“If I wanted to become a better carpenter, I’d go find a good carpenter, and I’ll work with this carpenter on doing carpentry or making things. And that’s how I’ll get to be a better carpenter. So if I want to be a better learner, I’ll go find somebody who’s a good learner and with this person do some learning.”
Last year I was asked to create a presentation unpacking metacognition for a school. Given that I had been talking around and about this topic in one way or another for several years I thought I had a fair idea of what I wanted to talk about. However I decided to dig a little deeper and expand my understanding of the topic.
My usual research routine when I am deepening my understanding about particular concepts is to gather information from a range of sources into one folder on my computer and then to read through and extract the key ideas and concepts. My goal during this phase is to gain a clear enough picture of the ideas and concepts so I can build a narrative for teachers that they can easily grasp the concept. This strategy of reading broadly and narrowing down ideas and concepts until I have clarity was something I found worked at high school and its value was reinforced at university due to the amount of reading we had to do.
As I read and gathered the ideas and concepts I had one of those “Ah ha” moments that transformed the way I thought about learning and teaching. Let me take you through a quick summary of some of what I put together for the presentation
Metacognition is broadly defined as “thinking about thinking” and includes activities such as:
- Learning about how people learn
- Developing an awareness of one’s own learning processes
- Monitoring one’s learning strategies and assessing their effectiveness
- Consciously managing one’s own motivation and attitudes toward learning
- Making adjustments to one’s learning strategies when appropriate
Attribution Theory research indicated that high academic achievers had particular beliefs and habits. They were clear that it was the application of strategies and effort that lead to success, that failure was the result of the incorrect application of a strategy or lack of effort, and high achievers formally used many strategies. Low academic achievers on the other hand attributed success to luck and failure to lack of ability (fixed mindset), and either were quite informal or didn’t use any specific learning strategies.
This led me to explore what were the habits of effective self-regulated learners.
Two strengths of Self-Regulated Learners
Two of the habitual strengths of self-regulated learners are that that are able to self-monitor and self-modify their behaviour to achieve their goals.
Self-Monitoring Learners know what they are trying to achieve (they are clear what they are working on), they have identified a strategy they are going to use to achieve that goal (and can transfer these strategies across learning areas), and they monitor their progression towards that goal.
- “Am I making my points clear and understandable?”
- “Am I getting closer to a solution or farther away?”
- “Have I convinced my reader?”
- “Does this solution make sense?”
- “How can I keep track of what I know?”
- “How do I decide which paths to go down?”
- “How long should I try this approach?”
- “When should I switch to another strategy?”
- “What should I try next?”
- Monitor their progression towards a goal
- Use self, peer and teacher feedback to adjust their strategies to more effectively progress towards their goal
- Self-modification behaviours can be taught in minimal class time (literally a matter of minutes over the course of a semester) and can improve students’ performance in the short term and long term
- Once the behaviours are internalized, students continue to use them but focus their attention on the content they are learning.
What this means
What my reading of the research implied to me is that we can teach meta-cognition and develop all our students’ capacity to be effective learners. My “ah ha” moment actually was that this is exactly what WE SHOULD BE DOING in every class. My thought was …
Where else in your life do you learn to be an effective learner if not at school?
What teachers can do in their classes to develop meta-cognitive, effective learners includes:
- Clearly articulate the student learning goals and success criteria (and support students to set their own personal goals and success criteria)
- Support students to identify their fundamental beliefs about learning (growth versus fixed mindset) and shift their beliefs
- Discuss and highlight to students the range of strategies to achieve those goals, and
- Provide students with sufficient opportunities to monitor their progress, receive feedback and, modify their strategies
If a school took on the above aspects in a consistent, coherent and progressive way, rather than hope the students gain these skills by osmosis or do it naturally (as they high academic achievers mostly do anyway) then the overall learning performance of the learners (students and teachers) within the school will improve.
Other worthwhile articles to read (and videos to watch) include:
- Using Metacognitive Strategies and Learning Styles to Create Self-Directed Learners
- Teaching Metacognition: Insight Into How Your Students Think Is Key To High Achievement In All Domains
- The Development of Metacognition in Children and Adolescents
- How To Weave Growth Mindset Into School Culture
- Help Students Train their Inner Voice
- Austin’s Butterfly – Building Excellence in Student’s Work
- The Learning Challenge – James Nottingham
The Influence of a Framework for Thinking
When I was 15 I changed the sport I played. I left playing junior football and began umpiring it – which was odd given that I didn’t like running long distance all that much! I think I didn’t want to lose the feeling of being part of a community and participating with a team. Being an umpire was certainly a growing experience for me as a young adult – especially when I had to deal with the comments being made by parents on the sidelines.
Looking back now, however, it wasn’t umpiring per se that made the biggest difference for me for the direction of my life. At one of the weekly team coaching meetings I happened to sit next to another young umpire who had just bought himself a smallish personal computer. I was fascinated. I asked lots of questions. I talked to him about what he did with it – how did he program it? This happenstance meeting sparked my interest in the world of computing and the thinking that being able to code required. By the time I was 16 I had bought my first computer, mainly from the money I had saved up from umpiring. The year was 1982.
That moment influenced my career decisions. It led to me to gaining Science and Engineering degrees with majors in Computer Science, Maths and Mechanical Engineering. My PhD blended all three disciplines to create a program to speed up the analysis of dynamic stresses in structures. I even ended up teaching Aerospace Engineering.
What I learnt
Along the way the 3 disciplines taught me a specific way of thinking – every problem has a solution and there is a process one goes through to figure it out. This is what design thinking is all about and what Coding and STEAM aim to do within a school context. The design thinking framework outlines a simple process and consistent language that can be use in every classroom to develop students to be self-regulated learners. Along the way students will develop skills such as resilience, problem solving, questioning, creativity and critical thinking – because there is a solution out there and they will need these skills to figure it out. It is a key thinking framework increasingly being used to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
The challenge most schools face is that they perceive STEM / STEAM and Coding as something separate TO DO. It can be but that is doing it the hard way. The best way to begin is by infusing design thinking and STEAM / Coding approaches into your current lessons. This is what attracted us to working with Mike Lloyd and the way he presents STEAM and Coding within schools. You get to plan for a progressive infusion into your learning areas and discover how you can practically enact STEAM and Coding gradually and progressively through the years – both primary and secondary. One feature is to spark student interest and create those transformational moments much like I experienced all those years ago.
If you haven’t yet booked into the March Workshops we are running in Brisbane, Ipswich, Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat or Perth
Good questions drive learning and thinking. They arise from the outcomes of learning we are intending for our students and they form part of a dialogue we have with students to prod and probe student thinking. They give our classrooms its feel and energy and, as such, questions are culture builders. Good questions are only half of the equation, we must listen deeply as well so that we can put forth questions that push students to elaborate and clarify their thinking.
Using Questions to Achieve Thinking Goals
Ron Ritchhart, in his article The Real Power of Questions, identified how teachers could use questions in different contexts to achieve four specific goals around thinking:
- To model intellectual engagement with ideas
- To promote and nurture ongoing inquiry
- To support students in constructing understanding
- To help students clarify their own thinking to themselves and others
Ritchhart unpacks each of these with case studies (the article is well worth reading) and then ends by suggesting that our questions are an “outward manifestation” of our context about learning, its purposes, and its processes.
But what makes a good question and what is a good approach to creating an environment that accomplishes these four goals?
Research Findings on What Works
Kathleen Cotton in Classroom Questioning summarized the research into classroom questioning and found the following:
Instruction which includes posing questions during lessons is more effective in producing achievement gains than instruction carried out without questioning students.
Oral questions posed during classroom sessions are more effective in fostering learning than are written questions.
Asking questions frequently during class discussions is positively related to learning facts.
Increasing the frequency of classroom questions does not enhance the learning of more complex material.
Cognitive Level of Questioning
On the average, during classroom interactions approximately 60 percent of the questions asked are lower cognitive questions, 20 percent are higher cognitive questions, and 20 percent are procedural. Therefore, only 20 percent of the questions we ask students involve intellectual engagement with learning, inquiry, or developing understanding
Lower cognitive questions are more effective when the teacher’s purpose is to impart factual knowledge and assist students in committing this knowledge to memory
In most classes, a combination of higher and lower cognitive questions is superior to exclusive use of one or the other
Simply asking higher cognitive questions does not necessarily lead students to produce higher cognitive responses.
Increasing the use of higher cognitive questions (to considerably above the 20 percent incidence noted in most classes) produces superior learning gains for students
Teaching students to draw inferences and giving them practice in doing so result in higher cognitive responses and greater learning gains.
- The average wait time teachers allow after posing a question or hearing a student’s answer is one second or less. If teachers can extend their wait times to 3 or more seconds then there are improvements in student achievement, retention, length of responses, and higher cognitive responses (amongst other outcomes)
To accomplish the goals of questioning we need to be clear about and articulate the learning goals we are trying to achieve with students, we need to be aware of the frequency we ask questions (and the students ask each other), and we need to provide a framework for the questions students ask.
Below you will find links to a range of resources you could explore to develop your capacity to create a culture of questioning. If you are interested in accessing the full set of material please just ask!
Austin’s Butterfly – a beautiful example of how we can develop student capacity to deliver excellence through questioning within a framework
“Change is the point. It’s what we seek to do to the world around us.
Change, actual change, is hard work. And changing our own minds is the most difficult place to start.
It’s also the only place to start”, Seth Godin
I have been working across 10 secondary colleges recently as part of some work we are doing. The position is essentially being a critical friend as teams from each of these schools enact curriculum and pedagogical change projects. The schools cover the span of the metropolitan area and also have students from a wide spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds.
It has been a learning journey for me as well as for each of the teams. I feel I could almost write a book on managing change within schools from the lessons I have learnt for being part of this project. However today I want to focus on one small aspect that was uncovered during one critical friend meeting that has a MAJOR impact in schools.
In one school the project team has been working on enacting diagnostic testing and embedding formative assessment techniques into the planning and teaching of Mathematics and English courses at two year levels. As part of their research the team triangulated data to assess the current “level” of their students. The triangulation data involved NAPLAN, PAT scores, Common Assessment Tasks and classroom observation (on-balance judgement). The on-balance judgement had the participating teachers writing down the relative levels for each student using a progression grid the team produced with support from Narelle Wood (one of the Intuyu Consulting team).
What the team found was that in the cohort of students there were 2 students below standard by 1-2 years, 9 students 1-2 years ahead of standard, and the remainder were a mixture of at-standard and just above standard. Yet, the whole cohort of students (except for one student) received at-standard on their end of year reports the previous year. The one student who did not receive at-standard was reported as being 6 months above standard.
When I asked why there was a discrepancy the teachers told me that it was school policy that teachers had to justify giving students grades above or below standard. In other words, if you as a teacher wanted to put a below-standard or above-standard grade on a student report then you had to provide evidence. On the other hand giving a student an “at standard” grade did not require any evidence. I then began inquiring across a wide range of schools that we work with and found this policy or practice was quite common across most (if not all) secondary schools.
I think this is a cane toad of a policy and schools have not explored the impact this common policy / practice has had on hindering effective curriculum and pedagogical change within secondary schools.
Let’s unpack some of the potential consequences that such a policy / practice can have within a school:
Why should a teacher expend any effort to rigorously track the “level” their students achieve if they are not held accountable for it? Since they are held accountable for justifying above or below standard grades why give anyone those grades? It would appear to teachers that it would be time consuming to track each and every student and justify the level the students achieved so why bother?
How could they identify the actual level of the student anyway? They would need to have de-constructed the Australian Curriculum (or AusVELS or the curriculum in your state) and have an agreed upon progression of knowledge, skill, and capabilities across the levels for the subject area. That’s a lot of effort for an individual teacher and the school does not have it so why bother?
How would we measure that anyway? Our assessment is not designed to measure student progression against the Australian Curriculum (AusVELS, etc.) and we haven’t structured our teaching and learning based on progressing students from their current level so why bother?
This blanket “at standard” practice also intrinsically leaves students with gaps in their knowledge, skills and understandings because teachers have not expended the effort to identify and come to an agreement of what “at-standard” looks like (let alone below or above standard).
Teachers don’t actually know if their teaching actually makes a difference to the learning progression of each and every student because they don’t have an articulated “what it looks like” for being below, above, or at-standard.
Even worse, why would teachers expend a lot of effort to differentiate for student point of need if they can give a blanket “at standard” at the end? They teach to the middle and hope that it is enough. Teaching equals learning doesn’t it?
Students performing above and below standard will also be impacted. If a student came into the school as an academic high achiever, over time they will stop putting in the effort to do better because the best they can get is “at standard”. Equally for students with gaps in their understanding and knowledge they will still get “at standard”. Is it surprising that an area of challenge for most schools is supporting the progression of academic high achievers?
Finally, why should a teacher change their practices if there are no accurate measures of the impact of their teaching?
I have no doubt that when a school really explores this there will also be a cascade of other impacts they could identify (e.g. perhaps teachers mis-attributing the source of why students are not progressing with their teaching?)
The Way Forward
What would I do to shift this? I would begin by making it policy that in one year’s time teachers have to justify the level they have assigned to each student. Then over the next year I would resource the teachers to:
de-construct the Australian Curriculum (or AusVELS or the curriculum in your state) and have an agreed upon progression of knowledge, skill, and capabilities across the levels for each subject area
develop teachers ability to use formative assessment practices to elicit evidence of progression and become data informed
support the teachers in redeveloping both formative and summative assessments
develop the capacity of teachers to backward plan
change the reports
tell parents this is what you are doing and why
Unless this policy / practice is changed, all the great evidence based practice suggested by educational researchers such as John Hattie (What Works Best in Education) won’t stick.
“Change begins with a culture where everyone is elevated to the status of learner”
Sarah Brown Wessling
In the last blog I shared about the research that David Gurr and Lawrie Davidson from Melbourne University have been doing around successful leadership in Australian Schools. Since I wrote that piece I have been discussing their research (and my interpretation of it) with a number of schools and their staff. The discussions have been fascinating to say the least!
Over the next few blogs I am going to dig a little deeper into what each level of leadership needs and wants to empower them to be effective in delivering student outcomes. My assertion is that schools that are successful over a long period of time have certain structures that not only provide what each level of leadership needs and wants but builds a particular empowering culture. In this newsletter I am focusing on Teachers. Please feel free to challenge or add to my thinking!
Level 1 Impact
Classroom teachers have a direct impact on student learning. They are directly interacting with students each day and create the experience of learning and the school for each and every student. As Hattie pointed out in his 2003 paper Teachers make a difference – what is the research evidence?
“It is what teachers know, do, and care about which is very powerful in this learning equation.”
“Teachers can and usually do have positive effects, but they must have exceptional effects. We need to direct attention at higher quality teaching, and higher expectations that students can meet appropriate challenges”
Hattie and Jaeger reviewed all the literature and identified five major dimensions of excellent teachers.
- can identify essential representations of their subject,
- can guide learning through classroom interactions,
- can monitor learning and provide feedback,
- can attend to affective attributes, and
- can influence student outcomes”
We know that pre-service teaching does not create expert teachers – they are often just beginning their teaching journey. Where teachers develop their expertise is through practice and professional learning in their school environment. So what structures and processes would teachers require within a school to support them to progressively develop their capacity to become “expert teachers”? The following are some of my thoughts:
- A spiral curriculum that outlines the progressive development of concepts, skills, understandings, and affective attributes across subjects through the years of schooling at the school. The aim is to provide a clear progression for teachers so they not only know the expected levels but also the connection across and within subjects. It also allows for a coherent and consistent approach to scaffolding and gradual release of responsibility over the year and through the years.
- A clear instructional model so teachers know what to focus upon and what works best in curriculum planning, pedagogy and whole school affective and general capability development. Given the amount of evidence based research now available schools can articulate a model which captures what works best. This would include clear planning templates and planning and reflection processes.
- Time for teaching teams to plan curriculum using a backward planning model (e.g. UbD). Petra Leitz in her 2009 ACER report pointed out that there is more variance in performance within Australian schools than between schools. My assertion is that a big part of this is because teachers do not have a shared common understanding of the “essential representations of their subject”. Time to plan and collaborate together on developing the written, enacted and assessed curriculum is critical to creating an aligned team and each and every teacher being clear about the learning goals and success criteria. In countries where there is significant teacher planning and discussion time (e.g. Finland) there is minimal variance within schools.
- A well thought out framework for teachers to collaborate Team meetings often can devolve into administrivia rather than focussing on the core aspects of influencing student outcomes. Having clear structures for meetings and how teachers can work together to influence all the students is an important facet. This goes beyond cooperation and into teachers being data informed and working together to address each and every student.
- Well thought out and progressive development processes for teacher capacity building (e.g. structured self-reflection, Individual Learning Plans, instructional and cognitive coaching, professional learning – individual and whole school). I find that most professional development within schools is piecemeal. Once a school has articulated a spiral curriculum and a clear instructional model then the school strategic plan should lay out how, over the coming years, the teachers will be building their expertise from their current level of expertise. This plan answers the question “How are we developing expert teachers that reflect the vision, values and foci we want for the school?”
- An induction program for teachers new to the school so that over time the teachers are mentored / instructionally coached into thinking from and operating from the articulated school approach. A lot of focus has been recently been put on pre-service teacher training. Whilst I dislike the “Teach for Australia” approach in principal I believe one of the things they got right was the strong coaching structure embedded into their processes. A structured instructional coaching approach that progressively develops teachers new to the school will ensure that expert teachers and leaders are being grown
- A school culture that values learning from mistakes and encourages teachers to experiment and evaluate their initiatives. We all learn by trial and error and this is critical for teachers to adapt to the varied needs and level of competence, knowledge, skills and dispositions in their classes. Unless everyone is working within a developmental mindset and are, at heart considered learners, then progress will be slow.
I would love to hear your thoughts about what I can add or change to the above at the level of teachers. Next time we will look at what is needed and wanted at the level of middle leadership.
Transformational and Instructional Leadership
“Leadership only arises when people are given the opportunity to lead”
This was the main insight I took away from a recent professional seminar I was involved in at the University of Melbourne. It was an important insight for me because it connected some thoughts and ideas that I had been mulling recently about some of the schools we had been working with. I left the seminar wondering how much opportunity for leadership teachers and people in positions of leadership actually had within the day to day running of a school.
In my experience when teachers took on positions of leadership they were generally given time in lieu to be operating as leaders. However the complaint I have often heard when coaching individuals in these positions is that this time was often filled with administrative issues – not leadership. Even when people in positions of leadership had dedicated time to lead they weren’t necessarily automatically good at leading teams – they lacked a framework for leadership.
Effective School Culture
This has led me to think that the opportunity for the leadership that schools need and want will only arise within a well thought out strategic framework for leadership. Even more so, as I have read in Leithwood and Day’s research – at different stages of school cultural development differing leadership is need. Furthermore, if a school is interested – as I believe they should be – in developing an effective professional culture, then at different levels of leadership within the school there are different foci that are important.
This is a critical point that struck me when I spoke to David Gurr, a lecturer in school leadership from the University of Melbourne. David used the diagram below to point out the different needs and opportunities for leadership at various levels within a school.
The following descriptions I outline are completely my interpretations of the discussion I had with David – not David’s. You can read more about Lawrie Drysdale’s and David Gurr’s model of successful school leadership here.
Classroom teachers (Level 1) have a direct impact on student outcomes as they are directly interacting with students. At this level the work that mostly needs to be done with teachers is instructional. The support they need to develop their capacity revolves around developing effective curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Just giving them time to do this is insufficient unless the teachers are highly effective planners working within a clear instructional model and instructional plan. More often than not the teachers need to be working within a framework that leads them to grow and develop their instructional capacity. They definitely need time to discuss curriculum, pedagogy and assessment and come to shared common understandings as a teaching team but within an effective instructional framework. Classroom teachers often don’t have many opportunities in their busy schedules to develop leadership. I am not saying they cannot be leaders but that leadership cannot develop without there being opportunities for it.
Middle leaders lie between Level 1 and 2 because they are moving into leadership. The challenge in most schools is that when one is appointed into a position of middle leadership there is rarely an effective structure for developing the leadership capacity of these individuals. Middle leaders have a less direct impact on student outcomes but they do have the opportunity to create the professional environment of learning and development for the classroom teachers to be effective. I have found that middle leaders are given time to “lead” but they often fall into the pitfall of becoming administrators and managers rather than leading the way. Thus they unconsciously become the barrier to change and growth within a school. Middle leaders transfer the school values and strategic vision into action at the level of the teachers. Thus having an effective leadership development program for middle leaders is crucial to developing a professional learning culture within the school.
Senior Leadership within the school lie mostly at Level 2 impact where they have an even less direct impact on student outcomes however they set the context and capacity of the school. It is their role to articulate the vision and direction of the school and facilitate the relationships and conversations such that a powerful learning and development culture arises. Without their visionary role and guidance the school can flounder. It is critical that these individuals think from the whole school perspective. One of the consistent pitfalls that I see often at this level is that they don’t plan strategically or effectively for the long term. At this level one cannot just focus on the day to day – which is vital to the short term success and running of the school – one needs to be planning for and playing the long term game of the school. The development that is needed here is building the capacity of the senior leaders to strategic plan and create what John Kotter calls the “guiding coalition” to have the strategic vision become alive within the school. Senior leaders need to develop their understanding of causing and managing change within a relational organisation.
Finally, great Principals not only have strengths at Level 2 but also Level 3. They set the context of the entire school and partner the senior leadership team to strategically plan and enact the school vision. Their job is NOT to micromanage the change but to empower leadership throughout the school. The principal is also the buffer between the external influences on the school and the school. They are the voice of the future to the community (internally and externally) whilst filtering the requests and demands of the educational system within which the school exists such that they minimize upheaval for the staff and students.
In the Part II I want to share a little about my journey of discovering the importance of effective school leadership and connect what we are seeing with the thinking above. In the meantime, some useful articles and research around this topic include:
Recently I wrote an article about the importance of failure in developing what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. Being able to see failure as a step to success is one of those perceptions or dispositions we could / should develop in ourselves as well as our students. The more we can be with the meanings we attach to failure and not make it something personal about ourselves (like we are not good enough or talented enough, etc) the more we can learn to see failure as an opportunity to learn.
But how do we do this? It is easy to say that is what should be done but what actions would lead this disposition to be developed?
One possible approach clicked for me over the recent school break as I watched (and listened) to my teen son play one of his Xbox games. On a number of occasions he was so close to beating the bad guys (I think it was actually bad dogs on this occasion) in his game that he was willing to go back to the start of that mission to retry and retry until he learnt what he needed to learn to overcome the situation. I have noticed this myself when I play those games – that failure was OK when I saw I was close to winning. Widening this thinking further – in my life I have always been driven to keep striving and growing and learning because I often had “near wins”. These days I play the game of life to win although I know that I won’t always win and there is something to learn each and every time.
Then I read this wonderful article from the recent ASCD conference of a talk by Sarah Lewis on the importance of near wins in reaching for mastery. I then found that Lewis has also presented a TED talk in 2014. Lewis found that the greatest artists and innovators in history thrived on near wins – “the gap between where they are and where they want to go”. Lewis encourages teachers to
Give students a “private domain”—a safe space to play and explore. ”Make no question foolish,” implored Lewis, and always integrate time for innovation, creativity, and play. “Play is what allows us to maintain a sense of wonder [and] sustain the journey required for mastery.”
So in this coming term have a go at creating an environment where the students can play and have near wins. Perhaps for those students who just missed out on getting the next grade in an assignment – have them re-submit and go for the higher grade. Perhaps you could gamify your classroom somewhat and have your students see learning as a game. Perhaps you give your students time to play around with ideas – concepts – understandings rather than rushing through content. Whatever you try reflect on the near wins in your teaching as you go and see what arises.
How much change has been occurring in your school of late? What is your experience of the change?
If we asked those questions of teachers in your school what do you think their responses might indicate? Would they respond in a joyful and empowered way or perhaps respond “yep yet another change”? I suspect for many teachers and leaders in schools there always seem to be some change initiative or another going on. Education appears to be undergoing a period of constant change, as it has for many years, and I don’t believe that this is going to be different for many years yet to come.
Given the constant changes occurring in our schools – whether they are driven by political, curriculum or pedagogical drivers – it is surprising to me that we consistently find that one of the biggest areas that schools seem to struggle with is managing the change that is occurring. Most school reforms or change initiatives fail because we don’t examine the underlying context or beliefs that exist within a school.
Let me give you some examples from our experience:
- A school has experienced a high turnover of senior leadership members in the past five years and have experienced “micromanagement from above”. The staff teachers indicate they have “change fatigue” and have little faith or trust in leadership at this point. Embedding new initiatives to improve student learning outcomes has been extraordinarily slow.
- A school has recently changed its senior leadership after a long period of stability and the new team wants to bring in a raft of much needed curricula and pedagogical change given the significant drop in student numbers at the school. However, there is a lot of “baggage” and resistance due to the “wrongs of the past”. Unless staff members have the opportunity to address and complete past issues again change will be slow.
- A school has a large number of teachers who have been at the school, and only that school, for decades. Whilst many of them are good to excellent teachers they aren’t necessarily interested in changing the way they teach or assess.
I could go on with a variety of examples but my point is that each and every school has individual challenges that need to be addressed to empower and enable positive change to occur. Some schools occur as fortresses against change, others are beginning to take down their walls, and others are flowing rivers where change has teachers meander from one initiative to the next and nothing gets embedded.
There is a wonderful old Sufi tale that tells of a man whose neighbors come upon him on his hands and knees under a street lamp. The man explains that he is searching for his lost keys. The neighbors immediately join in the search, but without success. When they ask the man if he’s sure this is where he lost the keys, he replies, “No. I lost them outside my door—but there’s more light here!”
Schools need to stop looking where the light is and start strategically searching in the most likely areas. They must uncover the invisible actors at play within a school – whether they are school structures, policies, past practices, teacher beliefs, parental beliefs, student beliefs, etc. What are the causes of the way things are? What are the teacher beliefs about their students? What are the parental beliefs about their children? What are the staff beliefs about leadership? The more a school makes visible the underlying beliefs and context the more it can actually enact change appropriately within the school.
Case in point, Judith Lloyd Yeo in her book “Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education” pointed out the following specifically about teacher beliefs:
- Teacher’s beliefs profoundly influence their understanding of attempted reforms
- The same words or phrases might signal quite different things to different teachers
- Each teacher operates from a set of unexamined beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning, about knowledge, and about the purpose of education itself.
- Teachers base their thinking and behaviour on unconscious values – personal, professional and those of the culture in which they live and were raised. Often personal values conflict with values of the school, school leadership, and even with a teacher’s own values regarding students.
- Some practices never take root or cannot be sustained because the underlying beliefs have not changed.
For those of you who have worked with us before this is why we often start our professional learning workshops with inquiries that unpack teacher beliefs and habits. If you are interested in further reading here are some great articles for you to explore!
I don’t know about you but the break over summer is always a time of reading and often a time of reflection. Whilst most of my reading is fictional (a summer habit that I have had since I was a kid when I read an average of 5 books a week) my work year normally starts with clearing out my email in-boxes of all the RSS feeds I get from the educational websites I follow – ASCD, David Didau, Teach Thought, New York Times Education, etc. My normal process is to have a brief read of each one and if I find it valuable and related to the areas that we as a consulting business are interested in then I curate it to one of our our Scoop.It pages. In this way I can keep track of a wide range of thinking and discussion about educational research and ideas. The most impactful articles I print out for possible use in future themed newsletters (like this one) or pass it on to schools as we work with them.
Two recent articles had me reflect deeply about failure, the mindset we could develop in our students, and how we as educators could empower effort in the learners around us.
The first article was written by Ron Friedman titled If you’re not failing, you’re not growing. Friedman begins his article telling the story of how Sara Blakely overcame remarkable obstacles to create the multimillion dollar Spanx underwear business. The key paragraphs for me were;
“Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?” When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.
“What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.””
My parents didn’t ask me or my two brothers such questions but my experience was that they never stopped any of us from taking things on. They expected us to contribute around the house, to the family, and be responsible for our actions. This is not to say we weren’t rat bags and never got into trouble – we were 3 boys remember – and our health insurance did get quite a workout over the years. Somewhere along the line I developed a strong growth mindset about the academic side of things and thus was the first member of the family to go to University and then go on to get a PhD.
The second article How to engage students in their own learning process is by Nina Smith, a Finnish teacher who blogs about her experience within the Finnish school system, student centred learning and developing intrinsic motivation within students. The paragraph that stood out for me was;
“One main problem is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”. It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else.”
If I look at my own life experience I am intrinsically engaged in those things I have control over. I suspect that if you look at your own experience you will find the same thing. One of the reasons I struck out to create my own consulting business, despite the challenges that faced us at the time and since, was that there was always some point where I became frustrated with the “mandated” hoops and side work I had to do to maintain my position in the organisations I worked for. Now that I am creating what I do each day and 100% responsible for how my days go I have no problem with engagement. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get stressed or anxious about certain things or that I am always successful, it just means I have no questions about what I am doing and why I am doing it. I find myself often taking on opportunities that I, on first look, haven’t got a clue how to do. I have learnt to figure it out – mainly in collaboration and discussion with others.
This leads me to my takeaway for learning within a school environment from the two articles. If we honestly want the students to be engaged in what they are learning, and to develop their capacity and skill to be lifelong learners, then it is critical to create the environment where they experience being, as Nina put it, the co-authors of their learning. This includes learning that failure is a stepping stone to success and developing strategies and process to deal with “non-success”.
I can hear the echoes from teachers and people in positions of leadership telling me “that’s all nice and good but how could we do that given we have a curriculum to cover?” I am not sugar coating it when I say that it is quite a big challenge. It is big because most schools I see are not structured culturally to create that type of learning environment. Just look around you now, does your school allow you as a teacher the freedom to be the co-author of your professional learning and development and to fail and then learn? Are you even given significant time to collaborate with your peers and develop new learning? I am not talking about the 2 hours you get once per week in meetings I am talking about the time you would get if you were studying a course at university. Are you told by school leadership about school-wide pedagogical initiatives (e.g. embedding formative assessment), have a couple of PD’s and then expected to implement the ideas? Or does the school take its time (sometimes years) to engage staff in a new pedagogical initiative and the teachers are supported with time, group and one-on-one discussions, peer feedback, etc to have the initiative embedded? Research does show that this is what works in schools.
One of the contracts I have been working on involves teachers from a range of secondary colleges taking on an 18 month action-research project in something that mattered to them and the school. The teachers had to build a case for action about the need for an initiative, get it vetted by the school leadership as well as by a university team, before articulating a plan for how they will go about it. It has been fascinating to watch and see the growth in thinking and practice of these teachers. This project for me, as a critical friend, has highlighted the importance of developing great change management processes within schools if we really want to change the nature of the learning environment for ALL learners within the school.
The bottom line, if you as a teacher or school leader, are ACTUALLY interested in developing a strong community of learners and learning within your school then there is work to do. It begins with saying “yes” and then figuring out how. To get you started I have included some articles that could spark some ideas and discussions with your colleagues.
Have a great start to 2015!
In A key to transforming practice – spiral vs linear learning Part I I proposed that the way teachers think about learning influences the way they teach. By observing the actions of teachers in day to day practice and how they structure and discuss learning within their lessons, units, and across the year we can achieve an insight into their thinking. From my observations of the learning in many schools, and the challenges that teachers identify with their students, I inferred that many teachers are engendering a linear way of thinking about learning with our students – and this would need to shift to allow the enactment of many of the core evidence-based educational research.
In Part II I will explore a more powerful context for teachers to think and operate from and point to some of the recent research and articles that give some guidance as to HOW you can start to shift the context with yourself and within your school.
Why I am suggesting a spiral approach is because most curricula or standards are organised in a spiral progression of knowledge, understandings and skills. Knowledge, as well as skill development and understanding, is often organised as a progression because it allows for the “pieces of the jigsaw” puzzle to be connected in a way that gives access and understanding to most learners in the fastest way possible. It wasn’t necessarily how the knowledge was first gained (e.g. the German chemist Kekule’s dream that led to identifying the cyclic benzene structure) but it provides a logical process by which knowledge, skills and understandings can be built.
If you explore the processes of scientific inquiry, historical inquiry, design thinking all of them are diagrammatically shown as cyclical processes. In reality, whilst the processes are cyclical, the learning that is achieved are spirals (or helical) in nature because at the end of an inquiry one doesn’t end up in the same place in one’s knowledge, understanding or skill. We learn from the mistakes as much as we learn from the successes. This naturally leads to a growth mindset because a “failure” is weighted equally to a “success”.
HOW to embed it
Ok – so this is a nice idea but how do you embed this thinking with the students?
Well this comes down to the habitual practices and scaffolding you as a teacher embeds in your classes. If you are intending to have the students become life-long learners and transfer their thinking, skills and understandings across subjects as I have suggested, then you will need to provide a framework and language which is used across all the classes and learning you want the students to do. You have to embed a way of thinking about learning, and in particular their learning, that naturally enables the students to think from the framework.
This is already done to some extent when schools use frameworks like De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, or Art Costa’s Habits of the Mind, however notice how these frameworks are often isolated to just be about critical thinking or specific uses. The frameworks I am talking about in this case is how the entire subject area or domain of learning is viewed through. For example, all of science can be viewed through the lens or framework of the science inquiry process. That is how scientists think. History can be viewed through the historical inquiry process – that’s how historians think. The Design Thinking process is how engineers, artists, marketers, and virtually any creative person thinks.
- Having visual diagrams (like the design process, science inquiry process, etc) constantly present and referred to within every lesson
- Using formative rubrics across all subjects – for example rubrics on aspects of literacy across every subject the student is in. One could even use a rubric based on the scientific / historical inquiry process across all subjects
- Having consistent agreed upon language used across all subjects
- Developing student meta-cognition about how they and their brains learn best
- Teachers using the spiral learning process to develop themselves as teachers – essentially being experimentalists themselves
Fundamentally, unless we have an articulated and structured approach by the teachers and the school which defines the framework or lens through which we want the student to grapple with their learning then we will always be struggling with transfer of learning and linear thinking in oru schools.
If you are interested in reading more about this including examples of thinking by other teachers here are some articles: