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... 


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:


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.