The autonomy argument

It is well documented that the success of Finland’s education system has been in part due to the autonomy granted to schools. The decision to trust teachers and the communities to make their own policy decisions has lead to increases in student achievement not to mention a rewarding working life for teachers.

Autonomy needs to be understood as a dynamic interplay between internal and external accountability.  Schools set the expectations, measure the impact and make the necessary changes while systems support/resource school communities as part of collective improvement cycle.

‘Autonomy’ in terms of a policy directive at least in Australia stirs up debate at either end of the spectrum.  Can and should governments let go of education all together?  The Reform of the Federation discussion paper on school education is an opportunity for some intelligent debate over where the responsibility for improving student learning must lie.

In the paper by Fullan et al on Professional Capital as Accountabilitythe authors state that the main feature of successful schools was their ability to develop internal accountability by building capacity within the school through collaboration and critical reflection.  This was more important than ‘beefing up external accountability’.

The shift towards greater autonomy at school level is built on a ‘new accountability framework’ (Fullan et al) which relies on five elements: vision and focus, collective capacity and responsibility, leadership development, growth-oriented assessment and system coherence.

Systems improve when schools improve so the focus of systems is to cultivate improvement across all schools. Autonomy isn’t a free for all when it comes to learning.  Autonomy is linked to accountability and achievement.  The more accountability teachers accept for student learning and achievement,  the greater the commitment to building collaborative cultures of continuous improvement.

As Fullan et al suggest external accountability works in tandem with internal accountability therefore ‘policy makers will need to make a major shift from superficial structural solutions to investing in and leveraging internal accountability.’

John Hattie in a recent publication “What works best in Education: the politics of collaborative expertise,”  is even more precise when he says that we need to focus on the variability of teachers within schools not only between schools. This fine grained approach speaks powerfully for the need of each teacher to be responsible for their professional capability not the school, system or government.

The day to day work of improving learning is the accountability of schools.  The day to day work of ensuring all schools are improving is the accountability of systems.  The work of governments is to trust the profession by investing in building ‘the professional capital of all teachers and leaders’.

 

 

Sir Ken Robinson in his book Creative Schools states that our understanding of intelligence over the past hundred years (measured largely by IQ) presents “a narrow and misleading conception of how rich and diverse human intelligence really is.”

As societies and cultures develop, new theories emerge and one of the most prominent theories of intelligence is Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. However in 1985, American psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed the theory of successful intelligence.  Sternberg says he became interested in human intelligence because his teachers and his parents thought he was ‘stupid’ (thanks to an IQ test) and so he ended up believing that he was.

According to Sternberg, the theory of successful intelligence is the ability to work out what Einsteinyou want to do with your life and to succeed given the constraints of your environment.  While IQ measures a single intelligence (analytical), successful intelligence is defined as creative, practical and analytical.

Sternberg has been particularly interested in how his theory applies to teaching by questioning whether you could improve student outcomes if teachers recognise students learn in different ways.  Sternberg suggests teaching in different ways at different times so that every student’s creative, practical or analytical strengths are being developed.

For schools, we need to look to assessments that measure a broad range of skills including, as Dr Yong Zhao says, ‘non-cognitive such as motivation, persistence, confidence and personality traits’.  It re-affirms Sternberg’s message that we must teach and assess in ways that reflect how students learn best and not the other way around.

Interestingly, the OECD is recognising the importance of social and emotional skills in addition to analytic skills by beginning to develop international measures. Earlier this year, OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher commented that cognitive abilities still remained critical but ‘people with strong social and emotional foundation skills thrive better in a highly dynamic labour market and rapidly changing world’.

 

 

 

Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) CEO Geoff Masters, recently identified some of the challenges we face in closing the achievement gaps in schools. He writes:

Schools continue to be organised on traditional lines with students being assigned to year groups, and teachers delivering the curriculum specified for each year group. If teachers treat all students in the same year of school as equally ready for the same curriculum, then some lower-achieving students are likely to be left behind and some higher-achieving students are unlikely to be challenged and extended.

While every attempt to personalise learning is made, schools remain hamstrung by traditional structures. As Masters writes we ‘prejudge students’ learning needs based on their age or year group’.  We continue to process students through the factory model and it is no more obvious than in Kindergarten when students are assessed and categorised.

What if in deconstructing these traditional lines and structures of schooling, we re-conceptualise Kindergarten based on what we now know about the importance of play, the diversity of learning needs, backgrounds and interests of each child in the context of today’s world.

Teachers will often say children can’t sequence when they start school but if they can toast bread, then they can already sequence. What if the first year of ‘formal’ schooling was focussed not on what students couldn’t do but what they had already achieved?  What if we could slow Kindergarten down by extending it across two years?

This would certainly provide more opportunities to explore, play and create and for children to build their confidence as learners.  It would also give teachers more time to connect with and understand each learner, to develop trust, encourage curiosity and foster deeper relationships.

Rethinking Kindergarten is the tip of the iceberg in what needs to be a larger debate on the whole pre to post schooling experience.  As Geoff Masters says, one way we may close the achievement gap is to move away from the group-think and group-solutions that have influenced schooling for more than a century.

 

 

 

Essa Academy

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.

sesame street

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remixing schooling

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 blthinkerog 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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