Podcast: One School’s Experience With Hypothesis Focused Professional Growth Plans - Steve Barkley

Podcast: One School’s Experience With Hypothesis Focused Professional Growth Plans


Why might, “what’s your hypothesis?” be a better question to ask than, “what’s your goal?”
A business article suggested that hypotheses create more organizational learning.  Several schools have been experimenting with building teachers’ professional growth plans (PGPs) around a hypothesis that the teacher wants to explore. In this conversation, you will hear from a director of teaching and learning who shares her experiences at the end of her school’s first year’s implementation of hypothesis focused PGPs.

E-mail Marina: mmacdonald@acst.net
Visit the American Cooperative School of Tunis website.
Read the article, “Why Hypotheses Beat Goals” here.


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: 00:29 One school’s experience with hypothesis focused professional growth plans. A few years back, I found an article that was written for business leaders, and it was titled, Why Hypothesis Beats Goals.” And the article suggested that hypotheses led to more organizational learning than goal setting did. And when I read that phrase, “organizational learning,” I thought that’s exactly what we wanna have happen in schools. The article went on to share an example that was from 7/11 stores in Japan. And what they had done is they went to store managers and rather than asking to set a goal for their store, they asked them to describe a hypothesis that they thought would increase sales. Then the store manager carried out the hypothesis, collected the data or evidence, and then the findings were shared with everyone. So my thought was, if we could create a situation where teachers could set a hypothesis about a change the teacher might implement to impact student learning positively, we could collect the information, share the information from those hypotheses and thus lead to learning for everyone. I’m excited today to have a guest whose school has just finished their first year of implementing a professional growth plan model based around hypothesis. Joining us is Marina MacDonald, the director of teaching and learning at the American Cooperative School of Tunis. Welcome Marina.

Marina: 02:22 Thank you, Steve. I’m excited to be here.

Steve: 02:24 Well, I’m really glad that you’re here with us. Would you share a little bit with folks about your own background and the role that you have at at ACS Tunis?

Marina: 02:36 Sure. So the quick background of my life is I started off back in 1999 at a, a wonderful coalition of essential schools in New Hampshire in the United States, teaching mathematics to students. I was in that career field for about 12 years when I was pulled or called to consulting and coaching in the state of New Hampshire. And the focus then was standards based grading and reporting, 20 something years ago now, and technology integration in the classroom and mathematics instruction. I did that for about five years and was recruited by the international school of Panama, which led my family and I on a journey overseas, internationally, which has been a blessing. It was there that I was a curriculum coordinator and a coach for the district from kindergarten to 12th grade. And now I’m at this lovely school in Tunis, the American Cooperative School of Tunis, where I’m the director of teaching and learning. And when I tell students who I am and what I’m doing, I say, I have the best job in the whole school because I get to talk to all the teachers and all the students about what we should be learning, how we learn, how we teach and how we wonder and think and ask questions and so happy to be here doing that.

Steve: 04:05 So tell us a little bit about the about the school there in Tunis.

Marina: 04:09 Yeah, it’s a lovely school. It’s right on the Mediterranean in the capital of Tunis. The school is small compared to some of the experiences I have in that it’s less than 500 students from preschool all the way to grade 12. We have an IBDP program, but in the grades below 10th grade, we have adopted standards and we have standards based classroom and standards based grading and reporting. We adopt standards by content level and that drives our curriculum and instruction. A lot of our work here is collaboratively written and pulled from all over the world to make the experience the best we can for students and for our teachers. It’s a very international school. We have over 60 different nationalities here. So there’s a very international feel and vibe to the school. And the community is small and close to one another. So it’s a very friendly, collaborative place to be.

Steve: 05:15 So what led the administration at the school to be looking for a different approach to professional growth plans?

Marina: 05:25 Yeah, there’s a journey leading up to the decision to shift. And I’ll have to say that this is my first year at this school. So I
was lucky enough to be here for the soft start or the implementation of the plan. But for the past couple of years, the leadership team was preparing for a middle state’s accreditation and in that process, the organization and leadership subgroup that was formed, identified professional growth and professional learning as an area for us to improve and grow. So that’s one of the places where they began to notice that we needed to make some changes. And then secondary to that were our administrators feeling really overwhelmed by the process that we had here. It was a very traditional supervision and evaluation system where teachers would set goals and have meetings with their principals or their supervisors to discuss their goals, and then plan for a formal observation a couple times a year and have different feedback meetings and then end the year with another meeting and reflection.

Marina: 06:40 So leaders felt as though they didn’t have the amount of time that they wanted to really dig in individually with people and goals felt somewhat disconnected from one another. There was this desire to share the responsibility for student learning and student achievement. And so how do you do that if we’re in isolation and creating goals and not fostering the collaboration that we ask our students to have in the classroom? And so, that feeling from administrators and teachers and then balanced with the middle states’ accreditation strand was born this desire or this journey towards the professional growth plan or what we call the PGP here. So that’s where it came from. And teachers wanted to know what other teachers were doing, and they wanted to learn from one another and they said, well, collectively, we’re gonna have a greater impact on student learning if we do this together.

Steve: 07:43 Well, I had the opportunity to do some of the introductory work with your administrative team and I know that they brought some teacher leaders into that initial exploration before the decision was made. But I’m wondering, what kind of initial response did you get from the staff when you rolled this idea out to them?

Marina: 08:09 Well, Steve, you just alluded to a key factor in their planning that helped the teacher’s perception and helped them with their understanding of what it might be or what it could be. And that is to bring in the teachers to plan it and to have a task force. So, before I came here on campus, I was invited to join that task force. There was representation from all areas of the school building and understanding what this could be and what promising features there were and what potential setbacks or fears people had, which was really nice because then teachers felt safe to ask questions and and wonder what things might be. For example, if we’re being asked to go on a professional growth plan learning journey where mistakes should be encouraged, fostered, explored, well, then how does that play into evaluation? And so we really had to dissect and understand that. So the initial response, when we finally rolled it out, I think was one more of, I’m excited to find out what I don’t know.

Marina: 09:30 I don’t know what this process is gonna be like but you’ve brought us along on this journey with enough information that we are fearful, but we’re hopeful that this will impact student learning in a greater capacity and that’s why we’re all here. There was definitely a strong desire among teachers to have the greatest impact on student learning. And so that’s really helpful. But lots of questions, lots of concerns. And I think transparency from the administration in saying, yes, we’re excited, but we’re also unsure of things too, was a nice way of becoming a community of learners together through this process.

Steve: 10:20 I’m wondering if you could share one or two of the hypotheses that a teacher came up with.

Marina: 10:30 Yeah. I mean, I have about 60 of them rolling around in my head.

Steve: 10:36

Marina: 10:38 There are so many amazing hypotheses. One of them that was really interesting to me, we have a world language teacher who had a hypothesis that if students were engaging in smaller groups, orally with each other, using vocabulary and sentence structure, that their speaking in their foreign language that they were learning would improve. I say that it was so interesting because it took her on this journey of realizing that what she was actually trying to do was a little bit different than what she originally thought. And she found that the students were improving, because no matter what you asking them to use, they were relying on notes, note cards, a slide deck, that was behind them. And so the reason I shared this is she ended up learning from another teacher who was exploring sketch noting, and she stole that idea to have her students draw pictures of what they wanted to say and speak only from pictures.

Marina: 11:51 And it really had a great impact on their speaking because it was – the roadblock or the barrier, I should call it a barrier, she learned it was in her own delivery of expectations for a presentation that was hindering their progress. And so she had a colleague come and observe and kind of give her that feedback while they’re reading. And then she learned from another colleague’s work and implemented that strategy in her own PGP. That was one that really stood out to me. Another teacher did one on increasing engagement. This was a math teacher that if I increase in, if I increase self-directed learning opportunities for my students, then I will increase their engagement in curiosity and content that they haven’t learned. And what she did was use map data to identify areas where students were not achieving to the level that she was hoping to make a self-directed very open-ended project based experience for students.

Marina: 13:07 And to see if their engagement would increase or improve or their initiative, and what was so great for her is they were essentially doing their own professional growth plan because they had all of these choices to make about how to engage with this math topic. And so she was doing her professional growth plan while the kids were struggling through their professional growth plan and what she found was that students who were typically not as engaged in traditional math instructional approaches that she would take, were very inspired, enthusiastic, and excited to make decisions for themselves about how they were gonna learn and how they were gonna show it. And students who are successful with her approaches generally found it really difficult and were able to set some goals about their own self initiation with things and and really reflect on that process and I find that that happened to some teachers with the PGP process as well.

Steve: 14:17 That example is really a double learning. Math learning, but learning how to learn learning for kids.

Marina: 14:25 Learning how to learn. And you know, what was interesting for me as an administrator trying to support and roll out this soft start,
one learning that I had was, our teachers, our adults, they’re excellent students, generally. They want to know, what are your expectations? And I will do that. And a lot of times I’ll even do more. But when you give them autonomy and choice and time, sometimes it can be confusing for some people about how to maximize that time. One other hypothesis was a first grade teacher who said, or thought to herself, if I include my first graders on goal setting in the writing process, that their writing will improve if I have them self reflect on their writing and set their own goals. Because what she was finding was I’m setting these goals for my students, because I know them as writers so much, but I think if I give these little people the opportunity to work with each other and reflect on their own writing, that they might be able to set their own goal and then see their own progress.

Marina: 15:52 And so she created portfolios with them where they were able to do that and had colleagues norm that work together when she was working on her PGP. So it was really an exciting hypothesis for her to explore.

Steve: 16:10 Is it fair to say that you got increased risk taking on the teacher’s part?

Marina: 16:15 Yeah. The risk taking in increases when you ask teachers to look at student evidence, look at data and make a hypothesis about how you think you can improve that. Because instead of setting a goal for yourself professionally, where you have all the control, if I set a goal for myself, I can read a book, I can take a class, I can do the assignments. But when I commit to a hypothesis that may actually improve student learning and student achievement, I’m taking a risk because it might not be true. And I might make mistakes, but that’s why having peer coaching and collaborating with one another is essential to this process.

Steve: 17:12 Yeah. I know that you built a peer coaching into your process. Wanna say a couple of words about that?

Marina: 17:20 Yeah. I think the process would have failed without it. So the peer coaching is essential for a couple of reasons. One, we’re better
together. Two, when someone’s looking on the outside at your work and they’re owning your ideas and your work for that time, you feel a sense of, this is our work and these are our students, even if that person isn’t in the classroom. So what we did was we started off with the whole school having some peer coaching training, and actually thanks to you to for doing that for our school, for doing some of that peer coaching training with the whole staff. And then we wanted it to be ongoing. And so we had peer coaching optional trainings outside of the school day for teachers so that they could practice with one another.

Marina: 18:18 And we also had faculty meetings dedicated to peer coaching with one another. So if people engaged in a training with you or myself, or from a reading or some online training, we would give our teachers some time to practice that with each other or to set up a time to have a pre-conference in order to do an observation. The other thing we did to support that peer coaching is we set up administrative mentor groups throughout the process. So there was peer coaching training, and they were doing that with one another and with administrators, but then we put our teachers in groups periodically to share where they were in their journey and to get feedback from different people in that group, including an administrator who was there serving as a mentor to ask questions and find out different areas where they needed support.

Steve: 19:21 Do I have it right that the administrators shared their growth plans as part of that process as well?

Marina: 19:29 So it was our goal to do that. We never actually… I shared with the staff at staff meetings, as I was prefacing work, that rolling out this PGP process this year as a soft start was the professional plan of the leadership team. So I said, we believe that by having a professional growth plan process in substitution of a traditional supervision and evaluation system, that students’ learning will improve and that achievement will be maximized and that teacher growth and teacher learning will also be improved and maximized. And so, evidence for me along the way was how many teachers are setting up pre-observation peer coaching and observations with one another? How many teachers are engaging in the peer coaching training? How many teachers are buying an additional book or piece of research or signing up for a webinar to support their hypothesis or to learn something new?

Marina: 20:46 And so that was the data that I used to collect to evaluate the effectiveness. And then at the end of the whole process, which I mean, there really is no end, but we gave a survey to the teachers to say, here were the different components and how did it improve your professional learning and how did it improve student learning and achievement, and where can the leadership team learn from this process to help support you next year when we have some more information about how it feels? With your advice, which I really appreciate, we didn’t provide very much structure. We provided a lot of ideas and a lot of time. And with that, we said, do it. And so from that was born so many wonderful ideas from the staff. You know, now at the end of the year, they’re saying, oh, I really love this next year. I’m hoping that I can meet together with a cohort of teachers regularly so that we get to really know each other’s work and we can observe each other. And they’re really getting excited about that.

Marina: 21:53 Another big learning is we did not vet or edit hypotheses. We coached people on their hypotheses. We confirmed them back to make sure that they were what the teacher was intending, but then we didn’t do much in the way of steering them to a different course, but we didn’t have to, because along the way, the teachers steered themselves. And they said, you know, I thought it was this question or this hypothesis. But then as I was working with my students, I was able to see that it wasn’t actually, for example, a student behavior thing, it was in the way that I was organizing my class or whatever it might be. And they would pivot. There was a lot of comfort in the flexibility to pivot, to change course to say, I’m wrong. And I’d like to change a little bit. I’d like to steer the ship a different direction.

Steve: 23:12 The word I’m hearing is trust.

Marina: 23:14 Yeah.

Steve: 23:15 The teachers read your trust in them. The line that I constantly use with with students is that, as teachers, we need to trust the
brains of the kids. So when we model that by trusting the brains of the teachers.

Marina: 23:33 Yeah. And trust is a really interesting word in this case. Trust has to be built, but I think you can build it through the process. And teachers needed to hear over and over again, that if their conclusion was not what they were expecting or that they made a mistake or that they weren’t finished, that it was okay. And we had to affirm that belief over and over again. It’s my hope that going into next year, that there’s trust in that that we celebrated people’s failures and we celebrated when people had to pivot or change. And so I hope that that is something that carries over into next year.

Steve: 24:31 I know that when we had talked earlier, you were just getting ready for an end of the year celebration of the PGP plans. You wanna tell us a little bit about that?

Marina: 24:43 Yeah. We started to see that teachers were learning so much from each other and actually the PGP projects or journeys were overlapping in so many places that we wanted to provide an opportunity for people to celebrate the journey that they worked so hard on, but also we wanted to provide an opportunity for teachers to learn from one another. So we dedicated a Friday afternoon to what would be similar to a teacher’s teaching teachers professional learning day. And our teachers presented in 10 minutes, their hypothesis, their evidence, their, their student evidence, the research that they found, some of the things they learned in unlearned actions that they took throughout the process, and what happened with the student learning and the achievement, and then what their conclusions were. And so if you were presenting, there were about five or six teachers observing you.

Marina: 25:49 And so we had, I would say 12 presentations happening at a time with five to six people observing. And then at the end we celebrated all, 60 plus presentations. And then we linked, when there was a slide deck or a video of some sort, we linked it into the schedule so that now we have over 40 many professional learning opportunities for one another. You might read someone’s hypothesis and just open up their presentation and say, well, what did they learn? Or what books did they read, or what did they try as a catalyst for brainstorming for years to come? So we can read each other’s resources and ideas in another document so that we have kind of an ongoing professional library in-house.

Steve: 26:42 Organizational learning. It’s the picture that I had years and years ago. I was in New Jersey and they called them PIPs – professional improvement plans. And every teacher by law had to have one and people were afraid they would be evaluated on them, so most of them that people made, they were already doing it when they wrote it. But I always thought if you could get them to be real, they should go on a shelf in the staff room that people could go in and access. And that your idea led to my idea, even one that you did that didn’t work, led to my idea of how I’d modify it or change it and that would really push the organizational learning.

Marina: 27:34 Yeah. And that’s when that shared responsibility that we are all responsible for all of our students and for each other’s professional growth and learning. And so that’s the piece that I really love and look forward to it growing.

Steve: 27:51 Marina, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas here with folks. I’m wondering if you’d share a way that people might connect with you with the questions that they have or to find out more.

Marina: 28:03 Sure. People can find my email address on our website, which is acst.net, or you can email me mmacdonald@acst.net and I would love to collaborate with anyone who’s starting their journey or in the middle of it because we’re better together.

Steve: 28:28 Thank you. We’ll be sure to post that in the lead-in to the podcast so folks can find you. Have a great day.

Marina: 28:36 Have a great day, Steve. Thanks so much.

Steve [Outro]: 28:39 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.

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