Know your learners

Here’s a question – do you believe all students can learn?  If you said yes and you’re a teacher or leader, are there examples at your school of students who aren’t achieving gains in their learning?  How do you reconcile the two?  Here’s another question – if you were asked to list ten things that knew you about each learner in your class or school could you?  More importantly, would they know you knew these ten things about them?   If you said yes, then you are doing well at knowing your learners.  If you said no, then you would be wise to read Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan’s book “Putting the Faces on Data“.

These are the questions that Lyn Sharratt asked us to reflect on when she was here earlier this month.  This is Lyn’s second visit to Parramatta and we are grateful for her assistance in helping us put faces on our own data.  It’s a strategy that takes personalised learning to a much deeper level because it requires us to continually and collectively analyse student learning and plan the next sequence. Sounds simple but as Lyn says it is hard hard work. It requires a relentless focus on a shared goal.

As former superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction in the York Region, Canada, Lyn says that literacy became their goal and their system mantra. They asked themselves what they expected of their literacy graduates and once they determined this, they worked backwards.  Stephen Covey refers to this as beginning with the end in mind.  It required coming up with a definition that everyone could live with from K-12.  “Literacy” was defined as language and mathematically competency. They then asked what were the foundational literacy skills necessary in the 21st century?  These were the ability of graduates to think, understand, analyse and to critically reflect.

Lyn says they worked hard at embedding the definitions and professional learning so that every single teacher was working toward the same goal – literacy.  It paid off; they achieved significant gains in Year 1 reading levels.  They analysed data relentlessly and looked closely at what was working in the ‘high focus schools’.  As Lyn and Michael drilled down, they discovered these schools hadn’t taken their eyes off literacy.  In the midst of flux, they were able to stay focused.  The other schools blamed everything from a change in principal to a leaky roof on why they couldn’t maintain focus.

Lyn’s experience shows that implementation is often our Achilles’ heel. We have a tendency to move on to something new every year than stay the course.  As Lyn puts it, we need to move beyond the modelling stage to the doing otherwise nothing actually happens in schools.  This means looking at the data, knowing the learner and asking what comes next.  We want our learners to be independent but we need teachers and leaders to be interdependent when it comes to implementation.  If something is fully implemented in your school, it means that 90% of teachers, according to Lyn, are doing it as part of their practice.  The short of it is we all need to know the same things about our work. We all need to know our learners.

On the last page of Lyn’s workbook is the quote: You can’t lead where you won’t go.  Lyn has given us permission to say no to the things that won’t make a difference to students and to go where we may not have been before.

2 thoughts on “Know your learners

  1. Greg, thank you for this post. Two years ago we had a look at our structure in leadership and realised a significant component was missing in a secondary school. The factor that emerged was no one knew our students as holistic learners. Sure we could talk about them as learners in Science or Religion or Mathematics,however, who knew them on a holistic basis.
    This made me think that we needed to change our structure to reflect a position that someone knows me as a learner. A learner in a whole sense. We decided to look at our structure of the timetable, our structure of home room teachers which we renamed Learning Advisors and our method of feedback to parents around learning.
    It resulted in a number of significant decisions. Some would be familiar to many schools so I am not talking about a revolution.
    Firstly, we have allocated a period a week (1 hour) to each Learning Advisor timetable as a time to meet, interview and discuss each students Learning Portfolio. While the interview is in progress in the classroom other students are completing assessment tasks, accessing library resources or collaborating in their learning. Obviously approx 4 or 5 students are interviewed each week.
    This discussion then influences their Individual Learning Plan and Goal Setting for their learning.
    Secondly we celebrate their learning with a formal presentation during the day when students present their learning to their parents. This is usually organised for a specific time of the day, articulated by the student and the Learning Advisor guiding the discussion. As you would be aware some are more successful than others however we are ensuring students own their learning. Gone are the old 5 minute parent – teacher interviews. We need to step back and look at changing employment practises and family structures. Today evening events are very difficult for many families. Significant learning concerns in specific subjects are handled in separate interviews where all parties come together informed.
    Thirdly the Learning Advisor travels the distance of the students learning journey so a significant learning relationship is established and maintained.
    Now we have the relationship established the data we share enables specific strategies to be adopted. Most importantly we have a significant person in the lives of the students learning journey advocating their position. Often I think this has been lost.
    Finally we are only just into it over the past year and a bit so improvement is ahead of us as I envisage the introduction of blended learning to supplement their journey.

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