Monday, 31 August 2015

Key shifts in 21st Century learning (2015 Term 3 Week 8)

What is an education worth having? This is a question that has been exercising the Inaburra staff in recent years. In light of the pace and scope of change in our world, what sort of an education do our young people need. What are the skills, capabilities and character traits that will stand them in good stead in the years to come? In our context, we have developed the Inaburra Learner Profile as our articulation of the outcomes for which we are aiming; it is greatly encouraging to see that educators around the world are asking similar questions and heading in similar directions.

The OECD report from 2012 called The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice describes the key shifts in 21st century learning. Under the far-reaching impact of information and communication technology, all levels and aspects of society are changing.These disruptions have transformed our industrial economies to ones in which "knowledge is the central driving force for economic activity, with innovation critical." A correlation of the importance of knowledge is the importance of learning.

According to the OECD, "the capacity to continuously learn and apply/integrate new knowledge and skills has never been more essential." The kinds of skills that need to be acquired include the capacities to:

  • generate, process and sort complex information
  • think systematically and critically
  • make decisions weighing different forms of evidence
  • ask meaningful questions about different subjects
  • be adaptable and flexible to new information
  • be creative
  • be able to justify and solve real-world problems
  • acquire a deep understanding of complex concepts
  • media literacy
  • teamwork, social and communication skills
With all this in mind, there is a good case to be made for the reinvention of education. The pedagogic model underlying our schools is predicated on preparing young people for life in an industrial economy and that world is passing. The curriculum, built environment and the learning experiences that constitute daily activity need to rethought if our children are to have an education worth having.

Three key points emerge:
  • First, the Inaburra Learner Profile represents our response to challenges that are being faced by educators around the world, and our response resonates with theirs. We are not out on our own!
  • Second, education must continue to change, if it is to prepare our children for the world into which they will graduate. If their education looks like ours did, we will have failed them.
  • Third, there is no more valuable capability than that of being a life-long learner. We do well to focus on that.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

What do we know about the nature of learning? (2015 Term 3 Week 7)

As a field of professional endeavour, over the last couple of decades education has developed a deeper, broader and more well-established understanding of learning. Through rigorous educational research, through the input of other fields such as positive psychology and neuroscience, and through consideration of the capabilities required in the 21st century, we have a better understanding of learning itself. Our better understanding should also translate into improvements in the ways that we approach teaching and learning.

And so we should! I doubt that any of us would be reassured to know that our doctors were continuing to treat us according to the knowledge of generations gone by. Nor would we want our buildings built according to standards and codes that have been replaced by superior ones.

School education is unique as a professional field, in that everyone has experienced it as a student (for good or ill), most parents have an interest in it (at least with reference to their own children), but for the most part it takes place outside of our sight. It's not that we aren't interested, but the question 'What did you do at school today?' can evoke a wide range of responses from a grunt through to an interminable recount of the minutiae of who played with whom. The reassurances that a parent might seek regarding the quality of the teaching and learning, the solidity of the knowledge-base on which it stands, and the reasons why it happens the way it does, are harder to come by.

From talking with a number of parents about these matters, it is evident to me that some might be interested in a more substantial explanation of what we know about learning and the way that this knowledge shapes our practice. Over the next few weeks in this blog, I hope to provide some of this information.

Image result for OECD nature of learning

I will be engaging with a really helpful publication of the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. The full report was published in 2010, but the OECD have also published a summary booklet called The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice in 2012, which is much more accessible. This practitioner guide is not a lengthy read, running to about 12 pages, and it is a straightforward read for anyone with an interest in learning. If you have the time, I recommend printing and reading it over a cup of coffee. If you don't, over the next few weeks I plan to provide a very brief summary of the summary! 

As a starting point, the research makes it clear that emotions and motivation are the gatekeepers to learning. Positive emotions about the learning experience and positive motivation to engage in learning, helps students to become more effective and powerful learners. 

The booklet identifies eight elements that motivate students to engage in learning.

  • When they perceive stable links between specific actions and achievement
  • When they feel competent to do what is expected of them
  • When they value the subject and have a clear sense of purpose
  • When they perceive the environment as favourable for learning
  • When they experience positive emotions towards learning activities
  • Students direct their actions away from learning when they experience negative emotions
  • Students are more persistent in learning when they can manage their resources and deal with obstacles effectively
  • Students free up cognitive resources for learning when they are able to influence the intensity, duration and expression of their emotions.

All of which is to say that learning is not a purely rational cognitive process divorced from the hubbub and turmoil of emotion; the head is not independent of the heart! To take just one of these elements for consideration, if a student does not believe that she/he is able to achieve success, there is very little reason to try. A growth mindset, appropriate scaffolding, and the experience of success, all play a role in helping a young person to be motivated in their learning.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Technology in schools (2015 Term 3 Week 6)

Each term I attend a meeting with many of the principals of other independent schools in NSW. These schools range from low-fee 'young' schools in the outer suburbs of Sydney to regional/rural schools to the 'elite' sandstone schools. It is invariably a very stimulating time to swap ideas, seek advice and share some of the burdens that come with the role. Recently a number of us were discussing the place of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the learning culture and overall environment of our schools; I was staggered at the diversity of practice that emerged.

In one prestigious school it is an automatic Saturday detention for a phone to be seen on school grounds and no students use mobile technology for their learning up until Year 11. In another, many students are prone to sitting in a circle and not talking at lunchtime, because they are so focussed on their phones. Some schools use tablets as a straight replacement for textbooks, some have a one-to-one program that depends on all students having access to an identical device, and some have gone to a platform-agnostic Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) program. Some schools have a highly structured and staggered process for the students' use of technology, whereby certain year groups use certain devices.

From our discussions, it was very clear that schools are facing up to the challenges and changes presented by ICT in many very different ways. It was also clear that the three key groups of stakeholders - parents, staff and students - have widely divergent opinions; each of the schools represents a unique context that makes it hard to be dogmatic about 'the best way' to move forward.

Participating in these discussions, I was caused to reflect on the progress that we have made in the last few years with our introduction of BYOT. Over the last few months we have received feedback from our key stakeholders that indicate a very high level of satisfaction with our trajectory and practices to do with ICT.

In the K-12 Parent Satisfaction survey conducted by MMG in Term 2, there was a very strong parental affirmation of the place of ICT in the School. 80% of the parents responding agreed with statements such as: I am well-informed about the BYOT program; the BYOT program is assisting my child with his/her learning; and, the BYOT program improves student communication with teachers and with other students. Likewise, in K-4 there was a similarly high affirmation of our approach to ICT.

In a recent staff engagement survey conducted for Inaburra by the Voice Project, there was an extraordinarily strong affirmation of the School's use of technology. 95% of staff indicated that the School makes good use of technology, 97% said that the technology is kept up to date and 88% believed that we have good skills at using our technology. All of these responses are more than 30% above the benchmarks for other independent schools and for industry more generally.

In an external review of our ICT program that was conducted in Term 2 by Dancrai and the Association of Independent Schools, the findings were powerfully positive. The infrastructure was found to be reliable and the support helpful and competent. The professional learning for staff with reference to ICT was effective, technology was regularly incorporated into lessons for sound educational reasons, and the utilisation of Google Apps for Education was well-received by staff and students.

All of which is to say, the data indicates that our community is strongly positive about the ways that ICT is being used in our school. The effort involved to get us to where we are has been significant, with the burden being felt particularly by staff. The disruption of the professional practice of teachers that ICT brings is considerable and challenging. The leadership of our ICT staff has been very much appreciated, as has the willingness of our teachers to wrestle with the possibilities.

When it comes to our utilisation of ICT as a tool for student learning, we seem to be doing pretty well. The journey is not smooth, the progress is not uniform, the missteps and false paths are real, but the alternative - not to engage with the challenges - makes no sense at all, in our preparation of young people for the world that lies ahead.

Monday, 10 August 2015

The dangers of Bonsai parenting (2015 Term 3 Week 5)

It is not difficult to make parents feel guilty; a friend once likened it to shooting fish in a barrel! The guilt trips can come from any number of sources. Previous generations of parents run commentary, our peers may communicate judgment and our children can cut us deeply in their words and actions. In addition, there is never a shortage of research, experts and articles in the popular media or online that point out the issues that we parents need to consider. I came across another one on the weekend!

Being conscious of the dangers of bombarding you with parenting advice, I cast my mind back over the topics that I have covered in this blog this year; I fear I may have contributed to the barrage of parenting advice that overwhelms us. I have written on the need for more sleep, the perils of listening to music while studying, raising children with good body-image, the perils of social media, the need to cultivate resilience in children, and wise parenting with reference to alcohol. I do apologise if this input has weighed you down; it was certainly not the intention! What I hope to achieve is to reflect on issues to do with our children that manifest themselves in the context of the school community.

The article that caught my attention was titled Bonsai parenting: Why so many children end up in therapy; it was prompted by the publication of a new book by Judith Locke. The book is the popular version of her doctoral work, based on research with school counsellors, psychologists, parents and children. Although I have not yet read the book, a number of elements in the article resonated.

According to the article, Locke observes that parents have a legitimate and well-founded desire for their children to be happy. However, this translates to them 'over-parenting' by being too involved in their children's lives, constantly trying to solve their problems and harbouring unrealistic expectations of their potential.

There are subtleties in this issue that need to be considered. As a society we have made great progress in our understanding of, and sensitivity to, mental health issues amongst children and adolescents. It is certainly a good thing that there are specialists who are able to provide support to those who need it and early intervention is helpful in many contexts. 

Quoting from the article, Locke's focus appears to be more directed towards those children who are reared in extremely controlled environments and assiduously cultivated by their parents. There is an over-emphasis on the child's happiness, and an expectation they will excel at life, which can breed anxiety and perfectionism in the child. Locke says a bonsai upbringing stunts children's development, as they never learn how to adapt to different or difficult circumstances. They grow up anxious, overly dependent on others, lack resilience, have poor life skills and can behave badly. "A child who has been given the perfect childhood can't cope with the less than perfect realities of adult life," Locke says. (Emphasis mine).

In my role I see this sort of over-parenting from time to time. One key one is the readiness and vehemence with which some parents can contact the school to advocate for their child, whether it be regarding a mark/grade received, a detention issued, a playground dispute or a sporting or creative arts selection. 

I do not believe that there is never a place for parents to intervene on behalf of their child, but I fear that we get involved too quickly. Our children need to experience disappointment, frustration and difficulty in the small-scale world of childhood, so that they develop the capacity to cope with adult challenges. They need to fight their own battles and climb their own mountains. Parental support is often best expressed through coaching and support, rather than through direct management and intervention.

This article has not been written because of any single incident or issue and it is certainly not intended to heap guilt onto the burdened shoulders of any parent. Rather, it is offered as a stimulus for consideration as we continue to work together to shape young people who will have the capabilities for resilience and resourcefulness that will enable them to thrive in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Monday, 3 August 2015

How hard can it be to get feedback right? (2015 Term 3 Week 4)

According to Emeritus Professor Dylan Wiliam from the University of London, in 38% of well-designed educational research studies on the topic of feedback, feedback actually made performance deteriorate. He calls this "one of the most counter intuitive results in all of psychology." It seems obvious that feedback would be both a necessary and a helpful element in the learning cycle. Why does it fail so often? And how do we get feedback to be more effective?

In a recent Educational Leadership article, Wiliam observes that feedback informs a learner either that they have not yet reached a goal, or that they have reached a goal. If the student hasn’t yet reached the learning goal, he or she might: 

  • Increase effort 
  • Reduce aspiration 
  • Decide the goal is too hard 
  • Ignore the feedback 
On the other hand, if the student has reached or exceeded the goal, he or she might: 

  • Exert less effort 
  • Increase aspiration 
  • Decide the goal is too easy 
  • Ignore the feedback
Of the eight possible responses, only two are positive! To put it another way, six times out of eight, we respond to feedback in a way that is detrimental to our learning!  

The only thing that really matters about feedback is how the student responds to it.How can teachers (and parents) try to ensure that feedback provokes a positive response?

Wiliam suggests four ideas that can contribute to students responding positively to feedback.

First, make the environment one in which it is safe to make mistakes. Competition may be unhelpful in this regard. If students perceive that they are likely to fail where others succeed, they are more likely to disengage and not try. After all, it is better to be thought of as lazy than as dumb! At Inaburra we are working to establish a culture wherein failure is welcomed as a part of the learning process.

Second, cultivate a growth mindset amongst students, whereby we make it clear that 'smart' is not innate, but that it can be achieved through effective effort. The word 'yet' is immensely helpful. If a child says "I can't do this", add the word 'yet'. Mastery comes through intentional effort.
Growth v Fixed

Third, downplay scores and marks. If a student is provided with a mark and a comment, the first thing they will look at is a mark. The second thing they will look at is another person's mark. As parents, your interest in your child's learning can reinforce or downplay the significance of marks. To agitate for better marks for your child can send a powerful message about what matters in their learning. Likewise, your focus across the dinner table or when reading the report will indicate where your interests lie, for good or for ill.

However, the thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the receiver and the giver. Every teacher knows that the same feedback given to two similar students can make one try harder and the second give up. Likewise, as parents we should know how to read the relational dynamic with our child; there are some points when providing feedback is going to be counter-productive. At those points, the best option is to remain silent.
The reality, which good teachers intuitively know, is that when you know your students and your students trust you, you can ignore all the “rules” of feedback. Without that relationship, all the research in the world won’t matter. This is just one reason why we try to ensure that each individual at Inaburra is 'known and loved'.