Am I the Obstacle?

We had two more winter weather days this week (ice – yuck!) so more days off from school. However, it gave me a chance to catch up on some professional reading. I was reading some recent research on whether formative data or summative data is more beneficial to improve individual performance. Multiple research studies agree that formatives provide better actionable data than summatives (check out Viktor Nordmark at the Hubert Blog for the inspiration for this post). In other words, collecting data, analyzing it, and acting on it in very short cycles – 2 to 4 weeks at most – gives you better information to act on and improve – in real time – than waiting until the end of something and reflecting when it’s too late to improve anything. Makes sense and most teachers and coaches know this almost instinctively, relying on observations, hard data, and experience to constantly update their “read” on where their students are in relation to attaining their goals. I love it when research supports what our gut already told us was true!

As I read through the rest of the article, all the data pointed to the conclusion that the best kinds of formatives ask simple questions, get to the heart of the matter, and give us clear, actionable information. One of the oldies but goodies that jumped out at me was this 3 question formative:

  • What should I start doing?
  • What should I stop doing?
  • What should I continue doing?

Wow. Three very simple questions but the thought process they trigger is powerful.   I love that this works for just about any context – teaching, coaching, training, life goals, leading – you name it, these questions help you get there. And if you put these questions on a consistent schedule or cycle of “pulse checking” your progress, you’ve got a pretty sturdy rudder helping to steer you to your ultimate destination.

Of course, I started thinking about my own contexts and reflecting on these questions in relation to them. I found I could come up with a lot of “start doing” items, but I began to falter when I tried to come up with “stop doing” things. As I kept thinking about it, it occurred to me: what if I am the obstacle to the solutions I’m looking for? What if the things I can’t bring myself to do (or stop doing) are the very things that are getting in the way of further progress? What if I’m getting in my own way, or getting in the way of someone else’s progress? Hmm. Now that’s got a ring of truth to it. Bad word.

So I’m going to give this formative a go in my own life. My plan for the next two weeks is to “start” listening more to those around me; “stop” getting in the way of progress because I’m too committed to doing it my own way; and “continue” supporting the work of those around me any way I am able.   I’ll let you know what I discover in two weeks. Action research – I love it!

Have you done a similar cycle with yourself?  What have you discovered?  I’d love to hear what you learned!

The Practical Researcher – Part 1

Data.  Research.  Math.  Science.  Probability.  Statistics, trend lines, standard deviation, correlations – oh, be still my heart!! I look on those words with the same kind of intense interest that equals the drooling lust I bestow upon Corvettes.  Yeah, I know.  I’m not normal in that regard.  However, those same words don’t need to conjure up feelings of revulsion or fear, either.  For data and research to be so much a part of our lives and our work these days, it’s kind of odd how truly paralyzed professional, degree-holding people get about this topic.  I know I can’t convert everyone to my love affair with data and research, but I can try!  So let’s demystify this a bit and see if I can at least help you not want to run screaming in the opposite direction when the subject comes up.  This month I’m focusing on all things data so we can all feel empowered to use it to drive our professional decisions.  This week’s focus starts with demystifying some vocabulary.
Data – it sounds so ominous, clinical, and mathematical.  It can be all of those things, but at its core it’s just information.  It’s facts that are simply indicators of reality at certain points in time.  Data is clinical in that it’s objective and plays no favorites; it just IS.  You can use math to collect or analyze it, but you don’t have to.  Data is anything that can be collected in some way, like observations, tests, tally marks, rubrics, conversations, measurements, or frequency.  If you capture, collect, or compile it in some way, then it’s data.  As a teacher, leader, or coach you do this dozens of times a day, officially and unofficially.  You’re probably a real pro at this already (and you just don’t know it)!
Science – applying the scientific method (remember that from your youth?) is just being methodical and thoughtful about what you want to know, how you want to gather evidence, and determining how you will look at it so that some facts emerge.  When you apply a little science to your process, you’re probably trying to eliminate your own biases, preferences, or opinions on the subject so that you’re not just going with your gut or your knee-jerk reaction.  You want some objective information.  Don’t get me wrong here – both your gut and your reflexes are powerful guides and guardians.  Good researchers pay attention to both to guide their work.  Sometimes, they end up being right on the money and both your instincts and the evidence point to the same conclusion.  But sometimes, those outcomes are different – and that’s powerful knowledge, too.  Either way, you know more than you did when you began, so that’s a good thing.
Math – Math didn’t start out being my best friend.  Yes, there’s a separate story there and I’ll share it with you in a future post.  Suffice it to say that we made up over the years, and I learned that Math, like Professor Snape in Harry Potter, just looks menacing but is really a good guy.  Math can be practical and straight-forward or very deep and complex, but all of it is in support of illuminating the truth and helping, in some cases, point to possible outcomes.  Math just wants to be friends; he can’t help it that some people find him scary.  In the end, Math is just a humble servant trying to help us organize our information to come up with a solution that makes sense.
Research – that sounds scientific, hard, and destined to make your brain do the equivalent of advanced yoga poses.  In reality, research is nothing more than wondering something and posing a question you’d like to know the answer to.  It mimics the scientific process.  You conduct some sort of activity and collect the results (data) to shed light on what’s going on.  You gather all your data and look at it all together (analyze) to see what story it’s telling you.  You might do some math to clarify or help organize the data so that it’s easier to see connections.  You add all that to your own knowledge and expertise and you draw a conclusion.  From there, you take some kind of action based on what you learned.  Simple, right?  Again, I bet you do this often and you didn’t even realize you were doing research.
And finally, there’s Probability.  When you do the research, maybe apply the scientific method, collect some data, and perhaps even do a little math, the process begins to paint a picture.  Probability is then seeing where the weight of the evidence points.  Probability is the strong likelihood of something happening – or not.  Of course, you have to be careful of garbage in, garbage out, too.  The better, more reliable your data, the more confident you can be about the likelihood of the outcome the data is suggesting.  There are ways to quantify this likelihood by turning it into Math’s language, taking it to a whole other level of certainty and verification of facts.  However, most of the work we do doesn’t really require this level of scrutiny of the details.  We all are pretty capable of putting information together and seeing where it’s leading, and that’s all that’s needed most of the time.

Put these terms together and – Voila!  You have the foundation you need to get started doing some action research on your students’ progress to help them – and you – reach those goals you both want to reach.  So maybe give it a try?  Take it out for a coffee and see what develops?  You might just find that you both have a lot to say to each other.

Step 4: Troubleshooting Dilemmas and Celebrating Success

At this point, the finish line is in sight.  Most of the work has been completed and looks good.  You’re proud of what you’ve done and how much your effort has paid off.  However, there’s a few places that have emerged as dilemmas.  Not terrible, but not working as it should and those few things are marring an otherwise terrific performance.  Hmmm . . . how to fix?

Troubleshooting issues is honestly my favorite part of the process.  It requires me to put all my knowledge, experience, and skill to the test as I weigh my options.  It’s also the part that feels like I’m on the edge between potential greatness or epic failure.  Courage and boldness is usually what’s required at this point, and that’s when I know I’m about to learn something BIG.  I love the adrenaline rush!  Of course sometimes, when I’m at the end of my knowledge and completely exhausted, I feel like I just want somebody else to fix it.  I don’t have any more answers!  That’s when I take a deep breath, stay calm, and just keep trying.  I know I’m on the brink of learning something new here, too.

When last we left the walkway, it was mostly done and looking good, but there were some dilemmas that required special attention.  Odd gaps, unique placements, and time slipping away, I notice my supplies are running low as well.  I’ve got to bring this thing to a positive conclusion utilizing what I have available to me right now. After consideration, I decided to create a new pattern to fix some overall gaps, used smaller “bricks” to fill in odd spaces . . .


and in the end just left some gaps as is.
Each fix was specific to one problem, but it had to address the problem both individually and systemically. The solution had to work for both that individual problem AND it had to enhance the overall outcome for the entire project.  There’s the rub.  Sometimes a solution might be found to address the individual problem, but doing so would diminish the positive impact of the rest of the work.  At that point, it might not be perfect but you just have to be happy about it and not rage out.  The success of the whole is more valuable than getting every little thing perfect. Japanese Zen art tells us that the 1% is a valuable part of the finished piece – it reminds us that there is always an opposite to keep us balanced and humble.  The 1% is our human shortcoming and the 99% is the wow we are able to bring into the world.  The 99% is where we’ve been; the 1% is where we start next.  The 1% is where we have never gone before.

And then just like that . . . you’re done!  It sneaks up on you as you persevere until suddenly you look up and realize – it’s finished.  Do take some time to celebrate, congratulate yourself (and your team, if applicable), and admire the results of all your hard work.  Rest, enjoy, and then, when the time is right, let your mind wander to the next project you want to take on . . . and start the journey again.
Thanks for coming with me on this thought journey!


So what project are you thinking about taking on this year?

TLC Sprint #1

I’m a runner and a running coach, in addition to being an instructional coach, so my posts are usually peppered with my running references. For my non-running friends, sprints and speed work help to build different muscle responses to make us better runners. So it is with these sprints. The resource is quick to check out and hopefully gives you something useful you might be able to apply to your own work to make it even better. I’ve got two sprints for you today.

The first comes from Ms. Houser’s blog “Ms. Houser”, Instructional Coach and Teacherpreneuer. As we start preparing to line up at the starting line of another school year, it’s a great time to consider how we’re sharpening our saw to stay at the top of our game. She’s got a great idea – hope you check it out!

The second sprint comes from P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning ( on blended learning. Great discussion in general about how the quality of our questions is really what provides the rigorous, deep learning we’re looking for in our students. My take away – it still takes a great HUMAN teacher to ask the right questions that help our students get to the next level of understanding. Teachers matter! The author reminds us of some good teaching and coaching points – worth the read!

If you’re having new thoughts from reading these, please share in the comments below!

Thanks for sprinting with me!

Step 3: Jump In!

This step is where self-confidence, commitment, and a heaping dose of nerve come together. It’s where the rubber meets the road. The key to successfully navigating this part is having a general plan of action. You need to think about how you plan to go about getting the work done. Some important points to consider include sequencing (what needs to come before what), pacing (how much can you reasonably get done in each work session), and accommodations (special circumstances that need individual attention). However, it’s equally important to keep it pretty general and be flexible as you get into the work. Rarely does your initial plan roll out perfectly all the way to the end. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that nothing ever goes as planned. (And sometimes that’s an innovative thing!) So back to my faux bricking walkway example. This is where I have to look over the space I’m going to “brick” with paint. How will I break up the space? What pattern would complement the space and add harmony and balance to the other elements it’s working with, like the flowers, bushes, hardscape, and overall look I’m trying to create? Once that’s decided, I get up my tools, pour the paint, coat the sponge “brick” with the paint and . . . stamp the first brick! I start working my plan until I reach the first stopping point to assess how it’s going. Pretty early on I notice that although most of my plan is working, there’s a couple of issues emerging. At this point, I need to decide if I need to adjust something now or just hold with the plan and see how it plays out a while longer. I decide to stick to the plan to the next stopping point and see if it resolves itself by then. And on I go.

As all teachers, leaders, and coaches know, getting the plan going can give your stomach some butterfly flutterings in the beginning. Nervous, excited, focused but calm, you try to just keep your effort even and your performance consistent. But as you watch your efforts start to play out – on a class, on a team, or on an individual – it’s important to assess and adjust frequently. Is it going as planned? If not, is that a bad thing? Does it need correction or is it just a variation you hadn’t considered but it’s working well too? Sometimes it’s obvious it’s just poop on a plate; you gotta stop and fix NOW. Sometimes it’s just different, and you need some time to think about it. Either way, when the plan starts interacting with others it becomes a collaborative effort and the it takes on a life of it’s own. I’m a firm believer of going with the flow of this new collaborative effort, giving it the respect and consideration it deserves as it becomes something new.

Once you’re in the creative process phase, be prepared for the new insights, flashes of inspiration, and bold new visions you’re likely to have. The work will teach you if you let it. And that’s magic. You’re going to need that new perspective for step 4 – Troubleshooting the Dilemmas and Celebrating Your Success!

Step 2: A Solid Foundation is the key to EVERYTHING

This step is the key to EVERYTHING you will do – the quality of the outcome, how long it will last, and how well it will hold up over time. Whether you’re talking about planning a unit of study, developing an organizational plan, or working with your clients and their growth, this is the step that supports everything you’re trying to accomplish. It’s also the step that often gets short-changed or overlooked altogether. So going back to my walkway example, my first step was to completely clean the areas I was going to paint with a stiff scrub brush and TSP. If the concrete isn’t properly prepped, the paint won’t adhere right and all my painting work will be wasted because it won’t last past the first real test of its endurance.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. As you start to “prep your ground”, so to speak, you need to make sure your building blocks are up to date and being used effectively. As a teacher, make sure your standards, assessments and activities are appropriate, based on current research, and will be value-added to the overall learning and growth of your students. As a leader, consider what foundational work needs to be in place and firmly established in order to support the next stage of the work. For coaches, our “ground” is people, and this means considering the state of our clients’ foundational skills. Do they have a quality understanding of basic concepts and skills in order to build upon them? What is their level of fitness – literal and figurative? After taking stock of your “ground”, you might decide it’s necessary to spend more time prepping. Although it can feel frustrating to have to linger in this stage, it is vitally important to the quality of the final outcome. It’s really a simple equation: the quality of the base = the quality of the result. Granted, this looks like the unsexy part of the process – and it is – but it’s also the key ingredient to making the magic happen in the end. As a runner, I know all the time and work I put into my base and my overall fitness will allow me to reach whatever personal goals I set for myself later. So it goes with most everything else, as well.

The next part of this step is laying down the new base or framework upon which you’re going to create your new work. It’s providing the clean, solid base that will make the rest of your additions work well together to create the right effect. The final tip for this step – give it time to set up. You don’t need a long time, but enough time to be sure that the new base has adhered properly. In our TLC vernacular, this means buy in. Again, if the new base doesn’t adhere properly, the rest of your work won’t last and ultimately won’t produce anything. Once your foundation is solid, you’re ready for step 3 . . . Jump in!

Refurbishing, Part 1

Last week I “rebricked” (trompe l’oeil) my front porch and walkway.  When we moved into our house eleven years ago, I wanted a brick look instead of the plain, ugly grey concrete.  Calling on my theater experience with set painting, I read up on materials and technique and “bricked” the porch and walkway.  It looked great, and I was so proud of my efforts.  It’s weathered well, but over the decade since then, snow shovels, teenagers traipsing in and out, heat, hail, and ice have taken their toll.  There were some worn spots that now destroyed the illusion that it was real brick.  It was time to refurbish.

Just like the walkway, how many of us found a terrific way to do our work and let it run for a decade without a real tune up?  Well, if it’s been that long, it’s time to take a look.  No matter how great it once was, it’s now worn, faded, tired, and in need of some love and attention.  Whether it’s our health, our daily work plans, or our visions of where we want to take the work, it needs our attention from time to time to keep it fresh and on track.

So while I went through this faux painting process, I made connections to my work (teaching – leading – coaching) ‘cause let’s face it – painting faux bricks in 90 degree heat for hours at a time just begs for your mind to think about something!  Using the refurbishing of my walkway as a metaphor for refurbishing our work, I found some interesting thought points to consider.  This is the first installment of what turned out to be a four part series.  Hope you find something that speaks to you in your work, too.  Let’s go!

Step 1:  Assess Your Current Reality

This step requires being brutally honest with yourself and whatever you’re assessing.  In the case of my walkway, I could see where an entire section needed fixing while other places just needed a touch up.  

I made sure I had all the materials I would need and verified it was all in good shape to use.  I chose a time that was optimal to get the job done and then put it in my schedule to do it.  

Note –  Here’s why I said brutal honesty:  I wasn’t.  I didn’t want to re-do the whole thing so I talked myself into believing I could get by with patching old with new.  I knew better.  I just didn’t want to commit that much time and energy to it.  However, one trial run on a small patch section showed me my choice – do it so-so and it looks crapalicious or do it right and it looks amazing.  Hearing my grandmother’s voice in my head, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”, I knew I had to commit to re-doing the whole thing.  Bad word.  Sometimes, the truth is NOT what we want to face; however, nothing will improve if we keep deluding ourselves about what really needs to happen to improve it.  The truth rarely looks like rainbows and lollipops.

And there’s the first key idea – how committed are you to a quality outcome?  In my case, it not only meant more time and energy from me, but it also meant letting go and getting rid of what I’d done before.  Saying goodbye is hard.  It might turn out looking similar to what I had before, just updated, or it could look completely different in the end.  I just don’t know. (That’s a little scary.)  I had to accept that changes probably would emerge in this process.  The commitment then is now twofold:  doing the work AND sticking with it until it’s a quality product. There’s the variable – how much time and effort is it going to take to make it a quality outcome?  Again, there’s just no way to know when you start.  It’s all in – or don’t bother.     

Once you’ve made the mental shift to see it through and go all in, you’re ready for step 2 . . . a solid foundation is the key to EVERYTHING.

While you’re waiting for step 2 this week, consider what in your work or life could use some refurbishing.  Anything needing a little attention?