Research & Development in Education?

We have R & D teams at our school. In my experience, this is largely unheard of in the field of education. Though innovation happens inside individual classrooms, having official teams and time dedicated to research and development around teaching & learning is rare.

For three years, I have co-led the Social Science R & D team for Preschool through Grade 12. We have realigned learning outcomes vertically, to our school’s mission and mindsets, and we have run them through the filter of a book called “Being Global” by Cabrera and Unruh.

Article/Blog: Where is R & D in Education? by Jeff Utecht

R & D development-processCycle_of_Research_and_Development


What are EQs?

Essential questions point to and highlight the big ideas. They serve as doorways through which learners explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content. Essential questions push learners to the heart of things—the essence.

Who was your greatest coach? What does a coach do?

Coaching and feedback given to teachers in a culture where each one’s goal is to be the best in his/her field is a powerful thing. Yet often, this has not been a deliberate practice among educators.

One of my greatest coaches was Mike Clark. He recruited me to swim at Marymount University in 1994. Coach Clark pushed me beyond my limits. He videotaped our swimming and debriefed with us to analyze every movement and position of our arms, heads, hips, and hands in the water. He painted our goggles opaque and required us to know the exact number of strokes it took to go from one side of the pool to the other without sight. Coach Clark hooked us up to giant, empty paint buckets that we would drag behind us lap after lap.

I improved dramatically as a swimmer that year. My best recorded times, the ones I thought could not be made faster by much dropped by many seconds. In the sport of swimming, dropping more than one second is a big deal.

I believe in the power of effective coaching in sports. I also believe it can have that same power in education. Beyond the usual professional learning (which I also believe can be very valuable when properly designed), I am focusing on developing a culture of intentional and effective coaching and feedback.

Who was your greatest coach?


Instructional Rounds: An Experiment in Coaching and Feedback For Educators


One of the most fun parts about my job is the opportunity to coach and give feedback to teachers who want to be the best in their field. We are currently piloting a new program in our school under the guidance of Bo Adams and with the dedication and willingness of some first class teachers and administrators. I am planning many more posts on this topic, so this is merely an introduction.

When asked what would make the biggest difference in accomplishing our wildly important goal of aligning with the School’s mission, our four exemplar educators (also known as our Heads of Grade) identified “coaching and feedback.”

After much brainstorming, we determined three components that would be most beneficial to achieving this goal.

1. Instructional Rounds: Each teacher (four Head of Grade) would be observed by four coaches at the same time. Each coach would complete a commonly agreed upon survey form providing observation and feedback. All eight educators would meet on another date to debrief and allow the ‘observed’ teachers to ask questions (they are discouraged from explaining themselves, but so far still feel a strong need to do so). As a team, we would all look for commonalities or trends among and between the observations.

Simultaneously, the feedback would not only be useful for informing the individual teacher’s practice, but also for mapping a macro level cartography of the School’s practices. For example, after repeated usage, the surveys would capture enough data to begin to tell us what percentage of the time certain instructional methods or seating arrangements were being used. We would have a greater understanding and predictability of areas of strengths and areas of growth in the classrooms.

2. Written Reflection – All members of the instructional rounds pilot team would be encouraged to blog about their experiences in striving to master the standards of professional excellence. We created a shared WordPress blog where anyone on our team can post and respond to posts anytime.

3. Informal Observation – Finally, each Head of Grade is paired with another partner and encouraged to informally observe one another on their own initiative. None of the other teachers or administrators are present and some of the intensity of group observation and feedback is taken away in these instances.

All of this is likened to the metaphor of a sports team. For example, if you play baseball you have games (this is when you actually teach or assess in a classroom). You have a set number of games on the schedule, they are announced in advance and people prepare for them.

You also have practice. And you have coaches. How helpful is it for a player who is trying to improve to have a coach who only observes them practice a couple of times a year and then gives all of the feedback at one time at the end of the season? This would be disastrous for a sports team, yet it is commonplace in education. Why do we settle for this level of mediocrity?

Well, for one thing – time is limited. And also because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’

I am so thankful to work among educators who want to be the best in their field and are willing to submit themselves to scrutiny for the sake of improving and developing their craft. I am thankful to belong to a school that does not use the phrase, ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’

Navigating Middle School Waters: Partnering with Parents

Every day (no exaggeration), I am informed about a posting, screenshot, or conversation happening online or outside of school involving students. They are usually either mean-spirited or pertain to content inappropriate for kids. I do not seek these out. They always find their way to me. They sadden me. I try to find new ways to help students, parents, and teachers steer clear from them.

Our school has several proactive elements that I believe help to address these behaviors and hopefully provide a positive model for students to follow. A few of these include…

Parent University
External experts host seminars and forums with parents about social media and other adolescent issues (topics include: social media, social cruelty, eating disorders, substance abuse, anxiety, etc.)

Chapel & Christian Education Small Groups
Every week students are taught Christian values and encouraged to ask questions related to topics found in the 7 Checkpoints curriculum including making wise decisions, healthy friendships, moral boundaries, spiritual disciplines, authentic faith, and serving others first.

Ethical Decision Maker Mindset
The Mount Vernon Mindsets are central to every classroom and learning outcome in our curriculum. After reading Tony Wagner’s ‘Global Achievement Gap’ and viewing three different educational documentaries, our stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, board members) collaborated and adopted six mindsets (solution seeker, ethical decision maker, collaborator, communicator, creative thinker, and innovator).

Specifically, our teachers work to infuse the mindsets with the learning outcomes (standards). They are not separate. It is not ‘either or,’ but rather ‘both and.’

There are three specific indicators for the EDM mindset…
* Exhibits integrity, honesty, empathy, fairness, and respect
* Demonstrates personal, social, and civic responsibility
* Develops understanding of emerging ethical issues regarding new technologies

We have a dedicated, full-time counselor who meets with students and communicates with parents to help them resolve conflicts and concerns that arise throughout the course of middle school life. She is available and resourceful with a wealth of experience in dealing with a wide range of issues.

Our teachers and Dean of Students have a positive philosophy of discipline that assumes the best and seeks to advocate for students, yet also draws clear boundaries and consequences around behaviors that are inappropriate and unacceptable. It empowers teachers to handle discipline at a local level, yet also supports them when behavior requires administrative intervention.

Also, we have an Honor Code and a set of written expectations for student conduct in our Student Handbook.

Filters and Security
Our IT Team has up-to-date security features related to internet access and we frequently engage students about what it means to be responsible digital citizens not only in technology course, but throughout each classroom.

Despite all of these wonderful initiatives and resources, it should come as no surprise that middle school and high school students are going to make unwise choices and get into trouble from time to time. That’s part of the reason why they are in school – to learn, grow, and mature into responsible adults. It is our job, partnering with parents, to help make sure they learn these valuable lessons, hopefully while the consequences are still small. While school can offer a lot, we must partner with parents. If you were to ask me what are a few things I wish parents knew/did…

What are some “Do’s” for Parents?

1. Monitor your child’s online activity.
– Strike a balance between freedom and responsibility.
– Make them turn in cell phones at night.
– Have a common area computer that is always in sight.

2. Stay informed about latest, trendy apps/websites, etc.
– Perhaps consider outlawing certain apps that have zero constructive value (ex:
Article 1 about (new site, same old bullying)
Article 2 about (advertisers are boycotting)
– I’m really not a fan of, can you tell?

3. Talk openly to the parents of your child’s friends/classmates.

4. Take screenshots of inappropriate postings and share them directly with the parents of the offending student. Don’t spread it around everywhere else.

5. Talk to your child. Frequently. Let them know you are aware and in touch (and take necessary steps to be aware and in touch).

6. Take advantage of what your school is offering and reinforce it. Schools and parents are partners working together. If the School is teaching about digital citizenship or 7 Checkpoints, how can you discuss and instill those same ideas at home?


Essential Questions in Middle School This Month

September 24, 2013

Dear Middle School Families,

Reflecting back on the first six weeks of school, I am amazed at all that our students have accomplished. I am proud of the content they are learning, as well as the ways they are approaching the learning process. In my weekly observations of classrooms, online grade books, and conversations with parents, I have seen solid academic rigor, as well as innovative strategies. I have observed teachers spending late hours conducting research and collaboration on how to best serve our students. Our dedicated faculty work tirelessly to guide students to an understanding of not only basic fundamental knowledge in core subject areas, but also to create units, lessons, and assessments that challenge them to use higher order thinking skills and develop the mindsets they will need to be successful in a complex and challenging world.

As I read each teacher’s postings in Schoology, I am struck by the thoughtful and engaging construction of their classroom environments. During learning walks I have the distinct privilege of seeing their creativity and hard work come together. Here are some of the essential questions teachers are posing and students are answering. You may have seen these, too

5th Grade:
How does an adverb change a sentence?
What is the impact of having a compound part of speech in a sentence?
How does place value impact how we live? Comparing and ordering decimals?
Is there a relationship between the digits in a number?
How does technology improve our lives?
How can you solve an engineering problem?
How to perform a controlled experiment? What are some science tools?
How might we analyze writing for fact and opinion? In studying a text, how do we
ask questions on context clues, as well as, make predictions and inferences?
How does the development of customs and traditions help to define a culture and a people?
What is the impact of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the social order and political order in the Middle East?

6th Grade:
In what parts of life do we use proper fractions, improper fractions, and Mixed Numbers?
How might we explain our set-up of certain situations involving factors?
How might we show our knowledge of factors within a certain time limit?
How might we use conjecture to broaden our math knowledge?
How might we decide which operations are needed to solve the problem?
How might we explain our method for solving a mathematical problem?
What are the benefits and challenges of working as an archaeologist?
How might outlining information aid in organization?
Why does conflict still develop?
How do new ideas change the way people live?
What is a primary source?
How Might We use word webs to enhance our written language, partnered with strong helping verbs, in order to support our writing?
What does Patriotism mean? How Might We understand what Patriotism means to me?
What is the Best Way to Find the Truth?
What do Folk Tales tell us about ourselves?
What’s the Story with Johnny Appleseed?
What is the language of science?
What is a system? How do systems interact?

7th grade
What does patriotism mean to me?  (from Veterans of Foreign Wars writing contest)
How is the American Revolution a demonstration of the need for human freedom?
How are revolutions and wars alike/different?
How do we learn to become better readers? What skills are involved? What does research tell us?
How do individual cells make up a system?
Why are cells small?
How might we connect/read in a way that impacts our empathy towards others?
Why do we need negative numbers?
How can you use a model to represent an equation with integers?
How are numbers related on a number line?
How might we create original stories in Spanish?
How do we use nouns and verbs in Latin to write sentences?

8th grade
What are the differences and similarities between civil wars and revolutions?
How can countries avoid the kind of bloodshed and devastation we experienced during our Civil War?
What is inductive reasoning?
What are the long terms goals that are achieved with solving multi-step equations?
What are the qualifications of a hero?
How do devices in our home utilize energy conversion?
How might we create a device that prevents energy transfer and keeps a popsicle cold?
How is heat transferred?
Why does a writer’s point of view matter in literature?
How might we share our writing with others and offer constructive feedback in order to become stronger writers?
How might we analyze the development of the main character and note the changes that take place from his youth to his adulthood?

Outside of the academic classroom, our students are learning a great deal, too. In chapel and in Christian education small groups, students are learning about what it means to have authentic faith, why it is important to serve others first, and how to draw lines related to moral boundaries. On Helping Hands Day, we reached out to the local community of Sandy Springs to construct outdoor classrooms, visit with the elderly, and create relationships with those who have special needs. Extending their citizen leadership skills, students ran for Student Council and delivered compelling speeches and presentations as they learned about democracy and the election process.

We have celebrated the accomplishments of our student athletes through the fall sports pep rally, as well as the All- School Homecoming Pep Rally. Our teachers have created and offered countless opportunities for students to explore their interests outside of the classroom starting with the 2nd annual club fair. We have had spirit days and monthly birthday celebrations, and our parents are collaborating with teachers to coordinate social events at Skyzone (Grades 5 & 6) on October 10 and a Fall Dance (Grades 7 & 8) on October 18.

Teachers met with parents on the Glenn Campus in grades 7 & 8 for conferences. Teachers on the Founders Campus in grades 5 & 6 will meet with parents for conferences on October 23 (details forthcoming). Also, teachers have made it a goal to create clear and helpful communication through Schoology, Power School, and Weekly Emails. Teachers are offering weekly tutorials before and after school to assist students in their learning. Tomorrow, team building will take place during retreats on campus (Grades 5-7) and at Camp Winshape (Grade 8).

My goodness. I have worked in several high achieving schools, but never in a school with a more robust and relevant offering for students. How blessed are we? I am proud of our students, our teachers, and our parents. I am proud of our community and its commitment to high standards of excellence. I am proud to be a Mustang!


Chip Houston
Head of Middle School


Is Customer Satisfaction Measured in Your School?

The question was recently posed to me, “Is customer satisfaction measured at our school?” It was a response to a series of quotes have been tweeting from one of our faculty’s summer reading selections, “Exceptional Customer Service.”

It is a great question and one I hoped and expected would be asked sooner or later. The short answer is yes, in some areas.

Before we answer this question, we must answer another question, “Who are the customers in a school?” Students? Parents?

I would expand the question beyond the use of the term ‘customer’ in the context of a school setting, instead preferring to use the term ‘stakeholder.’ To me, stakeholder includes all groups (students, parents, faculty/staff, alumni, board members, etc.)

Occasionally, when receiving feedback from parents, I’ll hear a phrase that goes something like, “As parents, we’re the ones that pay the bills.” It follows logically, therefore, that parents are the customers. But, what about me? I am a faculty/staff member and a parent. With two children (and a third on the way) at our school, my wife and I pay tuition (in addition to taxes that presumably go to funding public schools). Am I a customer, too? There are several faculty members in this category. How do we balance providing the service and receiving it as well?

And what about students? In most cases, students are not paying the bills, but they are the primary “users” and really the primary reason schools exist. Are they customers, too?

So, I would argue that all groups mentioned are stakeholders. And the term ‘customer’ is insufficient to use in a school setting.

Now, let’s answer the original question. “Is customer stakeholder satisfaction measured in your school?”

Our school measures stakeholder satisfaction in a number of ways. This is a list off the top of my head without asking others. I’m certain there are many more ways that other folks on our team would contribute. My initial list includes…

– Admissions Survey to New Families (about their experience, orientation, etc.)
– Admissions Lunch with New Students (about a month after school has started)
– End of Course Student Surveys (in Middle and Upper School)
– After Event Surveys for Teachers (how to improve after events such as conference day, open house, faculty meeting, etc.)
– Teacher Observation forms that include feedback on student engagement.
– Middle School teachers are creating scoreboards around how they are implementing ideas from the summer reading related to providing “exceptional customer service.”
– Informal, qualitative data received in my email inbox/phone voicemail. 

We are beginning to generate great discussions around what customer service means, how effective we are at providing it, and how to measure it. I foresee expanding our measurements and including specific topics/areas such as…

– Carpool Systems
– Schoology
– Chromebooks
– Conference Day
– Orientation
– Grade books
– Block Schedule

What topics would you like to see measured?

customer service

How Might Teachers Use Their Soft Power?

Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Nye coined the term in a 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He further developed the concept in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

Put another way, soft power is essentially a country’s ability to gain global respect and influence through non-military means such as art, entertainment, product exportation, tourism, education, relief aid, etc. The term is now widely used in international affairs by analysts and statesmen.

Taking a page from the Innovator’s DNA, let’s ‘associate’ the concept of soft power with the classroom.

soft power

If teachers are leaders (I believe they are). And leadership equals influence (according to John Maxwell). Then, how can teachers increase their influence with students?

The answer is greater knowledge and usage of their soft power.

What are the soft powers of a teacher?
Traditionally, when thinking about teacher powers one might rank the power to grade and the power to discipline at the top. I would count these as hard powers. Soft power may be found in the following areas:

– Environment: How might we communicate an expectation non-verbally through the way we organize our desks, decorate our walls, post demonstrations of learning on bulletin boards, or be visible and present in hallways?

– Unit Design: How much influence do we gain or lose with students based on how engaging vs. irrelevant our lesson plans, assessments, and activities are? Do our students get the message of our passion for preparing them for the future vs. just doing a day job each day?

– Behavior Modeling: Want to see kids pick up trash after lunch? Model your expectations. Tired of students talking over each other? Demonstrate by not talking over them. Seeking to develop creative thinkers? Become a creative thinker yourself.

– Personal Connection: Show interest. Love kids. Ask them questions. Sponsor their clubs and coach their sports. Cheer them on.

– Opportunity Creation: Actively seek out or create opportunities for your students. Be their advocate. Let them stand on your shoulders. Advance them and position them for greatness.

– Communication: Be clear and consistent. Demonstrate preparation and thoughtfulness. Respond in time.

Soft Power vs. Hard Power
Soft power takes more time, energy and finesse. It is a skill to be developed and practiced. It is not limited to the items outlined above. In contrast, hard power is often easier and more expedient, but not necessarily as effective. Anyone can assign detention or silent lunch. Thousands of teachers use grades as a means to manage or control classroom behavior. It is the rare and highly skilled teacher who uses soft power to lead his/her students and actually gains the full commitment of their pupils.

How might you make greater use of your soft powers? What soft powers can you add to the list?