Posts tagged ‘Student Learning’

Looking back on 2011

Earlier this week I had the privilege of attending a graduation ceremony at The University of Notre Dame and witnessed 100 young student teachers graduate. Other than feeling very old, I was amazed by their enthusiasm and energy which was clearly evident in their demeanour. To see this gave me great hope in the future of the profession and it caused me to reflect on how professionally rewarding the past year has been.

I hear a lot of talk about the pace of change and how we are living in a fast paced world.  To this I say welcome to the 21st century and all the marvelous opportunities that change brings not only to how we live and work but how we learn.  In the past twelve months I have seen great innovation in the schools I have visited, and I am increasingly astounded by, much of the contemporary practices happening in schools that is based on sound education theory and practice.

I believe we are at the tipping point of wide scale change. I see teachers talking, working and sharing their practice in physical and virtual spaces. This is about leaders and teachers taking control of their learning and harnessing a range of tools. Our principals’ masterclass this year was one example of how communities are building the collective wisdom and expertise to not only improve one class or one school but entire systems. What started as a sharing opportunity for leaders has now morphed into a professional learning community.

All of this influences what happens in the learning spaces between teachers and students.  I think of the remarkable story of one of our students who was labelled as ‘special needs’ throughout most of her school life.  But through the dedication of her teachers and her school, produced the most remarkable HSC artwork, which will be featuring in the ArtExpress exhibition.

I think of my visit to a group of kindergarten students, and how I sat with them so they could teach me how to use an Ipad.  I was talking to a colleague who shared a story about how she caught a photo of her four year old daughter with two other four year friends all sitting down in a row playing quite comfortably with their dad’s smartphone. This is probably not an uncommon scene these days, and is a snapshot of how early on our children are exposed to technology.

What stands out for me is how comfortable our children are with whatever new gadget comes their way, how much they embrace it and how they are making the most of it. We simply cannot ignore the capacity of technology and if we do so, it is to our peril.

I think of all the Building the Education Revolution (BER) projects which have taken place across many schools and how the investment has provided so much value, pride, joy and gratitude for our school communities. It reminds us of how important the learning environment is and how it must always respond to the needs and interests of today’s learners and teachers not last century’s.

As this is my last blog post for the year, I would like to thank all my contributors who have written posts and made insightful and valuable comments.  Thank you for being part of the learning conversations and I look forward to many more in 2012. Crowdsourcing is the learning tool of the future.

In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Re-professionalising teaching

I had the pleasure of spending two days with Superintendent Jack Dale and his team from Fairfax County.  Jack leads the 12th largest school district in the US with over 12,000 teachers and 175,000 students.

Fairfax is also one of the highest performing districts in the US.  In the last academic year, they employed 1,200 new teachers from a field of 30,000 applicants!

After several hours of discussion on the nature of education in the US and globally, Jack kept coming back to one feature he believes is at the heart of their success. For the last two years they have been focussing on building professional learning communities within their schools, within their system and within the office that supports schools.

These teams come together around topics of interests and expertise that are aimed at improving student learning. They’ve been using the work of Richard Dufour as a guide for the work they are doing in schools.

Jack and his team believe the most effective way to improve student learning is to improve teachers’ teaching.  This requires teachers to learn about and share their practice.

Jack concedes it’s difficult but challenges are shared by education systems everywhere because the current model of schooling actively works against teachers learning and reflecting on their practice in classrooms.

He describes this challenge as ‘re-professionalising teaching’ – changing the paradigm so students are at the centre of schooling.

They are also rolling out a program where good teachers are identified and targeted to work outside the standard hours of teaching. This requires them to be available to work extended school days and during holidays for additional remuneration. These teachers are available to work with other teachers in schools to analyse and understand student data.

Part of the solution lies in the better use of technologies. Fairfax has changed the policy on banning external devices on their network and now find on any given day there are 40,000 devices accessing it.

Teachers and students bring their own devices to school and for every teacher and student in their system, the ratio of devices to people is 3:1.  There is a greater focus especially in the US on using technology to support student learning and teacher collaboration.

It’s a matter of principals

Thanks to Mark Walker for sharing a recent interview with John Hattie in the Melbourne Age.

Hattie is currently in Australia, continuing the Visible Learning crusade and making a lot of common sense.

Australian principals are mired in tasks that don’t have much influence on how their students perform academically. Thirty-two per cent of their time is spent on administrative tasks, much higher than the international mean of 22 per cent, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study. The proportion of their time spent on staff development, instructional leadership, and parent and community relations are all lower than international means.

We can’t argue with the data nor can we continue to make exceptions and excuses for practices that evidently have little impact on student learning outcomes.  Hattie is correct in saying that principals have to see themselves as the ‘chief evaluators of student and staff achievement in their schools’.

For too long, we’ve burdened principals with the task of being factory managers, not leaders of learning.  Urgency outweighed importance but the scales are beginning to tip.

It is time for reshaping  the role and reasserting the responsibilities of principals in light of the irrefutable research (Hattie, Robinson, Timperley et al). And this has to be done in collaboration with the Principals, not at arms length to them. This is how a true profession builds its practice capacity. The mark of a respected profession is the rigour it applies to how contemporary theory and practice can improve the work of the profession, and ultimately the leadership it provides for policy agendas.

Improving student learning requires a laser like focus on what matters and for principals, what matters most should be learning and teaching.

In the shoes of learners

The role of a principal is challenging, relentless and rewarding.  You have to be committed to improving the lives of young people and passionate about learning not just students but teacher learning as well as your own.

I admire principals (and their team) who go into bat every day for their students when many teachers don’t or won’t.

I had a conversation this week with a secondary principal who spoke honestly about the challenges of changing cultural beliefs and teacher practice.

What impressed me was the way in which he was addressing the issues to improve quality learning and teaching by working collaboratively with his team, being honest about the challenges, relying on data and student voice to inform strategies and accepting accountability.

What I liked most about their approach was that teachers received data/feedback without any judgment.  The onus is on each individual teacher to ask their own questions about the data/feedback and to reflect critically on their practice.  

We shouldn’t be afraid of the data/feedback because it is a useful tool for identifying where we are and where we need to be. 

One of the great insights this principal revealed was that too often we assume we understand learning from students’ perspective.  We assume they’ve understood fundamental concepts in Year 7 or that transcribing notes from the whiteboard is relevant or engaging. 

We cannot assume anything about our learners or the quality of our teaching without relying on good data and feedback, which includes student voice.

Children disengage from learning when it doesn’t, as Sir Ken Robinson says ‘feed their spirit’.   So the question we must ask ourselves is how are we feeding the imagination and spirit of learners and how do we know?

Many may not want to walk in the shoes of principals  but we should at least walk in the shoes of our learners.

Letting go of the past

The great American pedagogue, John Dewey, believed schooling could be summed up by stating that its locus was in the teacher and textbooks – everywhere except the child and their activities. Perhaps teachers have always been afraid of releasing control to the kind of learning tasks that are social, collaborative and chaotic.

So it was interesting to hear Anrig Professor Richard Elmore’s thoughts last week on what he thinks schools should be doing to allow student learning to flourish. The message remains very simple, challenge young people and don’t project your expectations on them. Is this what we mean when we say schools need to let go of the past?

Our educational canon

As our state and federal governments prepare for upcoming elections, it’s been interesting to examine their policy positions on education. 

As always, the incumbent  party’s position is rejected by the opposition with no middle ground. The rejection usually focuses on cutting (mostly) or increasing (rarely) funding for a range of programs. Never do we have a carefully crafted policy framework that reflects the best we know about good education theory and practice.

This is a poor approach to developing a sustainable and effective educational policy framework for schooling in today’s world.  Like all systems committed to improving student learning outcomes, we have built our own ” educational canon” that informs our understanding of what makes the difference to improving student learning and builds teacher capacity.

The canon becomes our touchstone for good practice and represents two decades of good educational theory and research. It continues to expand as we learn more about student learning and teacher practice.

In most cases, educational policy is not often developed from the canon but from ideological preferences and a traditional understanding of learners and the process of schooling.

Schools learn from exemplar schools; systems learn from exemplar systems because good theory is actually good practice. While implementation may vary at the local level, the fundamental elements of improving schooling should be common to all education systems.

Our canon:
Bransford et al – How People Learn
Michael Fullan – Six Secrets of Change
John Hattie – Visible Learning
Jim Collins – Good to Great
Helen Timplery et al – Teacher Professional Learning and Development
Viviane Robinson et al – School Leadership and Student Outcomes
MCEETYA’s  Learning in an Online World
NSW and ACT Bishop’s Pastoral Letter – Catholic Schools at a Crossroads

From PD to PL

Is there a fundamental difference between professional development and professional learning?  Can teachers be doing PD and teaching at the same time?

If we define professional development as a one-off activity that takes place outside of classrooms, the answer is no.

Professional development is a remnant of the 20th century when perfecting routines and tasks (productivity) were important than collaboration and innovation (creativity).

As part of the rollout of the national curriculum, the Federal Education Minister conceded the need for professional development to ensure teachers are ‘tooled up to teach the national curriculum’.

I believe that tooling teachers does not necessarily transform teachers.  Effective teachers are life-long learners.  They become as Bransford et al says adaptive experts who can give up ‘old routines and transform prior beliefs and practices.’

In moving from professional development to professional learning, teachers will inevitably take greater responsibility for their own and their students’ learning. School leaders take greater responsibilty for teacher-learning and systems provide the necessary support and conditions to enable this to happen systematically.

Evaluating performance, seeking feedback and asking questions of students and colleagues happens on the job – as part of the process of improving teaching.

Isn’t it time governments, media and teacher unions recognised the difference between professional development and professional learning?

Alchemy or science?

I am often asked why many teachers are so reluctant to share their work particularly on blogs and other social networking sites. The answer eludes me despite what we know about the influence of teacher learning on student learning.

I believe it stems from the historical and cultural context of teaching. Since the 19th century, teachers have spent most of their time working alone in classrooms; pursuing their own agendas and developing their own knowledge and skills from whatever sources were available.

We know the practice of collaboration and reflective dialogue is critical to improving the quality of learning and teaching. It is one of the necessary conditions of building leadership capacity and transforming schools.

In responding to the Edge’s World Question Centre – ‘how has the internet changed the way you think‘, Clay Shirky’ wrote this:  (thanks to John Connell for the link)

The Invisible College, the group of natural philosophers who drove the original revolution in chemistry in the mid-1600s, were strongly critical of the alchemists, their intellectual forebears, who for centuries had made only fitful progress. By contrast, the Invisible College put chemistry on a sound scientific footing in a matter of a couple of decades, one of the most important intellectual transitions in the history of science. In the 1600s, though, a chemist and an alchemist used the same tools and had access to the same background. What did the Invisible College have that the alchemists didn’t?

They had a culture of sharing. The problem with the alchemists had wasn’t that they failed to turn lead into gold; the problem was that they failed uninformatively. Alchemists were obscurantists, recording their work by hand and rarely showing it to anyone but disciples. In contrast, members of the Invisible College shared their work, describing and disputing their methods and conclusions so that they all might benefit from both successes and failures, and build on each other’s work.

The Internet’s primary effect on how we think will only reveal itself when it affects the cultural milieu of thought, not just the behavior of individual users. The members of the Invisible College did not live to see the full flowering of the scientific method, and we will not live to see what use humanity makes of a medium for sharing that is cheap, instant, and global (both in the sense of ‘comes from everyone’ and ‘goes everywhere.’) We are, however, the people who are setting the earliest patterns for this medium. Our fate won’t matter much, but the norms we set will.

Given what we have today, the Internet could easily become Invisible High School, with a modicum of educational material in an ocean of narcissism and social obsessions. We could, however, also use it as an Invisible College, the communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change, but to do this will require more than technology. It will require that we adopt norms of open sharing and participation, fit to a world where publishing has become the new literacy.

So are today’s teachers alchemists or chemists?

Teacher learning

I spoke to over 100 teachers on Friday at a Mindful Learning: Mindful Teaching meeting. ML:MT is our system’s response to the federal government’s national partnership to improve literacy and numeracy in primary schools.

I stressed two key points to the cohort:

  • Although MySchool has dominated the media in the last three weeks, it is not our primary focus and never will be.  Individually and collectively, we know much more about our schools than any website can tell us.
  • No matter what the achievement levels of our students, we can ALWAYS do better – we know what makes a difference to student learning.

I don’t believe another strategy or website will show teachers what to do and how to do it.  Improving student learning outcomes is a direct result of improving teacher practice. We build the capacity of teachers by creating regular opportunities to work and share together.

This is what happened on Friday – teachers coming together, committed to improving literacy and numeracy; using contemporary theory and resources to inform their practice.

I’ve often written that teachers need to take charge of the education agenda. Friday’s  meeting reminds us how powerful teachers learning about learning is.


twitter_bird_apr_09I’m amazed by the power of Twitter to turn one thought or comment into a million directions……

Reporting on how the Twitter phenomenon has changed the rules of engagement and social commentary, Steven Johnson writes (Time, June 2009):

We are living through the worst economic crises in generations…. and yet in the middle of this chaos…ordinary users are figuring out all the ingenious ways of putting these tools to use….here we are – millions of us – sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.

A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Perth where participants were engaged in a Twitter conversation within and outside of the conference regarding my keynote.

Last weekend, I was introduced to someone for the first time who told me they had been following me on Twitter for sometime.

How’s that for instant feedback!

As more people tap into the wisdom of the Twitter crowds, I am interested to see how it will be applied in learning spaces. Here are nine reasons why teachers should use twitter and twenty-two interesting ways to use Twitter in classrooms.

Twitter has the capacity to be a powerful tool for feedback (or Tweetback) particularly student to teacher feedback, which Hattie says is the most powerful form of feedback: teachers observing what students understand, where errors are made and when they are not engaged.


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