Six years ago, Hayward School on the outskirts of Manchester in the UK was considered a failing high school. A new principal arrived with a new vision, new leadership team and an expectation that every child can learn and succeed. It was turned into an Academy, renamed Essa and today it is lauded as a school with a 90 percent pass rate.
Last week, one of its directors, Abdul Chohan was in Parramatta to share Essa’s learnings. Reflecting on Essa’s learning journey, Chohan said that changing beliefs led to changing behaviours. Starting with a clear vision, they began encouraging and resourcing teachers who were willing to try new approaches. These teachers were asked to find another teacher in the school who could try out the idea and if it worked, they brought it forward to the wider community. This approach to building critical mass had the advantage of teachers leading the change and the professional learning.
Not surprising, the Academy operates within an anywhere, anytime, anything learning environment. However, Chohan is quick to point out that Essa has no technology plan only a learning plan. The talk is always on the pedagogy and the tools are in place to enable and deepen the learning. One of the big lessons for Essa was the move away from learning management systems (LMS) and virtual learning environments (VLE) to an iOS platform. Simplicity and reliability are the criteria because it allows teachers to maintain a relentless focus on the learning not the tools.
All students have an iPad and the Academy uses iTunes U (the largest repository for educational material in the world) for teaching and Showbie (app for assessment and feedback) for learning. Using the Open University model as a framework for delivering engaging content, the Academy’s teachers work together to plan, develop and assess coursework. Chohan mentioned that they now have students demonstrating their learning by creating course content for iTunes U!
Sharing learning is deeply embedded in the vision of Essa Academy: All Will Succeed. The Academy’s vision underpins everything they do and is inclusive of everyone. It is a great example of one school sharing its experiences and learning so that other schools and students can also succeed.
For those who grew up watching Sesame Street in the seventies, there is research suggesting the much-loved show led to improved early educational outcomes for children.
A new study has found that US children who had greater access to Sesame Street when it first aired experienced positive learning outcomes throughout primary school. Boys and black, non-Hispanic children experienced the greatest benefits.
The authors noted that “Sesame Street may be the biggest and most affordable early childhood intervention out there, with benefits that can last several years. These findings raise the exciting possibility that TV and electronic media more generally can be leveraged to address income and racial gaps in children’s school readiness.”
Created in the late 1960s, the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) was considered an experiment. However, if you watch the pitch reel for Sesame Street, you’ll see this wasn’t an experiment at all. The show’s rationale was to take the best theory and practice in early learning and apply it to a contemporary context – TV. Behind Ernie and Bert, Big Bird and Count Dracula was a carefully crafted learning experience designed to engage, enable and empower young learners. It was achieved by:
- operating from the fundamental premise that every child could learn no matter what their background
- integrating various techniques to engage children through song, animation, conversation and puppetry
- meeting young learners where they were (at home) by locating the show outside a house on Sesame Street
- giving children control over their learning and TV viewing (which is why it was aired in the mid-morning when older siblings were at school)
- creating an awareness of the child as an individual and the world around them
- making learning fun and recognising diversity as the norm
That Sesame Street is still broadcast forty five years on is testament to its core values and principles. The context may have changed but the principles remain. According to the study’s authors Sesame Street acted as the first Massive Open Online Course of its time, aimed at delivering free educational content to a mass audience.
Sesame Street began with the belief that every child can learn. Its success and longevity globally can be attributed to professionals working and planning together and continually evaluating the impact of their work by seeking regular feedback from children.
UK educational leader and speaker Richard Gerver (quoted in Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools) says educators today need to find the best early learning facilities and spend time learning about what they do. Sesame Street has taught millions of children valuable lessons over the past four decades and there are valuable lessons educators can learn from Sesame Street.
If you’ve been watching the series Redesign My Brain with Todd Sampson, you’ll be familiar with the work of neuroscientist Dr Michael Merzenich. Dr Merzenich is a world authority on brain plasticity – the idea that the brain can continually re-wire itself. Hence, the term ‘soft-wired’.
Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education also believes that understanding how minds work and how people learn is critical to the current discussions on innovation and education. Re-wiring or as Sam posits ‘remixing’ education is the ability to take what already exists and create something new and relevant for learners. He uses the example of hip-hop because it illustrates how young people re-mixed creative elements to create a dominant music culture in the US. Sam argues that innovative education is the remixing of ideas, practices and data points collected by teachers to create a personalised and relevant learning experience for students.
Since his appearance at PBL World Australia in 2013, Sam has been working with Students Design for Education (SD4E) which is leading a group of Rhode Island students through the design process to create a new ‘student-centred’ school. According to Sam, human-centred design or design thinking is the next wave in education because it aims at empowering students and teachers to drive change from within by becoming ‘designers’ of the learning space and learning experience.
Sam was in Sydney recently to work with students and teachers at Parramatta Marist High and to talk about the student-designed school project. He said that design thinking demands the same skills as project based learning (PBL): think critically, work collaboratively and communicate creatively. Sam was impressed with how quickly younger students (Years 7 and 8) at Parramatta Marist adapted to new learning experiences as a result of the skills they’ve acquired through their PBL work.
Reflecting on the critical skills and qualities needed by teachers in today’s world, Sam believes resourcefulness is important along with compassionate listening, thorough planning and adaptability. These are the cornerstones of design thinking – an organic process requiring empathy, insight, flexibility and experiment. Teaching is essentially human-centred design work – creating something for students and with them.
Remixing schooling is about continually re-designing learning and teaching. That’s what distinguishes a soft-wired experience of schooling from a hard-wired one.
Bill O’Chee wrote recently that the current fixation on creativity in schools is ‘anti-intellectual’. He asserts that “while creativity is important, from sciences to the arts, what is more important is rigorous thinking.” O’Chee states that what today’s learners need from their education is to “learn how to think deeply.”
If critical thinking is the precursor to creativity, then how do we develop and assess this skill in teachers so that reading critically, analysing data and formulating ideas is intuitive?
Fareed Zakaria, author of the recently published In Defense of a Liberal Education, states that education must satisfy two important aspects: creativity and causality. First you must be able to engage in ‘out of the box thinking’ and then have the ‘rigor and clarity’ with respect to what you are arguing about.
Zakaria makes the point that in a global age where information is retrievable in seconds, we still insist that students learn superficial facts while forgoing the deeper questions of ‘why’. As my colleague, Dr Miranda Jefferson says, it’s about asking ‘why’ and then ‘why, really?’
In a recent blog post Yong Zhao discusses the two competing educational paradigms. He writes that “employee-oriented education values what children should learn, while entrepreneur-oriented education values what children would learn.”
By its very nature, an entrepreneur-oriented education is classically liberal. It encourages students to follow their passions in search of deeper understanding and mastery. To think critically is to always be asking ‘why’ and it is in this journey of student discovery that the nature of teacher’s work takes shape.
If we want schools to be places where creative modes of practice flow freely, then it requires teachers and students to be continually engaged in critical modes of thinking.
As educators know, extraordinary opportunities for learning come from those often unpredictable and unscripted teachable moments. Those moments that are not ‘text-book’ and yet provide students with valuable occasions for critical thinking, reflection and deeper learning.
On Friday, our government missed a teachable moment when the Prime Minister rejected appeals for the resettlement of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea in South East Asia.
The aim of government policy is ultimately designed to improve the lives of citizens whether it be access to universal healthcare or quality education. Our politicians are elected community leaders. They are also teachers – reflecting our values, sense of identity and hopes for the future.
This generation of Australian students will be key to solving future challenges including how we aid and assist those fleeing war and persecution.
I’m not sure what values were imparted or what lessons our students learned from Friday’s response but I am reminded of the second stanza of our National Anthem:
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.
With refugee week coming up in June, perhaps the word for our politicians here is – courage.
There are government and Catholic schools across western Sydney who have welcomed children from around the world (many from war-torn nations) into its classrooms and communities. These students are all contributing to a more inclusive and diverse society.
These students have stories of courage to share – and something to teach our politicians.
It is always good to listen to students and staff talk enthusiastically about their individual and collective learning. Last week I visited St Oliver’s Primary, Harris Park and saw first hand how their data walls are working and how it has helped sharpen their professional focus and thinking.
While many schools adopt a holistic approach to capturing and measuring data on student achievement, St Oliver’s has narrowed the focus to two key areas: reading and vocabulary. Principal Anthony McElhone explained they could have just as easily measured spelling or structure but this gives them a precise focus on what they see as the critical areas for their students’ growth.
Data walls capture the process and progress of student learning and the effectiveness of teacher practice. It becomes a shared learning journey for every member of the learning community. This was illustrated when I visited an elementary school in Canada.
Every inch of the parish hall was being used as a living data wall. As you walk around the hall, you can follow the growth of each and every student. The data is transparent – teachers share accountability for student learning while students accept responsibility for their own learning path. What is so impressive is when parents visit the school and effectively cut out the ‘middleman’ by listening to their own child explain, track and describe their learning. They know where they are at, where they need to go and how they will get there.
It is visible learning in action.
The prophetic Steve Jobs said: It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.
What happens when we replace ‘smart people’ with ‘teachers’ is the recognition that we are still hiring teachers and largely telling them what to do. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the current industrial landscape – one that has prevailed since the early 20th century. As Richard Elmore said, maintaining a low-skill teaching profession was a way of paying teachers less and maintaining compliance. The thing about compliance is that it kills creativity.
Over the decades, employers and unions have vigorously defended this structure even down to how many hours teachers should spend face to face. Building a highly professional workforce is as Jobs said hiring teachers to tell us how they work best. It is about giving teachers permission to create the most optimal learning environments and opportunities for their students. As Ken Robinson reflects in his latest book Creative Schools, it is based on the fundamental belief: ‘the value of the individual, the right to self-determination.’
We have spent much of the last century working on the assumption that external accountability will drive internal accountability. It’s the cart pulling the horse, which has not only been counter-productive to school improvement but detrimental to improving student learning.
Giving teachers greater flexibility by allowing them to use their professional judgment day in and day out, is the first step to building a highly competent workforce. Michael Fullan et al has shown that individual responsibility for one’s own learning and that of every student in the school leads to a shared internal accountability. This sense of collective responsibility for improving student learning drives the work and feeds into a bigger loop of external accountability. This way, the horse pulls the cart.
If the best way to improve learning outcomes is to raise student motivation, expectations and engagement, then doesn’t it make sense to take the same approach when it comes to teachers’ work?