Friday, 28 December 2012

Why School?

I've just finished reading Why School, by Will Richardson - another notch on the holiday reading list belt! 

The book makes a compelling case for why and how education needs to be revolutionised.




The Old [Existing... ] Way

"Our story about education has gone basically unrevised for 150 years. Time's up."

Sure, there have been some changes to the way we educate children over the course of time, but these have been of incremental, even glacial pace given the vast period of time that 'formal' education has existed for... 

A rough timeline of change in Education... 

Whilst there may be some give or take on the actual dates in the graphic above, it can be said with some safety that we, as a profession, are still using some the same methods and approaches that we were [gulp... ] 1000 + years ago!?!

Education has been / is slow to respond to the changing way that society is learning, communicating and recreating. A similarly slow response has been seen from Education to other trends of societal change, including Gamification and Social Media... 
Teenagers and Business are a couple of segments of society that have generally been much quicker to adapt to these changes than Education has been...  

No so much the old, but certainly the recent and current excessive focus on standardised testing and competition, has lead to an inevitable narrowing of focus - narrowing of curriculum content and skills that students are exposed to, as well narrowing methods of measuring how 'good' a student / teacher / school / country(!) is.

The pathway towards educational 'success'..?

This heightened state of urgency regarding testing, data and measurement of progress is all related to a philosophy of ongoing, incremental improvement... This is laudable, as we all [should] want to get better at what we do... 


The Case for Radical Change

Education no longer needs gradual 'tweaking'... We refine, polish and focus on minute improvements when we are near-perfection - our systems and methods were likely closer to this state when we were preparing students for an industrial society. A factory processing model was appropriate when students were likely to end up working in factories, or occupations that relied upon consistent and accurate application of fundamental skills and knowledge. In the future - even now, in the present - there will be far greater value placed upon creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and other much-quoted(!) '21st Century Skills'.
So we don't need improvement, we need significant, revolutionary change - we need to be "doing school 'differently', instead of simply 'better'".  

One of the most significant changes that has occured in society, which Richardson keeps coming back to, is the sheer abundance of information that is available to almost anyone nowadays - there is now unprecedented accessibility to knowledge and knowledgeable people. This information and expertise is only becoming increasingly accessible.




The New Way

"In this new story, real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like - not just with a teacher and some same-age peers, in a classroom, from September to June." 

  • Students have increased autonomy about what they are learning - less sausage factory, more motivated learners.

  • Learners should have flexibility about where they seek assistance from - go to where the expertise is, rather than a central, nominated person who cannot possibly be expert in all areas...

  • Provision of opportunities and experiences for children to participate in and learn from digital environments - don't ignore these increasingly significant aspects of our lives. 

  • Discovery, rather than delivery - "move away from telling kids what to learn, and when and how to learn it."

  • More collaborating with other people and creating new products of learning, less consuming of content.

  • Teachers to be collaborating, communicating and sharing with fellow professionals beyond their own school - spread quality practice and ideas.

  • We [students and teachers] need to be good at learning, not simply knowing or remembering - knowledge is not only increasingly easy for people to access, it "is constantly changing and being updated", as well. 

  • Teachers need to adopt a mindset of being ongoing learners - "... the adults in the room need to be learners first and teachers second."


Is inspiring too strong a word..? The book was certainly motivating and left me hopeful that, despite the stodginess of Education systems and the burden of overcoming "the roots of 150 years of tradition around schooling", teachers can begin to join bottom-up reforms of how we teach and how we ask students to learn.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Brain Bugs

I recently finished reading a book by Dean Buonomano about the brain and some of its imperfections - Brain Bugs: How The Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives.


There were a series of fascinating insights into some of the dilemmas we face, as a result of the human brain's recent struggles to evolve at a rate that is consistent with the rate of change we are experiencing in modern society. There was also plenty of practical advice for how we can help our own brains [and those of others] overcome some of these biologically-stubborn 'flaws'... 


A complex device

"Your brain is a web made of approximately 90 billion neurons linked by 100 trillion synapses - which in terms of elements and connections surpasses the World Wide Web, with its approximately 20 billion Web pages connected by a trillion links."

Human Brain vs the World Wide Web... 

For a variety of evolutionary reasons, our brains are naturally-inclined to be good at making approximations, recognising patterns and making connections. This points to the importance of students learning about knowledge / skills / concepts in an interrelated manner and being taught to make conceptual connections, rather than being taught knowledge and skills in an isolated, 'stand-alone' fashion - our minds work best by storing knowledge "in an associative manner: related concepts... are linked to each other."

On the other hand, human brains perennially struggle with mathematical calculations - we will "never be able to match the numerical prowess of digital computers". Despite our ability to carry out highly-complex tasks ["... virtually every human brain on the planet can master a language... "], we have to think hard in order to solve relatively simple mental calculations... 
Our brains are also quite poor storage devices - there are limits to how much information we can store and how accurately we can recall that information. Fortunately, technology is fast alleviating this issue for us - there is an ever-lessening need to ask the brain to store information, as we now have Google, YouTube, Internet-connected mobile devices, electronic calendars, etc. to perform these tasks for us.
In schools, we no longer need to be focusing on 'filling up' students with knowledge and content - knowledge is increasingly accessible in the age of the Internet and it is biologically inefficient!


Manipulating behaviour and motivating people

It seems we may be 'hard wired' to seek immediate gratification - particularly for activities that are related to the limbic section of the brain, responsible for some of our more basic functions. 
The term temporal discounting has been coined to describe how "the perceived value of a reward decreases with time." i.e. We become progressively less interested in a potential reward the longer that we have to wait to receive it... 
So we need to provide frequent positive feedback about progress to students [and teachers... ], to ensure that they engage with the journey towards the long-term outcomes - show them the steps along the way, not just the final destination. Gamification, with its focus on short cycles of feedback about the performance of 'players', does this well.

"... our brain is rigged to favor immediate gratification" - people need short cycles of feedback to maximise motivation.

Irrational Fears

We excessively fear many things because it made biological sense to fear such things 100,000 years ago... eg: We have an "innate uneasiness and distrust of outsiders... [because] competition and aggression between neighboring groups was constant throughout human evolution... " This 'innate', but often irrational fear, is routinely exploited by politicians ["amygdala politics"] and others, in order to strengthen their followings.
These outdated fear circuits reflect our genetic encoding, which "can only be reprogrammed on a slow evolutionary timescale". Skunks are a good example of "the consequences of running an outdated operating system". The cocky skunks will nonchalantly turn around and spray a potential enemy with their powerful odor - a tactic that serves them well against most species they encounter, but not against speeding cars... 
These outdated fears also commonly lead to excessive conservatism and reliance upon traditional ways. Partly, this is due to our memories having "no convenient way to delete information" - even proven bad information can be hard to eradicate... 

So how do we overcome conservative and outdated - but tightly-held - views that exist in our schools..? How do we expediate necessary change?

Overcoming our 'brain bugs'

In order to effectively tackle the inherent flaws of our brains, we need to develop our awareness of how the brain works.

The term, asymmetric paternalism [George Loewenstein] refers to the concept of enacting laws and regulations that "take our propensity to make irrational decisions into account." Without restricting our freedom or available choices, such laws "should nudge us toward the decisions that are in our own and society's best interests"... 

  • If we had greater collective awareness of the brain's workings and its potential flaws, would schools be able to put some structures and processes in place to protect against irrational conservatism, or fear of difference..?

Another approach is to use the brain's propensity to value the behaviour of the group - "studies suggest that one of the most important determinants of people's behaviour is what they believe others are doing... ".

  • Do schools need to work harder at promoting and celebrating people who are demonstrating the behaviours and actions we are hoping to 'spread'..?


Anyway, that's enough for now, my brain hurts... 



Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Dangers of Efficiency

To work efficiently is to minimise waste - the wasting of time, the wasting of effort, the wasting of money, etc.
Operating efficiently is a vital component of successful workplaces, as it ensures that resources [financial, human, physical] are used in productive ways, with minimal waste and misuse. Errors, 'fat' and ineffectiveness are removed from processes and structures, in order to refine our work, consistently-implement 'best-practice', as well as ensure 'quality-control'...

Schools, like other organisations, value and aspire towards making productive use of their time and resources - after all, teachers are very busy and we all want to 'get the most out of' our students and the time we are investing in our work.
In schools, this view is related to the value we place on having ultimate consistency between classrooms and teachers, regarding the programs, approaches and schedules that we use. There is a lot of good research that identifies why it is important to have consistency of practice within schools, to eliminate the poor / less effective practice, remove examples of time / resource wastage, etc.
However...

Is there a side effect of schools aspiring towards uniformity and efficiency of operations..?


The only thing we know for sure about the future is that it will be different from the present. It is not simply this acknowledgement of inevitable change that is significant, but the exponential rate of change that society is experiencing since the dawn of the Internet...

The way children learn, the way teachers work and the way schools operate, will also all change as a result of our changing society - the variation will be in how responsive schools and teachers are to the changing needs of our students. i.e. Are you going to:

  • ride the crest of the wave, or 
  • miss it, have to wait for the next one and fall behind..?


If we [within schools] are uniform in our approaches...

  • Yes, we are consistent
  • Yes, we are efficient, through refining and scaling of processes;
  • But we leave little room for experimenting, for trialing, for innovating... 
  • If we do the same things in the same way, we remove the ability to investigate new ways and ideas and reduce our capacity to adapt and respond to inevitable change.

How can schools structure to better-accommodate change..?

Instead of aiming for and valuing uniformity, we need to 'tinker' more... An efficiency-mindset seeks to remove all errors, but if we stigmatise errors and mistakes, we won't be trialing and experimenting with new ideas and initiatives, because an inevitable [essential?!?] aspect of trials and experiments is the errors and mistakes we make and the learning that comes from these errors.

Seeking perfection of output and ultimate efficiency of process makes sense on a factory floor, or even when the role of schools was to produce workers for such contexts...








But this is no longer the role of schools - we are now preparing students for a future that is far different and less-known than that for which schools have traditionally served.

In schools we need to structure for and value the trialing of new ideas and experimenting with new approaches. We need to acknowledge and accept that some of these will end up being inefficient [i.e. not particularly successful] uses of time and resources, but value the learning that occurs from 'finding out' and investigating, as well as the successful new ideas that we can spread and scale.

The time and resources we spend investigating and tinkering with new ideas, projects, strategies, etc. shouldn't be seen as inefficient, but rather an investment in our ability to adapt and respond to change and, ultimately, to be relevant to our students and the communities that we serve.  

Friday, 7 December 2012

How do we make it equal?

Equality...


Is it ensuring that everybody is treated equally..? That we are all treated in the same fashion and those that work the hardest, those that 'want it' the most and those who are the most effective will reap the greatest rewards..?
Or is it focusing on equality of outcomes..? i.e. providing extra assistance to those that need it most and reducing assistance for those that are already advantaged..?

It often seems like a natural reaction to treat everybody in a consistent manner. As children, we are taught to 'share'... And by 'share' they (parents, teachers, et al... ) don't mean, "give your younger brother more than what you are keeping for yourself... "
It is natural for us to want the same treatment as other people, as well as to question why other people get 'better' treatment than ourselves...

Unfortunately, the 'survival of the fittest' mentality of treating people equally, is destined to result in unequal outcomes. Darwinism might make sense in the field of evolution, but when we have control over the outcomes, we can do better at 'spreading' the opportunity to succeed.

If choosing equality of outcomes over equal treatment, we need to direct and focus resources where they are needed most and reduce the level of support provided to people and groups of people that already have a high level of opportunity to succeed.
Why give people more than they need..?
Why leave people short of the opportunities that they need..?


Society


A recent development that has occurred in most modern democracies is the increasing rate of income inequality (Fisher and Hout 2006). Such income inequality "undermines societies: the more inequality, the more health problems, social tensions, and the lower social mobility, trust, life expectancy." [Durante, Fiske, Kervyn & Cuddy]



An OECD study identified Australia as part of a group with some other English-speaking countries, each of whom had above-average inequality in labour earnings, with the significant factors driving this earnings disparity being a wide wage dispersion range and a relatively low rate of full-time employment. 
i.e. Our top earners are doing very well for themselves... and we have lots of people without full-time employment... 

At the other end of the spectrum were a group of Nordic countries [and Switzerland], each of whom had below-average inequality in labour earnings, due largely to a narrower range of wage dispersion and a high employment rate.
i.e. There is a smaller 'gap' between high and low income earners... and a higher rate of people are working full-time. 


Schools

The Government has a responsibility to provide an education for its young citizens and it is this provision of education that is oft-promoted as the the vehicle for long-term societal change, particularly for those that are facing disadvantage.
If this is to be more than lip service, then Governments need to use their education systems to take on some of the responsibility of addressing the many and varied instances of disadvantage that are existent in our society today.

  • Greater support for schools that are struggling.
  • Proportionally greater support for schools that service disadvantaged students.


Classrooms

Within schools, we are probably more clearly on the path towards equitable outcomes. Most teachers and school leaders know (and put into practice) that students in greater need deserve greater support.

  • Younger students are more dependent upon adult support and therefore need more of it. eg: Better teacher : student ratios in classes with younger students... 
  • Academically struggling students need greater support, so they can engage with age-appropriate content and not face 'dumbed down' learning expectations and curriculum content...  
  • Students with behavioural issues often need higher levels of time, attention and support than their peers, in order for them to close 'gaps' in their learning regarding appropriate behaviour - we accept that some students need extra assistance with reading [Maths, speech, fine motor skills, etc... ], but sometimes it is harder for people to accept that students are at different 'levels' regarding their skills and understandings about appropriate behaviour. It is no different to academic areas - we need to differentiate the support we provide so that all students have an equal opportunity to engage in and learn at school. 

So, if we are pursuing a more equal society as an outcome, we need to treat our individual students and schools differently, giving them what they need to ensure that they have equal opportunity to achieve success.


“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.” 
― Rick RiordanThe Red Pyramid









Monday, 3 December 2012

Start With the Purpose

In his September 2009 TEDx talk, Simon Sinek identified the need for a re-think of traditional ways that leaders communicate:


Sinek identifies 'The Golden Circle', comprising three elements that need consideration when communicating significant decisions, initiatives or change:

Sinek states that most people communicate from the 'outside, in', focusing on the what - the results... what 'it' looks like in practical application... 
Instead, we need to be communicating important decisions and initiatives from the 'inside, out' and focusing on the why - identify, explain and clarify the purpose.

"People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it"

Daniel Pink is another who comprehensively states the importance of having people see the purpose of their work, identifying it as one of the crucial ingredients in maximising the intrinsic motivation of people.



Sinek defers to science in order to evidence why this 'inside, out' approach is a more effective form of communication, citing biology:
There are three main components of the human brain:
  • The neo cortex [the most-recently evolved part of the brain].
  • This is the rational, analytical part of the brain.
  • The part of the brain that consumes and interprets information. 
  • The limbic sections.
  • Responsible for the emotional and instinctive parts of the brain. 
  • It is these limbic parts of the brain that drive behaviour


Leaders, themselves, need to know and believe in the 'why' of their decisions / initiatives, if they are going to be able to effectively communicate this to their people.



The goal is "to hire people who believe what you believe".
It is not enough to hire people because of 'what' they can do - if they don't understand and identify with the 'why', then they will not be intrinsically motivated by their work.


"If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe."
We need to be more open and regular regarding 'what we believe' about the purpose of our work.



Regardless of how, or how well, we communicate, the 'law of diffusion of innovation' suggests that there will always be some people who 'buy in' to new ideas and innovations - the 'Innovators' and 'Early Adopters'... 

The challenge is to get over the 'chasm' and get the majority to buy in to the idea being communicated.  

A slight detour, but this popular video is a decent example of this concept of 'diffusion of innovation':
  • The Lone Nut = Innovator
  • The First Follower = Early Adopter
  • The Early Majority come in and a tipping point is reached... 



What does this mean for schools?

  • We should communicate our significant decisions and initiatives 'from the inside out', focusing on the 'why'.
  • Schools need to be clear about their beliefs about teaching and learning. They need to discuss these beliefs openly and regularly.
  • When making staffing decisions, schools need to explore the extent to which applicants identify with the important beliefs of the school, rather than zeroing in on 'what' skills and abilities candidates have - 'get the right people on the bus', rather than plugging perceived holes in skill sets of staff groups... 
  • As Simon Sinek states, the goal should be to work with people "who believe what you believe".

Friday, 23 November 2012

Teaching Conflict



Source: ABS, 2011.

Source: ABS, 2011.
We are an increasingly diverse society - we have greater choice about where we can live, as well as improved capacity to transit to different destinations. It is increasingly rare for people to live their lives in the same local community as which they grew up...
Given this, we are now more and more likely to encounter people of different backgrounds to ourselves.

We used to have sameness... 

We now have difference:

Source: ABS, 2011.

The points of difference we have from others are many, including socio-economic, race, religion, political opinion, interests, personality types and more...

Today's children will be participating in a society where it is not only increasingly common, but also increasingly important to be able to effectively interact with people of difference. How do schools help students learn these crucial skills..?

Margaret Heffernan, in discussing the importance of engaging with people and ideas that one disagrees with, identifies the science of how and why we naturally prefer to associate with those that are similar to us - the "neurobiological drive" that sees us "prefer people who are really like ourselves":



Is this a form of inbuilt discrimination..?? What might some practical examples be..?

  • Modern political discourse - do our political parties genuinely discuss and learn from their disagreements, or do they simply oppose and argue..?
  • Online 'networks' - do we predominantly elect to follow / friend those that hold similar views and interests to our own..?
  • Family christmas parties (!?!) - do we 'gravitate' towards the uncle / cousin / in-law that we know we will not get into any disagreements with..?
  • School playgrounds - do children practise a form of selection of similarity when choosing who they play and make friends with..?


The role of schools:

What of selective-entry schools? Those schools that place prerequisites [religion, financial capacity, etc.] on entry eligibility are, by definition, excluding those that are different from their desired clientele... 

These contexts limit the ability of students to gain experience and skill in interacting with people that are different to themselves.
Heffernan argues that "we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience... [and] find ways to engage with them", in order to challenge and, ultimately, develop our thinking.
Schools have a big role to play here, as not only is it our job to optimally prepare students for the society that they will participate in as adults [as identified - a diverse, plural society... ], but, as Diana Hess states in her 2009 book, Controversy in the Classroom - The Democratic Power of Discussion, schools [non-selective ones... ] are better placed than other aspects of society to provide students with this experience of interacting with people that are different to themselves:
"[There is a] greater degree of ideological diversity among students in schools than exists in most other venues inhabited by young people. Most schools contain gender, religious, ethnic, and some degree of racial diversity. Moreover, even classes that are homogeneous along a number of these dimensions likely encompass broader ideological diversity than students encounter in their own homes. The relative diversity of schools makes them particularly good places for controversial issue discussions. Students likely will be exposed to views different from their own and have to explain their own views during such discussions. This kind of "cross-cutting political talk" is markedly different from talk that occurs in an "echo chamber" of similar views."


So, in schools, we need to bust out of the 'cocoon of commonality' that may be comfortable and easy, but is also ultimately restrictive of our capacity to effectively participate in a democratic society that is increasingly diverse.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Mixed Messages...

What happens when Mum says to her son that he is not allowed to watch television whilst eating dinner, but then, when Mum is away, Dad says that it is fine? What message is the child getting about whether it is OK to watch television whilst eating dinner? A mixed, inconsistent one! The child will likely have less clarity about the appropriate decision / action to take, as they are getting mixed, inconsistent messages from the adults that are leading them.
The same concept applies in classrooms - teaching staff that work collaboratively need to be 'on the same page' regarding the messages that they are giving their students. We don't want to clog up the working memory of students by requiring them to decipher between conflicting messages that they are receiving from the adults that are leading them...  

At my school, we have recently undertaken another Instructional Rounds process and the 'Next Level of Work' that the team identified was the need for greater consistency of approach between the adults that work together in classrooms
We are very fortunate to have a high proportion of para-professional staff, who work as tutors or assistant teachers in co-operation with our teachers. This provides higher levels of support for our students, but, in some cases, gives rise to potential [though unintended] inconsistency of message and approach that we are using with our students.
There are a couple of main reasons why this issue exists:

  1. Little opportunity for planning and communication between teachers and the para-professional staff, who are often employed casually and paid by the hour [i.e. they don't spend much time at school before or after class time... ], but also often swap between classrooms during the day. Both of these factors make them a bit 'hard to catch' for busy teachers... 
  2. Less professional knowledge and understanding of para-professionals, compared with the teachers they work with. Our tutors are not tertiary-qualified professionals, so they naturally don't have the same professional awareness of the range of strategies teachers use from time to time, or the particular purposes of these strategies. If they do not empathise or understand the strategies being used by the teacher, they are more likely to revert back to what they are comfortable with or have become accustomed to from their own experiences.


How do we address this?  

By speed dating, naturally... 
Well not really... At a feedback session to staff, we paired up tutors with teachers on 'dates' and gave them two questions to ask their perfect match... 

We have also flagged the need to 'build in' some planning and communication time for tutors in 2013, by way of employing them for an extra period of time each week, which would be outside of class times and designated as time for meeting with the teachers that they predominantly work with.

Although not very romantic... hopefully it will help us improve the consistency of approach our adult staff are employing in classrooms, as well as avoid the mixed messages that can sometimes be sent to students and the resulting confusion that they may feel... 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Conditions for Innovation

Today I read an article written by Dr Frank Moss, Director of the future-focused MIT Media Lab from 2006 to 2011.
Whilst the piece largely focused upon the optimal conditions for innovation that are enjoyed by the researchers at the MIT Media Lab, it was the specific example of how one particular innovative idea was developed that interested me most and had me thinking about how a similar approach would look if carried out by schools and education systems... [highlights are mine]


There were two big 'takeaways' for me from this approach to implementing innovation:

  1. The importance of diversity - we need to collaborate more in schools and, when doing so, we need to make strategic use of the diverse range of perspectives, skills and personalities that exist among our staff.
  2. We [more often] need to "set aside... any pre-conceived notions of what a [school / learning space] should be... "
  • "What if you imagined the kind of city [community / world... ] in which you'd like to live, and then designed a [school / learning space] for this ideal place?"
So, if we did "set aside" our traditional notions of schools and learning spaces and the purpose they have served in the past... 

  • What would potential new visions of our schools look like..? 
  • What is the "place" that we are preparing today's students for? 
  • What are the skills, knowledge and understandings that they will need for this place..?


Friday, 9 November 2012

Does digital = distraction..?

A common gripe from teachers that are resistant to the growing 'intrusion' of digital technologies into their classrooms, is the notion that they lead to students being distracted from the task that they should be doing.
Multiple web browsers open and being flicked between, accessing games and other content that shouldn't be and the notion of students 'hiding' behind their laptop screens are all issues that have grown in prominence with the increasing usage of technology in classrooms. These seemingly ever-distracted students are driving many teachers to... well... distraction!



I think there are two big points that are related to this issue (and how to overcome it):

  1. Teachers, themselves, need to be 'taught' how to use these new technologies to improve learning - provide the professional support that will better-enable new initiatives (which are often naturally uncomfortable experiences... ) to achieve success.
  2. Teachers need to use their behaviour management skills and strategies, as they would when students were misusing other, more traditional forms of 'technology', such as a pencil they are doodling with, a page from their book they are making a paper plane with, or a sharpener that they are creating messy piles of pencil sharpenings with...


Yes, poorly planned and implemented technology initiatives can be expensive white elephants and even detrimental to learning, if students are using the devices inappropriately and teachers don't have the knowledge and skills to address this misuse, or utilise the benefits of these tools. There are no digital silver bullets.

I agree that students need to learn how to safely and effectively use these emerging technologies. We [generally] cannot simply 'drop in' the new technology and expect immediate improvement to student learning on the back of these new physical additions, alone. 
A recent experiment by the One Laptop Per Child program is a good counter-argument to this, however! It is probably notable, though, that there were no teachers involved in this project (!) - technology is a good amplifier of teaching, able to make good teaching better, but bad teaching worse... 

So, yes, we need to put some parameters and quality processes around the implementation of new technology initiatives, but the inevitable teething problems that come with significant change should be worked through rationally, rather than used as an excuse to revert back to 'the way we used to do things'...








Friday, 2 November 2012

Teaching to the test.

Should we focus on the test, or the learning..?

I read an article recently mounting a case that 'teaching to the test' was valuable and effective teaching practice.
A key disclaimer was made, in that it would only be appropriate to do so if:


  • The test itself was a quality determinate of the child's learning and 
  • Teaching focused on the broad concepts, skills and topics that the test was designed to measure, NOT the actual items on the test themselves... 



Benefits

The main benefits I can see of teaching to the test / summative assessment task include:
  • Focused teaching and learning, as a result of 'backward-mapping' from the ultimate assessment task - everyone is clear about the ultimate goal being worked towards.
  • [Often] extensive opportunity for deliberate practise of the execution of a skill / task is afforded, in a bid to pursue mastery - intrinsically motivating. The '10,000 hour rule' [oft-debated... ] identified by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success:


Concerns

However, I see a few more potential negatives of having a narrow end-focus, particularly if that focus is a test, rather than an open and rich assessment task... Even more particularly if the test is of the standardised, mass-produced kind... 
  • Large-scale tests are good for providing comparative information and the use of 'big data' can identify common areas of need, inform allocation of resources and support, etc. Such tests, however, are NOT locally-designed for specific cohorts of students - a good teacher will often be able to design tests and assessment tasks that better suit the needs of the students under their charge.
  • Teaching with a single end-point in mind, particularly one that has been simplified in order to be implemented with the masses, narrows and restricts the learning opportunities for students. We currently have classic examples of this in our heavily-emphasised national testing of literacy and numeracy, a concept that is common to many Western education systems. Sir Ken Robinson articulates the dangers and pitfalls of the narrowing foci of schools and education systems, as a result of standardised testing:



More Concerns... 

Aside from the restrictions placed on quality learning by 'teaching to the test', don't we already have something that should guide and inform the content of our teaching - a curriculum!?! [I also have big reservations about curriculum documents being 'standardised' and produced on a large-scale, rather than locally, but they are probably thoughts for another day... ]

To sum up, I think tests [even large-scale, standardised ones!] have a role to play in learning and education, as some useful information can be drawn from them to inform further teaching and learning, BUT they should not be the ultimate goal of our teaching and learning in schools - we need to focus on implementing high-quality pedagogical processes and doing what is best for the students' learning.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

21st Century Learning...

Yesterday, our region had an ICT Conference. The event was held at my school and teachers were in attendance from other local schools, as well as further remote schools. It was nice to see a good turnout of teachers for this event that was held on a Saturday - a good sign of commitment to ongoing learning and development.

We thought it was important to have an overarching theme / message, as well as some sort of framework for the sessions that we'd run on the day [instead of having a 'random' collection of topics... ]. We decided to go with the main theme of how do we learn in the 21st century. Underneath this would be three sub-themes that framed the content of each of the workshops held during the day:


  1. consume
  2. create
  3. communicate / collaborate
Having considered a range of topics and foci for the one-hour workshops we offered, we had to filter down to nine [offered over three sections of the day] for teachers, plus three for parents and students. 

My first bit was on Learning with Video Games. We had lots of opportunity to try out some different popular games [using X-Boxes, a Wii, iPads and laptops], but also had time for the 'walk through', or 'tutorial', to borrow from the terminology of video games... 


My second bit was on Blogging. Again, I wanted this session to focus on people 'doing the work' - I was looking to build in some discussion about the educational benefits, etc, but the first priority was for participants to experience the blogging process, themselves.


We followed this main part of the day with an hour of short [10 minutes], informal sessions, for which anybody could lead and participants were able to pick and choose on the spot what they wanted to learn about. Not quite an 'unconference', but in that ball park of being participant-driven [people had complete autonomy about where they went], demoting the notion of the 'expert', as well as promoting openness and sharing

Bit of a relief that this is over TBH, as I'm looking forward to being 'freed-up' a little - everyone involved in the planning for the day committed a fair bit of time... BUT it was nice to see a good number of teachers from my region that participated so positively in a Professional Learning event ON A SATURDAY!! 

Friday, 19 October 2012

Give Me Your Attention!

We have all used the phrase, she is such an attention-seeker... in reference to a student who's behaviour we are finding problematic and frustrating.
With many such students, this need / desire to obtain attention is a key function of why they demonstrate negative behaviours - they want to be noticed, regardless of whether this is in a positive or negative light.


How do we effectively deal with such students and behaviours?

1. The traditional approach in schools has been along the lines of... 

  • Setting and enforcing strict standards,
  • Attempting to 'dominate' the behaviour / student - showing them who's boss... 
  • Punitive approaches - the student suffers escalating consequences and has 'privileges' taken away. 
  • These approaches value and expect compliance - all students should behave in a common way [the way that the teacher / school wants... ].
2. An alternative approach moves away from a deficit model, where the focus tends to be on what the student is missing, or cannot do. Instead, the focus is on directing and focusing attention towards the positive behaviours that the student does demonstrate... 

  • 'Catch them being good' [preferably early], so the student is getting the attention they desire / need - diminishing their 'need' to demonstrate *other* attention-seeking behaviours... 
  • Promote what you value - by recognising the behaviours that you do desire from students, a message is being sent to others about the sorts of behaviours that are important and are valued in this setting.
  • We will not 'fix' the significant behaviour issues of students overnight and there are no 'magic bullets' - we need to reduce the severity and frequency of negative behaviours over time.
  • These approaches acknowledge that - like in other Learning Areas - students have different starting points and individual capacities - we need to be aware of these differences and be willing to help students learn the positive behaviours that will better-enable them to succeed in school and beyond. 


School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support [SWPBS]

At our school, our approach to dealing with and teaching behaviour aligns closely with the second point from above.
The School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support approach is used and, this week, we have all had opportunity to reflect upon our progress and effectiveness with this approach, having had a visiting consultant work in our school for the week.
Some of the key aspects of this approach include:
  • The approach is implemented [you guessed it... ] school-wide - whether students are in their 'home' classroom, with a specialist teacher, outside in the playground or up in the front office area, they are experiencing similar messages and similar responses to their behaviours and actions.

  • Staff endeavour to be pro-active about providing positive recognition to students about their behaviour. We even have a ratio [!!] of positive : negative recognitions that we aim for [4:1].
  • Collection and monitoring of data - we 'track' just about everything at our school and behaviour data is no exception: 
  • We monitor all of our negative behaviours that result in students being sent out of class - this has enabled us to identify 'spikes' in negative behaviour, in terms of time and location of incidents.
  • We monitor many of our positive recognitions provided to students, including 'merit certificates' for in-class behaviours, 'honour awards' for earning 'x' amount of merits, 'thumbs up' tickets for playground behaviours, etc. - all of this has been useful for us to identify who / where may need more positive attention, in order to offset any 'spikes' in negative behaviour, as well as help teachers to identify any students who may be 'flying under the radar' and missing out on positive recognition.


  • Investigating the common functions of negative behaviours - why are students behaving this way and how can we address these underlying issues? 
  • teach and model the desired behaviours - it is so important for us to remember that we are the mature adults in these relationships: 
  • We need to model the behaviours that we are talking to students about and hoping for them to demonstrate.
  • We need to avoid getting into conflict and we definitely need to avoid demonstrating to students that aggression, physical size, loud voices, etc. are the ways to influence somebody's behaviour... 


More on functions... 

SWPBS operates on a premise that the functions of negative student behaviours invariably boil down to two reasons: to avoid [a task / person], or to obtain [an item or attention].
So, referring back to the top of this post re. how to deal with the 'attention-seeker' in your classroom, what are some ways that we can be proactive about providing this attention, in a bid to short-circuit the need for these students to obtain our attention via negative behaviours..?

Friday, 12 October 2012

Sitting in The 'Big Chair'...


I've just finished a week acting up in the absence of my principal. I'm happy with how things went and I enjoyed the experience, but I'm quite comfortable with my principal returning to her job next week!!


What were my goals?

There were probably two focus points I had for the week, both of which are also at the forefront of my mind when doing the AP role, but probably crystalised in focus for me when being the main point of leadership for all staff:

  • Being 'out and about' and visible for staff and students:

I wanted to make sure I made the most of my time when 'the people' were there. i.e. Being accessible to staff and students, as well as proactive about getting 'on my bike' and being in and out of classrooms. I wanted to use the 'non-people' times of the day [mornings, evenings] to work on the various administrative tasks that needed doing [emails, timetables, future planning, etc... ].

  • Communication:
Our school is very detail-oriented - a lot of importance is placed upon thorough plans being in place. This approach plays out in the way our daily bulletin is communicated, with each day's items of significance documented in blow-by-blow detail in an online space. Whilst this run down is also displayed in the staffroom, I wanted to make sure I covered every base in terms of communicating information, by talking with people face-to-face about any changes / reminders / special events / etc. affecting them.

Did we tread water, or did we keep moving forward..?

I think we ended up progressing a few more things than I'd planned to - I may be put on a tighter leash next week!!
  • We had positive and productive Leadership, Full Staff and School Council meetings - we were fortunate to have  positive, supportive people involved at each of these meetings.
  • We progressed a couple of fairly urgent staffing situations - again, excellent support was provided from our recruitment contact.
  • We had quality teaching and learning occurring throughout the school - good teachers, working hard with positive attitudes... 

Confession: I was lucky... 

I was lucky for a couple of significant reasons:
  1. Our school has an excellent team of teachers, office staff and support staff - everyone hit the ground running for the start of a new term, demonstrating flexibility, positive attitudes and great teamwork.
  2. Our principal - although she has been away on some idyllic, tropical location... I've known in the back of my mind that if the proverbial did hit the fan, she would respond rapidly to any email I sent to her with a red exclamation mark... In short, I had a safety net. She also did an amazing job setting things up for us before she left - it was almost a fool-proof scenario [I was probably a good test for this notion!!]

So, yes, I enjoyed the experience of the past week, but I [and probably everyone else] will breathe a little sigh of relief next week when our real captain returns to the ship.

Cheers,
Warwick