Thursday, December 15, 2011

Only dead fish follow the stream...

The title of this post is a Finnish expression that I came across while reading a fascinating article about education reform. The expression refers to the country's reluctance to simply follow what everyone else is doing - in this case, education reform. Finland's education system, considered to be one of the best in the world, has been under such scrutiny over the past decade that the 'crush of observers is considered a national distraction'. Gone are the traditional cakes and dances for visitors - the focus is on the learning taking place and figuring out the best ways to continue to allow it to happen in the future.

The article starts by examining the differences between senior students' desire to become teachers as their profession when they leave school. In the US school there were two (which was really only one and half) out of a class of 15 students. In Finland the average amount of students wishing to pursue teaching is over a quarter of the total graduates. Last year at the University of Helsinki there were 2400 applicants for 120 positions in a masters of education program. There is clearly a different view of education in the two countries. However, this shouldn't be limited to just a US comparison. I would confidently predict that the US level of interest in teaching matches several other countries.

Why is this? 

It isn't money. In 2008, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Finnish Primary school teachers earned an average initial starting salary of USD$29,386. This compares  to the US (USD$35,999); Australia (USD$33,153); England (USD$30,534) and Switzerland (USD$44, 308). It shows that paying teachers more money doesn't necessarily mean they'll produce better results or be more effective. This reminds me of a TED talk by Daniel Pink about motivation that I re-watched again recently.

I think one of the most interesting things about this video is the point that Pink makes is about companies giving time to their employees each week to work on whatever they want (provided they are prepared to share their work with their colleagues). This level of trust feeds the inspiration and motivation of workers and helps to produce better results.

While this exact model may not be followed in the Finnish education system, it seems that there is a related concept here: trust. Finnish educators aren't concerned too much with standardisation, intense tracking, test-based accountability or competition. Their teachers are trusted to do the job they are employed to do. They are given autonomy and this helps to motivate them further. More people want to be teachers because in Finland it is a highly respected profession, out-ranking medicine and law in terms of university applicants. There are, therefore, high prerequisites in order to be a teacher in Finland (a masters degree is mandatory) and this ensures that the people who truly want to be teachers are employed.

As highlighted in the article, critics are quick to point out that Finland has a very low percentage of it's population born outside of the country, so they are relatively homogenous. They are also a small economy and have a low poverty rate. So what works in Finland may not necessarily work in other countries. However, I think that's skirting the issue. There seems to be a genuine respect for the teaching profession in Finland - by governments, parents, students - everyone. This respect has helped to yield high results and countries that wish to match these should not look at replicating Finnish programs in their own schools but instead should seek to establish the same culture around teaching as Finland has. A total transformation may be required and, yes, this may be difficult - but it isn't impossible (see Finland circa the 1970's). People need to stop citing excuses about things that won't work in order to shirk the responsibility of fixing the things that aren't working. It's time for people to stop following the stream.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Questioning by design

Last week all of the staff at my school were able to spend some valuable time with an educational consultant who specialises in all things PYP. The Team Leaders were able to discuss strategies to foster shared leadership within our teams, as an entire elementary staff we examined conceptual learning and how it looks in our classes, and in grade level groups we discussed the importance of formative assessment and how we use the information it provides in order to drive learning forward for our students.

By using formative assessment data in a timely manner, teachers can individualise and differentiate the learning that takes place in their classrooms. This means that there is no specific teaching roadmap to follow for a particular unit or lesson. The learning may start in one way and take multiple directions before it reaches it's final destination. Some students may take these paths on their own and other times teachers might find that the same path is suitable for several students. When teachers negotiate the learning with their students, provide feedback in effective ways and differentiate accordingly, meaningful understanding can result.

These things won't just happen naturally, they have to be planned for. The PYP bases their unit planning document on Wiggins and McTighes's work in Understanding By Design. Part of UbD calls on practitioners to 'begin with the end in mind'. This means that they should know what it is they want their students to know, understand and be able to do and then plan appropriately in order to allow them to achieve these goals. 

The PYP planner asks teachers to consider the particular strands of the trans-disciplinary theme that  their unit will address. They then consider the key and related conceptual lenses that they will explore their learning through and develop central idea (big understanding). In the same section of the planner, teachers are required to consider the ways that they can summatively assess students' understanding. The planner provides guiding questions, such as: What are the possible ways of assessing students' understanding of the central idea? What evidence, including student-initiated actions, will we look for?

After reflecting on my practice in regards to my own use of formative assessment, I think my team andI have sometimes been making an error during this stage of the planning. We regularly plan our entire summative assessment task at this stage - a practice that has been adopted through planning many units of inquiry at various schools. But if we are using formative assessment correctly then the direction of the learning could conceivably change from the start of the unit to the time when the summative assessment is addressed. This means that the task that was designed at the beginning of the unit may not be applicable by the time the students come around to completing it. Have you ever experienced a situation similar to this? I have. 

So at this stage of the planning, instead of designing a complete task that we hope will still be appropriate for the students by the time we reach it, I think it is more important to simply be clear on the type of understanding that we want the students to achieve. As the summarising stages of the UOI are approaching, teachers can analyse where the students are with their understanding and  design a task that will be appropriate for them. This may mean an adjustment in the method or context for showing understanding than what may have been initially thought of at the start of the unit. However, it is important to remember that the purposes of this type of assessment remain the same.

One possible method of approaching this that my grade level team will be using in our next UOI is to develop an indicator scale based around the central idea. This involves us creating a 6-step set of descriptors that indicate the level a student is operating at with their current understanding. We'll still be using the guiding questions provided on the planner, including elements of these in each descriptor wherever possible. This will help us to see how the thinking of individual students is progressing and will enable us to question, discuss and problem-pose specifically for them in order to move their learning forward. It will also provide us with an insight into how the summative assessment task might be approached for each student. We hope this will provide another opportunity to expand the scope of access to the curriculum for all of our students.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Unpacking a maths program

Currently at my school we are in the process of revising our maths curriculum. Schools are typically in a cycle of curriculum revision and ours is no different. It's been an interesting process so far and we still have a way to go. To put things in context, last year we created a K-12 continuum of learning outcomes for Maths, Language, Science, Humanities, PSHE, German, Music and PE - I think that's all (phew!). This was obviously a lot to achieve within the timeline of one year and our Curriculum Director has indicated that these will need tweaking as we work through them. 

Our Maths Coach (a new appointment this year) is settling into his role and has brought with him a new approach to the design of our maths units. In previous years we have focused on a core resource for informing our mathematics practice and supplemented this with other resources where required. Along with our newly created outcomes we revised this resource and decided that it wasn't the best fit for our program. We recently received our new core resource and are now familiarising ourselves with this. 

Through the self-analysis of our program in the Elementary School, one of our main criticisms of our work was that we don't revisit mathematical concepts throughout the year. This is referred to as 'spiraling', as concepts are visited and re-visited throughout the course of the year. The belief behind this is that students are able to build on their knowledge throughout the year and develop deeper understandings. This also aligns with the constructivist approach to learning that the PYP values. Conversely, a curriculum based on 'mastery' places emphasis on mastering specific concepts of mathematics before moving onto the next one. Mastery is the end goal for all mathematical concepts, spiraling is one way of achieving that. Some educators achieve a spiraling curriculum by addressing concepts during each year of a students' school life. In this example the students learn certain parts of concepts (eg. fractions) in grades 1, 2, 3 etc, with each part becoming developmentally more challenging. Spiraling can also occur within a grade level and this would involve students re-visiting the concept at different times of the year. This is what we are looking towards in our school.

To encourage this approach our maths program has been re-designed around five units: Counting, Partitioning and Calculating; Securing Number Facts and Understanding Shapes; Handling Data and Measures; Calculating, Measuring and Understanding Shapes; and Securing Facts, Calculating and Identifying. I believe that these are similar to (or the same as) those used in the National Curriculum for the UK. Each unit has multiple mathematical concepts within it, for example, Algebra, Measurement and Number, and our outcomes have been placed accordingly. In order to spiral these we visit each unit twice - once in the first semester and again in the second semester. In this structure we spend around 3-4 weeks on each unit per visit and in the second visit are able to build upon the outcomes that we initially addressed in the first half of the year. Because the units are structured like this, we can choose to place them at any time of the year that we wish. This lets us link our maths units more authentically with our Units of Inquiry. For example, in our recent unit on Forces and Motion for How the World Works, we decided to run the Data Handling and Measures unit alongside it as it provided a natural trans-disciplinary link.

The difficulties we are facing at the moment is that it is nearly impossible to create a central idea for a maths unit if it contains so many different mathematical concepts. The Data Handling unit is unique in this setup as it contains concepts that are only linked to data and probability, instead of many other concepts, but the others have many differing ideas all covered under the same umbrella.

This leads onto the next obstacle. With the many different concepts being grouped in each unit there is a lot to cover. It has been suggested to us as teachers that we should aim to cover some element of every single aspect of the unit during the first visit. The result is that teachers are rushing through the work in order to complete it within the given time frame. There is little time for genuine inquiry as the students are being pushed through the topics at a fast pace. One solution to this that is being trialled is the development of rich maths learning engagements that ask the students to connect their skills, knowledge and understanding of several areas in order to complete the task. The one we trialled in Grade Four (centered around 'volume') worked well and was more geared towards inquiry-based learning. It gave the students the opportunity to experiment with different arrangements (measurement outcomes) test out their own theories and construct a formula (algebra outcomes) that could be used to determine the volume of any cuboid.  They also had to calculate their answers along the way (number outcomes). It is envisaged that these tasks will then lead into inquiries in some of the areas of maths that were included in the task. Time will play an important role in this strategy as these tasks need to be developed for five units across six grade levels - and then again for the second visit for that year!

The irony of all this is that by developing a spiralled curriculum within each grade we run the risk of making the maths less meaningful for our students. I'm curious to know how other schools handle this paradox. If you do create units based on certain concepts, such as fractions, do you ensure that they are being re-visited again later in the year? If you don't, do the students have a thorough enough mastery of the concept to hit the ground running the next year or does time need to be spent on refreshing them at the beginning of the topic? If you do re-visit them, how do you make sure you've had enough time to give them their due course initially and are they addressed through the principles of inquiry?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Power of Reflection

Metacognition refers an awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes. It is a valued part of the inquiry learning philosophy that underpins the PYP and people should expect to see examples of this in a PYP school. Dylan Wiliam summarises metacognition in this short video:

More of these clips can be found at the Journey To Excellence website.

Reflecting is the most common way that most teachers help to foster meta cognitive skills. A summative task will inevitably include some form of reflection, as will a culmination of a unit of work. Unfortunately this can sometimes only be token reflection - seen more of a 'tick the box' task rather than a true reflection on the learning process.  Paying mere lip service to a completed task or unit is something akin to immersing children in a fact-based curriculum that sacrifices conceptual understanding. It is important that teachers recognise the power of reflection and help to scaffold and encourage this development throughout a child's education.

As Wiliam states in the video, children can be taught the processes of reflection. The reflective process, like other skills, can develop over time and as students become more comptent at it they take less time to consider the elements that they think about - it becomes more natural. I certainly agree with this and can recall many students that I have taught who have excellent meta cognitive skills. There can be a noticeable difference between students who have been educated in an environment where reflection is valued, compared to those who have rarely reflected in the past. Clearly, reflecting well is not as easy as it sounds. If this ability level can be reached earlier on in someone's life then it can have positive impacts on their learning.

Teachers can help encourage the reflection process in many ways. Harvard University's Project Zero has developed several thinking routines, some of which are linked directly to reflection. I have used some of these in the past and have found them to be very effective. Through activities, such as blogging, the use of Web 2.0 tools can also encourage reflection. This blog has certainly helped me to reflect on my own practice and has also enabled me to gather feedback from other educators around the world. This can be easily transferred to the classroom as students can have their own blogs or twitter accounts (another way to enhance the reflection process). Blogging isn't the only way though - there are many different tools that can help encourage reflection. For some other ideas check out this blog post or re-cap the recent #elemchat on Twitter.

My final thoughts are concerned with how and what we should reflect on. Reflecting on key and related concepts for a unit or piece of work is a good way of helping to assess students' understanding. Sure, we structure our work around concepts but do the kids really 'get' it? Do they know that they are discussing perspectives, connections or responsibilities? Not all the time, I don't think. Good reflection can focus students' thinking onto the big ideas that they might not realise they're working with. Secondly, negotiating the curriculum with students is a key element of inquiry learning. If students have ownership over what they are learning then they are more engaged and this makes the reflection process both easier and more relevant. A final element to consider is to ensure that reflection is a perpetual process. This is a personal goal of mine as I feel that I don't give my students enough opportunity to reflect at the end of a lesson (or in the middle of a lesson). Reflecting only at the end of a unit, while important, doesn't give students the chance to adapt their learning throughout the process. If they're not learning from their learning then they're not extracting everything that they can from their work.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Synergistic Thinking

I have been involved in an interesting conversation on PYP Threads about whether or not we should display central ideas for each Unit of Inquiry to our students. I find it an interesting thought and something that I had never really considered before. I've generally gone through a fairly standard format at the start of each UOI, unpacking the central idea with the students and discussing what each element means. For those who are not familiar with the PYP, a central idea is an overarching 'big understanding' statement that guides the inquiry and encourages students to explore and question whether or not they agree with it. It is made up of two or more concepts in relationship with each other. For example, our current central idea is "Beliefs influence people's live's" with the two linked concepts being beliefs and influence.
Referring back to the discussion about displaying central ideas, the question was posed that asked if we should display central ideas. The rationale for the question was that if we give the students the answer at the start of the unit, are we robbing them the chance of learning through inquiry - instead transmitting knowledge to them?
The discussion on the ning centered around a belief from an educational psychologist named David Ausubel. His theory describes that by providing and scaffolding enough information in advance, students are able to focus on a big understanding and this helps them to learn. By having central ideas displayed to students, they are having their attention focused on the concepts at hand.
The argument put forward in the discussion states that if we are showing the central idea to the students, and therefore focussing their attention, are we robbing them of the chance to inquire into it themselves? Considering the PYP is based on an inquiry approach to learning, I think this discussion has some merit. I'm not sure that by displaying the central idea we are providing students with any answers, as such, as we can't be sure of their level of understanding. But I have been thinking a lot about the aspects of inquiry learning lately and thought that this may be a useful technique to try out in the classroom to help encourage deeper levels of thinking among my students.
Concept based curriculum allows us to spiral the students' thinking as they go through the grades and develop deep understandings. However, it can often be difficult to assess whether or not the students have truly grasped the conceptual knowledge within the lens that they have been working. This brings me to synergistic thinking.
I first heard this term used by the first-lady of concept-based curriculum, Lynn Erickson. She recently presented a keynote speech at the IB conference in The Hague. I have attached a link for this speech here, unfortunately I wasn't able to embed it. The slideshow that she refers to during the speech is this one:

Erickson states that curriculum & instruction must create a synergy between the factual and the conceptual levels of thinking. This sort of thinking enables students to be comfortable working at both the factual and conceptual level. An example, highlighted in the video, is of a student being able to provide two factual examples that could support her conceptual 'big idea'. Another way to create this sort of thinking would be to address things between two conceptual lenses (the example in the video uses the lenses of perspective and behaviour) and ask the students to think about the relationship between the two.
By not displaying the central idea at the start of our Unit of Inquiry I am hoping to encourage synergistic thinking. The students and I have discussed the organising theme for the unit and also talked through the lines of inquiry. I have challenged them to try and create their own central idea for the unit and already I have had a couple of suggestions. They haven't quite hit the mark yet but have lead to some questions that we can explore throughout the unit. I am hoping that by encouraging the students to consider the concepts that could be connected to make the central idea they will be thinking about their conceptual understanding. By challenging them to provide examples of proof for their central ideas they will need to connect factual knowledge to a conceptual lens and this will hopefully lead to them achieving deeper understanding.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Graph of the Day

I thought I would share an on-going data handling activity that has been working quite well in my classroom. It's called Graph of The Day and was introduced to me by Christine Orkisz Lang at ECIS 2010 last November. It's premise is fairly simple however if it is done well the effect can make quite a difference - as I have discovered.

The activity is completed daily and can range from 5mins to 30mins discussion time - depending on how much you have. I start off by drawing a commonly used graph - bar, line, pie - and representing some data on it. I try to link the data authentically to my students' learning wherever possible. For example, this week I created a graph the described the favourite simple machines in Grade One as we are coming towards the end of our unit of inquiry on forces and machines.

As the students arrive each morning they know that they have to examine my graph and see what it is about. They then have to take a post-it note, write their name on it and describe something about my data or graph. Once everyone has arrived and we're beginning the day I take some time to go through some of the observations with the whole class and we discuss the elements of the graph and what it is describing. This is also an opportunity for me to ask questions for specific students, or the whole class, to take the learning further. Eventually I will hand over the reigns to the students and they will each be in charge of creating Graph of The Day on a rotational basis. I think the responsibility of creating their own work for the class to look will produce some interesting graphs.

I keep all of the graphs folded over on a bulletin board so we can use them again and again. By having the students post their notes I have ready-made formative assessment data that I can use to plan future learning engagements and I can also offer feedback directly to specific comments and students, or as a collective if there is something that the whole class requires. I can also choose how much to scaffold the graph by removing elements (to ask more of the students' interpretive skills) or adding elements (to model certain types of graphs).

So far it's been successful and is something that I can carry on throughout the year. Here's a few examples from this week:

Monday, October 31, 2011

A brief history of education - the academic illusion.

I have recently finished reading 'Out Of Our Minds - Learning To Be Creative' - by Ken Robinson. It is a very thought provoking book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found the arguments he makes regarding the current practices of education and how it should be reformed for the future to be very interesting. Sir Ken's discussions are based heavily on the types of intelligences we traditionally value and judge our students on, specifically those stemming from the rationalist approach to thinking - the sciences. This has lead to particular types of education systems and I found it interesting to read through the history of how education has developed (in the western world).

The Kings School in Canterbury claims to be the oldest grammar school in England, stating that it's origins have been traced back to AD 597, although these sorts of institutions may have originated up to 1000 years prior to that. Grammar schools were founded by religious bodies and thus their purpose was to educate children (boys only in those years) for the church - the pathway to all professions such as law, politics or the civil service. This meant learning Greek and Latin literature (as Latin was the international language of the church). During the 15th and 16th centuries many non-religious organisations identified their own needs and established schools in order to meet them.

The 19th century impacted education specifically in the sense that during that time period there were significant advances in science and technology and it was also the time in which the Industrial revolution was taking place. This meant that there was a gradual movement away from a classical education (grammar; rhetoric; dialectic; arithmetic; geometry; music; astronomy) and more towards an education structure that is more familiar to us today. This generally involves a hierarchy of subjects - languages, mathematics, science and technology at the top and the arts and humanities at the bottom.

In 1870 the British Government passed an Act of Parliament to develop provision for primary schools. This extended to secondary education in 1902. In 1944 an act was passed which would enable the provision of free education for all. The purpose of this act was to develop a society of workers that would meet the needs of the post-war industrial economy which required a better educated workforce. It provided an opportunity for millions of people who had previously been denied education. Two types of schools emerged: grammar schools - to educate the top 20 percent of people, such as doctors, teachers, lawyers and accountants. Then came secondary modern schools - which were associated with vocational education and aimed to produce blue collar and manual labour workers. Despite all best efforts, because of the ways that these schools evolved there continues to be a higher status attributed to 'academic' programs.

Robinson refers to this as the 'academic illusion'. He argues that too narrow a view continues to be applied to academic intelligence and that teachers and parents must 'see through the academic illusion to their students' real abilities'. With the ever evolving knowledge of the human brain and the different ways that students learn, it is vitally important that teachers create environments where students can demonstrate their intelligence in the ways best suited to them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Analysing Inquiry

The PYP is based on an inquiry approach to teaching and learning. Kathy Short, a leading expert on inquiry learning, defines the term as 'a collaborative process of connecting to and reaching beyond current understandings to explore tensions significant to learners'. She identifies five key principles of inquiry learning: (i) Inquiry is natural to learning (ii) Inquiry is based in connection (iii) Inquiry is conceptual (iv) Inquiry is problem-posing and problem-solving (v) Inquiry is collaborative. As I was reading through these I reflected on how I manage these in my own class and how I encourage my grade level team to promote these as well.

Inquiry is natural to learning: This principle relates to the idea that inquiry is the natural way that people learn inside and outside of school contexts. It refers to the individual engaging with what his happening in their life around them until something catches their attention and piques their curiosity or challenges their thinking. I think, as a grade, we do a good job of encouraging our students to combine both the knowledge that they use in their everyday lives with the knowledge that they learn in school. This is important for inquiry learning as it promotes a natural way of learning.

Inquiry is based in connection: This principle is based on the premise that learning needs to have significant points of connection otherwise it can be difficult and tends to be easily forgotten. Connecting students with experiences from their own lives encourages inquiry and allows teachers to observe current understandings. I think we do this quite well. We certainly strive to scaffold learning engagements that allow our students to connect the key concepts with their own experiences. This is commonly done at the beginning stages of a unit of inquiry as it helps the students 'tune in' with the type of learning that will be taking place. I wonder if we could try harder to revisit these sorts of connections more periodically throughout each unit though. This may help to re-focus the students and help them reflect on their learning. There is, however, a level of caution to be considered here as we don't want to over-guide the inquiry and the students do need to have the opportunity to explore their own learning independently.

Inquiry is conceptual: This principle refers to the ability of teachers to place the major emphasis of their teaching on the big ideas that lie behind topics. This will in turn lead to deeper understandings that are transferrable across different contexts. This type of learning is more important now that ever before. The world has moved from an 'Information Age' that relied on knowledge workers and analytical thinkers, to a 'Conceptual Age' that asks for the ability to think collaboratively and combine creative thinking with analysis. The PYP has five essential elements, one of which are the key concepts. All of our units of inquiry are based around these and their associated concepts so we are driving conceptual learning from the start. In this sense, I feel that we do a good job. The challenge that sometimes arises is maintaining this conceptual learning. Sometimes we get caught up with focussing on an interesting topic, theme or activity that may have a conceptual link, but is still being explored in a more factual way.

Inquiry is problem-posing and problem-solving: Problem solving in a typical inquiry situation often looks like students engaging in a designed task, being encouraged to ask questions about that problem and to research those questions. Problem-posing develops once a person has acquired a wealth of knowledge about a topic or issue. Time needs to be spent exploring and immersing students in these and eventually tensions will arise that allow them to problem-pose. I think a lot of the time I consider the questions that my students ask during problem-solving engagements as problem-posing questions when they're not. If I am the one setting the engagement then I am the problem-poser, not my students. They are simply asking questions (still a valuable skill - don't get me wrong!) about my problem. My realisation about this principle is that I have been focussing too much on guided inquiry. My goal is to make my units focus more on collaborative inquiry, where the students have greater freedom to pose and investigate problems that they find interesting within that unit.

Inquiry is collaborative: Collaboration differs from co-operation in that it is not just about working together, but also about thinking through dialogue about ideas. Effective learning occurs when participants work together towards understanding - they learn in an experience, not just from an experience. In other words, learners gain understanding by being part of something, not just learning about it. I think this element is the one that we are probably strongest at. Collaboration is high among the students in each class, between the classes in the grade and also with classes in other grades in the school. Additionally, we use technology to enhance the collaborative experience and allow the students to connect to minds in other parts of the world, of different ages and backgrounds. These collaborative experiences allow for effective inquiry learning to take place.

Overall, I think we do a pretty good job of fostering a positive inquiry-based learning approach in our grade. There are certainly things that we can improve on but we're on the right track. It will be interesting to discuss these elements in greater personal detail with my team members as we reflect on our current unit of inquiry.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Education Miracle

This morning I read a very interesting newspaper article about educational performance of different nations. Its focus was on the recent high performance of Asian nations - namely Korea, Singapore and China and looks at their rise to the top of the international student rankings. It states, however, that this rise hasn't come without a cost.

These three nations, among others, have regularly topped these sorts of ranking tables in recent years. As a result, education reformers in search of similar results look to these countries' curricula for inspiration on how to enhance their own programs. However, according to Dr. Yong Zhao, from the University of Oregon, more attention needs to be paid to the other results that these systems yield.

The article highlights three key educational points:

(i) The development of the whole child - Dr. Zhao highlights the existence, in these systems, of high levels of psychological stress, the strong directional focus from the teacher to the student, and a lack of social experiences, which can lead to poor emotional development in a child. He also mentions the children's lack of confidence, for example, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and imagination. To claim that an over-reliance on purely an academic focus - however that may be defined - is detrimental to a student's development is not ground breaking news. However, what still astounds me is some people's (and I include teachers, parents, students and policy makers in this group) fascination with academic scores and results. People talk about the importance of developing the 'whole child' but I sometimes get the impression that few truly believe it and even less actually act on it.

(ii) The over-reliance on standardised testing results - Dr. Zhao states that standardised test scores are ''easily manipulated if you pay for college prep schools''. Long used to measure student achievement or academic ability (and more recently for other means), there is regular discussion about the methods and uses of standardised testing in many different settings. The use of standardised testing results to allocate funding, student class or level placement, and teacher performance has wreaked havoc among several countries with one of the most notable examples being the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States. Despite all this, Government representatives still seem to view this as the most effective way of evaluating many parts of a school's teaching and learning. And to be perfectly honest, it's hard to blame them. Many elementary school teachers advocate the end of standardised testing, citing student rates of development, over-reliance on factual knowledge over deeper understanding, and multiple intelligences as key arguments against the use of these assessment methods. But many Universities still base their student admission criteria on these sorts of tests. So, inevitably, as the student progresses through their schooling years, they need to learn how to perform on such assessments. It pleased me to read the section in the article that mentioned how some Universities are changing their selection process and criteria to not only rely on academic performance. They are doing this because students are performing well on standardised tests to enter their universities, only to find themselves being 'dragged back into the pack' once they're in. It is a small start, but these realisations need to come from the top (ie. universities and colleges) in order for the changes to fully filter through the complete educational life of a child.

(iii) The importance of collaborative working skills - The article also states that many of the students that enter 'top' universities are leaving without jobs in any of the Fortune 500 companies that they expect to gain. 'People talk about how they lack confidence, how they lack entrepreneurial skills, how they lack the ability to work with a group'. These skills need to be fostered and a focus on 'skill and drill' style learning experiences does little to enhance them. This loops back to the first point of developing the whole child but highlights that fact that it doesn't simply stop after elementary school. These skills need to be developed throughout a child's entire education.

It is sometimes difficult to have the vision and courage to change the ways of the past, especially when they are still used in many circumstances or if the reasons for the change are not completely understood. Fast disappearing are the days where mastering one discipline in one way would be enough to guarantee the successful completion of a task - or even a career. Today's workforce favours employees who boast a skill set consisting of creative thinking, the ability to collaborate, and the capacity to synthesise and transfer knowledge to new and related fields. It is the students that possess these skills that are the real miracles of education.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The importance of empathy

The Primary Years Program highlights five essential elements: knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and action. One of the recognised attitudes is Empathy. In 'Making the PYP Happen', Empathy is defined as:

"(Students) Imagining themselves in another's situation in order to understand his or her reasoning and emotions, so as to be open-minded and reflective about the perspective of others (pg. 24)."

This can usually be easy enough for students to comprehend by definition, however the application of it can sometimes be more difficult. My experience with students aged 10 and below (and many older than that too!) is that some of them can still be very self-centered and find it difficult to understand another person's perspective. This is, of course, a generalisation and I have met many empathetic children throughout my career.

It is important to continually find effective ways of promoting all of the attitudes within a school setting. This is particularly important with empathy as it is something that children of this generation can have difficulty accessing. Collaboration and socialisation is increasingly being experienced in situations that aren't face-to-face. Children of this generation regularly meet and connect with their peers in real time on-line, via email and also through telecommunication (especially SMS).

One of the side-effects of this type of communication can be that people don't have to deal with the immediate consequences of their actions. If someone uses bullying behaviour face-to-face with someone else then they see the effects of this straight away. They see how it makes people feel and the effect that it can have on their behaviour. This may not do anything to immediately deter their actions, however they are certainly faced with some of the repercussions straight away. They see how their actions make others feel.

Children today also have to deal with the possibility of cyber-bullying and this is something that can have just as much of an impact as if it were experienced in a face-to-face situation. The major difference here, though, is that a cyber-bully does not have to immediately deal with the effect that their actions may have on someone else. There is a real possibility that they may bully someone and never see or realise the consequences of their actions. A potential result of this is that many children may grow up without truly understanding or being able to show empathy to one another.

I recently watched an interesting documentary, entitled 'Children Full of Life'. You can view it here if you wish. It looks at a classroom teacher in Japan and how he deals with teaching his students the importance of empathy. While he is not dealing with such issues as cyber-bullying, some of the examples that occur during the film still apply. One way that the teacher fosters a community of perspective and empathetic understanding is through the use of what he calls notebooks. Each student writes in their personal notebook daily and then the teacher chooses three people to share their writing with the class. Their writing is personal and once they share it with the class there is time designated for discussion of the topic or issue. This allows for other students to connect with the writing and lets the students see that there are people who may share their feelings or have a different perspective.

I hear many parents telling me that, for various reasons, we should curtail the use of certain technological tools. Trying to solve issues raised in this post - particularly cyber-bullying - by instilling preventative measures will do nothing solve the issue. It may hide it for a little while, but it will not make it disappear totally. Just like in the Industrial age of the 18th and 19th century, we are in the midst of a revolution that is changing the way the world works. The digital changes that are occurring are happening at an exponential rate and are here to stay. We need to find ways to educate students in how to deal with these news ways of living in an effective and sustainable manner.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The value of service

I recently came across this quote:

Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they’ll never sit in.

It is an old Greek proverb and refers to how a society can develop when it’s members choose to perform actions that benefit the community as a whole, over ones that will serve only their personal needs. It shows the value of helping one another and putting things in place that will provide benefits for the future.

The Primary Years Program places a strong emphasis on service. It is one of the core elements of the curriculum and teachers of the PYP foster positive action in order to allow students to serve their communities. This service component is key throughout all three programs of the IB and they aim to produce students that will hopefully one day plant their own trees for their communities.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A balancing act

I haven't posted for some time now and this is my first one since the beginning of the school term this year. This isn't through want of trying - I simply haven't had the time to dedicate to writing a thoughtful post.

I had an email from one of my friends in Australia yesterday that really got me thinking. He was talking about trying to organise to have one day off work a week in order for him to focus on his own interests instead of being bogged down with work. He wants a better work/life balance. I think it's a great idea for him if he can work it out.

It got me thinking about my own situation. I have been putting in a lot of extra hours over the past month in order to get things to a level that I feel comfortable with for my grade. Part of this is due to my responsibility of being the Team Leader for my grade and I feel that it is my duty to ensure that what we're doing is up to scratch. The reasons for me having such little time are many. We are in the middle of several fairly major changes at my school and at the moment there is some confusion about the requirements and direction we are meant to be taking. The result of this is that there's a lot of 'discussing' and very little 'doing'. This has had a knock-on effect to the teachers as they also have the usual amount of class work to maintain and many people have experienced a build up that is unsustainable. There is light at the end of the tunnel though.

The other part of me allocating my spare time to work is that, no matter how stressful it can be, I really do enjoy it. I love it when my planned learning engagements hit the bullseye (although I'm devastated if the opposite occurs!). I like that our planners are clear and everyone has a shared understanding of where we are and where we need to go next. And I enjoy the discussions that have evolved out of the problems we've experienced. There is still a lot of work to be done but I am learning every step of the way from people that are more experienced and knowledgable than me. If my thoughts or opinions are questioned I feel motivated to explore the alternatives to see if I truly believe in what I say or whether I'm just following a crowd. This helps me to become a better educator.

I feel privileged to be working in a profession that I love. If I took a day off then I would probably spend most of it fine-tuning my lessons, updating my planning or reading books, articles or blogs related to education. To a stranger, my work/life balance is way out of line. But it suits me just fine.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Conquering the content - The IB approach

This week is my grade level parent information evening. When preparing my presentation, I usually provide the parents with an insight into the surface actions of my classroom - the day to day teaching that they see when they come in (or get told about by their children). Last year I was caught off guard by some parents who wanted to know more about the philosophical underpinnings of the curriculum that we frame our teaching around. This year I plan on having a more coherent explanation on hand for curious parents and have been brushing up on some related readings. I've referenced the following paragraphs with the sources that I used.

Students are currently learning in an environment that is commonly referred to as the ‘digital revolution’. Increased technologies and global interdependence requires greater intellectual and academic standards that have been previously required (Erickson, L., 2008). In order to accomplish this, curriculum design must consider alternative approaches. Traditional curriculum design focuses on content coverage and often fails to emphasis higher-level, lasting ideas that are universal by nature and application (Erickson, L., 2008). It is these conceptual ideas that bring focus and depth to a study and hold the solution to the increased academic and intellectual standards that are required in today’s age. Curricula with a focus on content instead of concepts fail to engage students at a high cognitive level. A concept-led curriculum encourages students to connect the factual knowledge that they have gained to other ‘big ideas’ of significance (Erickson, L., 2008). When this happens students discover personal meaning and can see relevance in their learning. They have a greater motivation to learn because they are engaged on a more personal level.

A concept is defined as being timeless, universal and abstract (Erickson, L., 2008). It is these aspects that allow them to be applied at various times and in various contexts throughout a student’s education. This links directly with a transdisciplinary approach to learning. By studying subjects in isolation, students pick up isolated facts and ideas. While it is important to become knowledgeable in separate academic subjects, in order to a more authentic understanding students must be given opportunities to connect their knowledge across disciplines (Boyer, E. 1995). Furthermore, brain research has revealed that learning at its optimum is an ‘integrative function’ of synthesizing, organizing and processing parts of information into a whole (Caine, R. & Caine, G., 1990).

The PYP framework is organized around six transdisciplinary themes. These were developed from Boyer’s work on The Core Commonalities, which are universal experiences that are shared by all people (Boyer, E. 1995). Boyer states that all traditional subjects have a place within the Core Commonalities and, by linking learning across these disciplines, students can make personal connections to their learning and achieve greater understandings (Boyer, E. 1995). The learning in a PYP classroom is structured in this way and complimented by being delivered in a guided, concept-led approach. This allows for greater analysis, evaluation and investigation as the students consider the transferrable possibilities of the inquiry.

Boyer, Ernest. L. (1995) The Basic School: A community for Learning. San Francisco, California: Jossey Bass Inc.

Erickson, H. Lynn (1998) Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul: Redefining Curriculum Instruction and Concept-Based Learning - Third Edition. Corwin Press.

Caine, R. & Caine, G. (1990) Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching. Educational Leadership Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 66 - 70. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Big Picture

The New South Wales Government has recently decided to postpone the introduction of the Australian National Curriculum by a year. They claim that the reason for taking this action is so that they can arrange to offer appropriate professional development to all staff. The NSW says it will cost around $80 million over four years to implement the curriculum and provide professional development to teachers. The Federal Government has failed to provide funding for this development and so the decision has been made to postpone the implementation.

Peter Garrett, Federal Minister for Education, has expressed disappointment at the delay and believes that 'there is no justifiable reason for the 11th hour backdown'. He doesn't believe that this is viable excuse and suggested that the NSW Government was shirking it's responsibilities in implementing the curriculum.

Last Friday a group of leaders at my school participated in an exercise that helped us to define the most dominant aspects of our individual leadership styles. There were four options:

  • North - are innovators and like to take action and get things going;
  • South - like to ensure that everyone's voice has been heard before making a decision;
  • East - aim to see the big picture before putting a plan into action;
  • West - like tick all the boxes and know every detail about the effects of the action before proceeding.
It was noted that leaders generally exhibit aspects of all four options but the task asked us to choose which one was most dominant. This helps us and others to understand how we work and what barriers we may face when working with different styles.

It seems Mr. Garrett has more of a 'North' leadership style in that he is obviously keen to get the curriculum into action. Unfortunately, he has failed to recognise one of the most important parts of what I referred to previously as 'The How' in curriculum development. Professional development of staff is a key part of effectively implementing a curriculum and adequate provisions must be made to allow for this. If this is not provided a curriculum runs the risk of falling short in the provision of quality education for its students. If this is to be the 'highest quality curriculum in the country', as Mr. Garrett claims, it is important to ensure that it is appropriately implemented.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Question Time

I have, on occasion, presented with my students with a set of facts so utterly ridiculous that they are beyond belief. Invariably they accept everything that I tell them - despite how silly it sounds. I use these instances as ways of introducing the importance of critical thinking and questioning skills.

Developing critical thinking skills in order to question the sources of our information is a key part of our learning in the 21st century. Compared to 50, 20 or even 10 years ago, information is available from many more and varied sources. When I was in primary school (not too long ago!) my peers and I would gather information primarily from encyclopedias or other subject specific books. An author must complete a lengthy and specific process in order to become published and this process verifies the information they are presenting in their work. Today, there are means available that allow people to publish any information they like without having to go through the same processes (take this blog, for example).

This is a fantastic way for sharing ideas but it highlights the importance for us to be able to decipher which information is important or not important, true or false, biased or non-biased. I believe that a school and classroom environment should be created that encourages, not shuns, this sort of behaviour. Students need to feel safe in order to develop the confidence to question the relevance and sources of their information. When this happens, they are not only able to delve deeper into their own inquiries, they are also further developing the skills required to be lifelong learners. They are learning how to learn.

Last year at my school we have had several guest speakers come to talk to parents, students and teachers. There were a variety of interesting topics I have had mixed feelings about some of them. I was glad to hear that some of the High School students challenged one of the speakers when he took questions from the audience. They realised that the presenter was providing them with information that was not balanced and was very selective with it's references - using only evidence that supported his case and ignoring that which challenged it. Some students were able to listen to what was being presented to them, relate it to their own beliefs and challenge in an appropriate manner. To be able to apply these skills in different contexts is vital in today's information rich age and it is great to hear that some of our students have the confidence to do this.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Old Fashioned?

An Australian research project has shown that teaching children ''old-fashioned'' behaviour at the same time they learn to read can dramatically improve literacy, particularly among students who have been struggling.

The report states that integrating positive attitudes and behaviours for learning, such as confidence, persistence, working in teams and getting along with others, helps to prepare students for the challenges they will inevitably face - even learning something they think is boring. If teachers can develop students' positive attitudes and behaviours for learning, they become better learners and this makes teaching them much easier.

I find this report somewhat bewildering. I don't believe that it is correct to label these attitudes/behaviours/dispositions as old-fashioned. What makes them old-fashioned? When I think of something as old-fashioned I imagine something that was used or valued in a previous time or generation, such as using a typewriter. Is the author trying to state that they are not considered important or taught in this day and age at all?

The social-emotional development of a child is something that the PYP places great importance on. The Learner Profile and Attitudes aspects of the framework combine to place a huge emphasis on the development of the whole child. I certainly agree that they are important to foster within our students but to make a value judgement on teaching and say that these are not being addressed undermines the fantastic work that some teachers do every day.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Real Thing

I recently read two articles from Australian newspapers that I found interesting.

The first was discussing the inclusion of 'consumer and financial literacy' in the new Australian National Curriculum. The push for this comes from the Financial Literacy Foundation - a 'taskforce' set up in 2004 to determine the state of the nation's ability to negotiate the world of commerce. The group discovered inadequacies in financial management and a national strategy was hastily established to address them.

Board member Elaine Henry states: 'Young people are not sufficiently trained in key building blocks of commerce' and that 'too few people understand their rights and obligations and are not comfortable with basic economic principles'. Fundamental issues surrounding money management have been taught in schools on and off over the years but there has been no solid commitment to it. This is being addressed and ''consumer and financial literacy'' will become a significant component of the national curriculum.

The second article talks about student drop out rates of maths because it is being taught in ways that are 'out of touch' with the real world. Professor Peter Sullivan - of Monash University - claims that the repeated practice of similar examples that can often be seen in schools is both boring and restrictive, and that as mathematics becomes content heavy (typically around grade 8 and 9) many students become disengaged.

Prof. Sullivan advocates for "a different approach to teaching; something that is going to engage the students instead of just being process-driven.'' He goes on to say that, "Mathematics is part of the world and we need to use it in flexible ways, so that students in school get a chance to solve problems, make decisions and use mathematics to come to understand the world.''

In my opinion, these two articles go hand in hand. Mathematics is a major part of the 'real world' and should be taught in ways that promote its use in this way. Students need skills and knowledge to show understanding, and there are building blocks of mathematical knowledge and certain skills that must be mastered before they can be applied to contextual problems. Just as it can be easy for teachers to fall into the trap of over-focussing on skills and not providing enough opportunities for real-life application, it can be just as easy to ask students to demonstrate their understanding without allowing them the appropriate time for skill development. A balance needs to be attained.

Consumer and financial literacy could be easily integrated with real world scenarios and problems (eg. saving, credit, percentages, insurance, banking, shopping and interest). This shouldn't only be limited to mathematics though. Advertising, contracts and policies (to name a few) could all be examined in classes such as English and the economics branch of Social studies. The opportunities for real world integration are many and varied and teachers should look for appropriate times to include these in their teaching wherever and whenever possible.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Curriculum - Part VI

The final part of THE HOW is concerned with how the Leadership creates and maintains culture within a school and also how the school is managed to ensure that the curriculum is being implemented.

In order to become a learning-focused school, there are several factors that need to become embedded in the culture of a school and support curriculum coherence. In order for culture to develop, effective leadership is required. This involves initiating the core competencies highlighted in my previous post (moral purpose; understanding change; relationship and knowledge building; coherence making).

The factors that support a culture of authentic achievement include:
  • Shared norms and values
  • Focus on student learning
  • Reflective dialogue
  • Deprivatisation of practice
  • Collaboration
The goal for the leadership team is to make these factors implicit everyday for the school.

The Management involves creating and maintaining effective structures and processes for the allocation of people (P), time (T) and resources (R) to achieve the school's mission through the implementation. These structures and processes can include systems such as:
  • Job descriptions (P)
  • Meeting agendas and schedules (T)
  • Team structure and hierarchy (P)
  • Purchasing systems (R)
  • Professional development opportunities/systems (P)
  • Budget allocation (R)
  • Strategic planning (T)
  • Coaching and mentoring (P)
  • Physical space - eg. facilities and materials (R)
  • Hiring policies (P)
  • Timetable structure (T)
  • Appraisal system (P)
Leadership can never be effective without good management

During the creation of a culture, leaders need to consider the factors that may affect curriculum implementation. These can occur at a school level and include things such as:
  • The personality, relationships, knowledge and skills of leaders.
  • Whether or not the school community believes students will or won't be disadvantage by curriculum changes.
  • The flexibility of the curriculum design.
They can also occur at a teacher level and include things such as:
  • Teacher beliefs and values.
  • Subject knowledge (essential teacher readings are a good way to develop this).
  • Disposition towards reflection
  • Pedagogical content knowledge (how do students learn?).
  • Willingness to share and collaborate with colleagues.
  • Level of influence with other faculty members.
When all of the elements addressed in my posts combine, a coherent curriculum can be achieved. A coherent curriculum is the key to the alignement of vision, mission, learning targets, pedagogy and assessment. I would like to thank Gordon Eldridge and Sasha Marshall of the PTC for leading a thoroughly informative workshop on curriculum leadership, from which I synthesised much of this information.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Curriculum - Part V

THE HOW - This part of a curriculum is concerned with how the faculty will get 'The Who' to achieve 'The What'. Part of this involves an agreement on the teaching strategies that will be employed and part of it involves the leadership that should happen for this to take place. By-products of leadership (culture, management and creation) will be discussed in the next post.

These are the teaching methodologies or strategies that are essential for successful learning in the implementation of a particular curriculum. These can be organised around a 'premise'.
A premise should be research-based in order to facilitate best practice,
for example:

Premise - Students learn about excellence through exposure to models of excellence in both product and process

Instructional Strategy - Teachers will model the process of construction of text and/or jointly construct an example of text every time a new genre is introduced.

By having a core selection of instructional strategies, a school can be more aware of how they are implementing their curriculum. It is, however, important for school leaders to decide how closely they will require their teachers follow these strategies. Some schools might mandate the practice and others might leave it more flexible.

The framework for leadership below is authored by Michael Fullan and summarises the competencies that leaders should use in order to create a culture that supports authentic achievement. In doing so, leaders need to consider the context, which includes: past history; present beliefs; values and assumptions; and present practices.
Moral Purpose - In simplest terms, means 'acting with the intention of making a positive difference'. In education this positive difference can be referred to as 'causing learning.

Understanding Change - While it is essential for leaders to understand the change process, it is also important for them to understand the context they are dealing with for each group or person.

Relationship Building - If relationships improve, things get better. If they stay the same or become worse, ground it lost. Effective leaders encourage purposeful interaction and problem solving.

Knowledge Creation and Sharing
- Good leaders create environments that favour the exchange of ideas, provide opportunities to share and foster a moral commitment to share knowledge. Turning information into knowledge is a social process, and good relationships are required if we are to share and create knowledge.

Coherence Making - Involves making sure that the culture a leader wants is supported by the management structures. This is an on-going activity that leaders address. They need to ensure that valuable patterns and practices are recognised and retained.