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.

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!

20140617-211300-76380261.jpg

20140617-211403-76443077.jpg

20140617-211457-76497826.jpg

‘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.

Image

 

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.

 

‘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.

20140201-081856.jpg

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.

Image

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.