Archive for the ‘Strategic Focus’ Category

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cult of creativity

Bill O’Chee wrote recently that the current fixation on creativity in schools is ‘anti-intellectual’.  He asserts that “while creativity is important, from sciences to the arts, what is more important is rigorous thinking.” O’Chee states that what today’s learners need from their education is to “learn how to think deeply.”

If critical thinking is the precursor to creativity, then how do we develop and assess this skill in teachers so that reading critically, analysing data and formulating ideas is intuitive?

Fareed Zakaria, author of the recently published In Defense of a Liberal Education, states that education must satisfy two important aspects: creativity and causality.  First you must be able to engage in ‘out of the box thinking’ and then have the ‘rigor and clarity’ with respect to what you are arguing about.

Zakaria makes the point that in a global age where information is retrievable in seconds, we still insist that students learn superficial facts while forgoing the deeper questions of ‘why’.  As my colleague, Dr Miranda Jefferson says, it’s about asking ‘why’ and then ‘why, really?’

In a recent blthinkerog post Yong Zhao discusses the two competing educational paradigms.  He writes that “employee-oriented education values what children should learn, while entrepreneur-oriented education values what children would learn.”

By its very nature, an entrepreneur-oriented education is classically liberal. It encourages students to follow their passions in search of deeper understanding and mastery.  To think critically is to always be asking ‘why’ and it is in this journey of student discovery that the nature of teacher’s work takes shape.

If we want schools to be places where creative modes of practice flow freely, then it requires teachers and students to be continually engaged in critical modes of thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following the journey

It is always good to listen to students and staff talk enthusiastically about their individual and collective learning. Last week I visited St Oliver’s Primary, Harris Park and saw first hand how their data walls are working and how it has helped sharpen their professional focus and thinking.

While many schools adopt a holistic approach to capturing and measuring data on student achievement, St Oliver’s has narrowed the focus to two key areas: reading and vocabulary.  Principal Anthony McElhone explained they could have just as easily measured spelling or structure but this gives them a precise focus on what they see as the critical areas for their students’ growth.

Data walls capture the process and progress of student learning and the effectiveness of teacher practice. It becomes a shared learning journey for every member of the learning community.  This was illustrated when I visited an elementary school in Canada.

Every inch of the parish hall was being used as a living data wall.  As you walk around the hall, you can follow the growth of each and every student.  The data is transparent –  teachers share accountability for student learning while students accept responsibility for their own learning path.  What is so impressive is when parents visit the school and effectively cut out the ‘middleman’ by listening to their own child explain, track and describe their learning. They know where they are at, where they need to go and how they will get there.

It is visible learning in action.

Heading in the right direction

Jane Caro wrote this week that “Chile, unlike Australia, is heading in the right direction” with its bill before parliament to ban public funding of for profit private schools along with free primary and secondary schooling.

I can understand why Chile’s President wants to adopt a new educational funding policy. Chile’s existing system was instituted under a dictatorship, hence why for profit schools are publicly funded. Australia on the other hand does not fund for profit schools.

Educational funding has to be based on equity across all school sectors not just one. In other words, needs based and sector-blind. Any argument about funding should focus on students not on sectors. If we venture down the public vs private debate as Caro has done, we divert our attention away from what really matters – improving learning for all students in all schools.

If Australia is to head in the right direction, perhaps it’s time to work collaboratively (all sectors) to use the funding to improve the quality of teaching in all schools. If Caro wants to focus on non-government funding, perhaps she can lobby the Federal Government to honour their end of the deal (last two years of Gonski funding).

 

No teacher is an island

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Better learners, better citizens

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.

 

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