Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Adapted -v- Adaptive

Right before our recent holiday, ASB hosted an Adaptive Schools Foundation Seminar.  Having already trained in Cognitive Coaching, I was keen to know more about Adaptive Schools, which has been described as cognitive coaching for groups.  Over the course of 4 days, ASB's teachers were presented with a model for creating and sustaining high-functioning professional communities.

Since this seminar was taking place right outside my office, I was lucky enough to be able to engage in some of the activities.  One discussion that took place early on was about how many occupations have gone through transitions in recent years.  Examples are:

  • Librarians have evolved from resource providers to learning facilitators
  • Hospitals have evolved from healers to health promoters
  • The police force has changed from law enforcement to focus on public safety
  • Schools are changing their focus from teaching to learning - and not just for the students.
Following this the participants were invited to consider the difference between the terms adapting, adapted and adaptive.  Adapting refers to making shifts to changes in the environment, but there are different sorts of adaptations.  One example that was shared was of the monarch butterfly which has evolved and adapted to very specific conditions.  Another example was that of deer or monkeys who have moved into urban areas and are now adapting to eat different food.  The butterfly is adapted, the deer and monkey are adaptive.  We talked about how schools need to be adaptive and how the goal of the seminar was to develop our capacity as collaborators and inquirers in complex systems.  Schools need to adapt to changes in order to deal with constant learning.  They are complex systems as when one thing changes it leads to a change throughout the system - we can't just come up with a technical fix for one thing.  Complicated systems are different from complex ones - they also have many parts, but in those systems it is possible to "fix" the parts.

A technical change will extend or refine a past practice while still maintaining the organizational way of working.  These sorts of changes can be implemented with current knowledge and skills.  Many changes in education have been these technical changes.  Adaptive changes, however end past practices and require new practices and new ways of working.  These changes require new knowledge and skills and  often challenge our values.

Teachers discussed the need to support the professional community in school to continually develop to improve student learning.  There is the need to ask on a regular basis who are we? why are we doing this? and why are we doing this this way?  We know the power of adult communities to impact student learning, and so important to develop a collaborative culture so that there can be a communal application of effective teaching practices.

Look out for more posts on Adaptive Schools.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The final distraction: "fixing" the teachers

This is the final post based on John Hattie's The Politics of Distraction that was published this summer.  Since it would seem that it is not useful to focus on fixing parents, the schools, the students or the programme, it would seem that the most productive way to increase student achievement would be to focus on the teachers.  In fact Hattie argues that teaching standards to need to be raised - however he cautions several "fixes" that make little impact on teacher effectiveness.

Teacher education - at present this is based on an apprenticeship model, with some instruction taking place in universities and some practice taking place as a trainee teacher is placed in a school.  Studies show that teacher education programmes have the lowest impact on student achievement since the greatest learning is not during teacher education programmes but takes place during the first year of full-time classroom teaching.  Most new teachers admit they were not well prepared for their role in the classroom.  Hattie suggests it may be useful to introduce a 2-year "registrar" position (at ASB we do this and call them "novice teachers") where the focus is on helping these teachers to transition into the teaching profession.

Performance pay - I have worked a two schools that tried to introduce this (both I believe failed).  Hattie also writes that it is difficult to find a performance pay model that has made a difference to student learning, instead pointing out that it tends to lead to greater stress and less enthusiasm for teaching.  He suggests introducing increased pay for increased expertise, for example becoming a coach, where the responsibility is to improve the skills of other teachers.  One advantage of this would be that teachers do not have to leave the classroom and enter the world of school administration in order to earn higher salaries.

Technology - Last week's report by the OECD, which was publicised widely in the press, pointed to the fact that technology is no "magic bullet" where student learning is concerned.  Although reading the headlines it would seem that the report was anti-technology, closer reading of the report shows that it is actually saying that technology is an amplifier - it certainly can amplify great teaching, and at the same time it can amplify poor teaching too - basically technology can't replace poor teaching, though "if used appropriately, technology can, and often does, make learning more engaging and it has the power to transform educational environments."  The real problem is that technology is often simply used as a substitute for what was already being done.  We need to change our teaching methods in order for technology to be transformative.

Teaching Assistants - As mentioned in a previous post, reducing class sizes without a change of pedagogy does not lead to improved student learning.  The same is true with simply adding more adults into the classroom.  Most of the time teacher aides are not trained educators, yet Hattie points out they are often employed to work with the most needy students - which can actually lead to these students, who are most in need to teacher expertise, to make even less progress.  This is because aides are more likely to prompt students, to provide them with answers, and to be more concerned with task completion.

Hattie argues that we do need to improve teacher standards, but writes:
Teachers cannot do it on their own: they need support, they need to collaborate with others in and across schools, they need to develop expertise, and they need excellent school leaders.  Further, supportive and great systems are needed to support and nurture great leaders.
There are things that can make a huge difference to  student achievement, and I'll be writing about these in an upcoming post.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

The Human Economy

I saw this video today on Facebook and decided to share it further by posting it on my blog.  This 10 minute film explores the human skills needed to thrive in today's world.  Enjoy!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Why it doesn't work to "fix" the schools

This is the fourth in my series of posts based on this summer's publication of John Hattie's The Politics of Distraction.  The focus of this post is why inventing new forms of schooling isn't likely to lead to an improvement in student achievement.  In the UK in recent years there has been a growth of schools being able to opt out of local authority control and become "academies".    Originally these were poorly-performing secondary schools, but later non-profit charitable trusts formed academy chains that took over state schools (and I believe there is still some debate as to whether these school can actually run at a profit). Currently there are over 4,500 academies in the UK, compared to only 200 in May 2010.  At one time the Government argued that academies raised standards and had positive impacts on other schools in their local area, however now there are concerns that the rapid expansion of academies have led to financial problems and a lowering of standards.

In Hattie's Politics of Distraction he argues that variance in student achievement between schools is small when compared to the variance within schools, so simply coming up with different forms of schools is not a good solution.  Generally his research has found that there may be a slight increase in achievement in such schools in the short-term, but no difference in the long-term.

I used to work at a school in the UK that was surrounded by large playing fields.  Apparently some years ago the school was allowed to sell off these playing fields and also to bring in a private company to run their gym.  The school then had to rent the gym for PE lessons, and the company could keep it open and charge the local community for using it in the evenings and at weekends. Having businesses come up with ideas to "fix" schools is another misguided policy, according to Hattie, particularly when it comes to placing leaders from the business community into schools. Schools do not need business leaders, but instead need "high-impact instructional leaders, ones who make several formal classroom observations each year, interpret test scores with teachers, insist teachers collaborate in planning and evaluating the teaching programme across grades, insist teachers expect high proportions of their students to do well on achievement and social outcomes and insist and know that the staffroom and classroom atmosphere is conducive to learning for all students."

Yet another argument for "fixing" schools involves giving them more autonomy.  Hattie's evidence shows that achievement is higher in countries where schools have autonomy over staffing decisions and hiring teachers, for example, but lower when schools have autonomy over their own budgets. Generally autonomy has a very small impact on achievement, and can be particularly problematic in increasing inequalities between schools (good schools may get better, but not so good ones generally get worse).

More money is rarely the answer to improving student achievement.  Hattie shows that in Western countries there is little relation between more money and improved achievement because 80% of funding is taken up in salaries, buildings, bussing and maintenance.  A small positive impact can be seen when more money is directed into instructional areas such as more resources for teachers, and a larger positive impact when money is directed into improving teacher expertise.  This does vary according to the GDP of a country, however.  In low-income countries, greater expenditure does tend to lead to greater student improvement.  In countries with middle to high GDP there is no relationship between expenditure and student performance (probably because in these countries mostly the money is invested in smaller class sizes - which has already been seen to be another distractor and one that does not improve student achievement - rather than in better quality teachers).

Another "fix" that has been tried in schools is to lengthen the school day or school year.  In the Politics of Education Hattie correlates PISA scores with the total number of hours in school and actually finds a negative relationship!  Students in Japan, Korea and Finland spend less time in school, but achieve much more than students in the UK or USA.  Adding more hours in school clearly makes little difference to student learning.

If you wish to read more download The Politics of Distraction at this link.

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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