Dare to be different

We have a crisis of leadership on our planet, but no-where more so than in education. Governments all over the world appoint non-educators as their ministers for education, and often these people want to “improve” education by going back to a halcyon time in education that, for most “victims” of schools, never existed.

But we cannot blame the politicians. We know that excellent schools tend to be student-centred (with an inquiry-style, holistic, real-world approach to teaching and learning) and have clear visions and/or missions to produce graduates who will make a positive difference to their communities, countries and planet. Not everyone will agree, but it is highly probable that our present global issues (environmental and economic) have been contributed to, in part, by the pursuit of individual academic achievement at the expense of personal character development. It seems logical that, if you can transmit good attitudes to young people, they will do their best and achieve success in a range of areas, including academic. The converse is, too often, not true.

Around the world there are countless thousands of school leaders who are working very hard to make their schools good. However, as someone once said (Steven Covey?) it’s all very well to be leading your followers through the jungle, as long as you are in the right jungle.

An effective leader is someone who challenges the status quo, not maintains it. In many school systems and schools the status quo must be challenged, because it is damaging our societies – the industrial model of education is not appropriate for many of today’s young people (if it ever was), and contributes to the alienation expressed, negatively, by young people all over the world. They need to know that they are valued and respected, so that schools that “expect” obedience to antiquated systems and traditions in which students “know their place” need to “get a grip”.

Unless he/she is very fortunate, a prospective school leader who has a history of doing something “out of the box” and challenging paradigms is either going to put a lid on those tendencies or expect to remain in the lower ranks – are there job descriptions for school principals that ask for skills such as “the ability to challenge orthodox educational paradigms” or “demonstrated ability to implement rapid educational change” or “challenge the Board of Governors in the interests of student learning”?

Someone once said (and we would be grateful if someone can let us know who) something along the lines that if you set out to create as many barriers to learning as possible, you would end up with the modern secondary school. So, as Sir Ken Robinson preaches, we should not be tinkering with the “accepted” model of schooling, but replacing it with something else altogether. We need many more courageous, visionary educational leaders, so that education does not continue to slip further behind the needs of its students.

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Traditional Values?

We love working with teachers to improve the ways in which they plan for their students to learn. There is so much we now know about learning for us to use so that almost all young people can achieve success at school that carries through into their lives.

In this instance, “success” does not mean the traditional view that good grades lead to good tertiary institutions that lead to good jobs – this approach, in our view, is a contributing factor to many of our global problems. If young people, and their teachers, are caught up in the pursuit of personal excellence to the exclusion of anything else, then when and where do they learn to look after other people and their planet? Some learn this, but the evidence is clearly there that many don’t.

Success means having the attitudes/values that enable young people to do their best at school, but also have an awareness of others and the world around them. Success means having the skills and knowledge to take action to improve people’s lives. A person who has strong values about working hard, paying attention to themselves and the world around them, caring for other people and nature and taking effective action when needed will, of course, achieve their optimum exam results. Those who strive for only personal achievement are unlikely to share those values.

There are many schools which have the admirable aim of “teaching” character/values to their students. There are only three ways in which teachers can encourage their charges to share their values: model, model and model.

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Not lesson plans as we understand them Jim

There is a plethora of sites on the internet offering lesson plans to teachers in need of a bit of inspiration and/or assistance. Because there are so many, is seems reasonable that there is a need for them.

The question that arises is “Are there so many things worth learning that can be fitted into one 40 to 60 minute block of time?”

In the “Google Age”, facts and formulae are easily accessed through an almost-infinite range of apps and web pages (for example, http://www.freemaptools.com/area-calculator.htm). The teacher’s task is to help students make connections and think critically about what they learn. The average student is more likely to retain and understand something taught if it is part of a sustained unit of learning, over time, that involves a variety of learning modes and feedback and reflection. “One-off” lessons based around cultural/religious celebrations or fortuitous current events may entertain and motivate students, but, unless they are skilfully crafted with student learning in mind, the enduring learning is probably superficial.

Unit plans that span several weeks and employ a range of activities selected for their learning potential and allied with immediate feedback and on-going reflection facilitate student learning of skills attitudes and knowledge that will sustain them through their lives. When students have the opportunity to collaborate and inquire deeply into important concepts and questions, then the learning is deeper and longer-lasting.

Teachers still need a “sketch” of lessons to assist with time management and organisation. However, the need for the teacher to address the whole class at the beginning and end of lessons (and during) is minimised in student-centred classrooms – Once a unit is underway, students usually know what they have to do, leaving the teacher free to move about the room and monitor and support individual groups, who may well be doing different things or the same thing at different levels and rates. This is very difficult to put down on an A-4 sheet of paper.

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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.
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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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