Where to from here?

As another year comes to a close it reminds me of the mechanical process of schooling. Our schools are placed in “mothballs” for six weeks and then the system fires up again in late January.  I wonder if the school year could be significantly different from the last?

It’s heartening to hear AITSL Chair, Professor John Hattie say recently that we are already having an incredible impact on student learning; the best is in Australia all around us.

We have never had better trained teachers, funding, buildings and access to technologies.  The majority of parents have high degrees of trust in their local school to deliver quality outcomes.  However, the challenge for the profession is  ‘where to next?’

As I’ve said throughout 2014, it’s a question that can only really be answered by those doing the work.  When I talk to beginning and experienced teachers, I see people who have great passion; who are not resistant to change (provided they have the structures and support).

Supporting and engaging our teachers more deeply in evaluating and improving their practice is the path that will lead us to the next stage.  It doesn’t happen by accident.  It’s a daily commitment to improving the learning outcomes of each child and an ongoing investment in the professional learning of every teacher. While the work isn’t always easy, the results are always worth the effort.

Since the best is here all around us, let’s share it, learn from it and answer the ‘where to next’ by raising the standards and status of the entire profession.

As always, thanks for reading and contributing to the blog – your comments shape my professional thinking.   A safe and Merry Christmas.

 

Last week, I was delighted to visit the Kindergarten learning space at St Bernadette’s Primary, Lalor Park. It is one of the joys of my work as Executive Director to see talented teachers engaged with vivacious young learners. St Bernadette’s have an excellent practice of asking all students to write to the Principal Liz Devlin regularly, and she writes back! Reading and writing are, as you would expect, highly valued and the teachers use every opportunity for the students to learn in a purposeful way. Little did I know the amount of effort and preparation that went into my visit.

Kindergarten teachers, Mabel-Lynn Buenaventura and Brooke Peterson, used my visit as a literacy activity for their students. I was ‘bowled over’ by the depth of understanding and ability for these children to imagine and write their stories. I asked the Mabel-Lynn and Brooke to reflect on their practice (the bolding is mine):

The children had been waiting all year long for ‘Mr Whippy’ aka Mr Whitby to come to visit our budding Kindergarten authors (Yes that was a lesson in itself hearing all the correct sounds in his surname and clapping out Whitby into two syllables; then making rhyming nonsense words).

Domenic wrote an imaginative illustrated story book (see video) in Term 2 titled, Mr Whippy and the Big Spider. It was a well thought out, sequential story with a good introduction, an interesting plot and a happy ending.

When he had written the story he gave it to our Principal to read and of course that’s how Greg came to visit the school, so that the children could see the main character in real life and invite him to be the ‘audience and the star’.

Greg totally engaged with the reading of the story and the class-prepared ‘Big Book’ (yes all about him and his 7,000 pairs of socks) and a ‘handwritten by every child’ description of the ‘big man’ (tall of course!).

Writing and reading in our learning space is non-negotiable and starts from day one. Creative thinking and spontaneity is encouraged from the beginning and every attempt to ‘scribble on a page’ is celebrated as writing. Imaginative play and drawing is often a catalyst to writing in the early months and every attempt is celebrated.

Before the students commence school we have a five week transition to Kindergarten program where we have ‘observed to be informed’; ‘engaged to build relationship’; and ‘played to honour being a child’. We feel we already know the learners when they begin Kindergarten. There are many individual changes and developments in the two months between transition and the start of the school year so our baseline data starts to fill out and become a little richer and juicier.

At the beginning of the school year we ‘hit the ground running’ with our new learners. We always start with the end in mind; taking each student beyond their personal best so that they surprise themselves and their families with a positive growth mindset to propel them into Year 1 as confident, spontaneous and competent readers, writers, mathematicians and thinkers (philosophers even!).

Our Kindergarten love to write to everyone and anyone. The audience and purpose is very important to a five year old and they love the ‘spotlight shining on them on their own stage’ as they reach new milestones in their own learning. Talking and listening is encouraged by all members of the class community (adults and children) and always as a pre-requisite to clear communication. Greg got a taste of our spontaneous learners with a happy dance performed by Jayden; an ‘I love you’ from numerous children; and a ‘you’re a great storyteller’ by another.

There is nothing extraordinary that sets our students apart from any other Kindergarten students; just as there is nothing that sets us apart from other Kindergarten teachers. Our secret to facilitating enthusiastic, empowered and confident five year old learners is that we simply love teaching and building positive relationships with our little learners every minute of every day.

Yes, we get very tired and our work never seems to end; and we are always looking at their most relevant and recent data to create, reinvent, innovate and modify the curriculum for each student – simply because we want every student to be successful in their learning. Success breeds success.

We are two ordinary Kindergarten teachers working with extraordinary minds; the minds of children!

There was great excitement by Greg’s visit to our school. He was the main character in Domenic’s book and was both the audience, the main protagonist and the purpose for the story. He was a real life action hero and he was at our school.

Domenic is already writing a sequel….his words not ours!

Listen to the book below:

The radical centre

On Monday night I had the pleasure of hearing Noel Pearson deliver the annual Bishop Manning lecture.  Pearson is founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership.  In discussing the complexities and challenges facing indigenous communities, Pearson explained that he saw himself as a radical centralist – someone committed to left wing objectives through right wing policies.

As Pearson explained, the free market approach assumes that everyone is educated and can therefore make an informed choice.  The paradox is that if you have no education, the market isn’t free.  The problem with the left wing approach is that you get caught in a cycle of more programs, more money, more administration.  One side wants to keep handing out fish, the other the rods.  Pearson’s view is use both to achieve an effective and equitable outcome.

At the centre of schooling is the child but for decades we’ve focussed on either the fish or the fishing rod.  It resonates with Michael Fullan’s theme that educational change will only ever come from the middle. The top (government) cannot be relied on because governments and policies frequently change.  On the other hand, when you give the bottom (schools) too much autonomy, you cannot build systemness.

The middle provides coherence so both school and system grow in tandem.  No-one is left behind.  I believe the teaching profession needs a coalition of central radicals to keep us focussed on the middle.

And that’s what Noel Pearson is attempting to do – build systemness so that no-one is left behind.

 

 

 

 

 

Above all, try something

There is a wonderful quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt in David Price’s new book ‘Open’. Speaking at a commencement address in 1932, Roosevelt said: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.  It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.  But above all, try something.”

David Price was in Australia last week talking about his new book and the changing world of work, life and learning.  We live in a world that is increasingly transparent and open: open source, open learning, open communities. Price makes the point that we cannot control or contain knowledge so it is no longer powerful. What has become powerful are the social connections arising from the co-creation of knowledge locally and globally.

This is not explicitly about technology but how it is enabling new ways of thinking, working and learning. The focus is very much on people and how we are using the tools to connect and reshape communities in a more collaborative way.

‘Open’ fleshes out this new landscape by providing a lens from the outside in rather than the inside out as so often happens.  The book presents a sharp synthesis of what is happening in today’s world and importantly, how the education sector can learn from those who are successfully weaving the threads of social, open and informal learning into classrooms such as High Tech High in California and School of Communication Arts 2.0 in the UK.  These diverse examples illustrate how being open to new ideas, tools and importantly new ways of learning and teaching are changing the nature of schooling.

Price makes the point that ‘because education has such a deep-seated resistance to change, that what to them (e.g principals of  and ) seems logical appears radical to others.”  Price goes on to say that governments don’t do radical and so the responsibility to be different and “innovative needs to come from schools themselves, and unless innovative new approaches become more disruptive, the reality is that they will fall further behind the pace of change of ‘open’.”

We are living in uncertain times but to echo Roosevelt – schooling today demands bold, persistent experimentation so that schooling becomes truly open, relevant and meaningful well into the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanish SistersFor the past year, we have been fortunate to have two Spanish sisters working in the agile learning space at St Monica’s Primary, North Parramatta.  It’s been a great cross-cultural experience for all involved.  They say the children are helping to correct their English!

In Spain, Sr Maria and Sr Teresa were the principals of two progressive K-12 Catholic schools in Barcelona.  Their congregation is dedicated to the education of children in Spain and abroad. Youth unemployment in Spain is among the highest in Europe – a staggering 54.9%.  The Sisters recognise that they have to educate their students to be global citizens.  Many of their students will need to move to other European countries or further abroad to obtain meaningful work.  Such is the reality of life in Spain today.

What impressed me was that every single teacher is proficient in using technology.  As a congregation of 9 schools and a university, they developed a model eight years ago whereby every school has a small technology team that coordinates learning for teachers either online or face to face.  As teachers become ‘expert’, they share their expertise within and across schools.   The Sisters accept that students will always know more about technology but to ask a student for help shows a “humbleness that teachers are also in a continual process of learning.”

As school leaders, they see their role as primarily helping others to flourish.  They believe that knowing your staff well leads to building greater levels of trust and transparency.  Sr Teresa says that teachers need to feel at home just as much as students when they come to school.   Teachers not only model collaboration but they model what is to be a learner.  The question they ask themselves continually is ‘how can we do this better?”  They are not afraid to look outside their communities or country for inspiration or ideas.  They’ve had educators from Finland and Reggio Emilia visit their schools to share ideas and practice.

Their mission (like Sir Ken Robinson) is to make schools places where creativity flourishes.  They admitted that not every child can change everything but some children can change somethings for the better.  Their staff see this as a great achievement and testament to the value of education in modern society.

In Spain they work across K-12 because it enables them to have a deep understanding of their students and the learning environment. In a week, each school leader in their system spends approximately 20 hours teaching across primary and secondary.  After school, teachers and leaders meet to plan and learn together.  It is a continuous cycle of learning and improvement.

They have been very impressed with the standard of education here and the support of our state and federal government.  The Spanish government has cut education funding, which is never the solution.  Despite this,  teaching is a popular vocation for young people.  They see good teachers as Spain’s great hope.

I asked each what they were most proud of as school leaders.  Both agreed that it was the quality of the relationships with students, with teachers and with parents.  They told me that students in their final year of high school don’t want to leave and when they do, they come back regularly to visit.

This reminds me of Maria Montessori’s wonderful quote that teaching is ‘the great art of companionship’.

 

 

 

 

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,078 other followers