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...