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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tip of the iceberg

If you ask the general population about their perception of teaching, I am sure the response would be 9-3pm working day, lots of holidays. Teaching is a profession that is still defined by its (industrial) conditions.

The scope of teachers work remains categorised by a school week, a school term or a school year. The roots of the industrial model of schooling extend well into the 21st century. How many people including teachers themselves believe this is the totality of teachers’ work? Think about how we define teachers work today: number of students in a class, number of hours they can expect to be face-to-face, hours on playground duty etc. School days are divided into periods separated by a bell and controlled by timetables. School years are divided into four terms punctuated by breaks.

This has inevitably influenced how teachers’ work is perceived and even defined by the profession itself. However we know the work of teachers is complex and deeper than is recognised.

Christopher Bantick wrote recently that teaching has ‘become a milch cow for commentators and critics who have either never spent time in a school or whose experience of schools is outdated and ossified. Everyone has a view, but few have actual present classroom experience.” Bantick argues for increasing ATAR scores for teacher training arguing that you “can’t make a teacher out of someone who is not academically excellent.”

Teaching must attract the best of the best. In Finland for example, teaching attracts higher results than medicine or engineering. For me the issue is not simply one of academic rigour, it’s also a question of fit for purpose. You can’t become a great teacher unless you have a passion to teach. Teaching is highly relational and as Educational Leadership Professor Richard Elmore states if you can’t see the relationship between teacher, student in the presence of content in a classroom (instructional core), then it isn’t there.

Two of my colleagues from Parramatta Marist High recently returned from Finland where they participated in the Global Education Community conference. Kurt and Gavin identified three key lessons from their Finnish Education experience:

  1. There is a huge investment in developing high quality teachers. Bantick is right in that you need to start from a high base but teachers are like raw diamonds, the finer the crafting the better outcome. High quality teachers need continual polishing and re-polishing.
  2. Decision making and assessment is locally driven. This acknowledges the professionalism of teachers to make critical judgments on the ‘length, breadth and depth of the curriculum’ to meet the changing needs of students.
  3. Teacher autonomy leads to greater trust. It is a given that teachers know how to teach, know what is required and are able to focus their efforts and attention on improving student learning. Nothing more and nothing less.

IcebergI asked them to reflect on what it means locally. In their view, teacher professionalism in Australia needs to meet “the needs of the 21st century especially in terms of graduates coming from university.” Teaching needs to be seen as a profession not a job so that teachers themselves are responsible for making the best decisions for learning and teaching.

As Finland has demonstrated, minimum academic standards for teaching are just the tip of the iceberg. Only when we invert the iceberg will we begin to see not only the depth and breadth of teachers’ work in today’s world but it’s direct impact and influence on student learning.

Rebooting innovation

walkman 79In 1979, Sony produced the first portable cassette device – the Walkman.  It was a game changer for consumers and the music industry. Sony ended up selling 200 million devices worldwide.  Long before Apple or even Google established themselves as innovators, there was Japan.

The BBC recently had an interesting article on how Japan is trying to ‘reboot innovation’.  In an effort to encourage innovation, a hub called a high-tech ‘makerspace’ has been set up in Tokyo open to anyone who wants to turn an idea into a product.

The 20th model of schooling is like the Walkman – a product of the times but it’s been superseded by mobile devices, which can do more than just play music.  Innovative is not imitation; we need to realise (like Japan) that we cannot make a better version of the current model.  We need something never seen before – the school equivalent of Japan’s high tech makerspaces?

It certainly makes Yong Zhao’s argument for an entrepreneurial model of schooling even stronger. A model that cultivates student creativity and collaboration but where the focus of learning is on the ‘product not the project’.  Perhaps this is where project based learning is headed in the future.

Until then, we should ponder the comments of a former Panasonic employee and now founder of a start-up company who said any organisation is capable of producing something innovative but it is up to management as to whether they allow the ideas to be developed.

The question for school and system leaders is whether we are champions of imitation or innovation?

 

 

 

The speed of things

According to Yong Zhao one of the biggest flaws of PISA is that it “directs the world’s attention to the past instead of pointing to the future.”  Yet education systems and policy makers rely on international assessments such as PISA to gauge student performance in maths, science and reading.

In World Class Learners, Zhao admits that based on data comparisons, countries performing extremely well on international tests such as China and Taiwan tend to score lower in perceived entrepreneurial capabilities.  The good news is that Australia scores relatively high when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Harvard Business Review had an interesting article last week on the fastest moving digital economies.  The authors developed an index to gauge how countries compare in terms of their readiness for the digital economy.  Looking at performance over five years (2008-2013), they assigned 50 countries into four trajectories: Stand Out, Stall Out, Break Out and Watch Out.

Australia currently sits in the ‘Stall Out’ quadrant – having achieved a high level of evolution but losing momentum and at risk of falling behind. Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Estonia, the US and New Zealand are among the countries in the Stand Out quadrant.  These are countries who continue to invest in world-class digital infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurship and have governments which support and encourage growth of the digital ecosystem.

The authors’ advice for countries like ours is to invest in innovation, look globally for new markets and find ways of attracting ‘talented young immigrants’ to revive innovation quickly.

If as Zhao says schools must transform into global enterprises capable of educating globally competent entrepreneurs, then we need new measures that look forward – beyond traditional boundaries.

I wonder whether we need to be looking at schooling in the same way countries assess readiness for the digital economy?  Do we need a Digital Education Index based on key drivers?  For example, when schools deliver a curriculum (especially electives) are they aligning them with “Stand-Out” or the delivery of traditional subjects aligned with “Stall Out”?

Digital is no longer about hardware or software.  It isn’t about the number of computers or iPads in classrooms.  When we talk about digital education it encompasses the mindsets, policies, users, trends and infrastructure that support this dynamic and ever-evolving ecosystem.  An ecosystem that our learners are a part of and will inevitably shape based on their needs and ever-changing expectations.

The authors of the HBR article predict that the “next billion consumers to come online will be making their digital decisions on a mobile device – very different from the practices of the first billion.”

How will schooling be different from last year or even last week so we don’t end up in “Stall Out”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The words ‘evidence-based’ are at the centre of the ongoing push to improve student learning and school improvement. This is a welcome focus and helps put the evaluation of both the learning and teaching in the centre of the work schools and systems do. We need to consider what this evidence base is and the robustness of the evidence.

Over January, I was watching the Australian Open Tennis. Several of the top players have new technology embedded in their racquets. A computer, in the handle of the racquet, captures the entire match in real time, every shot, speed, angle of returns, response times and so on. At the end of each match the player and his or her team sit down and analyse the data in order to improve the player’s performance. You can only imagine the size of the data and the power it brings to the process. Using big data is not new. What is new, however, are the ways we can collect and aggregate the data in real time.

My daughter gave me a Fitbit for Christmas. From what I gather I wasn’t alone in receiving this gift. Everywhere I go I see people with Fitbit bracelets collecting all sorts of data about the wearer’s physical activity during the day and sleep patterns at night. This capability is very quickly revolutionising the medical field, the health and fitness business and our lifestyles.

The collection of personal data  is not confined to physical data: the New Yorker article ‘We Know How You Feel’ explores how computers are now able to accurately read our emotions. Many companies are now starting to use this information to target advertising based on our emotional reactions and will likely see the advent of the “emotion economy”. Think about the applications of ‘emotional data’ for marketers, business, health providers, even the educational sector.

We are at a point where data and technologies are stretching our thinking on both the nature and use of evidence. What really surprises me is how much incidental discussion and reflection takes place amongst those who use the technology. The ideas and suggestions from other on how the user might use the data and even improve their stats widens the knowledge pool.

By comparison to the above the evidence base for learning and teaching is very thin. Most of the evidence is test based, after the fact analysis. High stakes testing distorts the improvement picture because much of the data is open to misuse and misunderstanding. Assessment tasks are generally used to make judgements about student performance and ignore the critical role of the teacher. Paper-based tests are still the lifeblood of the student assessment process. They are often removed from the actual teaching-learning process which it seeks to evaluate. Even at formal parent-teacher feedback sessions the data sets are limited, and a one-way process from teacher to student.

We need to identify how we collect data on the teaching process. While we are seeing increasing instances of teacher observation, instructional walks and data walls, much of the data collected is not in real time and not always linked to student achievement. Good teachers are already constantly assessing student understanding during class time. The question is, how can we use technology to assist teachers in collecting this data more accurately and effectively? Imagine if we could collect real time information about students’ emotional reactions to the learning and teaching process and use this to inform teachers’ work in real time.

I think we have much to learn about evidence of improving teaching and learning from the developments in big data and ways that the data is captured and analysed. The power of the evidence collected lies not in the volume of the data or the power of the device, but in the analysis of the data. Individuals and teams can access the data when, where and how they want and need it. It helps provide real time feedback to the user and encourages collaboration. Ultimately it has the capacity to put evaluation of learning and teaching in the centre of the process, not as outcome at the end of the process.

I’m not sure if there is an education Fitbit, but I’m sure it will be here soon. As the devices get more powerful, more embedded and more connected it won’t be too far into the future. Having this sort of capability for all learners but particularly teachers, will think, be a game changer for our understanding of teaching in a contemporary world. We will see a dramatic shift in collaboration and real time intervention.

It is clear that these developments are unstoppable. I hope the education profession will embrace these new capacities and show how they can and should be used. We can’t afford to let the emotional economy do it for us.

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