Tuesday, 29 January 2013

And We're Back!

Today was 'officially' our first day of the 2013 school year, although our students don't resume until tomorrow - so it doesn't quite feel like 'real' school yet... 

Given it was the first time we had all been back together since the end of last year, there was obviously some reuniting, some holiday small talk and just general catching up to be done... 
In reality, though, there wasn't a huge need for these sorts of pleasantries, as most staff had been in and out of the school for the past two weeks preparing for the new school year! 

Once we got into our full day of PL, it was typically busy, fast-paced, full of information and detail, but also good fun.
Starting the day with some creativity exercises to 'energise' ourselves for the day, we followed with engagement announcements (!), welcomes for new staff, the detailing of key messages for 2013, a session on our approach to teaching Reading, a session on our approach to teaching behaviour, Skyping with a consultant for a Grammar and Spelling program that we use, a session on Professional Learning and Innovation, the work-shopping of some potential Mandatory Reporting scenarios, a Phonics session, then some general 'housekeeping' and 'need to know' stuff [timetabling, budgets, etc.]... 

At one point during the day, we had to write down something we were looking forward to in 2013... I wrote something like "working with motivated colleagues"... 
Admittedly, I didn't think long about it at the time, but, upon reflection, this is one of the absolute best and most rewarding aspects of working at my school [and many others, I'm sure]. 

We are all anxious for the students to start tomorrow and everyone is focused on doing what we can to make the first day, then the first week... as smooth and positive as possible for students and teachers - particularly our new teachers.

Bring on tomorrow! 

Monday, 21 January 2013

Desegregate and Diversify

In this video, a US Professor explains the benefits of desegregation policies on education in America:

Not only did black children benefit from their improved access to education, but - despite commonly-held fears at the time of these policies being enacted - white children's education did not suffer and there were significant inroads made into some of the education and later life disparities that had been in existence between blacks and whites.

Obviously, in America, there is work still to be done to make their country more equitable, but, in Australia, too, this is an important issue and education has a significant role.

What are we doing here to actively pursue 'desegregation' and diversity in out schools..?
What are we doing that contributes towards the segregation of people..? 
Such segregation plays out not just on the basis of race, as professor Rucker focuses upon, but also occurs in Australian schools through the division and separation of children based upon income, religion and other factors.

What would have happened if the US had not actively pursued desegregation policies..? What would their educational achievement 'gap' look like..?
We talk lots in Australia about such 'gaps' - the importance of 'closing' them, but also their growing nature... 

If we are serious about a more equitable society with reduced variation in educational achievement, social problems, occupational achievement, etc, then we need to not only discourage policies and structures that 'segregate', but also actively pursue higher levels of diversity in our school environments.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Carrots, sticks and all of that...

Most people are pretty familiar with the two main types of human motivation, extrinsic - the performance of an activity / task to achieve an external, separate outcome - and intrinsic - the internal drive that comes from the individual's inherent interest and enjoyment of the activity / task, itself.
In Drive, Daniel Pink makes the case that a reliance on extrinsic motivation to improve the performance of people [in workplaces, schools, etc.] has been the staple of "Motivation 2.0" and that we now need to move to "Motivation 3.0", which instead focuses on intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

We are increasingly motivated by intrinsic drives because of the changing nature of our work. Algorithmic, routine, single-solution work was common and important right up until late last century. Nowadays, it is the more 'heuristic' forms of work that are becoming - not only more common - but more valuable, too - "Routine work can be outsourced or automated; artistic, empathic, nonroutine work generally cannot."
Extrinsic motivators can be effective when the work is inherently uninteresting or dreary... Now that more of our work is "more creative and less routine... more enjoyable", we need to shift to the form of motivation that is more effective for this type of work - i.e. motivators that 'tap into' the greater sense of inherent interest and joy that we can potentially derive from working creatively, solving problems and working with other people.
Pink builds a lot of his theory from the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, who identified three key elements of intrinsic motivation - autonomy, competence and relatedness. Pink, too, identifies three key elements - autonomy, mastery and purpose.

  • Autonomy refers to our desire to be self-directed and our capacity for choice in how we work.
  • Mastery refers to our natural urge to get better and our capacity to apply and extend our skills.
  • Purpose refers to our beliefs about whether our work matters and contributes to something important. Whether the organisations we work for stand for something... 
If these three needs are well satisfied, people are likely to work with greater creativity, innovation and engagement - all traits that are becoming increasingly desirable in a world that relies less and less on people to do routine, algorithmic, instruction-manual-type work... 

Extrinsic Motivation

Relying on extrinsic forms of motivation is far less sustainable and effective in the long run. They can excessively narrow our focus [to achieving the external reward, itself] and can devalue the task / activity being performed [hindering long-term performance].
That said, there are some circumstances where extrinsic motivators are appropriate and effective - namely, when the task is of the routine, rudimentary, single-solution, low cognitive-effort variety. Not all tasks that we need to perform are inherently interesting and enjoyable... 
Another point to be wary of when applying extrinsic motivators is the distinction between 'if-then' rewards and 'now-that' rewards.

Contingent motivators - 'if you do this, then you get that... ' - amplify the negative effects of extrinsic motivators, with people directing their focus to the end reward.
Rewards that are unexpected, after the event, etc, are less likely to take away focus from performing the task, but still allow for recognition and reward for effort and good performance - 'now that you've completed this task well, you get this... '. These sorts of rewards can also help facilitate aspects of intrinsic motivation. eg: An unexpected, 'now-that' reward can improve one's sense of mastery [they know they've done a good job... ] or purpose [they know they've done something important for the organisation... ].

As a teacher, I need to take care in how I use extrinsic motivators. I think they have a place, as not everything we ask and need students to do is inherently fun, interesting and enjoyable [although this should be a high priority when designing learning experiences!]... They can also help facilitate intrinsic motivation, when used in a targeted fashion [an obvious example being the awarding of positive feedback upon progress being made, or an important task being performed... ]. But, as much as possible, I need to be conscious of not having the reward be the reason that the student performs the task.

Schools, themselves, need to focus on creating working conditions for teachers that facilitate intrinsic motivation - teachers should have autonomy over how they do their work, be encouraged to constantly be pursuing mastery and be clear about their purpose within their school.
We need teachers to be working collaboratively, with creativity and with innovation, so schools need to create conditions that best allow for this.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Measuring Teacher Quality

I recently read this article about the views of a data expert on the use of student test scores to determine teacher effectiveness. I found myself nodding in agreement at so much of it that I didn't think I could adequately share the sentiments via a tweet!

Data King Nate Silver Isn't Sold on Evaluating Teachers With Test Scores | Education on GOOD

    Quotes in blue [my bits in black]:
    "There are certainly cases where applying objective measures badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of those.
    • Just because the concept or big idea is worthy, doesn't mean we should accept poor application that does damage, rather than good - Yes, it is worthwhile to raise the quality of teachers, to identify the 'high-quality' teachers that can spread their good practice and lead, as well as to identify teachers that need development, but if the measures taken to do this are damaging to teacher practice and student learning, then a better pathway needs to be found... 
    one of my projects involved visiting public school classrooms... talking to teachers, and their view was very much that teaching-to-the-test was constraining them in some unhelpful ways."
    • Pursuing such a narrow, prescribed pathway to 'effectiveness' is highly-limiting, dumbs down teachers and makes them easily-replaceable [anyone can follow a narrow formula and do what they are told... ].
    it's a "topic that requires a book- or thesis-length treatment to really evaluate properly,"
    • But that would be too complex and difficult to 'sell' to the public - who wants to read a book or a thesis when you can get all the information you need from a graph on the front page of the newspaper?!?
    Silver's hesitation about using test scores to evaluate teachers isn't exactly a surprise given that he's driven by data and facts, and plenty of other individuals and organizations have laid out the case against the practice pretty thoroughly.
    The NRC noted that research does not support the practice and while they believed tests can be used to inform, "a single test should not be relied on as the sole indicator of program effectiveness."
    • Too simple. Teaching is a latent variable - there are a myriad of identifiable traits [think planning documents, assessment strategies, use of space, quality of interactions, level of student engagement, questioning skills, capacity to differentiate learning experiences, level of professionalism, capacity for self-reflection, commitment to Professional Learning, etc, etc... ] that could be used to help inform a measurement of teacher effectiveness, but to narrow it down to only one seems very silly... 
    holding teacher accountable for growth in the test scores (called value-added) of their students is more harmful than helpful to children's educations.
    • ... because of the affect this will have on the way the teacher teaches - they are near forced to focus all of their time, creativity and teaching energies upon what will be tested [what they are accountable for] - everything else that contributes to a quality education falls by the wayside... 
    Placing serious consequences for teachers on the results of their students’ tests creates rational incentives for teachers and schools to narrow the curriculum to tested subjects, and to tested areas within those subjects.
    lose instruction in history, the sciences, the arts, music, and physical education, and teachers focus less on development of children’s non-cognitive behaviors—cooperative activities, character, social skills
    despite the abundance of smart people speaking out against the practice, education policy makers continue their push for including test scores in teacher evaluations.
    • So how do people 'push back' against narrow, simplistic and damaging policy viewpoints..?

    Sunday, 6 January 2013


    Linchpin, by Seth Godin, is essentially a book about people and their work. In particular, it focuses on what is important work in today's society, how individuals can make themselves valuable ("linchpins") and what typically restricts us from doing this important work.

    What is important work?

    What used to be important was being compliant, following instructions, being a cog in the system... This is what employers were looking for in the factory era, where the goal was ever-increasing productivity...
    "For nearly three hundred years, that was the way work worked... Factories created productivity, and productivity produced profits."
    But the relentless pursuit of productivity means an inevitable 'dumbing down' of the work: "The essence of mass production is that every part is interchangeable. Time, space, men, motion, money, and material— each was made more efficient because every piece was predictable and separate... first you have interchangeable parts, then you have interchangeable workers."
    Once your skills are deemed "interchangeable", your work is not valuable and you are easily replaced.

    What is valuable is that which is scarce... Nowadays, given our systematic training of people to be 'cogs in the system', what is scarce (and therefore valuable... ) is:

    • People who "exert emotional labor".
    • ie. Those that do the 'hard' thinking and the 'hard' relational work - think empathy, generosity and NOT avoidance...
    • People who "make a map".
    • ie. Those that are willing and able to 'blaze a trail' and lead others through the tackling and solving of challenging problems or circumstances.
    • People who deliver "unique creativity".
    • ie. People who generate new ways and ideas... People who don't 'rest' on the status quo or tradition.
    • People who can solve complex problems.
    • ie. People who don't need to refer to an instruction manual (or a line manager... ) for every professional hurdle they encounter...
    • People who have unique knowledge or talents.
    • ie. People who have something that is rare and difficult to replace - think the expert in their field, the sportsperson with a special talent...

    It is those that are demonstrating these traits that will be doing the most important work (c/f those that are still operating in the 'factory' mindset... ).

    The big obstacle.

    Our "lizard brain" - the limbic system of our brains. This section is the evolutionary elder of the neocortex, which is the section that drives our creativity, our complex problem solving and our big-picture, future-oriented thinking.
    Unfortunately, this more biologically-entrenched part of our brain tends to be difficult to overrule, even by the more rational thinking neocortex... This results in a "resistance" to that which is not familiar, that which is beyond the status quo, that which is new and different...

    To be valuable, to do the important work, we need to overcome this resistance and unleash the natural strengths of the newer parts of our brain.

    How do schools create an environment that develops "linchpins" and allows them to thrive?

    In creating an environment that promotes the development of this new type of worker, schools would need to allow, indeed encourage, staff to utilise their creativity, their individual strengths, solve problems, etc. - conditions that allow teachers to separate themselves from being "a cog in the... machine". Teachers need opportunity to prove themselves as difficult to replace.
    We have cause for optimism - all schools would already have these sorts of "linchpins" within their ranks. There are probably a myriad of creative ways to maximise the impact of these influential teachers and staff members, but a couple of basic tenets stand out for me:

    • Give them large amounts of autonomy - let them 'off the leash' to create, innovate, anticipate and solve problems, spread ideas and generally, 'do their thing'...
    • Feed their sense of purpose - prioritise and focus their roles on important work, not trivial, menial tasks that *anybody* could do.

    People and their work - a changing relationship...

    Thursday, 3 January 2013

    Words that I'm uncomfortable with...

    Below are a few words that I'm a little uncomfortable with, when they're used in an education context... I don't generally break out in a cold sweat when I hear these words... but, for me, they tend to send a message, represent a particular belief, or imply a notion that I don't feel good about.

    Awards / rewards

    As in: Students receiving these for some form of achievement...
    Why not? They are often awarded too far past the actual achievement; They are extrinsic motivators which do little to facilitate intrinsic drivers or sustainably motivate students; They can devalue those that don't get the award; They tend to promote competition, rather than collaboration.
    Alternative(s)? There is not much doubt about the importance of feedback for student learning - feedback often includes points, stickers, reward systems, etc, but the focus should still be on informing the child about what they've done right / wrong and what they need to do to improve. Extrinsic motivators can play a part in providing this feedback ('I've earned points for that action - I must be doing the right thing... '), but we should try to avoid having them become the reason the child performs the task... 

    Behaviour management

    As in: 'You need good behaviour management to be able to control the class... '
    Why not? The word "management" wrecks it for me... It implies a negative outlook - 'the best I can hope for is to 'manage' these students... '. It also suggests that control is the goal, or the desired outcome.
    Alternative(s)? 'Student wellbeing'... 'Behaviour development'... 'Social skills'... Anything that shifts to a growth mindset would be preferable for me - I want to help people learn, not control them...


    As in: 'The students should be compliant... ', or 'Little Johnny is being non-compliant... '
    Why not? My iPad dictionary's definition is "Inclined to agree with others or obey rules, especially to an excessive degree" - ummm... excessively agreeing with others doesn't really fit with 21st century skills and mindsets like critical thinking and innovation... And I am not a ruler of a kingdom - I don't want, need or deserve (!) to be obeyed...
    Alternative(s)? Engaged = attracted, involved, participated - a far loftier goal for how we want students to act in our classrooms.


    As in: 'There should be consistency from teacher to teacher, from classroom to classroom... '
    Why not? I'm not as sure about this one, as this is a commonly-stated goal for school improvement... However, it doesn't really sit well with me - consistency is good if it refers to raising the level of quality to the highest level in existence, but not if it is restricting people by devaluing their individual strengths...
    Alternative(s)? I think we need to do more to unleash teachers to exercise their individual strengths. Having to conform is demotivating. Perhaps aspiring towards consistency through a greater focus on collaboration and sharing of individual strengths is a better way...


    As in: 'We need to make sure we are doing the explicit teaching'...
    Why not? I'll refer again to the iPad's dictionary... "Stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt". I'm not against this form of teaching, per se, but it is more the common, underlying message that I'm not comfortable with - to me, when someone makes a statement like the example above, they are reinforcing traditional, teacher-centric models of education. I think there are times when kids need to have concepts and skills "stated clearly and in detail... ", but I don't think we need to be reinforcing and promoting 'telling' at the expense of authentic, first hand learning experiences if we can help it...
    Alternative(s)? Anything that shifts the emphasis from the teaching to the learning.


    As in: 'The quality of instruction is important to student learning'... 
    Why not? Like the previous example, it is more the message being sent than the actual application of the term, itself, that doesn't 'sit right' with me... 'Instruction' is defined as "a direction or order", or "detailed information telling how something should be done... ". Similar to the last example, it values the notion of the teacher being heavily responsible for any learning that occurs. We know that students having first-hand experiences of concepts for themselves leads to deep and lasting learning - 'instruction' implies a restriction of this capacity, as information is 'fed' to students.
    Alternative(s)? Similar to the previous example - shift the emphasis to the student being the most active participant in the learning experience, rather than passively receiving from the teacher... Perhaps 'guiding', or 'assisting'..?

    Preparing for (High School... University... Tests... )

    As in: 'We need to be preparing students for the homework demands they will have in high school... for how to write essays at university... for how to take mandated, standardised tests... '
    Why not? No we don't - we don't need to dumb down and compromise what we hold to be our best practice, in order to 'prepare' students for somebody else's poor practice.
    Alternative(s)? Stick to our guns about what we believe to be best for student learning - don't throw out these beliefs and values because other institutions are making poor decisions... 


    As in: 'Little Johnny [may or may not be the same child from the earlier example... ] is not showing any respect... '
    Why not? This is a tricky one, as showing and treating people with respect is undoubtedly a good thing. However, sometimes it comes across from people that they are 'entitled' to automatic respect, by way of their position. This is not a healthy way for teachers, school leaders, or anybody to go about seeking respect. People - children included - rightly respect actions and behaviours, rather than positions or titles.
    Alternative(s)? Something that implies equality in the relationship - respect should be reciprocal. We need to earn the respect of the students and the colleagues that we work with via our actions. 


    As in: 'We need to set some standards about student behaviour... ', or 'your child's report reflects their achievement against their year level standards... '
    Why not? Regarding behaviour, we obviously need to have some clearly-communicated boundaries that students understand, but it is the overly-aggressive, show-'em-who's-boss, standard-setting that can ruin relationships before they have a chance to form... With standards-based curriculum reporting, it seems a little easier to inform parents how their child compares [albeit in simplistic, five-point scale terms... ], but a little harder to accurately inform them of where their child is actually achieving at and the appropriate next steps for their future learning... 
    Alternative(s)? We need to teach students appropriate behaviours, just like we teach them to read, write, etc. Expecting students to all meet a designated standard [and getting upset when they don't] is akin to expecting them to all be at the same standard for English, Maths, etc. With curriculum standards, we need to be careful that we are not funneling people down a narrow path towards a... standard [!!] outcome - people need opportunity to focus on and develop their unique interests, talents and passions.


    As in: 'That is the tradition around here... '
    Why not? Excessive reliance on traditional ways is becoming less and less useful in a world that is changing faster and faster. 
    Alternative(s)? We need to be open to change and new ways. 'Because that's the way we've done it in the past... ' is becoming less and less valid as a reason for making a decision. 

    What do you think..?