Archive for the ‘School Improvement’ Category

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.  

What we can learn from PISA?

It was interesting to read the range of commentary last week around the latest PISA results. If Australian students are slipping towards a mathematical wilderness, spare a thought for Finland who was out-ranked by Estonia.  Yong Zhao‘s attempt at translating the Finnish newspapers was first-rate.

The most balanced views on PISA came from Dr Ken Boston, former director-general of NSW education and Sir Michael Barber, former advisor to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on where we should be focusing our attention and efforts.

While Australian students may have slipped behind East Asia in maths, science and reading, Dr Boston says we should forget comparing ourselves with Finland or Shanghai because they are so culturally dissimilar.  Instead, we should be comparing ourselves with ‘like’ OECD countries such as Canada, which performed significantly better than us in maths and reading.

Canadian provinces such as Ontario turned around its school system in less than a decade.  It did this by recognising that to improve learning required improving the capabilities of its teachers.  The system identified three key areas and focused on research and data to inform their decision making.  The improvement in student learning reflect this commitment to teacher quality, student equity and learning excellence.

My concern is that we are still distracted by the noise and educational policy chaos.  I’ve written previously that ideology seems to carry more weight than evidence and by the time the next PISA results are released we will still be debating funding models, a national curriculum and phonics.  So what can we learn from the successful practices of Ontario and those highly ranked nations in PISA?graph

Sir Michael Barber states the first is that talent is a myth – “Those countries that believe some are born smart or bright while others aren’t, and reinforce that through the education system, will never be among the top performers. Pacific Asia’s focus on hard work over talent is one reason they lead the way.”  The second is a focus on learning and teaching (what is actually happening in classrooms).  The third is an investment in building teacher capacity and the one that often gets overlooked – persist with the strategies that work.

These messages transcend cultures and countries – it is what distinguishes high performing systems and if we are going to address the equity gap that exists in our schools then we must be willing to listen and learn.

Those who know me well know that I am impatient at the pace of change. Too often we underrate what can be achieved in transforming school cultures but it doesn’t happen over the course of a school year just look at Ontario.  I am not raising the surrender flag here and retreating but I am realistic about what is required.  One of the biggest challenges we face is ensuring our politicians, unions, associations and teachers support the right drivers for change.

Let’s finally move from an excuse, blame and rationalisation paradigm to one defined by collaboration, coherence, evidence and trust.  It seems to me that the former saps energy, the latter energises.

Best evidence is the best policy

My colleague in Melbourne, Stephen Elder wrote an excellent piece in Saturday’s Australian newspaper on the ongoing Gonski saga and the need for both sides of politics to engage in the real issue of public policy.  I hate to harp on about this but I can’t believe that politicians continue to get bogged down in debates over whether phonics should replace whole-language.  These are issues to be addressed within school communities not in Parliament.

As I’ve said many times before, the challenges facing education in Australia (ie. improving the learning outcomes for each student) need to be addressed with coherent policy not ideology or nostalgia.  Improving the quality of education by lifting the performance of teachers does not require a bi-partisan approach here.  The approach simply needs to be rigorous.

Political parties will always agree to disagree but the best public policy is based on best evidence. I’d like to see our Education Minister Christopher Pyne remain focused on what really matters:-

  1. Quality of the teacher
  2. Quality of teacher learning to improve capabilities
  3. Precision around the implementation of learning strategies
  4. Core focus on improving literacy and numeracy
  5. Improving the quality of relationships
  6. Evidence of continuous improvement

What appears to be missed in discussions around education policy is an overall commitment to best evidence.  The things that divide us should not be the things that actually improve the learning for every student.  Best evidence is the best policy here and as Sir Ken Robinson points out education doesn’t go on in legislative buildings, it happens in schools and if you remove the discretion of teachers, then the system stops working.

 

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