Of Pendulums and Pedagogy

I have stumbled across two articles this week related to the role of computers in the classroom and it encouraged me to revisit an earlier post:

OECD Report on Ipads

Computers in Class a Waste!

It is a wonderfully unique time in history for education. Learning opportunities and the breadth/depth of information access is overwhelmingly delicious. Running the Teachers’ Lounge websites/pages has been a great vehicle to document some of my own exposure to this wonderful e-world and I run with arms out-flung to embrace the digital age!

I recently reflected with a friend that I recall my Dad having won a prize at his work (in the 1970s) – a hand-held calculator, with green lights! There was a huge controversy in schools about whether these devices should be allowed in mathematics classes. Similarly, the typewriter created controversy in its day, as it was seen as a ‘lazy writing tool’ ! We’ve come a long way in education.

It has been interesting to watch the evolution of the digital manifesto in our schools. Millions of dollars poured into 4 year turnaround devices (or less!) in order to ensure that schools are on the cusp of the education revolution – or at least – seen to be! Worse at times, is the competitive vying for digital one-upmanship which focuses little on the educational outcomes of the child, but rather the projected persona of the institution.

In 2011 I oversaw the roll out of iPads in our Year 6-12 classes (our focus was on portability to outside spaces, the role of the camera/video element, e-portfolio to “capture learning over time” and to enhance emerging digital skills). As a team we were cognizant that our responsibility did not end once students knew how to use the devices and commenced the interface with the virtual “www superstore”! I do see that this is a trap many educators (and leaders) fall into. The focus of time, energy and funding can be very much on getting the digital mammoth established for quick sale and the underlying pedagogy given little after-thought!

The momentum is continuing; with the development of funding (and curriculum) for coding and robotics in the upcoming “Innovation Nation” … Believe me; I’ll be on board, but with eyes-wide-open on the developmental needs of our children.

… even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory.  (Click for full story)

My son is currently in Year 5 at a school where iPads have been rolled out – I hear and experience (!) the concerns addressed in Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. With the recent announcement that NAPLAN will now become a compulsory digital platform for “two to three years from 2017” (http://www.nap.edu.au/online-assessment/naplan-online/naplan-online.html ) – the proliferation of devices in schools for the purpose of “testing” may be a sad synergy!

In the big picture, do we want students to do better academically or find and pursue their passions? I do understand that many educators would argue for both. The current educational climate is so centered on academic achievement and standards-based curriculum, I believe we need to make proactive, concentrated attempts to get the pendulum to swing towards semi-structured, open-ended, process-oriented and student-driven learning environments. Read Full Article

Despite the genuine educational concerns about the use of devices in our community; I do believe the balance can be found and we can still embrace the opportunities at our fingertips! The engine of this opportunity is embedded in that last quote… Re-read that last sentence… NO – read it again. Do we do that? Do YOU do that? I like to think I’m an experienced educator and despite some amazing WINS in this area; I still feel I have only splashed in the pool of “… open-ended, process oriented and student-driven learning…”

My recent viewing of “Most Likely to Succeed” reaffirmed the directions we are taking and the voice we hope is heard in education… relationship, engagement, project-centric, real-world connectivity and the responsibility of exhibition (with the ultimate goal of “contribution” … in my opinion)! Yet; whilst this generation offers educators a spectrum of exciting choices; the truth is – it’s all about the LEARNER.. does their engagement with school make them want to learn more? Is it about their passions which are being foregrounded or ours? How valuable do we rate “our curriculum” over “their inquiry”?

There are deeper waters here! In our classrooms, technology must be the slave and not the master; a vehicle for deeper learning, an access for students to reach a real and engaged audience, an opportunity for deeper expression and enriched engagement… if not – we will suffer the consequences of a missed opportunity in education and deliver a generation of Candy-Crushed Kids.

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Professional Learning Communities, STAR Teachers and the Road Ahead – Part 1

“What initiatives in our professional learning will bring about positive change in student learning?”

The idea of developing collaborative structures amongst teachers within learning communities is a key concept that is echoed throughout a lot of my current reading and experiences in education. Whilst the attributes of a learning community are widely explored and indicators defined; achievement of these ideals is by no means an easy feat.

Hurdles to change in school culture and the development of successful learning communities are plentiful, especially in the mid to long-term. For leaders who desire to move student performance forward either on a school, district, state or federal level; these barriers can be multi-faceted and are frequently well ingrained into the teaching fraternity psyche.

Macro-political influences from both state and federal levels often set the short to mid-term educational agendas for schools. The impacts of these multiple and consistent waves of change are felt for many years by educational professionals. Any fresh initiatives at the school leadership level to bolster performance may be met with some degree of scepticism.

There is a tendency for teachers to demonstrate a lack of faith in educational reform. For many, corporate memory of historical changes that were perceived to have little return for huge personal or departmental investment are coupled with disillusionment, that commitment to these initiatives are not sustained by governments (or school leadership) over the longer-term. The evolution of the Australian Curriculum saw a marginalisation of the work, by many, in the implementation of the Western Australian Curriculum Framework and some teachers are saddened by its impending demise (despite the benefits of the changes). In this climate, learning communities can be more resistant to embrace initiatives for mandated change, or worse, approach changes with a cynical caution.

After reading the work of Haberman in ‘Star Teachers’, I felt empowered to sell my long-standing opposition to the belief that it is the responsibility of ‘learners to learn’, not ‘teachers to teach’. Unfortunately, I believe that this mentality, (i.e. the “you can lead a horse to water” mentality) is rife amongst many educators and is a real barrier to teachers seeking opportunities to improve in some areas of their practice. Whilst teachers show a commitment to growing in the functional aspects of their profession (e.g. development of content, processes and procedures, marking etc.) they are less inclined to take responsibility for student learning.

According to the Haberman’s view of STAR TEACHERS, “Stars view themselves as successful professionals rescuing students … see themselves as teachers of children as well as of content… they accepted accountability for student achievement … did not blame students for not learning … and defined their roles in terms of “whatever it takes”…”

If ever the question of, ‘Who is responsible for student learning?’ was more important, it is most certainly now. In Melbourne, a 15-year-old male student “… is suing the Victorian Education Department and the State Government for failing to teach him literacy and numeracy”

I was recently honoured to have an ECU practice student join me for a week’s observation and she will join me for another four weeks in June. It soon became clear that this young lady had a great deal of natural panache and I asked her to take a class on her final day. She did a wonderful job and I was pleased to sit down with her for 20 minutes afterwards to highlight her outstanding points and deal reflectively with a couple of the ‘bumpy moments’ in her lesson. I provided four pages of hand-written notes as a form of affirmation and evaluation.

I doubt there would be many teachers who did not commence their teaching in a similar manner. The role of mentorship has to be a natural, less formalised form of professional appraisal and an ongoing habit of departmental (and inter-departmental) discourse. Lack of robust discussion and inter-teacher feedback (i.e. for the years BEYOND our practicum or first year of teaching) can lead to a culture of isolationism in teacher practice.

In high school settings, there is prized value in developing the departmental learning community and the powerful effect this can have in dispersing isolationist practices. Some argue that departments methodologies should promote, shared values, de-privatised practices and reflective dialogue –  others see these tools as a “softer approach”; instead, preferring to ramp up departmental function and policy into a system of rules, agreements and goals regarding teaching and instruction – obtaining data on student performance, which in turn serves as a feedback mechanism for improving teaching and learning.

I am genuinely delighted to see a call for this kind of rigour. Working with co-professionals from an agreed platform which clearly stipulates the process for improvement in teaching and learning objectives. Policy that ‘builds in’ teacher accountability, (e.g. turn around on marking, holistic student review, consensus process and delivery strategies, co-observational expectations) and are not driven by a ‘back-scratching’ mentality of endorsing one another’s mediocre practice.

The Gratton Institute (see my earlier post – http://wateacherslounge.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/the-report-every-politician-and-principal-should-read/)  endeavours to remind educational leaders and decision-makers “that teacher effectiveness is the most significant influence on student outcomes”. Jenson investigates the factors that influence student performance and writes; “An increase in teacher effectiveness of 10% would lift Australia’s education systems into the highest performing group of countries in the world… Each grade needs to incorporate 5% of a year’s worth of learning for our students to be amongst the best in the world.” The report campaigns for more government investment in teacher training and utilises internationally recognised testing such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMMS to lament Australia’s eighth placing in international rankings. It determines that “… moderate changes to teacher effectiveness have a significant long-term effect.”

It is hard not to see the logic of his (Jenson’s) argument and his passionate representation for teachers to be provided with constructive criticism on their ongoing teaching practice as a means of gauging progress and effectiveness over time. “All teachers need to have effective evaluation that identifies their strengths and weaknesses and feeds into individualised development plans.”

Investment in the professional development of staff is an imperative that can’t be ignored in the evolution of learning communities. With an expected surge in school-age children in WA next decade of more than 140,000 students … and an estimated 312 new schools, coupled with a predicted 30% exodus of teachers and administrators in both Primary and Secondary due to retirement over the next five years; initiatives to invest in teachers and leadership has never been more at a premium.

Development of well-supported, training-rich, cohesive teachers who are valued for their ability to ‘deliver the goods’ as a growing team within their learning communities is an objective we all want to see. It is a worthy goal and one, we hope we can say, we got ‘right’.

Are We Listening?

The following speech was delivered by top of the class student Erica Goldson during the graduation ceremony at Coxsackie-Athens High School on June 25, 2010. Although I filter some of the sharpness through the scope of her “youth”, I’m reflective on her argument… which; although directed at the Public School System in the US, clearly resonates in public and private school across the western world.

I have added a link to the full text version under the video.

Here I Stand Erica Goldson

Committing ‘Suicide’ to the Curriculum

Boy! Is this ever a contentious issue. I’m so glad that we are finally having the discussion of how ‘suicide’ is handled in our society.

For years it has been a taboo subject; particularly in media where the issue has been addressed with ‘kid gloves’ in fear of copy-cat events from those who may be more vulnerable in our community. In media circles the only time that suicide is openly discussed is if; a ‘person of note’ has committed suicide, the journalist is reporting on the death of others from a ‘suicide-bomber’, suicide statistics are being discussed and/or the various classifications of this data (e.g. gender, age-ranges, etc.)

The state of mental health in our community is such that we need to have a wider conversation than this. More people die from suicide than in fatal motor vehicle accidents in Australia. Currently, about 2,000 people commit suicide per year in Australia. There is hot debate about what is the best course of action with some arguing ‘we have seen a small drop in the suicide rate – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and others saying ‘let’s take it off the taboo shelf and discuss suicide more openly’. Both sides agree that ANY reporting and/or discussion must be defined by a mature, non-sensationised conversation.

So where does this leave teachers who are being asked to incorporate ‘suicide’ within the national curriculum (Health? Physical Education?) under the mental health banner. See report:http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/8989646/calls-for-schools-to-address-suicide-prevention/

If the mental health experts can’t agree on how it is best to deal with it – is it something that teachers should be ‘boldly addressing’? I’m getting mixed messages, this recent article highlights some of the issues that are bound to await us http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/experts-warn-of-danger-posed-by-school-text-20110216-1awnt.html (I wonder if Romeo & Juliet is being slammed with equal rigour?). Whilst it seems ludicrous to ask students to write ‘suicide notes’ (an oversight on the part of the publisher more than the teacher I would suspect), surely it is important to find and CREATE learning opportunities that allow students to discuss this issue?

There are many texts from my own teaching that I have used in the English class (frequently) that allow discussion of this topic in a controlled and meaningful manner. Romeo & Juliet, Dead Poet Society and short-stories such as On Saturday Afternoon (from the classic short story collection in SPECTRUM ONE) all open doorways for discussion about ‘dark feelings’, ‘the black dog’ and (not just by osmosis) pathways of help and assistance.

For me it is about PLANNING these teaching experiences. Don’t misunderstand me, they are not a daily showcase piece of my teaching practice but they are in my ‘swag bag’ and I would certainly be prepared to ‘go there’. I believe that students need to have the opportunity to discuss things in order to be informed, have access to support and have some issues ‘deconstructed’ in complexity.

I should say that I do take precautions when delivering any kind of sensitive material. In the case of texts that address suicide (yes – even Romeo & Juliet!) I would consider the following list a bare minimum of preparation;

  • If I don’t have a good rapport with a group of students, I wouldn’t go there; likewise, if you know that friends/family of students have committed suicide it is just insensitive to ‘go there’ through the use of (in my case) a text choice!
  • Keep those ‘LIFELINE McDonald’s CARDS / KID’S HELPLINE CARDS(you know the free ones they send to schools) ready for these lessons
  • Deliver this type of content when you have TIME – save it for a DOUBLE-PERIOD
  •  Notify the counsellor / chaplain / HoD that you are covering sensitive material
  • Don’t deliver the materials or lead the discussion like you are at a funeral
  • Allow students to talk openly
  • Pitch the depth of conversation to the age

I would love to hear other teachers response to the idea of being mandatated to deliver curriculum in this arena. All thoughts, disagreements, cases, examples greatly appreciated!

If you or someone you know needs help – please access the FANTASTIC resources available at the following website: http://www.suicideprevention.com.au/

And the Survey Says…

We now have over 90 subscribers to WA Teachers’ Lounge (blog) and 180 “LIKES” on our Facebook Page.

Thank you – BUT – We have set a goal to reach 1,000 WA Teachers by year’s end.

To assist in this endeavour we would really appreciate some feedback on what you feel could be improved. What topics are of interest? Do we cover enough news? Too much? Would you like more opinion? Guest writers? Would YOU like to write something for us? Competitions?

Let us know via the Discussion Board on our FACEBOOK SITE: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=288385&id=623299428#!/topic.php?uid=154210691257798&topic=207

Alternatively, post your response in the REPLY box below and I will cut and paste your comments across for others to benefit.

Many thanks,

WA Teachers’ Lounge

Contextualising Media

I happened to stumble upon a re-run of one of the ABC’s “Big Ideas” programs last weekend. Similar to the range of materials available via TED (look it up if you haven’t heard of it and you’ll be addicted too!) I love many of the ideas, philosophies and challenges that are presented.

I have tried to locate a copy of the talk I heard last week but to no avail! As it was a re-run, I didn’t catch the original broadcast date and I was not clever enough to write down the speaker’s name – if it helps he is an American ‘HE’ and his first name is ‘Dr.’ ! You get the picture?

Anyway, his argument was that media (print and non-print) are failing to contextualise media coverage; instead of presenting the ‘big picture’ they tended to offer only the latest ‘update’. I couldn’t agree more! It becomes very obvious, when you discuss with older students any of the Social Sciences, that there is a distinct lack of connection with cause/effect and a limited knowledge of history, political construction and geographical historical contexts that are essential to our ‘reading’ of news.

  • What has just happened in Egypt? Why did it happen? What ’caused it’?
  • What is a ‘hung’ parliament? How does OUR political system actually work? What are the implications?
  • What is the GEC (Global Economic Crisis)? What caused it? What are the implications for us?
  • Asylum Seekers?

I read/view widely so these areas do not produce ‘gaps and silences’ for me personally (though of course none of us know the things we DON’T know that we don’t know… hope you followed that – it is profound) but don’t the media have a responsibility to pause and remind us of how the ‘daily update’ fits into the wider context? I would love to see a 30 minute documentary that summarised our political system and its origins or a brief 60 second overview of the history of an event before we hear the latest.

Are we connecting our younger ‘news’ readers with the contexts we know so intimately? Our current 14 year olds were 4 years old on September 11, 2001! Don’t they have the right to ask… “Why are we in Afghanistan?”. If I gave them a blank map of the world, would they even know where Afghanistan was? Come on News professionals – help us all out here.

“Dr. He” definately thinks we’d all benefit!

Who IS Responsible for Student Learning?

Of course, I laughed and thought that this video (which has now received over 1 million hits worldwide) ‘had a great message’ and that all parents should listen to it and reflect on their school communication BUT…. it is really only a half truth if considered as anything other than a clever (and funny) SATIRE. As a disclaimer to my following comments; only read on if you are able to consider these comments but STILL ENJOY THE VIDEO. This is not meant as a vigilante on humour. If you haven’t seen it, here is the video…. followed by my ramblings.

Am I being a spoil sport by writing about this in a serious way and objecting to some of its content? (Especially the final comment which shoots inclusivity as an unfriendly footnote!). Well, the fact that the video is now packaged as ‘an actual recording that is used in a Queensland school’ is both dubious and (I would suspect) an attempt to give a tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at parent/school communication a far too considered hearing. I sincerely hope that no one REALLY used this for an actual answering service (as stressed in this posted version).

I was part of a staff discussion once (no school / staff disclosed) in which we discussed the role of the teacher. I asked staff to move to different corners of the room according to their response to certain statements. The room corners to which staff moved were labelled “AGREE”, “DISAGREE” and “UNDECIDED” – we covered a lot of issues over this time but the core intent was to get to the following decision statements:

Teachers are responsible for student learning” – AGREE / DISAGREE or UNDECIDED

and

Students are responsible for their own learning.” – AGREE / DISAGREE or UNDECIDED

I admit the questions could be interpreted as divisive yet I realistically thought that there would be a 50/50 split between the AGREE and DISAGREE categories on this issue. That wasn’t the case. Only 4 of over 50 agreed with statement one and only 5 disagreed with statement two. There were a handful in UNDECIDED. Each group was asked to defend their position, ‘Why” did they believe this was the case?

The discussion was robust, challenging and decisive. Being one of the five, I reflected long and hard about the beliefs of my peers. I knew that they were committed, focused individuals who gave beyond the ‘requirement of the job’ on an ongoing basis; yet I found it difficult to understand what I perceived to be a lack of personal ownership of our responsibility in teaching.

  • Was there any incentive to ‘get better’, as a teacher, if one fundamentally believed that learning was the sole responsibility of the child?
  • Did this belief make staff more resistant to ‘changes’ that created ‘inconvenience’ on the journey to a ‘greater good’?
  • Were staff of the opinion that educators who delivered Professional Learning to THEM were more or less effective in achieving learning outcomes based on an adjustment of teaching style/energy/activity choice, etc?
  • Did this belief impact a teacher’s willingness to support ‘special needs’ in the classroom?
  • Did this belief foster an attitude of ‘giving up’ on students too early?
  • Did this attitude result in a tendency to ‘quickly flick poorly behaved students to someone else’?
  • Did this belief impact the volume of teacher/parent/student communication?
  • Was it WRONG to THINK this way?

I have a simple illustration that I use most frequently with students to help them understand effort and reward. “If I promised to give you $1,000,000 if you got a “B” in English, what would you DO to ensure it happened?” Clearly, they know I will not be delivering on this but the point is clear – behaviour WOULD change. Can’t I ask the same question of our teachers? Our parents?

The truth is, that we are responsible to partner together regardless of how right or wrong any of us are. I will try to the best of my ability to persuade staff that whilst students must contribute a willingness to be present; that we do bear a responsibility to be ‘learning bridges’, to take students as far as humanly possible.

If the point of this video is to remind parents that they can’t flick all responsibility to schools, point well made – but I just don’t want to hear others cheering TOO loudly about it.

Teachers Banned From Giving Kids Sweet Treats

An Open Letter response to the West Australian article entitled: “Teachers banned from giving kids sweet treats”.

I confess. As a high school educator – I’m the “Candyman”. I believe that an ‘occasional’ treat holds value when it is … ‘occasional’ and unexpected. Increasingly, my teaching world is defined by what “I CAN’T DO” i.e I can’t pat a student on the back to congratulate their effort, I can’t keep them back after class to say “I liked your attitude today”, I can’t refer to them in any kind of “semi-affectionate” manner, I can’t drive them in my car to an excursion, I can’t screen PG movies, I can’t have class “end-of-term-parties” and now … I can’t reward them with a lolly!

Perhaps some teachers are using “Minties” and “Fantails” as a form of slow assassination; however, the evidence is pretty slim. It seems some sectors are hell-bent on radical change for change’s sake and they won’t let up until we ban desserts at the Year 12 Ball and biscuits from our School Camp shopping lists. With teachers facing a wave of pressure from an ever-shifting-curriculum and scrutiny from media over some educator’s inability to spell “recommend” – it would be nice to think that our profession might be thrown a “jaffa” from a grateful government!