Posts tagged ‘Feedback’

The science of learning

Fortunately we now know a lot more about how people learn from the learning sciences and while there is still more to learn and uncover, it helps us become more effective in our teaching. As a system here in Parramatta Catholic schools, the work of John Bransford and John Hattie has helped shaped our understanding of learning, teaching and most importantly, teacher learning.

The role of neuroscience in learning and teaching was the theme of this year’s ACER research conference in Melbourne.  By all accounts it was outstanding particularly John Hattie’s keynote.  There is no denying the significance of contemporary theory and research on the work we do. For too long we have accepted personal preference and experience instead of intellectual rigour. The science of learning needs to influence the practice of teaching.

For a psychometrician, Hattie’s work is easily digestible and after listening to a vodcast of his ACER keynote, I was inspired to re-read Chapters 7 and 9 in Visible Learning for Teachers.  I felt compelled to re-calibrate my educational compass.

Hattie’s makes the compelling point that we don’t go to school to learn what we know but what we don’t know. So why then are we teaching kids 60% of the things they already know?  It comes back to knowing where each student is and being able as teachers to identify where they need to be.  We’re not good at this because as Hattie says we make erroneous assumptions about students and their learning.

In fact, he believes we are novices when it comes to continually monitoring learning in progress.  This the power of feedback and it needs to be seen as a necessary disruption.  Why? Because it forces students to slow down, to process and think.  Slow thinking is stressful for students especially those who are struggling.  The message we have to impart is it is OK to stop, to think and to take risks.  Our schools are risk averse environments – we don’t often know when to hit the pause button and ask students to stop and think about what they are doing.

This is why Singapore’s approach to learning has merit. The goal when Singapore adopted a minimalist curriculum was as the then Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in The Flat World and Education to “give students themselves the room to exercise initiative and to shape their own learning.” The goal for Singaporean teachers is to get students to accept that it is OK working with unanswered questions.  It calls for a slow thinking movement in schooling.

Door to skyWhat Hattie found in his Visible Learning work was that we are stunningly good at predicting outcomes therefore students set low benchmarks. Our job according to Hattie is to ‘create schools that help kids exceed their own potential’.  We will never imbue confidence unless we make every child believe they can do better than they are already doing.  This is why feedback is so critical because it “aims to reduce the gap between where the student ‘is’ and where he or she is ‘meant to be’ – that is, between prior or current achievement and the success criteria.” (VLFT Chapter 7).

One of the most powerful statements in Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers is the notion that feedback thrives on error but

error should not be considered the privilege of lower-achieving students.  All students (as all teachers) do not always succeed first time, nor do they always know what to do next. This is not a deficit, or deficit thinking, or concentrating on the negative; rather, it is the opposite in that acknowledging errors allows for opportunities.  Error is the difference between what we know and can do, and what we aim to know and do – and this applies to all (struggling and talented: students and teachers).  Know this error is fundamental to moving towards success.  This is the purpose of feedback.

I should write this on my office window along with we go to school to learn what we don’t know.  We have underestimated the power of feedback in helping every student to identify where they go next; in moving them up the ladder of learning and success.  Our job as Hattie explains is to be able to give good feedback and to teach kids how to receive it and articulate back to teachers what and how they are learning.  This is why instructional walks are centred on the students and not the teacher.  We gauge the effectiveness of teaching through the eyes of students.  Hattie’s mantra is know thy learner….know thy impact.

As we begin to consider our system focus in 2014 and beyond, I am drawn to the point Hattie makes in Chapter 9 about losing interest in discussions about teaching.  He says it’s not because teaching isn’t important but it often ‘prevents important discussions about learning.”

I’m convinced that learning has to be the profession’s new narrative.

Beyond the black-belt

There is a saying in martial arts that when a student makes it to black-belt, the real learning begins. We should be seeing teaching through the same lens. When teachers enter the classroom for the first time, the learning begins and it must never stop.

Professional learning and feedback go hand in hand to improve teacher effectiveness.

Research shows that ongoing professional learning is critical to improving teacher effectiveness but so too is the role of teacher evaluation. Without evaluation, professional learning cannot be individualised to improve teacher practice.

Last year, the Grattan Institute published its report into teacher appraisal, Better Teacher Appraisal and Feedback: Improving Performance, which shows that a system of teacher evaluation can increase effectiveness by 20 to 30 percent. The problem in the past has been the ad hoc nature of teacher evaluation – often infrequent or failing to provide teachers with valuable feedback and/or strategies to improve student learning gains.  By integrating teacher evaluation into every aspect of teaching and learning, we create a culture of success for teachers, which leads to success for students.

Linda Darling-Hammond discusses the role of teacher evaluation in an article in the November 2012 edition of Kappan and states that systems must ensure “teacher evaluation is connected to – not isolated from – preparation and induction programs, daily professional practice, and a productive instructional context.”

Darling Hammond outlines five key features of a teacher effectiveness strategy:

  1. Common state-wide standards for teaching related to meaningful student learning and shared across the system (what should teachers know and do to be able to support the learning of every student)
  2. Performance based assessments based on these standards (linking teacher effectiveness to student learning gains)
  3. Local evaluation systems aligned to the same standards for on the job teaching based on practice and student learning (creating a continuum of competency for professional learning at every stage of teachers’ careers)
  4. Support structures to ensure trained evaluators can mentor teachers
  5. Aligned professional learning opportunities

These points illustrate the need for the teaching profession to work collaboratively to develop a common language around learning, a common understanding of what good practice looks like and a common process for measuring it.

Jason Culbertson’s article, Putting the value in teacher evaluation, also reflects on a teacher evaluation system called TAP which is currently being used in 380 schools around the US.  The TAP evaluation system includes a number of classroom observations every year by experienced evaluators. This is followed by conferencing in which the evaluator and teacher examine an observed strength, weakness and an individualised plan for improvement.

According to Culbertson, the most important result from this process is the common language developed around what effective teaching looks like. The standards provide teachers with a very clear understanding of what “performance looks like at various levels of expertise in a range of classroom practices and skills” which led to the most accomplished teachers ‘recalibrating their expectations’.

What appeals to me about the TAP method is that strategies are not only selected by ‘master teachers’ based on analysis of student data but are road-tested and refined in classrooms before teachers introduce it into their own classrooms.  In this way, teachers are not dropped into the deep end to ‘sink or swim’ but are given a solid foundation on which to trial, collaboratively reflect and if necessary, refine strategies to improve student learning.

It is easy to assume that teachers should instinctively know how to improve their practice or that they begin their career armed with all the knowledge and skills required.  But as Darling-Hammond and others point out – teachers just like students, need clear objectives, constructive feedback and opportunities to succeed.

There’s something about data

In thinking about the way we use data in the classrooms, I came across an interesting blog post in the Harvard Business Review.

In challenging businesses to loosen their reliance on data, Roger Martin writes:

We have a deep seated desire to quantify the world around us so that we can understand it and control it.  We must…consider the possibility that if we can’t measure something, it might be the very most important aspect of the problem.

Data should be seen as complementary to the relationship between student and teacher.  At its very heart, learning is a relational process and quality learning depends on the strength and depth of the relationship since it involves building trust based on mutual respect.  How do you measure these sorts of domains?  How do you report on these?  If we only rely on quantitative data, we are doing a grave disservice to the learning and teaching process.

I believe data gives us the best indicator of where students are struggling; it will never replace the responsibility of teachers in asking why and how based on the mutual respect.

Part of the problem with teachers and principals using data effectively is that like many in the business world, they have a natural inclination to resist  the use of quantitative data to inform practice because they understand the issues above.  However, it should never be an either/or – there has to be room for all forms and sets of data not just the most accessible or easily comprehensible.

Our focus is to help principals understand the data so they can challenge their own learning communities to ask why and how.

Asking more simple questions

All too often, we spend too  much time swimming in our own billabong when there is a river nearby that runs into a vast ocean of diversity, capacity and inspiration.

My thanks to Frank Crawford for bringing to my attention these links from Learning and Teaching Scotland.

These examples demonstrate the power of feedback in the continual school improvement cycle.

What we often miss is the role of parent engagement and feedback.  The Scottish and UK experience provides a good blueprint for engaging parents in the learning agenda and school design process.

What makes an excellent school?

What is good learning and teaching?

From PD to PL

Is there a fundamental difference between professional development and professional learning?  Can teachers be doing PD and teaching at the same time?

If we define professional development as a one-off activity that takes place outside of classrooms, the answer is no.

Professional development is a remnant of the 20th century when perfecting routines and tasks (productivity) were important than collaboration and innovation (creativity).

As part of the rollout of the national curriculum, the Federal Education Minister conceded the need for professional development to ensure teachers are ‘tooled up to teach the national curriculum’.

I believe that tooling teachers does not necessarily transform teachers.  Effective teachers are life-long learners.  They become as Bransford et al says adaptive experts who can give up ‘old routines and transform prior beliefs and practices.’

In moving from professional development to professional learning, teachers will inevitably take greater responsibility for their own and their students’ learning. School leaders take greater responsibilty for teacher-learning and systems provide the necessary support and conditions to enable this to happen systematically.

Evaluating performance, seeking feedback and asking questions of students and colleagues happens on the job – as part of the process of improving teaching.

Isn’t it time governments, media and teacher unions recognised the difference between professional development and professional learning?

The science of learning

How many of us have fond memories of Year 9 science?   I suspect most of us don’t unless we had a natural aptitude for the subject.

The reality is it probably had something to do with the way the subject was taught – a one size fits all approach to science that was far removed from our lives and yet integral to understanding  the world around us.

For John Hattie, a good teacher is able to turn on the challenge of physics, chemistry or Year 9 science for every student. 


Greg Whitby and Year 9.3 Science at Parramatta Marist

Last week, I was invited into a Year 9 science class and saw young men challenged and engaged in their learning.  Their teacher, Br Anthony is using a project-based learning (PBL). Click here to listen to Br Anthony on PBL.

I found it an engaging experience to watch two students (whom I later discovered have been struggling) stand in front of their peers and deliver a presentation on “Energy and Ecology”.

The subsequent class discussion of which I was a part, on global warming and alternate energy sources was lively and well-informed and it’s encouraging to know that these students see themselves as part of the solution!

I saw a science teacher who was passionate about his subject and committed to using PBL to engage and challenge students in a real-world context and showcasing their work.

Teaching is a science and good teaching is about the continual examination of the evidence of what you are doing and how it is impacting on learning outcomes. At its very core is a fundamental understanding of the learner. 

There are many more examples like this – we  just need to share them.


The ‘f’ word

Michael Fullan recently addressed 100+ of our aspiring leaders in the context of leading change and learning in their schools.

This was a marvellous experience for leading teachers to be exposed to someone of Fullan’s calibre – armed with research and case studies on what makes an effective school leader.

It is evident that one of our greatest challenges as a system is how we continue to recognise leading teachers, how we develop their leadership and more importantly connect them with similar cohorts to expand the depth of talent across the profession.

Part of the process of challenging and empowering teachers is ensuring that core messages around instructional practice, collaboration, effective use of data and feedback etc are being disseminated across all levels.  As one of the principals of Fullan’s ‘turnaround schools’ explained – you need to know the message is getting past the usual bottle-necks.  To ensure teachers are across the agenda requires constant…… ‘feedback’.

I know many leaders and educators are uncomfortable with the ‘f’ word but it is critical to how we lead and plan.  It begs the question of how we encourage principals in every school (large, small, primary, secondary) to seek honest feedback and evidence of their own school improvement strategies? Why do we too often feel uncomfortable getting and giving feedback?

For Fullan, building strong communities of practice comes from building communities of trust.  As a system, we need to continually measure the temperature of trust and progress if we are to see what is working and what needs to be done next. This is the way to overcome this “uncomfortableness.” Learning becomes the focus of the work not individual performance.

In raising the bar, we need to be rigorous in our approach to gathering feedback and presenting evidence.  It requires not only a common language of learning but as John Hattie recently said ‘a common indicator of progress that is applied across every school’.  This ‘common’ but sharply focussed lens provides schools, systems, parents, governments with an honest snapshot from which we can understand, monitor and promote good learning rather than judge school performance.

Taking this approach builds the credibility of the profession as well, and will place the profession in the centre of developing education policy – not at its margins