Archive for the ‘Contemporary Schooling’ Category

A seismic shift

Despite the increasing democratisation of information arising from access to the internet, the tightly-controlled mainstream media continues to fuel a narrow view of the world professing the need for education to return to the good old days.  Isn’t it bad enough that we have climate change deniers in the face of mounting scientific evidence; but to have educational change deniers, the likes of Kevin Donnelly, being given an unopposed platform is a source of frustration for educators trying to make a difference to student learning.  We are being fed a negative and polarising view of schooling which does nothing to respond to the growing evidence in support of a radical transformation in education.  If the good old days were so good, why, for the last 40 years, have we been spending more and more money on improving a failing system?

Emeritus Professor Patrick Griffin

Thankfully last night reason and rationality won out.  We had our faith restored after listening to Emeritus Professor Patrick Griffin deliver the 2015 Ann D Clark lecture. Patrick has spent four decades deeply immersed in the work of good theory, practice and evidence.  He is a leading educational thinker and believes we have a prime opportunity to do something disruptive when it comes to student assessment at a national level.

The digital reality of today’s world cannot be ignored despite many educational institutions and government resisting disruptive change.  Yet as Patrick told us last night, change must be systemic and seismic if students are to learn the skills needed to transition from factory to office to internet.  The new literates are the ones who will be able to challenge the traditional producers of information (Murdoch, Turner et al). They will have the 21st century skills (4Cs – creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinker) that are critical to respond successfully to a changing work, social and technological environment.

The tendency has been to focus exclusively on literacy and numeracy to the detriment of the other skills.  The internet has paved the way for new ways of assessing skills like collaborative problem-solving even though more work needs to be done on how we assess creativity.

Patrick has been involved in the assessment of children’s cognitive and social skills while playing online video games. He also cited changes to NAPLAN testing in 2017 with the replacement of the single test to short tests that will be able to match the ability of the student to the difficulty of the task.

The theory behind this derives from the work of Danish mathematician Georg Rasch who developed an algorithm to predict the probability of a student’s ability and success; American educational psychologist Robert Glaser who looked at the increasing stages of development and the stage in which a student stalls in their performance and Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.

As Patrick explained there are massive changes in technology available for assessing student learning and if we can link it to every child’s zone of proximal development, we have the capability at a classroom level to move every child forward every year.   We really are at a watershed moment in how we assess and teach these 21st century skills but the revolution must come from within.

Patrick encourages all educators to become the new Karl Marx of the 21st century; to become the new literates that embrace disruptive activity.  Unchaining the inherent curiosity of children through increasingly complex tasks can be done by empowering teachers with the resources and strategies to identify where students are in terms of their progressive/proximal development and working with them to move students forward.

Patrick’s work and message is more persuasive than the purveyors of an old paradigm.  It is up to the teaching profession to develop a new narrative and a new framework for interpreting growth in today’s world.  It is up to the profession to educate parents and challenge the deeply regressive narratives around schooling in a knowledge age.

Beyond the limits of our own perspective

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to present to a group of Singaporean educators via video conferencing.

A decade ago we didn’t have the capabilities to do this so easily. As part of the discussion, I mentioned that social media needed to be part of a teachers’ toolkit in today’s world. Without it, we face irrelevancy because for many of our learners, it is where they live, communicate and learn.  Understanding where they are and what they are doing with the tools helps us to deliver more personalised learning experiences; to deepen the learning.

One of the questions I was asked in the conference was ‘how can teachers make time to use the tools?’ Since we can’t add any more hours to the day we need to demonstrate to teachers how and where the tools fit within a contemporary understanding of learning and teaching.

I understand there will always be an element of fear associated with using new tools.  People burnt books in protest of the printing press.  However, we are in the business of learning and if any profession should embrace social media, I believe it is ours.

We have a growing body of research investigating the impact of social media on teacher education as more and more teachers begin using these channels to deepen their professional learning and practice.  The very nature of social media reflects the way we learn, which isn’t linear but interactive, iterative and complex.

Respected educators like Will Richardson and George Couros have been writing about the relevancy of social media in classrooms for many years. These are powerful tools for connecting educators to students but importantly for connecting educators to other educators around the globe.

My fear in a rapidly changing world is not that technology is changing so rapidly, it’s what will happen to those educators who don’t see social media as relevant to learning. As Alvin Toffler famously said the “illiterate of the 21st century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” How can we find ways of bringing colleagues not already using social media on the journey – to teach, share, demonstrate and present alternatives?

Educator and poet, Robert John Meehan wrote,”The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.”

Social media provides a powerful argument for moving beyond the limits of our own perspective.

 

The Black Box

In 2001, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam published their seminal article titled Inside the Black Box: raising standards through classroom assessment.  It focuses on formative assessment which according to the authors is at the heart of effective teaching.

The article suggests that the practice of formative assessment has not been front and centre in most classrooms. In fact the link between formative assessment and significant learning gains has been nebulous.

Black and Wiliam note there is a “tendency to emphasise quantity and presentation of work and to neglect its quality in relation to learning” in primary classrooms. There is also a tendency to over-emphasise grading at the expense of giving quality feedback to students about the task and their learning.

Integral to the success of the factory model of schooling has been this prevailing view to compare students and cohorts at the expense of using assessment as evidence of each student’s progress.  Black and Wiliam suggest one way of overcoming this is by creating cultures of success within classrooms supported by a school/system belief that every child can succeed.

Formative assessment becomes a ‘powerful weapon’ as teacher feedback is focussed on the task in the context of the learning target with the aim of continually trying to close the gap.  In this way, assessment forms the work of teachers as they adapt their practice to the needs of the learners.

Research shows that task, target and improvement are critical to improving student learning outcomes.  They must clearly articulated by the teacher and clearly understood by the learner.  Black and Wiliam state that students cannot be expected to ‘believe in the value of changes for their learning before they have experienced the benefits.’

The Grattan Institute’s recent report on Targeted Teaching makes reference to Black and Wiliam’s work and Hattie’s meta-analysis as the bedrock of targeted teaching.  The report identifies what teachers need to measure and evaluate but recognises a lack of time in classrooms and training needs to be addressed.

It is clear that assessment/evidence must be a priority within all schools and across all systems.  To do this, we must consider Grattan’s recommendations to develop a consistent approach to using evidence, a clear set of expectations and a common language so that all teachers can “support their judgments about student learning and determine their teaching decisions.”

Yong Zhao recently wrote that the quality of an education should not be evaluated on a mean set of scores or student performance in a few high-stakes tests but should always be geared toward the growth of each student.

Growing students cannot be done without knowing students.

 

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’.

 

 

Assessing intelligence(s)

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’.

 

 

 

Rethinking the beginning

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.

 

 

 

Lessons from Sesame Street

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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