By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries from January 2012
Posts 1 - 5 of 5

Monday, January 30, 2012

Getting from plans to reality

Here's the problem with making changes in doing just about anything: It's the difference between a plan and action. It's easy to make plans. It's tougher to take the action to make the plans into reality. Often, too little attention is given to the ways to keep the actions for projects foremost in your mind. The to-do list is about the simplest technique there is. But the standard to-do list is insufficient for the collection of projects that most of us have going at any particular time.

Here's a way of approaching the problem of keeping your portfolio of projects moving forward.

  • Everything is a project.
  • Every project consists of steps.
  •  The most important step is the next step. It's this next small task that needs to be done to move the project forward.
  • The daily planning ritual. The daily planning ritual is a review of next steps for your current projects. The output of the daily planning ritual is a decision of what are the most important things to do today. In other words, not only must you list the actions for the day, but prioritize them.
  • Longer term planning rituals help you accomplish bigger goals. Weekly, monthly quarterly and annual planning rituals can each be useful, depending upon your goals. The trick is to make planning automatic. Schedule your planning for specific dates and times.
  • Begin each action step with a verb. It's a reminder that the step is after all action.
  • Keep in mind that not all actions are actions that you yourself have to take. Some are actions that you delegate to someone else. The action for you for delegated work is to follow-up...ensure that it happens.
  • Anticipate distractions. Two common distractions that crop up in projects are 1) additional projects to do, and 2) additional features that would be great to add to the current project. Although these may be wonderful ideas, they can make actually completing the project next to impossible. I recommend starting a file for version two of the project as soon as implementation for version one begins. That way you can collect all the great ideas but not be distracted from completing the current version.
  • Control your off-task activity. These are your self-created distrations. Every teacher knows that one of the keys to making progress in the classroom is to keep the students on-task for a greater portion of the time in the classroom. The same applies to yourself. If you get distracted by frequently checking your e-mail, being interrupted by text messages, playing an occasional computer game, checking stock prices , checking the news, checking on the latest celebrity activities, you're not going to get your work done. Discipline your day. If necessary, create an explicit limited schedule for when off-task activities are allowed.
  • Get distractions out of sight. Don't have pop-up reminders of incoming text messages or other distractors going on. It's far easier to ignore the distractions if you can't see them and aren't being reminded that they are there.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Improving schools as simply as possible

Dan S. Martin's blog post yesterday, Education Ride 365: Darwin, Protection---Public, Private---Agendas, Goals,  got me thinking once again about improving education.

A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein applies in the case of education reform:

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

The problem with NCLB is that it has attempted to make education reform simpler than is possible.


In order to improve something, it needs to to evaluated and that typically means that it needs to be measured. That's the only way to know if A is better than B. What to measure?

  • Student learning of the prescribed curriculum is clearly a primary goal.
  • Just as important is student enthusiasm for learning. Student learning will not be completed in school but must be continued throughout her life. She needs to learn how to learn and she needs to be enthusiastic about learning while in school and beyond.
  • Other practical considerations are also very important such as cost, efficiency, safety, convenience and so on.

NCLB has oversimplified the measured goal by setting absolute performance levels that all students must attain by a specified date. But students vary by ability and different schools have different starting levels. What are the options?

  • Measure absolute performance levels that must be met by all students (the NCLB approach...too simple because it doesn't take differences into account)
  • Measure improvement (every process can be improved but some are more amenable to easy improvements than others...we cannot fairly compare absolute levels of improvement)
  • Measure relative performance (grade on a curve, rewarding the high end and punishing the low end...this approach assumes that there will necessarily be some failures, precluding the notion that all can succeed)
  • Adopt new education paradigms (this is where education reform has gone off track in the past...constructivism, program learning, video lectures...we need to get beyond putting faith in unproven magic bullets and focus instead on acheiving important measured results)

Choosing any one of these makes things simpler than possible. Goals must be differentiated by ability. Every school can be improved, whether the school is exemplary or unacceptable. But don't expect strides as large in the exemplary school as in the unacceptable school. Schools must be compared to uncover which processes are working well and which are not working well enough. Yet, there's no reason to assume that the bottom X% has flunked.


The primary motivation of NCLB is threat: the threat of teachers and administrators being fired and entire schools closing if test results don't match the goals. The motivation is nice and simple but again, simpler than possible.

The flip side of threat is reward for performance. Pay the best teachers more. Again, nice and simple but simpler than possible. Student performance at high socio-economic status schools is consistently higher than at low SES school. Because the teachers are better? That would be quite a coincidence. The culture, education and expections of the parents has a lot to do with student performance. While I don't oppose reward for performance, I also don't expect it to be an automatic path for improving education.

Another motivation is the professionalism of the staff. This assumes that they care about what they're doing and they want to do it better. This is the motivation that I believe in.

  • There are few professions where you'll find people as dedicated to what they're doing as you find among teachers.
  • But along with their professional motivation, they need the tools for improvement. The most fundamental tool is measurement. Measure student performance, measure student enthusiasm. Measure cost, efficiency, safety, convenience and the others and make these measurements available to the staff so opportunities and needs for improvement are made obvious. Make them obvious to people who care and they will be improved.
  • They also need to see relative performance. Who is doing better and how are they accomplishing it?
  • What about threats of firing and rewards of higher pay? Sure, but don't assume that educators are in it for the bucks and don't assume that the source of better educators is a staff in constant fear of being fired. Educating is a meaningful activity...that makes it highly rewarding. Educating well and seeing student progress provides tremendous satisfaction...that is highly rewarding. Managing a classroom artfully and seeing students enjoying the experience of learning is pleasurable...that is highly rewarding.

We need to improve education just as we need to improve everything. And we need to make improvement methods as simple as possible...but not simpler! 

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Keywords: continuous improvement, NCLB


Monday, January 23, 2012

In Mr. Hruby's Closet

I think that one of the most formative experiences in my high school years was second semester physics in my junior year. My family moved from Detroit to Chicago in January of my junior year. It happened the the material my physics class had covered in Detroit in the first semester was what would be covered in the second semester in Chicago and vice versa. So my teacher, Mr. Hruby, installed me in the equipment closet at the front of the room to study waves, optics, thermodynamics and other topics on my own while the rest of the class outside the closet covered the material I had already had. He would check on me, provide guidance, answer questions and give me tests but I felt largely on my own.

I felt on my own but I know I wasn't. Mr. Hruby's guidance was no doubt crucial. A couple of years before I was persuaded by a classmate that Algebra II was a waste of time. He said that if I just studied some over the summer I could take a placement test in the fall and skip Algebra II. So I studied through the summer, took the test in the fall and failed miserably. Without the kind of guidance Mr. Hruby would later give me in physics, my independent study yielded less than successful results.

A year and a half after my semester in Mr. Hruby's closet, when I entered the University of Illinois, I enrolled as a physics student. The independent study in Mr. Hruby's closet got me excited about physics and learning on my own. I also believe that the experience was part of the reason that I went on to graduate school, eventually earning a PhD. If you're going to succeed in grad school in science and if you're going to do research afterward, you need to have the skills and the desire for self-directed study.

I fell in love with self-directed study in Mr. Hruby's closet with Mr. Hruby's help.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Mrs. Welch

My wife, Dianne, remembers her PE teacher, Mrs. Welch, for outstanding classroom management. Mrs. Welch managed the class very well yet simultaneously created an atmosphere that students enjoyed being in.

The rules were clear and stated at the beginning of the year. For example, if you chewed gum, you got 5 points taken off your grade.

The rules were enforced consistently and dispassionately. "I see Miss Stansbury has chosen to chew gum in class. Miss Stansbury, please throw that out." And Mrs. Welch would immediately mark 5 points off in her gradebook. There was no anger or shock at the brazen audacity of Miss Stansbury's gum chewing. Just an immediate application of the rule that everyone knew.

After the correction, Mrs. Welch moved on. The incident was over, there was no lingering after-effect of the transgression.

There's nothing really remarkable or shocking in any of this. Sources on classroom management consistently recommend these things (and more). But here's the point: it must be more than simply knowing the strategies. The strategies are available to all teachers but this particular teacher left a strong impression of a fine teacher creating an enjoyable atmosphere that has stayed with Dianne (the former Miss Stansbury) for decades (I am not at liberty to discuss how many decades.) Clearly this "common knowledge" was not commonly applied.

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Keywords: classroom management


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Can classroom management be learned?

Two teachers stand out in my memory of ninth grade. Mr. Posthuma and Mrs. Saenz (not their real names). Their remarkable traits were that neither had any control of the classrooms. Mr. Posthuma was the worst. Utter pandemonium. He was my homeroom teacher so we weren't expected to learning anything in there. But Mrs. Saenz was my Spanish teacher and teacher-student faceoffs, tirades against the class and disruptions among the students cut deeply into instruction time so must have had an effect on how well we learned Spanish.

In ninth grade we migrated from teacher to teacher for different subjects so it was obvious to us where the problem was: with the teachers. Sure, it was we students who misbehaved but we didn't misbehave in other classes like we did in theirs.

I don't know if they continued to teach. It must have been terribly frustrating and unrewarding to them both. The inability to control a classroom is one of the most common causes of teachers leaving the profession.

But can classroom control be learned? Certainly there is a body of knowledge about classroom control. It benefits many teachers. But more difficult is to assume the attitudes and behaviors, the confidence and personal presence, that are required for classroom control. If a teacher is lacking these they probably will require personal coaching to acquire.

It's done in other fields. Army drill sergeants, prison guards, lifeguards and police are coached extensively on their personal presence. Of course, the most common application of coaching to learning is in athletics...no one achieves high levels of athletic performance by simply learning the theory. Teachers often are not coached. Typically, teachers who "haven't got it" are encouraged to find another line of work.

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Keywords: coaching

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