Thursday, 28 May 2015

Reflections from the CEFPI National Conference

Earlier this week I attended the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International (CEFPI) annual Australasia Regional Conference in Canberra. This conference primarily caught my attention because of Inaburra School's plans to embark on a major building project later this year; this conference brings together educators, designers, trade providers and educational administrators from across the region. My goal was to swap ideas, visit a number of schools, learn from the range of presenters, and reflect on our plans in light of wider trends and perspectives.

For all the inconvenience of being away from work (and home) for three days, it was time well spent. It will take some time to sift through my thoughts, photos and notes, but here are some initial observations:

  • We need to provide maker-space in our school. I visited the Ian Potter Foundation Technology Learning Centre (which is a facility of Questacon) and had the opportunity to take part in a maker workshop. It was engaging, stimulating and challenging and I think the learning opportunities arising from this sort of dedicated space are wonderful!
Maker space at the Ian Potter Foundation Technology Learning Centre
  • Teachers need to see themselves as designers of learning experiences. This is a more helpful metaphor/image than many others. It is certainly better than child-minders, activity-providers, lesson-planners, curriculum-deliverers, social-workers, report-writers ... (although we do all these and more). Ultimately, we are designers of learning! Ewan McIntosh was the stand-out keynote speaker, urging us to ensure that, in building educational facilities, the design process includes both learning space and learning process. As in all good design, ensure that you understand the problem, engage in low-bet quick-and-dirty prototyping, and maintain an open and provisional stance to what you find.
  • A helpful way to conceive of the spaces in a school is to think of the seven spaces for learning. these are: secret spaces, group spaces, publishing spaces, performing spaces, participation spaces, data spaces and watching spaces.
  • While teachers can teach under a tree and it is near impossible to stop a child from learning, some learning spaces are better than others. Different space and different furnishing can enable or hinder different learning. Some spaces are better for learning than others!
  • When planning to incorporate new spaces into the life of the school, process is everything! Those who will use the space must be engaged in the process. 
  • I think we will need to set up a 'war-room' in the near future!
  • I was also reminded that Canberra is an inescapably political place!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Flipping the classroom at Inaburra (2015 Term 2 Week 5)

Technology is a disruptive force in education. Schools are not the same now as they were a decade ago. In this article I want to provide a profile of one way that education at Inaburra has shifted under the impact of the ICT revolution: namely, flipped learning. Flipped learning (and its closely related cousin blended learninguses educational technology such as online videos/screencasts to deliver content outside of the classroom. The goal is not to make Academy Award-worthy videos, but to make direct instruction from teachers accessible to students whenever and wherever they need it. 

You can read a longer explanation and summary of the flipped classroom here. The picture below is the really truncated version!

Let me tell you about some of the ways that Inaburra teachers have been utilising online video as a tool for student learning. I encourage you to take the time to view some of the videos and websites that are linked below.

Mr Burns, who teaches Year 5, has been utilising screen casting since 2012; since the start of this year he has been allocated time as the Flipped Learning Coach for teachers at Inaburra. While most of his videos are curated on the Year 5 website where they are integrated into the overall learning program for the students, you can see a wide selection of the videos he has made on his Youtube channel. Mr Burns' expertise in this area is being increasingly recognised around the country; he is presenting a number of workshops at a national conference later in the year. This two minute video is a brief advertisement that he recorded for that conference. 

Mr Blake has built a truly extraordinary website that is designed for maths students in Years 7-12. Nearly every maths topic that is covered in the NSW syllabus has been covered with short videos that can be accessed by every child. If you have ever had the experience of a child asking for help with secondary school maths that goes beyond your mastery - or if the dynamic of offering help is not welcomed - Mr Blake can help!

Mr Phil Lucas has built a site with a suite of video lessons for Year 12 students of PDHPE. Since September 2014, his site has had more than 7000 page views and his videos have been watched more than 14000 times. 

Mr Jeff Larson has also developed some wonderful resources for students of Year 11 and 12 Chemistry, which are curated on this website, along with other relevant teaching resources.

Mrs Hayley Graham (English), Mrs Kathryn Slaughter (Maths), Mr Greg Smith (Science) and Mr Peter Butchatsky (Year 3) all have Youtube channels where they are building online video resources for learning. Mr Jason Hosking and Ms Melissa Chuck are teaching Year 4 spelling using screencasts on the class blog. Mrs Nicole Collins has recorded these videos to help parents to help their children master handwriting.

These staff and others have been working together on video instruction as their major focus on professional learning during this semester. The videos linked to above represent dozens and dozens of hours of effort to support their students. I am immensely proud of the efforts of our teaching staff to improve their practice, to acquire new skills and to work hard for their students; the children at Inaburra are well-served by their teachers!

Our use of ICT in learning is not a rash rush to adopt the latest thing. ICT is a tool and it is always important to choose the best tool for a job. In this case, the component of teaching known as 'direct instruction' lends itself to being done through online video. However, teaching is so much more than just direct instruction! School education is a fundamentally relational exercise. As our Mission says, we are pursuing excellence in education with every indivdual known and loved. 

Screencasting is only one way that ICT is shaping our children's experience of education. I haven't mentioned blogs, Google Drive, Moodle, the Teacher Dashboard, Edmodo, Blendspace, Scoop-it, Quadblogging, global connections or any of the other initiatives that our staff are taking. In addition to ICT-related advances, there are many other ways that our teachers are developing their professional practice through professional learning, taking on challenging changes and equipping our children for the future. After all, the future is already here. It is just not distributed evenly

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Educational Assessment (2015 Term 2 Week 4)

I don't think I can imagine a more off-putting title for an article than the one I have chosen for this week. Simply looking at it makes me yawn! Attempting to lead the parents of the Inaburra community to read and think about this topic may be an example of crazy-brave futility - especially since this week the triennial parent-satisfaction survey is live! Surely this is the week to roll out some serious click-bait, rather than trying something substantial.

However, given that the annual NAPLAN processes are underway this week, and that the Year 12 half-yearly reports have just come out, and that most students in the Senior School are completing assessment tasks that will feature in their half-yearly reports, the topic may be one it is worth pausing to consider briefly. Assessment and the reporting of assessment can be the cause of angst in loungerooms, classrooms and staffrooms across the country! Much of what follows arises from a recent research paper by Geoff Masters.

At its heart, the fundamental purpose of assessment is to establish where learners are in their learning at the time of assessment. That is to say, what they know, understand and can do. All the other nuances of assessment grow out of this purpose. Having said that, just as the wider field of education is going through a time of profound and radical change, so too is educational assessment.

Educational assessment is under pressure to reform from at least four different directions.

First, there is demand for better data to inform decision making, whether by politicians, principals or classroom practitioners. The traditional model of assessment assumes that teachers teach, students learn and assessments judge how successful the students are. While there is still a place for this model, the use of data in parallel professions such as medicine and psychology has led educators to value assessment not in order to judge but to understand. Once a situation is understood, interventions and actions can be designed, progress measured and effectiveness evaluated.

Second, our understanding of the science of learning has helped us to recognise the shortcomings of the traditional model. We now know more about brain plasticity, effective teaching practices, the role of attitudes and self-belief and the individual pace and progress of learning. All these advances lead us to question the merits of assessment that is predicated on fixed-ability students, progressing in lock-step through age-based curriculum. Assessments that provide feedback, make progress visible to the learner and that require learners to connect learning to new contexts have far more use in facilitating learning.

Third, pressure to reform assessment comes from the increasing focus on the formation of broader life-skills and attributes through education. The so-called 21st century skills around ways of thinking, ways of working, tools for working and skills for living in the world are rightly becoming a priority in school education. How are these to be assessed? If they are not assessed, then the weight of school and parental attention will continue to fall on the traditional subjects. Traditional assessment methods, designed to judge student success with reference to defined bodies of curriculum content, do not adequately judge the development of character traits and capacities that emerge over time.

Fourth, the transformational potential of new technology may potentially revolutionise our thinking about assessment. Adaptive testing, whereby software selects and designs assessments based on students' demonstrated levels of performance, promises to personalise the assessment process, by ensuring that all students are able to demonstrate precisely the areas of their mastery. Likewise, the ability to mine big data from student assessments will enable swifter and more precise diagnoses of areas for further learning.

If you made it this far through the blog, congratulations! At this point, I am not proposing a rationale for a new initiative, announcing a revolution or the abolition of an existing practice, or throwing up my hands and walking away. Rather, by outlining some of the complexities that are unfolding in schools, I hope to help parents appreciate some of the challenges and opportunities that we are exploring. In the meantime - and I don't expect any significant shift to this basic frame - remember that the fundamental purpose of educational assessment is to establish where learners are in their learning at the time of assessment. No more, and no less.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Why an 'independent' school? (2015 Term 2 Week 3)

The other day I was speaking with a parent who wanted to know why I speak of Inaburra as an 'independent' school, rather than a 'private' school? Isn't the big category of difference between schools whether they are 'public' or 'private'? Certainly, 'public' and 'private' are the default categories that the media use to categorise schools. However, I want to suggest that these terms are inaccurate, unhelpful and ultimately misleading. Although this may seem to be a trivial and pedantic distinction without a difference, I think it is worth pursuing. 

(Some of the reflections that follow have been drawn from publications of the journal Independence, which is published by the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia.)

To be strictly accurate, virtually all schools in Australia are public, in that they receive government funding for the public purpose of educating Australians. In the case of schools that are owned by the respective State governments, nearly all the funding needs of the school are covered. In the case of schools that are owned by community groups (associations, churches, etc), a smaller proportion of funds are provided by the governments; the remainder tend to be made up by parental contributions. In our case, about one third of our annual revenue comes from public sources; parents contribute the rest.

Education is a public good, and as such is answerable to its regulators. Accountability is required of schools as a corollary of the funds that are provided. In order to retain public funding, schools need to teach the authorised curriculum, meet certain standards of probity and compliance, demonstrate that the funds have been used for the purposes for which they have been provided, and sundry other requirements. 

Reasonable accountability is the public's guarantee that their taxes are being used for the public good. In 2016 Inaburra will go through the process of seeking registration as a school and accreditation to offer the NSW curriculum; this happens each 5 years and is attested to through two certificates on the wall of the Junior School reception. The NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) is beginning an equivalent process for government schools, aimed towards the same goal of public accountability.

In light of the above points, it follows that the more accurate categorization of schools is not 'public/private', but 'government/non-government'. The government does not need to own the schools in order to provide education, any more than the local council needs to own the garbage trucks to provide rubbish removal or the State government needs to own all the buses to provide public transport. At present about two thirds of students in NSW attend a government-owned school.

That leads to the next level of categorising schools, which has to do with whether a school is in a system or whether it is independent. Most of the Catholic schools in NSW are systemic; that is to say, they belong to a system with a head office, centrally-determined policies and support structures. These systems are based on the eleven Catholic dioceses.

In contrast, schools like Inaburra are independent of systemic ownership and direction. Such schools stand alone with their own particular ethos, culture, authenticity and goals. We are able to determine our priorities, our agenda, our raison d'etre. In our case: 

Our mission is to be a Christ-centred learning community, pursuing excellence in education, with every individual known and loved.

'Independent' is a far more accurate and helpful designation for schools such as ours. 'Private' is wrong. And it misses the point.

Of course, people are free to use whichever terminology they want. However, I humbly suggest that, next time you hear comments about 'public/private' schools, you could try substituting 'government-owned/community group-owned' into the sentence and see how it changes things. Or use the language of State schools, Catholic system schools, and the independent schools sector.