Posts Tagged ‘21st century learning’
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
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:
A class begins, something is taught, hopefully something is learnt, the bell rings and then the next class begins. A unit of learning is begun, there are a range of activities occuring across days – weeks – months, hopefully something is learnt, then the unit ends and the next unit begins. A school year begins, a wide range of activities occur, assignments – possibly tests – are done, culminating projects are run with varying success, hopefully something is learnt, the year ends.
When one thinks about the flow of most of the learning that occurs within schools there is a particular pattern that arises – there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes the beginning, middle and end occur in one session. Sometimes it stretches across a few weeks and sometimes across the whole year. However, the habitual pattern is that there is a beginning, middle and end. So does it surprise you that over the years of schooling a learner could naturally develop the perception that learning is linear?
I had this insight recently during a conversation with a group of teachers at a primary school. The predominant unconcious context, and thus the subsequent habitual practices, within the school indicate that learning is perceived as linear by the students AND teachers. I then started exploring if that was the case in other schools, both primary and secondary, and found the same pattern. When I brought up my thinking with the teachers they all agreed. The way they often operate as educators could certainly develop a perception in their learners that learning is linear – start topic, do activities, end topic, next topic.
Learning, by its nature, is non-linear. The gaining of knowledge, whether by the individual or by humanity as a whole, is non-linear. Vygotsky coined the term “zone of proximal development” as a way of indicating that an individual learnt in a non-linear way. Piece by piece we gain knowledge and build a mental model through which we perceive the world. We begin with an incomplete model, given by our personal observations, the opinions and beliefs we grew up with. It is filled with misconceptions and misunderstandings. As we learn we slowly come to a more organised and consistent perception and interpretation of our world and how it works. The learning is non-linear but the explanations and ordering stem from an organised viewpoint . What often happens in schools though is that we “teach” in a linear fashion without honouring the non-linear nature of learning and thus engender a linear way of thinking about learning.
Context is Critical
“So what!” you may say – isn’t that the way schools have to operate?
As the saying goes, our context will eat our strategies every day of the week.This underlying context within the way that we teach will undermine any and all good evidence based initiatives because it stems from and leads to a particular mindset. How we as educators think abut learning influences our habits, our practices, and the way we create learning for others.
Let’s look at some of the common issues and complaints in schools that we could infer stem from this context:
- The students aren’t showing high order thinking or transfering their learning across subjects
- Students who struggle developing fixed mindsets (“I’m not good at Math, English, etc”) rather than growth mindsets
- Students aren’t being responsible for their learning
- Lack of motivation by students (and staff at times)
- There is a lack of resilience and persistence in learners
- Mathematics teachers don’t develop literacy in their lessons even though it is a major source of why students can’t answer worded questions
- Teachers are focused on covering content rather than ensuring learning is occuring
All of these definitely have a range of underlying causes to why they occur but one of the common features is the way that teachers think about learning and thus operate as educators.
If we take the case that teachers have a big say in how learning is perceived by learners, then by shifting the context of the teachers implies we can shift the way learners perceive learning. Look around you at the dominant habits and practices of the teachers within the school.
- What do they tell you about the context they hold about learning?
- Do their habitual practices show that they are linking learning across lessons, classes, subjects, days, weeks, years?
- Do they have anchor contexts and visible displays (which are constantly referred to) where students consistently and coherent develop the perception that they are exploring and building upon their understanding of the world?
If you think not then then the teacher context needs to shift to enable good pedagogical practices to occur.
If we begin by focusing on developing teachers to think from the context that learning is a spiral of increasing understanding and richness then I assert that these issues will start to shift. From this focus context teachers can begin to build habitual practices that are consistent with this context.
In Part II we will discuss what I mean by Spiral Learning and also give some simple HOWs teachers could use to go about shifting their context so as to develop a spiral learning context with the students.
I have been having a lot of interesting presentations at schools lately where I have been brought in to work with the teachers on formative assessment or differentiation or backward planning or some other pedagogical or curriculum strategy with the aim of building teacher capacity to create great learning environments.
One of my key messages is that there is an underlying context that the teachers and the school really need to grapple with if they are going to be successful at enacting any of these strategies.
If they want the new approach to succeed they have to shift not only their pedagogical and curriculum planning practices but their entire context about learning
Different contexts of learning and the perception of who is responsible for learning creates different actions, habits and even use of language for both teachers (lead learners) and students (learners). I have discussed the importance of habits and structures in earlier posts (here, here and here) but on this occasion I want to point out that different contexts makes some things easier, some things more challenging, and require different expectations, behaviours and strategies to make them work.
For example, I have been sharing the following table in many of my presentations of late to highlight to teachers this exact point. I developed it after seeing the Stages of Personalized Learning Environments Chart by Barbara Bray & Kathleen McClaskey.
|Teacher Centred Environment||Learner Centred Environment||
Learner Driven Environment
Now I am not saying that learning should not be teacher centred at times. Direct Instruction, which is a teacher centred strategy, has been shown to be a statistically significant approach to developing learners. However, it is when we get stuck in one context that problems arise. As you move from left to right in the table the skill level and depth necessary for the students to learn increases. A learner driven environment requires learners to have higher order skills quite often identified as 21st Century competencies. You will in fact find that the best academically performing students display many of the learner driven behaviours and drive their own learning despite what is happening in their classes.
However I want to point out that if a teacher and a school has not structured its learning environment, and planned in a coherent and cohesive way to develop students to be driving their learning through the years of being at the school, then they are not fulfilling their purpose as an educational institution. Whilst it was passable in some ways to have teacher centred learning in the past this is no longer the case. For the constantly changing world we are preparing learners for, it is critical that they develop the capacity to drive their own learning. Unless we are focused on creating the opportunities for this to occur then we fail as educators and educational institutions.
For more research and reading around this topic check out:
- The New Pedagogy- Students and Teachers as Learning Partners (Michael Fullan)
- An Essential Question for Developing Student-Centered Classrooms (Alan November)
- Literature review: Student-centred schools make the difference (AITSL)
- Improving Schools: The Prerequisites for Personalizing Learning
- Personalize your learning environment
- 10 Trends for Personalized Learning in 2014
- Creating Learner Centric Environments
- Uppervention: Meeting the Needs of Gifted and Talented Students
- 5 Tips For Making Your Class As Addictive As A Game
In Part I I argued that we can’t actually measure learning, the best we can do is infer learning from behaviour demonstrated over time. I pointed out that most of the measurement approaches I have seen used by teachers and schools are poor quality or are based on anecdotal observation that does not allow students to be CLEAR about what is being measured and thus not be responsible for their learning (they become passive rather than active learners).
If we are to develop students to be active learners then our systems and processes should be designed to encourage and empower a learner centred or learner driven approach. As pointed out at personalizelearning.com learning looks different at different stages from teacher centred to learner centred to learner driven. Active learners take responsibility for their own learners and are able to become highly skilled in what is now known as 21st century skills.
In this blog I want to focus on using rubrics as one tool to assist in formative assessment and developing learner centred learning.
If we are to move students to a learner centred mindset then a rubric becomes a formative tool first and foremost (and can be used as a summative tool by the teacher). The purpose of the rubric is to distinguish a skill / concept or product so that it becomes distinct for the learner.
Distinct (adj): “recognizably different in nature from something else of a similar type”
So what makes something recognizably different from something else?
You need to be able to articulate what it looks like as well what it is NOT like.
Human beings do this all the time unconsciously as we grow up. It is part of how we come to understand language. This is a chair. This is not a chair but a couch. This is the colour blue. This is not the colour blue – we call that red.
What something looks like or NOT like also grows in depth as you develop your capacity and gain mastery to make something distinct. This colour is not blue but sky blue, or aqua or royal blue. This is foot stool that can be used as a chair.
Finally, to be able to make something distinct for someone you need to be able to communicate the nature of the distinction in language they would understand and is appropriate to their level of knowledge and understanding. You wouldn’t start talking about colours as master artists would to children with little or no background knowledge of colour. So the language one would use is always appropriate to the people you are communicating with.
What this means in designing rubrics and formative assessment
Given the above discussion let’s make formative rubrics and formative assessment distinct.
- A strong formative rubric progressively unpacks and makes distinct what the skill, concept or product looks like to the learner
I have found that teachers know anecdotally and from personal experience of interacting with learners what the different levels of a skill, concept or product look like – it is in many respects how they come up with a marking schema. In the rubric on questioning below I worked with teachers from Foundation through to year 3 to come up with a rubric that would capture – as concretely as possible – what they identify as the progressive stages of development in their learners ability to ask questions. This rubric is by no means complete but you can quickly see that the statements are all concrete aspects that one can hear or see happening as learning is occurring.
|Aspects of Questioning||Beginning||1||2||3||4||5|
|RelevancyQuestion or notOpen or ClosedFat or Thin
Ability to respond to questions
|Can make comments with teacher prompting||Is able to form a question but sometimes may not be relevantMakes relevant comments with teacher prompting||Asks relevant questionsUses questions to get more information
Makes relevant comments and concrete suggestions
|Asks open-ended questionsUses prior knowledge in asking a new question||Uses vocabulary of topicUses questions to clarify understanding
|Asks fat questionsAsks questions that expand the conversation|
- A rubric by itself is insufficient – it must be supported by discussions and examples which model the different levels
A strong rubric is supported by examples which model the different levels and continue to make the skill, concept or product distinction. In the above rubric a teacher would need to define what an open (and closed) question is, what makes a comment or question relevant, what is a fat or thin question, how to ask questions that clarify understanding, etc. If the learners are producing a magazine then you would need to have a range of different magazines available and shown to the learners to discuss how the rubric relates to different aspects of the magazine. .
In the process of identifying what, in reality, the skill – concept – product would look like or NOT look like the teachers would be articulating the possible approaches and strategies they would be using to progressively develop the learners.
For example, some of the ways identified by the teachers I worked with on the above rubric were:
- Encourage learner questions that begin with – who, what, when, where, why?
- Highlight different and interesting questions asked by learners
- Prompt questions – what do you want to know?
- The learners only get to ask 2 questions in a session (so need to think about them)
- 5 Whys
- Use a Wonder-wall
- Saying the information you have heard as forming next question
- Explicit teaching of open ended questions
- Reference the rubric in class as learners ask questions
- A rubric is a tool to enable students to drive their learning and develop their capacity and mindsets such that they see learning as a progression towards mastery
Notice how the rubric above is written in positive language applicable to the age group. Rubrics develop the mindset that learners think from. I am interested in developing learners to be meta-cognitive and intrinsically motivated not extrinsically motivated by marks. We want to develop a personal best culture, or in other words, a learning culture that encourages students to put in effort and “compete against themselves” to develop and grow.
As Jim Knight pointed out:
“The trouble with deep learning is that it messes with our identity. In their book, Difficult Conversations (Penguin, 1999), Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen define identity as “the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what the future holds for us” (p. 112). It’s a lot to ask to change the story we tell ourselves about who we are. That kind of learning is often painful, and frankly, we’d usually rather avoid it.”
The more we take away the conversations of good vs bad, better vs worse, and right vs wrong and focus on learners demonstrating their progress in a skill, concept or understanding the more we will build the growth mindsets that Carol Dweck and others identify as critical to developing life-long learners and performers.
The next two steps along the path of mastery are to co-construct rubrics with the learners and finally have the learners construct the rubrics themselves. These are demonstrations of the learners reflecting on what constitutes progression of skills and how they could demonstrate evidence of progression.
With regard to progressive formative assessment, the rubric can become a tool which the learners use to see how they are progressing and they can now self-assess and reflect more effectively. Teachers can use the rubric as part of learner observations. If the teachers have a class list with the specific skill statements across the page they can tick off each time they see a student demonstrate the skill. This approach stems from – we can only get an indication that learning has occurred if the behaviours are demonstrated over time.
For other interesting reading:
- 3 Statements That Describe Rigorous Assessment
- Assessing Our Way to Creative Thinking
- How Assessment Can Lead to Deeper Learning
- Frictionless Formative Assessment with Social Media
- The Right Questions, The Right Way
- How do you know if effective teaching is occurring in your school?
- Formative assessment strategies for success
- 5 Out-Of-The Box Assessment Strategies Every Teacher Should Know
- More Progressive Ways to Measure Deeper Levels of Learning
- 18 Ways to use Rubrics in Education
How do we know that a learner has learnt something?
Is it from one off tests? Is it from their performance in rich learning tasks? Is it from reflection at the end of term as you do your reports? Is it from keep a track of what your students submit?
How do YOU measure if learning has occurred?
In most school systems reporting processes require teachers to assign grades or some number measure to indicate children have reached particular knowledge, understandings, or skill standards.
But does it REALLY indicate that the learner has understood the concepts, has the skills, or even can use the knowledge they have gained?
My opinion is that you can’t actually measure whether or not learning has occurred. Not until we have the technology to measure the changes in the pattern of neurons and their linkage to one another in each and every individual can we have any definitive idea of whether learning has occurred – and it still may not represent the learning WE want them to learn!
In reality, we are guessing whether or not a learner has “learnt” something. Some teachers may better than others at guessing. Some teachers and schools have more rigorous approaches to guessing and some don’t. The best we can do is, as an indicator that learning has occurred, is if the student demonstrates a particular behaviour OVER TIME. We then can say that that behaviour indicates they have reached a particular stage of development in that skill or understanding of the material that was covered. This assigning of an interpretation to particular demonstrable behaviour is the BEST we can do at assessing learning.
This is consistent with what Jim Knight in a recent ASCD post pointed out:
“We can experience learning in two ways: as surface learning or deep learning. When we experience surface learning, we make minor adjustments or try something out for a while, but we don’t take significant steps forward. Deep learning, on the other hand, is learning that changes our assumptions about how we do what we do. Deep learning gets to the core of who we are, and because deep learning leads to profound change, it really does make a difference.”
But let’s get real here … are you as a teacher or your school set up to work out whether a student has demonstrated a particular behaviour over time? I have found in working across 300 schools around Australia that very few schools are even thinking from that place – let alone have organised their systems and processes to be able to measure learner behaviour over time. Fewer still have the unpacked what particular behaviour around the attainment of specific learning goals could look like at progressive stages.
I am writing this to challenge an underlying assumption I have seen held in many schools and by many teachers about what their assessment is telling them. I am NOT saying that you are doing it all wrong – but it is worth exploring the underlying assumptions we hold as educators and educational organisations about what and why we assess. In many ways this line of thought has been sparked by a recent discussion that Dylan Wiliams and David Didau have been having about Formative Assessment. You can read more here, here and here about what they have been debating. It is worth reading just to start thinking.
You may notice that I am having a little rant in the process of writing – part of this stems from several discussions I have had with different teachers at different schools recently and in the past (Why do we have Grades).
In my view, if we are to assess for learning we first need to have a clear articulation of what that skill, knowledge or understanding would look like when the learner demonstrates it. In many cases teachers have a fair idea of what it looks like anecdotally. The more experienced and expert a teacher the more they know – by seeing it. Yet I don’t find that this ‘anecdotal knowing’ is converted into clear statements that are available to other learners (whether they are teachers or students).
What I do find mostly are summative rubrics with generalized broad statements being used as “formative rubrics” with the hope that the students (and any on lookers) will understand what is meant. For example this aspect of a rubric a teacher created to assess a magazine produced by Grade 3-4 students:
|Labelled and Formatted images were included in each section||Appropriate, labelled and formatted images were included in each section.||Appropriate, well-labelled and well-formatted images were included in each section.|
If I was a student looking at those rubric statements above I would be confused as to what would be “appropriate”, “well-labelled” and “well-formatted” images. What is written does not make anything distinct for me.
I spent a little time with the teacher who wrote the above statements to actually get clear about what she saw – physically on the page – in the magazines her students created that would have her rate the student at the level of needs improvement, good and excellent. The revised rubric now looks like:
|Labelled and Formatted images were included in each section||Plus/
Notice that we have unpacked what the higher levels of labelled and formatted means in a more accessible way. Appropriate now refers to the subject of the material in each section. The teacher would still have to distinguish particular words used in the rubric, she would still have to model and have examples of what each stage would look like during her classes but the rubric is developmental and much clearer to someone who is not that particular teacher.
As a piece of homework for you …questioning is one of the critical thinking skills that is key to the development of 21st century learners (or independent learners). If you are a primary / elementary teacher I invite you to unpack what questioning would look like at different levels from Foundation (Prep) through to Grade 6. If you are a high school or secondary teacher unpack what Questioning looks like from Year 7 to 12.
In the next blog I will get more into how good formative rubrics can be used as one tool in the process of supporting student learning as well as how teachers can unpack what a skill or understanding looks like for the purpose of formative assessment (or assessment for learning) – I will use Questioning as an example for this.
Welcome back to the start of the school year and we are hoping you are feeling refreshed and fired up ready to go!
A little over two years ago I sat down with two primary school teachers to have a conversation with them to discover what had them be so successful with developing their students to learn. It was one of those conversations that connected certain ‘dots’ for me about what I had been reading about the findings of neuroscience and setting up powerful learning environments.
Habits are the key
One of the critical keys to their success that made such a difference to setting up a powerful learning environment for their students was that the two teachers, both of them relatively recent graduates, were the habitual practices they had unconsciously embedded at the start of the year. Over the previous 2-3 years that these two teachers had worked together, occasionally team teaching but mostly teaching independently, they had tried and tested a range of structures, routines and procedures that they found made a difference for their students to become independent learners. A learning coach had suggested some additional new structures and these built upon the foundation that these two had laid earlier in the year. What the two teachers discovered was that by the middle of the year (Term 3) the students started to take learning into their own hands and be much more self-sufficient and self-guided. This allowed the teachers to then focus on being learning partners to the students rather than always driving the learning.
A Mathematics and Science teacher in a secondary school in Queensland discovered the exact same shift in learning culture when he implemented a range of structures and habits that allowed his students to develop their capacity to be independent learners. He found that rather than spending all of his time teaching and managing behaviour in his classes, the students knew what there was to do, how to support one another, and he had the opportunity to work with students who were struggling with particular concepts.
What do they build?
None of this should come as a surprise because teachers always begin their school year with routines and procedures. But are they well thought out and intentional?
This is a conversation I often have with teachers in my workshops. What are your habitual practices and what do they build? Unless you are conscious about the habits you have then you can’t give them away nor can you test whether or not they are working or can be refined. As an occasional field coach for little athletics I am continually thinking about habits and how to give them away. What are the habitual actions a high performing discus thrower does to throw further? What practices can I teach the athletes to have them develop those actions?
In the same way you as a teacher or school leader can ask yourself two questions:
- What are the habitual practices I want my students / teachers to develop?
Then list all the habits that you want the students to develop throughout the year.
- If I want my students to develop these particular habits what structures, routines, procedures can I put into place that will develop these habits over time?
It is even worth getting together as with your colleagues to collect that habits they have found works for them and then trying them out.
One primary school we are working with has created over-arching themes for each year level. For example, Foundation year is “Having a go and looking after each other”. The teaching team are now designing structures, routines, conversations and ways of interacting with the students that reinforces the idea of “having a go and looking after each other”. The intention is for the students to develop a growth mindset about learning and that it is about learning is about safety and community.
I have attached links to a range of articles for you to access to give you some ideas about possible habits you can use. Doug Lemov’s book, Teach like a Champion, is a gem. One thing worth noting is that there may be some unconscious habits you want to stop doing in the process. One big one for some teachers is they talk too much! It is worth reading Charles Duhigg’s book called The Power of Habit where he gives a range of examples and coaching on how to change the routines we are stuck in.
“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.”
Phillip Barlow is well known in the art world for his out-of-focus oil paintings. The South African artist uses blurriness to hint at shapes, subjects and context. In a world which has become hooked on high definition his work highlights the importance of focus and clarity in our everyday life. Those of you who wear reading glasses know the importance of being able to focus and have clarity when you are reading. I invite you to consider that many schools, teachers and students operate within an environment of a lack of clarity.
Many schools are unclear about the professional or student learning culture they are building. They have an idea of what they want but a range of pushes and pulls from education systems, parents, day-to-day issues and even finances blurs the focus of the individuals who are responsible for keeping it on track. It shows up in the way strategic plans are created and then followed (or not), in the staff meetings (and their number and length), in what is considered important throughout the school year, and in the structures put in place to support the school vision and goals.
Teachers are often unclear about the actual outcomes and goals they require students to achieve inside of a whole school plan. They read the prescribed curriculum and then form an interpretation of what that means. Quite often the result is a surface interpretation as deeper understanding and coherency requires the time for significant discussion and unpacking by a team of teachers consistent with the school mission and goals.
Students are often asked to learn in an environment where they don’t why they are doing what they are doing, nor what skill they are actually building. Without structures such as learning intentions, success criteria, formative rubrics, and clarity about WHAT, HOW, WHY and how to deal with obstacles to their learning – they often progress slowly towards achieving learning outcomes and building required skills.
Clarity, by definition, is the quality of being clear, coherent and intelligible.
The more that we work with schools the more we discover that what they are actually asking us is to partner them in creating clear, coherent and intelligible approaches to achieving what they want to achieve. It is not that they don’t know what they want (necessarily) but that it is a bit fuzzy or maybe they are unclear about the path to achieve their goals.
We find that most schools, whether they are of the government, catholic or independent persuasion, often have not clearly articulated what their purpose and the overall goals that they are trying to achieve. Sure they have school values. Sure they have a strategic plan. However we when dig down into what those goals, visions, and plans we find a lot of uncertainty rather than rigor and dealing with the reality of achieving their goals.
When we look at most school strategic plans they are often planned in such a way that it is hopeful rather than based in the reality of what would work best for schools, staff and students. It is NOT that we are dealing with people who can’t plan. What we are dealing with is, quite often, a lack of clarity of WHAT they are actually trying to achieve and a lack of a clear path to HOW they will achieve those goals in ways that coherently creates a powerful learning culture whilst supporting all students, staff and parents.
The same can be said with teachers. When we support teachers in planning curriculum we spend an enormous amount of time having them become crystal clear about what the learning destination they are desire the students get to. What are the skills, understandings and knowledge they want the students to gain? What will it look like when the students get there? What scaffolding and learning activities could they then design that will have the students’ progress towards that learning destination?
The great thing we have found, time and time again, is that once the school, teacher, or student is clear about their destination – they are immensely able to do what needs to be done to get there.
I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.
– Winston Churchill
For those of you in the wider world who don’t get a chance to catch all of our newsletters I thought I would include this quick blog post to capture some of the resources that have dropped off our web page which might be useful for you. We are consistently researching and developing ideas, resources, thinking, viewpoints, templates, workshops as we work with schools. We rarely have the time to make them available to everyone (although you can buy our Resource CD from the shop which make life easier for you!). The following is a small selection of some of the materials and links you may have missed
For those of you who are new to this blog, we spend a lot of time working with teachers and schools at the fore-front of shifting their school learning culture and their pedagogy. This week we had an revealing experience with one of the schools we are working with. It is early days in this school and the individual is receiving push back by internal (students, certain staff, etc) and external forces (e.g. parents). By the way this is normal as schools’ shift their practice and habits. I thought I’d post the reply by one of our consultants to the individual who is responsible for being the beacon of change within the school.
I experienced the same reactions (the whole range!) at the two schools at which I worked to implement Inquiry programs. Some of the students were very threatened by having to move outside their comfort zones – they had been very comfortable and used to the idea of the teacher doing all the work (in terms of the thinking) and them being positioned as recipients of information in the traditional classroom. They were very concerned about potential impact of ‘taking time’ away from traditional, discipline-based learning to develop the skills and competencies of inquiry. At one stage (I think I may have shared this story with you early in our planning last year) we invited parents and students to an evening meeting at the school to give us feedback about the Project – and it was very mixed, with strong opinions on both sides (and of course many who kept quiet on the issue). The bottom line was that, whilst we in no way minimised the students’ fears, we understood that we were the ones who had developed the understanding of the pedagogical principles underpinning the program – the students believed they knew what would serve them best in the ‘real’ world because that was their dominant experience of learning up until that point. You could say the same of many of the parents. We know what the research, the data and the experts say. Introducing Inquiry IS challenging, and I know, first-hand the feelings of stress, pressure and concern that teachers can feel during the process (particularly in the early stages of implementation).
The fact that some students are feeling uncomfortable is a good sign – it means that we have created something that is genuinely different and that there is obviously a need for, as the students must develop their awareness and competency in the skills needed for the twenty-first century world – skills and competencies that the VCE alone cannot provide. My understanding of the structure of the curriculum at your school was that the Inquiry Projects run separately from key disciplines like English and Maths so the students can be reassured that they will get their discipline-based, traditional preparation for the VCE in those subjects. What inquiry will do for them is develop the independent learning and coping skills that they will need to effectively deal with the stressors of experiences like VCE, university, living independently and later, to navigate the unpredictable and ever-changing jobs-market that they’ll be entering.
Without question, as part of my learning curve as I developed Inquiry in schools, the most important skill that I developed (out of absolute necessity!) was resilience. I had to look to collegiate support – particularly through those who shared my beliefs and an excellent mentor – to the research, to the work the students began to produce over time and to my own conviction that the work we were doing to transform learning into an active, thinking partnership was not only valid, but critical. On the odd evening, I would even watch video clips in the mould of Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Changing Education Paradigms’ to remind me of our purpose and reasons for working to transform the student experience.
Rest assured that what you are all experiencing is very ‘normal’ and I have been there myself. We are already experiencing success because we are challenging staff and students.
If you are a teacher or in the leadership team at a school who is out to shift the learning culture at your school – then expect the push back! You ARE pushing people out of their comfort zones and challenging their thinking. Unless the school is aiming for excellence and being extraordinary then the school will naturally devolve into mediocrity. It is your job to keep the vision alive. It is also the making of you as a leader of developing exceptional learning. It is not easy. It is not simple. You have to have the determination and the vision to be the one causing the shift. The results and difference for everyone is profound in the end.
Until next time!