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?

Research says…

Recently I have felt slightly under siege by ‘research’. For some of this I have only myself to blame, for choosing to study for my MEd, for choosing to attend lectures about educational policy, for engaging in discussions on social media, for reading newspapers and for listening to politicians and journalists talk about education. However, what is completely not my fault is the way in which this ‘research’ is presented, not as findings constrained by particular methodology or context or situations, but as fact, indisputable, broadly applicable and as a basis for a wide range of policy and practice decisions.

What worries me particularly is how much I accepted this, how much I took what was delivered and believed without question what it told me I should be doing in my classroom. This is not my normal behaviour, I am captain of the “Really? What do you mean by that? Why should I do that?” questions. I am critical, and at times cynical, and really not known for just accepting what I am told. Turns out when it’s presented me under the umbrella of research I follow blindly, happily accepting ideas that challenge my fundamental beliefs without question. Well, not any more.

After some very interesting twitter conversations (the more I engage in twitter, the more I’m learning) I realised that at no point had I read the actual documents prepared by the researchers. What terrified me was that I wasn’t accepting actual research as fact, but rather someone else’s boiled down interpretation of the research, frequently having selected points that best suit their own political or philosophical agenda. To be clear, I wasn’t at some sort of off the grid meetings discussing random aspects of education, I was at professional learning developed and sanctioned by the educational system in which I work. There are some very popular pieces of research getting rather a lot of airtime and policy time and learning time at the moment. However, as I’ve started to read the actual research and articles critiquing said research I’ve come to realise that all is not as it might have first seemed.

It turns out that research comes in all shapes and sizes, some of it is based on other research, some of it uses small samples, some of it large, some of it publicly funded, some private. All of these aspects of the research are of great significance in terms of its validity and applicability. The key for me is that I need to go to the source. I need to ask questions when someone says “Research says…” I need to remember that generally, people use research to prove a particular point, often focusing on particular aspects rather than the research in the fullness of its intention.

There is a huge emphasis at the moment about C21 learners and learning. One of those skills is critical thinking. Are we as educators modelling this skill for our students or are we bowing down under the research presented to us as truth. Are we succumbing to the ‘headline’ approach to research? What do you ask when presented with research that challenges your beliefs? How often do you read the original documents? I’m going to start clawing back some of this power, I’m going to start asking questions and I’m NEVER going to use the phrase “Research says” unless I’ve actually read the research first hand. Promise.