Archive for the ‘Pedagogy’ Category

Innovation as the norm

I made the following observation on New Year’s Day.

I think if we are going to do better we desperately need teachers to be prepared to challenge not only what they teach but how effectively they teach.

It is easy to understand this entrenched conservatism. There is a perception of mistrust about the work of teaching and government policy reinforces this view. Policies which seek to mandate what is taught and how it is taught distract the profession from professional competency and capability.

I believe the wider community see teaching as a “soft” option profession and often resist change in teacher practice as some experimentation which has to be resisted at all costs.  Why?  Because it is not what school was “like for me”.

This may be a generalisation but there are some real truths here. How do we turn this around? How do we encourage innovative practice and build community trust in the profession and amongst policy makers?

Last week I came across an article in the Washington Post from Pasi Sahlberg author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” Although the book was published in 2011, Sahlberg’s comments make great sense to me.

Sahlberg argues that an education reform agenda cannot be solved with short term policy quick fixes. He quotes the global fascination with Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Finland as models which will provide the “silver bullet” to improve teacher learning and teaching. What these countries take out of the Finnish and other approaches however is a narrow view.  Namely that improving schools means better teachers. Therefore we need to attract the “best of the brightest”. In doing so, Sahlberg insists that this misses the point.

He notes three particular fallacies in this understanding:

  1. We continue to assume that teachers work independently from each other but in reality teaching is a team effort in the end results are most often team efforts.
  2. The focus on improving the quality of education is the teacher ignores the research that says while there are often characteristics in improving quality, the most important is effective school leadership and it matters as much as teacher quality.
  3. You can improve schooling by getting rid of poor performing teachers and employing only great ones. This is problematic for two reasons; firstly clarity around “great teaching” and secondly, it takes 5 – 10 years of systematic practice to “effective” in any reliable way.

This leads Sahlberg to the view that “we must reconsider how we think about teaching as a profession and what is the role of the school in our society.” He offers three insights which I urge you to explore in more detail:

  1. Focus more on teacher education, less on teaching and learning in schools
  2. The toxic use of accountability is in many ways inaccurate and unfair
  3. Teachers should have more autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to the best results and the authority to influence the assessment of outcome of their work. Schools must be trusted in these by areas of their profession.

In citing Sahlberg’s work here I’m not trying to simplify a complex issue. However, his observation about teacher autonomy is critical to easing the conservatism I mentioned at the start. We need teachers as collaborators who share practice, try new things, are open to evaluating their effectiveness and are committed to continually improving their practice.

Just as importantly, we need school leaders who build a culture of trust, respect and participation in the life of the whole school and are learners as much as leaders. As innovation leads to improvement, share it and shout about it – that way society will come to expect educational innovation as the norm.

The adventures of Mr Whippy

Last week, I was delighted to visit the Kindergarten learning space at St Bernadette’s Primary, Lalor Park. It is one of the joys of my work as Executive Director to see talented teachers engaged with vivacious young learners. St Bernadette’s have an excellent practice of asking all students to write to the Principal Liz Devlin regularly, and she writes back! Reading and writing are, as you would expect, highly valued and the teachers use every opportunity for the students to learn in a purposeful way. Little did I know the amount of effort and preparation that went into my visit.

Kindergarten teachers, Mabel-Lynn Buenaventura and Brooke Peterson, used my visit as a literacy activity for their students. I was ‘bowled over’ by the depth of understanding and ability for these children to imagine and write their stories. I asked the Mabel-Lynn and Brooke to reflect on their practice (the bolding is mine):

The children had been waiting all year long for ‘Mr Whippy’ aka Mr Whitby to come to visit our budding Kindergarten authors (Yes that was a lesson in itself hearing all the correct sounds in his surname and clapping out Whitby into two syllables; then making rhyming nonsense words).

Domenic wrote an imaginative illustrated story book (see video) in Term 2 titled, Mr Whippy and the Big Spider. It was a well thought out, sequential story with a good introduction, an interesting plot and a happy ending.

When he had written the story he gave it to our Principal to read and of course that’s how Greg came to visit the school, so that the children could see the main character in real life and invite him to be the ‘audience and the star’.

Greg totally engaged with the reading of the story and the class-prepared ‘Big Book’ (yes all about him and his 7,000 pairs of socks) and a ‘handwritten by every child’ description of the ‘big man’ (tall of course!).

Writing and reading in our learning space is non-negotiable and starts from day one. Creative thinking and spontaneity is encouraged from the beginning and every attempt to ‘scribble on a page’ is celebrated as writing. Imaginative play and drawing is often a catalyst to writing in the early months and every attempt is celebrated.

Before the students commence school we have a five week transition to Kindergarten program where we have ‘observed to be informed’; ‘engaged to build relationship’; and ‘played to honour being a child’. We feel we already know the learners when they begin Kindergarten. There are many individual changes and developments in the two months between transition and the start of the school year so our baseline data starts to fill out and become a little richer and juicier.

At the beginning of the school year we ‘hit the ground running’ with our new learners. We always start with the end in mind; taking each student beyond their personal best so that they surprise themselves and their families with a positive growth mindset to propel them into Year 1 as confident, spontaneous and competent readers, writers, mathematicians and thinkers (philosophers even!).

Our Kindergarten love to write to everyone and anyone. The audience and purpose is very important to a five year old and they love the ‘spotlight shining on them on their own stage’ as they reach new milestones in their own learning. Talking and listening is encouraged by all members of the class community (adults and children) and always as a pre-requisite to clear communication. Greg got a taste of our spontaneous learners with a happy dance performed by Jayden; an ‘I love you’ from numerous children; and a ‘you’re a great storyteller’ by another.

There is nothing extraordinary that sets our students apart from any other Kindergarten students; just as there is nothing that sets us apart from other Kindergarten teachers. Our secret to facilitating enthusiastic, empowered and confident five year old learners is that we simply love teaching and building positive relationships with our little learners every minute of every day.

Yes, we get very tired and our work never seems to end; and we are always looking at their most relevant and recent data to create, reinvent, innovate and modify the curriculum for each student – simply because we want every student to be successful in their learning. Success breeds success.

We are two ordinary Kindergarten teachers working with extraordinary minds; the minds of children!

There was great excitement by Greg’s visit to our school. He was the main character in Domenic’s book and was both the audience, the main protagonist and the purpose for the story. He was a real life action hero and he was at our school.

Domenic is already writing a sequel….his words not ours!

Listen to the book below:

Forest for the trees

Have we over-complicated schooling so much that we can’t see the forest for the trees?  In our attempt to make schooling relevant have we discounted something so fundamental to human nature?

Sometimes it takes someone like research professor, Dr Peter Gray to put it into perspective.  His exceptional article on children and play is a salutary lesson for us all.

Use by date for schools?

This week I’m in South Africa for the second part of the CSCLeaders conference. While en route to Johannesburg, I had time to think about whether schools have passed their use by date.  And if so, where do we go from here?  I don’t believe the answer lies in dissolving or deconstructing schools but rather morphing them into something smaller, more organic, innovative and community based.  It’s more evolution than this long awaited education revolution.

In 2008, I heard Stephen Heppell talking at the Curriculum Corporation Conference about re-designing schools.  He was in the throes of co-designing a school with students in the Cayman Islands.  Heppell spoke about the need to move away from these industrial factories of 250+ students to small communities of learning with 10 or less students.  He explained how agile learning spaces could be re-configured to meet particular learning needs but what if schools were re-configured to meet students interests?

This is the evolution of schooling.  It is the convergence of personal interests, partnerships and technology (think big data and the ability to personalise learning).  Last week Dan Pink was in Australia at the EduTech conference talking about the rise of specialist schools.  He mentioned something called Big Picture Learning or Big Picture Schools, which have sprung up across America.  Even President Obama has recently announced an initiative that challenges school districts across America to redesign high schools and ‘transform the high school experience’.  The initiative is underpinned by a strong desire to prepare students for a knowledge age and a global economy.

What is interesting about the High School Redesign initiative is a focus on personalised learning and on providing career related experiences or competencies.  This is about taking PBL out of the classroom and into the real-world.  It places greater focus on developing partnerships with community, business and industry to enable students to complete internships and/or mentorships.  This is the evolution of schooling as John Dewey saw it – schools as microcosms of society.  The US Department of Education states, ‘students learn best when they are engaged in complex projects and tasks aligned with their interests.’

This is the foundation of  schools.  As Dan Pink explained these schools configure the entire curriculum around each student’s interests. Pink gives the example of a student who say was interested in martial arts.  One component would involve an internship at a martial arts studio and then the academic component would be learning about the origins of martial arts, the Japanese language and the physics behind the martial art.

I found a podcast of Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning and collaborator Charlie Mojkowski discussing their educational philosophy.  They pose an interesting question – we have expectations of students but what are their expectations of schools?  In addressing these expectations, Washor and Mojkowski believe levels of student engagement will rise.  Rather than developing students interests, schools have traditionally developed skills and knowledge.  Is this radical change or have we must missed something really fundamental – developing a sense of who students are?

The concept of bringing students into the real-world to deepen their learning is why partnerships with business and industry will become critical in the evolution of schooling.  In this model, I envisage schools as conduit between identifying students’ interests and connecting them with their ‘adult-world’ tribes.  In this sense, nothing is fixed.  In an article on Innovation, Washor and Mojkowski reflect that they are:

‘learning what variations of our design contribute to student success and we are adjusting the design and its implementation on the fly in order to realize immediate benefits to students. Big Picture is legitimizing the creation of fundamental alternatives in teaching and learning. That the Big Picture Company, advocating a design that substantially pushes the envelope of what a high school should look like, has been invited to work in so many districts testifies to the potential for true entrepreneurial behavior.

There’s that word again – entrepreneurial.  Perhaps it’s the reason why innovation and entrepreneurial behaviour aren’t the hallmarks of our educational systems.  When we talk about student-centered learning is it in the context of a modernised industrial model or in the context of schools adapting to students?
According to Washor and Mojkowski, if you want to create disruptive innovations rather than merely sustain mediocre ones, you need to have ideas that are ‘crazy enough’ at the edge to make a difference to what happens in the middle.  There is value in looking at the Big Picture model especially in how we create valuable partnerships that bring students into the world and the world into schools.

Schools of inquiry

In March the NSW Government announced its blueprint for improving schooling.  The action plan includes raising entry requirements for teaching courses at universities and ensuring the quality of initial teacher education is regularly assessed.  This is a positive move.

Attracting the best and the brightest is something that all education systems desire. Yet attracting is one thing, retaining teachers is something else when we continue to operate as Richard Elmore says as a profession without a practice.

I believe the most important work is preparing teachers to teach in today’s world.  The demands on schools are great, the work of teaching is complex and the needs of students are diverse.  Add to this the ubiquitous nature of technology and the need for a rigorous teacher education model is apparent.

Some time ago on bluyonder, I raised the idea of an apprenticeship for teachers.  Students would be able to connect the theory in practice by continuous exposure to models of good teaching in classrooms. Observation, inquiry, reflection, analysis and collaboration become the norm.  As knowledge and skills develop, student teachers under supervision either by a teacher educator or mentor actually learn to teach.

Coincidentally the British Government is promoting ‘higher apprenticeships’ for professions such as law, accounting, engineering and possibly teacher education. British Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently said he was keen to move away from higher education providers determining how teacher education was delivered:   “The best people to teach teachers are teachers.”

The best people to teach teachers are effective teachers.

Kevin Donnelly also reflects that since “former teachers colleges closed and education become the preserve of university-based faculties of education, teacher training has become overly theoretical and divorced from classroom realities.”

Linda Darling Hammond in her excellent paper asserts that schools of education must design programs that “help prospective teachers to understand deeply a wide array of things about learning, social and cultural contexts, and teaching and be able to enact these understandings in complex classrooms serving increasingly diverse students; in addition, if prospective teachers are to succeed at this task, schools of education must design programs that transform the kinds of settings in which novices learn to teach and later become teachers. This means that the enterprise of teacher education must venture out further and further from the university and engage ever more closely with schools in a mutual transformation agenda, with all of the struggle and messiness that implies.”

I can’t help but notice how many educators refer to experts who are either providing ideas or visiting schools. Why aren’t we looking to our teacher colleagues for guidance, support and ideas?  Elmore says you do the work by doing the work not having experts do it for you.  I wonder whether this is a symptom of below par teacher training courses? Are we training teachers they way we want students to be taught as they do at Singapore’s National Institute of Education?

The Australian Institute for Teaching School Leadership (AITSL) is about to begin assessing the quality of instruction at universities to ensure that all graduating students meet common standards. AITSL chairman Tony Mackay has flagged that new national standards for accrediting teaching courses would see a “shake-out” of programs offered by higher education institutes.

If the work of teachers is to be continually re-evaluated and shaped in response to the needs of learners and a changing world, then so must teacher training courses.  It is absolutely essential that the next generation of teachers are proficient practitioners; good clinicians and diagnosticians.

We must move away from a commonly held view that anyone can teach fairly well.  Teaching is highly specialised and complex work. As Darling Hammond says teacher training programs must help teachers “develop the disposition to continue to seek answers to difficult problems of teaching and learning and the skills to learn from practice (and from their colleagues) as well as to learn for practice. These expectations for teacher knowledge mean that programs need not only to provide teachers access to more knowledge, considered more deeply, but also to help teachers learn how to continually access knowledge and inquire into their work.”

In a previous blog I reflected on leadership from the inside out.  This is another example where this maxim applies. We have never needed better teachers than we do now.

In moving towards a culture of wide-spread excellence, perhaps we need to stop referring to schools of education and start referring to them as schools of inquiry.  Afterall, isn’t this what learning and teaching is about?

Re-phrase it

One of the things that I enjoy when attending conferences is meeting like-minded and passionate teachers.

Last month I presented at the Re-think and Re-imagine Conference at Deakin University and ran into Thom Fraser.  Thom is a Year 6 teacher at Warrnambool Primary in Victoria and has developed a literacy program called Re-phrase it. The program allows students to set and track their own learning goals. Tom says it’s in response to thinking about how 21st century students learn.

I see Thom as a teacher who has not only taken up the challenge of improving the learning outcomes for all students but who is learning and sharing about his practice along the way.  He tells me that he has done several radio interviews on how the literacy program works.

What you see when Thom speaks is his passion and his energy for teaching and his commitment to challenging each student. Could Thom could be our benchmark?

Building Professional Capital

Recently, YouTube in partnership with the Khan Academy put the call out for educational content creators to train and mentor a growing online learning audience. In many parts of America, mandated participation in online courses as part of students’ K-12 schooling is on the rise. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are emerging in the higher education sector, challenging traditional approaches to tertiary education, which is evidenced by declining enrolments in some tertiary courses. Senator Stephen Conroy last week challenged Australian universities to rethink their business models to incorporate MOOCs or risk becoming irrelevant. This raises alarm bells for me about the quality of instruction and students’ engagement in learning.

If we agree that teachers make the biggest difference to student learning outcomes, we need to ensure online learning models are not harnessed in such a way as to reduce education to a self-serve product.

While the proliferation of online educational content certainly provides an opportunity to influence the delivery and engagement of contemporary learning and teaching, we cannot lose sight of the important role that teachers play in engaging students in deep learning. We know the relationship between the teacher and the student in the presence of content (Elmore, 2009) – the instructional core – is paramount to the learning and teaching process. If technology supplants teachers and students become learners in isolation, this is not only detrimental to the development of critical thinking skills, but also for their capacity for deeper learning and understanding.

Andy Hargreaves and myself at the 2012 ADC lecture.

The focus for education, then, needs to be in building teachers’ capabilities: individually and collectively. We were privileged to have Andy Hargreaves deliver Catholic Education’s annual Ann D Clark lecture recently to over 300 educators. He warned of the increasing prevalence of the ‘business capital’ approach to education i.e. short-term investment (e.g. online delivery models) for quick return, saying the education sector had become a lucrative market for investors.

‘When we begin to move the whole profession of education to serve the short-term interests of business capital, it comes at an immense price and carries dangerous assumptions about the nature of the teacher and whether or not this is even a profession,’ (Hargreaves, 2012)

In their book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) identify three components of ‘professional capital’ – human, social and decisional – which he says, when developed in concert, will build the teaching profession.

  • ‘Human capital’ refers to highly qualified teachers having the content knowledge and an understanding of child psychology, individual pre-service training and preparation, emotional intelligence and capability in relationships
  • ‘Social capital’ refers to trust, collaboration, collective responsibility, peer pressure and support, mutual assistance and networks
  • ‘Decisional capital’ (a term coined by Fullan and Hargreaves) refers to the teacher’s judgement, in case experience and lots of practice, in a teacher’s ability to reflect alone and together on their practice and to adjust their practice to improve students’ learning accordingly.

Building professional capital needs to take place throughout a teacher’s career in various ways at various stages because Hargreaves suggests it takes around eight years or 10,000 hours to develop expertise in the profession of teaching through practice and concerted effort.

Hargreaves says quality teachers need to:

  • understand that teaching is technically difficult
  • know cognitive science
  • understand a range of special education abilities
  • know about differentiated instruction
  • be able to assess in a sophisticated, diagnostic way
  • have massive emotional intelligence
  • have high levels of education and long periods of rigorous training
  • be able to use judgement, wisdom and discernment to know what’s in the spreadsheet of data to connect it to the students and to the knowledge they’re trying to acquire.

Teaching is not an individual task, but is something that is done collectively with other people as a community that takes time, investment, conditions and support. These human capabilities and the collaborative aspect of teaching (social capital) cannot be substituted with an online learning system alone.

I was pleased to read Khan Academy founder, Salman Khan, tackle the concern that the Khan Academy was a way to replace teachers:

‘Human teachers will become far more valuable in the future because [the classroom] will be a more interactive place and they are going to be doing the things computers cannot do, which is form bonds, motivate, mentor, diagnose,’ (Salman Khan, 2012).

I couldn’t agree more. There is, and always will be, a role for teachers.

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