This article is the fifteenth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.
“When I haven’t done it myself, I call on Bil P.” That’s Scot Bingham, principal of Broadway Elementary in District 51, describing how tightly he works with the professional learning facilitator assigned to his school. Broadway Elementary is a small school with 240 students and seventeen certified staff members. The strength of this size is that decisions can be made together. The weakness is that it is very difficult to free up collaborative staff time. So Bingham seeks opportunities to support learning whenever the opportunity comes up.
As a demonstration school, Bingham and second grade teacher Shannon Morlan were part of the third wave of visitors to Lindsay Unified. (See Building Consensus for Change.) Bingham reflected on how the visit to Lindsay has influenced him, “Broadway Elementary is considered a good school, but I knew we could do better. After Lindsay, I understood how we could do it. What resonated with the teachers during the visit was that students are highly engaged in a performance-based learning school. We didn’t see students sitting in class not understanding, or bored because they already understood.” One hundred percent of the staff at Broadway agreed to go forward and become a demonstration school.
In our conversation, Bingham generously reflected on what he has been learning in this intense year of strengthening culture and climate, introducing effective practices, and beginning to build transparency. Here are a few of the highlights.
Impact on Students
Bingham was enthusiastic about the changes they are seeing in students within only a few months of introducing the growth mindset and implementing the learner-centered classroom practices. With a smile, he noted, “Our growth is off the charts and behavior referrals are down 70 percent.” He also said that engagement is up – way up. He remarked that it is now common to see 100 percent of students actively engaged in a classroom.
He contributes the growth to the high engagement of students and the efforts in meeting them at their developmental levels. Students are simply not as frustrated as they were in the conventional system. Bingham explained, “Differentiation has been a myth. In the conventional system, we move kids forward all at the same time. The best teachers might be able to differentiate for most of the students, but your average teacher is, at most, providing some scaffolding. The bigger the range of skill levels in the classroom, the harder it is to differentiate. Now with the P-BL structures, most teachers are going to be able to differentiate at least in terms of flexible grouping.” He also noted that it’s now much easier to identify which students are having a hard time and need some extra attention. When most of the students are showing signs of engagement, the ones that aren’t engaged are likely to need some extra attention.
He also remarked, “The growth mindset is a big game changer. Our students aren’t passive anymore. They know they can do things to grow their brains. They are comfortable saying I haven’t learned something…yet. They understand that we need to focus on the things we can’t do…yet.” Bingham also pointed out that they use a very different set of questions with students now, such as, What have you learned? What haven’t you learned yet? What are you struggling with today? What mistakes did you make today and what did you learn from them?”
Bingham explained that he has been increasingly thinking about how to increase student motivation. “I’m thinking of student success as autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In his book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, Paul Tough identifies these as crucial elements of student motivation and engagement,” he said.
I asked Bingham about what part has been the hardest for his teachers. His reply:
“Teachers are used to being the source of power, the source of knowledge, and the source of learning. It’s hard to give that up. It’s hard to let go of being in front of the classroom and moving everyone at the same time. We start to reach a tipping point when teachers are able to step back from being in the front of the room and depending solely on whole group instruction. In order to accomplish this, they need to have developed a number of the effective practices, including growth mindset, shared vision, code of cooperation, and standard operating procedures and workshop.”
“The challenge,” explained Bingham, “is that performance-based learning isn’t just a set of new practices. The key is in the understanding of the pedagogy upon which these practices rest.”
The Struggle is an Important Step
“I didn’t want to believe that we needed to struggle with the concepts,” he went on to explain. “I just wanted to move forward and implement everything immediately. I’ve learned that the time in which we struggle with the new information – unpacking the concepts such as growth mindset or shared vision and standard operating procedures – helps us to understand and own them.”
He told a story of a teacher who was feeling frustrated. “She said, ‘I am just messing with the pieces of a puzzle, but don’t know what the picture is I’m trying to put together. Just show me the big picture and I can put the pieces together.’” Bingham responded with, “This isn’t a puzzle. We are painting our very own Monet. We are learning the technique. We are getting the material together. We are creating our own vision for what we want to paint. But we still haven’t painted the picture. We have the power to create the education system that will be the best for kids. But we haven’t arrived yet.”
Bingham waxed philosophically about this stage in the transformation process. “Is it okay that we can’t get people comfortable in the new framework? Of course. We shouldn’t be comfortable yet, as we are all learning. We all would be more comfortable with a script or someone telling us what to do. But what in your life that is really important can be easily scripted out? Can you imagine a curriculum for marriage? Or for raising a child? Of course not. The struggle is part of the process. We learn and grow through the process. As leaders, our job is to help people become comfortable with the struggle itself.”
Bingham noted that in a transformational process, leadership comes from within the school. It’s not a top-down process. “There is no way for me to be an imposer or the decider,” he said. “The leadership comes from within the school, from within the teachers. Together, we create leadership.”
The school is in the process of completing the development of its school-wide shared vision, a process that includes the students themselves.
On the Impact of Policies
Bingham told the story of one teacher who described their own experience of shutting down under the weighty expectations of the system. There was always talk of what teachers should be doing, but little opportunity for them to talk about where they were in terms of their understanding and skill and how to move forward from there. Bingham explained, “Teachers may close down to learning if principals don’t understand and accept them where they are and then work with them to move forward. The state evaluation systems can exacerbate that problem. It’s just as important to accept teachers where they are in their growth as it is to accept students where they are.”
Rebecca Midles, Director of Performance-Based Learning, joined in, “The amount of trust and respect you have within your district will inform the sequencing of the change process. If you are just growing trust and respect, continuing to have an evaluative evaluation process as compared to a process that emphasizes feedback and is growth-oriented is going to undermine your effort.” Midles noted that any tool can either be used as growth-producing or evaluative. The trick is to be transparent and trustworthy about how tools are used; if they are going to be evaluative, it’s important to make sure people have a chance to learn before evaluation occurs.
Observation and Inquiry: This struck me as a paradox in our top-down methods of accountability: Those very same policy tools that are designed to force schools and teachers to improve may, in the most fragile schools with the most fragile levels of “trust capital,” create an even more fragile environment with less risk-taking, less learning, and less improvement. If trust-generation was one of the leading indicators of an effective policy tool, how might our policies be designed?
Bingham described the Colorado Department of Education evaluation tool as “massive.” He explained, “If we want deeper conversations, we need a way to target where we focus. A tool may be comprehensive, but it won’t be meaningful if it forces us to be shallow in our conversations about how each of us needs to improve.” Midles is also thinking about how to create and reinforce intrinsic motivation for teachers within the performance-based learning system that is being designed. D51 has a strategic compensation policy that rewards teachers for learning. Yet this emphasizes the extrinsic motivation. The goal is to have a balanced approach that values both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic reward.
The Journey of Discovery
As we roamed in and out of classrooms, Bingham returned to the impact on teachers. “The teachers see the value of performance-based learning,” he said. “The challenge is that teachers want to know immediately how to do it. But they need to take the time to deeply understand and own the practices. If we just tell people what to do, they’ll miss out on the journey of understanding why these practices, when put together into a system, make such a difference.” Bingham said he himself used to ask Midles what the next piece would be and what to expect until he realized that she wasn’t going to just give him answers. He too was on the journey of discovery.
Bingham recounted a story of a teacher creating a shared vision, code of cooperation, and standard operating procedures in her fifth grade classroom. She started off with some prior learning, introducing the concept and purpose of codes by teaching about the power of samurai codes and Ben Franklin’s personal codes that shaped his life. The students then broke themselves into design groups around each of the vision pillars of the school – Be Safe, Be Kind, Be a Learner – to create codes of cooperation. When Midles heard this story, she laughed. “It’s a good thing we didn’t tell her how to do it. This is so much better than what we might have suggested.”
To help him on his own discovery, Bingham carries the four guiding questions in his calendar. He uses them in the teacher evaluation process and reflects with each teacher how students responded and what could be done to help students be able to answer them.
Read the Entire Series:
Post #2 – Building Consensus for Change at D51
Post #4 – Holacracy: Organizing for Change at D51
Post #10 – Transparency and Trust
Post #11 – Lincoln Orchard Mesa: What Did You Notice?
Post #13 – R5 High School: Abuzz with Learning