Yes, but does it improve student learning?

As I near the end of my 23rd year as a classroom teacher, and my first as an administrator, I’m reflecting back on the lessons I’ve learned and the perspective I’ve gained. This is a time of tremendous change and innovation in education, and over the course of my career the task of teaching has changed profoundly. Now, as a formal leader, my task is to help make sense of it all and chart a course for learning in the future.

As I read others’ tweets and blogs every morning, I’m amazed at the diversity of practices in our classes. Inquiry and Project-based learning, inclusion of technology, Moodle, Edmodo, the range of things that happen with children is quite amazing. I think it’s vitally important these things are happening, as the successes will inform us and direct our pedagogy in the future. Without anyone challenging the status quo, things are bound to stay the same. And if they aren’t working, that’s not a place we want to be.

While I marvel at this diversity of practice, it also challenges my conservative side. You see, at heart I’m a scientist and an athlete, and for 30 years I’ve worked to improve my athletic performance through training and analysis. And what I’ve found over this time is that good training can be distilled down to very few key elements, which really haven’t changed much over time. Peak performance comes from a mixture of endurance, speed and power. Train these systematically, and performance will improve.  If you can remain focused on these, and avoid the distractions and fads, you will be fine.

This experience as an athlete has narrowed my focus and informed me as an educator too; set a goal, work systematically toward it, and gather data to reflect on your progress. Revise and repeat. It’s worked amazingly well in my sport, and has been incredibly helpful as a teacher too. When we view our work through this lens, we ask ourselves What is it, at our very base core, we must do as educators to improve student learning? How do we do that, and is it working?

As a formal leader, my instinct is to simplify to a few core principles, much like a good coach guides their athlete. When we focus on these, it’s easy to filter out the distractions and fads and concentrate on what improves student learning.  You can fill your building with iPads or any other tool you can name, but in the end, does it improve student learning? How do you know? These must be your guiding questions. They inform your resource allocation, your planning, and your entire assessment program.

What are the key elements? For me, they distill down to reading, writing and speaking. How do we teach children to read in our school? How do we teach them to write, and to speak? Beyond just the opportunities to read, and write, and speak, how have we actually taught these things? Is it working? How do we know?

It seems so simple when you look at it, but I believe this is our core purpose, and we need to remain focused on it. How we get there is a matter of conversation, but it’s the basic foundational place we must come back to. Our task is to teach our children to read, write and speak. We have many vehicles and tools to achieve our goal, but at the core this is our task. And then we must regularly ask ourselves, how are we progressing in this goal? How do we know?


About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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