Saturday, 7 June 2014

Designers for a day

We had a pupil-free, Professional Learning day last Friday, providing us with some precious time to 'lift our eyes' a little and do some more conceptual, bigger-picture, longer-term thinking.
One of the activities that I wanted us to spend time on was looking at trends in the collated data from our self-assessments against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.
We were able to identify some commonly-occurring areas of strength / confidence, as well as some areas for which we were relatively weak, or lacking in confidence.

I wanted us to focus on a small number of these collective weak points, with teachers each choosing one to go and do some work on with a small group of colleagues. I was hoping that we'd be able to generate some actions, ideas, initiatives, etc that we could look to put in place or trial, in order to take some steps towards improving in these identified areas of need.

I was interested and looking forward to this activity from a while out, but when I started to put a bit of thought into how I'd run the activity, I ended up becoming more interested in the process than the topic focus / content - the 'how' [we were going to work] became what I was most looking forward to, even more so than the 'what' [we were going to talk and think about]...
This was because I wanted to have a go at using some elements of Design Thinking - an approach to problem-solving that facilitates understanding, creativity and logic all at once, probably made most famous by US company, Ideo.
I was fairly cautious about not trying to go 'too big' with this first attempt at using the Design Thinking language and process, so I kept it to just a few of the elements that would be manageable and relevant to work through in a two-hour session:

We worked through each stage, stopping briefly to introduce each [including revealing constraints, such as 'rules' for brainstorming... ], culminating in each group making some mini-plans for each of the ideas that they selected to 'prototype'... 

A couple of the benefits of Design Thinking are that it is empowering - as staff are involved in working through a problem and designing a solution themselves, rather than having predetermined, externally produced solutions dictated to them - as well as that it is social and collaborative - people are reliant on their peers to generate quantity and quality of ideas, tap into different perspectives, access feedback, etc. 
We certainly experienced some of these and other benefits, as there was high levels of discussion, interest and engagement as we worked towards designing some of our own solutions to our own challenges.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Who is the most valuable..?

This is an interesting article on different approaches to implementing salaries in organisations.

In public education we are most-definitely beholden to the "civil service method: set narrow pay bands for every level of seniority, and then declare that the only way to get a substantial raise is to get a promotion... [resulting in] everybody gets promoted to a position of incompetence."
As public servants, teachers suffer from the "unspoken assumption that any given person should be paid the minimum amount necessary... The simplest way to calculate that amount is to simply see what the employee could earn elsewhere, and pay ever so slightly more than that." Hence why a common reference point in Enterprise Bargaining Agreements is what other jurisdictions are paying their teachers - governments will invariably aspire to "pay ever so slightly more" than what their neighbouring jurisdictions do their teachers... 

A really interesting concept that moves away from the type of traditional model mentioned above, is the notion of managers earning less money than the people who report to them. "... value is created by talented workers on the front lines, not by middle management..." - ie it is the teachers, who are in classrooms working with students everyday, that have the most direct influence on the quality of student learning and, therefore, are arguably the most valuable workers within the school. Those that are further removed from having this significant influence on a student's learning, are often not as valuable, particularly when compared to the high quality teachers that are making significant impact upon student learning. 
The article cites professional sports teams as an example where the 'front line' workers [ie the players] are indisputably recognised as the most valuable contributors towards the success of the team. I think there are definitely correlations with schools - teachers in classrooms are the ones 'playing the game' each day. 
Given the directness of their influence on improving student learning, perhaps it is classroom teachers who should be the best-rewarded workers within the school, rather than those with broader, but more distant [from student learning] responsibilities... 

Friday, 18 April 2014

School Reforms - do they hit the mark..?

This is a short, but interesting read from Professor Geoff Masters, touching on a small range of common [for western education systems] reform initiatives applied in recent years... 
Some of these well-known attempts at educational reform have missed the mark by way of failing to improve [or, in some cases, having a detrimental effect upon] the most significant influences on student learning - namely the quality of the teachers that work with children day to day.

Curriculum Standards provide important clarity for schools and teachers about what knowledge and skills they should be planning to develop in children, but - if too rigid and centralised - curricula runs the risk of undermining the professionalism of teachers [who become deliverers of prescriptive content, rather than skillfully selecting and applying the curriculum content that suits their unique group of students], as well as losing relevance for students for whom the curriculum pays little heed to their local context and circumstance.
National, standards-based curricula ensures more systematic and common curriculum delivery, regardless of location, school-type, teacher quality, etc - all of these should be positive results. However, enough freedom and 'room to move' needs to remain, so that students can have their individual learning needs met [rather than be 'systematically' taught exactly what their year level curriculum prescribes... ].

Performance Targets and Measures bring some important accountability to the performance of teachers, schools and systems. Over-emphasising these targets and overly-simplifying the measures of achievement and progress, leads to pressure being felt by teachers and schools to excessively-focus upon meeting targets and performing well only in what is measured. Inevitably, the byproduct of this sort of narrow, unbalanced approach is to 'down tools' in many other aspects of an education program, as more and more resources and emphasis is directed to achieving results that look good externally.

Public Transparency about school performance is closely linked to the previous point - the simpler that targets [eg: "the Australian Government's goal to be among the top five countries in the world... "] and measurement instruments [eg: standardised test results] are, the easier it is for governments and media to communicate this information to the general public. The public want transparency, but only in an easily-digestible format... 

Carrots and Sticks are being applied to make teachers and schools try harder. Rewards for schools that perform well mean they will be better-placed to... perform even more well..? Sanctions for schools that don't perform well mean they will be setback even further... 
Similar notions apply to teachers - rewards for individual teachers will encourage them to 'zero in' on that which is being measured [at the expense of the myriad of other factors that make a quality teacher], as well as make them less inclined to share with and assist a colleague.  

Achievement and Equity need to be considered as equally important. Most of the initiatives above focus heavily on raising achievement, but actually contribute towards a widening of achievement 'gaps' and, therefore, higher levels of inequity. The long-term impacts of inequity of educational achievement are significant and well-known for the broader society - unemployment, poverty, crime, poor health and a range of other problems are exacerbated by having large segments of the population that do not achieve well at school.  

So, whilst all of these initiatives have some merit and are often espoused in good faith, Masters' main point is that they are all missing the bullseye - improving the knowledge and skills of the teachers that work with students day to day. Ideally, 'macro' reforms should be enabling this work [developing the capacity of teachers] to happen more easily and effectively. At the very least, they must not make these important 'micro' reforms more difficult. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Why funding private schools is *NOT* a smart idea

Kevin Donnelly thinks we need a private school system in Australia and that it actually helps the public school system.

"... private school parents pay taxes for a public school system they don't use plus school fees."
As they absolutely should do if they are deliberately choosing to snub the system that has been established for all Australian children. If this line of argument was applied to taxes across the board - ie individuals only contributing taxes to what they explicitly use - there would be no centralised, objective and strategic distribution of our tax money, which is what our Governments are [supposed to be] doing on behalf of and in the interests of all Australians.

"... [students] enrolled in Catholic and independent schools saves state, territory and Commonwealth governments billions of dollars every year... [due to] the additional cost to government if the private school sector closed and students had to be enrolled in state schools."
Yes, extra students in the Government system would mean extra funds required to this system, but Governments should not be 'let off the hook' here - they have a fundamental responsibility to provide education to all children and should be allocating resources to ensure this.
In reality, the greater capacity of most private school families to pay voluntary school contributions, to fund raise, to pay for school resources / excursions / camps / events,  etc, would see these students be far less of a 'burden' than the inclusion of a child from average or below-average life circumstances [most of these students are already served by public schools!].


"... while governments invest on average $15,768 per government school student in terms of recurrent costs, the figure for private school students is only $8546... [Catholic and independent schools] receive only 22.4 per cent of what state and Commonwealth governments spend on education in terms of recurrent costs."

The implied question is the wrong one here - instead of asking why private school students are 'only' invested in to the tune of $8546, the question we should be analysing is why non-government schools are receiving any government funding at all, when the people sending their children to these schools are deliberately choosing to not take up the government's offer of free, quality education in a government school.
The other side of this is that students in government schools [who take 'all comers'] typically need more investment to ensure their educational achievement. It is students in government schools who are far more likely to have challenging behaviours, identified special needs, speak languages other than English and generally come from home environments that are further removed from school environments. These Government school students are way more likely to need smaller teacher : student ratios, access to intervention programs, access to more and better-quality resources, financial support for involvement with extra-curricular programs and events, etc. 
I think this was what Gonski was largely about... 

"... the fact that [private] schools exist frees up funds that governments can then redirect to their own schools."
Except that our Governments continue to fund private schools, which is a redirection of Government education funds away from Government education!!


Donnelly then spends the remaining majority of the article pumping up the positive results of a private school education - better learning outcomes, better university entrance results, better wages in later life..... 
Given that private schools don't have to contend with the same complexity of issues that can affect learning, as much diversity in their student cohorts, and face less financial resourcing challenges [due to their ability to 'double-dip' via Government funding plus capacity to charge their wealthier parent cohorts exorbitant annual fees], it is little wonder that these children of advantage continue to maintain an advantage in their learning outcomes at school, their access to tertiary education and their post-education job success.
This inequitable, two-tier system of education in Australia encourages broader societal inequity. This maintain the status quo-type mindset of conservative thinkers results in the advantaged becoming more advantaged, the wealthy getting wealthier and power remaining with the powerful.
It is this type of conservative thought that will form one half of Christopher Pyne's review into the fledgling Australian Curriculum. I'm nervous... 

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Teachers that leave...

This [http://theconversation.com/why-good-teachers-leave-teaching-21339] is a great article about a significant issue for the profession of teaching and one that only seems to be growing more prominent - the attrition rate of teachers and particularly those early in their respective careers.
Whilst there will always be a small proportion of new teachers who quickly work out that they are not suited or up to the job, there are more and more who are calling it quits simply because their enjoyment of and motivation for teaching has been overwhelmed by high accountability, high workloads and the need to 'fit in' with the plans, policies and procedures of the school and the broader system.

The article is a good reminder about the responsibility schools have for supporting new teachers to fulfil their potential. Newly-graduated teachers should be valued as staff members that are in possession of some of the most current knowledge about teaching and learning, given the recency of their university experiences. Schools need to ensure that they are 'tapping into' this, not blindly assuming that new teachers - although lacking in practical experience - are 'empty vessels' with nothing to offer... 
Yes, it is important that new teachers are scaffolded into the school they are working in - learning about the important philosophies and approaches that drive the school's teaching and learning, as well as the variety of other 'need to knows' that ensure the day-to-day functioning of the school happens smoothly... The challenge for schools is to ensure that this induction into the culture and ways of the school, leaves room for the valuing of what the new teacher brings with them in terms of knowledge, skills, passions, etc, as well as ensures that support is provided for teachers to develop as intelligent and skillful practitioners, rather than just following directions from others without thought.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Don't look weird

Here [http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7343.html] is a fascinating article that flies in the face of what a lot of workplaces [including schools] are trying to move towards - high accountability, high transparency, as well as high standardisation and control.
The article outlined some research, which found that - in a lot of situations - regular observations of workers can actually inhibit their productivity and effectiveness. This is quite counter-intuitive - less observation, control and accountability = better quality results and productivity?!?
The theory behind why this might be the case is that the workers being observed and checked upon would refrain from any form of innovation or practice of efficiencies learned through doing the work day in, day out. Instead, they would revert to doing the work 'by the book', even if their own experience and knowledge from doing this work had found that some chapters of the book were dated and had lost relevance... So, instead of performing their role the best way they knew from their experience and daily practice, or actively trialing and practising some new ideas and methods, when they were being observed it was "a show being put on for an audience"...
In other words, they were doing what they were 'supposed' to be doing, rather than doing what they knew to work best, or actively trying to improve their practice by tinkering with a new idea or way.

The researchers put this obedience down to the anxiety and stress involved in having to justify new ideas and ways. The workers in these situations had found that it was more valuable to wait until the tinkering, experimenting, etc. had demonstrated success, before going to "explain them to management", when these new ideas would be more fully-developed and better-placed to be shared and spread...

This article was not specifically about school contexts, but does it apply a little bit..? Do teachers sometimes shelve their willingness to tinker with a new idea or strategy, to avoid making any perceived mistakes or to give themselves the best opportunity of showing what an observer wants to see..?
Thinking broader, do schools and school leaders, when visited by 'higher-ups', avoid exposing distinguished visitors to any colouring outside of the lines..?

Not everything needs to look good all of the time. Not everything needs to be a perfect extraction from the manual... It might actually be a problem if this is always the case - where then would the tinkering, trialing and innovating be happening..?


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

I didn't go to work yesterday...

Yesterday I joined many other teachers across the Northern Territory in electing to strike and not go to work. This action was in protest to the significant staff cuts that are imminent for NT schools, as well as unsatisfactory progress in the current Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) negotiations.

It is important that we (those going out on strike) don't descend into infighting or division with our colleagues who are either not in the union or who are choosing not to strike. However, I definitely admire the strong stance taken by all of those that stopped work yesterday. Everyone choosing to strike was taking a stand for a cause that is bigger than their own personal situation - no one was guaranteed to improve their own situation by going out in strike. Indeed, everyone was doing so at a personal cost, by way of conceding a day's pay... 
We had people attending who are on contracts that are due to expire at the end of the year - they do not know for sure if they will be around to see any benefits that may come out of this action, but they participated anyway, supporting the cause and the collective effort.
We had people attending who are permanent employees - their own situations are secure, but they were striking to support colleagues with less security beyond this year, as well as our students who will be affected by staffing and program cuts.

The Union takes a stance and makes comment on many issues - performance pay initiatives, policy decisions, meetings and general workload, performance processes, etc... I do not always agree with every stance that our Union takes on these and other issues, but for me there is one overarching concept that makes involvement in and support of the Union important - what would our conditions be like if we'd never had a Union that represented us..? Never had a collective body to represent us at EBA times, fighting for improvements in salaries, class sizes and general working conditions..? 
Previous generations of teachers would have been more likely to be working second jobs to make ends meet, have larger class sizes and have less access to support and professional development. 
Without a Union to fight for improvements to our conditions as a strong collective body, we would not be as far advanced as we are from those sorts of inferior conditions faced by previous generations of teachers. 
This is the body that fights for us to earn every pay rise and every incremental improvement in working conditions - this is why I and many others feel the need to stand up in support on days like this to show support for and strengthen the collective body of our Union.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Apply some constraints to unleash some creativity...

'20 % Time', 'Genius Hour', 'Passion Time' - all inspiring names for initiatives that hold similar principles. Namely, people being allocated significant blocks of time that are designated for the pursuit of personal interest areas in a highly-autonomous environment. Part of the popularity of these initiatives is that the large amounts of freedom bestowed are often in [very] strong contrast to the remaining [80%... ] time in the work day / week! 
Increasingly, workplaces are using initiatives like these as a means to spark creativity and new solutions. Schools, too, are getting in on the act, driven by a growing recognition of the importance of creativity, of developing new ideas, solutions and products, as well as building diverse skill sets for a future that is less-predictable.
There certainly is a lot of 'gung-ho' support for these sorts of initiatives, so I was interested to read a slightly-critical perspective here: http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2013/08/20-time-and-schools-not-the-best-of-bedfellows.html
This piece suggests applying some boundaries and focus to these sorts of times, rather than allowing such time to be completely loose, directionless and out of alignment with the needs and goals of the organisation [or the child themselves, in the school context]. It does seem quite easy to imagine inefficiencies, irrelevancies, as well as general time wasting and low productivity starting to seep into these times if the freedom wheel is turned up to 10... 

In the article, Ewan McIntosh identifies how children in 20 % Time-style settings "often don't know what to do, or... they run out of steam.
I'm sure the same argument could be applied for many adult workplaces - people often don't have the skills or, perhaps more crucially, the experience in working with high-levels of independence and empowerment. They will often need some boundaries to work within and some support with how to get started, in order to confidently go off and exercise their 'genius' or explore their passion... Having these 'loose' constraints in place will also make relevance and alignment with the needs and goals of the company more likely to occur...

Last week, we did try something along the lines of 'Genius Hour' or 'Passion Time' at our final pupil-free Professional Learning day for the year - the afternoon session was dubbed 'Choose Your Own Adventure', with staff able to go off individually or in small groups to investigate and find out about a topic of choice. 
We did apply some constraints to this activity, providing a starting list of seven topics for people to choose from, which were drawn from staff feedback from previous PL days, recent Professional Learning foci, or school priority areas. 
We encouraged staff to nominate any other topics that they were personally interested in - the only proviso being that this was negotiated with school leadership first. This ended up seeing about four new topics added to the starting list and which people explored on the day.
We also gave some starting suggestions for how people may go off and do this work [read articles, view case studies, watch video clip, talk to colleagues, etc... ]

We also wanted to add a layer of 'internal accountability' [read Elmore re. this], by designating time at the end of the session for each staff member to share their learning experience with a small group of colleagues. As well as ensuring that everybody needed to contribute something, this element also enabled some new ideas to spread and pollinate, as well as gave individuals opportunity to demonstrate their own developing expertise to their peers.


Hopefully, we will be able to continue to give supportive, personalised opportunities to our staff to develop their own skills and capacity as learners, whilst continuing to strengthen our collective capacity in identified school priority areas.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Improving your Tribe...

I recently read the book, Tribal Leadership, by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright and found it really interesting, but this talk from Logan is a quicker way in to most of the key principles:

There were many interesting messages that I got from the book... One was that individuals within a single 'tribe' [typically a group of 20-150 people] can often be at different 'stages'. Despite this, the tribe itself will typically have a dominant culture that resides at one of the five stages. Thankfully(!), an individual or even a tribe itself is never 'locked in' and stuck at a particular stage with no hope of moving forward - the authors spent a lot of the book detailing how to 'upgrade the culture' of tribes so that they can move closer to the ultimate level to aspire to - Stage Five, where the typical mindset / outlook is "life is great"... 
Leading up to this are four other stages, with each step forward illustrated by an increasingly positive and admirable mindset / outlook:

  • Stage One: "life sucks" - not workable for an organisation to either operate at this level or to have individuals that are at this level themselves...
  • Stage Two: "my life sucks" - tends to be characterised by people comparing themselves unfavourably to others and believing that they have little or no ability to change or improve their situation. Apathy, low motivation, resistance to new ideas and change... 
  • Stage Three: "I'm great [and you're not]" - the stage that tends to be the most common among workplace tribes... This is where competitiveness kicks in and people are individually aspirational... They are primarily motivated by showing that they are good performers individually - that they are better than those around them... 
  • Stage Four: "We're great [and they're not]" - this is where the penny has dropped for those that have previously been driven, motivated and high-achievers as individuals - they now have recognised that there are greater, more important accomplishments that can be achieved by working with other people. This sees people that have shared values working together with a common purpose or in pursuit of a common goal - one that is bigger than an individual would generally be able to achieve on their own.
The fifth and final stage is a relatively subtle - but still significant - development from the fourth stage. The main difference is 'who' the competitor is. In stage four, a tribe may be 'competing' with other teams or organisations. In stage five they are not generally competing with other groups of people, but rather with bigger, more audacious challenges like solving a difficult problem, creating or doing something new, making a significant positive change, etc... 

Clearly, one of the most important aspects of getting individuals and whole tribes into stage four and even stage five cultures, is developing the skills and will of people to work collaboratively, working on the principle that the collective capacity of multiple people is greater than the capacity of an individual working alone. Indeed, a recurring theme about the role of 'tribal leaders' - whose role it is to help progress people through these stages - is the importance of connecting people, thus expanding the skill and knowledge sets that people have access to, as well as extending the 'reach' of their tribal members.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Students are changing - how should we be..?

This term we have been working through some ideas put together by Michael McQueen, a social researcher who writes and speaks particularly about social trends and the changing nature of young people.

Last week, we watched him speak about the shift in 'the nature of students' - one of three broad trends he identifies as being of particular significance to schools and teachers.
McQueen makes the case that there are five aspects of young people's lives which are rapidly growing in prominence - today's students are increasingly becoming...


Plugged in


The fast-increasing access to, familiarity with and capacity to to use digital technologies is resulting in some quite dramatic changes to today's youth - both for the better and, in some cases, for worse. McQueen's key message is that, despite some of the detrimental effects attributed to excessive technology use by young people, educators need to acknowledge and respond to the way these technologies have changed the young people of today, as well as what skills and capabilities will be valued in the future. Resistance is futile (& possibly negligent...).

Grown up

Today's students encounter grown up behaviours, language, responsibilities and attitudes earlier and more regularly than previous generations. This is impacting upon the relevance of the learning content they work with at school, as their set of life experiences are becoming quite different to those of previous generations. It is also impacting upon how we need to be interacting and relating with young people, as their emotional and psychological readiness for some of these more 'grown up' concepts and experiences may be lacking.

Fragile

This point basically refers to a worrying reduction in the capacity of young people to be resilient. The old-fashioned acknowledgement that 'life isn't meant to be easy' has been flipped on its head by pop culture and modern advertising, which now send the message to kids that life is meant to be easy (& fun, exciting, fast-rewarding... ). Two worrying effects of this mindset change emerge: 

  1. When faced with difficulty or struggle, young people are now more likely to give up, drop out, or change direction (seeking the easier path / goal); 
  2. (More concerning) When faced with difficulty or struggle, young people are now more likely to think that there is something wrong with themselves (as they are not doing things as easily as others that they are comparing themselves to)... 
Crucial traits and outlooks for success and happiness in life - persistence, 'grit' and the valuing of growth, rather than fixed mindsets - are becoming neglected and underdeveloped in our young people.. 


High maintenance

Youth today have grown up in a culture soaked in feedback - frequently gifted and almost instantaneous feedback. Think earning of points in video games, achieving 'likes' and the equivalent on social media, electronic communication that allows for almost instant responses to be received, etc... This has created the 'monster' that is the young person who cannot cope without such regular feedback, reassurance and the external validation that they are worthy... 

Empowered

Today's students have grown up with unprecedented rights, choices, freedoms and decision-making power. This has been the case in the home and in the school, with the result being a swelling proportion of students who will argue their point of view, dispute a decision they find unfavourable and expect privileges to be laid out for them... Gone are the days of respect your elders!!





After each of these five ideas was presented, we had some great discussion in small groups about;
a) When / where / how we had seen these trends exemplified..? AND (more importantly)
b) What could this mean for us as teachers and as a school..?

As our school begins preparing our next four-year strategic plan, these ideas about the shift in 'the nature of students' and their impact upon our own practice, will help inform the priorities and directions we set for our school for the next few years.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Is the finish line that important..?

An article I read recently in the June edition of Runners World magazine, by Michelle Hamilton, ['Beyond the Mantra'] highlighted the importance of being 'process oriented', rather than 'results-oriented'... 
The author was writing from the perspective of a runner [not surprisingly] in pursuit of a particular goal - in this case a specific time goal for a marathon. Her experience in working with a sports psychologist to overcome her "pre-occupation with time" [the end result], holds some reminders for education... 
You don't control the end result [grade / test score / summative assessment judgement... ] - "You can only control the steps that improve your chances of hitting that... " 
From an education standpoint, zeroing in on [desired] end results can too-often see these goals take on disproportionate importance, causing anything that doesn't appear to directly-relate to the achievement of the goal to be sidelined and neglected. For example, if a school wants to improve their literacy and numeracy results [novel, I know... ], overemphasising this end goal could see subject areas, knowledge and skills that don't appear to directly influence these end results, have their resources stripped, or be banished altogether.
Of course there is the other factor about how these goals, targets, etc. are actually measured - how well somebody is learning is certainly a lot harder to measure than how well somebody is running!

Another obvious side-effect of focusing too heavily upon the end result, at the expense of the ongoing process that leads up to the result, is that the learning is far more likely to happen [or should be] in the 'training runs' students are doing every day in classrooms, rather than the test or assessment task at the end of the journey. The runner / author wrote about the important mindset change she went through when she started using her performance information from her regular training [her kilometre splits... ] as feedback about how she was feeling, whether she needed to push harder and up her pace, or pull back to reserve energy, etc. Each kilometre, each training run, each week in the training program - all became information about how well or otherwise she was progressing towards her big goal [the specific time goal in her marathon race]. Grant Wiggins defines this concept of feedback in a lot of detail here - well worth a read.

So in schools, instead of feverishly chasing targets and goals that may not necessarily be the best measure of quality learning, we need to focus upon using the information we gather along the way about how students are performing and progressing, so that we can give good, timely feedback to them about their progress towards their own learning goals, as well as give them support, guidance and advice about how to continue to progress and improve.  

Friday, 5 July 2013

ICP 2013

A word cloud of my notes from the conference... 

I've just left Cairns where I went along to the ICP (International Confederation of Principals) Conference, held over three days for leaders in various education settings... 

There was some great (and consistent) messages that came out of the various presentations, much of which was very encouraging - it is reassuring to know that there is a growing strength in numbers in support of progressive ideas regarding educational leadership, at both the school and system level.


Peter Cosgrove provided one keynote, focusing upon courageous leadership and, in particular, the 'moral courage' required of school leaders (as distinct from the physical courage more often required on the battlefield!), who often have to navigate stressful situations or difficult decisions... He stressed the importance of leaders setting a good example. It is not always possible to single-handedly carry a team forward using a 'follow me' approach - often we need to model the desired behaviour / approach and support people to follow this example or image...


Tim Costello spoke of the vital role teachers play in the 'forming' of young people. He distinguished between the 'ladder of career' - the default path most people tend to follow - and the 'ladder of calling', where people pursue their "calling", or - as others have defined this concept - their flow or their passion...


I really liked Andy Hargreaves' notion of "The Goldilocks Principle". There are so many dichotomous views about educational issues - The Goldilocks Principle avoids the binary positions which are either too little or too much, instead aiming for that which is just right.
For example, too little assessment makes it hard to ascertain what is and isn't working, as well as to be precise about where students are and what the next steps in their learning journey should be...
Too much assessment can result in overemphasising the importance of assessments and results, distorting the teaching and learning process so that it is more about training and preparing for short term results, at the expense of considering the bigger picture and the best interests of long term learning. 
Just right use of assessment would ensure that teachers gather and use information about student learning to inform their practice in an ongoing fashion, but that there is not so heavy an emphasis upon these assessments that quality teaching and learning is compromised. ie. assessment results are used to inform, not to reward and punish... 

Hargreaves also spoke about the importance collaboration is / needs to be playing in scaling the good practice that is already in existence within our systems, citing the Singaporean system's approach of 'giving away our best ideas, so that we have to keep inventing new ones'... 
He also offered advice on how to innovate within a relatively conservative system - an issue that was bubbling beneath the surface throughout the conference. His advice was to start small, demonstrate success, learn from the process / trial, then share and spread the new ideas and learning... 


Mark Treadwell, speaking from a neuroscience perspective, noted the growing acceptance that we should be granting increasing agency to students over their own learning, but that there has been far less said about the seemingly-obvious condition of this change in approach - that "we need to teach them how to learn". He also caused us to ponder about the long-term significance of reading and writing - for so long the cornerstone skills learnt at school, but possibly having their usefulness eroded thanks to the emergence of video and other modern communication technologies... 


Andreas Schleicher showed us how the demand for skills has changed in the last 50+ years - another theme that was referred to a few times throughout the conference. He also - somewhat unsurprisingly, given his role with PISA - held up Finland as a model for the rest of us on several occasions... 
He spoke about equity - "what distinguishes education systems is how they leverage the performance of underprivileged children" - as well as the importance, regardless of location and context, of valuing and respecting teachers and the profession of teaching: "(It is important to) keep teaching intellectually attractive"... "The better a country's education system performs, the more likely that country is working constructively with its unions and treating its teachers as trusted professional partners"... "Knowledge workers simply do not like to work in hierarchical organisations"... 


I got a lot out of the Steve Francis session on sustaining change - he distilled a lot of research and theories, including from Jim Collins, Ken Blanchard and Daniel Pink, in order to communicate some practical tips and advice for us to leave with... Some of the biggest takeaways for me from this session included:


  • The importance of building and sustaining momentum.
  • Don't focus upon any more than three projects / initiatives / priorities at a time (less than three is good!)
  • The Situational Leadership Model (Ken Blanchard), focusing upon differentiating your leadership style based upon the individual and the situation:


Despite all of that great learning throughout the three days, without doubt the highlight and greatest privilege for me occurred in the very first session of the conference! Yong Zhao gave the initial keynote, focusing mainly upon the fast-growing importance of developing creativity and how traditional, conservative models of schooling are in conflict with this need. His messages about why it is so important for us to move towards system, school and classroom structures and approaches that promote and encourage creativity, entrepreneurship and other essential skills for now and into the future, set the scene for the remainder of the conference.


As I said at the start, it is heartening to know that there is so much acknowledgement of the sorts of progressive ideas discussed through this conference, but I'm perhaps a little apprehensive about how well and easily these ideas will make it through to education departments, who's direction is inevitably set by what is politically popular... 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

From the coach's box to the principal's office..?

OK, full disclosure here - I am a fairly... ahem... avid fan of the Geelong Cats in AFL...
However, I really don't think I'm being biased in seeing lessons from this article - by Geelong coach, Chris Scott - for staff and leadership groups in schools!!


Clearly defined roles and responsibilities

Who does what..? Who is good at what..? People need to know what is wanted / expected from them, in order to perform the role that the organisation desires from them. It's also so important to identify and utilise the individual strengths of team members - unleash the unique talents within the group and motivate people by letting them practise their areas of strength regularly.


Individual team members driving their respective areas of responsibility

One person cannot do everything - whether they are a coach of a football team or a principal of a school. Others with leadership responsibilities need to drive their respective groups, projects, initiatives, ideas, etc.


Avoid rushing into 'snap' judgements / reactions

When pressure and tension is high, when time appears to be short, it is easy - even natural - to react hastily and rush into decisions / actions, in a bid to 'set standards', be seen to be doing something, or to simply provide an outlet for frustration and stress...
Often, it is more useful to stay calm and take a little extra time, in order to make decisions that are rational, considered and balanced. Easier said than done sometimes!


Trust the process

"... we are really clear in our box on who should be commenting in pressure situations and who shouldn't... I always want to take some extra time to first hear properly from the person whose area the issue relates to."
Having clear, pre-planned processes reduces the potential for emotion and stress to influence decision-making - establishing and continually refining processes and systems will help ensure decision-making is consistent, as well as free from the heightened emotions that can often accompany stressful situations.


Collaborative decision-making

It is so easy for an individual to be 'blind' to a particular perspective / point of view / etc. This makes the discussion of complex issues and significant decisions vital - the range of viewpoints and perspectives need to be aired and considered, in order for informed decisions to be made.


Focus on making good decisions

Where possible... remove emotion, take the time to gather and consider all available information, then make rational, consistent decisions.


Delegation and Accountability


To paraphrase Peter Parker... 'with increased power comes increased responsibility'... 
Delegating influence over and responsibility for decision-making, needs to be accompanied by scrutiny and analysis of errors and under-performance, to ensure that decision-making processes and systems, as well as the performance of individuals and teams, are continually being refined and enhanced.


So maybe I am a little [or maybe a lot... ] biased, but I definitely think there are some lessons from Chris Scott and the Geelong coach's box for other leaders and teams!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Winners and Losers

Interesting article out of Western Australia - some schools are shunning the awarding and celebrating of individual achievements, instead focusing upon recognising all that participate. Going even further than this, some schools are not even keeping score in school sporting games, in a bid to move away from focusing upon competition and, instead, towards an emphasis upon participation and enjoyment.

I can almost hear the huffing and puffing from people ridiculing these sorts of actions...
"Political correctness gone mad!!"
"Competition didn't do me any harm as a youngster... "
"Winning and losing is part of life and kids need to get used to it."
"Why should the good players be denied opportunity to be celebrated?!?"
"How will we ever develop hard-nosed, win-at-all costs footballers for the AFL / NRL / ARU / A-League, if kids don't play this way at school?!?"

I actually think the principles behind these sorts of decisions and policies are sound and admirable - although I am sure I am not in the majority in thinking this way!

The main purpose of school sporting activities and most out-of-school youth sport is not to search relentlessly for the next potential sporting superstar, brushing aside the many who are not physically gifted, talented or coordinated enough to be sporting high-achievers. Instead, sporting activities for children, particularly those occurring at school, should focus upon the participation and learning of all students. i.e. We should not glorify the achievements of individuals - which invariably are more due to natural talents and abilities, rather than any extra work or effort compared with many of their peers - whilst casting the rest of the students to the shadows...

Yes, 'winning' and 'losing' happens to everyone in one form or another as they progress in their lives, but people just as surely will experience situations where they or others will need to demonstrate co-operative, sharing, equitable behaviours. In order to be a successful participant in an increasingly diverse society, it is more important than ever to be able to act cooperatively and harmoniously with people from a range of backgrounds. These are the skills that we need to be focusing upon developing in all students - much more so than combative, winner / loser mentalities.
'Good' players will invariably have an intrinsic sense of their... 'goodness'... In a lot of cases they will tend to have their egos boosted by way of regular praise and acknowledgements of their achievements from their peers, their families, their clubs [if playing sport outside of school], etc. - we don't need to fan these flames with extravagant awards and singling out for recognition, any more than we need to do so for celebrating the academic achievements of children who are 'naturals' at Maths, Writing, etc... It is not big heads that are the major cause for concern here - rather, the marginalising and diminishing of the efforts of all other participants.
As for any reduction in the quality of sport we watch on Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, etc, the ultra-competitive mindsets and playing styles required for top-level sport will be honed as young people move through talent-identification systems, junior development squads, representative teams, etc. There is lots of time and opportunity for the individually-brilliant, hard-nosed competitor to develop and be celebrated - let's just remember everyone else whilst they are in primary school...

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Good, The Strange, The Fascinating...

We are all but finished with the heavily-emphasised [publicly] national tests for literacy and numeracy, with just a handful of 'catch ups' to be conducted later today for students that were absent earlier in the week.
It has all has gone relatively smoothly for our school, but there have been a few things that have stood out over the course of the week... 


The Good

Kids were calm, teachers were organised and staff helped eachother out, with front office staff helping to monitor which students would require 'catch up' tests due to being absent for one or more of the assessments, teachers helping eachother with the setting and resetting of classrooms, as well as staff being flexible with adjustments to normal timetables and routines.


The Strange

It is oft-quoted that greater variation exists from classroom to classroom within the same school, than it does when comparing schools with other schools... I think this notion of intra-school variation receives a turbo charge during NAPLAN Week!!
During the testing times this week, I would find myself walking through non-testing classrooms where furniture was arranged in a variety of ways to cater for a range of different learning preferences and purposes, where children and teachers were talking animatedly about what they were doing, working on a variety of tasks and generally enjoying themselves. I would then turn a corner and find myself in a classroom doing NAPLAN and find tables split up into individual islands, all facing the front of the room in linear rows, with students sitting and working by themselves in utter silence, with no assistance from peers, from their teachers, from any environmental print, technologies or other resources that the class next door was using furiously to help with their learning... Even more puzzling, these starkly-contrasting classrooms seemed to flourish back to life post-recess! Both the physical environment and the way students and teachers worked 'reverted' to active, hands-on, collaborative learning experiences, once the tests were completed each morning... 
Classroom One
Classroom Two



The Fascinating

The highlight of the week for me happened yesterday, when I was helping supervise [well I couldn't call it teaching... ] the numeracy test. As we neared the end of the test that sought to determine how much numeracy knowledge and skill students could demonstrate in 50 minutes [... ], I noticed one of our students making extensive notes all over a blank page that students had for working out. Curious at both the fast pace she was annotating at and the intensely focused look upon her face, I hovered over her shoulder and watched her work like this for probably three full minutes. 

This was the problem that she was attempting to solve:
Ten people share a prize of $8750.
They keep $850 each and give the rest to a charity. 
How much money in total do they give to the charity?
  • $7900
  • $790
  • $250
  • $25 
This was how she went about it [red annotations mine]:

  1. She wrote the beginning total to be shared in the centre of the page.
  2. She wrote the ten lots of 850 around the the central starting number, in a mind-map fashion.
  3. She subtracted 500 [all ten lots of 50] from the original starting number, leaving her with 8250.
  4. She individually subtracted ten lots of 800 [she'd already accounted for the extra 50s... ] from the remaining 8250, eventually calculating the answer of 250. 
Phew! Talk about laborious and painstaking!! 
However, despite her relatively inefficient method, she did get the correct answer!
More importantly for me though [and for her Maths teacher, who I caught up with afterwards to relay my observation], was that I had some useful information about this student's level of mathematical understanding and skill, which could then be used to teach the child a more efficient and effective strategy and, thus, improve the child's mathematical understanding and skill.
What made this information particularly useful, however, was that I had it almost immediately after the child's performance, putting us in a great position to address and improve the child's mathematical knowledge and skill in a very timely fashion.

This, of course, also highlighted one of the biggest and most obvious drawbacks of NAPLAN - yes, there is some good, useful information that teachers and schools receive from these tests, but we have to wait five months for it!! 
It would be impossible to predict what level of mathematical knowledge and skill the student that I observed will have in five months time... Unfortunately, however good the information we ultimately get is from these tests, its usefulness is quite significantly watered-down due to its sheer distance [time-wise] from the dates that the assessments were actually conducted... 

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Are you 'good at what you do'..?

We all intuitively know and appreciate the value of feeling good about our work and our own performance at work - self-confidence in performing a particular task generally contributes to the successful performance of that task, or, as a related saying expresses - 'success breeds success'...
In 'The Progress Principle', Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer delve into why it is so important for people to feel as though they are making progress in their work, as well as detailing the other contributing factors that are significant in determining the quality of people's Inner Work Life.

Amabile and Kramer argue that people's Inner Work Life - their sense of happiness and enjoyment with their work - can be measured through observation of three traits: their perceptions (thoughts) about their work environment, their emotions (feelings) about their work environment and their motivation (drive) to perform their work.
Whilst these elements enable us to gauge the relative happiness and enjoyment people are experiencing from their work, the interesting part is how we can contribute (or otherwise... ) to how positively people feel about their work.


The influences on Inner Work Life

'Nourishments' are triggers / actions that are related to the person (interpersonal). The four major nourishments identified are: respectencouragement, emotional support and affiliation.
The opposite of Nourishments are 'Toxins', examples of which could include not being treated respectfully by a colleague / leader, not having one's emotional needs acknowledged, or antagonistic behaviour from colleagues.

'Catalysts' are triggers / actions related to the work itself. The seven major catalysts identified are: the setting of clear goals, autonomy, provision of resources, giving adequate time, providing support with the work, focusing upon learning (from problems and successes) and facilitating a flow of ideas.
The opposite of Catalysts are 'Inhibitors', examples of which could include a lack of clarity about the purpose / direction of one's role, micromanagement, or not being given adequate resources to do the job.

'Progress' refers to the improvements and gains people are making in their work and leads into the sense of self-efficacy that is very closely related to a key plank of intrinsic motivation - one's sense of competence or mastery. ie. If we feel as though we are making progress towards mastery or improved competence in our work, then we will have a greater intrinsic sense of happiness and joy when doing this work.
A stand-out point about this Progress Principle is that people need to know (as it occurs, or as close as possible to it... ) when they are making progress in their work - the resultant positive effects on perceptions, emotions and motivation can build momentum to the point where they become self-perpetuating.
The opposite of Progress are 'Setbacks', examples of which could include failing to solve a problem, making errors / misjudgements, or running out of (time, money, resources, etc... ).


Lots of interesting ways that this could (should..?) impact upon how we measure the progress of teachers, how we provide performance feedback and the working conditions we seek to create in schools...


The book is well worth a read, but so is this talk by behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, where he expresses similar sentiments about the importance of making (and knowing that we are making) progress in our work:

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Observations

I recently read this interesting article re. Teacher observations, discussing some of the pitfalls of observation processes, in the context of broader evaluation procedures.

Some food for thought for me, as this (watching teachers teach) is something that I value highly as a means for improving everyone's practice, but is perhaps an example of something that can have negative results if used in the wrong way, or for the wrong purposes...
For example, it is important for school leaders to be observing teachers in action on a regular basis, so they have credibility and can have informed discussions with teachers about teaching. We also need to be better at having teachers observe each other, exposing people to different ways and ideas, as well as building platforms for quality professional discussions.

However, like a lot of broad-brush, top-down mandates, observation processes that are rigid and focused upon compliance can end up crowding out professional engagement, instead becoming a chore that is - to quote the article - "viewed as something to check of (sic) the list of "to-do's" for the day".

So, any performance-related processes need to have observations of the practitioner in action as a significant component. We wouldn't judge or discuss the performance of a footballer without seeing them play... 
It is the purpose of teacher observation processes that needs to shift - from one that relies on potential punishments and external rewards (eg. performance pay initiatives.. ), to instead focusing upon helping and supporting teachers to improve their own capacity and to be better contributors to their school - tap into the internal desires to get better at what we do and to contribute to a shared goal with other people.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

NAPLAN - is it a race and should we focus upon winning..?

NAPLAN is just around the corner for all Australian schools and, given its universal implementation (for years three, five, seven and nine), all schools need to decide how to approach these tests (albeit with some 'direction' provided re. this by Ed. Department policies and mandates... ).

At our school, I was asked to lead the NAPLAN 'preparations' for this year, having had nothing to do with this previously. I haven't been very comfortable with some of the effects NAPLAN has had / is having on education, so this was a bit like asking the vegetarian to cook the barbeque!
I knew my views conflicted with how our school had approached this process previously, so I was a bit apprehensive and initially wanted to 'baulk' this responsibility by handing it to someone else - I didn't want to halfheartedly push something I didn't believe in...
I wrestled with this for a bit, but then thought, if I'm not altogether happy with how our school has gone about this previously, then this is an ideal opportunity to change how our school approaches and prepares for NAPLAN. I discussed all of this with my principal and was encouraged by her support for me to change the way we have gone about this from recent years, although I did have to make some minor 'compromises', to satisfy systemic requirements...

What we needed to remove / stop:

  • Excessively 'prepping' students in the formats and conventions of NAPLAN tests.
  • Using resource books full of worksheets and activities specifically designed to familiarise students with NAPLAN formats and conventions.
  • Incorporating NAPLAN into teacher programs.
  • Incorporating NAPLAN into teacher Performance discussions.
  • Teachers completing a nine-week block of NAPLAN preparation with their classes, including sitting practise tests and use of NAPLAN resource books.
  • Teaching test taking skills.
  • Giving students '10 hot tips for students' documents...
  • Printing NAPLAN preparation activities in school newsletters for parents.

What we kept / amended:

  • NAPLAN meetings, which previously focused upon incorporating NAPLAN-like questions, formats, conditions, etc. into normal teaching and learning programs (ie. preparing for the upcoming tests... ), this year focused upon using the information gleaned from last year's results to inform our planning. ie. We were focusing on identifying the specific knowledge and skills that our cohort of students were 'weak' in and discussing ideas for potential learning experiences that would help students develop these aspects of knowledge / skills. As with other assessments, we were using the data in a formative fashion to make our ongoing teaching and learning programs more precise, rather than training students for a shallow, short-term goal.
  • Incentive program to reward participation in the tests during the testing week. This is something that has been used in recent years and, although very much focusing upon extrinsic motivators, is probably OK for this sort of scenario, where the task (doing the tests... ) is mandated, is single solution and is not inherently motivating for most students.
  • Introducing students to testing formats. We have spoken about using two - three lessons to familiarise students with some of the formats of the NAPLAN tests, but with the purpose being to help avoid the 'freak out' factor some students may experience when confronted with the unfamiliar conventions of the tests, particularly for year three students who would not have experienced NAPLAN before. We have emphasised that more time than this should not be spent on this, as we don't want to take time away from our trusted, core programs and what we value and believe to be quality teaching practice.
  • Information for parents. Alongside the Department-issued information brochures that schools were required to send home to parents, we sent a letter explaining how NAPLAN 'fitted' with the myriad of other assessments we do at our school and with the message that we (school and parents) should be avoiding a competitive mindset towards NAPLAN... Extending further this desire to be open and 'upfront' re. NAPLAN in our school, we are soon to hold a face to face information session for parents, going into more detail about what NAPLAN is, the benefits that can be derived, the potential pitfalls and 'side effects', how it 'fits' at our school and how we are looking to approach these tests - given parents will tend to only be exposed to the very surface-level information about NAPLAN (and other edu. issues... ) via mainstream media, door-stop quotes from politicians, etc, we considered it important to be 'on the front foot' re. communicating with and educating our parents about this.

So that is where we are at ATM re. our approach to NAPLAN - it is not an Olympic event that requires arduous, isolated training and coaching for... It is a (further) useful source of information about how students are achieving in English and Maths and, as such, can help inform our teaching in those areas, but without taking away or taking over from good pedagogy and rounded, comprehensive learning experiences at school.