Sunday, August 30, 2015

What doesn't work when trying to "fix" early childhood education

 I want to start this post by saying that I have very limited experience in Early Childhood education.  I have taught Upper Elementary, Middle and High School, but have only worked with very young children as a specialist teacher, mainly integrating technology into the learning engagements that the homeroom teachers were planning.  So while I don't claim to be an expert in this age range, for personal reasons I am interested in some of John Hattie's findings in his recent publication The Politics of Distraction (which can be downloaded at this link).

In many countries children don't start school until the age of 5, or even later in the case of countries such as Sweden and Finland where the starting age is 7, yet policy makers often believe that if the children get off to a good/early start then formal schooling will be easier.  In recent years huge amounts of money have been funnelled into pre-school education.  Hattie's research shows, however, that by the age of eight it is hard to detect who did and did not have pre-school education.  An early start, it seems, does not lead to accelerated learning or greater success in school.  Hattie suggests this might be because while pre-schools believe in learning through play, it is mostly only social and emotional development that is emphasised at this age, not play for cognitive development.  He writes:
Before pouring in more money, we need a robust discussion about what learning means in the 0-5 age range - and especially 0-3 - when the most critical bases are set for language, communication, listening and thinking.  Many cognitive skills that develop in these early years are pre-cursors to later reading and numeracy.
 Sadly it seems that early education can lead to early labelling of children before they even start elementary school.  Hattie quotes increases of children coming into school already labelled as ADHD, autistic or with Asperger's (in the USA the increase is 650% in the past 10 years) which means many schools now have around 15% of their children coming into school pre-labelled.  Some of this increase is coming from the demands of parents, some from teachers and some from the marketing strategies of pharmaceutical companies - however it is also true that children who are labelled often quality the school for extra funding - so for schools there is a vested interest in having these diagnoses.  Hattie writes:
Students are being diagnoses and labelled primarily for financial and accountability reasons rather than for the enactment of appropriate educational interventions.
Hattie is particularly scathing about "calming" medication for students coming to school with behavioural issues - many parents and teachers assume that if a child is calm then s/he will learn. Hattie points out that while drugs do calm children there is no corollary that this leads to learning.  In fact there are learning interventions that are much more effective in educating children with behavioural issues than medication.  Even more dangerous is the evidence that once labelled there is often a decrease in achievement gains, compared with other similar children who have not been labelled.  Hattie argues that a learning intervention is often much more expensive and requires much higher levels of teacher expertise/training than drugs or medical attention which the parents pay for, and which could be why schools are advocating for children to be medicated.

(Perhaps at this point I should mention that our son underwent tests as a 3rd Grader and received a diagnosis of ADD when he was in 4th Grade.  This later turned out to be a wrong diagnosis - in fact he was suffering from a writing disability which meant he could think so much faster than write and the physical process of handwriting was getting in the way of his thoughts, which was causing him a lot of frustration.  He was on the 99.8th percentile for intelligence, but on the 3rd percentile for his writing.  We chose not to go the medical route, instead gave him a laptop so that he could capture his thoughts without having to handwrite them.  Our son went on to do well at school and university and now works for a large banking organisation in London.  He has several times mentioned to us how grateful he is that we did not medicate him.)

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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Appeasing the parents and fixing the infrastructure

When I went to secondary school there were three different types of schools:  grammar schools were for those who passed the 11+ exam (probably around 20% of the school population), secondary modern schools were for most of the rest, and there were a few technical schools where people did vocational training.  Sometime after I started secondary school, the politics of education changed and it was decided that all secondary age students would go to a non-selective comprehensive school. Middle class parents in the Sixties and Seventies had started to be vocal about their resentment that a test at the age of 11 could lead to their child being sent to a "second-class" school.  The argument was that good teachers were attracted to grammar schools, and it would be better if there was a more equal distribution and the same opportunities for everyone at schools that were not selective.

Sometime after I left the UK, it was further decided that comprehensives were not doing a good job. At this point "failing" schools could be turned into academies which took them out of local authority control, replaced school managers, and sought sponsorship.  Academies often tended to focus on something specific, Arts, sports, technology for example.  Now, however, I read in the news this summer that around half of all academies are still "failing" students with teaching falling below a standard allowing all pupils to make sufficient progress, work not being matched to pupils’ abilities, low expectations of pupils, inadequate marking and feedback, and unacceptable behaviour by pupils with poor attitudes to learning.

In the UK the middle class parents are still unhappy, and as such are turning away from state schools. This is part of a trend across OECD countries, with a dropping percentage of students attending government-funded schools in favour of private ones (ironically known as "public schools" in the UK).  Some politicians regard this trend as very dangerous - the argument is that government schools are vital to the survival of democracy and so there must be a critical mass of students in the state sector.  However parents are voting with their feet - or maybe their wallet - as the perception remains that you can get a better education if you pay for it (or possibly that your child will end up meeting the "right" people at such a school, or possibly simply avoiding the "wrong" ones).

Parents want to have choice in the schools they send their children too - even though in reality it's only the wealthy parents who can really opt out of the state system into private schools.  Hattie's research, however, shows that the variability between schools is small relative to the difference within schools.  He asks, "Why do we provide choice at the school level, when this matters far less than the choice of teacher within a school?"

Another distractor he mentions is that of class size.  His evidence is that there is a very small effect from reducing class sizes, and the reason for this is that teachers rarely change how they teach when they move from a larger to a smaller class.  He has plotted the average country PISA score against the average class size and has found little correlation.

The next thing that policy makers often turn to is the curriculum.  Some time after I left the UK a National Curriculum was implemented with standardised tests in English, Math and Science for all students aged 7, 11 and 14, and then other exams at the age of 16 and 18.  I think some of these SATs have now been abandoned.  Hattie writes that it is not productive to stipulate achievement in years, but better to refer to levels so that students can work at their own level irrespective of their year in school or age.  A levels-based curricula can then be aligned with the assessment system and is more likely to impact student learning than standardised year-based curricula.

There is another problem with common assessments.  Hattie writes "Finding out what teachers want you to know and giving it back to them in assignments and exams is a common key to success .... such narrow excellence tends not to favour twenty-first century deeper thinking skills such as creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration ..... the art of teaching is to balance the need for surface knowledge with deep processing of this knowledge."

Hattie also uses the expression "testing gone mad" to describe what happens when a call for a more rigorous curriculum is matched with a call for more tests to check that the curriculum is being implemented (and therefore that teachers are doing their job).  The real issue with assessment is that it is providing information about student achievement, yet Hattie argues that the real purpose of assessment should be "to provide interpretative information to teachers and school leaders about their impact so that they have the best information possible about where to go next in the teaching process. He writes "Until we see tests as aids to enhance teaching and learning, and not primarily as thermometers of how much a student knows now, on this day, on this test, then developing more tests will add little and will remain an expensive distraction."

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Five things that don't make a difference

Over the summer I've been reading two new publications by John Hattie about what does and doesn't make a difference for improving student learning.  His research around the politics of distraction presents us with a vital message: that the minimum goal of education should be for all students to make at least one year's progress for one year's input, no matter where they start.  I've been digging a lot deeper into these findings in the last few days and am going to write several posts about the things that educators and politicians are focused on which don't make a difference, when in fact by refocusing in several key areas the evidence shows that student learning can be improved.

Hattie writes that he believes political leaders are committed to improving education, however they do not understand the factors that are most effective in improving student learning.  He refers to this as "wasted good intentions".  Politicians are quick to jump on international scores on standardised tests taken across many countries, such as the PISA results.  While there are many reasons for variance across countries bigger differences are found within schools, so the most important factor that needs to be studied is teacher effectiveness and the impact that teachers have on student learning. He writes, "recognising, valuing and enhancing the teachers and school leaders with high levels of expertise makes the difference.  It's what works best."

This summer teachers at ASB read a book about grading and reporting.  Hattie also writes about this and points out that not all students can reach the standard:  "It is highly unlikely that 100% or even 80% of students will get above the standard (and if they do, the claims will be that the standard was set too low)."  If the standard represents the average achievement of students of a particular age, then it will never be the case that all students will exceed the average.  We will only ever have 100% of students above the standard if the standard is set very low.  Politicians, however, try many approaches to get more students above the standard - and Hattie argues that most of these approaches are simply distractions.  For example:

  • Appeasing parents by giving them more choice of school and smaller class sizes - when in fact the evidence shows that the classroom they attend, not the school, is more important.  Rather than giving more choice, politicians need to focus on reducing the within-school variability of teacher effectiveness.
  • Fixing the infrastructure, for example curriculum, assessments and buildings.  In most cases changing these are only effective if teachers are guided on how to use, for example, a new space.
  • Fixing the students.  Hattie argues there is too much focus on things like learning styles when in fact there is no evidence that this enhances learning.
  • Fixing the schools - new types of schools, different calendars and so on are mostly no better than the existing options.  The most important thing to focus on is teacher expertise in the classroom.
  • Fixing the teacher.  Lots of different approaches have been tried such as teacher education, performance pay and more technology.  Hattie's findings show the most important focus should be on influencing the first years of full-time classroom teaching as it is where the greatest learning happens for teachers.
Over the next few blog posts I'll be looking into these in more depth.

Artwork painted on a wall in our Middle School

Friday, August 21, 2015

How technology can help with reading comprehension

Yesterday one of our teaching assistants came to see me.  She was really excited about a workshop she did about reading comprehension over the summer and wanted to share her resources about the role technology can play in monitoring comprehension.   The first thing I have looked at is how the way we teach literacy needs to expand so that it includes specific strategies to help students when reading online.  Research shows there are 4 processes that are essential to comprehension when reading online:

  1. Approaching the task - here are a variety of strategies that lead to understanding and how to deal with obstacles when reading.
  2. Navigating online tests - strategies for determining what is the important idea/information, and strategies for evaluating the accuracy of the information.
  3. Comprehension of and pathways through online texts.
  4. Responding to online texts - how readers communicate the information and their thoughts.
The resource that our TA shared was a toolkit for using technology to enrich comprehension developed by Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke, two teachers from Chicago.  They explain that they use technology to enrich comprehension instruction in the following ways:
  • To enable all students to participate and engage more deeply - one strategy they use is to add "type" into turn and talk.  For example students can post to social media or a backchannel while reading and then see everyone's responses to their own thinking.  Posting also doesn't have to be written, many tools can enable visual response options.
  • To provide access to resources, experts of texts that students would not otherwise be able to access - in particular magazines, newspapers and primary-source documents.  Literacy is not simply processing information from printed text - it can involve using images and video and assistive technology to help emerging readers.  Students can also email or Skype with experts.
  • To provide a real-world audience for students thinking and learning - for example via blogs or tweets that can reach a global community.
  • To monitor and assess student thinking and understanding through observation of digital participation and collecting artefacts.  Katie and Kristin refer to this as "a second set of eyes" as technology adds an additional layer of information gathering.  They write that "digitally capturing student work, conversations, illustrations of their thinking, peer editing and student writing provides multiple layers of information about how and when students apply strategies". Technology also facilitates students' self-reflection
  • To meet the diverse needs of students, by adding visual, video or audio - in addition teachers can make videos that capture their teaching and make that available to students at times when the teachers are not available, for example when the students are at home, in a Flipped Learning model, or even using the In-Flip where students can use a computer or iPad in class to watch a video of a teacher or another student modeling a strategy.  For students who struggle with reading, but not with thinking, technology can allow them to access the complex ideas and texts that are beyond their current reading level.
  • To build digital literacy - it's important to teach students to interact in positive ways online.
Do you have ideas for how technology can improve reading comprehension?  If so please leave a comment below.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tech Integration Guide for Teachers

This year my colleague Sharon and myself have written a book for ASB's teachers about tech integration to assist them to purposefully design learning units enhanced with technology.  Thoughtful questions to consider when planning for technology integration are provided along with skills and learning objectives. The guide is meant to assist teachers in making the best choices of approaches, student learning goals, technology tools and software as they plan for student learning. We have had this book printed and are giving it to all the teachers and teaching assistants at school.  At the same time a number of people outside of ASB asked for copies of this book.  Since most of our PLN don't live in Mumbai, it seemed the best way to get this book to them was via Kindle.  Our original intention was to allow the book to be downloaded for free - but apparently this was not possible - we have had to set a small price for it (around $1 depending on which Amazon account you have).  Here is the link if you are interested in the Kindle version.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Becoming a curator: seek, sense, share

One of the things I like about Dan Pink's book To Sell Is Human is the sample cases he adds at the end of every chapter with suggestions we can use to develop our skills.  After his chapter on clarity, he adds suggestions for becoming an information curator, based on Beth Kanter's 3-step process.  Our challenge is no longer accessing information, now the big issue is to curate it.  Beth advocates:
  1. Seek:  Define the area in which you would like to curate and put together a list of the best sources of information.  Set aside time to scan these sources regularly - for example twice a day for 15 minutes each time.  Gather the most interesting items as you scan. These sources could be following a Twitter hashtag, or perhaps a group on Google+.
  2. Sense:  Create meaning out of the material you have assembled.  Perhaps you could add these links with annotations to a tool like Diigo, or pin to Pinterest.  Another suggestion could be to reflect on them on your blog.  Kanter's advice is to add to this list of resources every day.
  3. Share:  Once you have collected and organized resources, share these with your colleagues or your social network.  You could do this by email, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, for example.
For more information about the 3-step process click here to go to Beth's blog.

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Sunday, August 16, 2015


One of the hardest things I learned to do in the foundational Cognitive Coaching workshop was to listen.  It's hard to listen without mentally rehearsing what you want to say as a reply.  Dan Pink writes "For many of us the opposite of talking isn't listening.  It's waiting.  When others speak, we typically divide our attention between what they're saying now and what we're going to say next." And to be honest, most of us don't spend a lot of time waiting.  We jump in with our replies without even a pause.

As educators we often talk about how important it is to teach children how to read and write, to speak and listen, and yet most of us don't really put much effort onto teaching children how to listen well. Yet as PYP teachers we should intentionally be teaching listening.  It's part of Communication Skills, as well as Social Skills. For example respecting others involves listening sensitively, and group decision making and resolving conflict also involves listening carefully to others.  Making the PYP Happen states:
A balanced programme will provide meaningful and well-planned opportunities for learners to participate as listeners as well as speakers. Listening involves more than just hearing sounds. It requires active and conscious attention in order to make sense of what is heard. 
Both children and adults need to be taught the value of the pause.  It's during the pause that you think about what you want to say, or what question you want to ask, not during the time you are listening to another person talk.

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