Sean Cain joins Justin Baeder to discuss his book Fundamental 5.
Interview Notes, Resources, & Links
About Sean Cain
Sean Cain spent the formative years of his career working in difficult instructional settings. Recognized for the success of both his students and the systems he designed and implemented, he quickly moved up through the instructional leadership ranks. This culminated in his last public education position as State Director of Innovative School Redesign (Texas). Currently, Cain serves as the Chief Idea Officer for Lead Your School (LYS), a confederation of successful school leaders dedicated to improving student, campus, and district performance. A passionate speaker, Cain is a sought-after national presenter and trains educators in schools and districts across the county. The primary foci of Cain’s current research and fieldwork are making complex problems solvable and the translation of theory into systematic practice.
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Justin Baeder: Welcome everyone, to Principal Center Radio. I’m your host, Justin Baeder. I’m thrilled to have, as my guest today, Sean Cain, author of “The Fundamental 5: The Formula For Quality Instruction.”
Announcer: And now, our feature presentation.
Justin: Sean, welcome to Principal Center Radio.
Sean Cain: Thank you, glad to be here.
Justin: I wonder if we want to start by having you tell us a little bit more about you, and what brought you to the point in your career where this book just had to happen. Tell us a little bit about your professional background, and what got you to this point.
Sean: I’m a Texas educator. I was a secondary teacher, a secondary principal, central office administrator. Then I was lucky enough for almost two years to be the state director of innovative redesign for the state of Texas.
What happened was as I had a reputation of being able to modify and create systems that made both teachers and students more successful. We got a new commissioner in the early 2000.
Dr. Shirley Milly, who was familiar with my work. At the time she had some schools that were in some trouble for low performance and she wanted me to create a team to help those schools to get out of the ditch and be more successful.
That’s sort of how this all started. For just a sort of reputation for understanding systems, she hired me and I had a couple of great people working with me. A doctor, Mike [inaudible 01:46] , he was my co worker of the book, Ethan Brown, who was the architecture breaking ranks which is still recognized as a national model of school re design and a number of other people.
Basically we had unlimited access to any school in the state of Texas. We had data resources. We had scope [inaudible 02:05] resources. And for the first time in the era of education we had access to cheap computing power. So we were able to spend a lot of time on campuses of all different performance abilities.
And classrooms of all different grade levels and different performance levels. And, basically, record what we see and start crunching numbers to figure out what the pattern for [inaudible 02:26] is. From that came the book, “The Fundamental 5.”
Justin: Wow. So you’re in this position where you got to be the “Jim Collins” of Texas education.
Sean: That’s high praise but, yes, but at a much more pedestrian level, yes, we had the opportunity to do that. I’m glad you mentioned this book, as both the principal and central office administrator, we really were trying to implement a number of his practices, and the things he talked about in the book, “Good to Great.”
The interesting thing was that we were early adopters of all those things. When he wrote “Good to Great” in the social sector, a lot of the things he had talked about, we had already figured out.
I was, at the time, a young administrator. I wasn’t afraid of technology. I wasn’t afraid of data. I really did have a passion for making sure, really, to maximize the opportunity for every student that walked into a building. I was and urban educator and recognized that we were the nexus to the middle class.
We were always looking for ways to make sure that our kids had every opportunity to, not only be successful adults, but to extend their education beyond when they were at our school.
What essentially happened, when we were out, we had about 40,000 classroom observations across the state of Texas, at all different grade levels, all different performance levels of academic performance for accountability purposes.
While we were out in the field looking for the big picture system driven practices that maximize student performance, we noticed it was not an uncommon occurrence. Not on every campus, but on many campuses, there would be these teachers who were much more successful than the teachers around them. It wasn’t based on who they were teaching or what they were teaching.
We were real big on looking at peer to peer performance. We realized very early on that to compare an affluent campus to a poor campus wasn’t a fair comparison. We were looking at poor campus to poor campus, middle class to middle class campus, affluent to affluent. When we were looking at teachers, we were looking at teachers who were teaching similar kids in the same subject.
We found this unaware occurrence that these teachers were more successful than their peers. We started basically studying them very closely, while also looking at their peers who weren’t successful. This was the “ah ha” moment.
Justin: That makes me recall something that I think Richard Elmore says in his books, “that the variation between classrooms within a school is greater than the variation between schools.” If you look at a “good school” and a “bad school,” there’s going to be more variation between the teachers within each school than if you just compare overall those two schools. Is that what you found as well?
Sean: Actually, I would add a caveat to that. What we found, over and over again, that the better instruction overall, was occurring at the campuses facing more adversity, that the less adversity you faced, the less current you were in what would be considered best practice, because there was really no compelling need.
I would agree it and just add that caveat, that, yes, the more adversity you faced, the better chance there was to see actually better practice.
Justin: Right, because there’s that natural pressure. There’s the sense of urgency. To quote another business author, I think John Connor has a book called, “A Sense of Urgency”. We know how powerful that is, in terms of driving change, and creating a mandate. What are some of the “fundamental 5”?
Sean: The interesting thing was, when we found these teachers, what we found surprisingly to us, we thought we were looking for this high level, mythical, magical practice they were doing. We found that these teacher’s that we were studying, weren’t doing anything extraordinary. What they were doing the ordinary, extraordinarily well.
They were doing the most solid of fundamentally practices, that all of us knew about, but really just paid lip service too. When we say the, “Fundamental 5”, we tell people it is the most underwhelming list you’ve ever seen on paper. These were teachers who claimed to listen better. Which, basically, was telling the kids what they were going to learn and how they were going to demonstrate the learning.
These teachers worked in close proximity to their students, more often, than the typical teachers. These students had more student to student conversations purposeful talk going on. These teachers recognized and re enforced much more frequently than the rest of us.
These teachers had a lot more critical writing than the rest of us. What these teachers did, were these five practices that we all know that we should do more frequently.
They just didn’t talk about it, they did it every single day, because they did it every single day, they did it better than the rest of us, because they had more practice. Once we found that pattern of five practices, we spent as much time trying to prove that it wasn’t that, because it almost embarrassed us. Me and the King, we were looking back as teachers, we knew about it, we didn’t do it frequently enough.
That’s what happened. What we found out was, and discovered was the ability to be an exceptional teacher, was in the grasp of every teacher. It was how well you did the practices that leveraged all your other practices, against the, “Fundamental 5”.
Justin: In education, that seems like a strange thing, to come up with this powerful list of five strategies, and realize that they are all the things that everyone has heard of. Nothing on that list is incredibly exciting or even innovative, and when David Karp, who is another guest, who had been on Principle Center Radio, studied the schools in Union City, New Jersey.
Which, vastly outperform their peer districts, a low income, urban school district, in New Jersey. They’re out performing any other comparable district in the state, by a huge margin. If you look at what’s contributing to their success, it’s boring things, it’s mundane things, and if we were to look at a basketball coach, and say, OK, what is working for this team, what’s making this coach successful with these players?
We would never say things like, the coach is using technology and implementing standards in a consistent way. We would look at what we would call the fundamentals, so, I appreciate the fact that you’ve referenced those fundamentals and identified critical writing, and working in close proximity to students. Sean as you conducted your research, and unpacked each of these fundamental characteristics of high quality instruction.
You started to share those. In your role, you’re in a position where you could help spread those practices to other schools. Where do we tend to get it wrong? What are some of the misconceptions? Where do we fall off the rails, in trying to apply these lessons elsewhere?
Sean: The first misconception is the mistaken belief that we all do these a lot already. These aren’t practices that anybody is surprised by. We naturally assumed we do them more frequently than we do. The best example is we talked about working in the power zone, which is the proximate Instruction.
The typical secondary teacher spends about 40 percent of their instructional time in the power zone, close proximity instruction. These exemplar teachers are spending 75 to 80 percent of their time in the power zone. We end up attributing our frequencies at a much higher level than we actually do. Here is the reason why, we’ve done some work on perception, on some reading, research, and studying on this.
When you do what your mind remembers well is, what’s unique. I do typical whole group, lecture worksheet instruction for four days in a row. Then on the fifth day, I have some discussion groups, and I have some writing going on. In my mind, because I did that infrequently it stands out. It’s bright light. That’s been the first thing, is trying to get people to understand.
We aren’t talking about do you ever do these? It’s do you do them at high frequency, high quality? Our campuses and our teachers that have been the most successful really have sort of broken down what their typical practice is.
They’ve worked very purposefully to do these practices much more frequently than the typical teacher. For example, critical writing. There’s a lot of researchers out there. Mike Schmoker wrote in his book “Results Now” that he observed critical writing less than four percent of the time when he visited classrooms.
We did the same thing in Texas with our team. We were seeing critical writing less than five percent of the time. It’s this practice that we never, ever…That we see so infrequently. Our best teachers now, who do critical writing, we’re observing critical writing about 15 percent of the time.
It’s still not over the top in terms of frequency, but it’s 300 percent more often than the typical teacher. Well, that’s really powerful when you consider that critical writing represents the highest yield of high yield instructional practices.
I do anything 300 percent more often than my peer, you’re going to see a difference in student performance. That’s what we’re talking about in terms of significantly higher frequency. I had one principal explain, it wasn’t that we didn’t know these fundamental practices, we were just applying them randomly instead of purposefully.
Justin: And that is such a huge difference between saying, “Oh, yeah. I do that.” And we’ve all heard people say…And we’ve all, I’m sure, been guilty of saying, “Oh, yeah. I do that in my school.”
But, yeah, the consistency, the habit, the amount of time it takes up and how much it characterizes your practice, versus being something that you can check off. I think that’s huge.
I was thinking about my high school experience. Hands down, I think the best teacher I had in high school that I still remember to this day, Mr. Fraser, if you’re ever listening to this…Mr. Jerry Fraser, I know you’re out there somewhere. I see you on Facebook.
One of the things I remember about his class was that critical writing. We did a ton of it. We would have to outline. We would have to make our own outlines from some of the readings. When you talk about close analysis of a text, and you talk about critical writing. When you have to outline a text, you really understand its argument.
That’s something that really sticks with you. So, I appreciate that specific strategy and the power that that has, just remembering that decades later.
Sean: The only other misconception we faced, the major misconception, is that teachers assume that these five fundamental practices are only for your best kids. We make the point over and over again, and have proof points over and over and over again, that these five practices improve performance no matter where the student starts.
It works with special ed kids, it works with kids in regular classrooms, it works with your honors kids. Best practice is best practice is best practice. I can use these five practices no matter what content I’m delivering. The practices aren’t content specific. It’s about improving the quality of delivered pedagogy.
Justin: I have to ask about “Teach Like a Champion.” If there are only five practices in your book, you’ve got the “Fundamental 5.” Doug Lemov has 49 techniques. So I don’t know. It seems like this is only a tenth of the information. Could you tell us a little bit about the grain size of these strategies?
We’ve talked about a couple of examples, but I think we’ve all…We’ve experienced both extremes. There are extremely specific techniques that you use in a very literal way, at very specific times, and then there are very broad things that maybe are a little harder to kind of pin down.
Would you say that the “Fundamental 5” are somewhere in the middle, or how would you characterize that?
Sean: When you talk about “Teach Like a Champion” and his practices, and you have Ron Clark and his “Essential 55,” and of course you have Marzano and his 9 or 18, depending on how you want to count them.
But what we say about the “Fundamental 5″…It’s not the pinnacle of teacher craft. This is the blocking and tackling. That when you do this well, you can do all those other practices. If you don’t do this well, then those other practices aren’t going to happen anyway.
It’s sort of a coaching background. You can block and tackle. You can run any scheme. You can run any play book. These leverage all the other practices.
The other thing, speaking of “Teach Like a Champion,” there’s some behavioral issues that are going on there, and my early background was as a behaviorist. When you use the Fundamental 5 and you actually have more kids engaged in instruction, have their brains more in depth about instruction, a lot of the behavioral issues start to solve themselves.
I’m familiar with the other books. I like the other books. Our big thing is that these sort of set up all those other practices.
That if you can’t do these things, moving on to something else isn’t going to help you. There’s a construct that people see complex problems and they want complex solutions that the brain’s comfortable with. We argue the other way.
If you have a complex problem you solve that by executing at high speed, a series of simple solutions. The “Fundamental 5” is a series of simple solutions, executed with increasing frequency and quality, that solve complex problems.
It’s sort of like the differentiation argument. There’s a large, prestigious university that now uses the “Fundamental 5” in their initial master’s program for differentiation. It’s the text they’re using first.
What the professor’s saying is, “If you can’t do these five things, we’re not even going to worry about anything beyond that. Once you can do these five things, then we can jump off and do some other fantastic things.” That’s pretty much our argument.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the reader writer workshop out of teacher’s college with Lucy Calkins. We have a lot of teachers point out that the workshop model became a whole lot easier when they were able to do the “Fundamental 5” at higher frequency.
Until they understood the “Fundamental 5”, the workshop model was constantly a battle with them and their kids. We see that, really, this supports, I don’t want to say more complicated initiatives, but, in terms of the number of steps, more complicated initiatives.
Justin: Sean, What’s one thing that you’d like every school leader to do to apply the lessons that you’ve learned over the years and have put into the Fundamental 5? What action would you like school leaders to take?
Sean: Fantastic question. We work with implementation on…We consider ourselves implementation experts, or implementation geeks. From a school leader’s standpoint, school leaders need to be very specific in what the practice they want to change in a specific period of time.
And keep that number of changed practices to a minimum. You focus on one or two changes in the course of a two to four week period, and that’s all you focus on. Then you spiral in the next one or two changes of practice the following cycle.
One thing we hope leaders…line out all of the things you want to do, but then break that down into smaller pieces. Because teachers work in a very complex and chaotic environment. They’re naturally under stress, and if you throw too much at them at one time you’re going to increase that stress. And the brain will just default to habitual routines.
So, what you have to do is, you have to reduce stress and see if the teachers…As you’re doing the things you’re currently doing to manage your classroom, let’s add one new piece and that’s going to be the main focus for the next two or three weeks.
And then, find purpose for what you want to work on…Then leadership has to be out in high volume to cue those new practices. Not to get angry when they walk in and it’s not being done. But when they walk in to say, “Well, I’m the cue. Now let’s try to do that.” Sort of force implementation that way.
Sean: And then, when the teacher engages, you know, just like we do with kids. A smile. A pat on the back. A little reinforcement as “Hey!” we are trying to do that.
When we work with implementation with leadership, you have to be very purposeful. You have to cue in high volumes. You actually have to give some positive reinforcement. Otherwise, you are not going to have any implementation at all.
What you are shooting for is implementation at scale which next to no campus is able to accomplish because leadership throws too much at their teachers. They don’t provide enough cues. There is no positive reinforcement for engaging.
Justin: Right. We just roll out, kind of, initiative or mandate after mandate. That reinforcement and that follow through, not to mention as you said the focus issue, just becomes unmanageable. That’s great. Great advice.
Well Sean, the book is, “The Fundamental 5: The Formula for Quality Instruction.” I’m sure people can find a variety of place where they can pick up that book. If they want to connect with you and your work, where is the best place to find you online?
Sean: Find me online. You can find us at, leadyourschool.com. The word lead, yourschool.com. You can find me at twitter, @LYSNation.
Sean: Of course, the book is available at Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Google Books. It’s now sold over 70,000 copies. Made the Washington Post bestseller list for non fiction last summer. It’s really has surprised us by how popular it’s been and how teachers have found it useful.
We tell everybody, “We are not authors, Dr. Laird and I, We are just a couple of principals who happened to write a book.” Evidently, schools and teacher have found it useful and we are happy for it.
Justin: It’s nice to be in that position where the work that you are doing on a day to day basis accidentally turns you into researchers and authors. I want to thank you for sharing that research and for sharing your insights with us today on Principal Center Radio.
Thank you very much. It was joy to do this.
Justin: High performance instructional leaders. What can you do to keep people focused on the fundamentals? I think there is so much temptation in education, especially as we attempt to make major overhauls to the systems that are in place and the types of instruction that we are providing. What can you do to keep people focused?
I really appreciate a couple of things that Sean said today about having a very focused lists of fundamentals. From moving one at a time. Moving through that list, so that people are getting very specific feedback on that fundamental element before moving on to something else.
Now, all of this gets much clearer and much easier if you have a focused leadership agenda. You will hear me talk about your leadership agenda fairly regularly. This needs to be a document that you need to keep for yourself.
That has all of your public priorities and all of the things that are rolling around the back of your mind as hunches, or things that need to be investigated and pursued more and possibly pushed into that public agenda.
Whatever goes on that public agenda needs to be high priority. It need to remain a short list, so that you can actually devote the focus and the energy you need to.
I am Justin Baeder, thank you so much for joining me for this episode of Principal Center Radio.