Kenneth C. Williams

Kenneth C. Williams, a former teacher, assistant principal, and principal, shares his experience and expertise as a recognized trainer, speaker, coach, and consultant in education and leadership.

A Powerful Tool for Student and Teacher Learning

I remember early in my leadership constantly assessing where we were as a school and setting goals for where we needed to go as a school. With a clear vision in mind, we would chart incremental milestones and then celebrate breakthroughs.  The next step was to identify our next stretch goal, which is a goal that is attainable and inspiring as it moves us outside our comfort zone.

Now, in my work as a PLC associate partnering with schools, districts, teachers, and leaders, I am very encouraged when I see more and more educators embracing collaboration as best practice. I find myself spending less time trying to convince participants about the compelling “why” of collaboration and focusing more on the “how” of collaboration.

Now that I have acknowledged this positive progress, here comes the "nudge" toward the next stretch goal. I find that teachers are seeing the benefit of identifying essential learning targets and building the teacher-created common formative assessments in an effort to answer the second critical question in a PLC: How will we know if they have learned it?

Many groups with whom I work are skillful in disaggregating the data, finding strength areas in student performance, and identifying areas of concern in student performance.  Teams identify which students “got it” and which students didn’t “get it.” In fact, it’s my assertion that most teachers can determine which kids “get it” and which kids don’t without administering common assessments. They can do so in their sleep, while multitasking, in the car, at home, while shopping, in a boat, with a goat, in the rain, or on a train. My point is, determining the performance level of students is almost hardwired into a teacher’s DNA. The stretch that collaborative teams of teachers must make is to apply that same disaggregation to opportunities to improve instructional practice.

When a collaborative team embraces learning as their fundamental purpose, one of the paradigm shifts that must take place is the idea that improved student learning is directly tied to embedded teacher learning. However, I’m finding that teams:

  • identify essential learning targets
  • create common formative assessments
  • administer common formative assessments
  • explore the questions of student performance

and then stop short of examining opportunities to discuss and improve instructional practice.

I know a part of this is about continuing to change the paradigm from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning, which includes continuing to de-privatize teaching. However, the absence of improving instructional practice makes common assessment work ring hollow. Efforts will be in vain if they don’t include, as a priority, a discussion and examination of instructional practice. If your team is looking for questions to guide their work, there is a Data Analysis Protocol (PDF) on our Tools & Resources page that you are free to print and share.

The questions in the protocol below are great for teams to start exploring this powerful side of data analysis. These questions are not hierarchical; in fact, they are each of parallel importance:

The following analysis is based on our team’s common assessment of the following essential learnings.

  1. Which of our students need additional time and support to achieve at or above proficiency on an ssential learning? How will we provide that time and support?
  2. What is our plan to enrich and extend the learning for students who are highly proficient?
  3. What is an area where my students struggled? What strategies were used by teammates whose students performed well?
  4. What is an area where our team’s students struggled? What do we believe is the cause? What is our plan for improving the results?

Teams do a great job of addressing questions one and two through the lens of common form of assessment data. My challenge for teams is to embrace the philosophy that student work is examined in an effort to improve our own work. I challenge teams to give equal attention to questions three and four.



Ken, fantastic post! Reflection in a collaborative nature is key not only to the successes of the teacher(s) but to that of the students as well. It's becoming more evident that “differentiated” teaching seems an imperative if we accept the teacher's role in connecting with and better understanding our students. I feel that the reflective process may even be more beneficial if those struggling students are able to actively participate in it. How could we issue an invitation to the risky endeavor of learning if it is a mass-produced invitation? How could we dignify a learner without offering that learner things to do that are important enough to give roots and wings to his or her dreams? How could we learn about the needs of the individual student or attend to those needs without full investment? How could we make it all work for such varied individuals without dogged persistence? How would we find our way and help our students find their individual paths without deep reflection? It is circular. To establish ties with a student, we must come to see how each student is unlike every other—and to see that, we must form ties with that student to better improve their learning.

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Our school has worked with SMART goals for the past three years as a whole school team and this is the second year that we have had smaller collaborative teams within the school. This is my first year being involved (I was on maternity leave last year) and if you had of asked us why we met I would have answered just like you described, “because we have to.” We started off without any real focus and felt like we were disconnected from what we were supposed to be doing. I’ve really been trying to make a point during our meetings to try and focus on our goals and within the last few weeks we have actually been able to sit down and write a common formative assessment. I will definitely be keeping in mind the four essential learning points you presented and bring them with me to our next meeting to help us stay focused on our goals.

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Kenneth Williams

Thanks for responding Greg. Context is EVERYTHING! I think you're spot on when you describe the difference between teachers working on strategies and isolation, and the built-in accountability and commitment of when teachers work on strategies in a collaborative culture. When I reflect on context, I often take teachers and leaders back to the genesis of collaboration. I asked the simple question, “Why do you meet?” More times than not, teams will respond, “because the principal says we have to.” If schools are not able to quickly evolve from meaning because we have to, to meeting because I had the opportunity be a better teacher every time we meet, teams will never get to the benefits of the contacts of which you speak.

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Greg Kushnir

Hi Ken,

Great blog! I think that the problem with traditional improvement efforts has been that they have tried to improve schools one teacher at a time. I can hear the district leaders sitting around a table saying "if only we can get every teacher to use (insert strategy here) all will be well." months later they come to the realization that it didn't work. The problem with this approach is that the teachers have no context for applying the strategy, they learn it in isolation. A much more effective way to improve teacher Practise is the method you mentioned. Teams of teachers analyze data to determine which outcomes each student has mastered. They then can have a meaningful discussion about which instructional strategies each used and which were the most effective. They can also engage in a meaningful discussion about how to acquire new knowledge by asking the question, "What do we need to collectively learn to make our instruction more effective. This approach builds shared knowledge and ownership which is the only way to truly improve schools.

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