Managing My Expectations

Here is a challenge for you.  Try to count the number of times the people wearing white t-shirts pass the ball.  They are moving around a lot, so it’s challenging, but see how close you can get to counting the correct number of passes.

How did you do?  Were you surprised by the results?  If so, you were probably highly focused on counting.  The first time I saw this video, the meeting facilitator stopped it before revealing there was a gorilla in it.  I was distracted that day and couldn’t focus on the ball passes so I saw the gorilla, but sat in complete shock as the facilitator asked people about passes without first discussing the gorilla.  I noticed a few others with confused looks on their faces, then realized most people had not seen it.

The video wasn’t a hoax.  It turns out, our brains ignore the unexpected.  It’s called inattentional blindness or selective attention.  In an effort to efficiently process tremendous amounts of information and make decisions quickly, our brains rely on schema, stored knowledge that has been grouped and organized for understanding, to fill in blanks as we perceive information.  We filter out whatever we don’t expect based on our mind’s idea of the situation.  No one expects to see a gorilla walk through the circle, so when focused on counting, most do not see it.

Why is it important to know about inattentional blindness, especially as educators and parents?  We need to know so we can actively manage our expectations of children (abilities, worthiness, potential) and for children (belief in success and achievement).

The literature on motivation and school performance in younger school children suggests that expectations shape the learning experience very powerfully. For example, classic studies in the psychology literature have found that merely stating an expectation results in enhanced performance, that higher expectations result in higher performance, and that persons with high expectations perform at a higher level than those with low expectations, even though their measured abilities are equal.  ~ Schilling and Schilling

If a great deal of student performance is attributable to our expectations, we must be intentional in setting and stating those expectations as well as in our practices of supporting and assessing achievement.  It’s easier said than done.

  1. Our brains rely on our stored collection of experiences, knowledge, and understanding to set our expectations about what should or could be.  Schema: Balls. People. Movement.  
  2. Our expectations determine what we see or filter out.   I don’t expect to see a gorilla.  Ignore the gorilla.
  3. Our stated beliefs (high expectations for all) may not be in line with the schema the brain uses to determine expectations (high expectations for only some students).

Unfortunately, we all have unconscious ideas in our minds about what could or should be, based on experiences and messaging, that may seriously conflict with our stated beliefs (implicit bias).  For example, most parents would say that they believe their daughters are intelligent, capable beings with the same potential to achieve as boys.  However, parents are twice as likely to Google “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” and almost twice as likely to ask “Is my daughter overweight?” than “Is my son overweight?”.

The same is true of teachers.  Most teachers firmly believe they have high expectations for all students and that they do not vary how they assess or support students based on gender. However, a recent study shows students were given a math exam in which the girls outscored the boys when scored by teachers who did not know student gender, but when graded by teachers who were familiar with their names (and gender), the boys outscored the girls.

Neither of these examples speaks to the values or character of the people involved.  In fact, it’s important to know that nice, well-intentioned people have blindspots, too.  Awareness is the first step to managing our expectations.  I plan to begin by exploring the following questions:

  • What are the unconscious beliefs that inadvertently lower my expectations of and for certain students?
  • How are my behaviors and practices out of line with my beliefs and intentions?
  • What can I do to reshape and expand my schemas?

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American Friends of Tel Aviv University. (2015, February 26). Teacher prejudices put girls off math, science, study suggests. ScienceDaily.

Banaji, M., & Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Delacorte Press.

Carpenter, S. (2001, April). Sights Unseen.  Monitor on Psychology.

Miller, R. (2001). Greater Expectations to Improve Student Learning. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schilling, Karen Maitland and Karl L. Schilling 1999. Increasing expectations for student effort. About Campus, 4:2.

Stephens-Davidowitz, S.(2014, January 18). Google, Tell me. Is My Son a Genius?  The New York Times.


 

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Fresh Eyes

job teams.jpgGrand Day is one of my favorite events at school for so many reasons, not the least of which is seeing the pride of students, teachers, and grands over the accomplishments of learning and friendships.  Beyond that, listening to grandparents talk to each other about what they perceive as happening with and for their grandchildren allows me to see what we do with fresh eyes.  I don’t know if it is the wisdom grandparents have earned over time or an appreciation for fundamentals now overlooked, but grandparents seem to recognize the implicit learning objectives built into our teaching as readily as they see the obvious, stated objectives.  One grandparent stopped me to ask if we have always given the students “jobs” in the classroom.  I thought, “Yes! We vertically align learning objectives and facilitate interdisciplinary experiences to deepen student understanding while empowering them with skills and strategies all of the time.  Thank you for noticing.”  I did not say that.  After I explained the jobs chart, he was so impressed with the idea of developing academic skills while promoting a sense of personal responsibility and community.  But, I wonder if we think about the depth of learning that will occur each year when those charts are set up.  Or, have we done it so long that we just know “jobs” are what we do?

I have enjoyed the work we do as a professional learning community analyzing our curriculum and teaching practices to consider how we can get better.  One of the things I have tried to do is bridge the perceived gap between early learning objectives and those of more advanced grade levels.  On the surface, there may seem to be little connection between the tactile table and essay writing or color sorting and algebra, but foundational knowledge and skills are critical for future academic success.  Is the connection difficult to see because we focus on the activity/lesson and not the why behind it?  In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek says, “It is not just WHAT or HOW you do things that matters; what matters more is that WHAT and HOW you do things is consistent with your WHY.  Only then will your practices indeed be best.”  Are we starting with WHY when we plan our lessons?  How might that look?

  1. Why:  We believe students need a firm foundation of early literacy and math skills and habits that include conceptual understanding as well as procedural knowledge.
  2. What:  We build number sense and phonological awareness while emphasizing strategies, communication, and flexible thinking.
  3. How:  Daily lessons include number talks with subitizing activities and differentiated small groups during literacy block.

One might argue that it doesn’t make a difference where you begin if you end up in the same place.  Only, I don’t think we always end up in the same place when we begin with the activity or lesson rather than with the WHY.  So, I will continue to bridge the gap by pointing out the connections between early learning and upper grades, and highlighting how our WHY is the building of foundational skills/strategies for later success.   I will always work to see what we do with fresh eyes.


 

Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio, 2009. Print.

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#TEDTalkTuesday: Every kid needs a champion by Rita F. Pierson

I have watched this TED Talk by Rita F. Pierson several times, often thinking about the teachers and community members who were champions for me.  I do not know how I would have made it through challenging times without them.  More recently, my perspective has shifted to thinking of my responsibilities as an administrator charged with championing the causes of both students and teachers.  Ms. Pierson’s insistence that we must actively love and support even the most difficult children is so motivating, I believe the talk should be on a continual loop in schools everywhere.

Even if you have seen this TED Talk before, I hope you’ll watch it again and ask yourself the following questions:

Who has been a champion for me?  How would I have ever made it through that difficult ________ (behavior, learning challenge, home situation) without them?

When have I seen that a child needs a champion and stepped up?  Is there an opportunity right in front of me now?

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Building an Early Math Foundation

Math is a language we all use but at various levels of complexity and confidence that are likely linked to our early math experiences in school.   Research shows that early math understanding is critical to ongoing engagement and success with higher level concepts.  Specifically, the development of number sense, or the ability to think flexibly about quantity, is a key foundational skill on which algebraic thinking is based.  Math Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University says, When students fail algebra it is often because they don’t have number sense.”

Like reading skills, mathematical understanding begins developing at a very young age.  In order to build the foundation our students need to be successful mathematicians throughout life, we must consistently provide them with rich, engaging, and developmentally appropriate experiences that nurture healthy attitudes as well as strong skills and practices.  Beginning with our youngest learners, we are thoughtfully utilizing our knowledge of child development, content, and best practices to achieve the following overarching goals:

  • Students will have a growth mindset about mathematics in which they believe everyone has the ability to become good at math by learning strategies and developing skills.
  • Students will have a firm understanding of mathematical concepts while developing procedural knowledge and fluency.
  • Students will understand that there are multiple ways to solve problems, look for different approaches, and be able to explain their thinking to others.

The beauty of teaching is the ongoing need to learn.  As we look to develop these foundational skills in our students, we are reexamining and deepening our own understanding of what it means to learn math.  It has been fascinating and fulfilling to be a part of our productive struggle.  I created a Storify to curate and make our progress visible.

 

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Seeking To Understand

There is a difference between wondering and seeking to understand, even though they both involve questioning.  When my daughter was very young, she made an observation about who appeared to be homeless.  She asked about a pattern she felt she recognized and wondered about why that might be true.  After acknowledging how important it is to notice things such as that and encouragement to always ask those questions, I began to talk to her about how we could learn more about homelessness.  But, her mind had moved on to other thoughts and ideas.  She wasn’t truly seeking to understand.  She was wondering about an observation.  For someone her age, even noticing and thinking to question something so complex was impressive.  Certainly, my goal as a parent and educator is to develop her wonders into a curiosity that drives her to not only observe and question, but to search for understanding and act on what she learns.

Seeking to understand is about more than asking questions or getting to answers.  It is about asking questions and pursuing answers to the point of creating ideas.  As adults, how often do we wonder or question without pursuing answers?  How often do we accept an answer without enough understanding to take action?  In the book A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger says, “ambitious, catalytic questioning tends to follow a logical progression, one that often starts with stepping back and seeing things differently and ends with taking action on a particular question.”  He goes on to describe how we lose the innate desire to question that we are born with, and he then outlines how we can reclaim this skill.

I see this problem from a slightly different perspective (possibly just a difference of thinking whole:part rather than part:whole).  I would ask… Is the problem that we aren’t asking enough questions?  Or, is it that we don’t always have the drive to take action?  What tempers that drive?

As I reflected on the past week, I thought of two notable situations where teachers pursued the art of questioning for the purpose of taking action.  One involved a student’s behavior and another involved curriculum.  They both likely began out of frustration with questions such as, “Why is this child behaving this way?”  and “How are we supposed to make this work?”,  but developed into truly earnest inquiries that led to productive action.  What made these teachers invest the time and energy to pursue understanding?  Why didn’t they stop at wondering?  I believe there were three ingredients that fueled their drive:

  1. Devotion – The definition of devotion is attachment, loyalty, and affection.  A person must have a level of investment in an idea, place, people or situation in order to pursue understanding.  At Trinity we have worked intentionally on developing relationships between the adults and children in our community, seeking to build connections.  Our teachers care about each other and our students.
  2. Belief – If a person feels his or her efforts will be futile, there is an obvious negative impact on motivation.  One must believe in their own abilities (growth mindset) and in their ability to influence a situation (power) in order to move forward and take action.  It is a part of our mission and vision at Trinity to develop knowledge, skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for success in learning, including a growth mindset and the development of personal empowerment.  This sentiment extends to the faculty and is facilitated through professional development, practices, and policy.
  3. Resources – Having the people and tools available to support an effort is critical.  When a person is motivated and empowered, but lacks the necessary resources, they will work outside of the existing systems to seek understanding and solutions.   But, when a person is motivated, empowered, and has a team of people ready to work with them to seek understanding and solutions, great things happen.  Trinity has tremendous resources in a faculty that is knowledgeable and skilled.  Each person brings unique interests and strengths that they make available for the community.

There is a difference between wondering and seeking to understand.  At Trinity, we seek to understand.   As a leader, I aim to intentionally promote seeking for the benefit of our students and the professional growth of our teachers.  I believe in the possibilities.  The possibilities are endless, if we seek to understand.

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I have only two questions: Back-to-School Night Remarks 2015

Last night I had the pleasure of addressing the parents of Early Elementary Division students.  I used both my educator and parent lenses to share what I think is most important about school and what I believe Trinity provides students.  I thought publishing these remarks would be an appropriate way to begin sharing my reflective practices as an administrator.

I come to you tonight as an administrator and a parent.  While my son is now a freshman in high school and my daughter is in the Sixth Grade leadership class, they both started attending Trinity in Pre-K and are stuck at that stage in my mind.  So, as I considered what to share with you tonight, I thought about the only two questions I have when I attend a school event for my own children.

First, are my children in a safe, nurturing place where they are known, loved and feel like they belong?

That’s the question I ask myself intuitively, without really thinking about the science behind why that is so important.  Beyond the obvious reasons of needing to be safe, how a person feels directly impacts their brain function.  Whether a person feels they are safe and has a sense of belonging, or not, impacts their decision making, memory, creativity, and communication.  So, what we are really looking for as parents is to know that our children can be their best selves, and that their ideas and efforts will be appreciated and cultivated.

Trinity is well known for its nurturing environment, and the joy in this place is evidenced in the smiles on both teachers’ and students’ faces.  But, the relationships and joy that are present are not happenstance.  They are the result of purposeful practices.

  • Teachers in the Early Elementary Division take time to know students by carefully observing and archiving student interests, strengths and growth over time in their My Learning portfolios; beautifully capturing student images, voices and thoughts.  This gift will follow students through their time here, allowing each teacher to share in the learning journey.
  • Teachers at Trinity make connections with students and they provide opportunities for students to get to know each other through experiences such as morning meeting.   Every morning students and teachers in each class gather together to practice warmly greeting each other by name, sharing something about themselves such as learning to ride their bike or a story about a family trip.  I often visit classrooms at this time to observe and participate, and I can attest to the impact morning meeting has on community building throughout the year.
  • Safety is also about having a space to stretch oneself, take risks, and try new things.  Trinity promotes an environment where the norm is one of a growth mindset that says anyone can grow and get better at anything when given a chance, support and practice.  At Trinity, we explicitly talk about the importance of trying, making mistakes and trying again – even when something is difficult.  When students have the love and support of their teachers and an environment that promotes true learning, they are free to be their best selves.

Once I am comfortable that my children have a healthy space to think and grow, my next question is…

Are they being prepared for the future?
This question means something different to each person.  For me, my first thought is of student empowerment.  I am looking for teaching practices that develop the capacity to apply knowledge such as creativity, communication skills, critical thinking, and cultural competence.  My husband is more interested in knowledge acquisition.  He wants the specifics of the curriculum such as the content and order of social studies and math so that he knows how to help our children outside of school.  The truth is, both student empowerment and knowledge acquisition are important.  At Trinity we are helping students build knowledge, skills, habits and attitudes because it takes all of that to be prepared for the future.

The foundation of a structure is not usually what is noticed or celebrated, but it is critical in the sustainability of that structure.  The same is often true of early childhood education.  In the Early Elementary Division, we are committed to providing a deep level of foundational skills in literacy and math that students will build upon throughout life; and exposure to social studies, arts and sciences that provides background knowledge and informs future learning.
  • It starts with our teachers.  Our teachers bring passion, professionalism and the highest level of skill to Trinity. This summer, nearly every lead teacher participated in literacy or math professional development at some of the best educational programs in the country.  One even traveled to Italy to learn about the student-centered teaching practice of Reggio Emilia in the town of Reggio Emilia.
  • And, we’ve welcomed a new member into our teaching community.  Becky Holden is the Early Elementary Division math specialist. She is coming to us with tremendous and unique experience in early math.  She is working directly with students to develop mathematical flexibility and practices while providing ongoing coaching to teachers about how to differentiate learning for students in the classroom.
  • Also important at Trinity are the experiential learning opportunities that allow students to explore, practice, collaborate and present.  These opportunities come in places such as the iHub and Idea Lab where students design, build and solve problems.  They happen in the classroom with show and tell, and in front of the entire school community with programs such as the Pre-K Olympics.
These are only a few examples of how Trinity nurtures and prepares students for the future.  As you visit classrooms tonight and listen to teacher presentations, you will see and hear many answers to my questions.  I believe you have faith in what happens at Trinity, or you wouldn’t be here.  I want you to know what happens at Trinity so you can be confident in it.  I am.  Thank you.
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