buzz among faculty. Optimistic bias for action was fuelled.

The world has complex problems. So does education. As all schools, so does KCS. Equipping all faculty with the mindsets and tools of design thinking is one big reason for my excitement as we begin this new school year. Mindfully embracing challenges is how we’ve gotten better year after year. And it’s why we can confidently look forward to a great year to come.

What Happens on those Early Dismissal Days?

Have you ever wondered what KCS teachers are doing during those early dismissal days when school wraps up at 12:20 and students head out to start their weekend? For starters, these afternoons always begin with a great tradition- a delicious potluck lunch.  Many KCS teachers work across numerous grades throughout the building. This special lunch is a wonderful opportunity to break bread together and reconnect with colleagues from a different grade or division. A quick glance across the room reveals tables that are full of lively conversations, laughter and an unmistakable atmosphere of positive energy.  It is this energy that fuels the professional development activities that make up the balance of the afternoon.

Staff activities during Early Dismissal Days, or EDDs, exemplify the collaborative spirit of the KCS Faculty.  Early Dismissal days complement the numerous meetings that KCS teachers attend on a weekly basis.  These formal and informal meetings allow our teachers to better understand and meet the needs of our students.  Earlier this year, the KCS faculty completed professional development activities that reflected on Project Based Learning, Differentiated Instruction and Health and Wellness. These afternoons are sometimes used to formulate action plans for students who may need extra support, guidance, challenge or a friendly pat on the back.  EDDs also offer a wonderful opportunity for both teachers and administrators to invest time into discussing curriculum, school wide projects, enrichment opportunities and upcoming events. Building on these important discussions, the teachers also take time to review current best practices whose key purpose is to make KCS a better school. Topics cover the range of our Four Doors to Learning including classroom innovation, student generated ideas, the status of clubs and teams as well as improvements to assessment and reporting.  Most importantly, teachers focus on how best to apply our Habits of Mind, Body and Action.

Time is always a precious commodity during the school year.  With this in mind, the KCS team recognizes the value of taking time to pause, reflect and then planning out a solid path forward. EDDs often have a busy agenda, but enjoying your grade partner’s homemade brownies while planning for the next Science or Language Arts units is a nice way to spend an afternoon.

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