Teaching 21C, and no teachers in sight


Is it okay to attend an all day conference called Teaching 21C: the big issues facing the profession today and not, in the whole day, hear from a practising teacher?

I understand that you don’t come to a conference to hear only from teachers . You can get that around the photocopier or at the water cooler and there has been the growth of more hand-on options like TeachMeets where practitioners can share practice, not to mention the networks you can develop in platforms like Twitter. You go to hear from experts, and learn.

But I did feel, at the end of a long day that felt at times a brow-beating (if not belittling) of the teachers who constituted most of the audience, that it wouldn’t have been hard to include some teachers who might be able to contribute to the discussion, if only to respond to some of the provocations.

Don’t get me wrong; there were some good moments, particularly the session on evidence-based practice that seemed firmly grounded in, and linked to, how real schools work. Suzie Riddell (SVA) took us through a toolkit for schools called Evidence of Learning, which seeks to help schools make good choices about what kinds of change you might choose to implement in terms of $$ costs, evidence for a positive effect on learning, including links to more reading and the scale of that effect; a bit like Hattie’s work put to good use.


Earlier, Jan Owen took us through the FYA report on ‘The New Work Order’, emphasising the forces of automation, globalisation and flexibility that are disrupting work opportunities, especially for young people. You can download the whole report HERE (PDF)

But they were the highlights.

It wasn’t great to hear Teach for Australia rep. Melodie Potts Rosevear telling us how she was looking forward to the present generation of teachers to retire. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t a fan of Teach for Australia before and I’ve blogged about that HERE and HERE; I just don’t think parachuting fast-tracked graduates into teaching and leadership, no matter how smart, does anything more than diminish the profession. Lawyers for Australia? I’d like to see that.)

Geoff Masters (ACER) was one of the keynotes and one of the most disappointing. He showed a series of un-labelled slides, designed to highlight falling standards in Australian learning outcomes (PISA, naturally). In some of the slides (shown below) high results were good, others when they were bad. It was hard to follow; they had no titles, there were no scales.

Masters talked about ‘Five Challenges’ facing Australian education: declining standards, growing disparities between schools, students falling year level expectations, students starting school at risk of being locked into long-term low achievement and (irony alert) teaching is becoming less attractive as a career option for able school leavers. Masters didn’t take questions.

And not a teacher got to speak.

It was all summed up in final plenary panel of grey-haired white men, a dynamic that even they felt a little embarrassed by.

Flipped Learning Possibilities

Flipped Learning Session (Rupert Denton)


Flipped Learning Possibilities

Rupert Denton from ClickView talked about the possibilities of the ‘flipped classroom’, particularly in a context of an education system that is ‘failing’. (cue lots of graphs featuring PISA in full dive mode, alarm bells ringing, crew jettisoning ballast)

He cleverly used the work of Geoff Masters (what should we do to arrest the decline?), particularly ‘ensure every student has access to excellent teaching’, which aligned nicely to flipped classroom approaches.

It got a bit edgy when he compared the explosion in educational technology as a bit like the evolutionary explosion of life known as the Cambrian explosion.(see Wikipedia) He argued that, as in evolutionary terms, not all trees of life (or technology) will survive. One strand that he argued would survive is the ‘flipped classroom’.

Denton showed some of the emerging research around flipped learning (99% of teachers would use it again), one calling it ‘differentiation on steroids (Flipped Learning Network, 2012) and made several explicit links between ACER research and Flipped classroom approaches (flipped classrooms are shareable, so good teaching can be shared, and teachers can learn from other teachers about their own pedagogy.)

The Flipped Classroom


He then talked about the approach of ClickView in curating and gathering good content for Australian Curriculum approaches. He also shared some of the ‘value-add’ ClickView brings to video, like questions, annotations etc. as well as the teacher collaboration features that the platform has.

It was good to see this platform again and to see how some of the once competing threads of technology are coming together.

Rupert Denton is ‘a sceptical optimist’ who works for ClickView.



Living and teaching in an era of big data


If there was one recurring thread (I typed ‘threat’ subliminally just then and it didn’t auto-correct!) at the first day of the K-12 National Curriculum Conference today, it might have been the idea of data, analytics and ‘using evidence’ to inform teaching and learning.

‘There are two things we all agree with’, said Professor Brian Caldwell, it’s the idea of an Australian curriculum, and the idea of national testing, of some kind.

Systems: universal, national, local, like the idea of data. ‘We’re not just wasting our money here. Look. You’re not doing it right…’ Data to drive improvement, data to drive reform, data to drive teachers out of the profession. ‘PISA has become an article of faith for policy makers …’ someone said. There was lots of talk of data analysis, of acronyms like PISA, NAPLAN, ACER, VCAA, ISQ, GKR, PAT, EBO, PATT … and on it went.

Everyone wants a dashboard, and they want it now. Not as much talk about how we might deal with all that data once we have it, or how that might drive … well, even more data.

There were some refreshing asides, talk about creativity, problem-solving, the value of learning for its own sake and not as an atom in a productivity machine, but data. Everywhere data.

Most of the presentations are on Slideshare HERE

[Vette Dashboard by Wayne Silver, on Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/8rhcNg ]

Support good teachers

Earlier this year, in my Texas round-up of the ASCD  Conference (doesn’t Texas and Round-up sit nicely together in that sentence!)I attended in March, I posted the ominous ‘sack teachers’ Newsweek cover, which I thought epitomised something of the disregard lots of Americans have for the profession.

So, good on ASCD and the latest (May 2010) issue of Educational Leadership, who have turned the Newsweek cover on its head (below) ASCD do good things; where’s the Australian equivalent? And don’t say ACER! Didn’t they invent NAPLAN?

Below, the original NEWSWEEK cover

Transforming Schools through Powerful Learning

I spent most of the day today at an ACER seminar with Professor Guy Claxton,  Co-director , Real World Learning, University of Winchester

He began with his depiction of the ‘holy grail’ of 21st Century learning and argued that ALL the things below were necessary and that this wasn’t a list you could choose from.

Education fit for the 21st C
• Rising standards
• Engaged students
• Enthusiastic teachers
• Wider skills, key competencies, essential ‘learnings’ for life

He then mainly talked about the last of these; the inter-disciplinary stuff from VELS and warned against wish-lists of attributes which in isolation look very odd (EG: ‘Students should be helped to ‘develop a sense of wonder and awe about the world’)

He warned us against a simple belief in policies. Student levels of engagement and achievement are raised not by what we’re doing, not by what we think we are doing, but by what students think we’re doing.

He was particularly critical of the ‘lifelong learning’ phrase that was at the center of mission statements in England, NZ and here in Australia and whether we all shared an understanding of what this actually means.

The question of lifelong learning raises issues about what sort of learning (real world  or just school?), for whom?, how it’s promoted (intentionally or naturally) and what’s involved (dispositions or just skills?)

Claxton argued that education had been a bit glib about all this and argued for a broad understanding of the term ‘lifelong learning’, which isn’t a new idea: ‘We need to produce people who know how to act when they are faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared’. (Seymour Papert, 1998)

He argued that raising levels of achievement was one thing, but we ‘need to have a wee think’ about whether we were doing this through ‘spoon feeding’ knowledge, creating passive, docile learners rather than active, engaged learners.

I wondered, in his concentration on the broader lifelong learning skills and his critique of ‘conventional good teaching’ and his rejection of a conventional pedagogy, how these things should be ‘addressed more directly’, particularly when he was cautious about how we might assess such attributes.

He talked a lot about he obstacles to lifelong learning and how progress has been patchy, slow and superficial across the world, including patchy implementation of VELS itself in Victoria.

Some of those obstacles were:

• Grandiose, vague and obscure terminology (a problem that Tasmania’s ‘Essential Learnings’ suffered from)
• Persistence of traditional forms of assessment (working out hot to measure what we value beyond academic achievement)
• Persistence of focus on teaching, not learning
• Presented as a new demand, not a reorientation of goals
• Treated as ‘tinsel’, a sprinkle of tips and sound bites
• Qualities treated as new knowledge content
• A thin language for talking about learning
• Ignoring the plight of the successful students
• Under-estimation of the process of habit change, for teachers, parents, and students themselves
• Our will – are we really serious about this? Are we concerned enough to do what it really takes to ‘help all young people to develop the confidence, capacity and appetite to face, select and pursue difficult things worth doing’ ie. To become powerful lifelong learners.

Traditional good teaching doesn’t do it (he repeated) but again saw traditional good teaching as ‘spoon-feeding’ which I’m not sure quite nails it.

He argued that even teaching skills like mind-mapping, thinking hats, etc didn’t meant it was translating into the real life action. The UK was obsessed with skills he argued.

The problem with the word skills is that skills are ‘things like welding and making a lump free white sauce’ are clearly prompted by the world you’re in. You know when you’re supposed to do these things, but the world doesn’t prompt you about ‘skills’ in thinking. David Perkins argues that 50% of performance can be attributed to an ‘intuitive understanding’ of when to apply relevant thinking skills; he argued for students to be ‘self-prodding’ about their approach to thinking and learning beyond the classroom.

‘If its not dispositional, we haven’t done the job’

‘For over twenty years it’s been known that students with more elaborated conceptions of learning perform better in exam situations.’ Young people who are able to be more articulate about their learning, are likely to do better.’ So, it’s not ‘either-or’; achievement or metacognition. Powerful creative learners investigate, experiment, imagine, reason, are curious, determined, resourceful, sociable, thoughtful and have presence. The cross-over to Ritchhart’s positive thinking dispositions is interesting. Claxton called it a 4-5-1 model of powerful learning, that looks like this

4 Ways of Learning
Investigating: researching, copying, assessing
Experimenting: tinkering, practising, drafting
Imagining: visualising, dreaming, feeling of rightness
Reasoning: liking, analysing and explaining

5 Dispositions
Curious: wondering, questioning, doubting
Determined: risking, persisting, patient
Resourceful: capitalizing, tool-making, collecting
Sociable: discussing, helping, accepting criticism
Thoughtful: taking stock, overriding, assumption-checking

1 Big Thing
Presence: bringing it all together in the learning moment.

Claxton argued for gradual, systematic culture change in the school; ‘nothing else will do’. Learning must permeate the culture and not in a rhetorical or cosmetic way, but deeply, as experienced by the students. His preferred strategy was ‘gentle pressure, relentlessly applied’.

He gave some practical examples of how this enculturation might begin; in terms of language (‘learning’ not ‘work’), example (learn an instrument ourselves) and talked about ‘coaching’ some things such as ‘group work’, ‘cooperation’ or ‘listening’. He talked about giving students responsibility, split-screen teaching, and the environment in terms of resources and displays (what the walls are saying)

One simple strategy was moving from ‘is’ language to ‘could’ language, which invites creative responses to the information, a for of language that affords other kinds of engagement: critical, creative, playful etc.

He kept talking about ‘which learning muscles do we want students to be using’; those to with memory and recall, or a richer, broader set of thinking like reasoning, collaborating, revising, reflecting, summarising etc.

Interestingly, he gave the thinking routines of Ron Ritchhart as a good example of getting started with moving beyond recall and passivity. Those thinking routines are things we’ve been exploring for a while now and they are gaining momentum with teaching staff.

He asked us to be ‘brave’, to not be mindful of pandering to a narrow set of parent expectations and kept asking us where we where, in listening to his ideas, on the ‘spectrum’ of three baskets: basket 1: this is obvious, basket 2: this is promising, basket 3: this is outlandish and out of my reach.

Claxton was critical of the way that technologies which ‘distribute’ our intelligence (watches, phones, computers, calculators, phones) are all put aside when we go to examine and assess students. So, my students will put away the tool that they’ve been planning and drafting and writing with all their life pretty much, and doing the year 12 exam on a piece of paper. VCAA don’t seem to have an answer to that.

In some ways it was a bit flat. He talked at us all day, with a PowerPoint presentation unadorned and with no apparent sense of design and a strong primary school focus I thought.  But he was interesting and smart and it was more than worthwhile all the same. I bought a copy of his book, What’s the Point of School, (OneWorld, 2008)

Oh, and to end on a technology note. It wasn’t the first time, in an age when every teacher in Victoria has been given a notebook computer, that, in a room of maybe 150 teachers, I was the only one using a computer to take my notes.

Finland Rules!

It’s great to see that ACER’s fetish with all things FINLAND continues, as illustrated nicely in today’s Education Age article by Caroline Milburn (not online yet)

I agree with the basic premise of the article, that it’s a focus on quality TEACHING, not TESTING that is likely to lead to improved student learning and that ‘nations with the best student performances have focused on developing a highly trained teacher workforce rather than publicising school results’.

The article talks about Professor Brian Caldwell’s co-authoring of a new study Why Not the Best Schools? and the findings that teacher training is the key to improved outcomes for students.

Which is all a bit ironic as the short article mentions Finland four or five times as being the best performing system in international testing at the same time asserting that Finland isn’t into testing. Maybe just international testing? 

Caldwell’s conclusion nicely blends the Finnish with the American rhetoric: ‘We should be insisting that every teacher be very well trained to at least a master’s level and not allow any child to fall behind’.

Finland may well do well in international testing but I retain serious doubts as to how tranferrable the education results of that small northern European country are to Australia. Maybe Caldwell is just into skiiing?

[Finland photo from elanores on Flickr]

National Curriculum Debates

What if the national curriculum that’s going to revolutionise everything also included HOW to teach certain subjects such as perhaps reading? Would we all think it so benevolent and non-invasive then.

I’ve railed and wailed here about national curriculum before but Caroline Milburn’s article in the AGE today opens a new line; that methodology might also be part of this nationalist zeal. Summarising an ACER report the article says:

The major challenge in improving teaching lies not so much in identifying and describing quality teaching, but in developing structures and approaches that ensure widespread use of successful practices: to make best practice, common practice,” says the report, written for the BCA by senior researchers at ACER. The Rudd Government has signalled its intention to take an unprecedented role in influencing teaching methods. The first steps of a more interventionist approach in areas traditionally the preserve of education authorities and teacher training institutions were announced this year.

I like the response of literacy expert Dr Ilina Synder who writes:

The national curriculum initiative is an exciting opportunity to forge new directions and aspirations for school education, but she warns that teachers will resist it if it tells them what they should do in the classroom rather than setting out principles to inform the curriculum. Teachers will not welcome a heavy-handed approach that requires them to perform specific tasks without having control or input in the way they are conceived and evaluated. “Teachers expect to be accountable as professionals but they also expect acknowledgment of their professional knowledge and expertise,”

The debates moves on, but it’s currently only being had among politicians and academics. If teacher aren’t careful they’ll wake up to find that the debate is done and dusted and we’ll be told new ways of operating based on what looks good in Finland and what might get a politician re-elected in four years time.