Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power of the Counterintuitive, Part Two: Hush Up

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 41
Milan, IL

October 25, 2014

Counterintuitive: Counter to what intuition would lead one to expect: The direction we had to follow was counterintuitive--we had to go north first before we went south. (From

Scripture tells us that God gave us two ears and one mouth, presumably so we listen twice as much as we talk.  Pretty good advice.  How are we doing on following that advice? 

The value and power of discussion as a learning tool is undeniable.  And it is self-evident that discussion is a two-way exchange of ideas.  We need to listen as much as we talk, probably more.  But are we really doing that?  In leadership and in the classroom, who dominates the conversation?  In your administrative meetings are those "in charge" dominating the conversation or is everyone given an equal chance to participate? In staff meetings, do the teachers and paraprofessionals have as much time to talk and share ideas and opinions as the principal?  In your classroom, do you, the teacher, talk far more than the students?  

I've taken a look at this recently and I've found that what we might erroneously call discussion would more properly be called a one way sharing of information.  I took a quick pulse recently of the ratio of teacher to student discussion in several classrooms.  I have discovered that even in so-called book study groups, book chats and guided reading groups, places where students are supposed to have a large voice, the teacher still dominates the conversation 72% of the time!  Yet I hear all of the time in various conversations with teachers and on Twitter chats about the "power of student voice".  I would challenge all of the teachers who may be reading this to ask yourselves, how much voice are you really giving your students?  When you are planning your lessons ask, how can I give my students a bigger voice in this lesson?  As you know, I participate in a number of Twitter chats and we expound on the value of the exchange of ideas and opinions all of the time.  Every time I participate in a chat, many participants make the comment that they "learn so much talking to their colleagues."  I believe it to be an axiom that the same must be true for students.  But are we truly giving them that time?  If you are, kudos to you!  If you're not, it might be time for some self-reflection and figure out how to hush up and give your students more time in your class to talk and share ideas. 

Administrators, how are you doing on this?  Do you dominate the conversations in your meetings or do you TRULY give your principals or teachers a chance to talk and share ideas?  Time for a mea culpa on this one.  I believe I may be guilty of talking too much.  I don't know for sure but I'm going to find out.  In my next whole group PLC meeting, I'm going to have one of my teachers track and record the amount of time I talk compared to that of the teachers. If that time is "out of whack", as I suspect it may be, time for some self-reflection and perhaps changing up how we're doing things.  I'm also going to video record the meeting so I can see for myself how I'm doing. I need to model what I expect of my teachers.  

One more word about listening.  In a conversation, just because we are quiet does not mean that we are listening.  Are you actively taking in what the speaker has to say, or is your mind spinning, trying to figure out what to refute before the speaker has even finished?  Again, a mea culpa on my part here; guilty as charged.  I was definitely guilty of this in a recent discussion with my staff on the benefits or lack thereof of a particular reading program.  I'm fortunate that I have a teacher who has the ability to gently point me in the right direction when he sees that I may be starting to dig my heels in and argue for a particular point.  He brings me back to a more neutral center.  What this shows me, though, is that I need to do a better job of listening actively and disposing of my preconceived notions so that I can truly hear what's being said.  I'm going to work on this.  

Regardless of our current roles in education, we are teachers.  We teach (It's the most noble professional title I've ever possessed.  I'm a principal today but when asked, I'm still proud to call myself a teacher).    In today's vernacular, being a teacher means to facilitate learning.  But to facilitate learning, we need to listen as much or more than we talk so that we can guide our students, principals or whoever is in our audience to come to their own conclusions because that is the foundational principle of true learning.  So the next time you're up in front of a group, or preparing to be up in front of the group, and taking the role of "sage on the stage" seems right, think of Counterintuitive Principle Two: Hush Up.  You may well get more for the effort.  

As always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I truly appreciate it.  I would appreciate any comments or suggestions.  I promise I'll hush up and listen!  Have a great week!  You are my heroes!  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Power of the Counter Intuitive--Part One--Less IS More

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 41
Milan, IL

October 16, 2014

Counter-Intuitive: Counter to what intuition would lead one to expect: The direction we had to follow was counter-intuitive—we had to go north first before we went south. (From

Most of the time our intuition is probably dead-on and more often than not we should probably heed it.  For example, if you’re not feeling quite yourself and you think a visit to the doctor might be in order, you should probably go.  Intuition is, after all, a form of good sense.  However, there is a reason that the term “counter-intuitive” exists.   There are those times when we need to go against what our intuition or common sense tells us to do in order to get the results or the outcomes we want. 

I’ve considered this a lot as I’ve thought about all of the changes we are making in education right now as a means of “fixing what’s broken”—we have to “engage” our students further; we have to “empower” our students; we have to teach them how to develop “grit”; we need to adopt “standards-based grading” and “standards-based reporting”; we have to implement to Common Core State Standards (or whatever name your particular state has decided to give them); we have to figure out how to make student growth a part of educator evaluation and we’ve had to change educator evaluation itself to match the requirements of PERA; we need to add The Leader in Me to our arsenal of tools; let’s add “Genius Hour”; the list goes on and on.  And while your list may vary, it is an undeniable statement of fact that we are doing more and more and adding more and more in an attempt to “fix” a system that too many argue is “broken”.  As a somewhat regular participant in various Twitter chats, I know how much and how many things you are all doing.  Here’s the problem from my view.  The more we add to the menu of “fixes” and the more “fixes” we adopt all at once, the farther away we get from getting to the root of the problems we face and solving the very real issues that need solving. 

How many of you are working in a school district that has adopted all or most of the above-named initiatives and are working to implement them with both fidelity and integrity?  How are they working?  Are you doing better or has your performance fallen relative to other school districts?  If your performance has fallen, I would suggest that you consider the first counter-intuitive option that I posit for improving your school or district:

Counter Intuitive Option 1: Less is More

Take a close look at what your outcomes are.  It doesn’t matter whether or not they are on the academic or affective side of things.  Just take a look at something.  If you are not performing where you want to be, engage in a close analysis of the function of your situation, why it is that you are where you are.  From there, determine upon one or two courses of action that you really believe will make a difference and get you started down the path of where you want to be.  Notice I said “started”.  The problems we face are real and require more than quick fixes.  In many cases they require deep changes in existing practice but for those deep changes to really stick, you can only really focus on one or two at a time.  By doing too many things at once, you will be giving lip service to change because no real change is going to take place, there’s simply too much for you to focus on. 

At my school, Thomas Jefferson Elementary, the staff and I engaged in a conversation at the beginning of the school year about what we do well and what we need to do differently to improve our outcomes.  We determined upon two things:

1) We need to build upon and improve our relationships, both within our school and with our external community. 
2) We need to build upon and continue to develop efficacy in our use of Professional Learning Communities.  

This is not to say that we are not working on many of the other things that I listed at the beginning of this post.  It simply means that the two things that we have identified for our school community have become our priorities; they get the lion’s share of our time and attention because they are foundational.  We will monitor the outcome measures that we have identified and if the emphasis on our two top priorities bears fruit, we will continue to keep them at the top of the heap.  If not, we’ll start looking elsewhere.  And I do not suggest that you adopt what we have.  What we have adopted makes sense for us.  It may not for you and your unique situation.

One thing we know for sure, if we always do what we’ve always done (i.e. latch on to every improvement strategy that comes down the pike), we’ll always get what we’ve always got (i.e. lagging outcomes).  That’s why we’ve embraced Counter-Intuitive Option One: Less is More. 

This has been my first post in a long time.  Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read it.  I really appreciate it.  If you have any thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear them.  Please let me know what you think!  Thank you for all you do for kids and families every day!  You are my heroes!