Posts Tagged ‘exceptional learning’

The following is an except from my book Exceptional that will be published later this year. For those of you who are first time readers – welcome. For those of you who are constant readers – welcome back for 2012!CultureEatsStrategy 627x330 300x158 Opinions, Beliefs and the Importance of Context

Everyone has an opinion about education. I do. You do. Kids do. Parents do. Grandparents do. Teachers do. Politicians do. The media does. Radio shock jocks do. Billionaires do. There aren’t many days that I don’t hear some comment about education from someone. Unfortunately for a large percentage of the population much of it is misguided and uninformed.

You might believe that is a big statement – not really.

You have to consider on what people base their knowledge and understanding. Opinions are based on what people know from reading, listening, others people’s opinions, media, cultural background, and on their life experiences. Life experiences have the greatest effect on shaping our perceptions.

For example;

  • If you are a student and your Grade One teacher created with you that “mistakes are your friend” and then set up the learning environment to allow you to make mistakes and learn from them, then you would probably love learning all the time.
  • If you are a student and you failed assessment under test conditions, despite “knowing the material”, how long would it be before you decide that you “don’t get it” and progressively build an opinion about you and school?
  • If you are a parent who has had poor educational experiences you can unconsciously impart your beliefs and mindset to your children (“I’m no good at maths”, “school is hard”, “I hated homework”, “I couldn’t wait to leave school”, etc).  If you have an ingrained belief that maths is “hard” then, unless you deliberately tackle that self-belief as a parent, there is a pre-disposition for maths being “hard” for your children.
  • If you are a “Tiger” parent with a strong belief that it is only by working long hours and doing lots of rote learning that your children will succeed, it is likely you will drive your children incessantly to perform academically – sometimes to the detriment of other skills.
  • If were teased at school, perhaps bullied, maybe even had a humiliating experience, that would affect your perceptions of education and learning. This is the same if you grew up in a tough socio-economic environment.
  • If you as a teacher believe that you don’t need to adjust your teaching practice and the way you structure learning in the classroom for different students and different generations of students (“I’ve been teaching this way for 20 years and it has always worked”, “I’ve always produced good results with my students … well the good students … the rest didn’t want to work and that’s not my fault”, etc) then this will affect how you teach.

Whatever the life experiences, people form a mental model or picture of the way that education is and then hold on to that – sometimes for a lifetime. And it is quite challenging to shift that mental picture when you have a lifetime of reinforcement from looking through the lens you have looked through for years.

I still vividly remember one student from my first year of teaching Engineering at university. He approached me to give him some one-on-one tutoring for a subject he had failed twice previously and he needed to pass it that year to finish his Engineering degree. I agreed, looked up the textbook and set a problem up on my whiteboard. My intention was to get a sense of what he knew and what he didn’t know. In my mind I thought I had a chosen a reasonably simple example. As this student approached the board to have a go at answering the question I heard him mutter to himself “this is going to be hard”. I stopped him in the moment and asked him if he realised what he had just said. He said “No”. I repeated back to him what he had muttered and said “That’s what we are going to go to work upon – your belief that it is hard. I am going to make sure you start to see how to think about the subject so you can make it easy for yourself”. It was an extraordinary learning experience for me as an educator because I really had to get into his world and understand what his misconceptions and understandings were first before having him step into my thinking and methodology. It took time and persistence on both our parts. And yes he did pass with flying colours when he took the exam again.

In this discussion I am not implying or asserting that people’s opinions are invalid. They all have some validity – at least to them and their personal experiences and understanding. For that student who struggled to the point of failing that Engineering subject twice, it was reality that the subject was hard – for him. However, that is my point really. Our opinions and beliefs are mostly personal. Understanding and experience on the small scale. People’s opinions are rarely built upon exploring and coming to grips with the context and assumptions upon which those lessons and understandings were built.fact or opinion 300x218 Opinions, Beliefs and the Importance of Context

This is also true about governments and the media. How many governments have implemented change programs without actually looking at what the research shows works in schools and for learning (No Child Left Behind policy in the USA, Merit Pay for teachers, and so on)? How many millions of dollars have been spent on what looks good and is politically impressive rather than what actually works? How many media organisations report on education and learning from a very narrow perspective? How many rank or discuss the quality of schools based purely on standardised testing that only measure very limited outcomes of student abilities?

It is not easy or common to look at the context or assumptions within which you learn and understand things. These contexts are like the air that we breathe. They are often so invisible to us and just part of everyday living that we don’t think about it.  Shankar Vedantam discussed a number of these “unconscious forces that influence us” is his book “The Hidden Brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives”. We will go into much more depth about unconscious biases and mental models at another time. Suffice to say right now that people’s opinions are quite often not based on hard facts and research but hearsay,  personal experiences, and unchallenged underlying assumptions.

If we are interested in creating and building educational systems that will allow / encourage / support ALL young people to become exceptional then we have to go beyond the normal everyday opinions about education. Notice the emphasis on ALL. We need to look at the contexts and assumptions that underlie our beliefs and actions.

What do you think?

If you are interested in our work and research see some of what we do on www.intuyuconsulting.com.au

This past week of visiting a range of schools has reinforced my perception about the critical importance of structures and non-negotiables in creating a powerful learning and working environment.

In everything we do as individuals we have habitual ways of operating, thinking, and organising ourselves. They are so habitual that we are unconscious to them. In fact, it is just part of how our brains operate efficiently – making the habitual practices we have unconscious. You don’t have to think about walking, you just do. You don’t have to think about speaking, you just speak (unless you are speaking in a language that you are new to and then you are often thinking about each word).

Expectations and No Excuses 175x300 Building High Performance Schools   Structures and Non NegotiablesThis is exactly the same in schools. The way a school operates is through systemic habitual practices. From what topic is covered when, to “bells” or “music” to signify the beginning or end of lunch or recess, to the habitual practices teachers have as they teach, to the way that staff and students interact. In fact, there are many programs and ideas that have been designed to create habitual practices in the classroom to improve learning: DeBono’s 6 Hats, Thinkers Keys, You Can Do It Program, Habits of the Mind, Bloom’s Taxonomy, using graphic organisers, etc.

Consider that systemic habitual practices are EVERYWHERE and that they are so unnoticed that you wouldn’t even think about it as something you do … “it is just the way that it is”. Consider that a number of those systemic practices have arisen, not because of any thought out strategy, but perhaps because they have always been there or someone thought it was a good idea.

Inside a commitment to creating an exceptional learning environment, extraordinary deep thinking is required to examine and challenge old habits, and implement systemic habitual practices that actually (with evidence and research) provide the learning environment you are out to build.

One school that I visited this week has been on this journey for the past 7 years. The primary (elementary) school lies in an area with generational poverty, sometimes up to 3 generations. Around 7 years ago the principal and the staff decided that it was insufficient for them to continue on as they had. While the results were OK nothing was shifting in the community and the students would end up caught in the cycle of poverty. The team created the vision for learning of “breaking the poverty cycle in the community”. A daunting goal, but one that the staff believed was worth their time and effort. This thinking aligns with creating a Level 5 Tribe as defined within the work of Logan, King and Fischer-Wright in Tribal Leadership.

The principal and staff looked at everything based in evidence. They began investing in a range of systems to be able to examine the student learning data. They started asking “WHY?” to everything they had done. They started looking at the progress of students through the school and what was missing. They looked at their habitual practices for professional development and paying replacement teachers (when out on PD). They looked at how teachers developed themselves. They started looking at every aspect of the child’s learning experience growing up in generational poverty. They then created what it could look like / feel like / sound like and started exploring the HOW. They created specific school-wide focuses and non-negotiables.

Here are some of their structures and the thinking.

  • Literacy and Numeracy are key focuses in the school. Research shows that by the time children from lower socio-economic families attend school they have heard only 10 million words of lower order thinking and language structure. This is compared to 40 million in higher socio-economic families. Actions?Thrass Chart 300x224 Building High Performance Schools   Structures and Non Negotiables
    1. Some children use Fast ForWord to support the development of auditory processing abilities and linguistic development
    2. The use of a range of literacy programs from Prep – Grade 6 to build up all dimensions of literacy (THRASS, SWST, QuickSmart, etc)
    3. Focus on the language the every teacher and student uses in every interaction (built upon Ruby Payne’s work on the differing language between economic classes)
    4. In the lower grades, students have take-home readers but they only take them home after they have been read in class 4 times by the teacher. The repetition builds the decoding ability of children such that when they read them with their parents at home (some who struggle with these books) they can continue to build and grow.
    5. Awards are based on students taking ground in Literacy and Numeracy and they are given books as prizes. This builds up the library within the home – something these families can’t afford.
    6. The Principal has sourced getting black and white versions of books such that the children can take them home to keep. Again building the library at home. By the end of being at the school the child will have well over 100 books that are theirs.
    7. If the data shows that the children in grade 4 are struggling with a particular area in literacy or numeracy, then it is not solely a grade 4 issue. It is a whole school issue. The senior staff will go back and look through the data for the whole school and design a whole school action plan to eliminate the “missing” that all teachers will implement.
    8. The “bells” in the school are replaced with a musical version of the timetables which rotates through up to 12 times table. This has arisen because the school has the belief that learning is ALWAYS occurring!
  • Staff structures. Quite often the Principal and staff have to deal with many competing demands that have very little to do with the learning within the school. The Principal, Assistant Principal, and two Learning coaches (Literacy and Numeracy) share SAMs (Staff Administrative Managers) who handle most of the administrative day-to-day tasks thus freeing them up to focus on learning. The senior management are crystal clear that they are there to focus on the learning and development of each and every child. Inside of this, the professional development budget is rarely used to send staff out to PD but to fund in-house development. The Replacement Teacher budget is used to fund another position within the school to have extra teachers available all the time. Each staff must hand in an action plan by 9am Monday for how they are “value-adding’ to each of the students in their class.
  • Culture.Promise and Creating Uni 233x300 Building High Performance Schools   Structures and Non Negotiables It was critical that there was a consistent and coherent culture being built for the students and the staff. The staff are clear that their focus is student learning – all the time. This is not about covering certain material and ticking boxes, this is about whether the students have learnt what they need to learn to move forward. There are teacher rubrics that explicitly outline what the differing levels of the journey to a “great” teacher looks like / feels like / sounds like including room setup, how lessons run, building self-esteem, work displays, etc. The teachers are coached from these rubrics and supported in their development to achieve. Observational coaching and the viewing of other teachers are encouraged. The teachers are expected to develop mastery in consistently using the Covey “Leader in Me”, Habits of the Mind, De Bono’s 6 Hats, Thinkers Keys, Visible Learning in every interaction.

We could go on with a range of aspects but the point is that this school has done and continues to do the thinking to WHY and HOW they can achieve their goal. It hasn’t been an easy journey. The Principal is constantly looking for funding. The school receives visits from 200 schools per year. There were back-lashes and upset staff at the beginning. The staff does work longer hours than the norm. Yet … they are inspired, passionate, challenged, and fulfilled each and every day.

As you finish reading this I invite you to ask yourself some questions:

  • Is the school crystal clear about what its vision and focus (at most one or two areas) is?
  • Has the school identified, examined and challenged (WHY?) all the systemic habitual practices and measured them against the question “do these practices deliver, with researched evidence, the future that we are building”
  • Has the school identified, explored and implemented HOW they are moving towards the vision and fulfilment of the focuses?
  • Is there a high performance learning culture being built? How?
  • How is the school address the 3 major stakeholders in a child’s learning – student, staff and community (parents quite often)?

I promise you, if you begin to do this thinking and address these areas … your school will produce exceptional learners.

NOTE: if you want to see more examples, videos, audio files, etc they will be uploaded on the website (www.intuyuconsulting.com.au) soon!

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