CIE: Continuously Increase Your Effectiveness

A Cycle of Reflection that Leads to Increased Effectiveness

Key Elements of an Effective Reflection Cycle

Logically Aligned

  • Do the issues in one step of the cycle definitely derive from the issues in the previous step?
  • If you change the root cause ultimately identified by this cycle, will it close the identified gap?

Well-Prioritized

  • Is this element critical and impactful enough to actually improve student learning?
  • Is this element atomized to a level that you can concretely define, tackle and resolve it?

Frequent & Systematic

  • Are systems embedded in your classroom that generate data that help identify gaps in student progress?
  • Are you infusing the reflection cycle in your day-to-day teaching practice?

Explanation

In our classrooms we often see the data and problems that are most immediate or obvious (e.g., when there are behavior concerns, our first instinct might be to focus on our behavior management plans and our execution of those plans). It is difficult to prioritize effectively when we are not considering the entire scope of what would be at the heart of the issue.

One reason why this plays out with regard to prioritization specifically is because we may not be familiar with more complex cause-effect relationships. For example, we may not know that comprehension problems are often the root cause of behavior problems – and that lack of goals, assessments and sound unit plans is often the root cause of problems with other teacher actions, like lesson planning and investing students.

Solution

In order to cast a wide enough net, you should gather good data about what’s really going on and be prepared to confront reality and dig deeper than the most obvious possible theories about what may be contributing to problems. Given that this is difficult, it’s particularly helpful to have a critical friend as a partner during this process because s/he can help see new things and come to terms with what you are seeing but are having a hard time comprehending.

Explanation

We all have competing commitments that can make it hard to know how to prioritize the problems we most need to work on. For example, we may struggle to navigate what to do based on what the next door teacher tells us to do, what our principal requires of us, or what other teachers are doing. Competing commitments can make it difficult to sift out which actions will actually have an impact on our students’ growth, and if we do not consider them carefully, we risk spending time on actions that have little or no impact on student results.

Solution

Be careful not to do something without analyzing its likely impact. Since student achievement is the ultimate goal, test each competing commitment by asking, “Is this the most important action to improve student learning?” If it is difficult to justify that it will, then you should spend time reflecting on what would in fact have a significant impact on your students’ achievement.

Of course, if competing commitments originate from colleagues or administrators, you should always be sensitive to your professional relationships. If it is ever professionally tricky to reject a competing commitment out of hand, be sure to consider the potential consequences as you broaden the scope of your analysis of what course of action will ultimately benefit your students the most.

Explanation

When pursuing a learning experience to improve our teaching practice, it can be easy to lose sight of the original underlying factor(s) we were seeking to address. For example, we may have identified that it is our inability to respond consistently to student misbehavior that is holding us back in our classroom. To address this underlying factor, we schedule a classroom observation with a veteran teacher renowned for her classroom management. However – upon observing this teacher, we’re captivated by the detailed tracking system she has displayed on her wall, and the second we return to our classroom we immediately begin to overhaul our own tracking system. While this is potentially still a meaningful improvement we do need to make in our practice, we’ve left the originally identified underlying factor unaddressed.

Solution

When it comes to pursuing learning experiences to improve your teaching, you must continue down the path of perfect alignment. Just as you must identify the underlying skill, knowledge, or mindset that is directly contributing to the teacher action you are seeking to address – you must also pursue and maximize a learning experience that actually addresses the skill, knowledge, or mindset you are setting out to change.

To help keep yourself on this path, consider completing pre- and post-learning experience reflection questions that focus your thoughts on the objective at hand: “In what ways do I think X learning experience will help me improve specifically in X?” “What do I need to be explicitly watching for during this experience?” “Do my takeaways from this experience truly address my area of need?” “What questions do I still have about how to improve in X?” Also, if the learning experience you are pursuing involves observing or speaking to another teacher, consider being very upfront with him/her about precisely where you are seeking to improve. This can provide another layer of accountability and further necessitate a focused learning experience.

Explanation

We may be inclined to focus on the things that seem easier to fix rather than on the thing that is most contributing to the problem. In the end, this can end up costing us.

For example, we may feel overwhelmed by the work required to create a strong long term plan, and may instead focus solely on lesson planning, because it seems more feasible. If we never get around to creating our long term plan, we could easily end up spending significantly more time during the middle of the year trying to fix the lack of movement in our students’ work because we didn’t take the time earlier in the year to figure out how to strategically plan the entire year for our students. We would be lesson planning towards nothing in particular. Even more, our lesson plans would likely take so much longer without basing them off of a long term and unit plan. We could end up putting in significantly more work, even at though at the time it seemed more feasible.

Solution

As you reflect on the root causes of gaps in student achievement, resist the urge to prioritize the first problem that comes to mind. Push yourself to generate a more complete list of gaps, and of possible factors contributing to those gaps. As your list grows, think about interconnections between the things you’ve generated. Is there a gap that, if closed, could possibly close other gaps? Is there an underlying factor that is a prerequisite for other underlying factors? (For example, strong long-term and unit planning is a prerequisite for strong, efficient lesson planning.) Then push yourself to rigorously and objectively assess what underlying factor, if addressed, would make the biggest difference in student achievement—and tackle that first.

Read more about the process for developing strong theories.

Explanation

When we reflect on the gaps and progress in our classrooms, it can be incredibly difficult to be objective. For example, we may infer that students do not care because they are talking during independent practice, but they could be confused by our instructions and baffled about what to do.  Or, we could be underestimating the rigor of our lesson, and our students could be bored. If we don’t separate our judgments or speculations from verifiable facts, then it can be much more difficult to determine what steps we need to take to have the greatest impact on student performance—it’s a bit like navigating through fog.

Solution

If you focus on “just the facts”—on what students are doing or not doing—you’ll be better able to (1) accurately diagnose the problems in your classroom and (2) identify logical causes of those problems, and thus (3) develop solutions that will effectively tackle the root cause of the most significant problems. When reflecting on gaps, ask yourself “Is that an objectively verifiable fact?” You can’t verify that students “don’t care,” but you can verify that students performed poorly on an end-of-lesson assessment, or that many of them were off task during independent practice, etc. “Why were so many students off task during independent practice?” is a much stronger starting point for reflection than is “Why don’t they care?”

Read more about the process for developing strong theories.

Explanation

Sometimes we can get slip into perceiving the steps of the improvement cycle as discrete actions steps to complete for their own sake. When we do this, we lose sight of the ultimate purpose of CIE: to identify and enact concrete, targeted changes in our teaching to increase student achievement. This can be particularly hard to avoid if the impetus for engaging in CIE is coming from someone outside our selves, and it can even lead to us failing to enact the very change we’ve identified as necessary.

Another obstacle that can prevent us from carrying out changes in our practice is a lack of confidence that we’ve identified the correct change to make. If we don’t truly believe that a new strategy or approach will increase student achievement, it’s doubtful we’ll spend the time executing it.

Then, there are the situations where the change we’re attempting to make doesn’t immediately work, and we abandon it. For example, we may resolve to make plan explicit connections between our lesson content and students’ lives, but when students don’t immediately respond with increased investment – we’re convinced that this isn’t the answer.

Solution

Ask yourself:

The value of the entire CIE process ultimately hinges on one outcome: making concrete, positive changes in your teaching practice that will move your students towards increased achievement. Constantly reminding yourself of this ultimate purpose throughout the entire improvement cycle can help you follow through on the changes you need to make.

Also, put faith in the hard work you have already done in the CIE process. If the change you are presented with making is truly aligned to student outcomes, student actions, your actions, and your underlying factors – then it will have the desired positive impact. If you find you don’t have this confidence in your alignment, return to earlier steps in the improvement cycle to locate where you’ve gone off track.

Finally, don’t give up on a change you are attempting to make in your classroom if you are faced with initial failure. New approaches and strategies need to be given adequate time to fully take effect, especially if they are radical departure from your previous practice.

Explanation

Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed that we don’t know where to start. There are two common scenarios that can lead to this:

      We identify student gaps that are so big that without breaking them down in to smaller pieces we can’t begin to understand or tackle them. If we attempt to tackle an overly broad problem such as, “My entire class is really struggling,” we’re likely to find that we don’t have enough information to identify and prioritize our own contributions to the problem. Such a broad problem could potentially be the result of our goal setting, unit planning, lesson planning, or investment efforts, but choosing which one of these to focus on would be guesswork. Rather, through analyzing our data we might identify that our subgroup of students averaging 60-80% appear to be struggling the most as of late. Through zeroing in on this subgroup, we might also find they are primarily struggling with higher order objectives that require them to analyze problems. Now that we’ve identified a problem of manageable scope, it’s much easier to pinpoint our contributions to the problem.
      We create a laundry list of “things to improve” without exploring their inter-connectedness. When we see each necessary teacher action as a separate entity or every student manifestation as its own problem we can easily become overwhelmed by all there is to fix. For example, if we experience minor student misbehavior, lack of student engagement, and difficulty writing aligned lesson plans – all at the same time – we might have no idea where to begin our improvement efforts. However, through investigating these student and teacher actions a bit further, we might discover that our lack of a strong long term plan is the root cause underlying all of these concerns – a more singular place to begin our efforts for improvement.

Solution

Ask yourself:

      When our scope is too big, it is often a result of poor data. If we don’t have a deep understanding of what our students know, it is likely that we’ll focus on broad generalizations that are immediately obvious in our classroom rather than analyzing our data to identify accurate patterns in achievement. The best solution to this problem is to obtain or create a strong tracking system and quality assessments, administer assessments with strategic frequency, and track student performance on those assessments.
      To help yourself learn to see the connections between individual teacher actions/student manifestations and draw down to what is underneath all of them (which makes prioritization an easier process), ask a critical friend to talk through a set of issues with you. You can also investigate connections among teacher actions by exploring TALON.

      Read more about how to think broadly about the root causes underlying problems in your classroom in Not thinking broadly enough about the possible root of the problem in this section.

Explanation

We track students’ academic performance so that we have clarity about where we are currently in relation to our ultimate goal.  We also track so that we can make data-informed decisions about what to work on more and with whom to work on it.  Otherwise, we have to guess or rely on hunches.

We may sometimes struggle to reflect effectively because we have not have gathered enough information about what is going on with our students and ourselves – either in terms of students’ academic outcomes, their behaviors and misunderstandings that are holding them back from achieving those outcomes, and/or objective information about our actions – to inform sound theories. If we don’t know what they know and they don’t know, then determining what we need to do to improve student achievement is essentially guesswork—it’s likely that we’ll prioritize a teacher action that doesn’t help improve the academic outcomes we’re driving towards.

Solution

Ask yourself:

  • Have I developed habits that ensure that important data is entered into my tracking system on a daily or weekly basis?  If not, what’s holding me back?
  • Am I efficient when I gather and enter data?  If not, what are the areas of inefficiency?  What would I need to change to accomplish more in less time?
  • Is the data I’m entering data that I can stand behind?  Do I believe the numbers accurately reflect the extent to which students are learning? Do they accurately capture what students know and who knows what?  Do the numbers reflect mastery of rigorous content?  If not, why not?
  • Am I using this data to inform my instruction?  If not, why not?

Figure out what steps to take to ensure you have good data in the future.  If you’ve got solid data, but believe it could be improved, you should identify a few steps you commit to taking to increase the consistency, efficiency and purposefulness of your tracking habits.

Read more abot tracking effectively

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