Sunday, July 17, 2016

Because You Must First Work on the People: The Power of Collective Effort

Too often in education, we treat our work as if there is a magic solution, an individual hero, or super powered program to move our students and our schools to a place of excellence. We spend our time, energy, and resources searching for the right program to move our students to achieve the goals we've set for them. We deliberate over whether we should choose this program or that program and make an attempt to determine if it will "work" in our school or district. However, we often forget that no matter how valuable or impactful a program or concept, it will always be at the mercy of those whose duty is to execute it. We must first work on the people. Then, and only then, can we work on the work.

School improvement is about people improvement. When people do better, get better at their craft, and work better, schools improve. Programs don't produce excellence. People are at the center of it all. We need school leaders who fully understand this. We need principals and administrators and teachers who accept, without hesitation, that improvement is a continuous concept. We never stop trying to get better at what we do. Regardless of our years of experience, expertise in our subject matter or field, the opportunity to improve your craft is constant. If only leaders would first work to develop a solid understanding and acceptance that people are at the center of any improvement in a school or district. Without an educated, driven, and committed group of people who believe that it is their professional responsibility to get better each and every day, no program, no initiative will succeed. For it is not the program that has the power, it is the people.

Collective effort is the secret to any organizational success. When a leader can rally a group of people around a common goal and everyone commits to giving their best, to improving their individual abilities so that they improve their contribution to the team, amazing things can happen. The real task of leadership is rooted in one's ability to get a group of individually talented folks to partner for the good of the cause. Collective efficacy needs more attention in our work. We need to spend more time talking about the collective impact of the group and less time discussing the individual merit and talents of folks. No matter how good or great an individual might be, no one person can produce what  a focused group of individuals who understand the power of collective effort can produce.

So what gets in the way of us capitalizing on the age old kindergarten concept of group work? Egos. Social conditioning to compare and rank ourselves against our counterparts. We have to focus on being our very best, instead of being concerned with who is the best. We must stand together, and not be distracted by our place in line. The human condition is vulnerable to this and that is why leaders must spend time making a conscious effort to highlight collective effort rather than individual heroism. How do we do this? We intentionally create opportunities for collaboration. We celebrate the work and results of the group. We talk about collective efficacy until we are blue in the face. We explicitly ask others to place their egos on the shelf for the good of the cause. Everyone must work on themselves to be selfless, to put the needs of the group ahead of themselves.

This, I believe, is the secret to producing amazing work. Imagine what might happen if everyone in your grade level, department, school, or district believed in the power of collective effort? What amazing things might you all accomplish? What if we all worked to push ourselves to maximize our personal potential? We must grow the people we have and stop looking for some super hero or super program to fix it all. The power, my friends, is in the people.

I dare you to challenge any group or team you're associated with to do just that. Building a team who is committed to collective effort is hard work. Working on the program instead of the people is far easier. However, to achieve excellence we must pose the question constantly: Do you now what we could do if we all use our talents to accomplish a goal TOGETHER? While it sounds rather simple, it is the most challenging work of any leader. To get people to put themselves aside for the good of the group, to commit day in and day out to collective effort, is nothing short of a minor miracle. We begin by at least talking about collective effort. It needs to be a part of our conversation in our schools, in our districts, in our lives. If we work it right, some amazing things can be accomplished!
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

This Is Your Reminder!

Attention Educators! This is your reminder. Do you know what an awesome and powerful responsibility and opportunity we have? Well, allow me to remind you:

Education is freedom. How, you ask? Being educated gives one the freedom to trust his or her own intuition, make his or her own choices, without reliance on someone else. It creates a sense of self sufficiency that cannot be obtained any other way. Education is opportunity. When you are educated, your ability to choose is enhanced. You can have choice about what you do, how you spend your time, who you spend it with, and more. You can have choice about your quality of life. Being educated can improve your quality of life. Education is powerful. There is an autonomy that comes with being educated.  Once you are educated, no one can take it away from you. My education is my most prized possession. It changed my life. Poverty of the mind can result in poverty in life, but poverty in life does not have to result in poverty of the mind. But most of all education gives power to the powerless and hope to the hopeless. Here's what I like most about being educated: It's like a secret weapon. You can't tell how much someone has by looking at them. Don't ever let an appearance fool you. It's usually not what it looks like-Look deeper, search harder, and work to connect!

The mind is a way to harness power and opportunity, regardless of your race, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. When students understand that their education is the fuel that harnesses the power within them, their ability to change the trajectory of their own lives is unlocked. Sometimes I think we (educators) need to provide more direct instruction around the power of an education. We need to share our own narratives of how education changed our lives and the things we have overcome in our journey. While I realize I am not the only one with a story, I am often reminded that I am one who is courageous enough to share it. Instead of being ashamed of the narrative that drove you to success, share it. There is power in a good story. I know so many of us overcame so many obstacles in our lives, but sometimes shame gets in the way of our sharing. Shame cannot be the narrative we live by if we want to inspire others. We must share our heart. We must remember that the mind is a powerful thing. It either coaches you up or talks you down. We must be mindful of what we allow to enter our minds. We are only limited by our own thoughts and that is why we must talk to ourselves more than we listen to ourselves. We all need to coach our conscious.

Because I recognize that for any great accomplishment struggle is a necessary precursor, we need to teach students not to be distracted by the struggle and to press on anyway. As we work to inspire students and each other, we need to tap into the power of the human condition. Pain and progress often happen simultaneously. When things become challenging, we often forget such. We must remember all of the journey, not just the easy parts. Being an educator is soul work, heart work, and it is hard work. It is for those whose soul is satisfied by serving. For all of the educators out there, keep fanning your flame, and don't forget to pass the torch!

Until Next Time-Be you, be true, and be a hope builder!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cognitive Engagement: The Missing Piece In Professional Development-Part 2

Cognitive Engagement-The Missing Piece In Professional Development

Latoya N. Dixon, Ph.D.

Professional Development can be a critical exercise in developing leadership capacity and improving teacher effectiveness. While administrators may be aware of the importance of this, how often do teachers find themselves cognitively engaged in the professional development they experience? What factors contribute to educators being cognitively engaged at a high level and what are the benefits to designing a professional development experience that leads to increased capacity and effectiveness? While engagement is discussed as a concept in terms of student learning, it may also be critically important in the development of educators and their capacity to increase their own efficacy. After all, engagement is about the behavior of the learner that leads to a deeper level of thinking and understanding or an increased ability to apply what one has learned to daily practice.

What’s Missing?
Cognitive engagement has been defined in a variety of ways, yet much of the literature addresses the need for psychological investment and a high level of commitment to the learning and work. Marks (2000) defines cognitive engagement as, “A psychological process involving the attention, interest, investment, and effort students expend in the work of learning” (p.154-155). Lamborn, et al. (1992) defines cognitive engagement in academic work as “psychological investment in and effort directed toward learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge, skills, or crafts that academic work is intended to promote” (p.12). Schunk (1991) contends that possessing cognitive strategies have proved effective in the enhancement of the learner’s perception of ability. While an extensive body of literature supports the need to cognitively engage leaners to enhance their abilities, much of the traditional professional development experience lacks such. Often educators find themselves at the mercy of PowerPoint presentations, sticky notes, and turn and talk exercises that may lead to a high level of participation, but surface level cognition. Himmele & Himmele (2011) have developed a framework to evaluate levels of cognitive engagement using the Total Participation Technique Model. While their work centers on student learners, much of it may also be applicable to adult learners as well. The Total Participation Cognitive Engagement Model focuses on analyzing the levels of cognitive engagement experienced by learner participants. The model has four quadrants of which engagement can be categorized: 1) Low Cognition/Low Participation, 2) Low Cognition/High Participation, 3) High Cognition/Low Participation, and 4) High Cognition/High Participation. Himmele & Himmele (2011) suggests that the higher the cognition experienced by the learner, the more likely learners are to utilize higher order thinking strategies. While high participation may suggest that learners are somewhat engaged in the work, it is the level of cognition that produces improved outcomes. Like student learning experiences, professional development experiences have the potential to produce improved outcomes (increased teacher efficacy, improved leadership capacity) if educators experience high cognition during professional development.

Fig. 1 Total Participation Techniques Cognitive Engagement Model

Rethinking Professional Development
What if we approached professional development with intention to create an experience that would increase the level of cognition among participants? What if we abandoned traditional approaches to professional development by being deliberate in our design of such experiences, moving away from the traditional singular lecture and listen approach, and moving toward embedding more choice, differentiation, and an opportunity for reflection on daily practice? Would changes in the way we deliver professional development lead to more effective and innovative teachers? What if we were more deliberate in aligning our professional development experiences to common goals of the organization? Would we improve the leadership capacity in teacher leaders and improve the leadership efficacy of administrators? What if we applied the same methodologies for engaging students in the classroom to adult learning in professional development? The literature provides a strong support for an adjustment to our professional development practices. According to Blumenfeld, et al. (2006), “Superficial cognitive engagement involves the use of memory and elaboration strategies. Deep level engagement involves the use of elaboration and organization strategies as students try to connect new ideas to old” (p.475). To improve the level of cognition educators experience in professional development, it may be helpful to focus on four key concepts: Value, Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy. Blumenfeld, et al. (2006) defines instrumental value as perceptions of how tasks relate to future goals and daily practices. When leaners are able to find value in their instructional experience, their ability to apply what they have learned to daily practices may lead to increased effectiveness. Competence is described as one’s perception of their ability to be effective and successful. Relatedness as defined by Blumenfeld, et al. (2006), is the cycle of positive interactions between learners and facilitators of learning and may increase when opportunities for collaboration are present. The fourth factor in cognitive engagement is autonomy, which is the learner’s ability to direct his or her own learning. These factors are critical pieces to be assessed in the design of professional development experiences for a variety of reasons. According to Blumenfeld, et al. (2006), when learners feel competent their persistence, effort, and use of higher order thinking strategies may increase. Ryan and Grolnick (1986) also suggest that autonomy may increase a learner’s willingness to accept challenging tasks. Knowing that these concepts, value, competence, relatedness, and autonomy are critical to the level of cognition experienced by learners, how might we improve the professional development experiences of educators? How do we ensure that teachers and administrators can articulate the value of their professional development experiences, relate them to daily practices, and yet feel competent and autonomous enough to improve their craft? Assessing our ability to provide professional development that aligns with these factors may prove important in our efforts to help teachers improve their instructional abilities and administrators improve their capacity for instructional leadership.

What’s Next?
As we plan and design professional development experiences for teachers, we have the potential to build an experience that aims to increase participant levels of cognition. Utilizing a self-reflection tool to assess our professional development activities for the level of cognition may prove useful to improve our professional development practices. During the planning phase, it may be helpful for the designer of the professional development to address the following questions:

1. Value: How will the activity relate to future goals or daily practices?

2. Competence: In what ways will the activity impact learner perceptions of success?

3. Relatedness: How will the activity create a cycle of interaction between learners and facilitators? Are opportunities for collaboration present?

4. Autonomy: How will the activity enhance the learner’s ability to direct his or her own learning?

In addition, these questions may be used to assess participant perception of the level of cognition experienced during a professional development experience. Asking participants to reflect on their experiences may provide insight as to which professional development activities led them to higher cognitive engagement.

Increasing cognitive engagement of educators during professional development experiences may improve teacher practice, administrator practice, and eventually student outcomes. That is, teachers and administrators may be more likely to utilize what they have learned in their every day practices if they have experienced high cognition during professional development. This carry over from training/development session to daily practice can often be a difficult task to accomplish. However, with intentional planning of professional development for high cognition, the impact on daily practice may be greater, which in turn, may increase academic outcomes for students, while also increasing the innovation, instructional, and effectiveness capacity of teachers and administrators.


Blumenfeld, P.C., Kempler, T. M., & Krajcik, J.S. (2006). Motivation and cognitive engagement in learning environments. na.

Himmele, P. & Himmele, W. (2011). Total Participation Techniques: Making every student an active learner. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Lamborn, S., Newmann, F., & Wehlage, G. (1992). The significance and sources of student engagement. Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools, 11-39.

Marks, H. M. (2000). Student engagement in instructional activity: Patterns in the elementary, middle, and high school years. American educational research journal, 37(1), 153-184.

Ryan, R. M., & Grolnick, W. S. (1986). Origins and pawns in the classroom: Self-report and projective assessments of individual differences in children's perceptions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 50(3), 550.

Schunk, D. H. (1991). Self-efficacy and academic motivation. Educational psychologist, 26(3-4), 207-231.

Smiley, W., & Anderson, R. (2011). Measuring Students' Cognitive Engagement on Assessment Tests: A Confirmatory Factor Analysis of the Short Form of the Cognitive Engagement Scale. Research & Practice in Assessment, 6.