Saturday, 25 April 2020

It's the learning that's the thing

With forty years of experience in education, I continue to be gobsmacked at the arrogance with which we seem at times to think about 'education'. Perhaps the problem lies with the word itself, it almost seems to posit the idea that 'education' and 'learning' are totally different things, which in turn seems to lead us to think that one thing is possibly more important than the other.

But it's the 'learning' that's the thing, isn't it? If you disagree, then you are certainly going to find the rest of what you are about to read rather challenging. I suggest you stop right now.

Still with me?

I more and more frequently laugh at our professional conceit when we assume that teenagers will sit down in front of us when we tell them to do so, to learn what we tell them to learn, the way we tell them to learn it. 'Damn it all, do as you are told, we know what's best for you'. Of course to some degree we DO know much about what young people need to know and to be able to do in order to be more fulfilled human beings, better able to participate in our society, and we do so within the framework of a national curriculum which is still amongst the best in the world.

If I reflect on my own learning it is, these days, almost always 'just in time' learning. I learned how to use Screencastify four weeks ago because i realised that writing lots of words for our community (not just now but at any time) is NOT the best way to communicate. Job done!!! I can now make Screencastify recordings at will, although I am still not yet very accepting of hearing and seeing myself.. my inner vice says "EEEwwwwwkkk .. b***y hell".

If we accept that it's the 'learning' that's the thing, then I suspect that you are highly likely to agree that there are many different paths to learning. The concept I am hedging around here is what in the educational jargon we call 'agency': our capacity and the capability to determine what we will learn, when, and to some degree how.

Now I'm not trained in primary education, so don't know what this could/should look like for younger children, but for secondary aged/teenage learners I think I have a little more clarity. Our own Hornby High School experiences with distance learning have put the spotlight on some of these issues.

Here is one absolutely delightful example of what I mean. A staff member emailed me with this after a GoogleMeet with members of her Year 12 form class.

"<Teacher A> said XXXX had made a bonfire in the backyard, XXXX told me in Classics Meet it was in fact a forge, complete with bellows but he didn't have the right fuel to build up heat. XXXX had made a metal tipped spear bound, in Hippolyte fashion, to a spear head, with a round shield including metal cup to defend the fist- he shared a video of a reenactment fight, critiquing their formations and linking how the hippolyte method influenced the Roman legions. He and his brother had a battle which he linked  to the Drama curriculum- method acting [he doesn't do Drama]. In passing he discussed how Leonardo di Vinci invented a tank, based on the Roman battle formation;  then explained to me how to present screen properly.  Is learning happening without school?  I like the way XXXX thinks and connects ideas!"
Consider for a moment the depth of thinking and problem solving that is apparent in that description. I contacted XXXXX to discuss what he had done, seeking his permission to share his work (which he readily and graciously granted). He said:
"Here is just some of the many things I have made over this last month. But sadly i couldn't get any photos of the forge as i did get in trouble for it as big looms of smoke went up into the sky. And the crossbow is what I am still working on."
He sent me these photos:

I asked him if he had been set these tasks or whether he just did it off his own bat. His reply:

"Yeah I got bored and just started to use stuff laying around the house so I did this purely because of boredom."
This reply reminded me that being 'bored' is actually an important part of creativity. The mind needs to rest, to be allowed to wander and ponder, something we do NOT grant our learners  as we push them in the 'busyness' of 'education'. If as a kura we are to continue our pursuit of our vision as a 'centre of creative excellence', one ongoing challenge for us will be how we empower learners to harness their innate creativity.

This is the impact of 'agency'.  XXXX was empowered, he dug into stuff that interests him, using his own talents.

I added to the discussion a suggestion to a range of XXXX's teachers that they consider whether there are NCEA standards that could be attached to any of his work. Isn't that the way NCEA was intended, before we subverted it in the interests of 'education'?

And then there are these examples of students completing some great work at home, when they are ready. Take a look at these two blog posts:

Desharn's creative writing

Trisha's analysis of dystopian writing

These are both junior students.

All of this challenges the school/home paradigm under which we have worked for the past 150 years. We have subverted learning in the name of education. Yes learning and education are the classic examples of the economists' 'Merit goods', and yes we are all better off when individuals get more of it (which is the LIE to the whole idea of charging student loans etc.. but that's another story).

However our assumption that learning can only take place in our institutionalised setting is (as we are seeing right now) flawed.  We need to consider and develop a new paradigm for learning, one that acknowledges the cultural and emotional capital that sits within the home, one that builds student agency, and also one that is founded on kindness to ourselves and each other.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to all of this is the set of 19th century definitions of school attendance that require physical presence on site, that define what attendance looks like (2 hours before and 2 hours after midday, for 380 (or 384) weekly teaching half days).  These things I believe are technically easy to change.

The bigger elephant in the room is the problem of equity - for agentic learning to happen in the home, learners need supportive whānau. What do our whānau think? This lovely piece of research  headed by Dr Riwai-Couch is more than informative, it should be central to our thinking. Our levels of wealth and income inequality, and that raft of problems that come with poverty, and substance abuse and addiction, mean that we already have an underclass of disempowered young people who will find access to learning difficult without whānau support at home.

How do we address that?  Economists are the first to agree that Government intervention is an essential tool to providing suitable 'quantities' of Merit and Public goods (education is defined by those economists as a Merit good). These are good reasons for government intervention against the 'market'. So a caution to any neoliberals who might have read this far .. your own dogma supports government action. Don't you DARE try to tell me that the market will solve these problems. The market has singularly failed to solve the problems of inequality,  and inequity (and yes for the uninformed out there these ARE very different things). The market has merely exacerbated them.

Perhaps one of the best things Government can do right now is to empower educators to solve the problems. Changing the rules can only enable improvements in learning outcomes for learners, as long as we focus on learning. not education, as as long as we can keep focussed on the greater good of society, not the benefit of the privileged few.

We have over the past five weeks of lockdown seen the capacity that teachers (and schools in general) have for innovation and simple bloody hard graft. The voices railing against longer term change are the voices of the entitled, the voices of those who have been the historical winners from our 150 year old paradigm.

I am hopeful that this Government will allow a collaborative, cooperative, and empowering, philosophy, coupled with a good dose of pragmatism, to hold sway.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Did our plans survive first contact?

Apparently it was the nineteenth-century Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke who said “No plan survives first contact with the enemy".

No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy." Helmuth von ...

That is, whatever we plan, what happens once we confront the things we have planned for? Do our plans actually work?

I would be lying if I said that I had no doubts at all that our preparations for distance learning would 'do the job' with our learners at Te Huruhuru Ao o Horomaka Hornby High School. Doubts are normal, even when you have done everything you think you can in preparation for any new circumstance.  At the bottom of this post is a footnote in which I have offered a summary of our preparations, of the framework that we have built to support learning.

Going The Distance: Part-Time Online Learning Lacking | Wyoming ...

Source: Creative Commons (Wyoming Public Radio)

We entered this new remote learning space well prepared, we thought. After our first day in this distance learning paradigm, I asked our wonderful staff team for feedback on our 'learning from home' experiences. I hasten to add that our focus in this first week has been on re-establishing relationships rather than knowledge transmission, and feedback suggests that we did absolutely the right thing.  I wanted to share some of these authentic stories as I think it is important that we document our journey. There will be much to think about, and our first task is to 'make sense' of what we are seeing, feeling, hearing, and doing.

I have anonymised these comments, but if these are your stories, you'll recognise them. However no-one else will.

Response 1:
I have had the best day chatting with my form class and some parents. The students were chatty, engaged, honest and highly respectful. ........ the students were on time for their calls and they were prepared to chat (seated and in an appropriate spot.)
...... it has made for a productive and enjoyable day. I am 100% exhausted though.
 Response 2:
Kids seem keen to join the chats and I would say most have been following our updates on Fb and email, so they know what’s what and what’s expected of them in terms of online learning. 

I’m surprised how tired I am from sitting and chatting for 6 hours but all great fun catching up with students and whanau. It was great to see how this digital stuff connects us - had quite a few kids at dads house for example call in, but we were also able to get mum on the line too from her home just by sending an invite! Or collaborating with other staff e.g. XXX has one sibling, I have the other so we did a 4-way video chat to lessen the stress on mum needing to book in 2 time slots. 

Lots of support from parents too. Seem keen to get their kids back on a schedule and keep them busy... One young man jumped off his video call and powered through 130 min of online Lexia reading (for context, we ask for 100 minutes total for the week - 20 min each day!) sent a big congratulations email for his effort! 
 Response 3:
All really positive! Everyone seems happy at home and are getting on with work! Conversations varied from me driving the conversation to meeting the family and the pets ha ha that one was cute! All in all positive and seemed happy to chat. General consensus was they want to come back to school ASAP so that is great too! 
Response 4:
I connected with 8 families today and all (students and whānau) were pleased to catch up and asked me what my lockdown "stories" were. The reminder to get on with (or start) the work set was timely for some students (even though I stressed that this is a health crisis not an education crisis).

Generally I got the feeling that whānau welcomed the call from the "normal" after a stressful time of lockdown. They seemed to appreciate the "Nigel Latta" approach of not pushing these kids too hard, but also welcomed us taking charge of some of their kids' "discretionary time".
Response 5:
Great buy-in, parents and students appeared to be quite comfortable and confident using google meet. All learners were engaging with the online material to some degree and all parents were very happy with our plan moving forward. I had some parents asking if we could schedule more google meetings and they were keen on the idea of watching recordings of lessons. Was great to have a chance to connect with some parents I had not met yet.
Response 6:
Approx 40% strike rate for the online component.  For those online a good vibe.  ....... 
The classes have three groups ........  The (first) will cut through the work independently; the (second) will need all the time over the next two weeks, the (thrid) will hope to complete the work when we are back at school - ........  The stratification reflects that which happens normally but with a different set of students.  Student XXXXX has approx 38% attendance rate (normally) but he is chomping through the theory work.  Student YYYYYY  is working at warp speed as is Student ZZZZZ.  

What I think I am trying to say is that the greatest influence on engagement is the parents.  Also, different methods / mediums / and environments of information transmission suits individuals differently in different situations.  For some the medium, method and environment does not impact greatly they just get on with the job at their own pace.  Others possibly see pedagogical learning as an impediment to their lives and subsequently duck, dive and dodge the learning opportunity - until necessity forces "their feet to be held against the educational fire" 
Response 7:
Everyone I have spoken to is doing well, some families have their own challenges with isolation, less connection with friends or juggling working at home with parenting. 

Students all seem positive and ready to engage back into their learning again. It was really lovely to see them and their parents who were very grateful that we were making the effort to host video conference calls. Some are less familiar with using Google Meet but a quick phone call to talk through connecting has been working well.

But it was great!! Excited faces, happy parents and a lot of compliments on how connected they have been to the school and teachers
Response 8:
I have already setup my YXXX and YYYYYY classes online and we/they are have made excellent progress during the “holidays”.
Response 9:

Overall my form class is very positive, no one scored below a 7.5 on asking how they were doing.

All parents .......  were actively involved and asked questions " How long " etc..

General feeling is that students are missing the contact. Most are on insta, snap chat, messenger. etc. 
None reported not having any work, no contact, some had been speaking to subject staff.

All have indicated good connectivity, no problem with devices. One family has 7 at home

And for a little colour, I love this one:

Some hilarious moments.  This one in particular.  I was privy to 2 dog 'accidents' in the house complete with parental expletives, kids squealing and a younger sibling moving the screen so I could witness the before and after 'clean-up'  lol, lol, lol 😂
Some sense making;

1. We gathered a lot of data as Form and Wānanga teachers entered brief notes on their 1:1 meetings with students and whānau. The over-riding theme of this is that our students miss the daily contact with peers, and with teachers. We should not be surprised by this, given that one of our foundational beliefs is that we are a relational school, and that we believe that relationships are an essential foundation to learning.

2. Gathered across the data collection, and referred to explicitly here by one teacher, is the observation that students who in our physical classroom settings don't always appear to be well engaged are in fact 'going for it' in the distance learning setting. I wonder if the issue here is that these students have been given 'agency', they have been given much more control over their learning. If so, what then is the next step in building this agency for the benefit of more of our learners? And what of those learners for whom we have built a 'dependence'? Those learners who have been taught by practitioners who teach from the perspective of the 'cult of personality'? These are the learners who will continue to rely on their teachers. What of them?

3. Online contact/meetings/teaching is exhausting. I know that from experience, with my day made up of anywhere between 2 and 6 hours of online in meetings. I end the day exhausted, myself. I do not think that is sustainable for either teachers or students. My conclusion therefore is that simply replicating our physical classroom practice online is NOT the answer. I am aware of schools attempting to do this. I hope for the sake of their learners AND their teachersI am wrong, but I am not convinced that that approach is sustainable over the long term.

4. This more general observation is based on more than just this very small sampling, and something perhaps a little more evaluative from me: I suggest that we are seeing a change to education that is unlikely to be 'undone'. It is much like a 'pandora's box'. Once we have let this distance learning thing out, once we have supported (actually once we have 'allowed') student agency, there will be no going back.

My opinion, - I hope there is NO going back. If we can see students more fully engaged, if we can see students managing and controlling their learning more, then the outcome must surely be better learning?

So, our plan, based on 5 years of preparation as a part of The Manaiakalani Programme, does appear to have survived first contact as of the end of day 1.


Hornby High School joined The Manaiakalani Programme in 2015. The programme is a taonga gifted to schools from the Manaiakalani cluster and the Manaiakalani cluster in south Auckland. This approach to learning uses a clear pedagogy (Learn Create Share), with the benefits amplified with the use of digital technologies (Chromebooks) in order to make learning authentic and visible. Content is made visible via teacher Google sites. This means that all learners can access material relevant to their learning. at any time, from anywhere. We call this ubiquitous learning. Learners make their learning visible by publishing it to authentic audiences via the blogs.

Schools are support by an education programme leader whose main task is to assist teachers to upskill in the specific skills required to use the pedagogy and the technologies.

We have been privileged to be support initially by Education Programme Leader Mark, and now by Kelsey, and this work is funded by the Uru Mānuka Education Trust which has done some extraordinary work to ensure that we can sustain these initiatives.