Archive for the ‘School Improvement’ Category

A level playing field

There are calls for fundamental changes to be made to the funding and regulation of Vocational and Educational Training (VET) in Australia.  In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, the Federal Education Minister said he wants to boost the status of VET  so ‘students don’t feel they have to go to university to have a good career.’

It reflects the need to radically rethink VET in a knowledge age and the importance of sectors working together to ensure a consistent approach and coherent framework for providing students with optimal opportunities.

It’s interesting that the new Education Minister calls VET the ‘forgotten’ education sector.  The established view is that VET is somehow less rigorous than an academic pathway to learning.  VET is a balance between the demands of work and study as well as integrating theory with practice.  Students learn the work by doing the work. VET actually provides for a level of personalised and independent learning not always evident in traditional subjects.

We have seen VET as the alternative to an academic pathway and while there are multiple pathways to learning (made more evident by technology), there is still one external credential (Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW).  This has been the gateway into university and for many, the path to a more rewarding and successful working life.

The view that university is the only option can’t be sustained in a knowledge age.  It is something the new Federal Minister wants to challenge.  It needs to be challenged at  policy level as well as at university and school sector level.

The vocational choices of students should be influenced by passion not process.  The challenge for schools is how we can, as Yong Zhao says entirely personalise not nationally or globally standardise education.  We need to level the playing field by allowing students the opportunity to draw from diverse areas of knowledge and skills.  It means allowing students to map their own curriculum based on individual interests and passions.

South Korea has effectively de-skilled a generation because of a cultural drive for students to be university educated.  While graduates compete for limited jobs, there is a growing gap for trades that have to be filled by overseas workers.

The knowledge age has created an even greater need for a level playing field in education.

Edward de Bono describes the current model of schooling like a pyramid where the bottom 80% are taught so that the top 20% can go onto university.  His view is that traditional subjects and universities may have very little to do with real life.  Interestingly, he asks why there are no exams in schools in ‘practical thinking’ and ‘value creation’?

de Bono argues that every student be taught what he calls ‘life skills’ such as critical thinking etc. The more academically inclined students take additional subjects that prepare them for university while the more practical and entrepreneurial minded students take additional subjects preparing them for work.

de Bono says this would be ‘the equivalent to teaching everyone to walk and then giving special coaching to those who showed an ability to run.  This is different from the current system of coaching everyone to run and then neglecting those who are not good at running.’ 

Not every student wants to be a runner nor should they be.  The biggest hurdle for schools and learners is the way
in which assessment is currently mandated and reported.  Meaning, we are still preparing all students to run the marathon by sitting the HSC.

As Professor Patrick Griffin from the University of Melbourne said recently, we will never get away from comparative measures (how good is my child compared to their class, state etc) but the focus has to be on where students are going (year after year) not on where they have been.

The most effective forms of assessments are those that support learning and inform teaching not control learning and narrow the curriculum.  Until we get on with the task of re-thinking assessment based on personalising the learning, we continue to neglect those who don’t want to be runners.





Improvement is no longer the challenge

I have just returned from two days at the third annual Leadership for School Improvement Colloquium.  The passion and pride for Catholic education is always evident at these gatherings; it reinforces the importance of taking time to reflect collectively on the how and the why.

I have to say however I left feeling a little flat and disappointed in the scope of thinking and models presented. There was nothing new, no stretch and certainly no innovative thinking or practice.  Unfortunately this seems to be consistent with most large education conferences.

If we look at other industry sectors we seem a much different approach. Businesses have shelved improvement because in this rapidly changing world of work, lifestyle and technology, they recognise the urgent need to transform themselves into something different.  Business communities across the globe are now responding to the challenge of the ‘Internet of Things‘.  These businesses are turning their backs on the improvement agenda because it’s no longer the challenge today.  I think this shift opens up a whole new perspective especially for education.

There is no better example of this than Apple. Up until 2001, Apple branded itself as a technology company within a manufacturing model (we see ourselves as contemporary schools operating within an industrial model). Steve Jobs and his team saw there was no future in the manufacturing space as it moved offshore.  Rather than improve an outdated model, Jobs announced that Apple was now in the lifestyle business.  This simple decision shifted the goal posts.

A Harvard Business Review article has examined how more businesses are moving away from improving old models to responding to the changing needs of consumers (and employees) within the context of a rapidly changing world.  In addition, real time data has helped to create a whole new paradigm for doing things differently, thinking creatively and responding immediately.

On the flip side, education is still wedded to the improvement model; looking for enhanced solutions to old problems. We operate on the assumption that we can control the variables, link performance to accountability measures and tighten up processes. Where are the innovative solutions?

Improvement is no longer the challenge so let’s use educational conferences and colloquiums to focus on how we change the system not how we fix it. As Sir Ken Robinson says the challenge is not to reform but to transform.




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.


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.




The facts about educational fads

I don’t believe quality instruction ever left the classroom. Successful teachers have always had a thorough understanding of how students learn and have adopted and adapted pedagogies informed by research, reflection and inquiry.

The essential principles of effective learning provide us with the foundations of appropriate pedagogies but they must be creatively applied in ways which maximise opportunities and respond to demands of today’s world.

However, if you read Kevin Donnelly’s latest opinion piece, traditional teaching is somehow making a comeback. Donnelly claims that the ‘tide has finally turned’ against educational fads such as open classrooms and discovery learning.

Donnelly doesn’t define traditional teaching so I’m assuming he is referring to the type of didactic teaching associated with a traditional model of schooling.

According to John Hattie, direct instruction (which isn’t traditional) is reflected in the way teachers work together ‘to plan and critique a series of lessons, sharing understanding of progression, articulating intentions and success criteria, and attending to the impact of student and teacher learning.’ (Visible Learning for Teachers)

While it’s true that the learning space is never a substitute for quality instruction, agile spaces provide opportunities for teachers to engage in the kind of planning and teacher learning that is most effective in improving student learning.  Many teachers I have spoken to have said the new spaces support collaboration and therefore the process of direct instruction.

Donnelly however cites results from a survey of noise levels in open classrooms in which 50-70% of children said they couldn’t hear their teacher very well.  What Donnelly failed to include in his piece, was that the survey was conducted in four schools only.

When you don’t understand the world in which today’s learners live, it is easy to disparage contemporary approaches to schooling.  In fact, most contemporary approaches are still largely influenced by traditional structures, curricula and mindsets.  We don’t have enough examples yet of great contemporary practice to point to – not because it doesn’t work but it doesn’t yet exist.

These so called educational fads are not designed to replace quality instruction – they are designed to support it.  Agile learning spaces support a range of learning activities. And isn’t discovery at the heart of learning anyway?

Replicating an industrial model of schooling has only led to the gap between schooling and learning growing wider in an online world.  We can’t hark back to the past if we want to change the future. We are challenged to think differently by virtue of the fact we live in age that now values critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.

The OECD recognises the importance of these skills not only for the success of economies but also for individuals participating in a knowledge age. It’s worth noting that PISA will test creativity from 2017.

We have always known that the most effective teaching is evidence-based.  It’s a pity Kevin Donnelly’s arguments still seem to be largely ideologically driven.







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.

Framing the right questions

In the past few weeks I’ve read at least three articles on ‘big data’. We are moving rapidly from knowledge capture to data generated insight and innovation.  I think that the questions being posed for business in the age of data can be equally applied to education.

How can we ‘create value for our students/teachers using data and analytics?  And if data is helping companies like Google and Amazon to develop new models of delivery, providing the customers with personalised and targeted information on likes and dislikes and information and opportunities which they may previously not known about, can this sort of data help education develop new models of personalised delivery?  The answer for me has to be yes, or we risk irrelevancy in the schooling space.

Schooling will benefit from looking at the innovative businesses who are capitalising on the opportunities being powered by the Internet.  Companies who are learning from and transforming what they do and how they do it through the data and tools available.  Imagine if schools had access to student data from pre-kindergarten or if primary schools shared student data with high schools? We wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel time or start from square one because a student changed schools.  Critical information would be available for teachers who could then pick up the ball so to speak and identify new learning challenges. Imaging capturing data on career progression 10 years plus from exiting school and using that data to inform planning and learning opportunities for current students.

There is a great article in this month’s Harvard Business Review about using data to drive growth.  It’s well worth a read.  The authors pose five key questions for businesses.  These are questions that deserve our immediate attention.

1. What data do we have?
2. What data can we access that we are not capturing?
3. What data could we create from our operations?
4. What helpful data could we get from others?
5. What data do others have that we could use in a joint initiative?

Good data helps us frame good questions and good questions will help us find new ways of individualising content and personalising learning.  We need to be working smarter not harder in a connected online world.  


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