Thursday, 15 September 2016

Assessing for tomorrow

Tomorrow I am facilitating a staff PD session on assessment in the digital age. We are lucky enough to work in a BYOD school where access to technology is generally not an issue. The conversation is a timely one, given the recent announcements by NZ's Minister of Education. It is an important conversation, and one in which I, by no means, have all the answers (and perhaps not any of the answers). My role tomorrow is to pose some questions and get the conversation started.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The MLE - What's in a name?

It doesn't seem to have been around for long, but I am already a little tired of the gay abandon with which this acronym is being flung around as the panacea for all education ills. It seems to me that the MLE - or Modern Learning Environment - has been claimed as solely the domain of those working in shiny new buildings. I would like to suggest that there are many of us - still slumming it in industrial era buildings - who do in fact subscribe to and, indeed, practise a contemporary pedagogy.

Deep learning, authentic learning, cross-curricular learning, inquiry learning, collaborative learning, future-focused learning. These are all things I am aware of when I review our English programmes. They are points of reference when I think about staff PD needs. And they are concepts I draw upon in the shaping of my own educational philosophy.

In my late-model industrial-education building, I am trying to make a difference. My Faculty is reflecting on, reviewing and re-shaping the way we do things. We are endeavouring to work effectively with our own set of constraints, whether these are environmental or pedagogical. Yes, we all have our own classrooms; this is not a bad thing. If we want to work collaboratively across classes or across learning areas, there are spaces we can make use of. This simply means we need to plan. Again, not a bad thing. Yes, we are working towards enabling our students to achieve the best they possibly can in NCEA or IB assessments. Yes, this does shape our course construction at a fundamental level. However, in the past few years, our students have had more options available to them in English than they ever have. There is now choice between courses and within courses at each level. The teachers in the English Faculty are conversant with current understandings of differentiation; when we think about what content we focus on, how we facilitate the learning process, and how we assess the final product, we are putting our students at the centre of our decision-making. In fact, the students are now, more frequently, part of that decision-making.

While a shiny, new building can be a source of joy, pride and inspiration, what is education really about? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. A year 12 student of mine had a chat with me yesterday. He said - completely unprompted - how he felt our school was changing; teachers were more adaptive to students in the classroom. He told me that he has noticed a big change in how English is taught since his year 9 class. His words to me: "I think it's you." Not a building, but an educator.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Re-thinking Appraisal

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
- Albert Einstein

Appraisal has a new look at our school. After a thoughtful consultation process, we now have an on-line process that asks us to think about our strengths and weaknesses and how this impacts student achievement. Appraisal is moving from a tick-box administration process to a design that seeks to encourage teacher reflection and personalised development opportunities. I, for one, am very happy with this change.

For many of us, our identity or sense of self is closely aligned with what we do for a living. As teachers, we can often fall into the trap of feeling like we must know everything: we are teachers, after all. This is perhaps, where recent titles such as facilitators and learning leaders seek to remind us that we are just one part of the process. Students should be at the centre of it all. If we have spent much of our teaching life at front and centre of the classroom, it might be difficult to let go. But, in order to keep moving forward, we must acknowledge what we don't know and take action. There is no weakness in that. A good appraisal system should allow us to feel safe in our reflections on and explorations into our teaching practice.

I had the opportunity to contribute to part of the new appraisal document. I used the SMART criteria as a base:
  • Specific: Goal(s) should be clearly articulated and described
  • Measurable: Goal(s) should be easily measured by a collection of evidence
  • Achievable: Goal(s) should be challenging – perhaps taking you out of your comfort zone – but focused enough to be achievable
  • Relevant: Goal(s) should be informed by and have reference to school goals
  • Time bound: Goal(s) should have a clearly defined timeline
And then I added some reflection questions to get the thinking started:
  • What do I know about my students’ achievement?
  • How could I enhance my students’ learning?
  • Which particular teaching skill would I like to develop?
  • How familiar am I with current best-practice educational theory?
  • Where are the gaps in my professional development record?
  • What evidence collection methods could I use to support my goal(s)?
  • How is my appraisal goal linked to a school or faculty goal?
  • How will my appraisal goal help to strengthen my teaching practice?
  • How is my appraisal goal linked to the RTCs?
I am hopeful that my faculty sees this newly redesigned process as encouraging and enabling them to think critically and deeply about their own pedagogy. We have a number of cycling enthusiasts in our team; as a peloton, we could certainly achieve the momentum required to reach our individual bests.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Explicit Language Ahead

"Thanks for believing in me, Miss."

I had stopped to chat with one of my student's from last year. I had seen (and heard) her practising for her oral presentation assessment a couple of times and I told her how impressed I had been as I walked by. She made some typical comments that students make when they have no confidence in their ability in a subject. I told her I thought she was far more capable than she thought and that she shouldn't give up. As she walked off with her friend, she looked back over her shoulder and called, "Thanks for believing in me, Miss."

I have to admit, it gave me a warm glow. I felt like I had done something good for at least one student that day. The thing is though, I really, truly believe that she is capable of achieving. What it is now making me wonder is whether or not all my students feel that I believe in them. Because I do. Yes, I know they all arrive in my class with different levels of confidence and a wide range of skills. But have I made it sufficiently explicit to each and every one of them that I know that they can achieve? And I want them to know that AND believe that. In the final week of the first term break, I realise that I don't think I have made that explicit enough, and I certainly haven't personalised it.

What can I do about that? Yes, I can continue with those blanket statements I give about expecting everybody to achieve. Yes, I can emphasise the expectation of Excellence or Merit. But now I don't think that's enough. What I want to do is going to take time, and time is always the missing ingredient. But I think I need to do it. I'm envisaging a mini-conference with each of my students where I can discuss such things as their past achievement (or otherwise), their concerns and worries, and what they think are their strengths and weaknesses. I need to make this purposeful; I don't want the students to feel it is just another tick-box process like some of the other "tracking" that occurs. It is very much an embryonic idea at this stage, but, I believe, a worthwhile idea.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Out and About Visibly Learning

It can be a breath of fresh air to get out of your classroom, out of your school, and perhaps out of your comfort zone. So heading off on Friday to the Visible Learning Summit was much anticipated by our small exploratory team.

Sometimes it happens that the presentations of the day leave something to be desired, and the learning happens from the conversations with colleagues. On this particular Friday, the thing I enjoyed most at the Summit was hearing from two principals who have got in there and lead change from the top; the embodiment of leaders of learning was on display in these two and it was quite inspirational.

However,- and here I may be being rather contentious - what didn't inspire me was the (not choosing my words diplomatically) at times sycophantic adherence to certain theories and certain people. I ask my students to think for themselves and I will occasionally play devil's advocate to see if any of them challenge me. I didn't really see any of this on Friday. Real discussion seemed lacking. People who disagreed with ideas or aspects of presentations did so in hushed voices, afraid of upsetting the cart or being different in a room full of disciples.

Don't get me wrong, I am fully in favour of research, best practice, and doing what works for our students. But I want to know what works and doesn't work, what the problems and constraints are, what workarounds might be necessary. I want real-world scenarios, not the text book practices. I want discussion and difference. How can I learn if I can't see anything of myself or my situation in your story? How can I grow if I am too afraid to be derided for offering a different, but perhaps valid, perspective?

In the end, the journey back home gave our small exploratory team the time to debrief, and this was perhaps the most valuable aspect of the whole day; an opportunity for colleagues to process their responses and reach shared understanding. Professionally developing and growing together.