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Friday, 18 October 2019

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The Curse of the Energy Vampire

By Kevin Bartlett


The Curse of the Energy Vampire
Ask anyone to name the biggest barrier to successful school change and, chances are, they’ll say, “Time.” Simply not enough of it.

In 40 years of school leadership, I’ve learned a lot from reading the work of smart thinkers like Michael Fullan. He’d suggest that it is not so much that we run out of time, but more that we run out of energy. Schools have energy cycles.

Remember that meeting, just before the new year began? I sat there convinced this would be the year we change the world. One week in, I was already checking my pulse, sure that I was terminally ill. I was just so darned tired. The individual, the team, the school... we all have only so much energy to go around.

As if that weren’t bad enough, lurking behind every corner on campus is an Energy Vampire, waiting to suck the last bit of life out of us. The nth meeting of the week; the need for that articulated curriculum that never gets, well, articulated; the new building name it. Vampires, everywhere.

How to spot an Energy Vampire

Let’s define our terms. An Energy Vampire is a substantial piece of work—either a time-bound project or an ongoing process—deliberately undertaken, that absorbs huge amounts of energy from students, teachers, or leaders, with little or no learning impact. It’s that “impact” word that counts.


Credit where credit’s due, this simple I-O-I formula is the work of Greg Curtis, with whom I had the pleasure of working on the Architecture Culture Ecology (ACE) accreditation protocol for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). As with all great ideas, it’s deceptively simple. What follows is an interpretation of Greg’s work.

The basic idea is that all our major resources, including energy, should be focused on the one or two things that will have the biggest learning impact. An impact should be described in terms of the clear differences we want to see—the things our students will be able to understand, do, become, which are not currently happening—and the data that will count as evidence of success. Outputs are the products and processes we will need to achieve our impacts. Inputs, the things we’ll do to achieve the outputs.

Let’s examine one of every school’s major Energy Vampires through the lens of an Impactometer:

It’s report writing season!

It was that time of year when desperate teachers are on their knees with exhaustion after another 2 a.m. wrestling match with the indefatigable Report Vampire. I found myself browsing through a Grade 3 Language Arts report, feeling thoroughly impressed. Everything was there—everything we had asked teachers to include: goals, achievements, progress, next steps… everything. This was brilliant, highly professional. Must have taken this teacher hours.

Then a switch flipped in my head, and I morphed from being a school director to being a parent reading this same report. I wondered, “For all the energy that went into this writing, what can a parent possibly do with all this information to improve learning?”

Even if a parent is fully fluent in our language of instruction, they are almost certainly beginners in Reportese, the language we only use when writing reports. Even if they understand everything, what is the actual learning impact of that knowledge? Suddenly it seemed so obvious. Here was a lurking Energy Vampire to be dealt with. All the classic features were there: huge amounts of energy expenditure from the tired teacher and virtually no learning impact.

The high-impact alternative

Report writing is a genre. As with any genre, it has a purpose, audience, and medium. If the purpose of ensuring a learning impact becomes our focus, everything else changes. A report captures a teacher’s insights into a child’s learning. Those insights can be framed either as information to a parent or as post-conversation feedback to the student, ideally into a learner-managed digital portfolio that contains evidence of the student’s most significant learning progress, which can be shared with the parent in real time.

We all know which would have more learning impact. As Fullan observed, “Information without relationships never becomes knowledge. It’s simply information glut.” With whom does the teacher have the primary relationship?

The power of “And” over the tyranny of “Or”

It’s not “a report to a parent” or “feedback to a child.” Well-framed feedback to a child is vital information on goals, progress, next steps, and a report to a parent, and a vital message that “this teacher really knows my child,” and an insight into how a school gives feedback, and if well done, evidence of how the school involves my child in reflecting on feedback, and, critically, it’s reporting for and as learning.

Putting our methods where our marketing is

It’s also an antidote to another anomaly. School missions and marketing language are littered with references to “the self-regulated learner.” By continuing to send critical feedback in the form of reports to parents, we are saying, in effect, “Dear Self-Regulated Learner, you and I have been working closely together for the last three months and I have some really important feedback to give you that will help you improve your learning. So I’m going to send it to… someone else.”

Liberated by technology

I guess it’s clear why we are still stuck with the Energy Vampire of traditional report writing. Of course, parents do need to know how their child is doing, how far they’ve come, where next, and “compared to what?”

In the days when transmitting information literally meant putting pen to paper, then the medium was effectively a letter, and a letter needs a recipient. That recipient inevitably became the parent, and they all had to receive their letters at the same time. Now, information about learning can be a continuous, animated conversation, illustrated and illuminated by learning artefacts, orchestrated by the student, and engaging multiple partners simultaneously. Everything has changed. All things are possible. But many of us are still, in effect, writing letters.

Making the shift

This is not “just” a shift to, say, standards-based report cards. If we’re not careful, that’s just a change of output. Sharing timely, precise, actionable, respectful feedback with the learner is a change of impact.

From Night of the Living Dead to an ongoing learning conversation with the self-regulated learner. For sure, it’s still a lot of work for the teacher, but that’s not the real point. The point is that the work has a point. The energy expended is matched by genuine, substantive learning impact... so the work is worth it.

The energy audit

In subsequent articles, we’ll be taking aim at other prominent Energy Vampires, from the Black Hole of Meaningless Meetings to the Shared Endarkenment of Unit Writing, to the Dead Hand of Teacher Evaluation.

In advance of that, here’s a suggestion. Sit down and conduct your own energy audit. In an average school month, where does your energy go? For each high energy burner, what’s the identifiable, observable learning impact? If the ratio doesn’t add up, kill off that Vampire.

The good struggle

In Good to Great, Jim Collins wrote that, in great companies, the stop-doing list was longer than the to-do list. The brilliant Bambi Betts urged us to make a “to-don’t” list.
Here’s the good news. If we work together, we’ll have the courage to tackle those Energy Vampires, even the ones that seem immortal. It’s important work for our students, for our parents and for ourselves.

Removing pointless busy work, increasing learning impact. Everybody wins. In the Vampire Wars, we are all stakeholders!

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