Sunday, 30 September 2012

Different schools, new ideas...

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to visit a couple of schools with the luxuriously simple purpose of learning some new ideas from a different context.
For anyone that works in a school, this sort of opportunity to 'raise your eyes' from the busyness of your own day-to-day work environment can be extremely liberating and a great learning experience.
So it was for me, too.

Why was this a positive learning experience for me..?

I think I learnt from engaging with these different contexts because...

  • I observed similar programs to those used in our school, applied in different ways.

This enabled me to consider possible alternatives for how we implement such programs at our school.

  • I saw some examples of programs and approaches that were applied in a more comprehensive fashion than at our school.

This enabled me to gauge what the next steps could be for our school, in order to improve upon our existing practice.

  • I saw and discussed some philosophies about teaching and learning that were consistent with ours.

This gave me confidence that we are 'on the right track' in many ways, in terms of the beliefs we hold about modern teaching and learning, which underpin our day-to-day programs and practice.

I really value the importance of exposing yourself to new ideas and contexts - I've always found this to be one of the best ways to rapidly improve in a short period of time, as opposed to the more incremental growth achieved through increased familiarity in a known context / setting.

What are some ways that schools and systems can / already do structure for these types of Professional Learning experiences..?

Friday, 28 September 2012


Alistair Clarkson and John Longmire - the coaches of the two teams in  tomorrow's A.F.L. Grand Final.

Tomorrow is A.F.L. Grand Final day. Arguably the two most important people in determining the result of this significant national sporting event are the respective coaches of the two teams, who will guide, co-ordinate and lead their teams both in the lead-up to the game, as well as during the game itself.
Yesterday I learnt a bit more about 'coaching', although in a different context. I participated in a workshop on 'Coaching Skills for Managers', run by a professional executive coach. The other participants were a variety of public servants, so the day was not specifically targeted towards education. Despite this, much of the learning I took from the day was very applicable to schools.


There were a couple of significant messages for me about coaching, in the managerial sense:

1. Coaching is about empowering people and helping to 'draw out' their own solutions to issues.

In this sense, it is different to traditional views of teaching (although I think teachers should be looking to adopt such coaching philosophies more and more... ) and even mentoring, which the term coaching is often confused and used interchangeably with. I think the distinction lies with mentoring being more of an advisory role played by the more experienced / knowledgeable other, whereas a coach does not generally provide, or offer solutions, instead preferring to guide and facilitate the colleague to identify their own solutions.

2. When coaching, a trusting, respectful relationship is vital.

A primary skill of coaches is the ability to be a good listener. In his popular book, 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People', Steven Covey identifies five 'levels' of listening:

Five levels of listening:
  1. Ignoring
  2. Pretending
  3. Selective
  4. Attentive
  5. Empathetic
A coach needs to be working at the 'high end' of this scale, endeavouring to be 'present' in the conversation and 'listening first to understand... ' If the coach can understand where the speaker is 'coming from', they are better able to guide their colleague to come up with their own solutions to problems / issues.
A further reason for the importance of 'high level' listening and being actively engaged in the conversation, is the notion that the words we say are actually quite insignificant in terms of communicating a message - what is more important is how we deliver the message and the effectiveness of the body language we exhibit during these conversations:

Herman Brain Dominance Instrument [HBTI]

Given the importance of effective communication to the role of a coach, we did some work with the thinking preferences tool, Herman Brain Dominance Instrument.

It was interesting to identify and discuss which 'quadrants' we, as individuals, identified most strongly with, as well as muse about the sections that the people we work with would identify with. From there, we discussed some specific strategies and methods to communicate effectively with people, depending upon their dominant thinking functions. For example, I strongly identified with the 'green', 'blue' and 'yellow' quadrants, but not at all with the 'red', feelings-based section - so please don't dwell on small-talk and friendly conversation when I am in a meeting with you(!!).

Difficult Conversations

The third focus for the day was on how to effectively deal with 'difficult conversations'... We learnt about and practised with some specific processes for carrying out such conversations. The key themes coming out of these processes were the importance of controlling your emotions, focusing on solutions to the issues / problems at hand, as well as working towards these solutions via conversation and discussion.

I don't know if I'll be contending for any premierships in the near future... but I do now feel better about my capacity to effectively coach colleagues in my school.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Instructional Rounds - Part Three

This is the final post in a three-part post. Here is Part One and Part Two.

Part Three - Next Level of Work... 

At our team's debrief meeting, we were able to identify two focus points for our Next Level of Work, which is where Instructional Rounds shifts gears from being a professional learning experience for the teachers involved, to become a school improvement tool that affects all teachers and our collective practice as a team of teachers. A phrase I found myself using a lot was, "it's about us as a school, not me as a teacher... "
The two focus points I wanted to discuss further with staff were borne out of our team's debrief discussions about what we observed to be effective [in relation to our Problem of Practice].

The next stage in the process was how to address this Next Level of Work. I ended up running a session for our teachers that fed back to them about our experiences with this new process, before focusing in on the improvement points identified for us as a school. During this discussion, I arranged for one of our teachers who had built up a very student-centred classroom learning environment [one of our identified focus points to aspire to as a collective group of teachers], to talk about how she had worked up to this stage.
Again, I was keen to minimise any apprehension teachers may have felt about such a session, so we played a  game initially, then made sure we went through a series of 'highlights' that we observed from individual teachers. This eased a bit of the natural apprehension that can occur when you are about to hear some feedback about your professional performance!
Although not hugely significant, here are some interesting graphics that we also discussed at our Next Level of Work staff meeting, re. the sorts of words we [the observing team] were using to describe each of the three elements:
What did the teachers say / do?

What did the students say / do?

What was the task / learning experience?

This was a really positive experience for us and, in the short-term, I hope we can build some momentum with our Instructional Rounds journey by getting another group of teachers to experience the process in the near future...
Ultimately, I'd love for this process to become embedded in the way we 'do' professional learning at our school.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Instructional Rounds - Part Two

This is the second in a three-part post. Part One is here.

Part Two - The Rounds... 

Having thoroughly planned how we would carry out the Rounds, it came time for our team to enter classrooms with pen and note taking sheet in hand! I made up a simple recording template for us all to use:

I was hoping to breed consistency in what and how we recorded our observations, whilst also staying true to the three elements of the 'instructional core' that underpin the Rounds process - the teacher, the students, the task / learning experience.
         Teacher                               Students                  Task / Learning Experience

So, in we went! As a team, we visited nine different classrooms, only missing one class, which had a new teacher starting that week and was deemed to need time to settle into this new relationship. 

We saw some common themes, some obvious points of need for improvement, as well as lots of excellent practice by our colleagues.
These experiences of watching 'teachers teach' were valuable professional learning experiences for us as a team, but the next step in the IR process is just as significant, if not more so in terms of professional learning. As a team, we needed to meet soon after our classroom observations, to have genuine professional discussions about teaching and learning - it is this stage where we 'talk about teaching with teachers'. This consolidated our own learning experiences, but also required us to move into identification of 'the next level of work'... 

Instructional Rounds - Part One

Part One - The build up...

Our principal often flicks the leadership team some professional reading, with the aim of stimulating some 'transformational' [rather than 'transactional'] discussion at our leadership meetings...
Early / mid last term, one such article [excuse my markups... ] was on Instructional Rounds - a school improvement process focusing on the 'instructional core':
“In its simplest terms, the instructional core is composed of the teacher and the student in the presence of content…a focus on the instructional core grounds school improvement in the actual interactions between teachers, students, and content in the classroom…” [From Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning by City, Elmore, Fiarmon and Teitel, 2009]

Although I don't usually need much encouragement to engage in education-related readings [words such as 'geek' and 'nerd' are regularly directed towards me!]... I was particularly interested in this topic, as I'd recently read a bit about the IR process and have long valued the professional learning benefits of observing other teachers in action.
I had several follow-up discussions with my principal, as well as with Cameron Patterson - a Sydney-based educator with a lot of experience in using Instructional Rounds in schools. [Cameron's blog is and he can be found on twitter at @cpaterso ]
Following these discussions, we decided to give the Instructional Rounds process a go at our school.

A crucial aspect to IR is that a team of people carry out the Rounds. We decided that one of our professional learning teams could pilot the Rounds process. We opted for a team that both myself and my principal were on, so we could 'drive' it in this pilot stage [there were also three other classroom teachers on this team].

The next step was 'schooling' the team on the IR process, before deciding upon a Problem of Practice - this is another critical aspect of IR. The team is focusing on a particular element of teaching / learning and should not be distracted by other issues during their classroom observations.

In my mind, one of the most important parts in determining how successful we'd be with this project was how effectively we could educate our staff on the process itself, as well as the value and benefits of such an approach. To this end, I was keen to discuss IR at a whole staff meeting, prior to the team beginning the Rounds. In this meeting, I tried to stress the learning benefits for the team that does the observing, as well as to clearly distinguish the purpose of IR from the purpose of 'traditional', performance-oriented observations...
Staff were generally very accepting and positive about the IR process following this session, allowing us to minimise the 'intrusive' feelings sometimes experienced by teachers, when people come into observe their practice.

So we were ready to begin...

This is the first in a three round post. See Part Two and Part Three

Friday, 7 September 2012

In Rushing To Teach, Do We Restrict Learning..?

Yesterday afternoon, I participated in a Skype session with a math's education expert from New Zealand. There were many interesting concepts discussed, but the one that struck me the most was her highlighting of the benefits of letting students have some initial 'exploration' time when presented with a math's problem... i.e. rather than us [as teachers] dive straight into explaining and analysing the problem for / with the students, there are benefits in letting students ponder and explore the problem on their own [or with peers], before we step in with assistance.

Traditionally, the teacher's role is to... well... TEACH(!!) the concepts, skills, content, etc... This has tended to result in a model where it is the teacher who starts and directs the learning process, by way of conducting the explanation / model / explicit teaching / etc. at the beginning of the learning process...

Explain / Model / Teach
Play / Explore

Whilst there is probably still room and need for these styles, we need to change the sequence of our instructional processes if we are to move towards a more student-centred approach to learning.

It is widely recognised that children are not all 'ready' to learn the same concepts at the same times, yet that is often what we are asking them to do when we teach a topic / concept to 'the group'.
We often say that we need to make learning 'relevant' for students - will all students see the 'relevance' in learning a concept if they haven't experienced it for themselves..?

By shifting the teacher's role in the learning process back, we can ensure students have time to play and explore a given concept, allowing them to develop a personal need to learn more. For example, as a student explores a task, they will eventually reach a point where they need to learn something, in order to progress past the point providing difficulty [so long as the task is challenging enough!!]. At this point the student is likely to be far more motivated to learn further about the concept, than they would have been if this learning was directed to them before they had the intrinsic need.

Many modern approaches to learning utilise principles that relate to this more student-centred process. eg: play-based learning in early years education, which builds and follows up on the structured play opportunities that occur at the beginning of the day; inquiry learning approaches, which build upon shared first-hand experiences that children ideally have at the beginning of an inquiry; even the learning process in video games, which youth spend so much time engaging with outside of school, usually requires players to play first, then offers tutorials / hints / etc. when difficulty is struck and a need for learning presents. 

So, let's give students more ownership of their learning, by letting them take the lead in this process and stepping in with our explanations, our models, our teaching when it is needed by the students and when they are most motivated to learn about the given concept / skill. 
Play / Explore
Explain / Model / Teach


Sunday, 2 September 2012

Which Room Do I Live In..?

I have just returned home from a staff 'team building' weekend. Aside from some fun games and, ahem... evening socialising... the focus of our weekend was identifying and understanding our respective personality profiles, as determined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment [MBTI].
Many will be familiar with the MBTI - one of the most popular instruments for measuring one's personality. The MBTI assessment identifies 16 different personality types - sometimes referred to as 'rooms': 

All individuals have a natural preference for one of these personality types. It is important to note, however, that individuals are not 'stuck' in their 'room' - they can [indeed, need to] demonstrate their non-preferred traits at times, in order to meet the demands of the situation. 
The 16 types derive from the eight aspects of our personality, which are represented as four dichotomies. Each of our natural preferences in these four dichotomies informs our overall, four-letter personality type. The four dichotomies are represented below:

When tested in 2005, my responses indicated that my natural preferences were for Introversion, Sensing, Thinking and Judging, resulting in my personality type of ISTJ. When retested earlier this year, I came out as an INTJ. i.e. I now prefer to take in information using my intuition, rather than my senses.

Back to our team building weekend... 
Given that all of our staff did the MBTI assessment in the lead up to this weekend, we were able to have some great discussions, including:

  • identifying similarities and differences with our colleagues - 
    • Who has the same personality type as me..? Who else is similar..?
    • Who has the opposite personality type to me..? Who else is different..?
  • how we can use this new awareness of eachother's preferred ways of working and behaving to work more effectively as a team? 
  • what are the strategic implications for our team, in light of knowing the range of personalities that make up our current staff group?
I found myself to be in the same 'room' as two other members of staff. I probably don't work closely enough with these colleagues to comment on the significance of this. A couple of other aspects were interesting, however...
  • I was well and truly in the majority group in terms of how we get our energy - we have many introverts on staff, but relatively few extraverts... 
  • There were two people with the exact opposite personality type to me. What I found interesting about this was that I particularly admire and like both of these people... I put this down to a general trait I've developed over recent years of admiring and respecting people who are strong in areas I am not. eg: I usually admire people who demonstrate extroverted ways of behaving, such as speaking or performing in front of an audience, as these are not my preferred way of behaving.
A common theme in our discussions was how to use the new-found awareness we have of eachother's personality preferences - we all need to keep these individual differences in mind when we are communicating and working with the range of personalities we have in our school.
The strategic implications of this new information will come into play [for example] when forming teams within the school:
  • Should we aim for a diverse range of personality types in the make-up of our teams..? 
  • Or should we adopt more of a 'horses-for-courses' approach, by targeting particular personality types for particular tasks [eg: filling a Creativity Team with 'N' people... or the Social Club Team with 'E' people... ]..?

What type are you? How does this affect you in your work life? How should schools deal with the inevitable range of personalities they have amongst their staff..?