Archive for the ‘Teaching Profession’ Category

Silverton’s silver lining

Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.

Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.

I had a chance to catch up recently with Tony Bryant, principal of Silverton Primary School in Victoria. If you’ve been reading bluyonder for a while you’ll know that I’ve visited Silverton PS over several years.  I believe Tony is one of this country’s most innovative school leaders and as he would tell you, their overnight success story has only taken twenty years of relentless focus.

The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors is that change is happening constantly.  This isn’t change for change sake but change as a result of continuous improvement, feedback and reflection.  There is an obvious passion for learning both at student and teacher level.  The teachers I spoke to tell you that it is an absolute pleasure to come to work each day; to be a part of a collaborative and committed team of professional educators.  This cannot be sustained without strong leadership. Silverton is a partnership between Tony, his staff and their students.

John Hattie talks about visible learning and teaching and that is exactly what is happening at Silverton.  Students take ownership of their learning, they set their own goals and articulate their learning so by the end of the term they can plot where they need to go next.  This does not happen without a high level of trust and respect.

Stephen Heppell always makes the point that when students are engaged in their learning we see how ambitious they can be.  What we sometimes forget is the central role, indeed the responsibility of teachers and of course leaders, to make sure that students are engaged because engagement is an imperative for academic achievement.

Despite the entrenched educational practices and mindsets of a century and more, Tony and his team have turned learning and teaching on its head.  It hasn’t been achieved with bucket loads of money but with a belief in students’ ability, a passion for learning and regular evaluation. Silverton PS isn’t the only school where this is happening and happening well but to see the theory in practice and to see students becoming their own teachers is after all this time still pretty awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are raspberry pi(es) good for you?

I am often asked about what technologies and devices will be like in the near future. Given the innovation, the rate of change,  and the exponential power of new technologies, not to mention the cost, this question is understandable. Up unto the last two to three  years it was all about “picking the winner” in an ever increasing market of devices and operating systems. Remember the VHS versus Beta race and the cost of getting it wrong. More recently the PC versus Mac was fought out almost like a religious war each side with its own zealots eager to purchase the next big thing and thus strive for market dominance. All this at exponential cost to the market in the relentless search for the most sophisticated device.

The rise of open source and the invention of the App has certainly reshaped the technologies world. The focus has shifted from the device to the software The devices are quickly becoming agnostic as programming has become what I call  “democratised” as users develop their own Apps to make the devices do what they want them to do, not what the original programmers necessarily intended them to do. We have thus seen a shift from the device controlling the learning to the learner controlling the device,. The device is now just an idea, they invite the user to be creative, inventive, and innovative. They become a powerful personalised tool at service not in control of the user.

What we do know about the future for technology is that quantum computing with be more powerful, faster cheaper and provide more storage. Wireless will become more ubiquitous and pervasive. Devices will be smaller more embedded in and on our person and into the built environment. Skills once considered essential to living in a modern society like driving a car, organising you personal life or for employment will be replaced by new skill requirements.

I don’t know what the next must have device will be but I wish I did because the profits in getting it right are enormous. The way I like to think about this is that the future will see the emergence of a post device era. This is the age of the algorithm where the high priests will not be the privileged few who understand the sacred mysteries and mathematical intricacies but the kids who understand that programming is a core skill.

This has huge implications for schools.  What value is being placed on teaching programming?  If computer literacy was about knowing how they worked, computer programming is about doing the work.  We’re already seeing a shift especially in the UK and US to train more teachers to code software and in doing so encourage young people to develop these critical skills.  This movement has been boosted by access to cost-effective computers like Raspberry Pi, designed to encourage kids to program.

Bill Liao co-founder of CoderDojo explained coding as a language skill -”You need to be a native speaker and for that you have to start young. We start kids at seven.”  He believes coding should be a “creative experience – the best coders are like poets, able to express their thoughts thoughts powerfully.”

Is this the new literacy for schools?

 

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.  

All that glitters isn’t gold

The release of the PISA results last year confirm Shanghai’s status as the world’s top ranked education system in Maths, Science and Reading.  All credit to Shanghai and its teachers but are the results the key drivers for quality learning and teaching which China seeks to pursue?  Probably not.

Ian Johnson in the New Yorker magazine reports on the rise of concerns regarding China’s approach to education and possible alternative models of education. Johnson follows the journey of China’s first Waldorf school in Chengdu.  He writes that while Shanghai is widely praised internationally, many Chinese intellectuals see ‘education as among the biggest problems facing the country.’   There is even growing discussion on how to reform China’s public schools as more and more parents look to the West for alternative models of schooling.

Among those quoted in the article, a university student whose recently published book articulates the growing discontent: “In elementary school, they rob us of our independent values; in middle school, they take away our capacity for independent thought; and in university, they take away our dreams and idealism.”

Those who are critical of China’s current education system are concerned that the country won’t be able to compete with an innovative West. Chinese-born academic Yong Zhao admits in his book World Class Learners, “the focus on academic achievement is the continuation of a long Chinese tradition that puts book knowledge above all others.”  Education in the age of globalisation needs to deliver much more than ‘book knowledge’.

After reading the article, I’ve concluded that China is no different to any other nation which views education as an investment in its future.  As in the West, the traditional model of schooling is being challenged albeit for different reasons and although Shanghai students may be ahead of their Western counterparts in international measures, the moral is that sometimes all that glitters isn’t gold.

 

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.

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.”

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.

A united voice

As the new Federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne settles into his portfolio, I have been thinking about what changes have been made to the educational landscape over the past six years.  I don’t want to rekindle old debates because many of the Gillard-Rudd policies and initiatives have already been criticised and condemned.  It may be that in time, these will be viewed as genuine attempts to improve the education system.

One of the most important commitments made over the past six years has been toward school funding particularly those with diverse needs.  This signals a shift in policy thinking and a recognition that every school is diverse, learning needs are different and funding should be based on the level of need at each school.

We are told that our new Minister will be focused on practical policies but I wonder whether it’s now time for a collective voice that can inform policy development.  In the past broad policy discussion has often been bogged down by sectional interests but I think we need a coherent voice for the teaching profession as a whole.

feetThis is not to diminish the work of organisations such as the Australian College of Educators (ACE) and the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL) or representative groups such as primary and secondary principals associations, unions and parent councils but each comes to the table with their own agenda reflecting the concerns of its particular constituency.  In today’s world, shouldn’t there be just one agenda – improving the learning outcomes of every student by ensuring we have effective and skilled teachers in every classroom?

I would like to think that by combining these groups into one alliance or affiliation, we could finally end old debates around public vs private, left vs right, state vs commonwealth in favour of robust discussion and ideas that work towards building a highly professional education system where teacher work is respected, teacher learning is supported and student learning is at the centre of every policy. The alliance would serve in effect as a thought leader and think tank at the service of developing coherent education policy.

Let’s hope by the time the next federal election comes around, we may have a united voice for the profession and importantly, an advocate for all students.

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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