Archive for Teaching and Learning

Why Have an Academic Dean?


When I first arrived to Seattle, I thought I would find (or form) a network of academic deans. Given the number of independent schools in the area, I must find a few, right? The result? One. Why does only one other Seattle-area school have an administrator with primary responsibility for directing academic affairs?

The academic dean is more common in other cities, particularly in single-division high schools. The model has its origins in post Civil War development of administrative positions to assist in the supervision and management of student and faculty affairs. In both higher and secondary education, deans have multiplied and evolved. It is common for independent high schools to have three deans: a dean of faculty, academic dean, and dean of students.

Two division schools (K-8 and 6-12) are the norm among Seattle independent schools. Multi-division K-12s exist across the west coast. At these schools, divisions—not functions nor constituencies—dictate their administrative organization. When the work of division leadership is too broad for one director, multi-division schools typically create an assistant division director or divisional dean of students. The same is true for schoolwide leadership. The head of a multi-division school is much more likely to create one assistant head position than establish two or three deans.

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Every school works to coordinate and develop its curriculum and faculty programs. Who leads this work if not the academic dean? In Seattle, these responsibilities are typically distributed among assistant heads, division directors/assistant directors, and department heads. However, all of these individuals have many other responsibilities, such as hiring, supervision, student academic progress and socio-emotional well-being, and parent communication. Given the vital importance of student and parent support, these professionals can only devote a portion of their time to academic program coordination and development.

University Prep bucks the trend of spreading out leadership responsibilities for academic affairs. The school’s second academic dean, I serve as a single point of leadership for curriculum coordination, faculty professional development, and instructional program initiatives. We have the positions of director of the middle school, director and assistant director of the upper school. Yet, we still have an academic dean. Why?

Part of the answer lies within the school’s history. One may divide U Prep’s 40 years into roughly three phases: founding and construction, refinement of program, and leadership/innovation. During the second phase, the school made a strong push to develop the excellence of the academic program and professionalism of the faculty. The school developed its reputation for both academic challenge and student support. The academic dean position was created during this time to accelerate the development of the school curriculum. Responsibility for faculty professional development provided the support necessary for instructional change.


A dedicated academic dean focuses primarily on curriculum, teaching methods, faculty development, and instructional innovation. At U Prep, we run our unique Individualized Teaching Improvement Program, send collaborative teacher groups to conferences, and organize thematically-based full-faculty workshops. Our academic deans have led schoolwide program initiatives including formative and rubric assessment, differentiated instruction, student 1:1 computing, computer science curriculum, design thinking, project-based learning, Global Online Academy, electives development, and more. We cultivate teacher leadership and lead processes to design the future of teaching and learning at U Prep. We observe classroom instruction and provide teachers with actionable, research-informed feedback. We supervise the directors of library, academic technology, learning support, and global programs. In case you think it’s all glamor and magic, we also create class schedules and order textbooks!

The academic dean helps bridge the research-practice divide. Well-documented in (self-referential) academic research, the work of education scholars rarely reaches the classroom. Why? Education research may be out of touch with the practical realities of classroom instruction. Teachers may not have opportunities to access and make meaning of education research. Teaching practice may be as much of an art as a science. Jack Schneider’s recent book takes a close look at these factors.

The academic dean helps mediate all of these factors. Knowledgeable of education research, the dean helps monitor, comprehend, and explain current articles and books. The dean has perspective on the history of school reform and can position the school within the landscape of education philosophies. The dean helps teachers navigate the interplay between research findings and practical classroom matters. The dean can articulate the school’s mission and values in industry terms and design professional development to cultivate an intentional identity of teaching practice in the school. The dean may act as a school leader to identify strategic opportunities for program innovation and growth.

How does this work benefit students? Student experiences and performance underlies every class observation and program planning conversation. Student engagement, questions, performance, progress, and difficulties are all included in teacher feedback and strategic program changes. Students are included in conversations, committees, focus groups, and surveys when proposed program changes are considered. Our students even propose such changes directly, whether through student government or by simply walking into our offices!

Serving as academic dean has been an exciting experience—a thrilling intellectual, interpersonal challenge. I encourage more independent schools to identify a single person to champion and lead academics, and for academic deans and curriculum coordinators to build stronger networks and collaborations. You know where to find me!

Library Leadership Summit

There’s a “new vibrancy” in information sciences today, stated Mike Eisenberg, dean emeritus of the UW Information School. Insights came aplenty at this weekend’s School Library Journal Leadership Summit. The portion I attended this morning included a keynote presentation by Marnie Webb and leadership panel facilitated by Eisenberg. The presentations spoke to librarian advocacy, “extreme” listening, and librarians as technology leaders. I am proud that our library staff do all of this and more, playing a central role in the life of the school. Here are some of my thoughts from this morning.

Splendors of the Pacific Northwest

This July, our family continued to explore the beauty and majesty of the Pacific Northwest. Our travels included Vancouver Island, the San Juans, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and central Oregon. There is so much variety and life to experience that school programs can’t help but connect with them. In additional to the experiential outdoor programs that are a regular sight in our schools and youth organizations, other curricular-tie ins include resource management, Native American history, ecological diversity, multiculturalism, and more. This is an amazing part of the country in which to attend or work in a school. Here are a few shots from our recent summer travels.

Students Know How To Reduce Distractions

Facilitating student discussion is a complex talk. Pose engaging questions, keep the conversation momentum going, stay on topic, and encourage quieter voices to participate. Could two Upper School boys guide their peers through 45 minutes of discussion about electronic devices and distractions? Yes, they did! Our guides, “Mr. H.” and “Mr. G.,” did such a great job that I simply relaxed and enjoyed the conversation.

The group of 14 students generated a long list of techniques for minimizing distractions, as high quality a set of suggestions as any I have seen experts write.

  • Only check Twitter on your phone, not your computer.
  • Use a timer to work for specific chunks of time.
  • Set your phone to Do Not Disturb when you work.
  • Install the Self Control or Concentrate app to block access to social sites.
  • Charge your phone in another room.
  • Have a parent keep your phone.
  • Learn which music helps you concentrate and which distracts.
  • Don’t start a Netflix episode on a break.
  • Use distraction-free (full screen) mode when writing or reading.

The students went far beyond strategies. They explored the paradoxes and tradeoffs that they experience. Stay up late to get more done one night, and you are less productive the next day. Sports force you to be more organized but can also make you tired. School firewalls may keep social sites away but do not teach you self control. Homework can actually be more active than class time.

Did the students solve the problem of distraction from devices? Not at all! While they know the strategies, they acknowledge that they do not always use them. Self-discipline is complex. It is uncomfortable to work for hours at night, tough to resist social interactions. This suggests a new focus for education around devices and distractions. Learning strategies is just the first step. Setting meaningful goals, building self discipline, and practicing mindfulness are equally, if not more important.

Of Mice, Men, and Instagram

Originally published on edSocialMedia


How can middle school students begin to recognize complexity and empathize with characters in literature? In a conventional approach, a teacher might pose thought-provoking questions to students and draw their attention to key passages in the story. However, this approach does not guide all students to deepen their understanding of the characters. Young adolescents are often still developing empathy during the middle school years, but the ability to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of a character is essential to understanding literature.


University Prep English teacher Carl Faucher uses social media to help students think about the characters in Of Mice and Men. To begin, students select one character to follow through the book and then create a new account in that character’s name on their preferred social media platform. As students read the book, they pay special attention to the character’s thoughts and inner dialogue. Students then write one post online for each chapter of the book.


Students choose a variety of platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. They tend to like the familiar format and enthusiastically go about their work. Some post the minimum number required, whereas others write far more. Instagram users in particular find an opportunity to communicate visually, either by selecting stills from the movie version to accompany each thought or selecting more abstract, evocative imagery. Some choose to make the assignment social, following their classmates and liking or commenting on their posts.


Faucher asks students to avoid summarizing the text but rather write what the characters were actually thinking at different points in the book. Those who adopt the persona of the character show the most evidence of learning. Faucher notes, “students developed empathy for the character better than if they had answered conventional questions about the text. They got through the black and white of good and bad and explored complexities of the characters and their relationships.”


Conventional reading questions are grounded in the language of the discipline — academic discourse. Students better learn to think analytically and identify literary conventions such as themes and foreshadowing if they are provided with accessible steps to build upon. The social media introduction allows students to apply an established strength, “to speak the language that they are speaking outside of school.” Having gained some understanding, students are better able to build up to the more complex assignments later in the unit: a mock trial in which George is taken to court, and an expository essay that focuses on character analysis.


“With the advent of social media, our paths of communication are changing the ways we speak, communicate, and express ourselves.” While some may bemoan the decline of long form writing, Faucher takes advantage of the popular microblogging medium to help students achieve the learning goals of seventh grade English.

Book Review: Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice

inside the black boxHere is a very brief review of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education. I so appreciate that Larry Cuban continues to publish productively on the history of education and school change. Through his blog, book forwards, and latest book, Cuban explores the most confounding quality of school reform: the more policymakers change, the more classroom practice stays the same. Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice summarizes Cuban’s past work comparing national education policy to his direct observations of classroom practice. In this way, Cuban explodes myths about the effects of federal and state education initiatives on the student experience in schools. Cuban also spends a chapter exploring parallels to the evolution of the training and evaluation of medical practice.

Central to the argument is the idea of the multi-layered curriculum. Federal education policy is interpreted by states. State education standards are interpreted by districts. District initiatives are monitored by schools. Teachers interpret the curriculum as they teach. Students interpret the curriculum that they receive. Finally, assessments reveal only a partial picture of what students have actually learned. Cuban explains that these many layers have so diluted the original intent of education policy that classroom practice has remained fairly immune to change over decades. He also points out that much national and state education policy has been alarmingly simply in its theory of school change, for example that school accountability to student test scores would necessarily cause improvement in teaching practice, or that adding thousands of computing devices would necessarily improve student learning.

Education is not just complicated, however. It is complex. Cuban explains that complex systems involve humans making varying decisions and lack central command. Interdependencies and interactions exist among many different actors, often with conflicting objectives and methods. Top-down directives and simplified change theories fail to cause actual change in complex systems. Rather, Cuban argues, education policymakers would do better to empower and support teachers as professionals, change agents, and experts. School reform must address all layers of the multi-layered curriculum in order to have any chance of causing actual change on the ground.

Ironically, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice does not get very far into the classroom beyond confirming that it remains little affected by decades of large scale education reform. Other books and studies help complete the inquiry. For example, David Perkins and Project Zero studied classrooms in depth to determine when moments of understanding were achieved and created a model for effective classroom instruction based on that. Jack Schneider examined four changes to education practice that did in fact take root in the classroom and identified key factors in penetrating the black box of classroom practice. Together, these studies help identify key aspects of each layer that affects classroom practice and ultimately may help educators navigate the complex, shifting worlds of education policy.

Teaching for Understanding

This article describes University Prep’s emphasis on teaching for understanding, a focus of our professional development program this year. I wrote it for the University Prep community, to be published in the winter issue of Happenings, the school magazine.

Raise your hand if you are against understanding. Anyone? It seems obvious that understanding should be the goal of education. However, during its history, American education has assigned greater importance to knowledge and procedure than to analysis, insight, and application. Schools have generally expected students to memorize great volumes of detailed facts and practice formulaic solutions to stock problems. The nation’s recent emphasis on standardized testing, to measure both student progress and teacher quality, has further narrowed this emphasis.

20 years ago, one of my teaching colleagues epitomized the traditional teaching method. He lectured from a sheaf of handwritten notes, yellowed from years gone by and marked with tiny refinements. His students listened closely and transcribed furiously, then pored over these notes in preparation for detailed tests. Thinking was not required, since the teacher told the students everything he expected them to know. Understanding was far from guaranteed, as students had few opportunities to draw their own conclusions and receive feedback. Yet, this teacher was considered one of the best of the faculty, a master of the craft.

Since the advent of the information age, both teachers and students have gained access to more knowledge than one can consume in a lifetime of study. Computers have gradually automated most of the procedural tasks that we used to complete manually. Has computing therefore reduced the importance of thinking and understanding? Not at all! Now that practically anyone can find and share great volumes of facts and execute procedures, our students must develop sophisticated thinking skills and gain understanding. Critical analysis, persuasive speaking, cultural competency, logical and sequential reasoning, and other thinking skills are now necessary in order to successfully distinguish evidence from opinion, appreciate different arguments and perspectives, and use technology to further human society.

As public schools have gradually ceded control of their educational programs to state and national mandates, independent schools have continued to develop student thinking and understanding. Teachers have selected the topics that best serve students. Students, working in small classes, have shared their ideas and received feedback. Multiple ways of thinking, such as the arts, languages, and physical education, have remained integral to the academic program. Rich co-curricular subjects, including outdoor education, global programs, social justice, community service, information studies, academic technology, and learning support, have broadened students’ understandings.

Great lessons start with great questions. How has the past influenced the present? How can we tell whether two variables are associated? How will we provide energy for future generations? What are the rights and responsibilities of a citizen? On September 25, the full faculty completed a workshop on essential questions, ideas that encourage thinking because they are open-ended, house multiple perspectives, and reflect current topics in the discipline. Leading research and professional organizations have informed this work, including the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Coalition of Essential Schools, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The book Making Learning Whole, by David Perkins, is a good place to start if you want to learn more about essential questions and authentic education.

High-quality classrooms encourage students to think. This is harder to accomplish than you might think! In one large project, researchers from Harvard’s Project Zero studied hundreds of classes and identified the moments during which learning happened and understanding was achieved. Based on this research, they then developed “thinking routines,” questions and activities that encourage student thinking and make it visible to the teacher. “See, Think, Wonder” encourages students to generate questions about a topic. “Think, Puzzle, Explore” asks students to identify dilemmas and enter them through stories. “Slow Looking” plumbs the depths of an image for its most revealing clues. “The Language of Thinking” asks teachers to use better words than “think” to encourage specific kinds of intellectual activity.

On October 10, four U Prep faculty and staff members traveled to a conference titled, “Making, Thinking, Understanding.” The Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education (CASIE) offered the conference. Our colleagues learned about some 40 thinking routines and studied examples from various subject areas. On October 22, they shared their favorite thinking routines with the U Prep faculty and had their colleagues practice the routines as students.

Successful students grasp the core ideas in a discipline. How do experts in English, history, and science make sense of the world? What questions remain unanswered? What controversies are most active in each field? To further develop instruction in these areas, U Prep faculty and staff members attend a variety of disciplinary conferences each year. Just this fall, these have included the Race and Pedagogy National Conference, the Washington State Council for the Social Studies, and the Northwest Mathematics Conference. Conversations continue each year about how to further refine our curricula to reflect contemporary thinking in the disciplines.

U Prep teachers are recognized leaders in teaching for understanding. On October 10 alone, the statewide in-service day, eight U Prep teachers presented their work at regional conferences, on subjects as varied as computer science, art and social change, Maker programs, teaching contemporary methods in English and visual art, and Middle School debate programs.

As independent schools such as U Prep continue to teach for understanding, the national education dialogue has begun to shift away from standardization and testing. The Common Core increases emphasis on analysis and application relative to previous national standards. Recent articles (e.g., Seattle Times Education Blog) have suggested that smaller class sizes and student-centered instruction help students succeed in school. While time will tell whether American education fully commits to the pursuit of thinking and understanding, U Prep will continue to prepare students to think, understand, and become intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizens of the world.


What About the Content? Revising Curricula for Cultural Competency

NAIS People of Color Conference 2014

Sarah Peterson and I will be presenting this session on Thursday, December 4 at 10:00am in Room 204. We look forward to seeing you there.

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What About the Content slides  (+ hi-res version)

Thursday morning, my colleague Sarah Peterson and I will present “What About the Content? Revising Curricula for Cultural Competency” at the NAIS People of Color Conference in Indianapolis. The presentation reflects several goals, and participants will play a major role. We hope that you will be able to attend or otherwise share your stories with us.
Focus on Curriculum Content
Why have we focused this study specifically on curriculum content? Substantial, excellent work exists on school climate, classroom environment, teacher qualifications, and student empowerment. Yet, the content that we teach students plays a central role in their education and speaks powerfully about what (and who) the school values.
Focus on Required Courses
A school’s course of study typically includes required and elective courses. Teaching for cultural competency can be more easily found in elective courses, where teachers have greater freedom in curriculum development. However, the students we most need to reach may avoid such classes, and our diverse student body deserves a culturally representative learning experience in their required courses. We have chosen to focus this study on the core curriculum, while acknowledging that it is the hardest to change.
Share Examples from University Prep
On the one hand, we can proudly point to teachers and courses that have made tremendous strides in teaching for cultural competency. On the other hand, our students tell us that we still have much ground to cover. We will share a number of examples in this presentation that reflect our ongoing work toward a truly representative, relevant, and empowering core curriculum.
Share Participant Experiences and Points of View
While we have a lot to say on this subject, we are by no means experts, and the collective experiences and perspectives in the conference hall will no doubt exceed ours. We will take advantage of this gathering of attendees and ask everyone to participate first in small group discussions and then share out selected examples with the whole group. As a result, the session will end having identified a substantial number of curricular innovations in the required courses in our school.

Book Review and Further Thoughts: From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse

schoolhouse2How much does educational research affect teacher practice? Not much, according to Jack Schneider, Holy Cross assistant professor and author of the new book From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. Schneider, an educational historian who earned his Ph.D. at Stanford, picks up the torch carried by Larry Cuban and David Tyack for years. As institutions, schools are extremely resistant to change, and reliable pathways for translating research conclusions into practice are largely absent. So, when education practice does change as a result of education research, the reasons are worth close examination!

In the book, Schneider describes a model for the transmission of research-based ideas into practice, based on his study of four innovations that made the leap: Bloom’s taxonomy, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the project method, and direct instruction. Schneider is clear to explain that these four ideas represent the exception, not the norm. Also, the components of Schneider’s model for success hardly comprise a recipe. They are necessary, but not always sufficient, qualities for successful adoption. As Schneider expresses, luck plays a role.

Schneider’s conditions for successful transmission include: the perceived significance of the idea to educators; philosophical compatibility of the idea with current philosophy; occupational realism—the compatibility of the idea with practical constraints of teaching; and transportability, whether the idea can be simply explained and passed on. The four case studies share these qualities. Additionally, Schneider cleverly analyzes four other, research-based ideas that failed to gain adoption but bear striking similarities to the four that did. This provides strong support for the idea that the four identified characteristics are necessary conditions for adoption.Note that the scholarly merit of the idea does not make the list of success factors! With a positive reaction from educators, and a little luck, some research-based ideas tend to find adoption.

While a wonderful historical analysis, the book does not purport to predict the success of current educational innovations or provide a playbook for the design of future innovations. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder how the model applies to other, common educational practices, particularly those that we emphasize at U Prep. How does Schneider’s model apply to formative assessment, for example? Do we find such educational practices attractive because they meet Schneider’s criteria for successful transmission from research to practice?

Formative Assessment

We define formative assessment as actionable feedback on student work that does not count for a student’s term grade. Graded or ungraded, it provides students with insight into their mastery of the content, as well as a sense of direction for what to study more (or better) before the summative assessment. Not counting formative assessment in the term grade allows students to focus on the process of learning and deemphasizes the idea that students have fixed ability.

Perceived significance: Moderate. Teachers I have met almost universally agree that providing feedback on student work is one of their core responsibilities. However, teachers often balk at the idea that grades for ongoing work would not count in a student’s term grade.

Philosophical compatibility: The core idea of formative assessment is relatively compatible with common teacher opinions about student work. It’s hard to argue against feedback, and it makes sense that a student’s first assessment should provide signposts for subsequent work instead of affecting their term grade, which should reflect mastery achieved.

Occupational realism: The simple version of formative assessment is highly compatible with existing teacher practice. Just don’t count the first assessment of a body of knowledge or set of skills, then count the second or subsequent ones. The fuller concept, however, requires more significant change. The ideas that formative assessment should be specific and actionable represent a more significant departure from traditional teacher practice.

Transportability: The basic concept of formative assessment can be easily distilled to a few simple ideas and shared with teachers. Departures from the strategy are easy to spot in syllabi and examples of assessed student work. Authors and organizations have created a substantial body of conceptual and practical guides to formative assessments for the consumption of educators.

It might provide insight to apply this model to other educational practices, such as differentiated instruction, 1:1 student device programs, and individual teacher improvement. While these four criteria do not reflect any law of nature, they provide a helpful dose of realism when leading school change, underscoring the strong effects of professional culture.

Recent articles by Jack Schneider

‘If only American teachers were smarter…’ Washington Post

Closing the gap … between the university and schoolhouse Phi Delta Kappan

The Role of Data in School Decision-Making

Analyzing student and faculty data has added a critical new dimension to discussions of specific dynamics in our school. Teacher observations, administrator experience, and student anecdotes are all essential for the continual improvement of our school program. In addition, the trends, correlations, and distributions within our data have made our decision-making conversations more specific and helped resolve conflicts among competing, anecdotal points of view.

We have recently had success analyzing student and faculty data to better understand specific dynamics in our school. Many of these analyses become more clear through data visualization. Key questions include:

How often do we grant students’ top course requests?

Will our course offerings continue to accommodate a growing student body?

Are the foundational skills of our students changing over time?

Do standardized test scores predict academic performance?

What elective courses should we offer next year?

Do electronic textbooks save families money?

Our analyses of standardized test scores were the most rigorous. We created longitudinal charts of score means and medians, examined subscore trends as well, and calculated correlations among different scores. To confirm validity, three different groups performed the tests: myself, our statistics students, and a psychometrician from ERB. The fascinating, consistent result? The gut feelings of our community members have consistently had some truth to them, but anecdotal opinion has a tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify. Our data studies have both validated and identified the limits of anecdotal opinion. They have clarified the multiple facets of issues that people have reduced to simple statements.

Here are some examples of our data visualizations. Most are created in Excel using countif() and sumif() functions and chart tools. I apologize for obscuring much of the content for the sake of privacy. Instead of publishing it all publicly, I am presenting the full studies to the appropriate constituencies in our school community.

35 years of standardized test and GPA means

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Students’ initial thoughts about new elective courses

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Correlations among different standardized tests and GPA

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Longitudinal subscore analysis

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Print vs. Electronic Textbooks: Total Cost per Student

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Elective section enrollments

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