Archive for the ‘Learning Networks’ Category

A different level of insight

Following on from last week’s blog post on big data, I had the great pleasure of meeting researcher and educator George Siemens recently.  George is the Associate Director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University in Canada.  He was also one of the first people ever to facilitate the use of MOOCs.

George has been immersed in learning and online networks for such a long time that he presents a different level of insight.  He shared some of his insight when I asked him about the opportunities of big data on education.


The new prophets

capngownI had the great honour of being invited to deliver the Occasional Address last Thursday at the graduation ceremony for the University of Western Sydney School of Education.

As someone who grew up in western Sydney and now leads a system of schools here, I have seen its transformation from an outpost to a dynamic, diverse and prosperous region.  As former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote recently, Sydney’s west reflects the “Australian spirit of frontierism”. Higher school retention rates and mass university access have given the sons and daughters of the region a crack at professional jobs and entrepreneurship.”

Growing populations, prosperity and the aspirations of families has resulted in growing demand for quality education in the school and higher education sectors.  Our commitment to innovation and excellence is echoed by UWS and there are some exceptional examples of cross-sector partnerships such as the Nirimba educational precinct.  This is a consortium of the Western Sydney Institute of TAFE, University of Western Sydney, NSW Department of Education and Communities and Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta. The campus provides diverse learning pathways for students whether academic or vocational.

It’s not only the landscape of western Sydney that has changed over the last three decades – the educational landscape has also changed.

When I was at university in the seventies, I trained as a history teacher but my first job was as an English teacher in a western Sydney high school.  Being fresh out of university I was concerned that I wasn’t a trained English teacher but the English master basically told me everything I needed to teach was in the English syllabus.  If I didn’t deviate from it, I’d get through the syllabus and so would my students.  We accepted the idea of teaching as delivering the curriculum and the notion that knowledge was absolute. Students were marked on their ability to remember and recall facts without ever questioning the what and why.

My message to the graduates was that as someone who has spent more than three decades in education, I can honestly say this is an extraordinary time to be a teacher.  And never before have we needed great teachers than we do today.  We have learned a lot about teaching – we have moved from an understanding that intelligence is fixed (ie some students just can’t learn), teachers’ work is isolated and a one size model fits all to an understanding that all students can learn, reflective practice is critical and personalised learning is the norm.  These aren’t as Kevin Donnelly recently argued progressive fads or edutainment but the result of contemporary theory and research.  We know a lot more about how people learn from the learning sciences.  We also know that the more we learn about learning and the more teachers learn about student learning, the more important and influential teaching becomes.

These graduates walk into learning spaces with the benefit of research, theory and technology; a focus on explicit and deliberate teaching; a commitment to ongoing professional learning and a recognition that as critical thinkers and curriculum designers they have a critical role in school improvement.  Teachers become better critical thinkers and collaborators, when they are engaged in the practice of critical thinking, inquiry and collaboration on a daily basis.  Without doubt, there have always been good teachers in classrooms but the difference in a connected world is an expectation of effective teachers in every classroom.

I asked fellow educators on Twitter last week what advice they would give beginning teachers. When you distil the wisdom of experienced teachers, you end up with four key characteristics of good teachers: being passionate about your work, being life-long learners, building quality relationships and listening to students.

It’s often debated whether today’s teachers are mediators, designers or co-constructors. The truth is teachers are all of these and more.  They respond to individual learners and learning needs in ways that continue to challenge the mind, stretch imaginations and improve learning outcomes.

What I wanted to impart to the graduands is that teachers are our 21st century prophets.  Just as biblical prophets were advocates or agents of social change, our teachers are transforming lives and ultimately shaping the future of nations.

‘Connected’ learning

Canadian principal George Couros spent last week sharing his  ‘connected’ learning with our teachers and leaders.  Several school leaders said they felt ‘inspired’ after hearing George talk so passionately about his students, profession and his professional learning.

The workshops with George and our Principals Masterclass may look like ‘stand-alone’ or ‘one-off’ events but they are actually part of a learning continuum that began seven years ago.  The mere fact that our leaders have an opportunity to collectively engage in deep conversations on learning is powerful learning.

At the start of the 2012 school year, we set our collective focus to ‘learning by inquiring’ – how we could engage in the inquiry and knowledge building cycle within schools and across the system.  It builds on the work of Helen Timperley by responding to the emerging needs of ‘our class’ – whether it be school leaders, teachers or learners.  It requires a commitment to engage in continuous learning through collective problem solving and data analysis to improve the learning outcomes for each student.

PMC-98For me, the principals masterclass was a high point in this journey to improve learning and build capacity.  When we started we relied heavily on outside experts but last week we had our own leaders sharing their learning.  Although the context of the school communities may be different, there is a shared vision that transcends physical and virtual borders.

As I listened to the keynotes, three things became clear.   The first is we are beginning to get the language right – we are crafting a new narrative shaped by the best of what we know when it comes to improving learning and teaching.  The second is we are developing greater precision around the work by getting rid of the ‘noise in the background’.  We are focusing on the things that make a difference – the high effect strategies to drive change where it counts most.  Thirdly after listening to our school leaders, we are now seeing tangible evidence of building teacher capacity and its impact on student engagement and learning.  It’s starting to make a difference.

All of this leads into new areas for discussion and new ways of working but we are doing this together.  In the past we’ve “intellectualised” the process of improvement but ignored the implementation process.   Competing narratives haven’t led to sustainable change – the discussion was broad and shallow.  Yet what I saw and heard last week was a significant shift at the point of delivery – system leaders working with school leaders working with teachers – everyone as George said ‘elbows deep in learning.’

If there is one thing that resonated with me when listening to George it was the importance of modelling the what, how and why of what we do.  It challenges us to lead in the way we ask our leaders to, teach in the way we ask our teachers to and learn in the way we ask our students to.

A powerful weapon

Last month I returned from South Africa where I participated in  the CSC Leaders program.  I arrived in Johannesburg around the time former president Nelson Mandela was hospitalised.  Wandering through the Apartheid museum one afternoon I was stopped by a BBC cameraman asking for my reflections on Mandela and his legacy. My comment was that South Africans will continue the legacy of trying to build a more unified and just South Africa even after he is gone. I made the point that Mandela was just an ordinary man who did extraordinary things simply by standing firm in his convictions and not seeking revenge or retribution.

mandelaSouth Africa is an extraordinary place for two reasons.  The first is its natural beauty.  The second is the sense of hope that abounds when you speak to people.  I expected apartheid would have left people bereft of hope but South Africans are optimistic about the future.

There’s no doubt that the challenges South Africa face are significant but what has been achieved so far has been no small feat.  The week I spent in Johannesburg with my CSC colleagues was a great conclusion to the study tour that began in the UK.  We had time to focus on leadership in dynamic circumstances and it was the perfect venue.

I spent much of the time visiting local schools – reflecting on the challenges of leadership and equality.  As I have found in the past, the  challenges schools in South Africa face are not dissimilar to those faced by school systems around the world.  Equity in education and the search for a new narrative that equips all young people to be active participants in today’s world are key themes wherever you go.  Over several days I visited schools with diverse student populations and aspirations.  From elite schools where 90% of the graduates go on to university in Cape Town to the struggling public schools in Alexandra Township.

While the socioeconomic divide between these schools was deep and wide,  I are four common threads that exist in all these schools.  These were passionate school leaders, the love and care shown by teachers, the respect shown by students and a fundamental belief that education is as Mandela said “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

I’ll share my observations on the school visits in the next post.

Australia – educating globally

On Friday, the Age newspaper featured a story on how foreign fee paying students have become a lucrative income source for cash-strapped Victorian schools. It’s coincidental because I’ve just caught up reading the February report by the International Education Advisory Council on the challenges and opportunities of Australia’s international education sector.

While the focus is predominately on expanding tertiary and VET sectors, there are some interesting statistics on the demand for quality education both regionally and internationally. For instance:

  • Education is the fourth largest export industry – $15.7 billion in 2011
  • In NSW – international education and training is the second top export earner after coal
  • As a result, Australia has internationalised the design and delivery of its education systems
  • China, Rep of Korea and Vietnam had the highest student enrolments in schools in 2012
  • Australia is likely to host more than half a million students in 2020 studying across all education sectors.  This will be worth $19.1 billion to the local economy.
  • Australia needs to focus on providing high quality education

The report identifies seven key issues to be addressed if Australia is to remain globally competitive.  Three of these are relevant to the work of school systems:

  1. Provide the highest quality education
  2. Develop strong and diverse partnerships that encourage exchange, capacity building and collaboration
  3. Inform educational policy through accurate and timely data analysis and research

In the book ‘That Use to be Us’, Thomas Friedman explains why an average education won’t suffice in a hyper-connected world.  He uses his wife’s old college in Iowa as an example of how competitive education has become.  When Thomas’ wife attended Grinnell there were 1600 students. He says if you want your kids to go to Grinnell now, they’ll be competing against 250 applicants from China.  Even Bill Gates admitted he’d rather be a genius born in China than an average guy born in the US because these days multinational companies look globally for the best talent.

This is the reality of living in today’s world and it’s something that every educator needs to be mindful of. Education is global, it’s big business and technology has made the farm, not just the paddock, the new environment. Those things that used to be barriers are now opportunities for new ways of working in a knowledge age.

Teaching the educators

Jal Mehta, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education wrote recently that we “have an almost endless list of things that we would like the next generation of schools to do: teach critical thinking, foster collaboration, incorporate technology, become more student-centered and engaging. The more skilled our teachers, the greater our chances of achieving these goals.” Building teacher capacity is both a school and system responsibility.

The role of the teaching educator in our system is similar to what Michael Fullan refers to as coaches.  They are experts in literacy and numeracy who work with the lead teacher to plan, model, observe, reflect and challenge with the intent of improving the learning outcomes of all students.

In the early days the arrival of a TE in schools was often met with resistance and in some cases, their expertise was under utilised.  Over the past few years we have worked tirelessly to articulate and communicate the what, why and how of the TE in schools.  Their role is not to obstruct schools but to build instructional capacity.  The focus shifts from building individual capacity to community capacity.  Once we build community capacity, our schools will be able to link into an ever bigger system of inquiry, learning and knowledge.

We now understand that the most powerful way of building capacity is in situ, in context around the real problems and challenges that arise on a daily basis.  Previous models of withdrawing teachers from their context and transmitting information did little to improve their practice and only served to further frustrate them.  The best approach is to learn the work by doing the work and having someone that you can share and reflect with.  I think teachers respond well to the immediacy and collegiality of this approach.

In 2011, Michael Fullan and Jim Knight wrote an article titled Coaches as System Leaders.  They state that if “teachers are the most significant factor in student success, and principals are second, then coaches are third.  All three, working in coordinated teams, will be required to bring about deep change.”

Some may call it the power of three – we refer to it as the instructional triad (TE, principal and lead teacher) or the teacher-learning triad (teacher, lead teacher and TE).

Our TEs are an important part of our system strategy to improve the learning outcomes of all students and ensure a professionally rewarding working life for teachers.  The how and why of their work represents a shift in education from “I know to we learn” and success for some learners/schools to success for all learners/schools.

A global village

I’ve just returned from the UK where I had been invited to participate in the CSCLeaders conference.  CSC is an annual global conference that brings together about 100 leaders from across the Commonwealth.  The conference is run in partnership between Common Purpose and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conference which began in 1956.

Aside from being a great privilege to participate, the conference was very much PBL for leaders. Here were 100 culturally diverse leaders from all sectors including government, military, police, education, banking and finance, not for profits, religious groups, activists and the arts coming together to tackle a global challenge. This year, the challenge set for participants was how do you get disparate communities spread across the world to become bridge makers in the global networks of the future?

The conference spanned eight days and was structured in three parts.  The first three days we had input from prominent speakers on the political, social, economic, cultural and environmental challenges of the 21st century.  This was followed by discussion within our groups.  The next three days included site visits to one of five cities in the UK which contextualised the challenge by giving us an opportunity to see how local communities were tackling the challenge of becoming ‘bridge-makers’.  Groups were able to then meet with local community, educational, business and faith leaders.  I was fortunate to have spent my study tour in the London borough of Tower Hamlets because Hargreaves and Shirley include it in their book The Fourth Way as a turned-around district for its schools.

Tower Hamlets is one of the most culturally diverse boroughs of London and a stone’s throw away from the financial and media district of Canary Wharf.  There is a huge population of Bangladeshi migrants – the largest community in the UK.  It also has the highest rate of child poverty in London but as Hargreaves and Shirley state the schools in TH were able to dramatically turn around in a decade from one of the worst performing to performing above the national average.  The reason for this dramatic turnaround was the community coming together to create and build new capacity.

According to Hargreaves and Shirley, the schools improved because services were integrated, school leaders were visionary; they were able to attract high performing teachers who stayed and positive partnerships have been developed between schools, business, community and religious organisations. The Tower Hamlets schools became responsible for each other by setting their own ambitious targets for students.  One of the directors quoted in the Fourth Way said “poverty is not an excuse for poor outcomes.”

I spoke to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman and the head teacher at Swanlea School, Brenda Landers. Swanlea has 1000 students enrolled and was judged by OFSTED to be ‘outstanding in all areas’.  Brenda attributes the school’s success to a sharp focus on the data and an investment in building the capacity of teachers.

The final three days were spent in Oxford where groups shared their reflections of the study tours.  We synthesized ideas and data then tried to identify innovative practices that the Commonwealth nations might adopt to build leadership capacity at local and global level.  We also reflected on how we could collectively try and tackle some of these 21st century challenges.

A major element of the conference was networking opportunities which included lunch and dinner engagements with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH Princess Royal and business leaders.  These networks aside from creating the opportunity to bring more people into an ever expanding network of critical thinkers, problem-solvers and exceptional leaders will hopefully sustain the work in years to come.  The next part of the conference takes us to Mumbai or Johannesburg in June where we get to explore the challenge in the context of a vastly different city.

In reflecting on this experience, two important things struck me that were neither obvious or explicitly stated.  The first is that CSCLeaders brings together culturally diverse people who share a common purpose of leading  organisations into the 21st century.  Despite the diversity, there are common threads uniting us all. These threads include a passion for the work we do, a drive to seek new ways and solutions to challenges and the recognition that in this century you cannot do this alone, interdependence demands collaboration at every level.

The second is that depending on which nation of the Commonwealth you were born in, your perception of the world is vastly different.  Members from developing nations are looking for the recognition that they have something valuable to contribute. They do not seek “a leg up” but want to be active citizens in building better societies.

The above made me think about how we go about the work we are doing with our school communities here in Parramatta and raised so many questions for me. Have we have tapped into the rich diversity of our school communities and started from where they are rather then where they should be?  Are we stifling innovation or failing to nurture it? What are the new models we need to explore to build leaders capacities and so on.

This conference taught me many things but key was the value of multiple data sets and the evidence it draws as well as the critical need to interrogate the data from several different points of view. Listening to other leaders and hearing what the data and evidence says to them was a real eye-opener and often altered my own understanding.

For me the most important message I can share is that no matter your experience or expertise base, there is always something to learn.  Living in a global village demands that I need to be a life-long learner as well.

‘Sew’ your own success

There is a proverb that says ‘borrowed garments never fit well’.  This is particularly apt for education systems on the journey from good to great.  I believe there are two roads that can be travelled when it comes to school improvement – pay someone to do it for you or ‘sew’ your own success.  One of my favourite quotes is from Richard Elmore and co’s book Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning: We learn to do the work by doing the work, not by telling other people to do the work, not by having done the work at some time in the past, and not by hiring experts who can act as proxies for our knowledge about how to do the work.

Many education systems from around the world look to Singapore, South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Finland for the answers but if it were as simple as borrowing their models, then educational improvement would literally happen overnight.  Countries such as Finland have taken years if not decades to build a high performing education system.  What we can do is look at what works, learn from their success and weave some of these ideas into our own educational narrative.

As Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? acknowledges that “the Finnish school system cannot be transferred anywhere else in the world.  Many of the successful aspects of Finland’s education system are rooted deep in our culture and values.”  He goes on to say that “what we can do…is take a look and learn from one another.”

Earlier this month Sahlberg was interviewed for the Huffington Post – the responses

were ideas worth thinking about:

  1. Primary school teachers put well-being and happiness of their pupils before measured academic progress
  2. Urge parents to take more responsibility for their children e.g giving more time and attention to them at home
  3. Flexible learning pathways that provide personalised options to study what individuals believe will help them become successful in life
  4. A universal standard for financing schools so that resources are channeled to schools according to real needs
  5. Align the vocational schools curriculum to the standards of academic high schools
  6. Elevate schools as places for social learning and development skills
  7. Celebrate national achievements, rather than high rankings in global education league tables
  8. Ensure a universal standard for teacher preparation that follows standards in other top professions

Systems around the world can learn from each other about what makes the most difference and while each system reflects its own political, economic and social context, the key driver I think, is a relentless focus on quality learning and teaching. This learning recognises the needs and capabilities of every student and the critical importance of good teaching and teacher capacity building.

We will never bring about the changes required in building quality schooling  by continuing to use the stale rhetoric of the school improvement agenda. With its narrow focus on high stakes test scores, programmatic of the shelf solutions , driving achievement through competition and so on, this agenda ignores the experiences that do make a difference.

It’s a small ‘virtual’ world

I’m not sure if you have had this experience, but the last thing I expected while travelling in Greece on a pilgrimage with Catholic Education colleagues was to be approached by two fellow Australians who recognised me from my Twitter profile.

A 21st century encounter with my colleagues developed through social networking.

It was a powerful moment to connect ‘face to face’ with people who had become my professional colleagues in a very 21st century kind of way. Social media is a phenomenon that’s here to stay and one that has made it possible to connect with people outside your physical sphere on a daily basis to share thinking, learning and ideas. This chance encounter helped me realise that the professional learning community we are a part of via Twitter or other online tools might feel mostly ‘virtual’ but it is real. It’s not just a world of ideas, it is a community of educators who share a common interest to improve learning and teaching. What we share online has the potential to encourage, inspire and stretch us to improve the work we do and the way we go about it.

Recently George Couros (@gcouros) wrote about the importance of using Twitter to not only share information, but to listen and to engage. He made the point that it’s not good enough for schools, organisations and businesses to just ‘be online’ and share information alone. They must listen to those they serve. If we don’t use the tools effectively to engage, to collaborate and participate in the conversation, we risk using a ‘Web 2.0 tool in a Web 1.0 way’ and never take full advantage of its capabilities. Online tools shouldn’t be used as a monologue stream, because the technology is designed for dialogue.

For myself, tools like Twitter and Bluyonder allow me to be part of a global professional learning community and is an opportunity to share my own ideas and engage with the ideas of others for my own professional improvement in the work I do as a system leader.

Bumping into my colleagues in Greece demonstrates the power of this online community and is a good reminder that what we share and do in the virtual world does have an impact in the physical world.

Building capacity through strategic partnerships

For a number of years, we have had a strategic partnership with Republic Polytechnic (RP), a tertiary institution in Singapore that leverages problem-based learning to provide an industry-relevant curriculum to Diploma level. It is geared towards students becoming innovative and entrepreneurial professionals with global perspectives.

A number of our schools in the Parramatta Diocese such as Parramatta Marist High School, which introduced project based learning into the school four years ago, have been associated with RP in Singapore. On the way back from the Building Learning Communities conference (#BLC12) we had the opportunity to spend a few hours at the school to further strengthen our strategic partnership.

We saw instructional leadership in action with RP’s Senior Director Michael Koh and Deputy Director Karen Goh very focused on student learning and on implementing processes to ensure that their teachers are continual learners, and hence improving as teachers. Michael and Karen described the needs of students in today’s world as the driver for all their work as well as how the curriculum design of problem-based learning centres upon the experience of learners. We saw that their model of problem-based learning utilises many high effect teaching strategies that have been identified as such by John Hattie’s research (Visible Learning, 2009) such as student self-reporting (1.44); teachers providing feedback (0.73); good teacher-student relationships (0.72); problem solving teaching (0.61); and concept mapping (0.57).

To support their learner focused model RP has created contemporary, collaborative and engaging learning spaces for students to connect, plan and reflect on their learning. They have embraced technology in every aspect of campus life – they don’t have any books or papers but instead have instant messaging, wireless projection systems and their trademark Learning Environment Online. While RP is the fifth polytechnic institute in Singapore, they have the broken the traditional mould in student learning, teaching and learning space design.

Viviane Robinson’s Five Dimensions of Effective Leadership

We also saw that a significant strategy at RP was ensuring teacher quality is highly visible. All teachers are expected to achieve a ‘Facilitator’s’ qualification which entails significant teacher observations and reflection, both personal and via a collegial panel. This aligns with what we know from Viviane Robinson’s research on instructional leadership that promoting and participating in teacher learning and ensuring teacher quality have high effect sizes on student outcomes.

During the visit, we had the opportunity to experience first-hand one of their ‘authentic’ learning environments – a full-scale flight simulator located in one of the classrooms. This amazing facility is used to teach students a wide range of problem solving techniques across a range of disciplines.

A flight simulator at Republic Polytechnic used to teach students a range of problem solving techniques.

We saw the teacher, who is a former pilot and member of crash investigation units, set a series of problems that the students needed to solve by working as a team just as a pilot and co-pilot would. These start off simple and become more complex with students required to draw on both known and new information to solve. The problems required students to utilise knowledge across multiple domains including mathematics, science and geography. For example, working out what ground temperature would be using only the current outside temperature at 30,000 feet; or determining how many degrees it takes to turn the plane and line up for landing. From our experience we could see how this ‘real life’ learning experience was used with students to develop key problem solving strategies. Needless to say this learning environment is in high demand by all students.

Evident at RP was the importance of teachers providing real life opportunities to engage students in learning; in situ teacher observations and reflection to enhance teacher quality; and evidenced-based leadership to drive the focus on student learning. In other words, RP use good theory to support good practice to deliver the best learning opportunities for each and every student.

This is why we have a strategic partnership with Republic Polytechnic because they understand that all students can learn, that good teachers make the difference and that leadership is pivotal in driving continual improvement. Robust partnerships like this build everyone’s capacity and leads to real change and improvement.


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