‘Weighing a pig doesn’t make it grow faster’

pig_usda01c0116
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As a classroom teacher, and an English teacher at that, numbers are not my friends. Therefore I didn’t ever have a great attitude towards data or data-driven practices. My feeling about ‘data’ (which strictly equated to quantitative assessment scores in my mind) was that data entry was a bureaucratic process strongly associated with compliance and accountability.

Being good with ‘paperwork’ and a bit of a girly swot, I would dutifully enter assessment data as directed – usually around report writing time. If I accessed data, I would use it to group students (particularly for reading and spelling purposes). As a Head of Department, I would use data to reflect on which Achievement Standards to focus our teaching efforts on for the following year. And that was about my sum total of interaction with, and thinking about, data.

So it follows quite logically that I had a limited understanding of the school’s SMS (Student Management System). I could plug in assessment results and access behaviour and attendance records as needed. I rarely linked these three concepts: assessment, wellbeing, pastoral needs, in my head, let alone to consider how an SMS might help me to do this. So the SMS was rarely used in any meaningful way by me.

Fast-forward a year or so, and in my new role as an advisor for the Connected Learning Advisory I was asked to contribute to a Ministry of Education SMS initiative which ultimately saw us develop an online resource and deliver workshops for school leaders throughout New Zealand. This project was definitely going to challenge my personal knowledge and, frankly, my attitude towards using an SMS, but I’m always up for a challenge – especially when I get to collaborate with my brainy fellow CLA colleagues!

During the course of my reading and research, I discovered this quote by Timperley:

“…evidence related to students is something that informs teaching and learning, rather than being seen as a reflection of the capability of individual students that is most useful for sorting, labelling and credentialing.” Timperley (2010), p.2

Cue lightbulb moment.

You can use data to reflect on your own practice! Data not only shows me what my students have learned (or not) but how I have taught!

Oh. I had seriously missed the boat for about 15 years as a classroom teacher.

You approach data with an inquiry mindset. You seek to put a ‘face on the data’ (Sharratt and Fullan, 2012): to use data holistically to help tell the story of the learner who sits behind the numbers. These are ideas I can connect with: building empathy; immersing yourself in quantitative and qualitative data to understand the classroom context more. After all, these are design thinking attributes.

And this works strategically too – broader than the classroom, this data inquiry mindset can be used at a whole-school or even Community of Learning level. If we see data as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ we can recognise strengths and weaknesses which inform future initiatives and how to resource them (including professional learning). Data-driven practices are learner-focused for improved outcomes. Now that’s an equation I can get on board with!

So, no, weighing a pig won’t make it grow faster, but it might suggest how the farmer can improve their techniques to make fatter, happier pigs.

 

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Wine Glasses on the Table

I’m having a dry April. (I know, I know, it seemed like a good idea at the time, what can I say?!) But I tell you what, there’s nothing like foregoing alcohol for an extended period of time to make you think about the place of booze in New Zealand culture.

You start to realise how many social events revolve around alcohol: have a catch-up with a friend. At a pub. Enter a quiz. At a pub. Watch a sports game. At a pub. Birthday parties. Dinner parties. Parties parties. Heck, even the cinema these days.

Then I feel as though I have to explain why I’m not drinking. No, I’m not on antibiotics. No, I’m not pregnant. Yes, I am driving, but that’s besides the point. I’m just not drinking at all this month. A glass of sparkling water would be delicious, thank you.

It makes me think about how taken for granted having an alcoholic beverage is. How ubiquitous the booze. In fact, even the word ‘drink’ itself in adult contexts is synonymous with alcohol: “Now, what can I get you to drink?” When you go to a restaurant, the non-alcoholic drinks are listed way at the back of the menu. The expectation just is that you’ll be having wine. In fact, there are empty wine glasses already on the table, waiting for you. The prevailing, underlying, unspoken assumption is that everyone drinks alcohol.

table-and-wine-glass
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And all this makes me wonder. What are the wine glasses on the table for education? In other words, so as not to torture the metaphor further, what are the prevailing, underlying, unspoken assumptions that we just ‘know’ about school?

That everyone speaks English? That everyone is literate? That everyone has access to the Internet? A TV? That students wish to accumulate knowledge and pass tests? That teachers will be referred to by their surnames? That students aren’t allowed in the staffroom, but that teachers are allowed in the common room? That high schools don’t need playgrounds? That everyone should learn English, Maths and Science? That teachers are experts in their field? That school starts at 9am, finishes at 3pm, and runs Monday-Friday in ten week blocks we call terms? That summer is sacred?

There are several approaches I could suggest at this point, first and foremost being Universal Design for Learning, but I wonder if we need to start even more from first principles here. What if we wrote all the things we ‘know’ about school, and thought about whether they were helpful (i.e. nourishes a culture that empowers confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners – and in that I include adults, and whanau too), or not helpful. What if we asked lots of questions? What if we openly acknowledged and examined our assumptions – maybe by using a framework such as Timperley, Kaser and Halbert’s spiral of inquiry (2013)? What if everything was up for debate, and we welcomed students and whanau to debate them too? Then we might be on our way to reimagining and revisioning school and not just assuming that we should put wine glasses on the table.

Questionable Leadership

This blogpost is prompted by my reading of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger (2014).

What if our school leaders asked more questions?

I’ve been wondering what it might be like to work in a school where there is a culture of questioning. I think this would need to start at the top to role model acceptance of potentially disruptive questions. Berger posits that there is an inverse relationship between questioning and expertise. That is, as we get more knowledgable about a topic we question less. I wonder if this isn’t often (sometimes? occasionally?) the case with school leaders.

What if we were more comfortable with our own ignorance?

If we are comfortable that we don’t know, and aware that we don’t know, then we might be prompted to ask questions. How else do you learn if you don’t first pose a question? How else can you understand others’ assumptions or the systems of an organisation if you don’t ask: why We could even start by centring the foundation of the school around a question.

What if we had mission questions instead of mission statements?

A question is engaging. It points forward. It can be a motivating and collaborative experience. “Tim Brown, the chief executive at IDEO, points out that questions, by their very nature, challenge people and invite them to engage with an idea or an issue – and could therefore do likewise in engaging employees with a company mission.” (p. 163)

What might a culture of questioning be like?

I think questioning is a great leveller. If leaders are prepared to ask questions borne of their own genuine curiosity to discover more, this can fundamentally shift power structures. A leader is no longer the sole expert. Others might have the answers that you seek. If we were to, as Berger suggests, let listening inform questioning (p. 98), I think this could be transformational.

To listen is to be respectful. Respect, I think, builds empathy and trust. Questioning is a way to bridge divides. Berger quotes Jon Bond, who considers “questions to be ‘the verbal equivalent of nonviolent conflict resolution’” (pp. 205-6). If we seek to understand another’s point of view, then we might be able to find a way forward.

I think this process would take time. It is an investment in people. But I think it could be powerful and ultimately transformative. Questioning is a way to disrupt with humility.

What question might you ask today?

Image Credit
Image Credit

My Inquiry

In this blogpost, I thought I would look to capture the essence of my CORE eFellow inquiry. It’s fitting for me to do this now, as my research proper will get underway on Wednesday, with the first ever intake of postgrads into the Wellington branch of The Mind Lab by Unitec starting (squee!).

mind lab by unitec_small

I’m asking for help from the postgrads to inquire into my own teaching practice. I would describe this as a Design Thinking pedagogy. On a really small scale, I want to cut any direct instruction time by me to 15 minutes. On a much larger, more significant scale, I want to ensure that I promote discussions around an overarching question or provocation, enable the playing with ideas, and a chance to reflect on education in New Zealand on a systemic, but also a personal classroom, level.

I want to do this in a respectful, empathetic way. I don’t want to make assumptions about why teachers have courageously chosen to make this impressive time commitment to their professional learning. I’m genuinely interested to hear about what’s happening in the classrooms around the greater Wellington region, and the applied learnings that might arise out of participation in the Certificate of Digital and Collaborative Learning.

My belief is that education is about citizenship. I feel a strong moral purpose to do what I can to transform education in New Zealand to better meet the needs of our 21st Century learners. So, in this inquiry I want to investigate how I might employ design thinking principles to invigorate teachers’ professional learning in order to nurture critical and creative citizens. My guiding questions are:

  • How can I use design thinking principles to promote active change in a professional learning context?
  • How can my use of design thinking shift a teacher’s ability to transform their mindset/learning and thus their classroom?
  • What stories of change can I hear from teachers who are inspired by a design thinking mindset?

I’m really looking forward to engaging in this research with the help and support of the Wellington postgrads. Any feedback, thoughts or suggestions are gratefully received. An information sheet about my research is available by clicking here.

Pick Me!

This post is my application for a 2015 CORE eFellowship.

#edchatNZ steering committee. L-R: Heather Eccles, Sonya van Schaijik, me, Matt Nicoll, Alyx Gillett, Danielle Myburgh, Mel Moore
#edchatNZ steering committee. L-R: Heather Eccles, Sonya van Schaijik, me, Matt Nicoll, Alyx Gillett, Danielle Myburgh, Mel Moore

My application presentation can be found here.

My Twitter profile
My Twitter profile
The kind words of Steve Mouldey
The kind words of Steve Mouldey

My ‘Thing’

Since I began this future learning journey, I’ve been wondering what my ‘thing’ is. What would be the particular aspect of future learning that would really capture my imagination, and seem to offer the best possibilities to move forward with future focused pedagogy? It was never going to be just about integrating technology. Jumping on the bandwagon of the shiny new app strikes me as both short-sighted and not big picture enough. I wondered if PBL (project- or problem-based learning) might be the thing. But as interesting as it seemed, it didn’t seem to gain traction in my mind. Ditto SOLE (self-organised learning environments). Linked to both of these was the inquiry process. And I do think this is important, but didn’t seem to go quite far enough for me. It wasn’t going to be maker-ed, although I acknowledge the potential in this.

And then, today, it hit me.

Design Thinking might just be my thing.

Why Design Thinking? Because inherent in this process are the 3 (or 4) Cs of critical thinking, creativity, communication – and collaboration. Because the process requires an inter-disciplinary approach. Because, as the Hobsonville Point team have convinced me, the New Zealand Curriculum aligns beautifully with it. Because it seems to offer the best of what PBL/inquiry/maker-ed calls for. And because I believe it has the potential to dovetail with the values of our school, such as aiming for the highest, service, resilience.

And, crucially, because Design Thinking fits with me.

I’ve always held that I teach because I want to teach not what to think, but how to think. And I believed that English as a subject really had this potential. We read literature in order to be confronted with ideas of what it means to be human. To think about moral, ethics, how to live. But, upon reflection, I think I haven’t really aligned well with my educational philosophy. I have been teaching ‘not what to think’, but not the ‘how to think’ part of the statement. I feel it’s been more like ‘not what to think; but to think’. Which, I now think, is insufficient. However, Design Thinking does offer a concrete solution because it is a process. It is ‘not what to think; but how to think.’

So, I think, I’ve found ‘my thing’.

 

 

King of Shadows

With my Year 8 English class last term, we embarked on a novel study of Susan Cooper’s book King of Shadows. I’ve taught this novel for a number of years now, so it was time to try something new. Particularly in light of the ‘inquiry’ focus I’m looking to bring to this class. I decided I wanted to have the class make a website to reflect their knowledge and understanding of the text.

In terms of process, the plan I followed was to introduce the class to the kinds of websites students usually go to to access information about texts: Wikipedia, Shmoop, Sparknotes. We thought about what kind of information is on these sites, the language that is used, how the sites are organised and laid out. We considered what someone wanting to know more about our particular novel might be after. This brainstorm eventually generated our ‘to do list’ and the various tasks students completed to generate information for our website.

I did some lessons on digital citizenship. I tried to shift the focus away from the ‘don’t dos’ that the girls could easily and happily recite to me (‘Don’t post mean things’, etc.) and onto making a positive contribution to Internet-land.

We decided on an appropriate time frame, considering that the teacher, as editor, needed time to look over everyone’s work, and that the website designer in the class needed time to upload and format everyone’s work. Students nominated the tasks they most wanted to attack, and the partner they felt they would work well with. I collated this information and allocated tasks on this basis. We also had a go at co-constructing an assessment schedule. And then we went for it!

I was really excited to observe the engagement of the students in the task. They will openly and happily tell you that they didn’t especially love the book, but this didn’t stop them from being thoroughly engrossed in their work. They came into class and got started straight away – no need from prompting by me. They sought very little feedback from me in terms of clarifying their understanding of the task. If they asked, I simply asked a question of them: ‘What do you think someone visiting the website wanting more information about the book will want to know?’ No-one came back for more help after this.

I also liked that no-one blinked an eye when I sent work back to them for a second, third, fourth edit or proof-read. They accepted that if the work was being published for a genuine audience, it needed to be accurate and high quality.

The finished product is here. I’m very proud of what the class produced.

In terms of my reflection, there are two main areas I would want to improve upon if I used an activity like this again:

  • More time on digital citizenship, and to co-ordinate better with the school librarian to deliver this.
  • Better co-construction of the assessment schedule. I don’t know how to do this well, and the way I went about it meant both that the girls lost interest, and we didn’t end up with something they understood or could use to self/peer assess their work.

However, I surveyed the class at the end of the unit, and here are some highlights of what they said:

  • I liked that “everybody had a part, each person was a piece of the puzzle. I also liked the ‘freedom’ of each task and independence.”
  • “I found it interesting how the class is making a website to help others focusing on the book. Not just in NZ but the world.”
  • I got a “better understanding of the book and I quite like the idea of it going ‘live’.”

Reflections on Term 1

Inspired by the likes of @GeoMouldey and @rosmaceachern and their reflective blogposts (Steve’s here and Ros’ here), I thought I’d put my thoughts about Term 1 so far in writing.

Firstly, here’s a link to my 2014 Inquiry Thoughts document I boldly drafted in January (yes, before school started) where I captured some ideas about what I’d like to focus on with each of my four English classes. The basic thought process was that I knew I needed to change my teaching practice in order to better ‘practice what I preach’ and in order to engage with my students in a more meaningful, ‘future focused’ pedagogy way. However, that was a pretty daunting task. So, my solution was to pick one focus for each class. For my Year 13s, it was around the use of social media in order to promote ubiquity and life-long learning. Year 11s, collaboration, which came out of a department review I conducted at the end of 2013. Year 10s, authentic context and Year 8s, personalised learning / inquiry.

social media

Year 13

  • I am fascinated by the low take-up of Twitter by my students. They seem to be keen users of Facebook, and no posting of amusing images or intriguing links appears to be tempting the rest of the class into the Twittersphere. I set up a teacher-specific account (@NicollEngTchr) and mostly remember to use #13AP2014.
  • However there is genuine enthusiasm for our Edmodo page, and I have recently seen a tipping point reached whereby students are independently posting links to other sources of information they have found which are relevant to our topic of study. This warms the cockles of my heart, and I hope this is a sign that the girls are seeing ‘English’ not just as something that happens when it is scheduled to during the school day.
  • I have also introduced the girls to the wonder that is Google Docs – they love co-writing and sharing their work this way. They even remember to share their docs with me 🙂
  • My next step is to check in with the girls themselves – in their busy lives, how else can I encourage ubiquitous, life-long learning?

collaboration

Year 11

  •  I feel as though I started with a hiss and a roar with collaboration extensively implemented during our poetry unit in the first few weeks of the term.
  • I haven’t explored a lot of different tech tools to encourage collaboration, but we do have an Edmodo class site which is the repository of all our documents, etc.
  • What I particularly noticed is that once the pressure hit with NCEA internal assessments (creative writing, personal reading, speeches), collaboration went out the window to make way for teacher-directed instruction and individual work on assessments. I can’t help but wonder if the time hasn’t come to remove some assessments in order to have more powerful, engaging learning. However, it is also a good reminder to me to continue to strive to find a new way of doing things, not to lapse back into lazy, traditional habits.
  • My next step is to look into tech tools that could encourage more collaboration – maybe VoiceThread as I noted in my inquiry document. It is also to remember to focus on my ‘word of the year’: innovate. 

Year 10

  •  Authentic context, I am rapidly discovering, is a real challenge. Interestingly so, in fact. Nevertheless this week we launched into a study of the language of advertising, which I have constructed in such a way as to have authenticity. This is that the English Department want to encourage girls to take English at Year 13, when it is no longer compulsory, and, what’s more, to take the ‘AP’ (advanced programme) course, where applicable, to have the challenge of Scholarship English. I have the Head of English coming into class as the ‘client’, I have a current 13AP student coming into class as a ‘consumer’, and I have a friend who works in marketing coming in as an expert who can guide us through the creative process.
  • I’ll be extremely interested to see if working in this way increases engagement and the quality of their final product – which will really be used!

???????????

Year 8

  • I have indeed ‘flipped’ my grammar/language classes by using TED-Ed. The girls like learning in this way. I want to start making my own videos, and I want to have some girls create videos. I can see that this will be an ongoing learning process for us all throughout the year. What I particularly want to get better at is working with the separate groups within the classroom, to better personalise the learning once the flipped homework has been completed.
  • In terms of ‘inquiry’ with the girls, I’m not entirely sure the current work we’re doing is ‘inquiry’ per se, but it is highly engaging for them. We are currently creating a class website using Weebly on our novel study King of Shadows by Susan Cooper.  I’m amazed really at how much ‘front-loading’ needs to go into this kind of task. We explored websites such as Wikipedia and Sparknotes to see how they were written and constructed. We co-constructed success criteria. We made a list of tasks and assigned these…and then we got started! However, it is heartening to see how focused and enthusiastic the class is. I feel as though they are improving their self-critiquing as when they ask me for feedback, I simply ask them if it’s the kind of information they themselves would want on a informative website, such as the one we’re aiming to create.
  • I’m keen to develop a more ‘open’ inquiry next time – what do they want to explore, how do they want to show their understanding.

Whew – no wonder it feels like the end of the term! There’s a lot going on, but I’m really enjoying working in this way, having a specific focus for each class, under the umbrella of the Marsden vision for future-focused pedagogy. As always, there’s a lot more to do, and that could be done, but I’m pretty proud of my baby steps so far. Thanks to my senior manager who met with me to discuss this reflection last Wednesday, and for the encouragement I have received.

Image credits:

Social Media: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Social-media-for-public-relations1.jpg

Collaboration: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/advice/research-excellence

Eye: Microsoft Clip Art