Archive for the ‘Teaching Profession’ 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.





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.


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.

It doesn’t make sense

The prophetic Steve Jobs said: It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

What happens when we replace ‘smart people’ with ‘teachers’ is the recognition that we are still hiring teachers and largely telling them what to do.  Unfortunately, this is the reality of the current industrial landscape – one that has prevailed since the early 20th century.  As Richard Elmore said, maintaining a low-skill teaching profession was a way of paying teachers less and maintaining compliance.  The thing about compliance is that it kills creativity.

Over the decades, employers and unions have vigorously defended this structure even down to how many hours teachers should spend face to face. Building a highly professional workforce is as Jobs said hiring teachers to tell us how they work best.  It is about giving teachers permission to create the most optimal learning environments and opportunities for their students.  As Ken Robinson reflects in his latest book Creative Schools, it is based on the fundamental belief: ‘the value of the individual, the right to self-determination.’

We have spent much of the last century working on the assumption that external accountability will drive internal accountability.  It’s the cart pulling the horse, which has not only been counter-productive to school improvement but detrimental to improving student learning.

Giving teachers greater flexibisurprisedgirllity by allowing them to use their professional judgment day in and day out, is the first step to building a highly competent workforce.  Michael Fullan et al has shown that individual responsibility for one’s own learning and that of every student in the school leads to a shared internal accountability.  This sense of collective responsibility for improving student learning drives the work and feeds into a bigger loop of external accountability. This way, the horse pulls the cart.

If the best way to improve learning outcomes is to raise student motivation, expectations and engagement, then doesn’t it make sense to take the same approach when it comes to teachers’ work?


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.







What we value

I’ve been reflecting this week on the terrible events in Paris and of course, at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney before Christmas.  It was incredible to see footage of more than three million people of different political and religious persuasions marching in Paris in defense of the cultural values which they treasure.

By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) via Wikimedia Commons

By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) via Wikimedia Commons

All schools, and systems of schools are ultimately an expression of the values of the society in which they exist. While these values may be expressed differently, at their heart is a deep desire for freedom of thought, tolerance of ideas and respect for human dignity.

Values permeate our educational narrative – they inform learning and teaching.  We teach because we want our students to value knowledge, to cultivate independent and critical thought and to favour careful deliberation.  We want students to seek self-improvement and be responsible, compassionate global citizens.  We want students to be informed about society, committed to the common good.

It is important at this time to reflect upon how we express these values in our learning communities; how these values are imbued in the daily life of schools. I don’t believe we can assume the values in our school are understood and learned through some sort of osmosis.  We need to be be proactive, explicit and deliberate.

I suggest we could start by asking questions about how we approach the process of learning and teaching. Some simple ideas might be: are the pedagogies we are utilising engaging all learners? How do we demonstrate tolerance of ideas in our learning spaces?  How is respect shown on playgrounds?  Do all students and parents have the opportunity to express their ideas freely?  Do we rely on unchallenged assumptions or evidence when making decisions?

There are many questions which may be worth reflecting on as a whole school community and the answers we come up with could be well worth sharing.

When I was in primary school, our motto was compassion, justice and a love of learning.  It is still a powerful reminder of the role of education in democratic and civil societies.  Education is essentially humanising and may be the best defense we have against the scourge of terrorism.










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