A couple months ago I wrote about Bryce the 10th grader from Nampa, Idaho, and the 1:1 meeting we had in front of the staff of his school. The purpose was to develop his Learning Plan and help staff there understand how to build and support interest-driven student learning plans. The plan we made that day, like those in use at Highline Big Picture for the last several years, has three parts: Vision, Goals, and Projects. In my earlier writing I didn’t share the history of this learning plan format. 

I don’t remember which year it was in the development of Highline Big Picture, but we were fortunate (they still are) to have some teacher leaders who advocated that if we were really trying to strip away the contrivances of school and drive our practice based on the elements of powerful learning, then what works well for our students ought to be much the same as what works for us. Dan Dundon, now in his 13th year with the school (and yes, the school is only 12 years old), was and remains outspoken about the absurdity of pushing onto students learning tools and practices that we’ve neither tried nor embrace. This made a lot of sense to me, and as principal I decided that if students had learning plans, staff needed learning plans. Although people bought into this idea, I couldn’t get anyone, including myself, to complete one. The learning plan format we were using for students asked me to list my projects and other work and describe how each of the five learning goals (Empirical Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Communication, etc.) would be represented in each project. I believe it also had a space to indicate what I would show at my exhibition. It didn’t ask for much in the way of why I might be doing any of the work I was doing. 

As we struggled to make good on our commitment to practice what we preached, we realized that our approach to learning plans didn’t seem to add any value to our work. Instead, it felt like an assignment, and a very tedious one. The work I was doing didn’t fit well in to the boxes. Naming the subject-area academic content of work I hadn’t done yet seemed contrived if not impossible. Our epiphany was that making that learning plan bore no resemblance to what real adults in real workplaces would do to enhance their clarity, productivity, or effectiveness. 

A few of us were aspiring practitioners of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (a.k.a. GTD) approach, and at the time I was reading his newly-released Making It All Work. I was starting to really understand GTD’s six "horizons of focus” at the same time we were asking the question, “If the learning plan format we're currently giving our students feels like a waste of time for our own productivity, what would a functional adult learning plan look like?” To make the new learning plan, I consolidated Allen’s top two levels into one and omitted the “areas of responsibility” level. I also left off “next actions,” figuring that was too much specificity for a learning plan. That’s been the learning plan format at Highline since then, and it’s the format I advocate in my work with other schools. 

What I am most excited about in my current work is that yesterday morning I had another 1:1 meeting at Bryce’s school, again in front of the staff, this time with advisor Brandy Fitzwater. Brandy had already developed a solid draft of her Learning Plan, following the Vision/Goals/Projects format identical to Bryce’s. In this meeting we went through and refined the vision section, worked to make the goals more specific, measurable, and actionable, and we added numerous projects and renamed many of them to describe their state of completion. For example, "Create a strong advisory culture" was one of her goals. This seemed too amorphous and ill-defined, and in our work together it turned into several projects: 

  • Strong advisory culture defined

  • Current advisory culture assessed

  • Advisory improvements planned

Each staff member had developed a learning plan prior to this meeting, and they made refinements to their own plans as Brandy and I revised hers. I won’t share her plan here, but, like Bryce’s, it includes a mix of the personal and the professional. As the meeting started, we agreed as a whole staff that a good and functioning (staff) learning plan ought to accomplish at least three things: it should contribute to making the school great, it should "improve your life,” as one advisor put it, and it should strengthen your professional practice. One intent in clarifying this was to identify the parallels with student learning plans, which have at least two of those functions — improving your life and helping you become more skillful and knowledgeable — and arguably all three, if you believe that high-functioning learning plans for all students would translate to a great school. A second intent was to hold up the learning plan as representative of why we are here and what we want. I think for learning plans to function most effectively in the culture of the school, they need to be comprehensive and inclusive, not one compass among several. If I’m a person working at a school, it seems reasonable that my and my supervisor’s hopes ought to be covered within those three things. I want to thrive as a person, I want to get better at what I want to get better at in my work, and I want my work to contribute to the success or effectiveness of the workplace as a whole. 

We also agreed in this meeting that these staff learning plans, in the same format as student learning plans, will be the primary focus of coaching and evaluative meetings between administrators and teachers. The principal and vice principal now have shared access to each teacher’s learning plan, and they are determining which of them has which teachers as “advisees.” During the work with Brandy’s plan, we invited Carleen and Jason (principal and VP) to suggest additional goals for Brandy to add to her plan. 

One of the last things we discussed yesterday was scheduling actual evaluative teacher exhibitions, driven by the learning plans and assessed by panels of fellow staff, administrators, and students, in the weeks leading up to the next student exhibitions in January. 

This is as close as I have come to a level of school coherence I’ve been envisioning since that initial learning plan change. I look forward to sharing how it unfolds over this school year.