On Thinking About Year Two

I have completed my first year in school leadership. Hmmm. It has been some ride. I’ve likened the daily experience to being akin to inelegantly clinging to a bucking bronco while riding on top of a runaway steam train.

Oddly, given the analogy, I’ve felt thoroughly energised and engaged by the whole experience. My constant, lingering concern though is how to get better, how to serve the students, teachers and parents who, quite rightly, would prefer competent, inspiring leadership, not naive mediocrity.

Rather than conducting a post-mortem of the year by reflecting using one of the many dense, multi-layered leadership rubrics out there (Google it – there are many!), I’m going to look ahead, feed forward. To do this, I need something straightforward to hold onto –  an essential question, some key principles – for when the bronco bucks and the engine fires up, as they both surely will.

And so, in the simplest possible terms, everything required of good school leadership can be seen through the lens of learning. There lies the essential question that I’m going to ask of myself this year:

To what extent can I further develop a culture of habitual learning (students, staff) by better contributing to the daily practices, systems, protocols and organisational structures that support this? 

Or, in a nutshell: How can I further promote learning?

If I am to navigate answers to this question in ways that create the desired-for emergent properties of improved learning (for all), I should first more clearly articulate the beliefs and principles that underpin my daily practice. I’m not sure such beliefs and principles ever remain static, and they are certainly not exhaustive, but for now, here they are, one year wiser:

  1. A school’s essential purpose is learning – child, adult and institutional.
  2. Learning, when made transparent, has the potential to be contagious.
  3. Learning made visibleintrinsically relevant and focused on the essentials, amplifies positive outcomes. More here.
  4. Teachers are motivated to professional mastery when all three of the following conditions are sufficiently met: the space to become increasingly autonomous, access to the necessary resources and a shared belief in a compelling purpose.
  5. All institutions face organizational entropy in which order decays towards chaos; professional time must be relentlessly re-focused from the non-essential to the essential
  6. Imperfection must be used as a necessary catalyst for future success.
  7. Leading, teaching and learning is best practised as a team sport.
  8. Less can be more; simplicity, the face of complexity.

So, what next?

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“Euro-Pedestrian Traffic Light” by Stoeffler, CC0 1.0

For the next school year, with my essential question in mind, I’m resolving to start, stop and continue as follows.

To start:

  • Improve the clarity of vision for the processes by which teachers and middle level leaders act on knowledge of student progress. When a student is struggling, what do we do? When a student is excelling, what do we do?
  • Work with teachers to build consensus around a set of clear, easily digestible checklist of musts, shoulds and coulds for assessment planning and grading practices.
  • To model the value of sharing reflections and learning with the teaching community (e.g. this blog).
  • More (quantity and quality) deliberate interaction with students and teachers during drop-ins. Collaborate with teams to find agreed upon ways in which I might interact with students and/or constructively co-teach in the moment. One idea: creating a protocol for conducting three minute learning reviews or “Teach the Teacher” (“Educate the Admin”?!?) during appropriate moments in drop-ins.
  • Articulate and improve a shared vision for learning that is likely to amplify positive learning outcomes, starting here.
  • With other members of leadership, work on a process that invites staff to give feedback on our growth as leaders.

To continue:

  • Building a professional growth model for teachers with the help of willing departmental teams, probably involving more formalised co-teaching expectations and reflective practices.
  • Organising student information systems to improve data collection on attendance and academic progress (missed assignments, poor homework completion, exceptional performance, academic monitoring etc.).
  • With leadership, streamlining and sequencing communication practices, both digital (bulletins, Google calendar) and physical (meeting sequences and delivery).
  • Classroom drop-ins with informal coaching notes (c.80% questions, 20% affirmation).

To stop (or limit):

  • Leading projects or completing tasks for which others are better placed and more skilled in order to focus on what I can best bring to the team.
  • Starting impromptu meetings instead of visiting classrooms.
  • Working too much. Less is more.

Too much?

So often, there is more to do than is feasible. And yet an imperfect and imperfectly completed to do list is better than no to do list at all. Probably.

Well, year two, here goes!

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On a (Flawed) Grand Unified Theory of Teaching

I work at an IB World School that also offers BTEC and AP qualifications. In addition, we have several courses designed in-house for the final two years of school. We have no governmental requirements for specific standards nor learner outcomes beyond those that come with IB Diploma and AP exams. We are essentially free to do as we wish.

While the IB promotes inquiry-based, interdisciplinary, concept-driven pedagogies, the AP qualifications are only really about outcomes (and what grade students get on their exams) and the BTEC qualification, though promoting a continuous assessment model and vocational experiences, is also more concerned with what you do rather than how (and why) you do it.

In schools like ours, what should be the daily pedagogical “how” that underpins our approaches to the various courses we offer?

Indeed, does there need to be something that unifies the variety of courses with their different profiles, outcomes and purposes?

I would argue that while there are numerous, variously fashionable pedagogical camps (e.g. direct instruction vs inquiry based learning), there do appear to be some forms of teaching and learning that are more effective than others, even if there is no clear consensus.

However, compelling, replicable research that demonstrates that strategies effective for some teachers, contexts and academic disciplines, and for students of particular ages, backgrounds and prior achievement, are significantly effective for all is thin on the ground (if you know of it, let me know!). Frankly, constructing and undertaking studies with any degree of external validity that could provide this educational holy grail – the Grand Unified Theory of teaching – seems unenviably problematic.

And yet, some form of flexible, middle-ground is certainly desirable if a school is to create a cohesive educational experience.

So, here’s my vision for three principles of a Grand Unified Theory for Better Teaching that any educator might be able to tailor and amplify in their own unique contexts:

1. Intrinsic Relevance

The relevance of their learning should be clear to students.

Now, you can tell students how learning is relevant. In fact, do this. However, more importantly, you should also show them by designing experiences that rely on students performing their learning in spaces (physical or digital) that allow them to feel the relevance of this learning as something implicit to a task. Think science fairs, art exhibitions, writing with an audience (blogs, with comments), performances, fiendish problems facing the world.

When you give the learning some performative “stakes” – not too high, not too low – with a little reflective questioning, you also allow the students to attend to the personal relevance of such performances.

2. Learning Made Visible

Learning experiences must be shaped to relentlessly generate evidence of learning for (1) teachers to provide on-going feedback, for (2) teachers to react to learning and for (3) students to reflect and take ownership of their own learning.

How?

Formative assessment strategies, Visible Thinking routines, carefully crafted whole class discussions (using hands down questioning), treating each and every moment as a potential artefact of learning.

And, with attention drawn to learning made visible, you can attend to the metacognitive aspects of the learning, either by front-loading the skills, strategies or processes necessary for success, or revealing them through systematic reflection.

3. Essential Beginnings

There are some things in any academic domain that intellectually and socially empower students. What they are is debatable and a one-size-fits all model can be tricky given variations in personal, social and cultural contexts, particularly in international schools. However, I would contend that to not make decisions about these aspects or to claim that all forms of knowledge are always equal – a kind of epistemological relativism – is worse than not making decisions, regardless of the subsequent (flawed) compromises.

And, no, you cannot just Google it.

The mental models that students create from building a cohesive understanding of at least one aspect of an academic discipline is an opportunity to develop the types of expert understanding that are most likely to promote possible (and highly desirable) interdisciplinary transfer.

Therefore, all teaching must start by thinking about what is essential – what do you want students to know, understand and be able to do? AKA, good old backward by design.

Furthermore, more often than not, I would recommend considering content knowledge first. Why? Skills and understandings are made tangible and meaningful by rich content knowledge. This is not to suggest a strict taxonomy or a sequence – content, concepts and skills are reciprocally and iteratively related – more a personal preference for a planning process that ensures that ethereal, generalisable concepts and skills don’t become forever untethered from content domains and, potentially, misapplied.

Reductionism and Complexity

Any simple list of principles in a task as complex as teaching is reductionist and flawed. However, the act of articulating teaching principles is the first in bringing greater transparency and clarity to the values that underpin and define an educational institution or individual teacher.

A GUT for Better Teaching

On Blogging: The Journey

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“There.

Look.

A little seed of an idea.

But where did you come from? Perhaps you were left behind, scattered, by a well-meaning guide? A number of you always are. Or, perhaps, you were forged from the alchemy of discussion, crackling into existence with unexpected force. Or, maybe, you have just always been there, hiding, waiting to tumble into view? Regardless, you’re here.

And now?

You need time to germinate, and a fertile place to do it.

Where? Here, there, anywhere where you can be bathed in thoughtful concentration, tended and nurtured by iteration upon iteration of reflective adjustments and warmed by the energising potential of conversation.

When? Now. And this evening. And twenty minutes tomorrow. And thirty minutes the day after. Whenever it feels right. Whenever the need to stretch and grow demands it. And other times, to schedule, when we know the conditions are right, when light and nourishment are plentiful.

And then, when you’ve flourished and bloomed, visitors, invited or otherwise, can come and acknowledge you, among those many others that have flowered. And these visitors can leave tributes – seeds of their own – or they may brush up against you, as they move along their way, pollen clinging unwittingly to them, destined to spawn others like you.

And so here you are. Just there.

Look.

A little seed of an idea.”


All of this is a rather poetic way of outlining the process of blogging I follow in my classroom. What follows is formulaic, but should be seen in the light of my own ideal that students’ writing must have the opportunity to move beyond the limited purposes which I can imagine for it.

  1. Provide students with a range of prompts or ideas, in written or oral form. Give them choice. Allow them to transcend those choices.
  2. Provide students with a scaffold or success criteria for the blog (as restrictive or open as the needs of the students require). This might include none, any or all of the following: word length, requirements for multimedia use, referencing and attribution guides, variations in font size, weight and colour, structure of content etc.
  3. Provide time for students to write in class, while also giving them plenty of time to write at home too. I often find that quality writing needs quieter, more isolated environments, more so than most classrooms naturally provide. I tend to ensure that there is always at least one weekend available for the students to use, if they wish.
  4. Commit time in class (minimum 40 minutes) for reading and discussing the students’ post via the medium of digital conversations (comments on the blogs) and paired, group or whole class discussions. I encourage (and sometimes require) students to share additional material in the form of links or questions at the commenting stage. Whole class discussions typically focus on the ideas provoked by the blogs.
  5. Repeat. At least four times.

On Blogging

We’re discussing the purpose of blogging – for both students and teachers – in one of my school’s PLCs. “Why blog?” is an often explored area in circles increasingly concerned with 21st Century Skills. I think one of the reasons this question can be tricky to answer is that the notion of a “blog” is now wrapped up in magical pseudo-edu-myth. It’s one of those things that those progressive “others” do, one of those things that happen in those classrooms that a neo-traditionalist might dismiss as innovative mumbo-jumbo. Exactly what a “blog” is is also hard to pin down because, predominantly, it is a medium, rather than a genre, with a diversity of styles and purposes.

Here’s what a quick google tells us. It’s a standard enough definition:

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Google’s definition from the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current Usage

When you think of other mediums of communication, we rarely need to get to a point where we need to justify the decision to use the medium itself. We don’t ask, “Why do we write on paper?” or “Why do we take photographs?” Similarly, we don’t feel the need to justify “styles” of writing in our educational decision-making. We don’t feel a pressing philosophical need to ask, “Why write conversationally?” or “Why write in an esoteric academic voice?”

So, given Google’s definition, that a blog is a “regularly updated web page” that is written in a “conversational style”, this means when we ask, “Why blog?” we are really asking, “Why regularly update a web page in a conversational manner?” or, even more simply, “Why regularly self-publish?” And the answer to this question depends on the context and purposes of publication.

In an educational setting, whether students or teachers are the authors, there are two ways you might look at the general purpose of blogging:

Personal perspective: To reflect by organising and crystallising your thinking on your chosen topic(s), over time, accountable to a public audience.

Community perspective: To build connections and contribute to conversations with a wider, public audience, over time.

Now, we need to ask, if we are to blog, how might this help our own or our students’ learning? The elements which are of potential educational merit (but please don’t confuse this with some educational magic bullet) include:

1) The conversational style and commenting features of the medium promote socially constructed reflection

2) Positively leveraging the panopticon of social media can promote deliberate practice of these reflection skills.

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Facebook: The Panopticon of the Modern Age by joelle l licensed under a CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License

I am no expert in either Lev Vygotsky’s (social constructivism) or Ericsson’s research (deliberate practice), beyond the now ingrained takeaways of which I am probably no longer conscious. However, I will summarise what I perceive to be of practical importance.

The process of learning is social. We understand this implicitly when we take on the roles of teacher and student and believe that by putting people in a room together, learning can happen. And blogging, more so than, say, writing in a notebook, opens up our learning so that it is easily accessed by peers anywhere with an internet connection: it gives you an expanded, flexible, networked learning environment. Furthermore, the very fact that there are many potential readers, separated in both space and time (it could be your employee five years down the line), mean that the stakes for students and teachers writing in this medium are higher – it provokes both teachers and students alike to be practising writing and sharing their thinking that much more deliberately than they otherwise might.

Now, not everything is enhanced by blogging. Students should not be overwhelmed by those higher stakes without first preparing them with an appropriate degree of competence and understanding. The same goes for teachers. However, encouraging teachers and students to switch some of their written thinking to a blogging medium is only likely to enhance learning, rather than hinder it.

And, if you’re convinced, here are three simple principles to help your student blogs flourish.

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On Building Quality Curriculum

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” (Yogi Berra)

This post stems from the insights I have gathered while working for the MYP on their new Building Quality Curriculum initiative, one which involves schools receiving feedback on selected unit planners. As someone who spent a good chunk of time writing that feedback (and teaching the MYP), I’d thought I’d collate some key aspects about what is required to get the inquiry stage of the planners right, both in MYP planners and elsewhere.

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Key and Related Concept(s): ENGAGE WITH THE INTENDED CONCEPTS 

Common problems:

  • Too many for the length of the unit (no more than one key concept and three related concepts).
  • Only lip-service paid to the concepts in the actual learning experiences.
  • Key and related concepts confusingly overlap, e.g. “point of view” and “perspectives” in English Language and Literature.

Global context: STAY IN CONTEXT

Common problems:

  • No specific exploration is identified, with a real event, circumstance or situation in mind.
  • The real life event, circumstance or situation is not used as a lens throughout the unit.
  • It’s an afterthought, not a raison d’etre.

Statement of Inquiry: CRAFT A MEMORABLE STATEMENT OF “SO WHAT?”

Common problems:

  • A collection of jargon words with little meaning.
  • Insufficient use of modality (e.g. might, may).
  • Missing key ingredients (concepts and/or contexts).
  • No student would want to think about it.

Inquiry Questions: LEVERAGE THE POWER OF CURIOUSITY

Common problems:

  • Are not “factual”, “conceptual” and “debatable”.
  • Are not creative and engaging.
  • When considered alone, or together, fail to unpack the statement of inquiry.
  • Questions wouldn’t lead to success on the assessment(s).

Approaches to Learning (ATL): IDENTIFY THE SKILLS THAT ENABLE SUCCESS

Common problems:

  • Too many skill indicators suggested. As an upper limit, perhaps a limit of one indicator for every three hours of teaching.
  • Not directly supportive of student success on the assessment(s).
  • Are not accompanied with specific, explicit learning experiences.

Assessment: POWER UP ASSESSMENT AS PERFORMANCE

Common problems:

  • Would not produce reasonable evidence of performance on the stated objectives of the unit.
  • Not a performance of the students’ understanding of the statement of inquiry.

FOR AN MYP ENDORSED VIEWPOINT, SEE HERE

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On the Three Great Questions: A Guide, Part 1

Here are the three most important questions a teacher needs to inform their instructional practice:

Closing the gap
Sparks by avl42 (2011) modified by Philip Bruce

Where are we now? 

This is your ship’s radar, the pulses that allow you insights, however imperfect, as to the direction in which each of the independent young minds in the room are moving. In the classroom, this can be most powerfully addressed by on-going formative assessment techniques.

Dylan Wiliam is one of the leading experts in formative assessment, and though he offers many strategies that have a significant positive impact on learning, for me, the best starting place is to institute a no-hands up questioning policy. Immediately, it achieves two things:

  1. Everyone must remain involved in the classroom discussion. Why? You could be called on.
  2. You don’t just hear from a self-selecting students who “get it”. You hear the thoughts of any student, anywhere along the learning journey, misconceptions and all.

Additionally, the long-term benefit is that it is a wonderful way of challenging your students to value learning, which is messy and imperfect, over a desire to be seen to “be right”, which is often little more than a Pyrrhic victory for teacher and student.

More tips here

What are the insights for school leadership?

There are a number of equivalents to no hands up questions in an institutional context, not least applying a similar policy in staff meetings. The most powerful conceptual equivalent, however, is in conducting unscheduled routine observations of classrooms and team meetings. Instead of relying on teachers to voluntarily be observed, or it happening as part of a high(er)-stake appraisal process, observations should become an unfeared, welcomed routine. Undertaken regularly and intentionally, they would contribute to:

  1. Formatively assessing anything from school goals to the outcomes of recent professional development.
  2. “Pre-assessing” the school culture for more informed goal setting.
  3. Cultivating a climate in which teachers are encouraged to innovate; de-privatising practice erodes the fear of being seen to need to professionally grow.

Sometimes, we take for granted where we are – it seems too obvious – and yet surprising insights can be found when we remember to:

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On FriedEnglish

A fantastic colleague of mine, Tricia, is leaving our school community. Fortunately, because of the wonders of the social media age, though physically she’s going far (Singapore), she’ll only ever be a few taps of the keyboard away. And, I’ve no doubt, she’ll be ever present on my Twitter feed. Until Twitter is no longer cool, that is.

This post is a little ode to Tricia. Except, it’s not really my words that are important, but the sentiments of those who she spends most time with on a daily basis – her students. Her IB class spontaneously, and secretly, created a goodbye video for her (how many teachers inspire that?!) and I wanted to share it with you all.

So, Tricia, surprise – here it is and enjoy!

The students also wrote her a letter, also spontaneously. I think a word cloud of the students’ thoughts is revealing:

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The fact that ‘meaning’, ‘love’, ‘life’ come up so much is a testament to the qualities that both her students and her colleagues most appreciate.

So, a challenge to you reading this.

Whether you are one of Tricia’s students, or a fellow teacher, send her a tweet to @friedenglish101 with the hashtag #eaglememories capturing a favourite moment, what you will miss, or ways in which she has positively impacted your life.

Personally, I can credit Tricia with the following:

  • Complex webs of hyperlinks to challenge the Matrix.
  • Google slides.
  • Kahoot (a blessing and a curse).
  • This blog.
  • Tweeting, occasionally.
  • A daily challenge to make my teaching ceaselessly relevant.
  • Campfire conversations.

Thanks Tricia! Let’s meet again in the blogosphere.