Channelling our inner toddler: Why do we do what we do?

WordItOut-word-cloud-951060I’m going to assume that most people have experienced the ‘Why…?’ conversation with a toddler at some point. It’s entertaining for about the first 3 or 4 questions and then you (or at least I) become trapped in a never ending cycle of ‘But, why?’. Often there’s no answer, or no answer easily explained to a 2 year old and at some point the conversation ends with a ‘It just is’ or ‘You’ll understand when you’re older’ leaving neither party feeling terribly satisfied. As frustrating as these conversations can be I wonder if, as educators, there’s something we can learn from toddlers in pushing the ‘Why?’ boundary further than we might otherwise.

Yesterday @cpaterso posted a link to this article from Social Ventures Australia. It’s written by Kevan Collins who heads up the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK. One of the things the EEF does is provide a toolkit that summarises the research on the impact of a number of different education strategies and interventions. It provides links to research, an indication of the price scale of interventions and some issues to consider for educators wanting to implement a similar approach. I really recommend taking the time to look through the website, I’m sure there are shortcomings to the way in which the research has been summarised or even obtained, but for me, as a teacher in a school, it provides an excellent starting point. In the article, Collins talks about innovation and the process that support effective and sustained innovation and discusses the importance of evaluation:

Buying an iPad for every pupil may increase engagement, but schools must measure whether that enthusiasm translates into improved outcomes. Further, outcomes should be judged relative to what went before and against what else could have been achieved for a similar cost. If a less innovative small group tuition program could have delivered the same improvement more cheaply, can the introduction of iPads really be considered a success?

This point particularly resonated with me as I find myself increasingly having conversations with colleagues in my school and beyond that start with ‘Why?’. “Why did you use an iPad for that activity?”; “Why do you need to have a desk and chair for every child?”; “Why does it matter where the books are stored?”; “Why are you scribing under what a child has written independently?”; “Why are you getting students to write about their weekend every Monday?”; “Why…?” Sometimes I ask the question because I’m trying to push a teacher to think about their practice and question their choices and sometimes it’s out of a genuine desire to understand a particular strategy or choice. Either way we engage in a professional discussion and, more often than not, come out of the conversation with a better understanding of why we do what it is we do.

There are so many possible answers to the ‘Why?’ question, arising from a teacher’s philosophy or experience, grounding in research, the needs of particular students, the practices of particular schools, the requirements of syllabus documents and so on. It’s not always the answer that’s important. Just as with the toddler, sometimes it’s the process that matters, just by asking ‘Why?’ we are engaging in questioning our practice, identifying whether or not we do have a sound reason or (and this is my personal pet-hate) we do something because this is the way it’s always been done. With the push to innovate and improve and do things differently I fear that we run the risk of making choices because something looks new or exciting rather than based on a proper analysis of why that places students at the centre.

Providing the space for these conversations and empowering people to question practices is something that benefits all members of a school community and something I am going to be using deliberately with my team next term. I’m looking forward to the discussions that we have.

What do you do to check in with the why? Do you have specific questions you ask your colleagues or yourself? I’d love it if people could share any strategies they’ve used to prompt this sort of thinking.

School change that sticks

On Monday I’m going to a workshop with a number of teachers and school leaders. We’ve been asked to bring along an example of a promising practice that’s been implemented in our schools, something that can be transferred easily to other settings and implemented, tested and evaluated over a 4-6 week period. When told about this, my immediate reaction was to go completely blank. Don’t get me wrong, I work in a school that embraces change and new practices, but I struggled to think of something that could be picked up by somewhere else, implemented straight away and make a meaningful impact. To be honest my gut reaction was to say no, to say that I had nothing to bring, because the idea of expecting teachers to implement something in such a short time frame is completely against everything I believe about school change.

I’ve spent time over the past few days turning this over in my mind and am still torn about what to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in schools that actively seek out change and are committed to making that change stick. In my previous school, before implementing a new approach to teaching writing, we spent a term working in cross-stage teams to develop resources, to empower teachers across the school in leading the implementation and to ensure that all teachers understood why we were bringing the approach in and how to utilise it. Once implemented we allocated time in stage meetings to discuss teaching programs, moderate work samples and evaluate and improve resources. Four years later the writing approach is embedded in school practice and continues to have a positive impact in student engagement and achievement.

At my current school we spent a year trialling and gradually implementing a project based learning approach. Teachers saw the impact PBL had in other classes and on community participation and engagement, they explored the possibilities, investigated the practice and developed a deep understanding of what a PBL approach would mean for their teaching. PBL is now implemented across the school and all teachers are able to clearly articulate the approach to colleagues from other schools, parents and other community members.

This year we have implemented play based learning in Kindergarten. Before implementing it, we spent time reading research articles, talking to experts and investigating possible approaches. This first term has been more successful than we could have hoped and we have spent a lot of time as a team discussing how it is working, what we could adapt and building up our understanding of the practice. We’ve had the time and the freedom to really explore the approach, to adjust our teaching practice, to evaluate the learning, to adapt our programming strategies and to respond flexibly to the needs and interests of our students. This wasn’t a silver bullet, one size fits all approach, it wasn’t a direction we were given but a possibility to make the most of.

When I think about promising practices these are the things that spring to mind. These are the changes that stick, the ones that engage teachers in questioning their beliefs, in seeing a new way of teaching, in taking ownership of the change process. These changes take time, but I believe they are worth it because of the fundamental shift that happens, the change in the way teachers perceive their role and the way in which they involve the whole school community.

There are practices I can share on Monday, such as: developing shared success criteria with students; setting effective learning objectives and using essential questions; and using open ended formative assessment strategies. However, for me, these practices are so fundamentally bound up in a shift in pedagogy and philosophy that it is hard to implement them in isolation. For any practice to lead to school change it has to be meaningfully connected to larger pedagogical change in which teachers are invested and of which they have a deep understanding. Otherwise it’s like giving up carbs in an attempt to lose weight, without an understanding of the role of a balanced diet and exercise any diet will not lead to long term weight loss, it’s just following a fad.

My hope for education is that we don’t look for the quick fix, the shiny new strategy but that we spend time investing in our teachers, engaging them in the practice of change and give them the support and the freedom they need to make changes that stick. The group of educators I’m meeting with on Monday are some of the most inspiring I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and I’m sure they are all looking for long lasting change. I look forward to learning from them and developing practices that make a difference for all our students.

If you’ve got any readings around the issue of school change, feel free to send them my way.

The power of a team

This week I had dinner with teachers I worked with on Stage 3 five years ago at my previous school. When I say ‘worked with’ that’s a gigantic understatement. We were a team, ever so slightly unexpectedly, but nonetheless a team. We weren’t a natural fit, I’d just got back from London after 7 years of Ofsted and inspections and school league tables, and was fairly militant about lesson plans and outcomes and data, one teacher was a new graduate, one teacher had been teaching since before I was born and the other had come to teaching as a second career and was in her second year of teaching. Yet, somehow we were a great team. We didn’t always agree but we were honest, we asked questions of each other, we shared our ideas and resources openly and willingly, we bounced ideas off each other and we took the time to get to know each other, to build relationships. Even though we haven’t worked together in a while, at dinner I was reminded how much this team meant to me and how much we had accomplished. Practices that we established have become part of the school culture even though only one of us has remained on that stage. Approaches to teaching that we introduced to the school are embedded and these teachers confidently lead professional learning to induct new staff into different strategies. Our conversation over dinner showed how proud they were of our achievements and how invested in these practices they’ve become.

As I reflect on the teams in which I’ve worked I can see a number of common elements. Each team has been comprised of a diverse group of educators with varying levels of experience and a range of different passions. Some teams have taken longer to become cohesive or to build trust, some teams have had their ups and downs but each and every team has demonstrated to me the power of collaboration. Through these teams we’ve introduced Project Based Learning, developed protocols and systems for assessment and tracking student progress, implemented iPads across a school and so much more. Through these teams we’ve built sustainable change into schools, engaged students in powerful learning activities and had a positive impact on student learning outcomes (and for those data hungry folk out there, yes I’ve got the stats to back that up). None of these things would have been possible if it was just me, working away in isolation in my classroom. Perhaps my students would have benefitted but their experience would have been poorer as they would only have had my ideas to work with, not the rich ideas that are developed by a team working toward a common purpose.

This year my team has grown, I’m welcoming three teachers new to my school onto my team and I am excited. I’m excited to get to know them, to learn from them, to see what we can do to improve learning, to engage our students and to become even better practitioners. As I start to think about this new team I look back at all the things I’ve learnt about building teams, about providing support, about welcoming teachers, about giving feedback, about asking for feedback and remind myself of the power of a team. It’s not always (or often) easy to build a strong team, but the benefits are absolutely worth the time. I’m also handing over some of the leadership responsibility to a stage leader and I’m looking forward to supporting her as she steps up and I’m looking forward to building a different sort of a team with her as we collaborate to lead.

I’m also excited to be extending my team beyond my school. I’m fortunate enough to be working as part of the Learning Frontiers project, led by AITSL, at my school and this has enabled me to connect with educators in schools around Sydney and Australia. In 2015 I look forward to building relationships, exploring different approaches to teaching and learning, engaging in professional dialogue and developing shared practices that impact positively on student learning. The potential impact of this team is incredible as we seek to find practices that work across a range of settings and student groups.

I cannot imagine working in a school, or a system or a culture where I went to work each day, closed my classroom door and that was it. I realise just how fortunate I am, I recognise the effort that goes into building teams and I know it’s worth it. I know that this belief in the power of a team influences my practice as I find opportunities for students to develop teams, to build relationships and collaborate (for more on this stay tuned for part 2 of this post).

Have you got any teams you look back on with pride, any strategies for building teams? How are you feeling about your team for 2015? I’d love to hear from my twitter team.

Data walls. A wall by any other name…

It’s report season. I should be finishing my reports and reading the reports of my team. I’m doing neither. I will pay for that later, but for now I ‘need’ to explore the issue of data walls. To be honest, I was a bit surprised to find myself in a very robust discussion on the weekend about these seemingly innocuous walls. Perhaps that means I haven’t properly thought through the deeper meaning or intention of these walls, perhaps I’m being deliberately disingenuous or, maybe, just maybe, my experience of data walls thus far has been overwhelmingly positive which leaves me somewhat at a loss when confronted with arguments against them.

Before we go further it’s probably important that I define, to the best of my ability, what a data wall is and how it’s used. In its essence a data wall is a visual tool used for representing a student’s achievement of particular skills, standards or knowledge. They can look different in every school or for every aspect represented, there are no hard and fast rules. The underlying principle seems to be that each student within a particular target group – be that a class, a particular group of students or a whole school, is represented and their progress against agreed and consistent measures is monitored and recorded. A quick search for ‘data walls’ turns up a number of articles and blogs about this particular topic if you’re interested in more information. A quote that spoke to me was this one: “A data wall unites a school by bringing a staff together to see students as “our students” versus his students or her students.” Kasey Kiel, a Literacy Coach in the USA, in this post.

For some people it seems that the term ‘data wall’ brings up a lot of anxiety around formalised or standardised testing, it seems in opposition to formative assessment and can be seen as an unnecessary diversion for teachers who already have enough to do. These are all completely reasonable concerns and in some cases may well be perfectly valid. A data wall, like any tool in education, is only as effective as those who use it, it’s not a quick fix or a silver bullet but a tool to add to our assessment toolkit, to feed into our teaching and learning programs and through which teachers engage in rich and constructive dialogue (in my experience).

In my school, a smallish primary school in inner city Sydney, we use our data walls as part of our ongoing formative assessment processes. We use a selection of the aspects of the NSW Numeracy continuum and the aspect of writing from the Literacy continuum. This process is in addition to our use of specific software and other documents for other aspects of learning. In our stage meetings at particular points throughout a term each teacher brings work samples around a particular aspect to share. Teachers already have an idea of where on the continuum they would place each child and use this opportunity to compare their judgements to those of their colleagues, to discuss the samples and to engage in professional dialogue around the content against which we are assessing students. The response of teachers to this process has been overwhelmingly positive, teachers report they are more confident in identifying not only what their students are doing well, but where they need to go to next. It’s my belief that the teachers are already experts, that they effectively implement formative assessment strategies continuously in their classroom, but that this process gives them a structure through which they feel secure, they can collaborate and create a sense of shared ownership and understanding of students at the school beyond their own class.

Our data wall at the start of the process. Looks different these days.

Our data wall at the start of the process. Looks different these days.

In this instance data walls have nothing to do with ‘tests’, they don’t divert teachers from their core business but rather provide them with an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue around student progress, programming, assessment strategies and all manner of topics completely embedded in our daily work. For us, a data wall is not about checking skills off that students need to achieve in order to get a good mark in NAPLAN, it’s about refining our practice, clarifying our understanding and building a common language and expectation that supports all students as they move through the school. Yes, teachers know their students, yes they use formative assessment strategies every minute of every lesson of every day whether they realise it or not but I do not believe data walls inhibit this, rather they provide a wealth of opportunities for teachers to collaborate and a structure by which schools develop consistency across a range of practices.

Perhaps they are poorly named. Perhaps the term ‘data’ is off-putting. Perhaps it brings to mind the ogre that is NAPLAN and external judgment and irrelevant information. Perhaps it’s time to rebrand according to purpose. Or perhaps we look at purpose rather than name and avoid getting caught up in semantics. Perhaps we need a data wall to record how we all understand the term data wall, then maybe we can develop consistency beyond schools…

I really appreciate the process of the data wall, the wall itself is just that, a wall with coloured names on it, it’s the conversation I’m interested in. How about you?

Who decided schools are broken?

As educators we focus on building on the strengths of our students, we start from the positives, the achievements and the understandings they already have. We use these to connect with our students, to build relationships, to build confidence and, most importantly, to design engaging, motivating and appropriate teaching and learning programs. I wonder why we seem (and by we I mean both educators and the wider community) unable to take this approach to our education system? Why are we so quick to say the system is broken, to condemn teaching methods as outdated, to decry those colleagues who won’t ‘move with the times’ and to seek to fix education? Why can’t we build on the strengths of our system?

This picture has been doing the rounds for a while: thought bubbles
It speaks to a concept about education, one where children sit in rows and teachers do their darnedest to squash any creativity or individuality out of them. This picture gets a ridiculous amount of retweets every time it’s posted, which begs the question, whose reality does this represent and what’s to be gained by posting it? Interestingly often the educators who are posting the picture are also those who are engaged in discussions about all sorts of different pedagogies such as project-based learning, flexible learning spaces, genius hour and the like. What’s their purpose in reposting it? Are they seeking to start a conversation? Are they suggesting that this is what others are doing? I’m at a loss. For me, this picture sets back the reality of education significantly. It perpetuates a myth. It sets up teachers as the ones who are ruining the hopes and dreams of children. It stops a conversation that we really need to be having. Who decided that this is what schools do? Where’s the evidence?

Recently I have noticed a bit of push back against the ‘system is broken’ mantra. George Couros started this conversation this week and it was heartening to see how many educators responded positively, identifying a number the ways in which schools are building on the strengths of their community, their system and the educators within them. This is all, clearly, anecdotal rather than research based. Which begs the question, where’s the evidence that our system is broken, that schools are ‘stifling the creativity’ of students?


Chris Cawsey (@chriscawsey) made this point in a different conversation in response to a post from Jon Andrews (@jca_1975).


She was questioning where the evidence was to suggest that the education system does make students ‘stick to dull pathways’? Again, anecdotally, I see plenty of evidence of schools using technology in powerful ways, empowering students to explore, connect, develop and evaluate using a range of technology tools? Why is it we are so quick to believe the worst, so quick to judge, so eager to start fresh, ignore experience and knowledge of those around us? The conversation that followed was an excellent example of the ways in which educators engage in professional dialogue about different ideas. I get such a lot out of seeing the conversations of such experienced and knowledgeable educators as the interact. Building on each other’s strengths.

There are a few programs running in Australia at the moment that actively take a strengths-based approach to our education. One of these is the Social Ventures Australia (@Social_Ventures) program ‘Bright Spots‘ through which school leaders are identified and supported to build on existing good practice in disadvantaged communities. Another program is the Learning Frontiers hubs established by AITSL. Schools are connected with other schools, practitioners from AITSL and the Innovation Unit to explore different practices and pedagogies in order to improve student engagement and outcomes. In both these programs schools are starting from a position of strength, building on existing practice and extending this. This, to me at least, feels a lot more empowering for our schools and our system than starting from the position of schools as broken institutions and teachers as mindless drones seeking to produce cookie cutter clones of students.

Sometimes, as a connected educator, it can be a bit tempting to suggest that whatever has happened before is wrong, or insufficient or short-sighted. When we do this we dismiss the vast expertise and knowledge of our colleagues. We employ a deficit model and we run the very real risk of alienating those teachers that we should be supporting the most. Those teachers who are already feeling apprehensive about the rate of change, the new initiatives, the technology. We aren’t building on their strengths, we aren’t acknowledging the richness of their experience. We are the poorer for this.

I’m going to try to focus on the strengths of the system, my colleagues and my students. I’m going to try and reframe this discussion to one that places the strengths of our system at the forefront of any conversation, one that recognises the value of experience, knowledge and a depth of understanding. I’m going to treat the system like a student, start from the strengths and build.

What are the strengths you see? What are the strengths you might not have seen? How can you use those for the benefit of your students, your school and your system?

The system isn’t broken, it’s a work in progress. That’s reality isn’t it?

My hero/guru/saviour dilemma.

I was all set to write a very reflective post about building community and making connections with educators this week. I still might. However, for the moment something else has cropped up that’s made me think about the bigger picture. As educators we can sometimes feel a bit under attack by the wider world. We are told we should be: teaching more phonics/being more creative, enforcing strict discipline/empowering students to make their own decisions, administering more standardised tests/engaging in more student led grading. There seems to be a set of polarities implying that whatever we’re doing is somehow wrong, depending on who you talk to and what their agenda for education is.

In the midst of all this we turn up to work every day, make decisions, build relationships, strive to create the very best conditions and opportunities for learning because we’re teachers. We don’t do this because we want our students to fail. We do this for any number of reasons, but I’d hazard a guess and suggest that right up at the top would be our belief in the importance of education for the good of society. We want good things both for each individual student and the world in which they live. It just sometimes seems that not everyone understands that’s where we’re coming from.

Today, Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed on a morning TV show. Now, I loved his TED talk when I first heard it a few years ago. I dutifully shared it with my colleagues and my wider networks, I felt all inspired about models of schooling and thinking differently about our system. Then I went to work, and I kept going to work and nothing much changed. I changed my practice, I changed aspects of practice in my school over which I have influence but it’s still a ‘factory model’ school. Students are still grouped by their ages, they still sit standardised tests, they are still taught mandatory curriculum content. What does this mean for the vision of creativity and wonder espoused by Sir Ken Robinson?

Today I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t change much. All he gave us was a vision. To my knowledge he’s given us none of the tools to get there nor even acknowledged the constraints under which we work. And to be honest why should he? It’s not his job, he seems to be doing very well out of the current situation, why risk that by setting up a model, trying it and potentially failing. No, that’s what he asks us to do, without any scaffold and without any hints as to what this vision might look like in reality.

The thing is that we (that’s all of us) are having a good shot at this ideal. We are exploring all sorts of different approaches that bring us ever closer to his vision. We are implementing approaches to teaching and learning that are student led, flexible, empowering. We are employing a raft of assessment strategies. We are encouraging our communities to get involved, to think critically about the sort of education they want for their child and to help us make it happen. The sad thing is, I don’t feel like any of this will ever be enough for him. We don’t operate inside a vacuum, but inside a system, inside a society that imposes conditions upon us and until Sir Ken gives us practical ways to make the sort of change he desires happen I’m going to stop listening to his talks. I am, however, going to keep building connections with educators who are taking risks, who aren’t scared of failing and who are working incredibly hard for their students.

What then is it that we get from our eduheros? As much as it pains me to say it, they give our work some validity. They make it easier to explain to parents why I’m asking students to make choices about their learning or why I’m allowing them to work collaboratively, or why I don’t do a weekly spelling test. The fact that this morning Ken Robinson was on a mainstream morning TV show may help parents understand why the way their child is being taught is so very different to the way they were taught. Maybe that’s enough from a hero/guru/saviour. Maybe making conversations easier, putting ideas out there and giving a context is really what we need. Maybe if he talks for long enough and often enough and to the right people the systemic change will happen, but that’s not my responsibility. For now, I reserve the right to hit the mute button every now and then.

Leaders of learning

Leaders of learning

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to coordinate LeadMeet Sydney. This event grew out of the TeachMeet family and was based on the principles of being open, free and led by educators. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to hold the event in NSW State Parliament courtesy of the Minister for Education and his great team. It was wonderful to have the Minister come by, talk to people and stay to see what this sort of forum is all about. (The fabulous @Mrs7James also got him signed up to twitter, you can follow him @PiccoliMP.)

As this event was themed around leadership I wanted to provide opportunities for longer discussions and to engage with particular topics in more depth. For this reason there were 3 sets of 25 minute workshops with 3 workshops in each session from which to choose. One of the (many) things I love about the TeachMeet model is how much the education community pitches in and generously shares with each other. For me this is really inspiring, I feel that for too long professional learning was something that was done to us by experts and didn’t recognise and value the expertise of classroom practitioners and those in school based leadership positions. It was wonderful (and something of a relief) when so many fantastic educators stepped up and volunteered to lead workshop discussions. I owe a huge thanks to @danhaesler, @mansournatalie, @cpaterso, @sqeasley, @ldeibe, @staceyquince, @tloughland, @jeneng and @johnqgoh. For more information on the workshops you can find the google document here.

Each of the workshops allowed time for discussion, sharing, asking questions and collaborating. What I loved about this part of each LeadMeet workshop was this buzz; the conversations, the honesty, the connections and, the learning. For me, this is what a classroom is like: collaborative, unpredictable at times and responsive to the experience that those in the room bring with them. This is when the learning happens. It was wonderful to get the chance to talk with educators I’d never met before, to hear about their experience, to share my own and to recognise, regardless of sector, age group taught or setting, how much we have in common. Huge props to the workshop leaders for allowing space for this freedom to share and building on these discussions. Because, let’s be honest, it’s easier to stand in front of a prepared presentation and deliver it to an audience without reference to who makes up that audience.

What it makes me wonder is: how do we, as educators model the sort of learning that we are increasingly recognising as benefiting our students? How much have we moved away from professional learning via expert presenter and towards a collaborative model where ideas and feedback flow between all members of a school community. How much are we stepping outside our comfort zone, pushing beyond the slides and projector and getting our hands dirty, offering our ideas even when (especially when) we’re not sure if we’re right and recognising ourselves as experts in our field? My dream professional learning would be one where a series of questions are asked or statements suggested and educators collaborate to discuss, explore and refine their ideas. This is the learning I expect my students to engage in, seems only fair that I’m prepared to do the same. Let’s not seek to be comfortable in our seats watching and listening, let’s grab the reins, be confident in ourselves as leaders of learning and lead.

For me, part of this stepping out was taking the chance on running the LeadMeet. What right did I have to try and organise a leadership forum, what if no one turned up, what if no one volunteered to present, what if it (or I) fell apart? Turns out all the risks are far outweighed by the opportunities. Opportunities to try something new, to collaborate with a different group of educators and to learn. I heartily recommend that educators have a go at running a TeachMeet, lead learning on a topic that matters to you, model the level of engagement and ownership of learning that you expect from your students. It’s absolutely worth it!

You can catch up on the #leadmeetsyd tweets in this storify compiled by @johnqgoh and by looking at the # on twitter.

If you’re interested in running a TeachMeet there’s great tips here or by looking up TeachMeets running in your city or state.

Now it’s your turn, are you leading your own learning? Where to next?

Thank you to @7MrsJames for the pictures!