Leading Learning

David Brazer's blog discusses practical issues in education leadership while linking to theory and research

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Physics

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Jordan had a remarkable gift. After 20 years of teaching high school science, he could orchestrate a class of 30 physics students working through a lab that required them to apply what they knew of trigonometry to problems of momentum, trajectory, and gravity. As students struggled to get a ball to roll off a ski jump-like ramp and land in a cup on the floor, they would pepper Jordan with questions that arose from the frustration of their ball landing anywhere but in the cup. With patience born of wisdom, Jordan would answer their questions with more questions, demanding that his students engage in inquiry to solve their own problems, rather than simply “do” a lab.


As an assistant principal preoccupied with discipline and attendance, I was Jordan’s evaluator. My teaching career consisted of teaching high school history and economics, with some brief inept attempts at middle school math and reading. When I emerged from graduate school, my pedagogical content knowledge was weak and narrow. What could I possibly offer to Jordan in the evaluation process? I stumbled upon borrowing from Jordan’s method with students to approach our evaluation discussions from an inquiry stance. “Why did you set up the lab that way? What worked well? What would you have done differently? Was trigonometry helpful, or did it get in the way?” Answering my questions, Jordan helped me write up my observations of his classrooms. But something more important happened, he guided my learning.


Querying veteran teachers assigned to me in the evaluation process, combined with efforts to leverage what I had learned in high school, college, and graduate school, I was able to broaden and deepen my pedagogical content knowledge in a variety of subjects. Enough of my study of the Second British Empire stuck to me to be able to discuss and learn about the World History curriculum. Years of playing in orchestras provided a foundation for assessing the quality of high school ensemble rehearsals. Diving into my shallow reservoir of math knowledge helped me to learn about the difficulties of teaching factoring and applying the quadratic formula. The expert teachers who educated me as we fulfilled our bureaucratic duty of teacher evaluation helped me to become conversant in a wide variety of content and prepared me to lead other teachers’ learning, though I didn’t know it at the time.


The recognition that principals are more effective when they lead instruction has become commonplace. How to lead instruction, however, is a matter of some debate. In many settings, what passes for instructional leadership is actually the monitoring of classroom practice and outcomes. For example, principals are exhorted to analyze data to help them to identify and address achievement gaps. They engage in walk-through visits to classrooms to learn whether and to what extent teachers are in sync with pacing guides and applying what the principal may have promoted as best practice for classroom teaching. What such behaviors represent may be instructional leadership, depending on their emphasis, but my suspicion is that data analysis, classroom walk-throughs, and other highly-touted leadership practices aren’t really leadership at all. They are management tools that focus on compliance in a belief that if teachers do what administrators ask, desired outcomes will follow.


The central problem with prescribing administrator behavior and teacher practice is that the prescriptions may be entirely wrong. Searching for how to improve instruction by looking at various kinds of test data may keep answering the question, “How are we doing?” over and over again, but it will not likely lead to answering the question, “Why do achievement gaps persist?” And if those gaps persist despite teachers’ best efforts to apply what they have been told are best practices, then demoralization follows. Improvement in student performance is not likely to occur as a result of the application of solutions when the nature of classroom problems and challenges is not deeply understood.


It makes sense for principals to engage teachers in learning about teaching and learning outcomes that are less than what was expected. I am not the first to come up with this idea as the current national infatuation with professional learning communities suggests. But how does a principal foster teacher learning? Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe (2008) argue persuasively that principals learning alongside teachers is one of the most powerful means of improving student achievement. Their meta-analysis does not explain how or why this particular mechanism works, but I have a few hunches.


When principals sit down with teachers to analyze persistent problems such as students’ inability to comprehend and retain non-fiction texts, weaknesses in basic operations that impede algebra achievement, or the ineffectiveness of interventions to improve special education students’ performance, they signal first and foremost that teaching and learning are of primary importance to the principal and to the school. And, the inquiry stance embedded in the act of learning alongside teachers strongly implies that there are no pat answers to the problems that vex teachers every day. Learning more about such problems may help teachers to find more effective solutions than those being handed to them from somewhere else. Learning processes are slow and much less certain than following prescriptions, therefore apparently more risky.


Prospective and practicing principals and assistant principals reading this will likely react the way my administrative team did each time we had to decide who would evaluate the calculus teacher: “I haven’t taken math since high school, so what can I offer in the discussion, and how could I possibly lead learning when I am so ignorant?” Any subject could be substituted in place of calculus. Many administrators, feeling some degree of helplessness, will move to the position that they understand pedagogy generally and can help that way. I believe that is not good enough. To lead teacher learning that improves student learning requires being sufficiently conversant in all the subjects taught to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with teachers, individually and in groups, about what should be taught and how it should be taught. Teachers should be acknowledged as experts and be celebrated for their expertise, but principals and AP’s need to know enough about a range of content and pedagogical needs to show their appreciation in meaningful ways and challenge teachers to greater effectiveness.


Stein and Nelson (2003) call for administrators to develop their pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in specific areas in which they did not teach. While a step in the right direction, their prescription does not go far enough. Expanding prospective administrators’ curricular reach should begin in leadership preparation programs by having candidates broadening and deepening their PCK in at least a few areas. Administrators (preferably supported by district professional development) could embrace PCK development as an important aspect of their professional growth throughout their careers because no one can develop the required breadth of expertise all at once, prior to assuming an administrative role. In addition to what administrators are able to learn about curriculum and instruction on the job, they need consistent professional development to help them expand the subjects and levels in which they are conversant in order to lead learning school wide.


I am grateful to Jordan and many others who taught me a great deal. I wish I had known more about how to structure teacher learning and collaboration when I was a principal because I know that for me and for my school, it was hit-or-miss. The next post tackles the issue of managing to maximize teacher learning opportunities.


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