Monday, 11 March 2013

Chaos by Design?

In his most recent book, World Class Learners:  Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (2012),  Yong Zhao stirs controversy with a series of educational dichotomies:

Chaos vs Structure
Curriculum vs Creativity
Independent vs Dependent
Universality vs Genius
United States vs China
PISA scores vs Entrepreneurship

The lecture below is one of many that questions our status quo.

Contemplating Zhao's discourse has been unsettling.  I have had some great discussions with our superintendent +Larry Espe as well as with colleagues around the province on the implications of Zhao's educational beliefs.

I say unsettling, because one of the mottos that has guided me well over the years is, "In Structure, there is Freedom".  The idea, for example, that students learn best in an environment that is predictable, where the criteria for assessment are clear, where a certain level of organization creates a sense of purpose and focus.  The fact is, I still believe in that maxim to a certain degree.  I also believe that Zhao has been deliberate in the polarizing manner in which he has presented his ideas.  

Nevertheless, he advances some compelling arguments.  In chapter four of his book for example, he points out that countries with the highest PISA scores also have the lowest levels of entrepreneurial qualities - ie. risk-taking, independence, creativity.  He illustrates this point by stating that Steve Jobs could never have become Steve Jobs in China - which has high achievement scores.  He would have been stifled by the rigid conformity and streaming mechanisms of the educational system.  Only in the United States, where entrepreneurial environments exist - based more on the arbitrary nature of their education system than by design - could a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates be produced.

I wonder what it would be like to put Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD) and Yong Zhao in the same room?

Ironically, both countries are now trying to emulate the respective success of the other - The US is trying to establish a more conform approach (Common Core) in order to attain higher PISA scores, while China is determined to undo the lock-step pressure cooker system into which every 2-year old enters in order to create entrepreneurial and creative environments!

To be fair, Zhao is not an anarchist... In fact, he is not sure that entrepreneurship can be taught in an educational setting - particularly in the developed world.  We don't have the same conditions as in developing countries where entrepreneurship is borne out of necessity rather than desire.

What he has confirmed in my own mind is that we should be very wary of mediocrity and compulsive compliance.  In a system where there is only one answer, one test and one way to do things, how can we expect creativity and genius to blossom?  Zhao extols some key elements that we would do well to incorporate into our teaching/learning:  

*  Student voice and choice
*  Student support - mentoring and personalization
*  Authentic products - relevant tasks
*  Global orientation - the world at our fingertips - technology
*  Global competence - languages, culturally sensitive/astute

Have a great week,

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Christmas Concerts...Good Pedagogy?


It's hard to determine the value of the annual Christmas Concert at elementary schools.  If you go by the stress level of the staff at this time of year, it certainly gives you reason for pause.  If you gauge their importance by the beaming smiles of the parents as their child graces the stage, it is easy to see why they continue to take place.

Given that there are no curriculum requirements around a concert and the fact that the preparation of such an undertaking actually takes a significant amount of class time and school organization, it is fair to pose the question:  Is this good pedagogy?

While it is not the only way to promote school community and school connectedness in general, events such as these do play a part in the sense of belonging a student and his/her parents have in their school.  Much of the research we have seen recently around the link between school connectedness and academic success certainly suggests that we must pay attention to this aspect of school life.  

Laura MacKay, from the nursing program at UBC, goes even further and establishes the link between school connectedness and student health.

It has also been noted that in the adolescent years, it becomes even more important for these opportunities to exist.  Unfortunately, this is often the stage in our school systems where they diminish.  In addition to school events and positive relationships between students and teachers, researchers have outlined other criteria that are critical to school connectedness.

Below is a summary of this research under the umbrella of the Wingspread Research Group:

Wingspread Declaration on School Connections

Students are more likely to succeed when they feel connected to school. School connection is the belief by students that adults in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals. The critical requirements for feeling connected include students' experiencing
  • High academic expectations and rigor coupled with support for learning.
  • Positive adult/student relationships.
  • Physical and emotional safety.
Increasing the number of students connected to school is likely to influence critical accountability measures, such as
  • Academic performance.
  • Incidents of fighting, bullying, or vandalism.
  • Absenteeism.
  • School completion rates.
Strong scientific evidence demonstrates that increased student connection to school promotes
  • Motivation.
  • Classroom engagement.
  • Improved school attendance.
These three factors in turn increase academic achievement. These findings apply across racial, ethnic, and income groups.

One thing to remember is that the traditional Christmas Concert is not the only school community event that can take place at this time of year.  Many schools have opted for a concert every other year and a family dance/crafts night in-between.  This recognition of the balance between the school community and staff burnout is absolutely critical.

Thanks to all school personnel for their hard work at this time of year.


Monday, 3 December 2012

The Leaning Assessment of PISA

I suppose I always imagined that the PISA test leaned towards a very narrow reflection of academic-type students in wealthy countries.  This past month at the #BCSSA conference, I had the opportunity to listen to Andreas Schleicher of the OECD describe a much more potent and universal tool that goes well beyond the numbers.  While it may sound simple to say, the tool and the OECD remind us that the way we design and value our education system truly makes a difference for all students, regardless of their background. Here is a relatively brief RSA animated video (12 minutes) that gives a great overview of it's nature and purpose:

I didn't realize, for example, that in addition to the actual test that focuses on reading, math and science, there is also a questionnaire that queries everything from the learning relationship with the teacher to the cultural and socio-economic background of the student.  Because this information is aggregated into a macro view of an educational jurisdiction or country, no personal information is revealed.  Nevertheless, a very rich tapestry of information is created that allows educational systems to see how they are servicing ALL students.

In the 2 minute video below, Andreas Schleicher gives an update on some of the trends in education in 2012:

What I find very interesting is that we sometimes need to reflect on the macro view of education in order to remind ourselves of our moral imperative.  Andreas describes this well when he refers to education as a "lever for equity" (Schleicher, 2012).  While there are certainly some factors such as parent education level and the number of books at home for pre-schoolers that have an effect on a child's future success, there is not a single variable that absolutely precludes a disadvantaged student from achieving high levels of success.  We might also assume that the countries who spend the most on education see the best results.  This is not the case:

"The data also shows that there is little correlation between spending and student achievement. This is true for both per pupil spending, and for a nation's wealth. Many high-achieving nations spend proportionately less on education than other countries who have lower rankings. In the United States, there is a higher correlation between socio-economic context and student achievement, but there are very notable exceptions of students who succeed on PISA and in life, against the odds. This is good news for poorer communities and nations." (Schleicher, 2010).

At our own district level, we have been meeting with schools over the past couple of months to look at the results of their students on the district literacy assessment from May, 2012.  We have been able to drill down to groups and individual students, such as First Nations and Learning Disabled and we are seeing data that reflect the complex nature of the PISA assessment.

For example, the overall results of First Nations and Learning Disabled students for comprehension is low overall yet we see anomalies in various schools.  In some cases, there is no difference between the various groups - which is astounding.

The questions remain: what can we learn from these schools/countries?  What are they doing that is effective?  How do they get their disadvantaged students to succeed?  

The research continues...Have a great week,

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

3-Legged Stools...and Relationships

In recent weeks, I've listened to Dr. Scott Miller and John Abbott both use the analogy of the 3-legged stool to discuss their fields.  In Dr. Miller's case, it was in the context of therapy, while in Abbott's case, it was in relation to our education system.

First of all, I couldn't help but notice the similarities between them.  Consider these points from Dr. Miller as he outlined various research facts from the field of therapy/counseling:

*  80% of a counselor's caseload involves clients who are basically being managed and for whom there is no discernible effect

*  On the issue of why people did not seek the services of a counselor, a lack of confidence in the outcome of the service accounted for 78% of the responses

*  Technique makes the smallest difference in the outcome

*  For the clients that are positively affected by treatment (13%), the following factors were measured: 
  •  Model and technique of treatment  - 8%
  •  Allegiance factors - that is the practitioner's belief in what they are doing - 20%-30%
  •  Alliance factors - that is the relationship and dynamics between the therapist and client - 30%-60%
Here's a video of Scott Miller talking about measuring the alliance/relationship with clients and an app that they have put out on it:

"We have known for years...that the relationship between the client, the consumer, and the provider of care is predictive of outcome.  We also know that if consumers are asked, and able to provide feedback about the nature of the alliance, positive and negative, that those consumers are much more likely to stay until they achieve a good outcome in treatment and we have better outcomes as a result." (Miller, 2006).  

Miller uses a 3-legged stool to show how an alliance is established with a client:
   In other words, the alliance between the therapist and client is through a positive relationship, based on knowing and discussing the preferences of the client - not the preferences of the therapist

 John Abbott also uses a 3-legged stool based on Relationships to describe a healthy educational partnership:

It is that balance between competency and caring that both professions require in order to best serve their clients/students.  I suspect the current paradigm is that the "smartest" practitioner must be the best teacher/therapist - while the research clearly points to the aforementioned balance.

Here's a video from Abbott's "Born to Learn" website that demonstrates learning from the perspective of the student"

In my mind, there are two ways to establish an alliance with students:  Get to know them and incorporate their input.

Have a great week,

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Telling Stories : Pedagogical Narrations

"So that's what reflective practice looks like!"  

This is what I found myself saying last spring when I attended a workshop called "Investigating Quality" at the ECEBC conference in Richmond.  I was watching Kim Atkinson and Danielle Davis demonstrate a practice called "pedagogical narration" whereby they openly describe a moment in their practice among peers.

More specifically, the educator tells a story - often accompanied by images of the child/children - among colleagues who then ask questions or make comments about the story.  This is not a problem-solving process.  It is a pure reflection that is articulated and discussed among colleagues to gain insight into children as well as how we interact with them.  It is about finding the questions, not the answers.  This kind of practice is strongly supported in the BC Eearly Learning Framework.

In my teacher training year, the term "reflective practitioner" was understood to be a solitary process that was very general in nature.  While useful, this practice does not engender the synergy and connections that arise from a collaborative reflection that has a structure to it and that is borne out of observation.

"Being in the moment", being present enough to truly "notice" what is happening around you takes practice - and lots of it.  How many people do you know who can truly live in the moment?

After that workshop in Richmond, I approached Kim and Danielle and asked if they would be interested in coming to Fort St. John - and they were!  This conversation led to a workshop that we attended last week with several community ECE colleagues as well as Kindergarten teachers and district staff.  Most importantly, it has led to the development of a collaborative group that is meeting several times this year and sharing their pedagogical narrations.  

Kim and Danielle come from ECE backgrounds and have teamed up under an initiative called "Images of Learning Project" where they present this narrative approach to viewing children as "co-constructors" of knowledge.

One of the most important elements that I took away from our workshop with them last week was the concept that young children are not the citizens of the future, they are "citizens now" - competent individuals that don't simply follow our linear understanding of them.

Great workshop.  Have a great week.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Illusory Average Student

Why change?  This is one of the first questions that needs to be dealt with when introducing a different approach to instructional design.  Simply talking about the diversity of students, developing technologies, social media, etc. is not good enough.  What assessment/data are we looking at?

In my view, there are three key data points that are compelling us to move forward on innovative instructional design strategies such as Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Universal Design for Learning.  The first data set is the graduation rate of our students - particularly among our First Nations and Learning Disabled students.  The second (and related) set is the transition rates between grades 9-12 where we lose a significant number of our students.  The third piece of information - the one that is the subject of this blog - is the proliferation of "alternate" programs in middle and secondary school.  

This is not to say that there is not a role for "specialized" approaches for groups of students who are not being successful.  However, they are not addressing the main issue of our students becoming disengaged from their "regular" classroom.  

I believe the root cause of this growing trend lies in designing our instruction based on what Dr. Rose refers to as the "illusory average student".  This short video encapsulates his view:

Since neuroscience has proven that how we learn is as unique as our fingerprint, should we not plan instruction and learning that takes into account our "multiple intelligences"(Gardner)?  The first network in the Universal Design for Learning model is "Multiple Means of Representation".  The checkpoints in this network guide us to establish access to learning that relays the information or concept in multiple ways: 

This should not be interpreted as 30 different lesson plans for a class but rather proactively planned lessons that, over the course of a unit, utilize several approaches to the representation of information and concepts.

One idea that we looked at last week when we talked about how to engage students in a unit on the political spectrum was to have students physically form a line based on various opinions so that there was a kinesthetic connection to their learning.  While this may seem like a minor modification, it may hook 2 or 3 students that would have otherwise disconnected from the lesson as soon as the overhead projector was turned on.

Have a great week,

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Education Transformation: Does Our Message Have Traction?

The image below really struck a chord with me this week:

As educational leaders, I wonder sometimes how removed we are from practices in the classroom.  A revving engine sounds powerful and makes lots of noise but unless you've engaged the clutch, nobody's going anywhere. 

Our district has encouraged the use of technology in the classroom as a tool for improving student success as well as providing pathways to personalized learning.  I was very encouraged, therefore, to see my 11-year old son grab my computer last night, login to his classroom through his school webpage and pull up his blogging assignment.  The class list and blogging template is provided through Kidblog.

There were several aspects of this task that are worth considering:

1.  The blogging platform is free,  easy to organize for the teacher and works seamlessly within the school web page.
2.  It took a few seconds to get to his blog and yet his name and work are protected within a virtual classroom environment
3.  As a French Immersion student, he wrote it in French
4.  He could accomplish the task using any computer or smart phone

I guess the message did have traction.

Have a great week,