Thursday, 25 April 2013


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.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

What Works..?

PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] is an OECD initiative that occurs triennially. PISA focuses upon assessing the capacity of students to problem solve, as well as apply their knowledge and skills in new ways. PISA also differs from many mass-produced tests that are administered by national or state jurisdictions, as they do not seek to assess the learning of any one particular curriculum.
Given these traits, it is a little more difficult to artificially improve PISA achievement via sheer familiarisation with test formats, conditions and content, as can be the case with many mass-produced tests... 

A significant point about the information derived from PISA is that it shines a light on equity, putting it on equal footing, in terms of importance, with actual achievement. This tends to be another point of difference with most standardised tests, which don't usually put as much emphasis or do as good a job of measuring how equitable our schools and education systems are.

Probably the main purpose of PISA is to enable analysis of how different countries structure their education systems and, importantly, to help identify some of the practices, structures and policies that show up as common among the systems that demonstrate high achievement and high equity. In the clip below, Andreas Schleicher goes into detail about this:

So what are the common traits of high-performing, highly-equitable education systems..?

  • Government and society value education, schools and teachers.
  • A growth, rather than fixed mindset, permeates through the system - policy makers, parents, teachers and students believe that all students are capable of learning, rather than lowering expectations based upon demographics and stereotypes... 
  • Schools and teachers in such systems "embrace diversity with differentiated pedagogical practices... and they personalise learning... "
  • "Nowhere does the quality of an education system exceed the quality of it's teachers" - teachers, themselves, as well as systems, value and prioritise ongoing Professional Learning.
  • "Teachers work together".
  • Teachers have professional autonomy - they are clear about where they need to go and what they need to aim for, but they are trusted to choose the ways and methods of pursuing these standards and goals, in order to best meet the needs of their unique local contexts. They are not robots on a production line and they do not 'follow' heavily-prescribed programs and curriculum documents.
  • Further to the above point, high-performing systems have moved away from past goals of standardisation and compliance, to empowering principals and teachers to be inventive, innovative and creative.
  • Honing in on the equity aspect, systems with low disparity between their highest and lowest achievers "invest resources where they can make the most difference, they attract the strongest principals into the toughest schools and the most talented teachers into the most challenging schools."
What [if any... ] are the excuses for not prioritising these traits of high-performing and highly-equitable education systems..?