Archive for the ‘Strategic Focus’ Category

A quality education for all

Professor Stephen Dinham has been a strong and vocal advocate for greater equality in Australian education.  He wrote an excellent piece in the Melbourne Age recently on how the ineffective quick fixes to improve teaching would actually lead to greater inequity and decline in educational performance.

These simplistic approaches ignore decades of research on what makes teachers and teaching effective.  According to Professor Dinham:

Australia is becoming a less equitable society both generally and in respect of education and as has been demonstrated, inequality in society is actually worse for everyone.

Our collective failure to address the inequality that exists within our education system is a national shame and as Dinham warns if the profession remains ‘silent and passive’, we will only have ourselves to blame for what ‘might eventuate’.

It’s a national shame that we cannot address the inequality within our own education system.  But then I began thinking about the inequality that exists for our marginalised.  There are more than a thousand children living in offshore immigration detention centres.feet

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan said education is the foundation on which freedom, democracy and sustainable human development rests.  Australia offers all of this yet we fail to close the gap for our most vulnerable – the indigenous, the poor and the marginalised.

Picking up the paper to read headlines such as ‘Selective schools ‘the most socially exclusive’ in NSW‘ distract from the critical work of closing the gap.  We become polarised by the private v public debates and discussions on whether selective schools are the most socially exclusive.

A commitment to a quality education is a commitment to all students regardless of race, circumstance or background.  Closing the gap requires us to address the issues with open eyes and hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The perception of public schools

I was interested to read the piece written by Verity Firth and Rebecca Huntley in the Guardian last week suggesting that if middle and high income parents sent their children to public schools then it would improve outcomes for all.  It stems from Firth and Huntley’s report commissioned by think tank Per Capita titled Who’s afraid of a public school. 

While there has been an increase in non-government school enrolments, I don’t think we are seeing the demise of public education. Some of the most innovative practices I have seen, have been in public schools.   Yet Firth and Huntley write “if anxious parents take their kids out of the local school, it starts to do worse, forcing more worried families to depart.”  Is the argument being made here that declining enrolments automatically equates to a decline in the quality of learning and teaching?  

To suggest that Australia’s equity issue will be addressed by middle class and wealthy parents sending their children to public schools is simplistic.  Somehow it always comes back to funding.  It is so disappointing that media campaigns often have greater influence on public perception than the research. 

I always come back to Professor Stephen Dinham’s statement that equity in Australian schools is determined by “each student having quality teachers and quality teaching in schools supported by effective leadership and professional learning.” Equity depends on quality not choice.  

Forest for the trees

Have we over-complicated schooling so much that we can’t see the forest for the trees?  In our attempt to make schooling relevant have we discounted something so fundamental to human nature?

Sometimes it takes someone like research professor, Dr Peter Gray to put it into perspective.  His exceptional article on children and play is a salutary lesson for us all.

Framing the right questions

In the past few weeks I’ve read at least three articles on ‘big data’. We are moving rapidly from knowledge capture to data generated insight and innovation.  I think that the questions being posed for business in the age of data can be equally applied to education.

How can we ‘create value for our students/teachers using data and analytics?  And if data is helping companies like Google and Amazon to develop new models of delivery, providing the customers with personalised and targeted information on likes and dislikes and information and opportunities which they may previously not known about, can this sort of data help education develop new models of personalised delivery?  The answer for me has to be yes, or we risk irrelevancy in the schooling space.

Schooling will benefit from looking at the innovative businesses who are capitalising on the opportunities being powered by the Internet.  Companies who are learning from and transforming what they do and how they do it through the data and tools available.  Imagine if schools had access to student data from pre-kindergarten or if primary schools shared student data with high schools? We wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel time or start from square one because a student changed schools.  Critical information would be available for teachers who could then pick up the ball so to speak and identify new learning challenges. Imaging capturing data on career progression 10 years plus from exiting school and using that data to inform planning and learning opportunities for current students.

There is a great article in this month’s Harvard Business Review about using data to drive growth.  It’s well worth a read.  The authors pose five key questions for businesses.  These are questions that deserve our immediate attention.

1. What data do we have?
2. What data can we access that we are not capturing?
3. What data could we create from our operations?
4. What helpful data could we get from others?
5. What data do others have that we could use in a joint initiative?

Good data helps us frame good questions and good questions will help us find new ways of individualising content and personalising learning.  We need to be working smarter not harder in a connected online world.  

Pondering the questions

We’re edging towards the end of the year; a time of when bold predictions are often made about 2014.  I’m not good at reading the tea leaves but I have been pondering some of the big questions over my morning cup of tea regarding where to next for schooling.

At a local level our focus is on building teacher capacity.  All the research we have shows that successful schools have instructional leaders working with effective teachers to improve learning for each student. We continue the work by doing the work, learning from the work and remaining focused on the work.  Always easier said than done but our data shows that change is happening in across schools and that is encouraging.  We don’t often thank our teachers enough but they are education’s bread and butter.

Professionally, social media continues to inspire and challenge my thinking and it proves just how diverse and impressive the online networks are. William Ferriter and Nicholas Provenzano wrote about social media in terms of their own professional learning in Kappan recently saying “the relationship that develops between blog writers and their regular readers is symbiotic.  Writers publish thinking designed to challenge their peers, and peers push back in the comment sections of posts….Over time, this intellectual give-and-take strengthens the understandings and professional relationships between authors and their audiences.”

Thanks to those who posted comments this year on bluyonder for the intellectual give and take – it has sharpened my focus.  And so next year brings new challenges and new opportunities but until then these are the questions that I have been pondering….

  1. How can we better connect parents into the learning and teaching experience of their children (greater collaboration)?
  2. What are the key elements of a contemporary assessment framework for student learning and teacher evaluation (student performance)?
  3. Are there different ways of thinking about school day (ie. not face to face)?
  4. Is it possible to benchmark learning and teaching internationally (going beyond PISA)
  5. Can quality schooling be delivering in a time when education funding is shrinking in real terms?( doing more for less)
  6. How do we change teachers’ beliefs and attitudes?(can the paradigm change)

I look forward to engagement around these and many similar questions and the challenge of seeking answers as a profession.  I remain very positive about  where we are in terms of schooling and I think it is a great time to be an educator. The opportunities we have to enhance student learning and to learn about our own practice is enough to keep us motivated and focused. I continually see students achieving great things and teachers doing extraordinary work.  Let’s aim to make this the norm not the exception.

Merry Christmas and roll on 2014!

What we can learn from PISA?

It was interesting to read the range of commentary last week around the latest PISA results. If Australian students are slipping towards a mathematical wilderness, spare a thought for Finland who was out-ranked by Estonia.  Yong Zhao‘s attempt at translating the Finnish newspapers was first-rate.

The most balanced views on PISA came from Dr Ken Boston, former director-general of NSW education and Sir Michael Barber, former advisor to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on where we should be focusing our attention and efforts.

While Australian students may have slipped behind East Asia in maths, science and reading, Dr Boston says we should forget comparing ourselves with Finland or Shanghai because they are so culturally dissimilar.  Instead, we should be comparing ourselves with ‘like’ OECD countries such as Canada, which performed significantly better than us in maths and reading.

Canadian provinces such as Ontario turned around its school system in less than a decade.  It did this by recognising that to improve learning required improving the capabilities of its teachers.  The system identified three key areas and focused on research and data to inform their decision making.  The improvement in student learning reflect this commitment to teacher quality, student equity and learning excellence.

My concern is that we are still distracted by the noise and educational policy chaos.  I’ve written previously that ideology seems to carry more weight than evidence and by the time the next PISA results are released we will still be debating funding models, a national curriculum and phonics.  So what can we learn from the successful practices of Ontario and those highly ranked nations in PISA?graph

Sir Michael Barber states the first is that talent is a myth – “Those countries that believe some are born smart or bright while others aren’t, and reinforce that through the education system, will never be among the top performers. Pacific Asia’s focus on hard work over talent is one reason they lead the way.”  The second is a focus on learning and teaching (what is actually happening in classrooms).  The third is an investment in building teacher capacity and the one that often gets overlooked – persist with the strategies that work.

These messages transcend cultures and countries – it is what distinguishes high performing systems and if we are going to address the equity gap that exists in our schools then we must be willing to listen and learn.

Those who know me well know that I am impatient at the pace of change. Too often we underrate what can be achieved in transforming school cultures but it doesn’t happen over the course of a school year just look at Ontario.  I am not raising the surrender flag here and retreating but I am realistic about what is required.  One of the biggest challenges we face is ensuring our politicians, unions, associations and teachers support the right drivers for change.

Let’s finally move from an excuse, blame and rationalisation paradigm to one defined by collaboration, coherence, evidence and trust.  It seems to me that the former saps energy, the latter energises.

Alive in the Swamp

For the past five years we have been working with our ‘learning partner’ Michael Fullan.  Michael has acted as a system coach/mentor, helping us to sharpen our focus and stay the course.  The benefit of having Michael as our learning partner is that he has a deep understanding of system change but is at arm’s length from the day to day work.  He brings a balanced perspective that  challenges and motivates.  It’s a long road but we are starting to see change where it counts most.

When Michael was here with us a few weeks ago, he shared his latest work ‘Alive in the Swamp: assessing digital innovations in education’, co-written by Katelyn Donnelly on behalf of Nesta and New Schools.  I think it’s one of the first times that I’ve seen technology in the context of system change and not as an acquisition.

As Michael and Katelyn write:

Up to this point, technology has not impact on schools. Billions have been invested with little thought to altering the learning system.  There are also potentially destructive uses of technology on learning; we must be aware of distractions, easy entertainment and personalisation to the point of limiting our exposure to new ideas. We focus not simply on technology itself but on its use.

And so the question is how do we assess the impact technology is having on the learning and on system change?  The authors have developed an Index that allows system leaders to ask relevant questions in the areas of pedagogy, technology and system change. It Canoes_on_water_in_swamp_areachallenges system leaders and policy makers to focus on HOW technology is making a difference; how it is supporting ‘collaboration and effective interaction.’

This doesn’t mean that schools investment in technology has somehow been a waste.  On the contrary, we need to ensure the technology works to support good teaching.  What we do know is that technology as a tool in the hands of great teachers has the capacity to be transforming.

If you’re wondering why the ‘swamp’ metaphor, it’s based on the understanding that technology is part of today’s learning ecosystem today; interconnected to pedagogy and system change (with students at the centre) but the waters are still murky.  The framework will hopefully help schools and systems navigate their way through the challenges.

 

Mindsets

I’ve finished reading Carol Dweck’s seminal book, Mindsets. Dweck dedicates half of Chapter 7 to exploring what makes a great teacher.  It’s powerful reading because it illustrates how pervasive the messages students receive in classrooms are in reinforcing ‘fixed’ mindsets about intelligence.  Dweck writes “great teachers believe in the growth of intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”Woody all Tied Up

John Hattie makes reference to Dweck in his work and expands on the notion of mindsets, which should underpin all decision making at schools.  In Visible Learning for Teachers, Hattie presents eight for teachers/leaders.

Dweck admits that teachers who have fixed mindsets create ‘an atmosphere of judging’ – they decide very early on who is worth the effort and who isn’t.  Growth-minded teachers enable students to reach high standards by identifying strategies and giving feedback.  It is a continuous challenge-feedback-learning loop in action.

Dweck astutely captures what great teachers do – they see teaching as a way to learn about themselves, their students, the world.  She concedes that fixed minded teachers see themselves as ‘finished products’ whose role is simply to impart knowledge.  One is focused on learning, the other on teaching.

Hattie expands on this in Mind Frame #3.  He says in relation to professional development, the focus “should be about the impact of our teaching. And while you could argue that this mind frame is a bit strong because of the emphasis I place on learning rather than on teaching – this might suggest we should have learning colleges, not teachers colleges.  I want to get away from debates we have about teaching.  Not because teaching isn’t important – it’s too strong to say it’s not, of course – but it’s wrong for it to be the one and only focus.”

After reading Dweck and Hattie, I am even more convinced that the industrial model of schooling (and teaching) is based on a fixed mindset.  Everything is planned, packaged and pre-judged.  There is no space for just in time learning and or improvised teaching.   Hattie says we adopt this teacher-centred stance because of what we’ve been taught – create a lesson, plan an activity. This model unfortunately perpetuates the fixed mindset about student intelligence and learning.  In theory, a contemporary student-centred model of schooling should be rooted in the growth mindset.  And that requires growth-minded teachers and leaders.

Hattie admits that we don’t ask teachers to come into the profession because they are expert problem solvers or apt at improvising, we ask them to teach because they are ‘willing to adopt a traditional mode of teaching. It requires them to have a particular way of thinking about what their job is, and this perspective can actually diminish improvisation and ingenuity.”

The big question is how do we change teachers’ mindsets?  How do we move from fixed to growth, from sages to activators?

What Dweck’s research shows is that it is possible to think differently and when we think differently about our students, we are in a stronger position to teach differently.  To quote Hattie, “teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we can have some control.”

Educating parents

A few months back, I received an email from Jack, an ed tech company director who had finished reading Educating Gen Wifi.  He felt compelled to write a post on his blog about the book and sent me a link to it.

Jack confessed that it wasn’t until he was half way through the book that he realised it wasn’t about technology per se but about making schooling relevant in today’s world. Admittedly, the book’s cover and graphic may have contributed to his initial assessment but Jack’s comments were interesting because the premise of writing this was to open up discussion around the nature of schooling in today’s world.  Technology has certainly forced us to think about schooling differently but it is the question of ‘why’ that I want readers particularly parents to reflect on.

Parents have a valuable role to play in the learning process but I think they have been under-utilised or overlooked. We talk about school as a community of learners but do we view parents as learners and importantly, do they understand the language of learning?

John Hattie in Visible Learning states that ‘parents should be educated in the language of schooling, so that he home and school can share in the expectations, and the child does not have to live in two worlds.”  (p70)

Hedley Beare wrote in 2001, that “part of the school’s formal task is to provide systematic ‘teaching’ of parents so that they know how to ensure that learning-in-family, incidental learnings at home and out of school, and parent nurturing are in harmony with and reinforce the student’s formal learning programme.” (Creating the Future School p190).

When we educate parents, we move them from learner to learning partner. Silverton Primary School in Victoria is a good example of how parents have become partners in their learning journey.  In wanting to create a 21st century learning experience, the leadership team recognised the vital role that parents could and should play.  They encouraged parents to observe and discuss what happens in the learning spaces.  The school sent research literature home so that strategies were not seen as experimental but grounded in good theory and research. Parent and student voice has become a common feature of their newsletters.

Silverton is just one example – there are other examples in the book but ideally this should be happening in all schools.  How do we work together to build a language of learning that extends across home and school?  How do we utilise technology beyond communicating with parents to changing how we collaborate with them?

According to Michael Fullan the research is clear.  “Nothing motivates a child more than when learning is valued by schools and families/community working together in partnership.  These forms of involvement do not happen by accident or even by invitation.  They happen by explicit strategic intervention.

The science of learning

Fortunately we now know a lot more about how people learn from the learning sciences and while there is still more to learn and uncover, it helps us become more effective in our teaching. As a system here in Parramatta Catholic schools, the work of John Bransford and John Hattie has helped shaped our understanding of learning, teaching and most importantly, teacher learning.

The role of neuroscience in learning and teaching was the theme of this year’s ACER research conference in Melbourne.  By all accounts it was outstanding particularly John Hattie’s keynote.  There is no denying the significance of contemporary theory and research on the work we do. For too long we have accepted personal preference and experience instead of intellectual rigour. The science of learning needs to influence the practice of teaching.

For a psychometrician, Hattie’s work is easily digestible and after listening to a vodcast of his ACER keynote, I was inspired to re-read Chapters 7 and 9 in Visible Learning for Teachers.  I felt compelled to re-calibrate my educational compass.

Hattie’s makes the compelling point that we don’t go to school to learn what we know but what we don’t know. So why then are we teaching kids 60% of the things they already know?  It comes back to knowing where each student is and being able as teachers to identify where they need to be.  We’re not good at this because as Hattie says we make erroneous assumptions about students and their learning.

In fact, he believes we are novices when it comes to continually monitoring learning in progress.  This the power of feedback and it needs to be seen as a necessary disruption.  Why? Because it forces students to slow down, to process and think.  Slow thinking is stressful for students especially those who are struggling.  The message we have to impart is it is OK to stop, to think and to take risks.  Our schools are risk averse environments – we don’t often know when to hit the pause button and ask students to stop and think about what they are doing.

This is why Singapore’s approach to learning has merit. The goal when Singapore adopted a minimalist curriculum was as the then Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in The Flat World and Education to “give students themselves the room to exercise initiative and to shape their own learning.” The goal for Singaporean teachers is to get students to accept that it is OK working with unanswered questions.  It calls for a slow thinking movement in schooling.

Door to skyWhat Hattie found in his Visible Learning work was that we are stunningly good at predicting outcomes therefore students set low benchmarks. Our job according to Hattie is to ‘create schools that help kids exceed their own potential’.  We will never imbue confidence unless we make every child believe they can do better than they are already doing.  This is why feedback is so critical because it “aims to reduce the gap between where the student ‘is’ and where he or she is ‘meant to be’ – that is, between prior or current achievement and the success criteria.” (VLFT Chapter 7).

One of the most powerful statements in Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers is the notion that feedback thrives on error but

error should not be considered the privilege of lower-achieving students.  All students (as all teachers) do not always succeed first time, nor do they always know what to do next. This is not a deficit, or deficit thinking, or concentrating on the negative; rather, it is the opposite in that acknowledging errors allows for opportunities.  Error is the difference between what we know and can do, and what we aim to know and do – and this applies to all (struggling and talented: students and teachers).  Know this error is fundamental to moving towards success.  This is the purpose of feedback.

I should write this on my office window along with we go to school to learn what we don’t know.  We have underestimated the power of feedback in helping every student to identify where they go next; in moving them up the ladder of learning and success.  Our job as Hattie explains is to be able to give good feedback and to teach kids how to receive it and articulate back to teachers what and how they are learning.  This is why instructional walks are centred on the students and not the teacher.  We gauge the effectiveness of teaching through the eyes of students.  Hattie’s mantra is know thy learner….know thy impact.

As we begin to consider our system focus in 2014 and beyond, I am drawn to the point Hattie makes in Chapter 9 about losing interest in discussions about teaching.  He says it’s not because teaching isn’t important but it often ‘prevents important discussions about learning.”

I’m convinced that learning has to be the profession’s new narrative.

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