Friday, July 31, 2015

Growth

Yesterday, at our New Teacher Orientation, Fiona Reynolds, ASB's Director of Teaching and Learning shared this year's learning objectives from the new strategic plan.  One of these is for growth:
Identify needs and develop the unique strengths of all our students, including the high achievers.
It's interesting that during the strategic planning process it was felt necessary to emphasis that this growth includes the high achievers.  I guess that too often when we talk about special need, many teachers automatically think about those who are low achievers, however it is clear that high achievers can also be achieving far less than their potential.

As part of the afternoon's activity we discussed a reading by Carol Ann Tomlinson entitled What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well.  Basically, high achievers need the same as all other learners:  they need good curriculum and instruction, they need learning experiences that are conceptual, they need relevant content, activities that encourage them to process important ideas at a high level and classrooms that provide both structure and choice.

Many teachers believe it is necessary to "accelerate" the high achievers, but this is not always true.  Pace is determined by the individual student's needs and  while some learners may need a more rapid pace, others need a slower place so that they can go into their learning in more depth and breadth. Basically, meeting their needs involves content, processes and products that are more complex, abstract, open-ended and multifaceted than their peers, and engaging with all of this may well take more time.

I really liked the concept of "supported risk".  Many high achievers are used to success - they get good grades easily and as such have less experience of failure.  Sometimes when a teacher is presenting high-challenge tasks to high achieving students this can cause the student to feel threatened, as there is a greater chance of them not doing as well as they feel is expected of them.  It's really important to support these students as they take academic risks.

When I think back to some of the gifted students I taught in the past, I realize that I was doing a lot of things wrong.  Many teachers, with the best of intentions, come up with inappropriate instruction for gifted learners.  For example:
  • Asking them to do things they already know how to do, then expecting them to wait and do filler or piecemeal activities while the rest of the class catches up.
  • Asking them to do "more of the same stuff faster".
  • Asking them to do different work alone (for example sitting on a separate desk either inside or outside the classroom)
  • Asking them to spend a lot of time tutoring weaker students.
The conclusion of this article is that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily.  There is a great analogy here:  schooling is an escalator on which students continually progress - it is not a series of stairs with landings on which advanced learners wait.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

What neuroscience can teach us about coaching

We have known for years that neuroscience research has supported constructivist learning practices as being the most brain compatible for students, and it's really no surprise that adult learning in both professional development and coaching is now using research from neuroscience and has also found that a constructive approach is the most beneficial.  Michael Dolcemascolo and Carolee Hayes write that "if educational systems do not align adult learning practices with best practices for children, it is unlikely that teachers will use those practices in classrooms".

It's important for a coach to understand the brain in order to manage relationships with the coachee. The limbic system regulates both emotion and memory and works to let us know we are safe - basically it is the systems that helps us to respond - whereas the prefrontal cortex allows for more reflective responses such as problem solving and decision making.  The cognitive coach needs to be aware that these systems work best together in a situation of "relaxed alertness" (low stress and high challenge). All meaningful learning takes place in relationships, and all positive relationships are based on trust, which a coach builds by establishing rapport.  Our brains need social connections above all else so only when a coach has established trust, empathy and compassion will there be a situation of low stress in which the coachee can experience high challenge.

Our brains are continually changing in response to experiences and interactions - a process known as neuroplasticity.  Coaching uses this concept to assume the person being coached can develop new insights which will ultimately lead to new behaviours.  A coach best supports neuroplasticity by developing an environment that minimizes danger and maximizes rewards - which leads the brain to produce dopamine and norepinephrine, thus stimulating prefrontal capacity.  Cognitive coaching differs from many other coaching models which work on correcting deficits (which can be seen as a threat by the brain as this is an attack on autonomy and status).  In cognitive coaching the coach assumes that the coachee is self-sufficient and resourceful, which engages different parts of the brain. In particular when the coach gives the coachee status and autonomy, the prefrontal cortex is stimulated leading to better thinking and performance.  MRIs have shown that self-directed models of coaching lead to positive emotions and a willingness to be coached, whereas critical coaching produces defensiveness and a decreased capacity for visioning and problem solving.

Talking about your thinking is much better than simply thinking privately because talking increases brain activity, speeding up and increasing both learning and the ability to apply learning to new situations.   The coachee learns by focusing on a new desired state, while the coach paraphrases, decreasing the load on the prefrontal cortex of the coachee.  It's important for coaches to pause as well as ask questions, since the mind needs time to reflect and make new connections. Questions that include positive presuppositions suggest the coachee is capable of self-direction and this in turn increases the release of dopamine which leads to more prefrontal activity.

Daniel Pink has written about how autonomy is a basic human motivator.  If the coach is acting in a evaluative or judgemental way the brain reacts by shifting to pleasing others and trying to perform in a way that will not provoke a threat.  Judgements also lead the brain to inhibit thinking while it deals with the threat, so when a coachee experiences judgement, it is not likely that new thinking will occur.  A cognitive coach therefore does not give either judgement or constructive feedback, but instead asks questions that facilitate new pathways and connections in the brain of the coachee.

Leaders of coaching programs must become advocates for using new insights from the neurosciences for rethinking counterproductive practices.  Unless we do so, schools will be doomed to the status quo. - Michael Dolcemascolo and Carolee Hayes

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Assessment and grading

Each year at ASB we have a summer read, and this year our book is On Your Mark:  Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting by Thomas R. Guskey, a profession of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky College of Education.  This post is going to reflect my thinking about assessment, based on reading this book.

Guskey starts with a historical look at grades - at one time only a few students with talent and ability completed school and went on to college, whereas the majority learned only what was needed to gain meaningful employment in an industrial society.  This called to mind my experience of school in the UK in the 1970s, where many students left school at 16 to enter the world of work, a minority stayed on to do A' Levels and an even smaller percentage - less than 10% - went to university.  Today the figure in the UK is very different with around 50% of 18 year olds going on to further education.  Guskey points out that we are no longer educating students for an industrial society as modern technology is making many of these jobs obsolete.  Our new information society places more value on flexibility, creativity and initiative and in a constantly evolving world of work we need all students to learn well and develop their unique talents.

Guskey ends the introduction to his book with a warning:  teachers who question traditions and the status quo are not likely to be popular and may be seen as troublemakers.  However he points out that "true leadership in education isn't about being popular or well liked [but] about doing what's right to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of young people .... Sometimes that means stirring things up, asking hard questions, pushing for change."

The Purpose of Grading and Reporting
Teachers generally put these into 6 categories:

  1. Communicating information about students' achievements to parents and others
  2. Providing information to students for self-evaluation
  3. Selecting students for certain educational paths or programmes
  4. Providing incentives for students to learn
  5. Evaluating the effectiveness of instructional programmes
  6. Providing evidence of students' lack of effort or inappropriate responsibility
One issues, however, is that teachers don't all agree on which purpose is most important, and therefore try to address all these purposes with a single report card - despite the fact that some of these purposes are counter to others.  Guskey therefore argues that schools need to define the purpose of grades on a report card by asking the following questions:
  • What information will be communicated in the report card?
  • Who is the primary audience?
  • What is the goal of the communication - how should it be used?
The Problem with the Bell Curve
Many grading systems use a bell curve to show how students' performances compare with that of their classmates (normative grading).  Guskey writes about how this leads to learning becoming highly competitive and outdoing your classmates, so it acts against working together and helping others to attain shared leaning goals.  He writes, "Learning becomes a game of winners and losers, and because the number of high grades is kept arbitrarily small, most students are forced to be losers."  His argument is that students should be competing against academic standards, not each other.

Different Perspectives, Beliefs and Values
I was interesting in reading this section, as I have just completed the Advanced Cognitive Coaching training which asks us to consider deeply held beliefs and values when coaching.  As far as assessment and grading are concerned, some educators believe that grading should be used to discriminate among students by identifying differences in their performance (normative grading). These educators want assessments that maximize the difference between students and so tend to grade on a curve, which does not show what students are able to do.  Others believe that we teach to have all students learn, therefore grades should reflect how much students have learned, accomplished or achieved (criterion grading). based on standards.  These teachers aim to develop and nurture talent to help all students meet the standards, rather than to use assessments to discriminate, sort and select.

Purposes and Criteria
Since most teachers want grades to describe how well students have reached the learning goal, they need to consider what criteria are used to determine grades.  These fall into 3 main categories:
  1. Product criteria - favoured by standards-based or performance-based approaches - that lead to a summative evaluation of achievement and performance.
  2. Process criteria - that reflect how students achieved the final grades - including effort and work habits.
  3. Progress criteria - to assess how much students have improved over time.
Teachers often point out that if they only use product criteria, some students receive high grades with little effort, whereas the hard work of less talented students may be unacknowledged, and low-ability students who have to work the hardest to succeed have the least incentive to do so.  Students who cannot accept that high effort can still result in low grades often become indifferent or disruptive in school.  Guskey advocates for using multiple grades as a more valid and appropriate measure of student achievement and performance.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

SCARF - the social needs of the brain

During our Advanced Cognitive Coaching course last week we did a lot of work on deep structures (beliefs, values, assumptions, identity).  We also did a reading adapted from David Rock's Your Brain at Work, which helped us to realize how important it is to take account of the way our brains impact our thinking.  One thing that we do not want to do, during coaching, is to provoke anxiety, sadness or fear.  The acronym SCARF helps us to remember the social needs of the brain during coaching.  SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Status - our importance to others, which is critical to our sense of wellbeing. While your brain cannot re-experience physical pain by remembering it, this is not true of social pain, which can be experienced over and over again.  In fact just having a conversation with someone of "higher" status can trigger negative responses, especially in organizations/schools where there are many people who are seeking status.  In a coaching conversation, therefore, it's important to be aware that giving answers or solutions can trigger strong status threats because it gives the person giving the feedback (the coach) a higher status than the coachee.  This is also the reason why a coach should not be an evaluator, as this can also decrease autonomy and relatedness in the coachee.

Certainty - our ability to predict the future.  Our brains want certainty and like being able to predict what is likely to happen, and this is one reason why change is difficult to implement.  Our intelligence is based on our capacity to gather data and make predictions about the future and our brains are unconsciously monitoring millions of environmental cues to help meet our need for certainty.

Autonomy - our ability to control events in our lives and be self-determining.  In fact the control we hold over our lives determines whether a stressor is seen as a threat.  Having choices increases our sense of both autonomy and certainty, which is why in coaching we will ask questions using tentative language and use plurals that imply choice.

Relatedness - our feeling of safety with others.  Our brains are quick to assess whether a person is a friend or a foe, and if the cues are unclear we tend to default to seeing someone in a negative way, which our brains react to as a threat.  On the other hand our brains release oxytocin when feelings of relatedness are strong, leading to increased trust.  Relatedness also corresponds to status as when status is threatened, relatedness is reduced and threat is increased causing stress.

Fairness - our perception of fair exchanges.  We learned that a sense of fairness may well be the most important of all the elements of SCARF and that it is as critical to wellbeing as food and shelter. In schools and other organizations fairness can be a source of threat or reward.  When a person perceives s/he is being treated unfairly there is a strong response in the limbic system of the brain, whereas when fairness is present there is an increase in oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin that lead to more activity in the prefrontal cortex - which leads to more thinking and decision making.  Fairness also supports a greater willingness to connect with others.  In places where there is a lack of fairness, collaboration is unlikely to be successful.

One of the things we did during our course last week was to work on a case study.  While up to now we have considered the states of mind of the coachee, we are now starting to see how focusing on the deep structures and the social needs of the brain can be even more important things to consider in our coaching conversations.  For me, I'm certainly going to pay more attention to these, in particular to people's need for status and fairness, in my conversations in the future.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Flipped Learning and Bloom's Taxonomy

While I was at the ISTE Conference last month I attended a presentation on flipped learning by Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams.  The essential question that was being addressed was what is the best use of face-to-face class time?  Bloom's Taxonomy has often been seen as a pyramid, with the higher level thinking skills on the top - and that this equates to the amount of time spent on thinking in the traditional classroom, with a lot of remembering and understanding and very little analysis, evaluation and creating, which may be assigned for homework.  Some people have suggested that with the flipped classroom, the pyramid should be flipped so that the time spent at home is on learning the content (remembering and understanding) and the majority of class time is spent, not on the bottom two tiers of Bloom's, but on applying, evaluating and creating. Jon and Aaron don't agree - they said this is more the model for doing a PhD, rather than what you would expect to see in a flipped classroom.  They suggest that the best model for class time in a flipped learning model should be more like a diamond, with most of what goes on in class being in the middle levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.

They addressed critics that flipped learning can't happen in (American) schools because of the inequitable access to technology in students' homes.  They pointed out that in fact 95% of American kids do have access to the internet at home, and that for the small number who do not it should be possible for teachers to come up with interventions to find ways around this.  In answer to critics that some students won't do the content learning at home, they suggest having exciting things to do in school for the students who have watched the videos.  The ones who haven't watched them will have to spend the class time catching up instead of engaging in the more exciting learning engagements in class.  Jon and Aaron believe very much in face to face human interaction between students and teachers - they want to reclaim the majority of class time back for this.

John Bergmann spoke with real honesty about how the world is changing from a time when he first started teaching when the knowledge was either in the head of the teacher or in a book in the library.  He explained that he did "the lecture thing" for 19 years before deciding to do something different - and that for those 19 years he would have rated himself as a very good teacher who gave quality instruction in class.  However he talked about the fact that we are now in the middle of a transition as students are now going online to learn.  In particular he talked about how even elementary students are learning how to do things on YouTube, where they can rewind to check to see if they are doing something correctly. Aaron Sams referred to this as being the "default setting" for students.

Jon and Aaron shared the research from Robert Marzano based on 2 million classes throughout the USA.  This research shows the % of time spent in these classes on lecture, practice and higher order thinking.  The statistics are as follows:
  • 58% of class time is currently spent on interacting with new content (mostly lecture)
  • 36% of class time is spent on practising and deepening content
  • 6% of class time is spent on cognitively complex tasks involving generating and testing hypotheses.
Clearly not much has changed since the term "sage on the stage -v- guide on the side" was coined over 30 years ago!  Aaron and Jon challenged us to "change the 58%" through considering using a flipped learning approach.

They shared 20 ideas from teachers who have successfully flipped for what to do in class once the content was being delivered at home.  Here are their ideas:
  1. Guided practice
  2. Peer tutoring - students helping each other
  3. Structured small group work - 
  4. Activities - Jon and Aaron talked about how it is a mistake to try to do "cool activities" every day as there needs to be time for teachers to walk around and help students.  They suggest a good balance is 75% of time spent on processing and 25% of time spent on activities.
  5. Interactive notebooks with QR codes that link to a video.  This means it is possible to mix up the flipped classroom with students also able to watch videos in school
  6. Mastery organization - students have to master something before they move on.  In these classrooms there must be objectives with benchmarks that students master before they move on.
  7. Flipping instructions so students watch how to do something at home before coming in to do it in class (application).  They suggested making "Here's how to ...." short videos.
  8. Recording others' experiments using devices in school (application) as students record and make their own videos.  It's also possible to record students explaining what is happening and students can then watch each others' videos.
  9. Simulations (application and analysis) followed by a video to supplement learning.
  10. Manipulatives (application and analysis)
  11. Rethinking the timing of homework checks.  They talked about how before flipping they spent the first 15 minutes of each class going over homework, then 20 minutes teaching new content, then 10 minutes of practice.  Now the sequence is to first spend 10 minutes discussing the homework video, around 30 minutes practicing new content, and around 5 minutes going over this classwork.
  12. The station model (analysis and evaluation) made up of 3 in-class stations of research, writing and projects/making
  13. Flipping the writing workshop to one on one by making a audio file for students to listen to in class with teacher comments.  This involves analysis and evaluation.  Students can listen to the audio files at home and then make their revisions in class.  Apparently this takes no more time than one on one conferences in class and has the advantage of freeing up the teacher to help with the editing in class.
  14. Choice boards
  15. Choice days and activity days (applying, analysing, evaluating) with learning choice paths where students can choose to view the teacher created video, read a book or access the content on iTunes U, followed by them choosing to create a poster, write a news story etc to show their understanding.
  16. Other teachers have used more of an inquiry approach so students first explore, then watch a flipped video, then apply.  This means they develop their own conceptual understanding through exploration and then look at the flipped videos to consolidate this in the middle of the learning cycle.
  17. Stages - where students learn how to perform a task using a flipped video, then in class they execute the task and collect the data.  Then they analyse the data and construct formula or functions that explain the data.
  18. The "In-Flip" where the video is a station within the class.  This can be popular in elementary classrooms where half the class can watch a video while the other half work with the teacher.
  19. Using the flipped video to get students excited about something - for example video story problems.  Pose the question on the video to have students think about at home, and then have them solve the problem in class.
  20. Student created content - students can create their own videos in class that can be used with the following year's students.  The idea behind this is that you really need to know something to be able to teach it to others.
Do you have other examples of how class time can be better used in the flipped learning model?  If so leave a comment below to share these ideas.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Coaching teachers using the 6 domains of inquiry

What do teachers talk about in coaching conversations?  Often it can be divided into 6 main areas, and a coach can support teachers to plan and reflect by asking questions around these 6 domains of inquiry.  These questions are aimed at exploring teaching and learning, rather than a teacher's internal resourcefulness, and I find them really useful to have in the back of my mind when coaching.
  1. Content knowledge - the key concepts and skills that are required to learn the academic discipline.  Teachers who have a deep knowledge of content are more effective at diagnosing and anticipating student misunderstandings.  An examples of content knowledge questions include: "What might students need to know to understand the main idea?"
  2. Pedagogy - the art and science of teaching.  Teaches make decisions about instruction by drawing from a wide and varied repertoire, based on formative and summative assessment.  An examples of pedagogical questions include: "What might be some strategies you could use in keeping all the students engaged?"
  3. Knowledge of students and how they learn - teachers understand the needs of students at various ages and their individual needs as learners, including their strengths and weaknesses.  An example of this type of question would be: "How did your understanding of your students' cultures influence your decision?"
  4. Self-knowledge - this involves a teacher looking inward to examine his or her strengths and weaknesses, values and beliefs, for example their standards of excellence or their own learning style.  It's interesting that teachers need to overcome the tendency to teach in the same way as they learn.  A self-knowledge question might be: "What might be some of the ways in which this lesson stretched your style?"
  5. Knowledge of the cognitive processes of instruction - these are the internal thought processes of a teacher and affect areas such as planning, monitoring student engagement, using data in decision-making and so on.  A question in this area might be: "As you were planning the lesson, what were some of the criteria you used to access higher order thinking?"
  6. Knowledge of collegial interaction - teachers who collaborate in communities of practice, both online and in their schools, grow as professionals and get better results for more students.  A question that may prompt thought about the effects of teacher collaboration might be: "What are some of the ways your interactions with your colleagues assisted you with this lesson?"
Questions such as these, that promote thought and reflection, can have a huge impact on student learning, as teachers become more intentional and self-directed in improving their craft.

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

We do not learn from experience


Over the past year I have engaged in 8 days of foundation training in Cognitive Coaching (in June, November and March) and so this summer it was time to start on the advanced course with the aim of refining and extending my coaching capabilities.  For me coaching is definitely a journey - one that people can be on for decades as they hone their skills and evolve in their identities and mediators of thinking. I feel like I have come a long way this year.

And so, as John Dewey said, it's now time to reflect on my experience and to learn from it. It occurs to me that I have now been in India longer than I was in Switzerland. This seems strange to me because my years in India have flown past, whereas my time in Switzerland seemed to move forward in slow motion.

One of the participants on my course was talking about how she wants to be a supportive leader to help new staff to integrate better at her school. She talked about how her own transition to her school had been easy - and how the school she works in is such a great school - and how difficult she finds it when new people who come to her school have a hard time, because her school does so much to support new people. When I reflected on my own experience of transitions it occurred to me that it's not a simple case of A+B=C. I have been tremendously sad to leave one excellent school, and yet still made an easy transition to the next one. Then later, I made what I thought was going to be an easy transition back to Europe again, only to find that despite living in the most beautiful country in the world with an incredibly high standard and quality of living, I was completely thrown by how hard it was to adjust to my new school. Only now, three years later, am I really able to try to reflect on this experience and learn from it and ask the questions about why I found it so hard.

What I have come to see during our week of advanced Cognitive Coaching is that I was looking at the top of the iceberg and seeing that everything on the surface looked fine. On the face of it, living and working in Switzerland should certainly have been an easier experience than living and working in a challenging country like India. Yet that hasn't been the case. I've come to realise that it's what is below the surface that is so vitally important. It's the shared beliefs and values - the match between mine and the school's - that lead to successful transitions. And what I faced - the thing that up to now I couldn't even identify let alone name - was a mismatch between these beliefs and values and my identity. We also talked about mental models - the assumptions that we carry in our minds about ourselves, other people and institutions. This has been described by Peter Senge as "a pane of glass framing and subtly distorting our vision" and that "differences between these explain why people can observe the same event and describe it differently: they are paying attention to different details." And I guess that was true for me.

When I think about the 5 states of mind, I was certainly low in consciousness. I had no idea that my frustration came from these different beliefs and values that were perceived as a threat to my identity. I was also low in efficacy, feeling trapped in a bad situation for 3 years until my daughter could graduate. I think I was low in craftsmanship and flexibility too - never having been in a similar situation before, I had no survival skills to draw on to help me navigate the difficult waters. The surface of the iceberg looked beautiful, but deep under the water it was treacherous and deadly. Actually I am not alone: for many people their beliefs, values, identity and assumptions are not well explored by them or understood. It has taken me six years to finally come face to face with mine.

We talked about the fact that there is something even deeper in us than our deep structures and these are called our reference structure. These are built up from life experiences and the important events and people who have shaped them. These are definitely not the domain of cognitive coaching - you mostly need the help of a therapist to get to these and you need to go back into your past to come to resolution and to build new structures. Cognitive coaching, on the other hand, starts with the present, acknowledges the emotion, but doesn't dwell on it, and immediately looks towards the desired state, the goal, and the way to make that happen.

I have two more weeks of vacation before flying back to India for Year 4 at ASB. While I may not have internet for much of this time at my mother's I've decided that I will journal every day instead and reflect on my learning in this advanced course. I will probably collect all these posts and then publish them when I'm back online again. I'll be thinking about the 6 domains of inquiry, the social needs of the brain, the calibrating conversation, and what neuroscience can teach us about coaching. I'm hoping that these posts may well be useful to other teachers who are exploring coaching as a powerful learning tool.