Saturday, 22 June 2019

"Experimental school"? What rubbish .. we should all be!!!

This weekend I had the displeasure of reading a piece in the Christchurch Press that labelled Haeata, our relatively new school in the eastern suburbs, an 'experimental school'.

Senior Haeata Community Campus students are unhappy with their school's alternative "self-directed" learning model. Year 13 students, Rebecca Thompson-Looij, 17, left, Kristina Varbai, 17, Chloe Steere, 17, Jamie O'Hagen, 17, and Alex O'Hagen, 17.

The article then went on to pour scorn on the school and its approaches to causing learning. The commentary, and those 'public comments' (many, I'll wager, from folk who have never set foot in the doors) was disparaging at best. The whole piece is an outstanding example of confirmation bias. Many (including the media, in my opinion) have already decided that this school is failing, that its methodology is flawed, that it is not serving its community at all well. In the finest tradition of confirmation bias they then simply leap upon any evidence that they think they can find to confirm their opinion, their belief, with little or no attempt to inform themselves, no attempt to look for let alone even consider data that might possibly be contrary to their own views.

And frankly I have rarely read such ill-informed rubbish.

Haeata is not, in my opinion, an 'experimental school'. It is in fact an example of what all schools and all teachers should be (and often are) doing: attempting to modify practice to improve student engagement and achievement.

Criticism of such work is rooted fairly and squarely in the ignorance of the view that what we have done for the past 200 years is THE BEST way to cause learning. Yet the evidence is there for all to see. We bemoan the PISA results that show we have a large tail of underachievement in New Zealand. As a system we disproportionately fail children who are not white skinned, we disproportionately fail children who come from impoverished backgrounds. How can that be deemed to be success? We systemically embed failure for a significant proportion of our population, and at a time when diversity is growing, we cannot stand back and allow this to happen. Morally it is not just wrong, it is corrupt, to stand back and allow this to happen. Economically I believe that we are all poorer by significant margins if we do not allow the talent that we have across the whole population to be developed. I have not seen the data on the economic costs of failure across our school system, but I'll wager that it is very large.

All schools work hard to create and sustain what we call a 'culture of inquiry'. That is, from individual teachers to whole schools, we want the sector to be looking at what is working and what is not, to try new things in our efforts to improve engagement and ultimately outcomes for all of our tamariki, to gather data along the way that informs us on what is working and what is not.

Haeata is an easy target for critics because it has attempted to scale this innovation and inquiry up to a school wide level. and it stands alone, a single target easy to identify and target. Media snipers will feel as if they are having a field day.  Yet we are all doing this. At Hornby High School we are innovating with our pedagogy (Learn Create Share, and Manaiakalani), and our 'connected curriculum'. We are part of a collective whole (The Manaiakalani Project) that is attempting to make a real difference, the data showing that we are. We are in the business of changing lives, of changing society. As a kura we aspire to be a centre of creative excellence. We aspire to create new frameworks from which to cause learning, we aspire to develop creativity amongst our students and our staff. We aspire to improve engagement for our rangatahi and so to improve educational outcomes.

Only those who have historically been successful could object to this. They have a vested interest to protect, because their power rests in educational inequity. 'Keep the masses in their place' might well be their clarion call. I've used this image before, and it bodes repeating, it is so powerful.

Image result for equality equity liberation

Haeata's educational journey is not Hornby High School's journey, and nor should it be. Our own journey is intended to respond to our community's needs, it seeks to build on what is there already. It is based on a solid foundation of direct instruction, while actively looking for other ways to engage students in authentic contexts. As I have commented in other posts, we are not there yet, but we are on the way with one heck of a journey. In my opinion revolutionary change in existing schools is something of a recipe for disaster. In my opinion evolutionary change is much more likely to be successful, it is much more likely to be supported and to be sustainable. Therefore it is much more likely to address the inequities that I believe are currently embedded in our system, be they race based or socio-economically based. 'One step at a time'.

What's more, at Hornby High School our assessment of how to change is different to that adopted at Haeata. Our philosophy is different, our pedagogy is different. That doesn't make us more right, nor Haeata less right. It makes us different, it marks us as mindful of our communities.

However, all of this change takes place on the foundation of robust 'inquiry', on a foundation of evidence. Within Hornby High School (and in fact across our cluster Uru Mānuka) our staff connect in Professional Learning Groups that undertake joint inquiry, based on hunches, on what their next steps to improve outcomes for our students might be. These hunches are developed into small bite sized chunks of action that are tested. Data is gathered to determine if they worked or not, and then a new iteration of action and data is developed. Some work, some don't, but it's the right way to do this. It is the ERO view of what best practice looks like if we are to improve schools. By its very nature, it is 'experimental'.

To label Haeata as an 'experimental school' is a nonsense. We all should be 'experimental schools', and if that is interpreted as 'schools trying to develop better ways to engage students, to empower and liberate students so that they can have the lives and the futures that they deserve', then I would unashamedly adopt that same title for Hornby High school.

In my opinion, the words have been used by the Press writer as if to imply some sort of shortcoming, some sort of failure. We have a right to expect better from our media, and we have a right to expect improvement from our schools.

It is Albert Einstein who is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Yet such media commentary would seem to judge any attempt at doing things differently as failure.

I tell our staff that we need to be innovative, that the moral imperative demands that we change. I make the point that this involves taking risks, and that therefore by definition sometimes we fail. I tell our staff team that failing is okay by me. This is the very thing we want our young people to understand, we want them to take risks with their learning because that is how they learn and grow. We cannot then sit back and not do the same thing ourselves. We don't want our children to just be consumers of information, we want them to be creators. Our own Learn Create Share has that word 'create' at its centre for a reason.

The work going on around the future of work indicates that we will increasingly demand different things from our population, and particularly from our children as they mature into functioning adults. What we have done in the last will no longer 'cut the mustard'.

So how about applauding the innovation that is being attempted at Haeata, and while we are there let's applaud the innovation that is going an right across our school system. To object to that innovation and change is to express the desire to keep our current power relationships as they are, to keep the masses in their place.

How dare you!!!

Robin Sutton
Hornby High School

Friday, 14 June 2019

Changing curriculum - another piece of the achievement puzzle.

‘Mā te huruhuru, ka rere te manu’
‘Feathers enable the bird to fly’
( or 'Be prepared, have the right tools to achieve').

So says our beautiful whakatauki, gifted to our kura in 2017 by Ngai Tahu. It rather beautifully captures our reason for being. It tells us that we want our tamariki to 'fly', to be successful in their lives. It also tells us that we have to give them the correct 'tools' to succeed. The tools that our tamariki need to succeed have changed in many ways, although there are still many fundamental components that look exactly as they have always done.

These are perhaps best described by the 'Key competencies' described in the first half of our national curriculum, and they are:

  • thinking.
  • using language, symbols, and texts.
  • managing self.
  • relating to others.
  • participating and contributing.

All too often I hear the cry that as a result of the focus on the key competencies we no longer value knowledge in education in New Zealand, that 'knowing stuff' no longer matters. Utter nonsense!

Take the first competency listed above: thinking.

You cannot think in a vacuum. You have to have 'stuff' to think about, you have to 'know stuff' in order to be able to think. Schools first have to teach knowledge so that they can then develop thinking in students. The question open for debate is exactly what knowledge matters? Twenty years ago calculus was considered indispensable, but now maybe less so.

What is changing perhaps more than anything else though is how we do that. Schools all across the globe are rethinking curriculum - the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and attributes, that we teach.
Hornby High School is no different, and over the past three years we have been 'playing in the sandpit', trying out newer different ways of structuring and causing learning to improve outcomes for all of our learners. After all, across New Zealand, some groups of students do very well, while others have traditionally not done as well, and this is not good enough.

Central to our work so far has been our Learn Create Share pedagogy which we are still progressively implementing as part of our participation in the Manaiakalani programme, the benefits amplified by our use of Chromebooks and the ever growing range of digital tools. This pedagogy alone has already begun to show very significant improvement in student achievement, especially in writing, and you can see a previous post on that data here.

But what about how we structure the learning, and what students actually learn?

Beginning in 2016 we began some trails based around project based learning. From our learning in these trials, in 20198 we looked further into the operation of 'passion projects' for students. The learning from these trials was immense and lead to the formulation of our new Year 7 & 8 curriculum/timetable structure, our aim being to improve student engagement and achievement by building a solid foundation of literacy and numeracy (that's not new, we've always tried to do that) and then approaching traditional silo'd subjects in a more integrated way. We were inspired to quite a degree by colleagues at Campion College. So here is the structure we have been using in 2019:

The 'Hurumanu' blocks are perhaps the most interesting. We have a home room teacher working with a subject specialist. They design units that cover literacy and numeracy, the key competencies, and the specialist subject areas from the back half of the curriculum. For example a Hurumanu might include the homeroom teacher and an art teacher, or a PE teacher, or a science teacher.

The advantages that we have seen are significant. Students see specialist subjects in context. Home room teachers get to share the specialist knowledge of the secondary trained subject specialists, while the secondary subject specialists get to share in some of that rich pedagogy that is a part of a primary trained specialist's background.

The Wednesday 'Community Impact Projects/passion projects' have seen significant rises in student engagement. Students get the opportunity to tackle things they are passionate about, or to undertake real world projects that make a difference in their local community. Much of the data round this is still qualitative, observational, but what we think we are seeing is pretty powerful. Staff ensure that to some degree traditional curriculum learning is built into the projects too. These are as much a 'social enterprise' as anything else. We just don't give them the fancy/trendy names. We are simply honest about what they are, no fancy marketing spin here.

The 'Tane Mahuta' group for example are busily tree planting, composting, and generally improving their environment. They have learned a lot of science along the way.

This is a snapshot from the Tane Mahuta Community Impact Project group recently. The students were putting down some bark around the native garden area. It sums up how engaged the students (particularly the boys) were! 
These projects support the development of student 'agency', the idea that students increasingly have control over what they learn. This is essential to improved engagement, and therefore improved achievement.

Is this the 'holy grail', the ideal state? Nope!!! Staff already have plans to amend/improve/evolve this structure. We are also considering rolling this structure out to students in Year 9 too.

Beneath all of this change The Manaiakalani Programme stilkl sits as the essential approach to learning, and this is all a part of our journey towards that 'centre of creative excellence'.

Change is a difficult thing to embrace. It creates anxiety for everyone. We have taken a 'steady as she goes' approach, I believe in evolution rather than revolution when it comes to school change in existing schools. We have tried to make sure that staff have the time to be reflective, to adjust their practice, to get comfortable collaborating with each other. Being gentle, being kind, not only applies to the students. There is urgency to this change, but there is little point in forcing the pace of change if it means we leave figurative 'bodies' littered by the wayside. Our teachers are too precious to burn them off in our quest for change. However change must occur, because our rangatahi are too precious to leave languishing in the past. That is the moral imperative.

In the context of recent industrial action by teachers, I think it is important to be aware of the work that teachers do that is challenging and innovative, that pushes them beyond their comfort zones, and so creates its own stresses. I am personally grateful to be part of a team that is so willing to do this, to push back boundaries because it understands the need to keep improving the outcomes for our rangatahi, because it understands the moral imperative of equitable outcomes for all learners regardless of gender, race, culture or orientation. Without our teachers thing can never improve for our young people. We need to be grateful that so many have remained in our profession.

And of course this doesn't address the changes that we are likely to see at the senior/NCEA years, but that is another story. What I am convinced of is that without good solid engagement and achievement at this junior level, outcomes for senior students cannot and will not improve. These junior years set the solid foundation for that senior years achievement. In the same way that you cannot build a long lasting house without good foundations, so you cannot create good qualifications achievement without a good foundation in junior years curriculum and achievement.

Are we there yet? Nope. Are we on the journey? Most definitely.

Robin Sutton
Te Huruhuru Ao o Horomaka Hornby High School

Saturday, 1 June 2019

What do teachers make?

What's the 'real oil' with these teacher strikes? As a member of the teaching profession for 40 years I've been thinking about this question, and what I see is not a pretty picture.

We have now been through 35 years of right wing free market ideology. The 'benefits' of the free market began to impact significantly on western economies in the 1970s as economist Milton Friedman began his crusade in pursuit of the free market. I well remember using his landmark television series 'Free to choose' with countless classes of Year 12 economics students.  It was the ideology of the day, and it made so much sense.

At the time his arguments seemed to be pretty powerful, and they significantly influenced the policies of the governments lead by Margaret Thatcher (UK) and Ronald Regan (USA), and ultimately the work of Roger Douglas in our fourth Labour government elected in 1984.

The argument was that we should have less government and more 'free market' (where the free market was the sum total of the individual choices of buyers and sellers). Friedman argued (amongst other things) that governments are not well equipped to make decisions for individuals, and that in fact we got the best outcomes for society if we allow the individual to make her or his own choices.

How is that connected with considerations of current industrial action by teachers? The free market view is that all workers are paid what they are worth, and the market will determine that 'worth'. All prices are the result of agreement between buyers (in this case, schools, and the Ministry of Education) and sellers (teachers).

However the view is flawed at such a fundamental level. Any student of economics should be able to tell you that markets only work effectively if a series of basic assumptions hold true. Amongst others, the market model assumes:

  • There is consumer sovereignty (that is, buyers have total control over what they do)
  • There is perfect knowledge (so everyone knows EVERYTHING they need in order to undertake a trade)
  • All resources are perfectly mobile (not just geographically, but also in terms of what they know and how they might be used.. in labour terms, they are meant to be able to undertake any activity
  • There are a large number of buyers and sellers, so many in fact that the actions of no one buyer or seller is able to influence the market.
There are others, but that's enough to be going on with. This is called perfect competition. In the context of the real world, this is clearly a load of nonsense. There is actually only one buyer in the state sector, for example, and that is the Ministry of Education (this is called a monopsony.. only one buyer). But even if every school were totally independent in this regard, there are still not sufficient buyers to make that assumption true.

Now how is that meant to work?

Take a parallel example. Let's say we are thinking about widgets. If there is a shortage of widgets the price goes up. This brings more widgets into the market, and reduces the quantities that buyers want to buy, bringing the market to equilibrium with fewer widgets selling at higher prices.

This does not and cannot happen with teachers. The industrial bargaining model prevents prices from moving freely, and you cannot simply conjure up more teachers.

And then there is the argument about 'performance pay'. which I heard raise its head again. 'Ah well, you see, we should be able to pay teachers in relation to the results they produce'. They should be paid in relation to the results they produce.' This argument is so bizarre, I struggle to see how any right thinking human being can continue to consider it, unless of course we understand that those people completely fail  to understand the complexities of education. There are so many impacts on learning outcomes, so many of which are beyond the control of schools and teachers.

Those that know me know that I do NOT accept deficit theorising, the view that we can do nothing because all these things are beyond our control. We make a difference because we focus on the things we can control. Perhaps the biggest flaw with the performance pay argument is that education outcomes are the result of collaborative activity, not the work of one single teacher. So whether it's the school culture driven by the Principal and senior leadership team, the work of each and every individual teacher, the amazing welcome each student gets as she or he passes the staff member on duty at the gate, or the staff member working at the reception desk, or benefits from the fact that the toilets and classrooms are well maintained by a fantastic group of property care specialists. All of these things impact on the educational outcomes that come from the school. So whose performance do you think can be separated out and paid accordingly?

So where does that leave us? It certainly destroys the free marketeers' arguments about the supposed worth of teachers. What's more, it denies the fundamental impact of good teachers on society as a whole. Their 'output' is not a series of widgets that people then buy. Their output is the fundamental fabric of society, the very humanity of us as people, our ability to create a caring world AS WELL AS our ability to be productive units in some economic machine. Yes BOTH are important.

What do teachers make? George Schultz put it so well:

Image result for snoopy cartoon what do teachers make?

The worth of teachers is to be found in their caring, their humanity. All schools need the same fundamentals to be successful, and this begins with the need for strong positive caring relationships. Schools need people who can empathise, people who can connect with the wide range of tamariki, of rangatahi, that society produces. Those relationships are built over the 6 hours of the school day, AND over happens way beyond that time. They happen with the teachers who spend their nights away giving children that senior geography trip, they happen with the teachers who leave their own families behind to take students to the theatre, or the calculator or maths competition, the kapahaka competition or the choral festival, the outdoor education camp in the mountains or the basketball game on a Tuesday evening.

Add to that the increasing complexity of the teacher's job. Children and their needs are becoming more complex, and teachers are all too often starved of the support resources that our children need. Most weeks, as a Principal, I face the challenge of how to meet the needs of children that the system starves of support. We live with the hope that this week's budget announcements may mean that our children can better access the mental health support and resources they need. When I see colleagues break down in tears of frustration as support is denied the children they try to support, when I see colleagues breaking down in tears of fear at the thought that this lack of resources puts these young people's lives at risk, I know we have sat quiet for too long. I have sat quiet for too long.

This is not an 8 hour a day job, 48 weeks of the year. It is definitely not a 6 hour a day 40 weeks of the year job, as some would suggest. 12 weeks holiday a year? Don' t make me laugh. Everything that happens in the classroom for 5 hours a day had to be planned and developed outside of that 5 hours a day, assessed outside that 5 hours a day, with feedback given to students outside that 5 hours a day. It often happens at ten o'clock at night as teachers sit with their laptop on their knees, having put their own children to bed, or come home from that sports practice or game that had to happen in the evening because there are not enough hours in the 'normal' school day for them to happen, or not enough court space for them to play on before 5pm.

Teachers care, just as nurses, police, and other social support professionals care. Yes they get paid, yes they do this as a job, but trust me when I say this is not and never has been a job you do for the money. People work in education because they want to make a difference, and because they CARE. However, because of their implicit drivers they also need to be able to do that job well, and frustration has never been higher.

Teachers' industrial action is partly based on the need for better remuneration. The shortage of teachers tells us that the money is not enough.  But it is also driven by their innate desire to do the right thing for our learners and whānau, driven by the moral imperative of trying to enable every child to be the best that she or he can be. Actually, we are ALL better off if this happens, even if we are amongst the more privileged in society.

To those who say, 'hey if you don't like it, go and find a better job', I say 'imagine what would happen if we all did that'. The strike last week showed the chaos caused if 50000+ teachers were NOT in our schools. I feel angry when I see responses to strike action that simply support the view that schools are little more than free child care. Schools, and therefore teachers, are the basic driver to social and economic progress. If we take the long view that our 2019 'wellbeing budget' espouses, NOTHING is more important than education because it is the driver of improved social and economic conditions for us all.  It is THE best investment a government can make in society.

To those who say teaching is a 6 hours a day, 40 weeks of the year, job, I say please come and join the queue of people fighting against each other to get into the profession. Oh wait, there are no queues? Oh.. doesn't that tell you something? If this was such a well paid profession, if this was such an easy ride, if the conditions were so good, people would be falling over themselves to get in.

They are not!!!

I regularly struggle wth the teacher shortage. It is NOT invented, it is real. Young people (in fact all people) are turning away for teaching as a career option to such an extent that we cannot find good teachers. Recruitment has become a competitive exercise. The net result of this must be that we create winners and losers in society. Remember that these winners and losers are our children before you go in to bat for competition.

What do teachers make? They make a difference, that's what they make. In fact, they make THE difference. An investment in teachers is the most important investment that we can make in our future. This is worth fighting for, because it is our future. It is the future for our children, and our children's future.

Robin Sutton
Te Huruhuru Ao o Horomaka Hornby High School