Leading the use of research in schools

drummers

source: pixabay.com @skeeze

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dan Haesler on his podcast Habits of Leadership. You can listen to the 30 minute episode here.

We talked about using research in schools and about the importance of considering our own biases, limitations, assumptions and blind spots. We discussed how we might go about questioning these and being open to changing our minds.

We talked about teachers being extremely busy with their daily work. Teachers cannot be required to do the additional work of reading peer-reviewed scientific papers or sourcing expensive academic books. Some of us choose to do this, but it certainly should not be the expectation. Schools need to think of smart and accessible ways to engage teachers in research. I shared some of the initiatives at my school, such as my termly research report, our leadership forum, encouraging staff professional reading and our research-informed professional learning groups.

We talked about data, which is ubiquitous in schools. All data can tell us something, just like all research can tell us some things and not others. High stakes testing data is one data point worth reflecting on, but it is only one indicator. Teachers need time to collaborate meaningfully around a range of data if ‘data’ is to make a difference to teaching and learning. We talked about the importance of middle leaders and teacher leaders in this work of leading and improving teaching.

Even those types of evidence considered top tier ‘best evidence’ (randomised control trials systematic reviews and quasi-experimental studies) can only show schools what has worked (somewhere, for someone), not what works or what might work. Context remains queen. As I have written on the CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) blog, schools need to ask questions of evidence such as: Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? How were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with?

We talked about leadership, including ways of leading that privilege the development of the group, rather than the celebration of the individual. In my view, when leading strategy or change in schools, we need to start with what we value (purpose and values), who we are (mission and identity) and where we want to be (strategic direction). Then we can consider how the best available evidence can help us make the best decisions for our context and community.

The artefacts of a school—such as policies and procedures—should align with the school’s purpose and beliefs. The norms of behaviour—‘how we do things around here’—should follow. It’s no good if the Senior Leadership Team is banging one drum and walking in one direction, if no-one is with them!

Leadership isn’t about a privileged few positional roles at the apex of an organisation. It is about a nourishing ecosystem of leading and learning. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge writes that “the bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise” but that “the great leader is he who the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” For me this reflects that leadership is at its core about:

  • believing in and building the capacity of those in our schools;
  • building cultures of trust where staff are simultaneously supported and challenged;
  • resourcing and supporting meaningful, productive (sometimes uncomfortable) collaboration; and
  • developing consistent, systematic, ethical protocols for evidence use and decision making.

Success indicators of a professional learning model

source: pixabay @djoanis

For many years, my school has been developing and fine-tuning our internal professional learning processes based on a foundation of trust in our staff and a belief that school and staff can support one another to grow together in ways that are meaningful and have profound positive impacts on individuals and community.

In 2018 we launched a choice-based set of pathways for staff professional learning, moving away from a linear, chronological cycle of mandated processes for staff development. Rather than being assigned, these pathways, differentiated for teachers and leaders at various levels (and outlined in this previous post), are decided through negotiation between each staff member and their line manager, as part of the annual reflection, goal setting and development conversation. These school-based options provide a flexible suite of alternatives that honour where our staff are at in their career journeys, and provide meaningful and research-supported ways for them to develop as teachers and leaders.

The process of setting goals, planning related actions and choosing an internal organisation-embedded professional learning pathway, is done in a cascading fashion from the beginning of each year. The school executive set the school goals and actions; then leaders set their own team and self goals, actions and pathways; then teachers set their own development goals and negotiate a pathway. In this way, individual goals are aligned within the framework of school strategic direction and priorities. The process also includes a reflection against the AITSL professional standards for teachers or principals, as appropriate to person and role.

I have been reflecting lately on measures of success of this model. How might we know that our approach to internal professional learning is having a positive impact? As part of the model’s implementation, we generate ongoing honest feedback from staff in order to refine the model each year, including via focus groups and anonymous surveys. For instance, in the annual staff survey, the pathway options, especially the Professional Learning Groups, were rated highly by staff. Additionally, our staff satisfaction with professional learning is above the national benchmark.

Lately I have been interested to see some unexpected measures of the success of this model come to light.

Firstly, in this second year of implementation, staff have been owning and advocating for their negotiated pathway. For instance, some staff were told that due to logistics, numbers or staff leave arrangements, their chosen option would not be viable. In these cases, staff have fought hard to maintain their choice, including planning alternate timelines and strategies for the pathway to be completed. They have been arguing the reasons for their choice, why it is meaningful to them, and how they can make it work in robust ways. We have had some people negotiating to be coached or mentored by particular staff with clear reasons as to why this is a meaningful partnership, and outlining the rigorous work they completed ahead of the pathways’ official start date. So not only have staff chosen options about which they are passionate, but they have begun the work of their chosen option ahead of time because of their belief in the value of its contribution to their professional growth.

Secondly, staff have been opting in to extra options on top of the required single choice. A number of staff have chosen to participate, for instance, in a Professional Learning Group on top of another process. This shows the value staff see in these collaborative groups that bring staff from across the school together to share thinking and practice around common interests and strategic priorities.

A number of staff are involved in the model as both participant themselves, and as a key actor in the learning of others. The model is leaking out to be owned and run by a range of staff who are acting as mentors, coaches and leaders of initiatives. This year I still oversee the Professional Learning Groups but am no longer running all of them; other staff are leading in their areas of interest, expertise and strategic priority. They are doing a wonderful job of breathing their own individual approaches to these groups, which are almost all oversubscribed.

Another measure of success of the overarching process is the explicit and reflective connection I am now seeing between applications for external professional learning and a person’s goals. The goal setting that happens at the beginning of the year has ongoing knock-on effects, including influencing the intentionality of staff professional development. Staff are clear about how their professional learning builds upon school strategy, team goals and their own personal goals, and they are active in seeking relevant professional learning opportunities.

It’s interesting to see the unexpected ways in which a change like our negotiated professional learning pathways model can influence professional culture, conversation and ‘the way we do things around here’. The COVA—choice, ownership, voice and authenticity—principles have resulted in increased staff engagement in and ownership of their internal professional learning, as well as connecting staff from disparate areas of the school. It reminds me of a participant quote from my PhD about the non-linear, surprising impacts of change: “it’s like oil in water”, fluid, unexpected and marvellous to watch.

 

Post script: I’m excited to be able to share more about this and other experiences in my upcoming book, available for pre-order from the publisher and all good booksellers: Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools.

Future of Schooling Policy: VIDEO

Last Tuesday I was part of a panel on the future of schooling policy (i.e. education policy that affects schools and schooling experiences of young people) at the University of Western Australia’s Public Policy Institute. The video is embedded above.

Some points I make (when I start speaking at around 23.30):

  • Those who work in schools should be part of education and policy conversations.
  • Education is full of polarising discourses. For instance, the inspiring hero teacher vs. the teacher failing their students and schools blamed for a gamut of social problems. Knowledge vs. skills and capabilities. Increasing control vs. autonomy of schools and principals.
  • Our educators are committed people doing outstanding work.
  • School leaders are responsible for navigating the tensions between policy expectations and accountability measures, and meeting the very human needs of their communities.
  • NAPLAN is one data point but this data is not necessarily valid for school comparison.
  • Measuring school and school leader success via standardised testing makes them high stakes and encourages gaming the system rather than the education of students and the support of staff.
  • Wellbeing and workload of those working in our schools, including teachers and leaders, is of concern.

During the question time, I comment that:

  • An overemphasis on testing comparison and metrics of measurement can oversimplify education.
  • Teacher quality is an important in-school factor that influences student learning, but there are other more influential factors such as socio-economic status, parents’ education and early reading.
  • Digital nativity does not equate to digital literacy. Considering technology in schools should be based on first considering purpose, tools fit for purpose, equity of access and teaching students to be savvy, responsible users.
  • The proliferation of information and resources on the internet, adaptive learning technologies, and does not do away with the need for teachers.

Happy watching!

Building trust in schools: A long game

source: pixabay @geralt

“Good schools are intrinsically social enterprises that depend heavily on cooperative endeavours among the varied participants who comprise the school community. Relational trust constitutes the connective tissue that binds these individuals together around advancing the welfare of children.”

Bryk & Schneider, 2002, p. 144

As the new school year begins in Australia, I have been reflecting on our staff days, on future professional learning and staff development, and on how the work we have done in this space has, over time, been shifting the culture of the school. In this post I describe some of the actions take over recent years towards a professional culture of growth, collaboration and trust.

As a school we have been clear in our goals for professional culture: that we are about growth and development, not deficit. We are about expecting and supporting our excellent staff to be better, not policing or fixing them. Each of us works to improve what we do, because no matter how good we are, we can always be better. Each member of our staff has the right and responsibility to develop professionally, and the school has the responsibility to support the development of our staff as professionals through ongoing professional learning. We know that teaching, and teacher professional learning done right, can improve student achievement. Our internal processes of professional learning and collaboration are important because we know that immersive, sustained and collaborative professional learning is more likely to have a positive, ongoing impact than one-off experiences.

Between 2012 and 2014, we researched, planned, piloted and refined a coaching model and trained all coaches and leaders in Cognitive Coaching. We used the Danielson Framework as a tool for teacher reflection on low-inference lesson data. In 2015 and 2016 we implemented and bedded down the coaching model across the school.

Since the implementation of the coaching model, we continue to work persistently on the underpinning philosophy, norms and protocols for professional conversations, shaping our organisation’s semantic space, or ‘how we talk around here’. We continue to iterate the ways in which professional learning happens within the school, in addition to supporting staff to pursue external professional development opportunities.

In 2017 I wrote a new professional learning policy and launched a refreshed professional learning application form in order to make clear the principles, practices, staff expectations and decision-making frame for professional learning for teaching staff. I worked to build a research culture. Coaching of teachers by trained coaches continued. Coaching and mentoring of leaders by senior leaders was trialed. A teacher mentor role was introduced that provides a more directed and consultative alternative to working with a coach. We have found our teacher mentors are appreciated by new graduates and by those staff wanting to work closely with an experienced, expert colleague on an element of their teaching practice. New leaders continued to be trained in Cognitive Coaching. Some leaders additionally completed Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability courses on having difficult or performance management conversations. We introduced a once-per-term leadership forum, an evening event during which all school leaders have the opportunity to come together around leadership. These forums have involved sharing the expertise of those leaders within our school and also external experts such as Dylan Wiliam, Pasi Sahlberg, Eric Sheninger, Professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh and school principals.

In 2018 we made a few more changes in response to the needs of our staff. We introduced GROWTH coaching training for coaches and leaders, especially to facilitate goal-setting conversations between managers and direct reports. This has spilled over into staff coaching one another informally, and in teachers and pastoral leaders using GROWTH coaching for student goal setting in subject and pastoral arenas. We moved away from a linear, chronological cycle of mandated internal professional learning processes and introduced negotiated internal professional learning pathways for teachers and for leaders. These allow for differentiation, voice and choice for our staff, acknowledging them as capable, self-reflective adult learners who know their own needs. This included the addition of professional learning groups around common areas of interest. It also included an internally designed and run leadership development program for new and aspirant leaders.

This year we are continuing to refine what we do for staff learning and culture, based on data. Senior leadership constantly seeks feedback—through both anonymous surveys and open conversations or focus groups—in order to iterate what we do to better serve the staff, students, and parents of the school.

Over these years as I have led the coaching model and professional learning at the school, I have noticed incremental shifts in culture. Coaching language and behaviours have seeped into daily conversations. Staff are increasingly willing to give honest and critical feedback, including to management, with a view that their views will be listened to, taken seriously and used to inform decision making. People have more tools for having tricky, sensitive or uncomfortable conversations. They are more often–gently and respectfully–holding their peers or their direct reports to account.

Collaboration and productive work doesn’t happen because we are a bunch of people in a room or a school together. We don’t do our best collaborative work when we are all getting along. High functioning organisational cultures have high levels of support for their people, but also high levels of challenge. They also have clear roles, expectations and norms. There is a sense of collegiality, shared purpose and shared identity, but also a willingness to work through honest feedback, respectful dissent and graceful disagreement. As I look back and look forward to the work we have done at my school, and continue to do, it is about incrementally moving the culture forward to one of increasing trust, productive collaboration, and a place of balance where all members of the community are at once respected, honoured, supported individuals, and an integrated, valued part of something bigger than themselves. Building trust in schools is a long game, and one in which the outcomes are slippery and hard to quantify. But it’s worthwhile and rewarding.

References

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russel Sage.

My 2019 #oneword: LIGHT

YeePeng Festival

source: John Shedrick on flickr

In recent years, I have been choosing one word to take into the new year as an anchor for my decision making and thinking for that year.

In 2015 it was CONQUER, as I worked at a ruthless pace to submit my PhD in between parenting my two young children and working a 0.8 FTE at my school.

In 2016 it was MOMENTUM, as I tried to capitalise on my PhD through lots of presenting and writing from my thesis.

In 2017 it was NOURISH, as I worked to clarify my work and life by focusing on that which nourished me, and by saying ‘no’ to more things and ‘yes’ to those things that energised and sustained me.

On 2018

In 2018 my oneword was METAMORPHOSIS. I considered what skins to shed, and what to consolidate and move forward. I thought about what I could stop doing in order to do even better things. I thought about the things that were making me feel anxious or like I couldn’t keep up. I turned all notifications off the apps on my phone, including my work email and all social media. I quit book club and withdrew from direct message groups on Twitter, Voxer and Facebook. I gave up my blogging schedule and blogged much less regularly.

In the space I made in my life, I added flotation tank therapy about every 6-8 weeks. I started going to the movies semi-regularly with a girlfriend, something which, since having my children–like long visits to the hairdresser or exercise sessions longer than 45 minutes–has felt like a time-heavy luxury I haven’t been able to give myself permission to fit in. I read more fiction for pleasure. I finished co-editing Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, and eventually received a print copy of the book in my hands. I signed two book contracts and wrote the draft manuscript of my first solo-authored book, a monograph on professional learning that makes a difference in schools, written from my pracademic perspective. I look forward to submitting the finished manuscript in 2019 and seeing it published!

For a year when I was trying to do less, or do differently, I still managed to publish writing, although the work for many of these publications happened before 2018. As well as Flip the System Australia, my formal publications for the year were:

To 2019 and LIGHT

In 2019 my #oneword will be LIGHT. I want to experience 2019 the way I experience floating in flotation tanks: in control, mindful, and intentional, but also weightless, open, and in trusting surrender to the experience.

The above photo by John Shedrick–of people releasing hot air lanterns at the YeePeng Festival in Sansai Thailand–is an embodiment of my 2019 oneword: illuminating LIGHT that brightens darkness and reveals possibilities, physical and emotional LIGHTness, and a gentle dynamism as the lit lanterns are taken up and away into the sky. I love that the floating lights are a result of the collective efforts of many people working together to release them.

As someone who likes to have a plan, and my feet firmly on the ground, focusing on LIGHT will be an interesting challenge. LIGHT means finding LIGHTness in experiences, feelings, and my body. It might mean working on my box jumps at the gym to become springier. It might mean finding time and space to think, to be, to yield. It might mean taking life less seriously and being open to unexpected opportunities. It might mean being the helium balloon dancing on the breeze instead of the solid, static weight that holds it to the ground. Being the ephemeral paper boat on the river, instead of the solid rocks on the river bank. Being open to release and being lifted and carried away.

Technology, 21st century skills, and education

As Jon Andrews points out, the education world seems obsessed about framing our thinking around what the future holds, and guestimations of its possibilities. The term ‘21st century skills’ is a symptom of our future-obsession, as schools and governments scramble to prepare their students for … duhm duhm daaaahhhhmmm … The Future. In the late 20th century those words were a way of saying educators were futures thinking, but almost 20 years into the 21st century, I wonder about the usefulness of the phrase. How about just talking about the knowledge, skills, and capabilities students need now and into the future? Does ’21st century skills’ mean anything or is it a meaningless phrase interpreted in different ways by different people? When will we start talking about 22nd century skills?

In my recent reading and thinking about technology in education, talk of 21st century skills is ubiquitous. As Higgins (2014) notes, however, there is no consensus or clear definition of what it means, or what these skills entail. On the one hand, there is a sense of global urgency around the integration of technology in schools, and on the other there is challenge and resistance to technology integration and the contestability of 21st century skills (Hunter, 2015).

Higgins (2014) points out that discussion of 21st century skills is driven by a focus on the economic imperative for productivity and preparing students for the future world of work. In his review of literature around 21st century skills, he finds that the central tenant of what is considered a 21st century education is critical thinking, especially because digital worlds mean that information is increasingly available and questionable in its nature. Other skills that abound in global discussions around the skills required for being successful in the current century include creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, problem solving, risk assessment, research and information fluency, and digital citizenship (Higgins, 2014). The US Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills defined deeper learning as knowledge that can be transferred or applied into new situations (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2013), mirroring Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005, 2011) focus on transfer as the key focus of learning.

Fullan (2013a) is critical of the 21st century learning skills agenda, calling it a vaguely defined skill set with too much focus on standards and assessment and not enough on pedagogy, and with little integration of student use of technologies. For Fullan (2013b), deep learning goals are what he refers to as the 6 Cs:

  • Character education: honesty, self-regulation and responsibility; perseverance; empathy for contributing to the safety and benefit of others; self-confidence, personal health and wellbeing; career and life skills.
  • Citizenship: global knowledge, sensitivity to and respect for other cultures, active involvement in addressing issues of human and environmental sustainability.
  • Communication: effective oral, written, and digital communication; listening skills.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving: thinking critically to design and manage projects, solve problems, and make effective decisions using a variety of digital tools and resources.
  • Collaboration: working in teams; learning from and contributing to the learning of others; social networking skills; empathy in working with diverse others.
  • Creativity and imagination: economic and social entrepreneurialism; considering and pursuing novel ideas; leadership for action.

Fullan (2013a) urges educators to move beyond a superficial homage to 21st century learning skills to developing what it means to actually implement them in practice. Higgins (2014) challenges us to ask: “Do we need a curriculum with less specified knowledge, allowing a greater emphasis on skills, based on the argument that information (and therefore knowledge) is more readily accessible? Or do we need more knowledge, as the basis for developing greater expertise and the ability to make informed and complex judgements, based on a deeper understanding of a topic or field?” (p.571). Certainly there are those who argue that knowledge is now more important than ever, and question a primarily skills-based education (e.g. Hirsch, 2016).

As part of the 21st century skills movement, digital literacy has become a global focus. In the UK, the Communications Act 2003 tasked the media regulator, Ofcom, with promoting and researching media literacy, defined on its website as enabling “people to have the skills, knowledge, and understanding to make full use of the opportunities presented by both traditional and new communications services” and helping “people to manage content and communications, and protect themselves and their families from the potential risks associated with using these services.”

A Commonwealth of Australia (2009) report highlights digital media literacy as a dynamic concept and a necessary condition for a successful digital economy. It says: “Digital media literacy ensures that all Australians are able to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy: it promotes opportunities for social inclusion, creative expression, innovation, collaboration, and employment. … The focus of digital media literacy policy and programs is on the development of three core skill sets:

  • the technical ability to engage at a basic level with a computer and the internet, such as to create documents and emails;
  • the ability to understand and critically evaluate digital media and digital media content; and
  • the ability to create content and communications.”

While the movement to focus education on a contested set of 21st century skills is debated in education circles, governments around the Western world have acknowledged the need for their citizens to be critical, creative, collaborative, interdisciplinary in their thinking, and to be able to leverage technologies. I agree with Fullan that we need to move beyond lip service homages to preparing students for uncertain futures. I also align with Higgins’ suggestion that students need more knowledge as the basis for expertise. Skills don’t exist in a vacuum, and students can only think critically, creatively, divergently, and entrepreneurially, once they have a knowledge base from which to do so. I would like to think, for instance, that a knowledge of literature and history can help our students to become global citizens knowledgeable about past events, multiple perspectives, and dystopian possibilities. And that a knowledge of mathematics and science can lead to creative problem seeking and systematic problem solving.

What do you think? Can we retire ’21st century skills’, and instead talk about what knowledge, understandings, skills, and capabilities, our students need now and into the future?

References

Fullan, M. (2013a). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Fullan, M. (2013b).  Great to excellent:  Launching the next stage of Ontario’s education agenda.

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.

Hirsch, E. D. (2016). Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology integration and high possibility classrooms: Building from TPACK. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Pellegrino, J. W., & Hilton, M. L. (2013). National Research Council. Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.