Past National Principal of the Year, Mark Wilson, identifies the value of gathering student thoughts, feelings, and insights to promote student reflection and provide data that can focus educator reflection. Mark shares several great questions and strategies to guide a process. Use the link to his website to find more sample questions.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:28 Gather year end data from student reflection. I’m pleased to have Dr. Mark Wilson making a return visit to our podcast today. Mark was the national secondary school principal of the year when he was principal at Morgan County High School in Madison, Georgia. Today, Mark provides training and coaching to school leaders. Recently, in his newsletter, Principal Matters, Mark shared 20 questions for student reflection that would produce valuable data for school leaders. When I read it, I immediately reached out to Mark and asked him to join us. I’ve had great conversations with him across the years, and I’m counting on this being another one. So, welcome Mark.
Mark: 01:17 Steve. It’s always great to be with you. Thanks for asking me to be here. I do have to say this about questions. I learned a great one from you – years ago, you were telling me about how you’d been asked to teach in higher ed more than once and you always asked them that, they would say, well, we’ll need a syllabus. And your reply was, well, I can’t do a syllabus until I find out what they know, which flumoxed the higher ed people to no end. But I’ll tell you, that had such an influence on me and the work that I do now and I just want to thank you for that because I work really hard to find out what people need to know and what they already know and what they’d like to know. So this article, it actually falls out of your tree at some point.
Mark: 02:23 I think we would agree that the busyness of school often prohibits us from reaching the success that we can reach in great part because we don’t always examine the different pieces of school. For example, we go into school making an assumption that every child wants what we are giving them.
Steve: 02:47 Or at least needs it
Mark: 02:50 Well, yeah.
Steve: 02:51 Even if they don’t want it, they need it.
Mark: 02:53 Exactly. And we also presume that they’re doing best and that they are able to engage with the material in the fashion that we’re presenting to them. I would argue that everybody, for principals out there looking at their school, I think they need a split screen. They need to not only just look at performance, but also attitude about performance, because every teacher in your building, I would say that attitude about performance is equal to performance itself. That if one really seeks to be her best, that that’s going to give a completely different product than someone who goes into it with perhaps less than their best attitude. And I think it’s the same for the students at the school, where their attitude about their performance – because again, Steve, I just think we make some really big presumptions about all of this.
Mark: 03:57 Particularly when we are measuring a school, measuring a teacher, measuring students on those one time tests, I’m not against assessment, neither are you. But the way that we use assessment is faulty in the fact that it makes these presumptions that everybody’s doing their best, that they did their best on that day and that they were interested in this. And those are the reasons that drive me to suggest to the leaders who read my newsletter, hey, the best source of data that you have is gonna walk out that door at Memorial day and you’ll never be able to reset this data set again, because they’re gonna forget. But while you have them, what if you ask them deeper questions? And I’m not afraid of asking those to kids because they will tell you what they think if you’ll just ask them. And it’s just such a great source of information to really drive instruction that, I just wanted to encourage people, Steve, to take time in their classrooms and in their schools to listen to these end users about their experience for that particular year.
Steve: 05:21 It’s certainly a message that you could imagine business leaders sending out to people who get to deal with the customer. If we don’t talk to them and don’t get their input, we can be back here designing in a direction we think is great, only to find out it’s not where the end user is.
Mark: 05:43 Absolutely. And I really do think that it’s so important to talk to students, not only survey them, because I’ll give you an example. And it’s interesting because Jim Malanowski, our friend, we were, and my successor at Morgan County, we worked on really raising the challenge, the academic challenge for kids. And so, we met with all of our kids. We would bring them in, in groups of three or four and there was a small team of us. Jim was our advanced programs director at the time. And so he and I are having this conversation with three or four 10th grade kids – really bright and we’re encouraging them to sign up for our international baccalaureate program in their junior and senior year. So we’re talking to this young lady and we’re giving her our pitch, because we really want to get her in, for her. And she looks across the table at us, Steve, and she looks at Mal and she says, I appreciate what you’re selling, but I just don’t think that the juice is worth all the squeeze
Mark: 07:02 So here’s the thing. That was so important for us, right? Because here’s one of the people that we think want what we have, but we had to sit down with her and get her comfortable for a little bit. And we had her again with other kids because you don’t wanna put them on the spot, but we needed to get to a frank conversation. And when she put it that way, that was a bell ringer for Jim and I and our team because we were able to say, you know, we either need to improve our value proposition or change our marketing because it’s not working.
Steve: 07:48 Great insight. Well Mark, I thought your questions that you offered were just were just terrific. I’m wondering if you’d share one or two of your favorites off that list and why it’s a favorite for you.
Mark: 08:06 So I shared in the article, a graphic with 20 questions and it was never my intent that – I know that there are some people who handle it very sequentially, but I think that the concept of sitting down with the kids and seeing, like you’ve said before, where they lead you, I think they can take you into questions. And so some of the ones that I think probably are good, no matter where you are, who you’re talking to – I like this one. How hard do you try in school? Do you try your best, as much as you need to, or not much? Don’t you think that’s one that we don’t always know Steve, but would really be helpful?
Steve: 08:52 Yeah. When I do sessions about effort or engagement and the reality is without conversation, you don’t know. So as a teacher, I make an assumption that the quality on this piece of student work wasn’t what I thought it should be. And so I’m gonna label it as student lack of effort. Only with the conversation do I find out the student actually worked really hard on it and didn’t have the right tools or the right approach to get the return on the effort they were putting in. But without a conversation, I can’t find that.
Mark: 09:38 Well, and I think what you said there, Steve, is so critical that we can’t live at the surface level and truly influence learning the way that we wish we could. And I do think, again, we’re, we’re all a part of this and no one’s to blame for it, but I think we find ourselves in a place where we do an awful lot of surface level work. And without those deeper conversations, because I wanna know how hard they try. I also want to know, there was another question I had on there, and I think this one’s important, is, who expects you to do your best in school?
Steve: 10:19 Wow.
Mark: 10:19 And in that, you often will get, well, I do. The student will tell you that, but sometimes you’ll get nobody.
Steve: 10:34 That’s what was going through my mind. The kid that says nobody. Tells us we’re missing the mark.
Mark: 10:40 I will give you this last third one here is because it ties in with those – what do we do at school that makes you try harder? And I think that’s important because when you’re talking about business and how this same concept reflects to them, I often think, we create incentives at school. Well, we create like middle aged ideas of what kids would like and not what kids would like sometimes. And so, I feel like often, I’m sharing with principals, they’ll ask me like, well, what should I do to appreciate my teachers? And I’m like, so you should ask them and that would be a good start. I really believe in the power of small group conversation facilitated to really extract what you need, because if I send out a survey and look, I’m all into technology and I like the convenience, but there are times for convenience.
Mark: 12:02 Like, are you going to be at this event? Yes or no. Are you gonna bring potato salad? Are you gonna bring banana pudding? I need to know those things, but a deeper thing, you really need to sit down and talk about it because you really can’t get there with a survey. And I just find so many well intended people who say they’re in the pursuit of, – you know, they’ll go, well, I ask my teachers and my question to them is what was your format of doing so? Well, I sent a survey and then I’m like, so how many of them replied? And they were like, well, you know, actually only six
Steve: 12:51 You know what that reminds me of – when I’m doing my training for folks on conferencing with teachers, for coaching, and you’re having a pre-operation conference. So in the training, I’m gonna model one, nd especially now that I’ve been doing them virtually, I’ll ask them to get a volunteer. So then I’ll get a note from somebody saying, they’ve agreed to volunteer and they’ve asked me if I’d send my questions in advance. And so I write, and I say, I can’t send you the questions in advance. Do you know why? And they’re like really shocked. “No. Why?” Well, until I hear your answer to the first one, I don’t know what the second question’s gonna be. So, if I’m sending you all the questions in advance, then I’m leading this whole thing. The power is my listening to you and having you lead me. And that’s what I saw in these questions.
Mark: 13:51 And I don’t wanna get off track on this, but it’s worth saying – I feel like you and I, we’re questioners. That’s so much of what we we do in our work. But often, I bet you have the same thing Steve, people will say, and I guess I did it in this article, but people will say, “gimme some questions”
Mark: 15:27 It’s hilarious that the two of the two of us are talking about this list because we both hate lists.
Mark: 15:37 I feel dirty when I send it out, but, the opens, if I send out a list, people will open that email. So part of this is like, I understand that people want that. Like, here’s your list, but be careful about using it, because honestly the one you just said, Steve, like that might be the only one you need to ask. I mean, it’ll pull you in so many places. And on one hand, this is valuable because you’re able to collect data. The adults are able to get this rich important data from the students about their perspective and their year. But more than that, I really think the process of doing this gets the students to be more engaged in their own learning. I think that often, we create this whole area of doing this without examination.
Mark: 16:43 We don’t get our students to examine their own work and to reflect on these things. But look, if from an early age, if we could teach them, just imagine how much that metacognition would really spill over into all parts of what they do. And I really can see, when students can begin to self correct and self-regulate, if they begin to self-examine, and I’m afraid that a lot of times we don’t really treat the students as sentient beings. We just kind of have them there as part of the props of this. And again, I don’t think anybody had ill intentions from that, but even at kindergarten, you can begin that early and at an age appropriate level to build this capacity within the kids to examine what they’ve done and what they liked and how they responded and the better consumers they are of their own learning, I think the better students they are and the better schools we have.
Steve: 17:50 Mark, in part of your newsletter, you shared different ways that they might go collecting some of this information on how to have these conversations with students. You wanna just hit a couple of those?
Mark: 18:05 Sure. One of the things I think matters is when you do things. I think that it’s important. I’m a big fan of Daniel Pink. In his books, he wrote one a couple years ago called, “When,” and in case you ever need to know this, Steve, if you’re up for parole, it’s better for you to have your hearing at 9:00 AM than it is at noon.
Mark: 18:33 I thought that would be helpful for you.
Mark: 19:36 And someone who works at the school certainly can lead these conversations, but they’re gonna have to leave their ego at the door and not be angry when you ask people what they think and they tell you. You should be happy and not angry that they don’t think what you want them to think. That should be your call to action rather than your call to anger. Is it okay that I tell something super truthful here?
Steve: 20:07 You bet.
Mark: 20:07 We’re really bad in our profession, Steve, to be hypersensitive to criticism which is a dumb thing, because feedback should be the cornerstone of all of our work. And as educators, we’re not so great at taking feedback. And I do think that’s when caveat into this is, if you really don’t want to know what people have to say, don’t ask them at all.
Steve: 20:34 So, Mark, how are you imagining that an administrator take things that they learned from this process and then work with the staff with it?
Mark: 20:49 Much in the same format that you extracted the data to begin with is that you gather a group of six teachers. You know, as well as I do, the third grade teachers, that’s an entity in itself, so you don’t want to go to them. You wanna bring a cross-section and I think you go to them and say, “we talked to these kids, and here’s what they said,” and then begin to offer reflective questions for them. For example, “does that surprise you? Did you think that all of your kids were doing their best? What is your response, teacher group, to the question or the answers that we got from the question, what does this school do to make me do my best?” And really, I think that’s where the power in this is Steve, is that you collect the data without prejudice and you present it without prejudice back to the teachers. And again, if you are either building a culture or, or have a culture of trust and a culture of genuine improvement, you can have those conversations and you can begin to examine those things. And honestly, I think we’re just playing around until we get to that point.
Steve: 22:19 You hit the word there when you said examine, because what was going through my head is, when teachers look at this, the question we got to get them to stay on long enough is, “what does it cause you to wonder?”
Mark: 22:34 Absolutely. I don’t even know that I want any answers. I just want questions.
Steve: 22:40 I say the same thing about academic test data. I have schools that they’ll have a data wall up with all the information. I say, I have one suggestion – just take down the sign that says “data wall” and put up the sign that says “question wall.” So when you’re looking at this data, what questions emerge? And whatever those questions are, that’s what goes on to extend us as learners.
Mark: 23:08 Well, unfortunatelym I remember, and so do you, where we didn’t examine data, we just did things and we made this progress to where we collect the data. But if it remains in an esoteric level without examination, without questioning, you know what we’re really doing? We’re still doing whatever we wanted to do. We didn’t do it with the data wall. And I think that’s honestly the core of these 20 questions and the whole concept of talking to students. This isn’t an activity to do just to say you’ve done it. This is an activity if you are a better seeking and a deeper seeking school that wants to know why. There are schools that questions are forbidden and I think a great book – Warren Berger, “A More Beautiful Question.”
Mark: 24:12 I think everybody ought to read that because it’s so much about the value of questions and how schools should be the place where everything’s about a question and schools often are places where questions are discouraged. I didn’t have it in this list, Steve, but one of the things I ask kids when I’m doing a school visit and I have those groups of six kids, I’ll ask them, “hey, when you wanna know something, how do you ask questions around here?” And it’s interesting, because sometimes, they’ll all look at each other and they’ll go, “I’m not gonna ask a question in class.” And I take that back to the principal and say, “hey, your kids, they don’t know how to ask a question and when they need to know something, it’s not the culture that makes that rich.” And then I ask the principal, “so what do you make of that? And what would you do with that?” Because I don’t wanna give them the answer either, but that’s troubling if kids at school say, I don’t know how to ask questions here.
Steve: 25:30 Well, I’m gonna encourage people to get this get this newsletter from you and take a look at your list and see what it causes them to wonder because it’s now struck a new wonder for me. And that is if, as a school leader, I got it happening where I was doing this process with kids, I realize I can quickly follow that with the exact same process, with the same questions for teachers. So when I just looked down and said, “what do what do we do at this school that makes you try harder,” it’s a great question to take to the staff after we’ve taken it to the kids. Well, Mark, thank you so much. Would you tell folks the best way for them to be able to connect with you and be able to find your your your newsletter with the questions?
Mark: 26:28 Sure, absolutely. So if you’ll go to principal-matters.com, everything’s there, everything’s free. And our mission is to help school leaders lead schools. And we connect with you, Steve, and your work with teachers and school leaders as well in that whole concept of trying to get people to think more deeply and to examine their work. And again, I started with this and I’d like to end with it. I just really appreciate you and you probably don’t know how much your work influences mine. And so I really appreciate what you do, and it is really an honor to be on your podcast.
Steve: 27:13 Thank you. It’s an honor to have you here, Mark. We’ll be sure to put those those links in the lead-in to the podcast in case folks have trouble taking it while they’re listening.
Mark: 27:27 Sounds great. Thanks Steve.
Steve [Outro]: 27:29 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.