‘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.

 

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‘My School’ isn’t really about my school

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at a local preschool information night. I had been invited to talk about school readiness from a school perspective, to try and allay some of the concerns parents have in terms of what their children need to know before starting school (nothing, in case you’re wondering) and to show that early years centres and schools work together for the best interests of their students. I was excited about this, supporting parents in ensuring their child makes a smooth and positive transition to school is something I’m passionate about. I love visiting other settings and seeing the great things other educators are doing and it’s exciting to start building meaningful relationships with our local centres.

The first part of the evening went well, there were jokes about shoes and lunch boxes, wry smiles when talking about who is more anxious starting school; the parent or the child, and a generally relaxed atmosphere. I had made a conscious effort not to talk explicitly about what happens at my school, this wasn’t a promotional activity, but had talked generally about what schools do to support transition. Sadly, the very first question at the end of the session changed the tone markedly. It was “Why are your NAPLAN scores so much lower than everyone else’s?”.

Talk about getting straight to the point. Except it’s not the point, not by a long shot. After taking a very deep breath, I proceeded to explain the contextual issues: ICSEA value, statistically invalid sample size due to small cohort etc and attempted to explain that this information probably doesn’t provide parents with much useful data on which to make a judgement about their child’s school. I was then met with: “But I’m a numbers person, numbers make sense to me.” At which point I wanted to curl up on the floor and weep. Weep for the system that sees parents of 3 year olds sitting on websites comparing schools based on a test that two classes in a school sat, on one day out of almost 200 in the school year, looking at numbers but unable to place them in context because the way in which those numbers are presented makes it seem cut and dried and weep because at no point did anyone ask a question about the emotional and social wellbeing of students.

Until this happened I’d been fairly ambivalent about My School. As part of my Masters I’d studied the development of it, I’d used the information on it when applying for jobs and I use it when preparing reports at work. What I hadn’t realised is that I approach this data with a fair amount of caution, I look at all the contextual information, I look for patterns not isolated scores. What is now apparent to me is that this is not what happens when non-educators look at this website. They see raw scores with angry red backgrounds to highlight just how very poorly a school is doing. They compare local schools not realising that even within a relatively small geographic area there can be vast differences in the demographic of school communities. They look at the angry red backgrounds and judge. They judge the students, the teachers and the community.

This saddens me. It saddens me because it means that the government and media and parents themselves have conditioned themselves to the point where a school is seen solely in terms of a number. For me education isn’t about numbers, it’s so much more than that. What about developing resilient and independent learners who respond flexibly to the changing world around them? What about tolerance and awareness of social issues and differences, developing citizens who are respectful, engaged and active members of their community? What about happiness and joy of learning? I’m proud to teach at a school that serves an incredibly diverse community. I’m proud every time I watch students interact with their peers who have specific needs or challenges. I’m proud when I see students excited about learning, making connections, solving problems and engaging in community action. I’m proud of my school’s NAPLAN results because I know the hard work and commitment they represent to an education that’s about more than a test on a single day, but an education that’s life long and empowering. What a shame that ‘My School’ isn’t really about my school at all.

Empowering learners (that includes you, teachers)

First week of school is always a roller coaster of anticipation, planning, adapting, winging it. There a things about it I love: like meeting my new class, getting to know them, seeing the potential for the year; and bits that are harder to fully appreciate: last minute changes to classes, timetables, rosters; realising after 10 minutes that I’ve pitched a lesson at completely the wrong level and the constant thinking, planning, worrying. On the whole though, for me the good far outweighs the challenging. Fresh starts, shiny shoes and that buzz of excitement that fills the first week win every time.

This year one of the things that’s made the first week particularly exciting is that I’m trying out a more flexible learning space. I spent a lot of time over the summer reading, talking to people and thinking about how a space impacts on learning. This is one of my favourite parts of being an educator, the potential for change and improvement. I believe that teaching is at it’s core fundamentally innovative, every day, every lesson we are in a position to innovate, to respond to students flexibly, to adapt, to experiment. I just love it.

I’ve started small with changing the learning space, I wanted my students to have something familiar to begin with so they felt comfortable and could interact with the environment as they felt ready. It has been so inspiring to see how they chose to use the different spaces and furniture and the care they took with these decisions. This week I only had half my class, the Year Ones, as the Kindergartens start on Monday. This has made it easier for them to explore different options. The thing that stuck out for me was how much they thought about where and how they would work and how well they worked in these spaces. When they chose their space they all, without exception, focused on their task fully in a way that I hadn’t expected. It was also interesting to see who consistently chose to work alone, in spaces very much apart from other students, something that I had deliberately allowed space for after reading Susan Cain’s book, ‘Quiet’.

On Friday afternoon I asked them what they thought about the classroom and if we should change anything. They had amazing, practical ideas. We need to move the bean bag because it’s in the way at the moment, we should use the cushions better and the coffee tables should be together, for a start. They are so excited to take responsibility for this environment, one student has allocated himself ‘cushion organiser’ and will set up the cushions every morning. They pack away the furniture at the end of each day without being asked and they are the most settled I have ever seen a class by the end of week one. Why? I believe it’s because they feel empowered, they’ve been given the opportunity to make choices about their learning and they have risen to this challenge. I can’t wait to see what impact this has on their learning and their social and emotional development over the year.

As to me, I also have been empowered, I was able to choose the furniture for my classroom, I haven’t had to work with a set of standardised desks and chairs. I was empowered to research, to explore and to present my rationale for these changes. I was empowered to reflect on my practice and to seek to change it in order to improve the outcomes for my students. This is what excites me, this is what makes me love my job. As empowered learners there is no end to what my students and I can achieve.

How was your first week? What are you trying this year? How are you empowering your students and yourself?

This is how my classroom looked this week, it will look different on Monday and I can’t imagine what it will look like by the end of the year. Exciting times.

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Professional Learning for the people or by the people?

A new school year is about to start here in Australia and I am, as ever, filled with excitement and a fair measure of trepidation. Excitement about the potential a new year holds, the learning, the relationships, the challenges and all of the things that are bound up in the complexity of education. Trepidation about how I’m going to do all the things I want to do while maintaining some semblance of a life outside of work and ideally without developing an eye twitch due to a combination of stress and exhaustion. Yes, I know teachers have loads of holidays and only work from 9-3, clearly I’m a wuss…

One of the things I am particularly excited about this year is professional learning, my own and the broader learning of staff in my school. In 2014 the sands have shifted considerably in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. Traditionally (and by traditionally I mean up until last year, and probably still this year) professional learning in many schools consisted of sending staff on a course at which they listened to an expert, generally someone who had been out of the classroom for a number of years, returning to school, trying to implement some of the things they’d been told and then returning to normal practice after about a week. This model of professional learning never really worked for me, or many others. It’s too removed, too isolated, too infrequent and generally disconnected from what is my daily teaching experience. It was, therefore, with a fair amount of glee that I heard that this model was being changed, or completely dismantled. While I do have concerns about the limited amount of time that schools, school leaders and teachers have had to prepare for such a significant shift in professional learning, I believe that this means a new opportunity for professional learning that is connected, meaningful and relevant.

What does concern me about the future is the rise of the mega conference and external consultants. In recent years I’ve seen the growth of conferences, both in Australia and overseas, that are headlined by the current eduguru and come at a considerable cost to schools and individual teachers. I am not going to provide the conferences with any free publicity by linking to them here but a quick search will provide you with a number of examples. One of the things that worries me is how these conferences add to the disadvantage and division in the Australian school system. School funding is a complex thing in Australia and not something I really want to get into here. However, the reality is that most (if not all) public schools would really struggle to send any members of staff to a conference that costs, for example, almost $700. When you add the costs of casual teachers on to this you are talking an expense of at least $1300 for one teacher to be out of school for two days to listen to experts share ideas that generally require some sort of significant shift to school culture or practice, something else that costs money. And really, if you’ve sent one person to a conference how much impact can that person actually have? So, who goes to these conferences? I have my own ideas about this, and don’t want to be unnecessarily divisive here so I encourage you to ask yourself that question. Do you go to the conferences? If you do, who else is there, is there equal representation from all systems and types of schools? If not, what’s the potential impact of this, if any?

I know that all teachers can read blogs, buy books, join twitter, talk to each other and learn that way. Absolutely true. Why then the conferences? Sometimes it is worthwhile and important to listen to the person with ideas, to meet others who are trying or have tried new techniques and strategies, sometimes it’s about the prestige, sometimes.

For me conferences are not a realistic form of professional learning, and to be honest they aren’t the way I learn best. For me, professional learning needs to happen in context, to be responsive, to be undertaken with colleagues so we can reflect and evaluate; and needs to be long term. I’m incredibly lucky to work in a school where we collaborate to develop our own professional learning, where we get to spend time in each other’s classes, where we engage in professional conversations and where teachers are able (and encouraged) to lead learning. I have seen the benefit of this in so many ways, in the ways in which teachers see themselves as professionals, in the pride teachers take in the changes they instigate and the effect these have on their students and in the way a staff team builds a learning culture. For me conferences do not have the same impact, in fact at times they reduce the confidence and self-esteem of teachers by setting up unrealistic ideals that do not and can not relate to most teachers’ experience and setting.

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Teachers collaborating, making meaning, discussing, questioning and learning. Professional learning in action.

There are so many exciting possibilities for educators, too many for me to properly go into here. Learning through teachmeets, action research, twitter accounts (insert plug for @EduTweetOz), informal and formal learning networks are all ways in which teachers can own their learning and make meaningful changes in their own practice. Yes, the conference brochures are pretty, and yes the speakers are knowledgeable, and yes it’s reasonable to not want to ‘miss out’ on the next big thing. However, I really do hope that educators and school leaders are asking themselves some questions before they fork over the thousands of dollars necessary to attend them. Questions like: ‘What actual difference will this make to my practice and my school?’; ‘Can I can learn about this in a way that might be more meaningful or powerful?’; and ‘Is this the best use of this money for my school and my community?’.

The potential for this new era of professional learning is truly exciting, I just hope we don’t get carried away in worshipping a few trends or gurus and see the knowledge that’s already there in our schools, our networks and in ourselves. Teachers are better placed than any other professionals to truly lead and share their own learning, let’s make the most of that advantage and spend our pennies wisely.

I’d love to hear about what you are doing for professional learning in 2014. How can we support each other in this journey?

Where’s the evidence?

This week I have found myself in situations faced with dramatically different visions for the future of education. One was a vision of increased engagement, developing a system and practices that engaged learners, that was responsive, that identified the challenges inherent in education today and suggested ways of meeting those challenges to ensure Australian learners were prepared for whatever the future might look like. The other presented a vision for education that looks to the past, frowns upon innovation and cuts funding at a time when surely education is of utmost importance.

There has been a lot (really quite a ridiculous amount) of talk by politicians, by ‘research’ organisations and by some sectors of the media about phonics. Not just about phonics but that teachers aren’t teaching phonics and if only everyone taught phonics then the world would be a better place. Our esteemed Federal Education Minister said this “We are very determined and I am personally very determined to drive an agenda in literacy that focuses on phonics. It’s far too important to turn a blind eye to what is failing our students in Australia and I am not prepared to do it.” on the weekend in an article you can read here. His reasons for demanding a ‘return’ to phonics is because he believes that: “While it might have been pursued with all the goodwill in the world, there’s no doubt that literacy standards for Australian students have declined measurably,”

I have a few difficulties with these statements. Well, I have a few that I have space to explore here, to go into all of them would take far too long. Firstly, where is the evidence that Australian literacy standards have “declined measurably”? To believe this statement we need to ask a few questions; against what measure have standards declined, is the decline a decline within Australia, that is; are students today reading at lower levels than they were 10 years ago or is this a decline against other countries? If the latter then we could argue that this is not a decline in standards but in ranking and could be attributed to any number of external factors. A decline in standards is a serious thing, my question is: where is the evidence? The problem with this sort of statement is that it appears as fact, it implies evidence, and therefore evidence is very rarely explicitly asked for. What are the standards Mr Pyne is using and how big is the decline? Is there an actual, measurable decline in standards? Where is the evidence?

My second concern is this perception that teachers don’t teach phonics. I don’t know who started this nasty rumour but again, I’d like to ask the question, where is the evidence? I’ve done a little of my own asking around and I am yet to find a teacher who does not teach phonics and recognise the importance of such skills and knowledge. Here is a link to the Australian Curriculum for English. A quick glance through it should show Mr Pyne that phonics is indeed part of our curriculum content. Who is it that isn’t teaching phonics and who is it that keeps telling everyone it’s not being taught? Where’s the evidence? I’m tempted to do a quick twitter poll to find out if schools are teaching phonics. If you’re interested in joining in use the hashtag #phonicstruths and tweet what your school teaches. I am fairly certain that we would be hard pushed to find a school that is not teaching phonics or a teacher who cannot explain how and why they teach it.

Enough with the mudslinging and the half(un)-truths. Enough with the accusations and the belittling of educators. Enough, Mr Pyne, enough. Where’s your evidence?

I’m going to keep hold of the positive vision of an education that inspires, engages and equips learners. The vision that I see shared by those educators on twitter and in our schools going above and beyond the hours, the expectations and the already high demands placed upon them. A vision that sees education as a community responsibility, that seeks to unite not divide. I’m going to keep asking ‘Where’s the evidence?’ every time someone accuses teachers of doing anything other than the very best for our students. I encourage you to do the same.

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. 

 

Visual literacy isn’t an excuse for lazy teaching.

Yesterday an opinion piece written by a teacher was published in a national newspaper. You can find the link to the article here. The basic premise of the article was that new Australian Curriculum places too much evidence on the study of visual literacy and went on to say that this just gave an excuse for ‘lazy teachers’ to “…sit at the back of the classroom, send emails, answer texts, pay their bills or surf the Internet; sleep even.” The author gave many examples of what this might look like and how it might happen. Unfortunately for the reader, and the teaching profession, none of these examples were based on evidence.

I’ve just written a paper for a university course, no one will read this apart from the marker, yet I was bound to provide evidence to support my views and analysis, I had to support this evidence by referring to existing research and documents. Why then, in an article that is published online and in print, available to anyone and everyone to read is there no such standard imposed? Oh that’s right, it’s because it’s his ‘opinion’. I wonder though how many people will identify that this is merely the opinion of one person and how many will unconsciously afford it the status of fact merely based on its publication in a national paper. This is what worries me; how opinions, no matter how unfounded, become facts. How many people had conversations yesterday about those lazy teachers sitting students in front of movies so they could catch up on their emails?

Just in case that is what happened, let me provide some counter evidence to the views expressed in the article. The Australian Curriculum is available for everyone to access online. You can find the English curriculum here in all its detail. A quick scroll through should assuage the authors concerns about the ‘skewing’ of the curriculum in favour of visual literacy at the expense of ‘language-based literacy skills’. Out of 33 content descriptions, references to screen, film, image or visual understandings are found in only 3 in the Foundation content (the first year of school). At the other end of the spectrum, the Yr 10 content, out of 31 content descriptions 7 refer to media or visual elements. Hopefully this goes some way to reassuring the author.

If he still feels concerned about even these references to media and visual knowledge let me pose this question: what sort of texts are our students exposed to most? What sort of texts are they required to make meaning from, interpret and analyse. What texts must they deconstruct critically if they are to stand a chance of engaging actively in society, of making responsible decisions or of reading without being influenced by the maker’s choice of images, colour, words, size, music. Books? Shockingly, no. Our students need to be able to interpret the myriad of messages presented to them in advertisements, television shows, movies, magazines and online. They need to read visually, they need to understand the power of a choice of image, of position, of camera angle, of colour, of actors and all the other aspects that are used to sway opinion, to create emotions and convey messages. Even if the author thinks there’s an emphasis on visual knowledge in the English curriculum, why doesn’t he see that as a strength, as a response to a changing textual landscape that students today need to navigate? And if he’s not teaching this to his students then he’s the one doing his students a disservice.

Finally, the aspect of the article that saddened me the most was the author’s willingness to throw his colleagues under the mainstream media bus. I wonder how many classrooms he’s been into where he’s seen a teacher sitting at the back of the room checking emails or asleep while students watch a movie. I can honestly say I’ve never seen that happen. Where teachers are showing students a film they are actively engaged in the analysis of this as a text, students are asking questions, interrogating choices and developing an understanding of the elements used to create an effective text. This is empowering learning, learning that provides students with skills relevant to their lived experience, learning that enables students to engage actively in the world around them as critical and discerning citizens. Perhaps some teachers in Melbourne might like to invite the author to their school to show him what visual literacy is all about. He’s welcome to visit my Year 1/2 class any time to hear them analyse all manner of texts. Or perhaps he just needs a hug and some reassurance that really it will all be okay, that teachers are working hard for the best of their students and the Australian curriculum is not the latest in evil government strategies to dumb down the population. Perhaps he needs to spend some time on twitter to see all the amazing things educators are doing. Let’s send a little educator love his way.