Archive for the ‘Strategic Focus’ Category
Last week I had another opportunity to visit two Victorian primary schools that for me demonstrate good theory in practice. Woorana Park and Silverton Primary schools have established themselves as authentic learning communities. Over many years under good instructional leaders they have evaluated their practice, implemented rigorous feedback mechanisms, listened to student and parent voices and used the learning space and technology to support contemporary pedagogies.
As one of my readers pointed out, ‘open classrooms’ have a very low effect size according to Hattie’s meta-analysis. This is absolutely true. Just as no teacher is an island (see Hattie’s comments on direct instruction), there is no one pedagogy (or classroom design) that delivers everything. As Woorana Park and Silverton Primary have demonstrated, the use of agile learning spaces is just a fraction of the whole to improve student learning outcomes. Learning spaces support good teaching practices but they never act as a substitute for them.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Focus more on teacher education, less on teaching and learning in schools
- The toxic use of accountability is in many ways inaccurate and unfair
- 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.
Schooling will be out of business if we don’t ‘revamp’ schools. This was Michael Fullan’s reply to my question last week of whether he thought there was a growing gap between schooling and learning. Interestingly, Fullan doesn’t believe we need to start from scratch. Rather, he suggests looking at ways of extending the boundaries of schooling; making them more permeable in today’s world. Technology can be a great tool to help bridge this gap.
While Fullan admits that while technology is a ‘pull’ factor for students and one of the game changers for schooling, the vast majority of digital use in schools is superficial. What is needed is an engaging pedagogy to pull students in and equip them with 21st century skills. This contemporary framework is built on the 6Cs: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, citizenship and character. As Fullan says better learners, lead to better global citizens and the better the learning for students, the more focused the work of teachers. Schooling becomes an open-ended and collaborative experience for students as well as teachers.
The next wave in education will be combining digital and student agency to deliver improved learning outcomes. Gaining greater understanding of student learning by assessing how students like to learn, whether they feel they belong to their school community and what are their expectations. The good news is these factors are not fixed – they are able to be leveraged because student engagement and learning success is inextricably linked.
How students participate in their learning, experience it and succeed is the next chapter for many education systems. Powerful mobile connected devices will not do anything to improve student learning on their own. Schools need to design realistic learning experiences which engage and stretch students and use the devices as enablers. This involves both the teacher and the student in a complex process of learning together. This moves our understanding of learning and teaching today from a mechanistic and didactic process to an organic and transformational one. Of course, passionate and proficient teachers working together in this way show us what teaching needs to be in a knowledge age.
Earlier this week, together with our schools leaders, I spent time in a workshop led by Michael Fullan. The focus of his work was on improving student learning outcomes for all students and this involves a commitment to continuous improvement. Fullan states that improvement and innovation is not an either/or proposition. Schools need to be on the road to improvement while constantly anticipating the ‘where to next’. This is what Fullan defines as innovation.
How do schools become centres of innovation and excellence in the 21st century? I invited one of our teaching educators, Dr Miranda Jefferson to reflect on this question in a guest blog.
It takes courage to play a whole rugby league grand final with a broken cheekbone. But it takes more courage to transform schools into centres of innovation. It takes courage because it is an act that disrupts the well-established comfort zone into which much of education has nestled.
The comfort zone in education is neatly contained by compliance, standards and Naplan tests and it has unwittingly influenced teachers to think ‘within the square’. In Teacher Professional Learning in an Age of Compliance (2009) Groundwater-Smith and Mockler argue that the rise of the audit culture in education has given equal rise to a fear of risk, uncertainty and complexity to develop authentic and progressive schooling. Compliance is in tension with the capacity to be creative and innovative in our schools.
Education must foster creativity and critical thinking in order to to meet the demands of increasing globalized markets and competitiveness, the rapid pace of change through technologies, automation and connectivity and the shift to a knowledge based economy generated by creativity and innovation.
At a psychological level, creativity is essential to human development and forms a lifelong zone of proximal development contributing to the sustained development of a creative personality (Moran and John-Steiner on L.S. Vygotsky, 2003). In other words, for learning to be truly transformational, development depends on creativity and creativity depends on development.
Is education at the school, systemic and policy level really focused on creativity and innovation? Is the learning deep and transformational? If schools were centres of innovation they would be constantly transforming, critiquing and generating new ideas through collaboration with others and communicating those ideas for maximum impact. They would be acting on and creating research based on a body of evidence rather than responding to a body of opinion.
Parker J. Palmer wrote about the inner landscape of a teacher in The Courage to Teach (1998), and said, “We teach who we are”. As I work as a teaching educator in schools, I am struck by the amount of courage it takes for systemic and school leaders and teachers to take risks and re-imagine the creative possibilities of schooling.
The irony is that learning, like creativity, is to go from the ‘known to the unknown’. Yet education seems fixed by compliance to the ‘known’. Protecting comfort zones and vested interests and meeting compliance by ‘being seen to be good’ rather than ‘doing good’ is in the long run a very unsafe place to be. By not moving to the unknown there is no progress.
If schools are centres of learning, creativity and innovation there has to be courageous school leaders and empowered teachers promoting and nurturing the Four C’s – Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration – in their own work lives and work places. If we are what we teach, then future generations depend on educators who generate and communicate ideas that defy the crowd, work in creative collaborative teams in and across schools, and challenge and critique each other to think and act locally and globally.
Innovation in education can be achieved through active involvement in research. It takes vision, respect, relationships, mentoring and pedagogies that challenge, take risks and go into the unknown to make new and deeper connections. Schools as centres of learning and creativity have to be dynamic and shifting at their very core.
If schools teach for learning, creativity and innovation, they will more than meet compliance. They will exceed it. If you choose to think outside the square, you’ll know what’s in the square, who made it and why it is the way it is.
Innovation in schools is a decision. It is a courageous decision to reach beyond the status quo and come up with something new, that when combined with research and relational wisdom, will better serve our young peoples’ social and economic futures.
The challenge of re-imagining schooling is not about changing structures but mindsets. This was the theme of my keynote address at the ACE National Conference in Adelaide recently. It is time for a new professional maturity. Let me be clear that professional maturity is the courage to think differently, respond creatively and to act boldly against a dominant and outdated educational narrative.
There have been two books this year that have influenced my thinking on how we think more mindfully about learning and teaching. The first is Carol Dweck’s Mindset. The other is Ellen Langer’s ‘The Power of Mindful Learning‘. Langer is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and has devoted much of her career to the theory of mindfulness.
Like Dweck, Langer stresses that myths and mindsets about education undermine the process of learning. The desire by educators to personalise learning isn’t a new concept but Langer suggests a new approach – teaching students how to make meaning of content themselves.
Langer talks about enabling students to draw their own distinctions and to frame learning in such a way as to see more than one answer or angle. When students are able to contextualise material it allows them to ‘create working definitions that are continually revised.’ In her experiments over the years, Langer has found that when information is presented as ‘could be’ rather than ‘is’, it immediately opens up the possibility of seeing things from different perspectives or more mindfully.
Reflecting on her own teaching practice, Langer says we should see that every inadequate answer a student gives is often an adequate answer when viewed in another context. Langer writes:
If we respect students’ abilities to define their own experiences, to generate their own hypotheses, and to discover new ways of categorizing the world, we might not be so quick to evaluate the adequacy of their answers. We might, instead, begin listening to their questions. Out of the questions of students come some of the most creative ideas and discoveries. All answers come out of the question. If we pay attention to our questions, we increase the power of mindful learning.
Often when I hear educators talk about the challenges of learning and teaching, they begin with ‘The reality is…….’. As Langer shows, the reality is one perspective or one way of looking at the issue. This notion is wonderfully illustrated by Salvador Dali in his painting The Persistence of Memory which challenges our concept of time. There are as Dali depicts, multiple realities and many ways of seeing what ‘could be’ if we begin to view things differently – more mindfully.
The imperative we have to deliver a more relevant and personalised learning experience for all students demands that we think and respond differently. John Hattie encourages teachers and leaders to adopt new mind frames. He says these must ‘pervade our thinking about teaching and learning, because it is these ways of viewing our world that then lead to the optimal decisions for the particular contexts in which we work.’
Mindful learning must begin with mindful teaching. And the challenge of re-imagining schooling begins not with what is but what could be.
I had the great pleasure of launching the Delany Connective at Delany College, Granville last Wednesday. The Delany Connective is a contemporary approach to schooling aimed at fostering the deeper knowledge and skills (cognitive and non-cognitive) necessary in today’s world. Students have access to contemporary tools within a contemporary and collaborative learning environment.
Delany staff identified an urgent need to provide a relevant and quality learning experience for students entering high school. What makes this different is the partnership with Telstra and Cisco to deliver a connected learning environment. The partnership with industry extends beyond an investment in technology – it is an investment in learners and teachers.
Speaking at the launch, Brendan Riley, Group Executive of Global Enterprise and Services from Telstra said the 4cs that underpin the Delany Connective: communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration were the skills that Telstra also values. So much so that Telstra re-crafted its vision statement to a ‘brilliantly connected future for everyone.’
At the heart of the Connective is a curriculum framework called the Learning Wheel developed by our teaching educator, Dr Miranda Jefferson. The wheel describes the qualities learners need in today’s world to maximise their learning. It is expressed on the wheel as cognitive (communication, critical thinking, creativity), intra-personal (grit, curiosity, focus) and inter-personal (empathy, influence and collaboration). Students are encouraged to assess how they are progressing and then take greater ownership of their learning.
The launch was a great success but for me the real stars were the parents. Each spoke about their child becoming more confident as individuals and more engaged as learners. As one mother said, her son was now driving his own learning. When I asked these parents how they would know the initiative was working, they said their children were going to school excited and coming home happy.
Parents can be our harshest critics but these parents weren’t talking from a script, they were speaking from the heart. One of the most encouraging stories was a Year 7 student with significant learning disabilities who spent much of their primary schooling feeling isolated and disengaged. His mother told me that not only does he see himself as a valued member of the learning community but for the first time in his life, he’s proud of his achievements.
It’s important to remember this is the start of a very long journey for the Delany school community but I know with their passion and commitment we can look forward to sharing more of these stories.