Posts tagged ‘School Improvement’

No easy fixes – just good teaching

pirlsIn monitoring the commentary yesterday on the release of Australia’s latest rankings in PIRL and TIMSS exams, there was general agreement that our performance was well below par. A country like Australia cannot tolerate poor performance. We must lift our standard of learning and teaching and do so as a matter of urgency.

In noting the response, there was the usual long line of experts, policy makers, academics, teacher union and parent representatives across the various media channels all pointing the finger at the other saying teachers need to do better, spend more, get paid more, be smarter, get better training, work better with parents, and so on.

Glaringly absent in the commentary was the voice of the professional teacher.

If everyone agrees that good teaching makes the biggest difference to student learning why aren’t we looking to the profession to help drive the changes needed to ensure continuous school improvement?

We spend so much time and energy in the education sector adopting, adapting and applying – or arguing against and avoiding – yet another shortsighted, secondhand or unproven reform or initiative. As a veteran in the educational game I have lived through many of these reforms before and know they don’t work, so yesterday’s commentary about why Australia’s performance is below par and how we can ‘fix it’ made me throw my hands up in the air. When will we ever learn?

There are no easy fixes here. We have to be brutally honest if we are to substantially change our existing practices. We know they are not delivering the best for every student, so we need to stop tinkering at the edges and start transforming schooling. Old mantras need to be tested; everything must be scrutinised.

And the only way to do the work is for teachers to do the work. And if they don’ t know how – to learn the work. The simple fact is we need to get the distractors out of the way so good teachers and school leaders can get on with the job.

It would be nice if we all got paid what we thought we were worth. Additional pay might get a teacher up in the morning but it certainly won’t be the reason why they persist with a student who just doesn’t seem to be making progress. All the good teachers I know do the job because they love the job; even when it’s difficult and demanding. They persevere; they try everything in their toolbox and then some, to ensure that the kids in their class are getting it. And more than that – that they are thriving.

Think about the teachers you know that inspire you or challenge you. They aren’t doing the same thing they did last year or even last month, they change and flex to suit the needs of their students. They spend much of their time finding new and better ways to engage students; to make learning interesting, relevant and meaningful for their students. The learning experiences they create range from using pen, paper and string to fully charged, connected, digital experiences. Like the teacher from Northern Beaches Secondary College featured in last week’s Sun Herald who dug up half the school yard to create an archaeological site for her students. What motivates this breed of teacher? What makes them tick?

Often in the teaching profession we mistake complacency with collegiality. We convince ourselves it is better not to celebrate excellence or elevate a few shining examples for fear of denigrating the whole profession. This is wrong thinking.

Imagine the outcome if the medical profession didn’t push the boundaries, risk failure, dust themselves off and try again? Forget organ transplants, brain surgery or even penicillin. None of these life saving techniques or treatments would be around today if the few hadn’t persevered and looked for new and better ways of doing the work, and they wouldn’t have perfected and improved these techniques and treatments if they hadn’t shared their learning with their colleagues.

The same needs to happen in teaching. The best thing the profession can do for itself is identify innovative practice – excellent practice – and showcase it, celebrate it and share it. In essence good teachers need to teach other teachers how to do it too.

As I mentioned in a recent post, thought leader Don Tapscott says we need to share our intellectual property in order to ‘lift everyone’s boats’. This is true of the teaching profession in driving school improvement. Not one individual has all the answers. Good ideas require more than one head, great ideas even more heads. One teacher won’t improve the learning in their school in isolation… nor will two teachers. They might make a difference to the kids in their class but without the collective responsibility of all teachers in the school working together to lead the improvement agenda their influence will be limited.

I know I run the risk of alienating some of my colleagues, but that’s not my intention. After yesterday the last thing I want to do is point the finger.

What I do want to do is challenge the profession to take back the agenda; to work together with their colleagues and school leaders to drive change and improvement; to challenge the status quo; to find new ways, better ways; and to make that difference to the lives of their students. There is no other way to improve learning except through good teaching.

If we can reflect honestly on Australia’s performance, we can identify new possibilities rather than rehash old programs or experiment with new ones. We just have to focus with determination and precision and address the central issues related to the practice of good teaching.

Wisdom of the crowd

As always, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves were excellent at The Quest Conference.  They managed to engage an audience of a thousand educators on the core work of school improvement.  It’s why their work resonates with so many people around the world.

Fullan and Hargreaves continue to build on the foundations of their work – solutions are found in the practitioner (shades of Elmore) and evidence-based practice is good practice.

Hargreaves talks about the five fallacies of education reform: speed, substitution, data, prescription and competition.

Fullan reflected on the need for precision, coherence and specificity and proffered this advice:

  1. Focus on a process and provide local support (educational expenditure has quadrupled over the last decade but performance hasn’t).
  2. Identify good practice then share and apply it.
  3. Once student learning starts to improve, be prepared to change practice.
  4. Develop a collective plan for improvement and strengthen it through individual strategies.
  5. Make innovation mainstream.  Personalised learning and de-privatised teacher practice must be the norm.

It’s also worth noting Douglas Reeves‘ comments on school improvement programs. Reeves says if we ask which program works, we are doomed.

Change is driven by people and practice not programs.  If we think programs will improve student learning, we may see short term results but they can’t be sustained over a long period.  Reeves says continuing to introduce programs into schools is the antithesis of what focus is all about.

I suppose Reeves confirms what we already know  - there’s no silver bullet or easy steps to improving schooling.  Perhaps the mantra is people and practice.

Collective improvement

Stephen Heppell says that one of the most enjoyable aspects of his work is being able to see what schools and sectors  around the world are doing and then adapt some of the great ideas to the local model.

We have some exemplar systems, schools and researchers in Australia and New Zealand that are thinking critically and creatively and I have often said that the Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is an example of best practice.

One of their major initiatives has been around the regeneration of the Broadmeadows precinct.  Similar to parts of western Sydney, the Northern Metropolitan Region was characterised by low rentention, high unemployment and migrant population and a broad disengagement by teachers and students.

A lot of work has gone into re-shaping learning and re-building schools involving everyone from the regional office to parents, local council, industry and technology partners.  This is a community project, built on the premise of giving students a future by giving them a relevant education.  The NMR Regional Director, Wayne Craig admits that in turning these schools around some courageous and bold decisions had to be made such as closing two under-performing schools.

Improvement is a long hard road – you cannot succeed without addressing the fundamental beliefs and long held assumptions about learning and teaching. When there is a consensus on a curriculum for learning and teaching and the accountability is unequivocal.  Teachers take responsibility for improving student learning outcomes, principals accept the responsibility for improving school performance and systems take responsibility for ensuring all schools are meeting targets.

When you hear Wayne and principals like Don Collins from Coburg Senior HS and Glenn Proctor from Hume Central Secondary College talk, you see educators who are prepared for the hard conversations, who use data and feedback to inform their work and who have an unwavering commitment to getting the best out of their students and teachers.

Asking more simple questions

All too often, we spend too  much time swimming in our own billabong when there is a river nearby that runs into a vast ocean of diversity, capacity and inspiration.

My thanks to Frank Crawford for bringing to my attention these links from Learning and Teaching Scotland.

These examples demonstrate the power of feedback in the continual school improvement cycle.

What we often miss is the role of parent engagement and feedback.  The Scottish and UK experience provides a good blueprint for engaging parents in the learning agenda and school design process.

What makes an excellent school?

What is good learning and teaching?

Asking simple questions

On a recent visit to Sydney, I asked Frank Crawford, Chief Inspector of Education in Scotland to share his sage advice on what schools need to do to improve.

For Frank the questions we need to ask schools are simple but on the mark. Too often we frame the question – are you improving learning or have you met the benchmarks?  This leads us down the deficit model, which in schools that are struggling with the learning agenda can be disastrous.

As you’ll see below – Frank challenges schools to move from good to great by framing the right questions around data/feedback. Enquiry should be at the heart of good schooling and yet many principals and teachers still struggle with an enquiry-based approach.

Out to pasture

In 2010, we find ourselves peering over the edge of a great chasm that has to be crossed tif we are to get to a world of new potentials. We move forward with a sense of excitement and possibilities

Technology has given us a window into the future.  Just look at the hype and excitment around Apple’s release of the iPad.  Who knows what technology we will be using in five years from now?  At this point in time anything is possible and there is a sense of excitement in that.

Contrast this with current discussion and publicity of ACARA’s MySchool website and the use of a narrow data set to form judgements on school performance and student learning.  As the world continues to open up new ways of doing things, there are countervaling forces using reductionists approaches that may stifle innovation

The point we are at in education reminds me of the beginning lines in Dickens’  A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”.

We seem to be in an in between period in education. There is so much possibility yet little consensus on ways forward, there is confidence in schools as institutions yet there is a lack of trust in the teaching profession. How do we make sense of it all and determine our way forward?

I was thinking about this yesterday and realised that we are currently working in an in-between space: a place of ambiguity and opportunity – it is the convergence of the past and future. The word I coined to make sense of this space is Pasture - a blend of both the past and future.

I see pasture as a wide fertile space for learning and innovation - full of potential, optimism and opportunities, open to anyone who wants to create the future by taking the best of what we know.

In meeting the challenges of schooling today, we should never lose sight of what we are striving to do overall. A national website comparing NAPLAN results should never be the driving catalyst for improving schooling. That responsibility lies squarely in the hands of good teachers.

The ‘f’ word

Michael Fullan recently addressed 100+ of our aspiring leaders in the context of leading change and learning in their schools.

This was a marvellous experience for leading teachers to be exposed to someone of Fullan’s calibre – armed with research and case studies on what makes an effective school leader.

It is evident that one of our greatest challenges as a system is how we continue to recognise leading teachers, how we develop their leadership and more importantly connect them with similar cohorts to expand the depth of talent across the profession.

Part of the process of challenging and empowering teachers is ensuring that core messages around instructional practice, collaboration, effective use of data and feedback etc are being disseminated across all levels.  As one of the principals of Fullan’s ‘turnaround schools’ explained – you need to know the message is getting past the usual bottle-necks.  To ensure teachers are across the agenda requires constant…… ‘feedback’.

I know many leaders and educators are uncomfortable with the ‘f’ word but it is critical to how we lead and plan.  It begs the question of how we encourage principals in every school (large, small, primary, secondary) to seek honest feedback and evidence of their own school improvement strategies? Why do we too often feel uncomfortable getting and giving feedback?

For Fullan, building strong communities of practice comes from building communities of trust.  As a system, we need to continually measure the temperature of trust and progress if we are to see what is working and what needs to be done next. This is the way to overcome this “uncomfortableness.” Learning becomes the focus of the work not individual performance.

In raising the bar, we need to be rigorous in our approach to gathering feedback and presenting evidence.  It requires not only a common language of learning but as John Hattie recently said ‘a common indicator of progress that is applied across every school’.  This ‘common’ but sharply focussed lens provides schools, systems, parents, governments with an honest snapshot from which we can understand, monitor and promote good learning rather than judge school performance.

Taking this approach builds the credibility of the profession as well, and will place the profession in the centre of developing education policy – not at its margins

The ‘teacher effect’

Last Friday, the Sydney Morning Herald published the results of a University of  New England Study claiming ‘teacher effect’ only plays a minor role in student learning.

St Michaels 045In response, I refer again to John Hattie’s book Visible Learning in which he claims: ‘ what teachers do matters’.  As educators, we should no longer be satisfied with simply reaching minimum standards or getting over the line.  (Read Adele Horin’s powerful comments from 25/7/09 on teacher quality)

As Hattie says, rather than asking ‘What works?’ we should be asking ‘What works best?’

We do know there is a growing body of research showing that excellent teachers positively influence student learning outcomes.  Why?  Because expert teachers don’t simply teach: they recognise when learning isn’t happening, then employ and monitor personalised strategies that as Hattie says ‘work best’ for each learner.

My views on teacher quality in last Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald is really a call to action.  This is the time to step-up to the demands of the profession by addressing the core issues preventing us from making quantum leaps not just superficial steps.

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