Saturday, 16 May 2020

The answer lies in pushing diversity and creativity

There is a lot to be learned from our 7 weeks of 'learning from home', and the ether is alive with speculation on what education might look like as we come out of our home learning time. There are lots of ideas and opinions out there, but the trend I think I see (one which fits with my own thinking about 'undergraduate and postgraduate' models) is that our desirable next state might be a blended environment in which students mix face to face/synchronous/relational time with online/distance/asynchronous time.

Of course what perhaps matters more than anything right now to to gather the voices of the key stakeholders or participants in this whole education thing. In common with (probably) every other kura in th country e are planning on gathering that voice, to hear what our whānau, our students, and our teachers all think. I think tis will be a largely qualitative data gathering exercise, one in hich we need to be quite deliberate and intentional in our work.

It was fantastic to receive, entirely unsolicited, this email from a Mum of one of our junior boys. It is copied here with permission, with anonymity preserved.

I am writing in regard to my concerns of XXXX returning to school.
While being home & doing the online work, I have been able to see firsthand how he works & I must say I was & wasn’t shocked.
XXXX as we know is not a fan of school (never has been) due to struggling, being overwhelmed by the work and he just doesn’t enjoy it.  Hands on work however is a difference matter entirely as we know!
I noticed with the online work he was more engaged and interested in the work.  He also got the work done.  Not completely (math’s) but he did it.
I asked XXXX how he enjoyed this work.  He replied with its more interesting for me and I also don’t have the feeling of having to get it all done in one period.
With this is mind I was wondering if there was a way that we could incorporate something similar for XXXX while at school.  Meaning he doesn’t feel the overwhelming feeling.  When he gets that he shuts down, becomes uninterested and the work & lesson is wasted on him.
..... as you know he has been like this all the way thru school and we only want him to do his best.
I will be the first to admit he could try harder at school & we have told him that.
We are concerned considering he only has a few years left at school before he can leave & it terrifies us that he will leave with not education or qualifications.
I would love to be able to discuss this with you asap as XXXX is really not interested in returning on Monday (which he will be) and already that is a wall going up.

Now, don't get me wrong. At the moment I don't think there is one single answer to how we might want our kura to evolve, but I do think there is a pretty strong mandate for some of our students at least to have greater agency in their learning. This Mum's email brought me straight back to the writing of  Young Zhao, an educator of whom I hold the highest opinion, a theorist and a pragmatist (I don't think that's a contradiction in terms?), a voice of moral and educational commonsense.



In a great lecture/slide show titled "Redefining Excellence" he described our current system in this way:

#PSP2012 | Yong Zhao, "Redefining 'Excellence'"
He then went on to say that especially now in the 21st century we need to do the opposite, that we need to do this:
#PSP2012 | Yong Zhao, "Redefining 'Excellence'"
Huh? That is, we need to stop constricting students' thinking and creativity, we need to celebrate and support growing divergence. We don't need more people who think the same, we need more people who think differently. This doesn't happen when we push students into boxes, it doesn't happen when we try to force students into the SAME box. It happens when we allow students to be themselves -  culturally, intellectually, emotionally.

Our job is to allow students to be themselves more than ever before. The question in most peoples' minds I suspect is not should we, but HOW do we? What does this look like on the ground within our kura on a daily basis? I think it will look different from kura to kura, but what do we think will be the general trends? Here's my speculation:

  1. More flexibility in time, with kura timetabled in a different way to what we have been used to 
  2. A blend of face to face and online learning, requiring a redefinition from the Ministry on what constitutes attendance
  3. More time spent allowing students to pursue their passions, meaning that at senior level in particular our key task is to attach assessment to work and learning, not the other way around
  4. Less didactic 'lecturing from the front', but acknowledging that the power of direct teaching, of deliberate acts of teaching, should never be lost
  5. An imperative for schools to ensure that they have a clear pedagogy around how we cause learning, both face to face and distance. My suspicion is that when you ask educators what their underlying pedagogy is, they will give you a blank stare. Last year I challenged a class of teaching grads with that very question, and saw far too many of those blank stares for my own liking. In this regard our work with Manaiakalani leaves us well placed with our 'Learn Create Share' pedagogy, leveraging the affordances of digital technology. The underlying factors of distance learning have been through our work with Manaiakalani

If we accept Yong Zhao's view (clearly I do), then the need to promote a focus on creativity is vital. Our Hornby High School vision 'A centre of creative excellence' captures the essence of Yong Zhao's philosophy of developing human diversity, not constraining it.  It is more important, and more urgent, than ever that we drive ahead with this work.

I want to hear at least some of the many voices on this. What is your view? To our community, to our students, to our staff, what do you think? Does this truly sound like, look like, feel like, the sort of educational future that you want for your tamariki, for your whānau, for our communities, for our nation of Aotearoa New Zealand? And are you with me on this?

Robin Sutton

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Peering into a Post Covid world

Many kura, teachers, and leaders, are turning their attention to what our Post Covid school world might look like. That act of looking ahead is in itself a supremely human act because it is an act of hope, and faith, hope and faith that the future will be better, that we will come out the other side of this (and any) crisis, that we in fact have a future at all.

In thinking about that future I have on several occasions evolved and voiced some thinking around the structure and focus of 'education' (as opposed to learning), and it goes something like this.

In a child's early years much learning takes place via that child's interests, or passions. Children explore, they play, they experiment, and then as they progress through their Primary years they have increasing levels of skill attached to that, often using with Direct Instruction (which is not always from teachers, but often from whānau). Throughout this we are of course meant to be developing a series of important dispositions that we call the key competencies, things like thinking and self management.

When those students hit secondary school, it's as if we think that it's now time to get our 'big girls'/boys' pants on' and start some proper education. Students are expected to sit down, shut up, and listen to the teacher because the teacher knows everything. We think we are filling their heads with knowledge and skills, based very much on the 'just in case' view of learning. I may be doing us all a disservice, but it seems as if we think that this is the way universities work, after all students sit in lectures of 100-250 students, and a learned professor lectures at them for an hour, so that must be real learning. It's the way universities operate. It ignores the fact that while that may have been true decades ago, increasingly universities are shifting undergraduate practice towards more collaborative work and/or more project work. That is, the days of the lecture being the sole source of real learning are in fact coming to a close. What's more, increasingly universities (even pre Covid) have been operating online with recorded lectures that are rewindable.

And then those who a deemed able are allowed to enter what we call Postgraduate education where they do a combination of 'papers' (classes that very often involve collaborative work at the least) followed by a research project, a dissertation, a thesis. These projects are guided by a supervisor, and are often based on areas of interest to the student.

It's as if we have gone full circle, from passions at the beginning, back to passions at the end. Spot the odd one out .. secondary education. WHY do we think that suddenly learners have different motivations for their learning? Why do we think that adolescents are happier than any other group to sit down, shut up, do as you are told, and we will fill your head?

Now we should not underestimate the impact of adolescence and hormones, but the more I think about it the more I think that in itself it is a very compelling reason for doing things differently. Adolescent learners are more likely to be oppositional, more likely to question, simply because of the rewiring of their whole brain 'architecture' as mother nature does her neural pruning. Giving adolescents choice (called agency), giving them permission to chase their passions, would surely be a better way of doing this. Is it any wonder that we struggle with engagement?

If students are engaged with their passions, wouldn't this be a much better way in which to scaffold those dispositions that we want our young people to gain.  We want them to be self managing, we want them to learn the benefits of persistence, of being able to relate to others, to be able to think and communicate. Wouldn't that be much more likely to happen if students are following their passions? Wouldn't that be a more likely outcome if they have to wrk collaboratively? I know that it is when I am doing something I love that I am most likely to learn new skills.

I don't ever discount the value of direct teaching. I am a bit of a Hattie fan, and his work shows repeatedly that direct teaching has a very high effect size, it impacts very significantly on learning (any effect size above 0.4 means that the strategy is doing more than would be achieved if you did nothing)

Great Teachers = Great Schools. That's It. | Educational ...

That said, notice that even here is it not at the top of the list of most powerful teaching strategies.

Almost the only time I learn new stuff is when I need to do so. Aren't we guilty of a degree of conceit if we think that adolescents want to sit down in front of us and learn everything we want them to learn,  when WE decide they are to learn it? After all, as adults we typically don't.

So what am I suggesting? I am suggesting that we treat learning in the middle secondary years more like an undergraduate course, with a combination of direct teaching and collaborative project/passion based work. Learning would be partly face to face (after all, I think we have had our belief in the importance of relationships strongly reinforced), and partly distance.

In the senior secondary school, courses could look more like a post-graduate course: key subjects that are delivered often collaboratively, and a passion requiring a real output. Each student walks the journey with a dedicated supervisor walking alongside. Amongst other things, the supervisor might bring specialist subject knowledge to support the student's learning, and project. The supervisor would be there to work out what NCEA standards should be attached to the work of that student. The learning leads the assessment, rather than the assessment leading the learning. That sounds a lot more motivating to me. I think it also tells us that we have an even greater need for talented subject specialists staffing our schools, that's for sure.

As a Manaiakalani school, this all sounds like a wonderful next step or evolution in our 'Learn Create Share' pedagogy. It's not something you can do tomorrow, but it might be a vision of a future for learning for our teenagers.

At Hornby High School we have already shifted our junior curriculum to learning in cross curriculum groupings like English and science, or maths and physed.  We don't have it right yet, but we are certainly heading in what I think is the right direction.

It also sounds a lot more like a great pathway to creative excellence.

How would that go?
Love to hear your thoughts
Robin Sutton

Friday, 1 May 2020

Is this distance learning stuff working?

We have now been in distance learning mode for between 4 and 6 weeks (depending on whether or not things stopped for the 'term break'. For Hornby High School students we offered up work for the break, but still treated that 2 weeks as a break before proactively seeking to re-engage. I first priority was hauora and relationships, and only after we'd focussed on that did we shift to more traditional 'back end of the curriculum' learning. We continue to maintain a focus on hauroa, with Deans monitoring student wellness though regular contact via Wānanga and Form Teachers.

I have taken some time to think about what I may be seeing, and have developed a hunch, a working hypothesis if you like. The hunch is based on a small amount of observational data only. Our staff are collecting engagement data each day, each week, and at some stage soon I hope I may get the chance to take a more detailed look at it to see whether or not it bears out my hunch.

Here's my hunch.

We can divide our learners into four groups.

  1. Those high flyers who will be just that, regardless of how we 'deliver' or 'cause' their learning. Here is an example of that from Jessica. We have many others.
  2. Those students who sit in the middle, whose engagement in school is variable, from whom we get the usual range of work from poor to great results, dependent on how successful we are in grabbing their attention and engaging them (in my opinion their range of engagement is more a result of what we do .. as a system .. than what they do)
  3. Those students who attend school some or most of the time but with whom we struggle to get much meaningful engagement
  4. Those students who do not engage, and with whom we work hard as we support them through a range of social and psychosocial issues created by anything from poverty, to mental or physical health challenges, to those who have beens seriously damaged by societal problems that are beyond their control

Groups 1 and 2 seem to be engaging as they usually do.

Group 3, so often disengaged 'at school', is now engaging in greater numbers and with greater enthusiasm, because the distance learning paradigm gives them more of the agency that they want. Without someone standing over them saying 'do your maths now', they are more likely to engage in their maths when it suits them, and just as successfully if not more so than they do in the conventional 'school' setting.

Group 4 continues mostly to be disengaged, and I stress through no fault of their own.

I also want to stress that this is my 'hunch', this is what I think I may be seeing emerge as a first set of outcomes from our distance learning.

Now teachers across the country are quite possibly saying that they worry because of the lack of engagement evidenced by attendance (or not) at GoogleMeets (especially with my Group 3). I have anecdotal reports of attendances on class GoogleMeets ranging from 2 out of 25, to 25 out of 25, in various class and year groups. However I would like to suggest that we are fundamentally wrong in our assumption that when students are present in front of us they are fully engaged .

There is a research backing for this. In a longitudinal study (one that takes place over a long period of time) the late Professor Graham Nuthall (University of Canterbury) conducted some powerful research in which he and his team 'wired up' students and recorded what they were saying during their classes. The results were published posthumously as The Hidden Lives of Learners .

One of the profound findings was that even when present in class, levels of student engagement are far lower than teachers think. So we shouldn't assume that things are worse in this virtual environment than they were in the physical environment.

In fact my hunch is that many students in Group 3 are better engaged and are in fact thriving in this environment because of the agency that they now have. They were not thriving before.

This is a 'win'. Instead of having only groups 1 and 2 engaged in their learning, we now have groups 1, 2, and 3, more engaged in their learning. I am not prepared to speculate on relative %'s of our student body. I am doing enough speculating with my hunch as it is, without trying to sound in some way numerically authoritative.

That still leaves us with Group 4, and their loss to the system, while not new, still drives ongoing inequity in society as those children fail to access the education that could liberate them from their status. The very cool thing is that (again anecdotally) we have students from that group too who are producing some amazing work in the distance learning state when they were NOT doing so even when they are physically present at school. It seems that it is whānau support that is the critical success factor for this group. Mind you that it is probably the case with most learners.

Much of this has been made possible because of our 5 year engagement with The Manaiakalani Programme. The underlying 'Learn Create Share' pedagogy, the benefits amplified with the use of digital technology, has been a true tāonga for our learners AND our teachers. The transition to the distance learning paradigm has, I suspect, been much easier for our amazing team because of the preparation that they have participated in over those past 5 years. Their familiarity with digital tools has been a wonderful enabler.

So, is distance learning working? My hunch is that it is definitely not delivering anything worse than we had before, and it might just be delivering more engagement and therefore, over time, better learning for our rangatahi. We'll look at the data over the next little while, but I think we need to get used to this 'distance learning'.. not only might the pandemic mean that it is with us for a while longer, but I suspect it offers opportunities that benefit a greater proportion of our society than we ever did before.

Education is not for the privileged few, those who have traditionally been the 'winners'. It is for everyone. And as a society we cannot afford to write off a significant proportion of our talent. We need EVERYONE enabled to be human and to contribute to our collective wellbeing.

Never waste a good crisis. BRING IT ON!!!

Robin Sutton