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.


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.  

What really matters

The Australian school year has barely begun and already attention has been diverted into debates over the national curriculum and teaching degrees.  What is interesting is that these both seem to be debates over general vs specific.

Should a national curriculum be teaching specific knowledge and should teaching degrees be generalist? Certainly the ability to communicate clearly, express ideas imaginatively and problem solve are critical skills in today’s world but that’s like saying that a surgeon only requires these skills to operate.  We know that isn’t true.

I don’t believe the issues raised by Minister Pyne and Vice Chancellor Spence are the issues that we should be debating.  Whether it’s the curriculum or a teaching degree, it has to be a both/and proposition. Education is after all, the interplay between theory and practice, reflection and action, specific and general, academic and vocational.

I believe teachers need to be generalists and specialists just as they need to have both deep pedagogical knowledge and deep content knowledge.  Learning is the ability to bring the parts together to form a coherent whole.

For me this year the real action should be around two key areas. Firstly what is a relevant curriculum for today’s learners?  The very word curriculum conjures up images of content and mastery. Perhaps we need to think more about learning frameworks which sees content as an addition to the learning process, an aid rather than an end point.

Secondly, what is the role of a teacher in today’s world? I spent sometime with teachers in one of our primary schools on their first “official” day back. It was interesting to note that they had been back at work for some time. We discussed many things but dwelt a little on the role of the teacher.

We talked about the need to let go of this model of teachers as transmitters of knowledge who have their work day and professional working life highly regimented. Can we give over more control of teachers’ professional lives to teachers. They organise their time not by bells but by collaboration so the responsibilty for learning shifts from the teacher to the student and so on.  Will this happen?  It will only when the shortsighted interventions and futile debates cease.  The task of reshaping education is the responsibility we share.

This year, our system leaders are using John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers as their professional reading.  Hattie writes: “Expert teachers and experienced teachers do not differ in the amount of knowledge that they have about curriculum matters or knowledge about teaching strategies – but expert teachers do differ in how they organise and use this content knowledge.”  

As Hattie says, what really matters is that teachers know their impact on student learning.

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.

My colleague in Melbourne, Stephen Elder wrote an excellent piece in Saturday’s Australian newspaper on the ongoing Gonski saga and the need for both sides of politics to engage in the real issue of public policy.  I hate to harp on about this but I can’t believe that politicians continue to get bogged down in debates over whether phonics should replace whole-language.  These are issues to be addressed within school communities not in Parliament.

As I’ve said many times before, the challenges facing education in Australia (ie. improving the learning outcomes for each student) need to be addressed with coherent policy not ideology or nostalgia.  Improving the quality of education by lifting the performance of teachers does not require a bi-partisan approach here.  The approach simply needs to be rigorous.

Political parties will always agree to disagree but the best public policy is based on best evidence. I’d like to see our Education Minister Christopher Pyne remain focused on what really matters:-

  1. Quality of the teacher
  2. Quality of teacher learning to improve capabilities
  3. Precision around the implementation of learning strategies
  4. Core focus on improving literacy and numeracy
  5. Improving the quality of relationships
  6. Evidence of continuous improvement

What appears to be missed in discussions around education policy is an overall commitment to best evidence.  The things that divide us should not be the things that actually improve the learning for every student.  Best evidence is the best policy here and as Sir Ken Robinson points out education doesn’t go on in legislative buildings, it happens in schools and if you remove the discretion of teachers, then the system stops working.


Funding Overhaul Distraction

The recent announcement by Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne flagging the overhaul of the school funding model is a major distraction for schools who just want to get on with the work of learning and teaching.

While we have a guarantee on the level of funding for next year, beyond that there is no certainty about how the funding ‘envelope’ will be determined or distributed.

The Gonski review wasn’t just about funding. It recommended a set of reforms, which are enshrined in the Australian Education Act. We need to know whether these reforms will be impacted by the Federal Government’s proposed changes.

While there is certainly some scope to reduce the administrative burden and the costs of implementing and reporting on the reforms, this  should not require a major upheaval to existing arrangements. The Coalition promised policy certainty prior to the election and they need to act quickly to ensure minimal disruption to the work of schools and the systems that support them.

Funding is only one part of the equation. The focus has to be on the learning and teaching.


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