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.

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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.

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?

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

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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.

‘Needs’ or ‘Wants’

I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve explored with students the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. It’s often a very entertaining activity, their definitions are generally very different from my own, but then after a while we reach an agreement about what these terms mean for them and for children all over the world. (For those of you who also teach this topic, there’s some great resources from the UN, here’s an example.) I wonder though if it would be worth doing a bit of a revision on these concepts for adults, particularly adults involved in education, and even more particularly those who have a say in education funding.

Last week I attended a conference about education. I was very lucky to be able to attend, and it really was inspiring hearing from so many educators about the difference they are making in the lives of students all over Australia. I’m looking forward to reflecting on the ideas with my own school team and really thinking about what we can learn from these experiences. However, while there were a number of sessions focused on teaching and learning, a significant amount were about capital works building projects. I probably should have expected this, given that the conference promotional material talked about ‘learning spaces’ but I naively took the view that learning spaces are about so much more than bricks and mortar. Oops. It was while listening to these talks, that a few common themes emerged. Firstly, if your students are to have any hope of learning, you must knock down walls. Physical walls, not the metaphorical ones. Secondly, go forth and purchase curved furniture in all colours of the rainbow, students will not learn if your furniture is rectangular and dull. Thirdly, if you have a 25 metre pool you will need to build a 50m pool. This, my fellow educators, is a need.

Apologies for going somewhat heavy on the sarcasm just then, but this was the message that was presented by most, not all, of the speakers. It will shock no one to know that most of these presenters came from independent schools. What saddened me to my core was the fact that these renovations were enabled, at least in part, by our current school funding model. The fact that one school is able to determine a 50m pool as a need highlighted for me the complete absurdity of this system. There is absolutely, in no way that this meets anyone’s definition of a ‘need’. What it does point to is the gross inequity about what school needs are perceived to be by different members of the community. There is such disparity in this that I really have no words left to describe how upset it makes me feel. 

As I reflected on this situation and tried to analyse my response to it, a few other things became clear. The first being, that obviously no one ‘needs’ a 50m pool, this is by anyone’s definition a ‘want’, no child’s education is going to be improved by having one or hampered by not having one. Let’s take that off the table. The big question is, what to do students really ‘need’ in order to learn. This is far too big a question for me to answer here, there are reams of research about the answer to that, some of the consistent themes are: a teacher who cares; feedback; a safe and supportive learning environment (no mention of rainbows or curves); opportunities to make choices; relationships; authentic experiences and the list goes on. The thing to note is that all of these, all of them are possible in any learning environment regardless of the furniture. What I wonder is, are we being distracted from the main thing, are our heads being turned by colourful furniture, glass walls and whiteboard paint? What we are looking for is the best education possible for our students. Is this focus on buildings just another way of schools who have the money finding a way to differentiate themselves from schools with less money because they know, the research tells us it’s so, that once socio-economic status and parental levels of education are taken out of the mix, private schools make minimal (if any) difference to the educational outcomes of their students. Is furniture the new battle ground? Is it a case of the Emperor’s New Chairs?

I do believe in the difference that learning spaces make to student engagement and I have removed tables and chairs from my room and am exploring different options for the classroom environment. I did it on a $300 budget. Do I need $30000? No. Would it be nice to have that money? Absolutely! Would it make any difference to the learning outcomes of my students? The jury’s out on that one. I don’t need money to change the learning space. The fact that independent schools are choosing to spend their money that way is because they want to, and because they’ve got the money. Why do they have that money? Because our current funding system is not not needs based. The biggest thing I took away from the conference was just how very inequitable our funding system is. My students don’t need sofas and glass walls on which to write, they do need a system that gives them a fair chance at competing with their peers who already have the odds stacked in their favour. Imagine what an equitable funding system could do for a system that already shows its strength in the results it is achieving. Let’s say no to pools, and yes to equity.

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This is my classroom. It looks different at the end of every day as students engage with the space and make choices about where and how they learn best. That’s the point. No pools needed.

 

Reports, reflecting, reinvigorated

I’ve been contemplating a blog post for a while and have been really struggling to determine what it is I want to say. Since the change of federal government there has been a lot of attention directed at education, not all of it (hardly any of it) has been helpful, accurate or morale boosting. What I’m wondering is; how much of that is sound and fury. How much of the noise about a ‘back to basics’ approach is just that. What is important to educators, students and the future? Is it the posturing of politicians determined to distance themselves from their predecessors or is it the passion of those people in our schools, childcare centres, flexible learning spaces and all around our country working to inspire, to teach and to engage? 

It’s the final term here in Australia, for teachers that means writing school reports, organising end of year celebrations, culminating tasks and, above all else, many opportunities to reflect. I actually don’t mind writing reports, once I sit down to do them rather than the previous weekends spent in avoidance mode. It can be an incredibly rewarding experience, an opportunity to really evaluate students’ progress, not just academically but socially, emotionally and to see how far they’ve come in a year. I’ve been lucky enough to teach some of my students for two consecutive years (small school, composite classes) and it has been wonderful to watch them grow and develop as people, not just in terms of their learning.

As I reflected on what they had achieved it occurred to me that those people who are currently stomping around saying that students need more drills and we need to return to ‘chalk and talk’ really have no idea what is going on in our schools. There’s absolutely no way that students in our schools today would benefit from that style of education. These are students (children) who use technology in almost every aspect of their life, who are used to problem solving, to finding work arounds, to adapting, to manipulating tools and learning as they go. This week my class used iPads to create posters to advertise a farmers’ market they are organising (they are Year 1 and 2 students). Leading up to this they had evaluated different posters, identified features, heard a graphic designer explain how he creates a product and planned their own posters. Over the course of 2 lessons they took photos, imported graphics, experimented with text, colour and layout, evaluated each others’ work and then improved their own based on feedback.

Students were engaged in these activities, they were asking questions, justifying their responses, solving problems, collaborating and reflecting (I’ve got the photos to prove it). Imagine if I asked them to spend the same amount of time sitting at desks, listening to me teach and copy down spelling rules or lists or whatever it is people mean when they talk about ‘back to basics education’ (a topic for a future post). Which activity would have achieved better learning for those students? Which activity is providing them with the opportunity to develop skills they can use and will need in order to participate as engaged and informed citizens? Which activity would lead to the harmonious hum of students on task and which would lead to apathy, loss of motivation and disengagement?

While it might sound like I’m getting a little ranty again, that’s not the purpose of this post. My main point is to share the realisation that I’ve had. No matter what rhetoric the government or think tanks or the media might be peddling we, as educators, recognise what our students need. We are in an incredibly privileged position to watch these students engage in learning in unprecedented ways. There is no stopping them (and good luck Mr Pyne and all those who try). I am not suggesting we do away with explicit teaching by any means. We engage in a range of tasks through which students are explicitly taught skills, such as phonics, mathematics strategies, writing, that are of course fundamental to their learning, and whoever is out there saying that teachers aren’t currently doing this needs to go visit some schools. What I am saying is that perhaps these sessions are no longer the backbone of our structure. Watching my students learn and question and understand has reinvigorated me, what an opportunity we have to engage students, to respond to their interests, to connect with them. How many other occupations provide you with opportunity to build real, lasting and inspirational relationships with your clients? Not many.

I’m beginning to look ahead to the next school year. I always approach this time of year with a certain amount of sadness as I farewell those students with whom I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours for a year (or two). This year, I’m taking the time to thank them for what they’ve taught me, to appreciate how much they inspire and I’m looking ahead reinvigorated and excited for the learning adventures of the future. Surely this is more powerful than the latest government slogan.