Archive for the ‘Leading Learning’ Category

Failure is the cancer of good learning and teaching

According to folklore, Albert Einstein failed his college entrance exam, Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity and Bill Gates dropped out of school. While it didn’t stop them achieving in their respective fields, I am left wondering why we eschew failure in education.

My younger brother told me recently that he felt like he had ‘failed’ at school – a belief he has carried for more than 30 years! The prevailing view in education that failure is a negative experience does so much damage to kids’ confidence.  Sir Ken Robinson says this is because we have created school systems were mistakes are the worst things you can make and children are afraid of failing.

Failure is the cancer of good learning and teaching. This reductionist approach defines learning as a set of numerical or letter grades that can be manipulated, often misused and generally misunderstood.  The high stakes test of the Higher School Certificate – the gold standard of learning – is even more misunderstood in its practical application. It is not a description of the achievement of a student across 13 years. Rather it is a ranking process derived by adding together internal assessments and exam marks, then running them through a ‘black box’.  The public perception is that anything above 60 is good, between 50-60 and you’re OK. Anything below 50 and you’ve failed school.

Sir Edmund Hillary

We need to be very careful about how assessment is understood and used because of the tendency to equate it with test scores. A better way to talk about student achievement is to concentrate on performance.  In sporting competitions, points are awarded for technical skill but they are also balanced against points for non-technical skills. The question is what would we include as the sum total of performance in education?

Sir Edmund Hillary’s feat on Mt Everest was shaped by learning from past failures. Reflecting on his momentous achievement, Hillary was quoted saying: “I was just an enthusiastic mountaineer of modest abilities who was willing to work quite hard and had the necessary imagination and determination.”

Every student is a potential Edmund Hillary with their own Everest to conquer. Learning must be a celebration of failure, discovery and success.

 

 

 

 

 

Technology promises

Recent declarations in the media by some high school principals that computers are a ‘distraction’ is unhelpful at best and shows personal preference as the default argument in tSt Clare's Catholic HS 227his critical issue.

Attempting to divide technology use into a convenient either/or argument and blaming the machine for poor learning outcomes ignores a simple reality – change and innovation is a fact of life and schools are not immune.

I had the opportunity last week to hear Singapore’s acting education minister speaking at a conference on technology in schooling. Ng Chee Meng believes Singapore’s future success relies on the possibilities technology can bring to learning and teaching. Instead of debating whether to ban computers in schools, Singapore has been asking broader questions about what technology means for education overall and how can teachers respond to the opportunities in classroom settings.

In 2015, the OECD released a report Students, Computers and Learning.  It stated that the real contributions ICT can make to learning and teaching haven’t been fully ‘realised and exploited’ yet but to deliver on the promise that technology holds requires all countries to design…..’ a convincing strategy to build teachers’ capacity’.  Improving the knowledge (pedagogical and pedagogical content) base of teachers as well as their understanding of learners all takes place in the context of a technologically rich world. We can’t hermetically provision teacher learning from technology, yet we can explore ways in which technology extends teacher practice by helping to develop in students the habit and power of deeper thinking and inquiry, personal autonomy and creativity.

Intel Corp says that in 2006 there were 2 billion devices globally; 15 billion in 2015 and in 2020…..200 billion connected devices!  Today’s learners already recognise the promises that technology holds – it’s up to us to deliver on the promise.

Leading by doing

Search on Twitter or in a bookstore and you’ll find a plethora of material on the leadership phenomenon.  According to a study cited in Joshua Rothman‘s piece in the New Yorker, Americans spend $14 billion per annum on leadership training seminars.  This is a growth industry on steroids and unfortunately, like regular use of steroids, most of it is deleterious.

I recently came across a tweet by the well known CEO of ‘Lead from Within’, Lolly Daskal on the seven elements of leadership. These leadership traits come from a sound base but they aren’t new. Trait theory has been around for more than a century and is at the forefront of the great man theory of leadership. It basically says that men (not usually women) are either born with the characteristics to be a leader or not.  So if you don’t have these inherent personality traits, then you can’t be a leader.

On the other side, process theory suggests that leadership is something that can be learned.  According to Rothman, the process model acknowledges that ‘being a leader’ is not someone you are, it’s something you do.

Over the past fifty years, new theories have been advanced that have given rise to a kaleidoscope of views on leadership and what makes a good leader. Authors have studied ‘charismatic’ leaders in an attempt to offer the rest of us a blueprint to effective leadership. Most material is really a variation of the same theme.

I am not so sure that you can easily deconstruct or distill leadership into its component parts, which is my issue with the “seven elements of leadership”.  Leadership is never straightforward and yet we are often presented with an idealised view of it. In his piece, Rothman refers to Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Leadership BS in which Pfeffer argues that the five universal leadership traits commonly espoused are often ignored by real-world leaders.

The argument is that there is a difference between being a leader and doing leadership. Rather than linking leadership to a set of traits, I prefer to think of leadership as the art of leading  in terms of seven norms:

  1. Being open to learning
  2. Willingness to exchange ideas
  3. Being reflective
  4. Building a shared purpose
  5. Enabling shared responsibility
  6. Being outcomes-focused
  7. Celebrating success

It is my experience it’s what people do that attracts followers and perhaps the only way to explain the outliers who have passed as great leaders in history. I recently asked our new school leaders who they admired most.  The usual suspects like Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa were named. Not one mentioned a colleague principal, teacher or staff member.

It seems to me that we interact with outstanding leaders every day but we often don’t recognise them.  These people should be our models. As Mark Twain wrote: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.”  Let’s look for the lightning rods who are doing great work in and for our schools.

 

Basic skills

West Australian Education Minister Peter Collier suggested last month that parents weren’t putting in the time with their children at home and this was being reflected on school entry testing.

According to Mr Collier, there are increasing numbers of children starting school who lack basic skills such as being able to count, paint and hold a pencil.

The implication is that increased use of technology at home is impacting not only on the development of fine motor skills but also according to a report by Dr Jennifer Buckingham, the capacity to build language through conversation with adults and other children.

It highlights a need for researchers, politicians, parents and educators to re-visit the what, why and how of schooling in today’s world. What does it mean to be school ready in today’s world?  In ten years from now, will it be necessary for young people to know how to hold a pencil?  And what will it mean to be literate in an online world?

If literacy and numeracy are foundational skills (and they are), how are these skills developed in changing home/school environments alongside increasingly adaptive learning technologies?  And at what stage in a child’s development do we begin nurturing new ways of thinking, working, using tools and social responsibility?

If parents are being urged to do more educating at home, then what is needed are clear frameworks (of 21st century skills) for parents and teachers. This needs to clearly articulate the qualities and skills required in today’s world and the ways in which these are developed and assessed in each child.

One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is the lack of communication around what their child is learning in class, how it’s being taught and why it’s necessary.

In the context of a changing world we all need to be asking important questions about basic skills.

 

Along the battle lines

The NSW Department of Education’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation published its report last year finding that Reading Recovery (used in almost a thousand of its primary schools) should be ‘restricted to the lowest performing students’.

The mere mention of Reading Recovery sparks vigorous debate in a war that has been ongoing for decades between the behaviourists (phonics) and constructivists (whole language).

It’s a highly charged topic that draws comment and divides educators, parents and the media along the phonics versus whole language battle lines.

Teaching children to read is perhaps the most fundamental task of educators. We learn to speak before we ever read and children do not come to reading naturally nor does it happen overnight.

Teaching reading is a highly developed skill and the best defence we have in the “reading wars” is to improve the practice of all teachers so that every teacher is a teacher of reading.

Intervention programs like Reading Recovery are not designed to be a substitute for good classroom practice – it is the corollary of supporting the most vulnerable readers and creating professional learning opportunities within the school.

Teaching children to read doesn’t begin at home and end when students leave primary school.  Improving literacy is a community responsibility and it needs a community response (K-12).

The best approach to learning how to read is an integrated approach to teaching.  Arguing over which method is superior doesn’t move us any closer to winning the war on literacy.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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