Hijacking the quality teaching movement

There’s a lot I agree with in Stephen Dinham’s article in the latest Professional Educator on the directions the quality teaching movement is taking in Australia.

It’s worth reading in full but in essence he argues that the quality teaching movement has had its agenda shaped (been hijacked) in these ways:

  • That the initially pleasing emphasis on quality teaching and its importance, emphasised in Australia by Hattie and others, has not led to further investment in teaching and teacher learning but instead that ‘teachers are now being see as our biggest problems when students fail to learn’.
  • This  has led to a simplistic top-down responses such as ‘sack the bottom 5% of teachers’
  • The work of John Hattie has been ‘particularly misrepresented and misused as a blunt instrument to attack teachers’
  • The work of Hattie and others on ‘direct instruction’ has been misconstrued as advocating ‘didactic, traditional, teacher-centered approaches rather than its intended meaning of teaching having clear intentions of what they are trying to achieve with every student’.
  • The role of professional standards has been twisted to be more about judging and dismissing teacher than recognising and developing them.
  • A fixation with Finland, Shanghai and South Korea represents the ‘worst form of cultural cringe’.

I pretty much agree with all of this, and the emphasis on testing and testing that supposedly drives the data collection teachers are judged by. I saw it in the USA a couple of years ago, at the ASCD Conference, where the cover story in Newsweek that week was called ‘We Must Sack Bad Teachers.’ Unfortunately we’ve, sometimes deliberately and consciously as in the NY model, begun to import much of the bad American practice that is driving a chronically under-performing system there.  Ironic, that we don’t import the practice from the systems we purport to admire (see previous posts on how Finland really works).




What can we learn from Finland?

Well, maybe one of the things that emerges from this interesting conversation with gurus John Hattie and Pasi Sahlbert, that a colleague put me on to, is that perhaps we are being overly critical and pessimistic about what were doing in Australia. Maybe because pessimism and cynicism can serve a political agenda better than acknowledgement of successes?

Sahlberg talks about teacher quality, equity, funding and a range of other issues in a really reasonable way. I respect the work that Hattie’s done, but do you sense here that he’s talking down our system, and emphasizing his own agenda rather than listening to what he’s being told? He’s being told that Finland values teachers, respects teachers and pays them well, values teacher autonomy, doesn’t over-emphasise teaching … his action plan for Australia … well, it doesn’t really reflect that.

Australian Poetry Library

There I was, at the conference last week, talking about my age old dream for a site that would allow access to a range of contemporary Australian poetry for a micro-payment and lo and behold, I’m told that such a site already exists.

Called the Australian Poetry Library, the site is funded by the Australian Copyright Agency. They say:

The Australian Poetry Library has been developed to promote a greater appreciation and understanding of Australian poetry by providing access to a wide range of poetic texts, many of which are now out of print, as well as to critical and contextual material relating to them, including interviews, photographs and audio/visual recordings. At present the site contains over 42,000 poems, which can be searched via keywords, and which are also indexed according to some selected poetic forms and main themes. It will be progressively developed over the coming years to include work by more poets, as well as more critical and contextual material.

Through keyword searches the site will allow teachers and/or students to select poems relating to a particular subject or theme that students are studying, and to create their own personal anthologies. Teachers and/or students will be able to download and print poems for a small fee, part of which is returned to the poets via the Copyright Agency Limited. Further reproduction, electronic display, email or other communication is not permitted except in reliance on the statutory licence scheme under Part VB of the Copyright Act 1968

Well worth a look, with thousands of poems available.

Connected learning

I saw this on Twitter this week and shared it with some people at school.It’s from Sheryl NussbaumBeach @snbeach What do you think? Too zealous and idealistic? As a teacher I like the idea of ‘messy learning’ and the ideas of the teacher as interventionist in a collective and collaborative learning world. As a teacher-leader it’s also a bit confronting; how we can be sure we’re going to get something beautiful out of this messed up stuff, and not simply a mess?

Gloomy day at the office

We’ve all had ’em I console myself. Those lessons that just don’t quite go right. Where you get out at the end and say to yourself, ‘well that was pretty ordinary’.

I had one last week, a gloomy perfect storm of missed opportunities and mis-chances I tell myself. A room change due to exams putting us up in a weird little room of different layout and logistics and throwing the old tried and true relationship seating upside down, the last lesson or so before their exams and a while off to our next coursework assessment, so no real urgency maybe about the lesson and no end in sight. Combine that with an 18th birthday party to plan in the back corner and me with a sore back from a frozen bike ride on the weekend and not mobile enough to get around and check things out, and you’ve got a lesson that never got really started, half-baked discussion that never got thought about, and half the class who never got involved at all.

Back under the cold harsh fluorescent light back in my office I take more responsibility. It wasn’t ever going to be a great lesson, pretty passive and lacking an explanation of the purpose or learning that might have happened.

We’ve all had them. It’s often our fault. You’ve got to think about and do something different next time. We have, in a year together, so few of these times. These lessons are valuable, they should matter, we should make them count.

Cloud photo by Warrick 

Change and continuity in teaching Literature

I’ve been trying to be more actively interventionist in my Literature teaching this year, inspired by some thinking about Personalised Learning I’ve been moved to consciously work on some ‘high impact micro-teaching strategies’ that might help student learning as a follow up to some thinking on formative assessment over the past couple of years.

So, I’ve kept the things that have been working pretty well (the wikis, using OneNote as the default teaching, presenting and note-taking tool) and the blog as the primary means of communicating class news and information.

But I’ve also tried some new things too. I’ve also been up front with the students about that, talking them through my thinking and what the intention/s are. They’re Year 12 students after all, 17 or 18 old most of them, well able to understand these approaches and generally just as keen to do well as I am for them to do well.

We began with a ‘no-hands’ up approach to discussions and I showed them a couple of bits of research about that, including this piece from the BBC.  This approach, coupled with greatly increased ‘wait-time’ has seemed to make the class more generally attentive and receptive. I haven’t had a problem getting discussion going with this group; they’re great about that, but the ‘no hands up’ means that everyone is involved potentially.

I also moved the room around a bit, based on some feedback I got from a couple of teachers who sat in one of my lessons for a ‘classroom observation’ project we’re trialling. I’m stuck with little individual ‘test-style’ tables and, yes I could bundle them into ungainly little squarish pods each lesson, but the next teacher would probably untangle all that and start again. So, I’ve tried a kind of horseshoe arrangement that I use for lots of meetings I run, where students can really make good eye-contact with each other in all the conversations. They’re still all facing the front where the data projector (and teacher) is, but it’s generally more conducive to a good collaborative atmosphere and, importantly, the other teachers who use the room, can mostly tolerate it and don’t shift things back.

I’m going to do more surveys too, shorter surveys more regularly. I generally do an end of semester student survey and end of year but, inspired by a young English teacher who’s been giving her students short surveys using Google Docs (I don’t even know how to do that) I plan to do more surveys online using our own school system.

I did the first survey this week and already it’s given me some good feedback that I intend on acting upon right now, rather than wait until the end of the semester. This is all about helping students improve as they go. I found that they haven’t much enjoyed the poetry cartoon tasks I’ve been setting, which is interesting as I wouldn’t have picked that. I liked them!

And they’re sometimes not so sure about how well they’re going, the kind of progress they’re making. So I want to work on more individual feedback more often, short, focused learning conversations perhaps.

I was also inspired by another teacher to try the “Icy pole sticks”. A simple technique, that you’d often do with younger students, of having an icy pole stick for each student, with their name on it, and selecting the stick at random and asking that student to answer the question. A kind of simple randomiser, and you can just keep selecting sticks at random, or move them from the big pile to a ‘used’ pile to ensure that questions are distributed around the room. I told my class about the idea and got them to name and decorate their stick with some iconographic aspect of themselves. Which was fun.

So, the icy pole sticks, combined with wait time, and the ‘no hands up’, has helped reshape some of the questioning that goes on in the classes so often. And helped make me more conscious of this approach even though, every now and then, I’m drawn to ask the keen student who I know is itching to say something.

Finally, the questioning itself has been sharpened by trying a technique called: ‘Pose, Pause, Bounce, Pounce’, where a question is posed, wait time is added, the question is responded to, bounced to another student, and then a third is asked what they thought of those answers. Sounds more complicated than it is and you can read about it at the Guardian HERE

I’ve just started to try to collect some of these techniques on a Diigo list HERE.  Suggestions are welcome, particularly focused on assessment for learning strategies.

Finally, some traditions are too good to change. Cake day, once every fortnight at the end of the day, is a student-inspired initiative that I’m happy to continue just as it is.

Should I be on “The Facebook”

In the normal classroom discussion the other day I was interested to find that everyone in the class (16 of them) have joined a Facebook group that one of them set up as a Literature study group. They’re all there, I asked and checked, and are discussing and asking questions and supporting each other (I hope) and pushing each other in the right directions (I hope)

I hope because I’m not sure. And I’m not sure because I’m not there. I’m not allowed to ‘friend’ students or be connected to them in social networks according to our school policy; a policy that I had a hand in developing. But, you’ve got to wonder. Here am I out here, trying to utilise our own online tools including a pretty decent wiki and blog setup, to get student collaboration and participation going and, here are they in there, doing it themselves, in their space, where they live, with the whole class.

I know you could argue that I shouldn’t be there, that it would change the dynamics if I was, and that they should have a space where they can test and re-test their ideas in their own way. True. And I don’t want to take over. But I could contribute, could support, could help shape that discussion and use that discussion to shape the classroom interactions and the things we do next. Could. Can’t.

It begins

What do you do first lesson of the year? What do you do first in that lesson? With that group for the first time. Remember, this is the first class of the year after the long summer break, and after the long induction and prequel and all that thinking about how you’re going to do it better this year; how you’re going to do it different this year.

What do you do that first lesson?: talk about the summer break? roll out the PowerPoint about the course again (in case they missed it last year when you had that orientation session)?, ask them to talk about their reading over the summer? share some stories of first impressions of the text (Mrs Dalloway), mark the roll or get straight in to the book?

I must admit that, even after all these years of teaching, I still get slightly edgy about that first lesson of the year. I want to get it right. I want it to be a start, and not a talk-fest from me but an idea about how this class will be, and who we will be in this class together.

So I did all of the above, maybe not as purposefully and mindfully as I should have, and we made a start. I spent a little time getting OneNote organised (because it’s got to be from day 1 and organising it isn’t super-easy) and I asked a student to read from a passage (the skywriter scene) and we talked about that for a while. I told them how much I enjoyed reading Woolf again after a few years without having read her, and I got some nods, but also one or two half-looks of ‘I didn’t’. I should have followed up that look I think; what was troubling about Woolf? And what was difficult? And, I couldn’t help but think that a couple of students hadn’t quite finished it and didn’t want to talk about the text in too much detail, and didn’t want that conversation yet.

Afterwards, I felt vaguely disappointed that I hadn’t really grabbed them somehow. Not sure why, but it was that anti-climactic feeling that I could have done better. So, I emailed them all and clarified the lesson’s objectives, what I hoped they’d got out of it, and what the homework was, and a mindmap I’d done on the iPad and put into OneNote.

And, so we’ve started.

The power of the voice

I had one of those, ‘thank goodness that effort wasn’t  totally wasted’, moments a couple of weeks ago when doing some revision work with literature students to do with podcasting.
Teaching the poetry of Gwen Harwood earlier this year I was very keen to include as much audio as possible; after all poetry really lives when it’s spoken I feel.
So, I organized for each of the poems to have a definitive ‘reading’ by a student who knew the poem well. Hearing the poem is critical so I recorded each student reading in Audacity and saved them out as .mp3s which I put on the class wiki. I also recorded a series of mini-lectures on each poem, about five minutes each just talking through the poem like I would in class. So, each poem had a wiki page with a reading, a mini-lecture and the student contributions and notes.
 I didn’t think much about it, although to be truthful I was a bit disappointed that students didn’t see to see the value in the audio. So, in the very last lesson of the year I was pleased and surprised that a student from another class told me that she’d been listening to the audio and that it had been the most powerful thing for her own learning. That made it worthwhile somehow.

And justified me buying a new Yeti microphone in the recent Apple sale and putting it under the Christmas tree for a present to myself.

So, next year, more audio supplements to the teaching, more attempts to bring these works to life and maybe even a return to some of those rambling Ed-tech style podcasts I did a couple of years ago!

Waiting for superman

I had this post in my Instapaper ready to read for ages, and finally got to it today, at the end of another busy week with little time for reflection. I was alerted to it by Will Richardson and while it’s context is distinctively (I wrote uniquely, but hesitated) American, it has ramifications here too.

We haven’t (yet) seen the rise and rise of ‘charter schools’ and billionaires with too much time on their hands telling teachers how to do their jobs, but we HAVE seen a US-centric emphasis on testing and standards, the rise and rise of a politically scultpured national curriculum and an increasing tendency that the problems in education are all (somehow) the fault of teachers.

In her post We are not Waiting for Superman, We are Empowering Superheroes, Diane Rhoten passionately argues for a another perspective. It’s worth reading, and I liked the three ‘truths’ she comes up with three key assumptions that should shape our future thinking:

Assumption 1: The future of education is about learning not schooling.

Assumption 2: Technology is not an end in itself but a means to an end, and that end is better learning.

Assumption 3: The power of technology to advance learning depends on context of use.

There’s some guiding principles for action too, and this great statement about techology use:

Our vision of technologically enabled learning is not one of the lone child sitting at her desktop (or laptop) passively consuming PDFs or browsing Web pages. We believe the potential of technology for learning is much greater. We believe its power resides in its ability to deliver active and interactive experiences where a learner participates in the very construction of knowledge by crafting and curating, mixing and re-mixing information with digital tools, a process which can be and should be greatly augmented by online and offline social interactions between friends, in a community of peers, or an extended network of people (both professional and amateur) who share her interests.

Yay for her. I sometimes get nervous with the ‘technology is just a tool’ argument, because it limits the transformative potential to something more like an electronic whiteboard where the teachers just does the same old stuff to the kids. But this is a different arguement. And a nice place to stop at the end of the week.