Three simple reflection questions are enough to sustain a lifetime of authentic learning.
Education is waking up to the power of self-reflection. It seems that when we ask our learners to actually reflect on their own learning journeys, VERY COOL THINGS HAPPEN.
They get involved in the process.
They take on some agency and assume some ownership.
They move from passive spectators to active participants.
And the results can be significant.
Professional growth for teachers requires agency and ownership, too.
Ironically, teachers can fall into the role of passive spectator just as quickly as students can.
We can find ourselves waiting to be taught by others. To be professionally developed. To be told our next steps forward.
Yes, it’s entirely possible for the very professionals dedicated to the industry of learning to learn very little at all. To cruise from year to year. To grow stagnant and stale, uncritical of our own practices, unconcerned with growth, or too content in safety to risk uncertainty of any kind.
Don’t hear me heaping judgment, because I’ve been there myself. For those of us who’ve been around for a decade or two, professional complacency has a certain stealth about it. Turn your back on it for long, and before you know it, you’re comfortable.
But it’s hard to learn when you’re too comfortable.
Three Big Questions
Some time ago, I was privileged to attend an assessment conference with three colleagues. As part of the conference, we were given the opportunity to tour a few local schools. We were profoundly impacted by what we saw.
One of the many things we took away from these school tours was that schools were using Three Big Questions to make learning visible throughout their entire buildings.
It’s so simple, really.
What am I learning right now?
How’s it going?
Where to next?
Students were involved, but teachers were too. And that gave me some big ideas for the 2019–2020 school year.
Student Self-Reflections on Seesaw
First, I decided to make these Three Big Questions a regular part of my classroom culture. I then asked my 8th grade students (at a different school at the time) to reflect on these questions on Seesaw every Friday.
(*If you’re a Seesaw teacher yourself and would like to try this activity, grab it here.)
So far, I’ve allowed students to reflect on any learning target(s) from any subject, and I’m always impressed by how thoughtfully they approach this exercise.
It’s a simple practice. The writing demands here are pretty tame. It feels safe, and it’s interesting to my students. All they have to do is be honest.
Their comments are usually enlightening, and my eyes are always opened when I hear about their challenges, their frustrations, and the wins they’re celebrating.
It’s an awesome practice.
Teachers Can Reflect, Too
As a middle school, our staff team decided to begin the 2019–2020 school year by following the fantastic example at Holly Elementary in Ladner, BC, and building a bulletin board that modeled lifelong learning through the Big Three questions.
What was something that we were learning? It didn’t need to be academic.
How was that learning process going?
Where were we headed next?
Three Big Questions in My PLN
Encouraged by this activity, I then threw out the Three Big Questions to my PLN. I tweeted a challenge to educators in my professional learning network to tell me about their own learning journeys.
This edition of the Teachers on Fire Roundtable featured writers on the Teachers on Fire Magazine publication on Medium, including Heather Edick, Debbie Tannenbaum, Kelly Christopherson, Tammy Breitweiser, and Jamie Brown.
Talking About Writing in Education
🔥 What does education writing look like for you? 🔥 WHY do you write about education? 🔥 How does it affect your professional practice? 🔥 What is your favorite time of the day to write? 🔥 What is your go-to writing beverage? 🔥 What is your go-to background sound? 🔥 Where and how do you complete your rough compositions? 🔥 How do you collect future blog topics and headlines? 🔥 Who is a current education blogger that you admire? 🔥 What is one book that inspired you to write? 🔥 What are some tools and strategies that you use to share your content?
If you’d like to join a growing community of education writers that are passionate about growth and change in education, join us on Medium today! Comment below or DM me @TeachersOnFire on any social media platform for more details.
NANCY FREY is a Professor of Educational Leadership and Literacy at San Diego State University at the graduate and doctoral levels. She’s also an instructor at Health Sciences High and Middle College, a secondary charter school which she co-founded 13 years ago with Doug Fisher and others. The school runs from grade 8-12 with about 700 students, and her teaching practice there helps to make sure that the ideas she advocates for in her research and writing actually work in practice.
When asked about a low moment, Nancy thinks back to the time she spent teaching in south Florida. One year, Hurricane Andrew hit the area just days before school opened. The storm exacted a heavy toll on the communities across the region, causing her district to expand very quickly due to damaged and destroyed schools in nearby counties. More significantly, almost every additional student came into the district with significant emotional trauma.
It was a difficult year that even made Nancy challenge her place in the profession, partly because she felt so unprepared to offer the guidance, comfort, and support that her learners truly needed while also promoting their academic growth and development. Thankfully, with a mix of inner commitment and support from colleagues, Nancy remained an educator, and she now credits this year with giving her valuable experiences and perspectives regarding trauma-informed education.
What is Visible Learning?
Visible Learning is the terminology used to refer to the research engineered by John Hattie, who used a meta-analysis to review hundreds of academic studies in an effort to determine what truly works in education. From this research, he and his team have created an index of what he calls effect sizes: how do different interventions positively or negatively affect learning outcomes?
With close to 300M students represented in these studies, this research can say with authority what works and what doesn’t in education. Supported by the groundbreaking research and resources from Visible Learning, schools and districts no longer need to guess about where to apply their energies.
Taking Your PLC to the Next Level: PLC+
In PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design, Nancy and Doug Fisherlook at the power behind professional learning communities and apply the latest research to suggest ways to take PLCs to the next level. The ‘+’ in PLC+ is you – what it is that you bring to your learning community.
The book organizes the PLC+ process around five key questions:
Where are we going? What is our destination?
Where are we now? Take a situational assessment.
How can we move learning forward?
What did we learn today? How are we enriching ourselves as a PLC so that we can continue the work that we’re doing?
Who benefited and who did not? This is the essential question of equity.
These questions are grounded in four universal values:
Individual and collective efficacy – belief in our ability to effect change.
In Nancy’s view, PLCs and our perceptions of them have tended to become more restrictive over time. Twenty-first century manifestations of PLCs should actually integrate well with PLNs in the sense that every member of a PLC must remain engaged in a PLN in order to further support their own learning and allow them to better contribute to their PLC. Other strategies like micro-learning and learning walks must be parts of robust PLCs as well.
Building Literacy Through the Tools of Metacognition
When I asked Nancy for some quick advice for the literacy classroom, Nancy pointed back to John Hattie. Do you know your impact? Do you know when your students have learned something? These are the questions that must drive everything we do in literacy and throughout K-12 education.
In the literacy classroom we must also ask ourselves how we are bringing students into the learning. This goes beyond ensuring content relevance – it means that students must understand WHAT they are learning, WHY they are learning it, and HOW they will know that they have been successful in learning it. Learning intentions and success criteria must be made clear to learners in every lesson, and when it comes to English classes, progress tends to be incremental – they’re generally not leaving a 30-minute lesson with a brand new skill.
Other Areas That Are Setting Nancy on 🔥 in Education
Nancy is very intrigued by the ways that technology is being effectively embedded and woven into instruction today. She points to the ways that our views of technology in education have changed from past decades: from computer lab to essential tool. Technology tools can be a double-edged sword, however, because technology itself is no assurance of learning, and in fact, we still don’t fully understand how technology changes the ways in which students learn.
Today, high school students walk around with computers in their pockets – devices more powerful than the computers that first sent spaceships to the moon. On the one hand, these phones can be the bane of a teacher’s existence, but on the other hand, educators must better harness this technology in order to advance learning.
The questions around phones and phone policy in schools are not easy ones to answer, but we must continue to struggle and learn in this area. (Editor’s Note: Check out my exploration of this issue at On Schools and Cell Phones.)
Is Handwriting an Essential Literacy Skill?
Should pens and pencils remain part of the writing classroom? Nancy says that students should be exposed to a wide continuum of learning experiences. Evidence also suggests that the motor functions involved in writing seem to inform the abilities of young learners to break the code (decode letters and words). Young children should know how to engage in print and cursive, and older students should at least have the capacity to sign their name. Nancy shares her experience from a recent class of seniors – many of whom struggled to sign a document in cursive. Yes, young learners should learn how to keyboard, and voice-to-text will continue to change the nature of composition.
Professional Goals for This Year
Nancy’s annual and evergreen goal is to ask: How can I be a better teacher this year? If that isn’t a question you’re asking, Nancy chuckles, it may be time to look for a new profession. Lately, Nancy has been writing about the intersection between teacher credibility and collective efficacy and the ways in which these two constructs can support and promote the other.
Nancy is also intrigued by the ways that students learn about their own learning through practice tests. Do students know what they’re learning and what they’re not learning?
Personal Passions Outside of Education
One activity that ignites Nancy’s passions and brings her alive as a human being when she leaves the halls of education is her work with kettlebells. She has participated in functional fitness workouts with kettlebells and the kettlebell community for the last six or seven years, and she is consistent. “Strong is the new skinny,” she says. She hits her gym about six days out of seven, and it’s formed a big part of her personal wellness.
A Productivity Habit: Meditation
The personal habit that has been making the biggest difference for Nancy in the productivity space is meditation. She meditates for 15 minutes after waking up each morning, and she finds that she is more productive as a result. It’s time to be quiet, to be mindful, to be self-aware, and to slow down. Nancy uses the Calm app and is competitive enough that her personal streaks are important to her, and she even appreciates the badges earned over time.
Voices & Resources That Inspire Nancy’s Practice
On Twitter, Nancy is a big fan of the #G2Great hashtag and regular Twitter chat.
As far as edtech tools go, Nancy loves what smartpens do for learners and learning in the classroom. There are so many uses for smartpens that fit within UDL and increase equity for all learners.
Nancy’s all-time favorite read is Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt. This classic describes the life of an English teacher in New York City from an earlier time.
In the world of podcasts, Nancy’s pick is Disgraceland, which unpacks the spectacular missteps and disasters that have followed countless pop music stars. It’s a guilty pleasure and Nancy can’t get enough of it.
DR. ERIK YOUNGMAN has been a first grade teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Today, he’s the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the Libertyville School District in the Greater Chicago Area. He advocates for continuous learning, feedback, growth mindset, metacognition, innovation, and visible learning. Follow Dr. Erik on Twitter @Erik_Youngman.
The Challenge of Change
Although his career has been overwhelmingly positive, change is a theme that must be continually addressed. Change can lead to either low moments or tremendous opportunities. Organizational change can spark awesome professional conversations but also requires learning mindsets, shared vision, collaboration, communication and a clear understanding of why the change is being put in place.
Adopting a growth mindset requires a powerful shift in thinking. Don’t just learn from mistakes; reflect throughout the day and seek feedback to spark learning from every activity for continuous improvement. Even if you’re performing well in an area, careful scrutiny and reflection can lead the further growth and development.
When teachers create, model, and use common vocabularies, it equips students to better reflect and gain more insights from their own learning journeys. When students and teachers are empowered to reflect and self-regulate, make choices, take ownership, and monitor their own progress.
The Possibilities in Education Today
What really excites Erik about the state of education today is the tremendous opportunities for learning among educators today. Books, journals, Twitter, conferences are fuelling so many powerful conversations around technology, equity, personalized learning, student choice and voice, and competency-based learning. In his position he is honored to be involved in many of these conversations, which are shaping education today and for the future.
Professional Goals, Passions, and Productivity Hacks
In terms of professional growth in 2019, Erik is ready to take some risks. His goal is to share his perspectives and learning with other educators more than he has in the past. This interview is a good start! He’s also presenting at the ASCD conference in March, he’s writing an article about homework for an online magazine, and he’s exploring a collaborative effort on a book with other authors as well.
Erik is a big sports fan, but another area that intrigues him is that of leadership. He loves to study successful leaders and pays close attention to their activities, quotes, and recommendations.
His productivity hack is all about maximizing time. He calls his workouts “multitasking education research exercise.” He listens to education and leadership podcasts at maximum speed which allows him to consume a large amount of content as efficiently as possible. He also takes notes on his phone to remember innovative ideas and resources worth pursuing further.
Voices & Resources That Inspire Erik’s Professional Practice
On Twitter, Erik recommends following @GeorgeCouros for a constant source of reflection and inspiration.
An edtech tool that does so much for learners and learning in Libertyville right now is Google Slides. If you like Slides, you’ll really love this Slides add-on: Pear Deck. Follow Pear Deck on Twitter @PearDeck.