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.