Being illogical

It seems to be a major aspect of human nature that our ability to think logically is inversely proportional to how “close to home” we are. In other words, while the world might be crystal clear to us, we can often be completely off track when (if?) we think about ourselves.

Consider teaching. A personal epiphany occurred quite a while back during a graduate course, when I came out as a strong “director” in a teaching styles test. When I asked the lecturer about what to do he replied “Give it (teaching) away.” I reflected on this and continue to reflect.

I am now at the point where I get very frustrated with what I call the “Dead Poets’ Society” paradigm of teaching, in which the charismatic teacher inspires his/her students to great heights. While there are a lot of wonderful messages in the film, most of these seem to get overlooked in favour of the idea of the teacher as the focus of learning – in every depiction of a classroom on screen, the teacher is at the front of the classroom, filling the empty minds with knowledge. Of course, the teacher should model an enthusiastic, positive approach to learning, but that’s where Dead Poets ends.

All suitably qualified teachers have been to university, so we have a solid grounding in our subject matter. We may even have been exposed to some educational theory and practice about student learning. Those who took this into their classrooms are to be commended. But, knowing something, and being able to orally explain it so that all students understand it are not the same thing.

Somehow, particularly in secondary schools, the ancient method of transmitting knowledge orally is so firmly rooted in practice that it is taken as a truism that lecturing to students is an effective way for them all to learn – conversely, those students who do not succeed when subjected to this have “learning difficulties”.

classUntil the information revolution, the main sources of knowledge were schools, books and newspapers. But, even before the advent of computers, great teachers had their students working cooperatively using a range of resources, including the practice of simply going outside the classroom and/or school. John Dewey showed us how we should be teaching more than a hundred years ago.

There are some wonderful educators around the world whose work gives us all the tools we need to ensure that every one of our students learns to the best of his/her ability. The only difficult thing about using these tools is to change our paradigms. It is not logical, or effective, to talk every student through the same material at the same time, but millions of young people around the world are subjected to this every day. Surely, as a profession, we can do better?

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Technology is not enough

There are some amazing educators out there, doing wonderful things with young people. The other side of the coin is not just that there are many more educators who should be doing something marvellous to further the education of their students with ICT, but that countless millions of dollars have been wasted on equipment and training that does little, if anything, to improve student learning because

a) it is used ineffectually or

b) it is gathering dust somewhere.

The major reason for this happening is that the focus in too many places of learning is not actually learning itself. There is a lack of understanding of what is being learned and how it is best learned. Obviously, the starting point for any educational initiative is a desire to improve learning outcomes for students. However, too often, too little consideration is given to how this will actually happen.

To implement any major change in practice requires effective professional development of teachers, and the time to do it. This time includes opportunities to implement initiatives, reflect on results, and adjust practices accordingly. With ICT, it is not enough to train teachers how to use the equipment and software – the ability to use it to improve learning is a different set of skills and knowledge.

ICT is a set of tools, activities, and, like any resources, should be used when appropriate. Planning for learning starts with identification of what is to be taught. Great teachers identify the underlying concepts, and develop questions that provoke critical thinking in their students. Then, and not before, appropriate resources are identified, and, often, ICT is an excellent option.

When ICT (or any “neat” activities) are the starting point, we lose focus on the learning – students learn something, but they may not all learn what we intend, to the depth we desire.

Another issue is that we often get caught up in the aesthetics of ICT. There are now simple apps that allow students to produce movies, books, etc to showcase their learning. But, if a student, for example, spends one hour on writing a story and two hours on producing an e-book of it, we need to be clear about whether, or not, it is the student’s language skills being assessed, or his/her design skills.

While ICT provides us with the ability to travel, virtually, to anywhere and anywhen and do amazing things, it is worth considering that, often, learning would be more effective if we simply grabbed a pencil and paper or, even, got up and went outside.

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The map can be the territory

In most areas of life, it is extremely useful if we keep track of what we are doing, how we are doing it and where we are going with it. This is particularly important in education, where there are often multiple, complex demands on schools.

A very simple tool for evaluating what happens in schools is a 2 x 2 grid, or “map”. Usually we hear or read about mapping curricula, but all aspects of a school’s operations can be mapped. The process of mapping invites collaborative discussion about key issues and the product allows us to see, at a glance, where we are at.

For example, many schools have, as part of their vision and/or mission, something along the lines of students being knowledgeable, creative and/or critical thinkers, independent learners, global citizens and so on. If a school maps all its practices, both in the classroom and outside the classroom, against its values, it is readily apparent which practices need to be continued and strengthened, and which need to be dropped.

At a previous secondary school, we developed a teacher view of what the ideal student would look like. Later, when we became an IB World school, we mapped this against the IB Learner Profile. We discovered that our original perspective demanded too little of ourselves and our students.

Likewise, mapping a student-centred pedagogical framework against any district or national curriculum allows teachers to teach students in a collaborative, concept-based, inquiry-style manner, whilst more than satisfying local requirements – insightful mapping frees teachers from “teaching to the test”.

Unit planning for higher order/concept-based thinking (or any other facet of teaching and learning that can be tracked) is facilitated by mapping content against thinking skills/questions. From this, learning engagements that encourage students to go beyond curriculum expectations become almost self-evident.

Finally, mapping does not have to be confined to two dimensions. Dr. Roger Taylor has participants in his programs map in three dimensions, ensuring a more cohesive approach to teaching and learning.

Happy mapping.

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Digging Deeper

It has been said that the only places that subjects such as Maths, Science, Language, etc. exist are in schools and universities. In the real world, these things integrate seamlessly into “life”. Of course, it is useful to break learning down into manageable “chunks”, but in most educational institutions around the world we seem to have confused the means (subjects) with the ends (learning/education). Far too many educators are all too ready to defend their “patch” (their subject, or discipline) at the expense of the overall effective learning of their students.

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to be a foundation teacher at one of six new, flagship government secondary schools in Victoria, Australia. What I learned from my colleagues in that first year has been the foundation of almost everything I have done since. I worked with educators who talked about how students learned, how to engage them and how to care for them effectively. They were teachers of English, Mathematics, Art, etc. but talked about holistic learning and interdisciplinary learning as ways of making learning relevant and accessible to all students. They shared strategies for improving student engagement and learning. They realised that it was our responsibility to do much, much more than present curriculum content and help students pass exams.

Years later, I became involved with the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (MYP). Again, with a small group of teachers, we were concerned about how to deliver our courses in a holistic and interdisciplinary manner. We came up with “big ideas”, and planned our Years 7 to 10 curriculum so that each year level had a different big idea each term, and that there was a clear link between these big ideas between year levels. In addition, each term ended with some sort of presentation and/or performance. An interesting idea that arose was that of “service subjects”. These were areas that are predominantly skills-based, and could adapt to the content of other subjects. In particular, English and Mathematics were identified as subjects that could reinforce the learning in other subjects while simultaneously strengthening the learning of their own subject-specific content.

As my MYP journey continued it became apparent that H. Lynn Erickson’s work on concepts provides a solid context for big ideas, and for deep, effective student learning.  If we consider Bloom’s Taxonomy of Thinking, too many teachers spend their time solely on memory, understanding and application, usually because that is all their curriculum requires. However, if we challenge students with the higher levels of thinking, then, as teachers, we need to have not only have a solid grasp of our curriculum content, but we need to understand exactly what are the underlying principles – the concepts. For example, many Humanities topics are about change, but so, also are topics in Science, Mathematics, languages, etc. Suddenly we have a very strong basis for deep learning in our subjects and interdisciplinary cooperation.

Combining a challenging question framework, such as Bloom, De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats, etc. with Erickson’s concepts-based approach allows individual teachers to
– facilitate cooperative group work
– coach individuals and small groups
– plan work so that student learning goes far beyond curriculum requirements
– teach students to do meaningful research
– help students become genuine independent learners
– provide a classroom environment in which everyone learns, and everyone loves learning, including the teacher.
When teachers do this, and collaborate with their colleagues to plan interdisciplinary links based on natural content and/or big ideas, the sky is the limit in terms of providing lasting learning in young people. The motivation, engagement and achievement of students is amazing. The challenge in educating young people in this way is not to find the time – planning for deep learning is not an add-on, but a replacement for what we already do. The real challenge is to open our minds to see the possibilities of embracing the educational present.

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Exposing Yourself

Presenting a workshop or seminar is at least as good a learning experience for the presenter as it is for the participants. The presenter continually updates his/her understanding as it is reflected back from the participants.

In a room with 30 educators there are at least 31 different opinions about everything, and, while we may not agree with all the views expressed, we at least gain an understanding of the perspectives of others.

We all get the 5 to 15 percent of participants who, for their own reasons, do not want to be there and, again, for their own reasons, want to take it out on the rest. Invariably, these are far outweighed by those who approach the presenter during, or after, the session to express their appreciation of either new understanding and/or a reminder of something they know, but have left out of their repertoire in recent times.

Rather than simply dispense “wisdom”, presenters must acknowledge that, in virtually every group of teachers, there is a vast store of collective pedagogical skills and knowledge, which, for various reasons, is not universally employed. Teachers need to know that their knowledge is valued. Therefore, the real task of people who work with teachers is to clarify this prior knowledge, maybe add a bit to it, and then draw it together into a framework that all teachers can use. A major aspect of any presentation is showing participants how they can immediately return to their classrooms and improve the educational outcomes for their students, and helping them develop the intrinsic motivation for doing this.

It is very interesting to see how teachers from different cultures approach interactive professional development. Indonesians, for example, usually love to have fun, and, when they get the chance to do group presentations will often opt for role plays, songs and dances. People from “western” cultures vary in their approach to learning engagements in a workshop that lead to emotional “highs” –  some lead the way, while, at the other end of the spectrum, others become downright hostile. In more group-orientated cultures, the latter does not happen, because even the most (initially) resistant participant is quickly drawn in by other members of the audience, and ends up as enthusiastic as the rest.


The point, of course, of using enjoyable engagements and involving participants in group interactions, is for them to actually experience the sorts of things that facilitate deeper learning with their students, rather than just read or hear about it – strong memories need something to “hang” on, and emotions are perfect for this. We need to be mindful of the different needs of those who are not completely “on board” with the workshop/seminar, while not compromising the enthusiasm for new learning of the majority.

So, presenters need to assess the audience very quickly, and balance flexibility with what is effective learning. At the end of the day, if there is an audience with a majority of participants who simply wish to sit with their friends and not challenge themselves, the experience can become uncomfortable for all concerned. The presenter can be left feeling like a stand-up comedian whose joke has fallen flat. Luckily, the very great majority of audiences appreciate the time and planning that has gone into the professional development activity and enact the old adage that “you get out of it what you put into it”.

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Professional Responsibility

A long time, ago, I came across a poster which indicated that teachers were responsible for engaging their students in their lessons. I put it on the staffroom noticeboard, and was verbally attacked about it by a couple of colleagues before the school day ended. The basic gist of their disagreement was that students had a responsibility to behave themselves and learn. I had no problem with this, but pointed out that what the poster was saying was that teachers had a responsibility to prepare and deliver lessons that were likely to encourage students to fulfill their side of the bargain – if teachers provided lessons that did not stimulate students, then we would expect that some students, at least, would become disengaged, possibly to the point of being disruptive.

Fast forwarding to now, I would add several more teacher responsibilities to that poster:

Firstly, teachers need to be aware of what is going on in the world around them, in order to link their lessons to real life. Without such links, the lessons lose relevance, and students, particularly teenagers, work this out very quickly. Students might still study hard, and achieve good academic results, but this doesn’t mean that they like it.

Secondly, teachers should have some idea about the world that their students live in – what do young people watch, listen to, play, read, etc? The world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace, and young people actually are in a different universe to many of their teachers. They come to school with knowledge about so many things, and many teachers do not even know this, much less acknowledge it. Mutual respect comes from mutual understanding, and teachers who still feel that they deserve respect because of their position rather than their actions are doing themselves and their charges a grave disservice. And, at the end of the day, young people know and do some really interesting stuff.

Thirdly, teachers have a responsibility to keep up with what is happening in education. They don’t have to become experts, but they can be following pedagogical conversations in the media and on the internet. Technology gives teachers many teachers instant, easy access to information to help them improve their classroom practice, and some take advantage of it. There are TED Talks, other videos, professional learning networks, blogs and Twitter, to name some resources, that provide inspiration and information about how to do it better. If teachers have access to technology but do not use it to improve their professional practice, they are choosing to turn their backs on ways to enhance student learning.

Related to this is the issue of development as a professional. A former principal relayed a story from another principal: An angry teacher met with this principal in his office, and, during the exchange, banged his hand on the desk and said “I’ve had 20 years’ experience!”. The principal told my principal “I didn’t have the heart to tell him ‘No, you have had one year’s experience 20 times'”. So, if teachers are still teaching in essentially the same way as they were when they began their careers, it is very likely that what they are doing is not the best they could do. The sad fact also is that most teachers teach the way they were taught, so, unless a teacher was influenced by an exceptional educator, they are likely to spend their entire career directing the students from the front of the classroom and dispensing “wisdom” to them. Those teachers who introduce group work and collaborative practices into their classrooms are far more likely to have the time to get to know their students as both learners and people, and invite genuine respect and engagement.

Finally, teachers have a responsibility to recognise that education is about the students, not the teachers. It is about learning, not teaching. Output, not input. “Learning” also means much more than knowledge. Students who learn that academic achievement comes before all else may become personally successful, and, perhaps, may even make positive contributions to their society, but this is less likely than if they first learn good attitudes to life. Then, they are equipped to develop learning skills and, therefore, be able to discover knowledge and meaning themselves. They become independent, life-long learners, able to make wise choices for themselves and others.

So, any educator who comes across this post has the resources to make a very positive difference to the learning of their students. We can only hope that they have already chosen to do so, or will now.



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Teachers Should Be Evaluated Like Athletes: Here’s Why

Good post, which really highlights how badly teacher evaluation is done around the world. Rather than “evaluation”, we have used a system in which teachers share goals for improvement with school leaders and then work towards those goals. a mix of self evaluation, peer evaluation, interviews and classroom observations are used as evidence of commitment to improvement. This, of course, was done in a school environment with a goal of becoming a genuine learning community.

The point is, that it is whole systems that need to be overhauled to encourage teachers to want to be learners, rather than measuring teacher “effectiveness” against educationally-invalid indicators, such as test scores.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

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Flipping out

It is wonderful that the “flipped classroom” initiative is providing opportunities for many teachers to get in amongst their students during class time. But, is this a real improvement in education? What do teachers do in this “freed-up” time?

“Flipping” a classroom so that a teacher-directed class is replicated in content-based videos for homework in order to free up class time for group work, research, etc. is admirable. However, it is based on a paradigm of education to which not everyone subscribes. Online resources such as the Khan Academy, TED-Ed and Wikipedia are just that – resources. They are not a substitute for effective teaching and learning and they cater for specific learning styles.

In many classrooms around the world, teachers plan units of work in which students discover answers to high-level, conceptual questions with guidance from the teacher. There is a time and place for the teacher to address all the students at the same time, but the bulk of student time is spent working through carefully-crafted, differentiated learning engagements, either individually or in cooperative groups. The teacher has time to move about the class, working with groups and individuals, as well as getting to know the students as people.

The pedagogical foundation for student-centred classes has been around for a very long time. It is the tools and resources that change. In the past, teachers relied on commercial video, books and other resources to enrich their classes. Now, we have the ability to create our own content for students that they can use whenever they need. The difficulty is in creating effective content. Videos with disembodied voices describing what is happening with a pen moving around a screen are, at best, an aid to memory and/or understanding. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who make persuasive, memorable videos, using what psychologists know about learning, are in advertising. Educators can rarely afford to employ such expertise.

Many teachers have the skills and knowledge to create units of work with solid conceptual bases and high-level questions that utilise cooperative work and research. They have the ability to design activities that require students use resources to answer questions that go beyond content and cross subject boundaries – “real-life” questions. The use of supporting videos and other resources is planned into these activities, in class time. It is the quality of teaching time that is important, not the quantity. The most important thing that these teachers do is their planning. Well-planned lessons almost deliver themselves.

Flipping classrooms is all very well, but maybe it could be better for students if teachers became acquainted with the thoughts of educators such as H. Lynn Erickson, Sir Ken Robinson, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson, to name a few?

Jackie Gerstein provides an excellent perspective on flipped classrooms here

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Life-long learning for 21st century teachers

Normally we would offer our own thoughts, but this blog post is very closely aligned with our perceptions and views about 21st century pedagogy. Scott McLeod blogs and tweets interesting ideas about major educational issues.

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It’s not that difficult

I’ve had the opportunity to observe quite a few classes in recent times, and only a few stood out. The ones that were noticeable, for the right reasons, had the same basic traits:

  • The teacher asked open-ended questions, which challenged their students
  • Students worked cooperatively in groups on a range of tasks. The groups stayed on task when the teacher was not with them, because the tasks were inherently engaging. (Obviously, there had also been a lot of groundwork done in the area of self discipline.)
  • Groups were formed according to the requirements of particular issues: sometimes, ability grouping was used, sometimes grouping for social reasons and, often, random groupings to foster cooperation and acceptance.
  • Tasks were designed so that students could investigate the topic, and communicate their new knowledge.

As a result of this, the students were enthusiastic and could discuss what they were learning confidently – not bad, considering one class consisted of four-year olds.

In the majority of other classes I observed, the teacher stood predominantly at the front of the classroom and led all students through the same material, at the same time.The classes in which students were engaged depended heavily on the personality of the teacher. Energy and enthusiasm came from the teacher, and was sometimes transmitted to the students. In the classes that, in my opinion, were exceptional, the energy and enthusiasm of the students came from how they were learning, although their teachers were energetic and enthusiastic as well.

A long time ago, during some post-graduate studies, we did a teaching styles test. I asked the lecturer what course of action should I take if I came out strongly as a “director”. In typically Australian fashion he said “Give it (ie: teaching) away.” I didn’t, and I was able to learn from good role models, and change what I do.

The most important thing I learned was to stand back and consider what the students really needed and to plan for it, long before I set foot in the classroom. Qualities such as life-long and/or independent learning are enshrined in so many school mission statements, and it takes only a bit of effort and imagination to devise purposeful activities that foster them. The overwhelming majority of young people have an innate love of learning, and, surely, it is the teacher’s responsibility to harness and grow it, rather than suppress it, in the name of “covering* the curriculum”. We can use reasons such as having a rigid course outline, or that there are tests and exams that students need to pass, but there is rarely a valid excuse for dulling the light in our students’ eyes.

*As someone recently tweeted, cover means to hide something

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