Archive for the ‘Strategic Focus’ Category

Saving language

A decade ago Don Watson wrote the definitive book on management speak called ‘Weasel Words‘. It illustrates the way in which bureaucrats and politicians’ highly crafted messages obfuscate meaning and hide the truth. As Watson wrote “this dead, depleted, verbless jargon is becoming the language of daily life.”

The marketing guru Seth Godin recently asked the question on his blog ‘does vocabulary matter?’  He highlighted Randall Munroe’s concise and clear explanation of how the Saturn V rocket works using only a thousand commonly used words.

As Godin remarked:

It’s not about knowing needlessly fancy words (but it’s often hard to know if the fancy word is needless until after you learn it). Your vocabulary reflects the way you think (and vice versa). It’s tempting to read and write at the eighth-grade level, but there’s a lot more leverage when you are able to use the right word in the right moment.

Professor John Hattie once commented at a conference that ‘metacognition’ was just a fancy way of referring to thinking about learning.  He preferred to use the latter.

Education has fallen into the jargon web, which is ironic because as leaders/teachers we are entrusted to do daily what Randall Munroe has done – simplify the complex not complexify the simple.

The list is in no way exhaustive but here are some ‘weasel words’ proffered by some of my colleagues:

  • anything strategic (e.g focus, pillars, alignment, teaching)
  • building teacher capacity
  • deprivatising teacher practice
  • empowered/self-regulated learners
  • rigorous learning
  • guided thoughtfulness

Of all professions, we have a special responsibility to ensure we don’t take a reductionist approach and to consider whether some of these terms detract from describing the depth and richness of our work.  That work is to bring the world alive by bringing language alive. The goal, as Watson expresses in his book is to save language for future generations.


Collaborative competition

We live in societies where the culture of competition exists everywhere and it is no more evident than in education. Schooling has become big business and learning is competitive.  At an international level, we rank education systems and encourage them to ‘beat the best’.  At a local level, there is a growing demand for coaching and tutoring clinics.

Competition is not a 21st century skill.  Collaboration is.  So how long do we allow ourselves and others to define schooling as a ‘race to the top’; as a means of separating winners from losers; where measurable achievement is the most valid measure of a student’s work and their worth?

Black and Wiliam reflected that the practice of assessment had as its primary purpose competition rather than personal improvement.  This was highlighted recently by former federal Labor leader Mark Latham when he called the decision to replace exams with tasks at selective high school, Hurlstone Agricultural as ‘crazy and a soft-approach’.  This view still dominates public opinion and it plays a significant part in undermining confidence in teachers.  It also diminishes the value of collaboration in the process of learning.

The competitive nature of schooling only ever guarantees success for some not success for all.  Successful change today has to as Michael Fullan says come about through ‘collaborative competition’.  Notice that collaboration comes before competition.

Michael describes this as the ‘moral version’ of the Olympics where doing your best isn’t about surpassing others but spurring others to do their best. When teachers learn, students learn and when school communities learn, systems learn and so on.  It is the flywheel in motion.

Samsung has captured the spirit of collaborative competition with their latest ad campaign – We are greater than I. 



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.


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.




Lessons from Sesame Street

For those who grew up watching Sesame Street in the seventies, there is research suggesting the much-loved show led to improved early educational outcomes for children.

sesame street

A new study has found that US children who had greater access to Sesame Street when it first aired experienced positive learning outcomes throughout primary school.  Boys and black, non-Hispanic children experienced the greatest benefits.

The authors noted that “Sesame Street may be the biggest and most affordable early childhood intervention out there, with benefits that can last several years. These findings raise the exciting possibility that TV and electronic media more generally can be leveraged to address income and racial gaps in children’s school readiness.”

Created in the late 1960s, the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) was considered an experiment. However, if you watch the pitch reel for Sesame Street, you’ll see this wasn’t an experiment at all.  The show’s rationale was to take the best theory and practice in early learning and apply it to a contemporary context – TV.  Behind Ernie and Bert, Big Bird and Count Dracula was a carefully crafted learning experience designed to engage, enable and empower young learners.  It was achieved by:

  • operating from the fundamental premise that every child could learn no matter what their background
  • integrating various techniques to engage children through song, animation, conversation and puppetry
  • meeting young learners where they were (at home) by locating the show outside a house on Sesame Street
  • giving children control over their learning and TV viewing (which is why it was aired in the mid-morning when older siblings were at school)
  • creating an awareness of the child as an individual and the world around them
  • making learning fun and recognising diversity as the norm

That Sesame Street is still broadcast forty five years on is testament to its core values and principles. The context may have changed but the principles remain.  According to the study’s authors Sesame Street acted as the first Massive Open Online Course of its time, aimed at delivering free educational content to a mass audience.

Sesame Street began with the belief that every child can learn. Its success and longevity globally can be attributed to professionals working and planning together and continually evaluating the impact of their work by seeking regular feedback from children.

UK educational leader and speaker Richard Gerver (quoted in Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools) says educators today need to find the best early learning facilities and spend time learning about what they do.  Sesame Street has taught millions of children valuable lessons over the past four decades and there are valuable lessons educators can learn from Sesame Street.










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