Archive for the ‘Professional Learning’ Category

Pygmy in the land of giants

In 2013, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake devastated the island province of Bohol in the Philippines, killing hundreds and flattening communities. It was the worst earthquake to hit the Philippines in 23 years.

Recently, a group of our teachers and students travelled to Bohol as part of an immersion program aimed at putting the principles of Catholic social justice into action.

Our group had the opportunity to work alongside local school communities on identified projects, some of which included repairing damaged infrastructure and providing professional development for local teachers. This had been 3 years in the planning and a wonderful example of cross-cultural collaboration.

For those who don’t know me, I’m rather tall (over 2 metres) so when we arrived in the Philippines, everyone greeted me as the ‘giant’. I had my photo taken on many occasions that often felt at times like Gulliver’s Travels!

During our time in Bohol, we worked with teachers who by any standards have very little by way of resources but give so much of themselves and their time to ensure all students have access to quality schooling. Their commitment to education and belief in its transformative effects is extraordinary. Nothing is taken for granted here. There are no demands for more funding or debates over class sizes. Schooling is an investment in the individual as well as the community.

It isn’t an over-statement to say that we learned much more from them than they did from us. It brings into light just how fortunate we are here and how the opportunities we are afforded can never be taken for granted.

We often stress that education’s focus should be on the whole person: body, mind, spirit, character and imagination. This was certainly a wholistic learning experience for us and one in which I saw myself as a pygmy in the land of giants.

What’s wrong with Aussie schools?

I wonder how many times we need to hear the OECD and Grattan Institute tell us that our education system needs to be performing over and above and not under and below international benchmarks!  The link between our declining performance on PISA and teacher quality has been the subject of commentary from educational experts for more than a decade.

Speaking recently in Dubai, OECD’s education chief, Andreas Schleicher warned that without sufficient investment in the teaching profession and a fundamental rethink of the role of teachers in today’s world, we risk slipping further down the international ladder.

It’s not just the economic imperative that we won’t be globally competitive that should compel our profession to change, but the moral imperative of giving every student in every school a world-class education.

One of the problems according to Schleicher is that we continue to see teaching as number of hours spent in front of students as though it’s the only half of the whole when in fact the other critical half is professional learning and teacher collaboration.

I agree wholeheartedly with Schleicher that we must move away from seeing teachers as deliverers of a curriculum to teachers as ‘owners of professional standards.’  This view is evident in Finland where it is widely accepted that educators are ‘the ultimate authorities on education, not bureaucrats…’

The profession has been compliant for too long in the face of imposed educational reforms and mandates dictating the nature of teachers’ work.  Our education system is too valuable to be a political and ideological target for short-sighted policies.  I’m not naive enough to suggest that we are close to partisan politics in Australia but the time for a coherent pre to post schooling framework was a decade ago.

It’s striking that the OECD’s education chief has expressed concerned about the future of our education system. It is even more striking though that our politicians have failed to listen and our profession has failed to take the lead.

 

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.

 

 

Simplicity and reliability

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Beyond curriculum

I have lost count of the number of curriculum reviews I have lived through as an educator and I’m yet to be convinced that past or even current curriculum reviews actually address the real issue of how teachers’ work.  It is one thing to strip back a curriculum to allow teachers greater flexibility and freedom to go deeper into the learning but there needs to be focus on how we develop teachers’ capabilities to teach a contemporary curriculum.

My concern with the latest curriculum review is that it distracts attention from the critical issue of how teachers’ work and how we make decisions about the quality of that work to improve student learning.   I agree that we must focus on literacy and numeracy as the foundation to good learning but it is contingent on teachers who not only know how to teach the basics but also continue to builstudent teacherd on and deepen student knowledge through challenging tasks and activities.

One of the main problems with a prescribed curriculum is it focuses on delivering content. While content is important, what matters is how students understand it, construct it and apply it.  Effective learning relies on effective teaching and in Singapore for example, there is heavy investment throughout teachers’ careers on developing their pedagogical and content knowledge.

Now we’ve had the government’s review of the what (curriculum), I believe we need a teacher led symposium on the ‘how’. How do we engage all teachers in the type of inquiry and critical reflection that we expect students to engage in to become independent learners and critical thinkers?

Curriculum will always be subject to heated debate and ideological divides so the opportunity for real change lies in exploring new ways of working, new modes of teacher practice that reflects the changing nature of the world, the tools and today’s learners.  As my colleague, Br Pat Howlett, Principal of Parramatta Marist High says how can you teach in a traditional way and expect students to think critically and work collaboratively.

As Richard Elmore et al Instructional Rounds in Education notes:

….if your improvement strategy begins with a curriculum solution … then you have to invest in the new knowledge and skill required of teachers to teach that curriculum if you expect it to contribute to new student learning. A failure to address teachers’ knowledge and skill as part of a curriculum-based improvement strategy typically produces low-level teaching of high-level content.   There are only three ways to improve student learning at scale. The first is to increase the level of knowledge and skill that the teacher brings to the instructional process. The second is to increase the level and complexity of the content that students are asked to learn. And the third is to change the role of the student in the instructional process. That’s it. If you are not doing one of these three things, you are not improving instruction and learning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silverton’s silver lining

Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.

Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.

I had a chance to catch up recently with Tony Bryant, principal of Silverton Primary School in Victoria. If you’ve been reading bluyonder for a while you’ll know that I’ve visited Silverton PS over several years.  I believe Tony is one of this country’s most innovative school leaders and as he would tell you, their overnight success story has only taken twenty years of relentless focus.

The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors is that change is happening constantly.  This isn’t change for change sake but change as a result of continuous improvement, feedback and reflection.  There is an obvious passion for learning both at student and teacher level.  The teachers I spoke to tell you that it is an absolute pleasure to come to work each day; to be a part of a collaborative and committed team of professional educators.  This cannot be sustained without strong leadership. Silverton is a partnership between Tony, his staff and their students.

John Hattie talks about visible learning and teaching and that is exactly what is happening at Silverton.  Students take ownership of their learning, they set their own goals and articulate their learning so by the end of the term they can plot where they need to go next.  This does not happen without a high level of trust and respect.

Stephen Heppell always makes the point that when students are engaged in their learning we see how ambitious they can be.  What we sometimes forget is the central role, indeed the responsibility of teachers and of course leaders, to make sure that students are engaged because engagement is an imperative for academic achievement.

Despite the entrenched educational practices and mindsets of a century and more, Tony and his team have turned learning and teaching on its head.  It hasn’t been achieved with bucket loads of money but with a belief in students’ ability, a passion for learning and regular evaluation. Silverton PS isn’t the only school where this is happening and happening well but to see the theory in practice and to see students becoming their own teachers is after all this time still pretty awesome.