Posts tagged ‘School Improvement’

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.


No easy fixes – just good teaching

pirlsIn monitoring the commentary yesterday on the release of Australia’s latest rankings in PIRL and TIMSS exams, there was general agreement that our performance was well below par. A country like Australia cannot tolerate poor performance. We must lift our standard of learning and teaching and do so as a matter of urgency.

In noting the response, there was the usual long line of experts, policy makers, academics, teacher union and parent representatives across the various media channels all pointing the finger at the other saying teachers need to do better, spend more, get paid more, be smarter, get better training, work better with parents, and so on.

Glaringly absent in the commentary was the voice of the professional teacher.

If everyone agrees that good teaching makes the biggest difference to student learning why aren’t we looking to the profession to help drive the changes needed to ensure continuous school improvement?

We spend so much time and energy in the education sector adopting, adapting and applying – or arguing against and avoiding – yet another shortsighted, secondhand or unproven reform or initiative. As a veteran in the educational game I have lived through many of these reforms before and know they don’t work, so yesterday’s commentary about why Australia’s performance is below par and how we can ‘fix it’ made me throw my hands up in the air. When will we ever learn?

There are no easy fixes here. We have to be brutally honest if we are to substantially change our existing practices. We know they are not delivering the best for every student, so we need to stop tinkering at the edges and start transforming schooling. Old mantras need to be tested; everything must be scrutinised.

And the only way to do the work is for teachers to do the work. And if they don’ t know how – to learn the work. The simple fact is we need to get the distractors out of the way so good teachers and school leaders can get on with the job.

It would be nice if we all got paid what we thought we were worth. Additional pay might get a teacher up in the morning but it certainly won’t be the reason why they persist with a student who just doesn’t seem to be making progress. All the good teachers I know do the job because they love the job; even when it’s difficult and demanding. They persevere; they try everything in their toolbox and then some, to ensure that the kids in their class are getting it. And more than that – that they are thriving.

Think about the teachers you know that inspire you or challenge you. They aren’t doing the same thing they did last year or even last month, they change and flex to suit the needs of their students. They spend much of their time finding new and better ways to engage students; to make learning interesting, relevant and meaningful for their students. The learning experiences they create range from using pen, paper and string to fully charged, connected, digital experiences. Like the teacher from Northern Beaches Secondary College featured in last week’s Sun Herald who dug up half the school yard to create an archaeological site for her students. What motivates this breed of teacher? What makes them tick?

Often in the teaching profession we mistake complacency with collegiality. We convince ourselves it is better not to celebrate excellence or elevate a few shining examples for fear of denigrating the whole profession. This is wrong thinking.

Imagine the outcome if the medical profession didn’t push the boundaries, risk failure, dust themselves off and try again? Forget organ transplants, brain surgery or even penicillin. None of these life saving techniques or treatments would be around today if the few hadn’t persevered and looked for new and better ways of doing the work, and they wouldn’t have perfected and improved these techniques and treatments if they hadn’t shared their learning with their colleagues.

The same needs to happen in teaching. The best thing the profession can do for itself is identify innovative practice – excellent practice – and showcase it, celebrate it and share it. In essence good teachers need to teach other teachers how to do it too.

As I mentioned in a recent post, thought leader Don Tapscott says we need to share our intellectual property in order to ‘lift everyone’s boats’. This is true of the teaching profession in driving school improvement. Not one individual has all the answers. Good ideas require more than one head, great ideas even more heads. One teacher won’t improve the learning in their school in isolation… nor will two teachers. They might make a difference to the kids in their class but without the collective responsibility of all teachers in the school working together to lead the improvement agenda their influence will be limited.

I know I run the risk of alienating some of my colleagues, but that’s not my intention. After yesterday the last thing I want to do is point the finger.

What I do want to do is challenge the profession to take back the agenda; to work together with their colleagues and school leaders to drive change and improvement; to challenge the status quo; to find new ways, better ways; and to make that difference to the lives of their students. There is no other way to improve learning except through good teaching.

If we can reflect honestly on Australia’s performance, we can identify new possibilities rather than rehash old programs or experiment with new ones. We just have to focus with determination and precision and address the central issues related to the practice of good teaching.

Wisdom of the crowd

As always, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves were excellent at The Quest Conference.  They managed to engage an audience of a thousand educators on the core work of school improvement.  It’s why their work resonates with so many people around the world.

Fullan and Hargreaves continue to build on the foundations of their work – solutions are found in the practitioner (shades of Elmore) and evidence-based practice is good practice.

Hargreaves talks about the five fallacies of education reform: speed, substitution, data, prescription and competition.

Fullan reflected on the need for precision, coherence and specificity and proffered this advice:

  1. Focus on a process and provide local support (educational expenditure has quadrupled over the last decade but performance hasn’t).
  2. Identify good practice then share and apply it.
  3. Once student learning starts to improve, be prepared to change practice.
  4. Develop a collective plan for improvement and strengthen it through individual strategies.
  5. Make innovation mainstream.  Personalised learning and de-privatised teacher practice must be the norm.

It’s also worth noting Douglas Reeves‘ comments on school improvement programs. Reeves says if we ask which program works, we are doomed.

Change is driven by people and practice not programs.  If we think programs will improve student learning, we may see short term results but they can’t be sustained over a long period.  Reeves says continuing to introduce programs into schools is the antithesis of what focus is all about.

I suppose Reeves confirms what we already know  – there’s no silver bullet or easy steps to improving schooling.  Perhaps the mantra is people and practice.

Collective improvement

Stephen Heppell says that one of the most enjoyable aspects of his work is being able to see what schools and sectors  around the world are doing and then adapt some of the great ideas to the local model.

We have some exemplar systems, schools and researchers in Australia and New Zealand that are thinking critically and creatively and I have often said that the Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is an example of best practice.

One of their major initiatives has been around the regeneration of the Broadmeadows precinct.  Similar to parts of western Sydney, the Northern Metropolitan Region was characterised by low rentention, high unemployment and migrant population and a broad disengagement by teachers and students.

A lot of work has gone into re-shaping learning and re-building schools involving everyone from the regional office to parents, local council, industry and technology partners.  This is a community project, built on the premise of giving students a future by giving them a relevant education.  The NMR Regional Director, Wayne Craig admits that in turning these schools around some courageous and bold decisions had to be made such as closing two under-performing schools.

Improvement is a long hard road – you cannot succeed without addressing the fundamental beliefs and long held assumptions about learning and teaching. When there is a consensus on a curriculum for learning and teaching and the accountability is unequivocal.  Teachers take responsibility for improving student learning outcomes, principals accept the responsibility for improving school performance and systems take responsibility for ensuring all schools are meeting targets.

When you hear Wayne and principals like Don Collins from Coburg Senior HS and Glenn Proctor from Hume Central Secondary College talk, you see educators who are prepared for the hard conversations, who use data and feedback to inform their work and who have an unwavering commitment to getting the best out of their students and teachers.

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?

Asking simple questions

On a recent visit to Sydney, I asked Frank Crawford, Chief Inspector of Education in Scotland to share his sage advice on what schools need to do to improve.

For Frank the questions we need to ask schools are simple but on the mark. Too often we frame the question – are you improving learning or have you met the benchmarks?  This leads us down the deficit model, which in schools that are struggling with the learning agenda can be disastrous.

As you’ll see below – Frank challenges schools to move from good to great by framing the right questions around data/feedback. Enquiry should be at the heart of good schooling and yet many principals and teachers still struggle with an enquiry-based approach.

Out to pasture

In 2010, we find ourselves peering over the edge of a great chasm that has to be crossed tif we are to get to a world of new potentials. We move forward with a sense of excitement and possibilities

Technology has given us a window into the future.  Just look at the hype and excitment around Apple’s release of the iPad.  Who knows what technology we will be using in five years from now?  At this point in time anything is possible and there is a sense of excitement in that.

Contrast this with current discussion and publicity of ACARA’s MySchool website and the use of a narrow data set to form judgements on school performance and student learning.  As the world continues to open up new ways of doing things, there are countervaling forces using reductionists approaches that may stifle innovation

The point we are at in education reminds me of the beginning lines in Dickens’  A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”.

We seem to be in an in between period in education. There is so much possibility yet little consensus on ways forward, there is confidence in schools as institutions yet there is a lack of trust in the teaching profession. How do we make sense of it all and determine our way forward?

I was thinking about this yesterday and realised that we are currently working in an in-between space: a place of ambiguity and opportunity – it is the convergence of the past and future. The word I coined to make sense of this space is Pasture – a blend of both the past and future.

I see pasture as a wide fertile space for learning and innovation – full of potential, optimism and opportunities, open to anyone who wants to create the future by taking the best of what we know.

In meeting the challenges of schooling today, we should never lose sight of what we are striving to do overall. A national website comparing NAPLAN results should never be the driving catalyst for improving schooling. That responsibility lies squarely in the hands of good teachers.