Consolidation is not a dirty word

Rope1

Running off the Term 4 cliff

In Australia it is currently nearing the end of Term 4. We are a few weeks away from the end of the school year. Often at this time of year I see the exhaustion on my colleagues’ faces, the weariness in their bones. I used to look forward to Term 4 as a time when I assumed the work in schools would wind down. The sun would be shining with the promise of summer, and slowly I would be able to find slivers of time to luxuriate in thorough planning for the year beyond. In reality, finishing the school year as a teacher or school leader is like running full pelt off a cliff. You run as fast as you can until you realise that the year has ended and given way beneath you. But you are still running. Many schools are on an innovation trajectory that leaves casualties in its wake. The desire to be on the cutting edge sometimes leaves us bleeding. As Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor point out in their chapter in the upcoming Flip the System Australia book, there can be no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing. They point out that wellbeing initiatives like yoga and meditation add-ons don’t fix the underlying factors eroding teacher wellbeing and morale.

We are in the here and now and then

The end of Term 4 is always a strange time in schools. We are finishing off one year (marking, reporting, preparing for final events), but we are simultaneously planning for the following year (writing course programs, organising staff days, finalising staffing, deciding on strategic foci). We are at once in the present, the future, and betwixt the two.

Education loves the future

In education we are always looking to the future. We are constantly reflecting on where our students are now, where they need to or could be, and how we can help them get there. We strategically plan innovations with the short and the very long term in mind. How will we assess the knowledge and skills we are teaching? What will our students need to know in the world into which they will eventually graduate? On what 21st century skills and capabilities should we be focusing? How might artificial intelligence, automation and data science change education and what do we need to know and do about it? What is the ‘next big thing’ in education?

Competition and short-term thinking

Ever since I started teaching almost twenty years ago I have been in the eye of this future-focused vortex and the relentless cycles of change that are propelled by it. It doesn’t help that education is hyper-focused on competition, or that schools and teachers are pitted against one another. Or that the media constantly runs fear mongering stories about the decline of [insert latest media education trend or most recent high stakes test or particular school sector]. Or that our political cycle perpetuates short termism, making education a card to be played in exchange for votes, rather than a long term priority deserving of deliberate, well-resourced action.

Focus on doing the last big thing properly

The phrase that is currently guiding my own strategic planning for 2019 is from Dylan Wiliam. He says it regularly, and it can be found on page 118 of his most recent book, Creating the schools our children need: What we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead). It is this:

We need to stop looking for the next big thing and instead focus on doing the last big thing properly.

I am focusing my 2019—and by ‘my’ I mean my portfolio of work including professional learning, pedagogy and research at my school—on consolidation. Embedment. Going deeper. Strengthening and enriching the work we are doing. Doing things better and more thoroughly. Spending time in deliberate practice followed by thoughtful reflection and refinement.

Doing even better things

A declaration at the beginning of the school year that ‘this year, we are going to consolidate’ may incite sighs of relief from teachers. What? they may think, Nothing new this year? I don’t believe it! Consolidation is a challenge in education, when there is so much more we could always be doing. At the beginning of this year, I was intentional about what I could let go of in order to do those things that really mattered to me. It is important in education that we decide where our efforts are best placed, and then work to do those things really well. We need to seriously consider what we can stop doing, or do differently, in order to pursue what it really worthwhile. Let’s do really good things well, not ‘all the things’ badly and in a state of blind panic.

The work of consolidation

Consolidation doesn’t mean there is no work to do. It doesn’t mean standing still or stagnating. It means doing better what we are already doing now. It means connecting in with one another to learn from each other, celebrate, challenge and share our expertise. It means continuing to develop shared understandings and shared practices, and looking back occasionally to remind ourselves of how far we have come.

Consolidation in 2019. Can it be done? Watch this space.

Advertisements

Doing even better things

My word for 2018 is metamorphosis, which for me is a lot about letting go. I’ve been thinking about what ingrained habits, automatic behaviours, and stale dreams, I can shed this year as I move towards my next zero birthday and my anniversary of ten years since I returned to Australia from the UK. To move into metamorphosis right now feels like I need endings before I can think about any butterfly-esque new beginnings.

I’ve been thinking on what Professor Dylan Wiliam often says:

We need to prevent people from doing good things, to give them time to do even better things.

It’s not that I am filling my days and nights with wasteful things. I do many fun, productive, worthwhile things. In fact, perhaps part of my problem is my constant feeling that every minute I spend must be worthwhile, as though an unproductive minute is a wasted minute. It was my personal trainer who challenged me to reconsider my downtime. He said my health is being affected by an unceasing stress response cycle and that my body is constantly overloaded with adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

I have gotten into some not-so-helpful habits, probably ones that working or studying parents often get into. It started in 2011 when I returned to work part-time after my first period of parental leave. My first child was 6 months old. I felt anxious that I might be perceived not to be working hard or long enough, or that I might be late responding to something, so I put my work email on my phone and responded to emails in the playground, in the supermarket queue, and in life’s cracks where I might previously have been daydreaming or looking around. Then in 2012, after having my second child, I returned to work again. I also enrolled full-time in my PhD (because: nerd bucket list!) and so I spent all my spare time (between work and parenting 2 children under 2) working on my doctorate. I managed to submit my thesis within 3 years of enrolling, and completed shortly afterwards, but I had set in motion a dangerous pattern. Once my PhD was done, I presented at more national and international conferences, and ramped up my academic and blog writing. I went from part-time work back to full-time work.

My downtime had become a different kind of work. I wasn’t having breaks. I was switching from teaching work to leadership work to domestic work to research work. Or I was using my non-work non-productive time to prepare for the next bout of work or productivity. Or I was so tired that in the evenings I would halfheartedly watch bad tv or trawl social media in the name of ‘time to myself’. I continued with all of this through some very rough personal patches and did my utmost not to let work, home, or doctorate, be affected. I had some good tricks, like seeing my PhD as intellectual ‘me time’, using calendars and to-do lists with military precision, and switching off from the rest of the world when I was playing with my kids. But is checking social media or writing a blog after the kids have gone to bed the best way to spend my time? Is it helping me to wind down for a good night’s sleep? Multiple work trips and conference presentations can be rewarding and invigorating, but can also negatively impact family time and lead to more stressful work weeks before and after. Is moving from the paid work of my days to the unpaid writing of my nights and weekends stoking my internal fire, or just exhausting me in a relentless cycle of Doing The Things.

What Things am I doing, and why?

I have begun to pare back my obligations. I have turned my email and social media notifications off and buried Facebook in the back of my phone. I’ve withdrawn from my Book Club. I’m reconsidering how often to post on this blog and am thinking perhaps ‘when it takes my fancy’ would be ok, rather than keeping myself to a schedule. I am figuring out how to protect my most productive time for my most important projects and how I might schedule in regular silence and stillness. My trainer has recommended flotation tank therapy.

I’m hoping that lightening my load will help me to stop doing some good things in order to do even better things. Some of those even better things are those I am passionate about (like writing what I’m burning to say, editing an important book, or serving the community via board-member type positions) and some are in the name of self-care, like getting a good night’s sleep, protecting a regular exercise schedule, and working out how to properly stop.

The Danielson Framework for Teaching as tool for professional reflection and conversation

2013 Danielson Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument cover

2013 Danielson Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument cover

The Framework for Teaching is a research-based set of components of instruction, aligned to the INTASC standards, and grounded in a constructivist view of learning and teaching. The complex activity of teaching is divided into 22 components (and 76 smaller elements) clustered into four domains of teaching responsibility. ~ Danielson Group website

I have spent a lot of time blogging about the coaching part of my school’s coaching model and some outlining the specifics of the model and the ways we use lesson data. I’ve spent less time talking about why and how we use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching as a tool for professional reflection and conversation. In this post, I’ll illuminate some of the reasons for adopting the Framework and the ways in which we use it at my Australian school.

Danielson’s Framework—explained in the most detail in Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (Danielson, 2008)—provides a map of what excellence in teaching might look like, providing a set of shared, explicit descriptors. Grounded in research, it is a thorough, multi-layered definition of good teaching which identifies a comprehensive range of teacher responsibilities. The Framework is intended to be part of transparent, active processes such as teacher reflection, professional inquiry, classroom observations, mentoring, coaching, and Human Resources processes such as recruitment, evaluation of teacher performance and appraisal. The use of such a framework depersonalises conversations about teaching, focusing discussion on specific elements of practice, rather than on the individual. It provides a shared, explicit set of descriptors.

The Framework clusters its twenty two components of teaching into four domains of teacher responsibility:

    • Domain 1: Planning and Preparation
    • Domain 2: The Classroom Environment
    • Domain 3: Instruction
    • Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

The components are intended to be applicable to diverse settings and independent of any particular teaching methodology. Whilst these components are separated for the purpose of the Framework, they are acknowledged as interrelated parts of a complex holistic endeavour. In action, the Framework is more web-like than grid-like. This is reflected in the choice of cover artwork for The Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument (Danielson, 2013) which shows the four domains as an intersecting Venn diagram.

The Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project studied 23,000 lessons of 3,000 teacher volunteers in six USA urban school districts in order to investigate how teacher practice affects student achievement. It found that the Framework:

  • was positively associated with student achievement gains;
  • focused observers’ attention on specific aspects of teaching practice;
  • established common evidentiary standards for each level of practice; and
  • created a common vocabulary for pursuing a shared vision of effective instruction.

The project also concluded that, when implementing an instrument for teacher  evaluation (or, in our case, reflection and growth):

  • clear standards and multiple observations are required when evaluating a teacher’s practice;
  • evaluation systems should include multiple measures;
  • combining observation scores with evidence of student achievement gains and student feedback improved predictive power and reliability and identified teachers with larger gains on state tests; and
  • the true promise of classroom observations is the potential to identify strengths and address specific weaknesses in teachers’ practice.

It was our reading—of Kane and Staiger’s (2012) Measures of Effective Teaching research paper and Sartain, Stoelinga and Brown’s (2011) report on Chicago’s implementation of the Danielson Framework, as part of its Excellence in Teaching Pilot—which influenced the design of our observation model in which each teacher has four 20 minute observations per annual cycle of coaching.

For us, using Danielson is about each teacher looking at specific lesson data at a particular moment in time, and interrogating where the evidence places that data against Danielson’s framework. In any one observation, teachers’ data might be rated (by themselves, or as calibrated with a coach or manager) across three different levels. Of course with knowledge and increasing familiarity of Danielson’s framework, teachers can work with an understanding of the way it frames ‘distinguished’ teaching, aiming for that, but all teachers, no matter their expertise, will have lessons which fall across components and across bands.

Dylan Wiliam's book on my desk; just a few Post-its

Dylan Wiliam’s new book on my desk; just a few Post-its

Imagine my delight (yes, serious nerd delight) when I discovered that Dylan Wiliam’s just-released book Leadership for Teacher Learning spends seven pages (pp.45-51) outlining the research findings around the Danielson Framework. While he cautions that the Framework is limited, especially in its ability to differentiate variation among teachers, he describes it as “rigorously researched” and “the best we can do in relating student progress to classroom observations.” Wiliam cites research on which my school’s decision to use Danielson was based. He points out that it has been shown that students taught by teachers who are rated highly on the Framework make more progress. In fact, students taught by a teacher rated as ‘distinguished’ make almost 30% more progress than those rated as ‘unsatisfactory’.

For my school, the Danielson Framework for Teaching instrument—congruent with our performance review, professional development and coaching processes—helps us to develop a precise and shared language of practice. It isn’t used as a scorecard for external evaluation, something which I strongly advocate against. We instead use it in the following ways.

  • Coaches and managers are trained by a Danielson consultant in generating lesson data and using the Framework in professional conversations (which aligns with out Cognitive Coaching model for coaching conversations).
  • Teachers complete an annual online self-reflection against the Framework, in order to surface reflections about their teaching, help them set goals, and guide their thinking as they plan for the year ahead;
  • During coaching conversations, coaches help teachers to consider their lesson data against the Danielson Framework, looking closely at the descriptors and facilitating reflection against the rubrics.
  • The Danielson Framework sits alongside the Australian National Professional Standards for Teachers as a tool for deepening reflection and conversation about practice, allowing teachers to more specifically envisage, articulate and enact excellence in teaching practice.

This use of the Danielson Framework fits with our philosophical position that everyone is coachable, that all teachers have the will and skill to improve, that coaching should develop internal capacities, and that the coach is always in the service of the coachee.

Reflections on the conference experience: Hawker Brownlow Melbourne 2015

Human interaction remains the key component of changing education. ~ Eric Sheninger

Yarra River, Melbourne

Yarra River, Melbourne

I have spent the last four days at the Hawker Brownlow Education Conference in Melbourne, an annual conference which brings big name educational thinkers together from around the world to present immersive sessions on educational issues of the moment. What follows is my reflection on the conference experience and the value of the conference model for learning.

I selected my conference sessions based on my particular areas of current interest. While Dylan Wiliam opened the conference by using William Schmidt’s warning against teaching an inflexible curriculum which is ‘a mile wide and an inch thick,’ my recent work in professional learning and effective school change has been an inch wide and a mile deep. The sessions I chose were therefore along this same vein and were intended to take me even deeper.

Many of the speakers’ points resonated with what I already know and affirmed my own thinking and practices. These added some layers of complexity to my existing understandings and acted as springboards for conversations around education.

Dylan Wiliam and Bruce Wellman pointed out that we learn when we are uncomfortable. Wiliam said, ‘we learn more when we’re wrong,’ while Wellman talked about the discomfort that comes with working towards understanding. He pointed out that teams and individuals need to be willing to squirm and grapple with challenging questions. A comfortable team is not a learning team.

Caulfield Racecourse view from the HBE conference

Caulfield Racecourse view from the HBE conference

Learning communities were a thread which appeared in the sessions I attended. Wellman, co-author of The Adaptive School, discussed how skilful high-performing groups share intellectual and emotional space, which includes being comfortable with pauses in discussion. Silence is not the enemy of learning and collaboration, but an ally.

Wellman pointed out that being in the same room together does not make a group a community of learners. Anthony Muhammad added that a professional learning community is not a collaborative team which meets regularly, but a systemic contextually-embedded paradigm which raises collective knowledge through collective inquiry. Much like the Adaptive School material, which advocates ‘graceful disagreement’ as a norm of effective teams, Muhammad maintains that constructive, professional disagreement is the foundation of innovation.

Muhammad’s work at Levey Middle School reflects that of my own school in that it emerged out of the specific context of that school and where its community and practices were at. While our context is vastly different, we too have built our teacher growth model out of our school’s mission, vision, values, existing work and knowledge of our students, teachers and leaders.

Part of our model is based around how feedback and conversation might be deliberately harnessed in order to build teacher capacity and amplify the learning culture of the school. Wellman says that feedback is ‘in the moment, about the past, to affect the future.’ He points out that advice has very little impact on the advisee, and instead advocates for using clear, shared standards and a focus on learning, within an environment of trust. The focus on learning is about meeting the person where they are. ‘Wherever I meet you in your practice,’ he says, ‘we’re going to grow from there.’ He adds that, ‘We are starving our master teachers of rich conversations; they are hungry to talk about the whys of what they are doing.’

As outlined in Lipton and Wellman’s Learning-Focused Supervision, Wellman sees standards as rallying points for important conversations which set aspirations for goal setting and growth. My Australian school similarly uses Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching as a tool for developing shared understandings about teaching; and for reflection and data-based conversation around teaching practice. Our approach also gels with Wellman’s assertion that feedback should be customised and appropriate for the individual; one size does not fit all. Our model of teacher growth incorporates differentiation in terms of what sort of data teachers collect from their lessons and the ways in which coaches approach each conversation. As with the metaphor of the stage coach, our coaching model is about helping the coachee get to their desired destination.

Melbourne autumn

Melbourne autumn

One of Wellman’s points about data analysis was that, when looking at data, we should focus on analysing reasons for successes, rather than failure. What are the successful students or teachers doing? What knowledge and strategies do they have? How can we develop those in others? (He also has a great strategy for teams looking at student achievement data in which he employs prediction to engage people in their assumptions about what the data might hold, before revealing the data.)

At the end of the conference I met up with Eric Sheninger who had just landed in Melbourne for his first time working with Australian educators, districts and conferences (he will be keynoting at the EduTECH conference in Brisbane next week). I had tweeted a pile of books from the conference two days earlier, including Eric’s, with no idea that he was en route to Melbourne. Ours was an impromptu meeting which arose out of a morning Twitter conversation. We met up and chatted about our work, global educational thinkers, the world of connected educators and DIY professional learning. During our conversation, Eric pointed me towards some great apps which will be useful collaborative tools for my work with student and teacher learners, such as Verso, Tozzl and Padlet.

In addition, my first night in Melbourne had me meeting with some of my Twitter PLN – Greg Curran, Chris Munro and Jo Prestia – to discuss coaching in school settings, research journeys and approaches to school intervention implementation.

Both in and out of the conference I fielded questions about what my PhD is about. This was a great opportunity to hone my ideas about what is most important about my research and communicating that in effective ways.

So there were affirming moments in, and out, of the conference, which added nuanced layers to my thinking. Yet on reflection, I realise that much of what a conference can bring for the delegate are conversations with others, unexpected moments of collaboration, and the space and time to process and reflect. Although I was surprised at the lack of a backchannel at a national conference, by both presenters and delegates, – Where was the Tweetstream? – I found valuable connections with my own colleagues, other educators, presenters and connected educators who weren’t affiliated with the conference but were open to connecting in person.

Federation Square, Melbourne

Federation Square, Melbourne

Can and should teachers be (viewed as) researchers?

Sarajevo bullets, by @debsnetWhen we respect teaching as an intellectual activity and give teachers the opportunities to raise serious questions about what they teach, how they teach and the larger goals for which they are striving, they can play a dramatic role in transforming their institutions. ~ Sergiovanni, 2005

This month – April 2015 – is the month in which Dylan Wiliam argued in the TES magazine that teaching cannot and will not be a research-led profession, in which Tom Bennett responded that evidence-based education is dead (but that evidence-informed education lives), and in which John Hattie was quoted in a TES article as saying that teachers should not try to be researchers and that ‘I don’t have any time for making teachers researchers.’ In response to his own question, ‘Asking teachers to be researchers?’ he replies, ‘They are not.’

In this article Hattie is also quoted as saying that teachers should use the “literacy and sensibility of research to inform their practice” and that the worlds of research (by academics, not teachers) and teaching should “orbit together”. This resonates with Tom Bennett’s assertion that teaching be evidence-informed (but not evidence-based) and with the mandate of researchED which is to raise research literacy in the teaching profession and promote conversations between teaching and academic communities (my post about researchED Sydney 2014 is here).

As someone whose identity straddles ‘teacher’ and novice ‘researcher’ (as a PhD candidate coming towards the end of my PhD journey) I agree that research should inform teaching, leading and educational practice, and that worlds of education and the academy should work in collaboration. I am not sure, however, that we should draw a divisive line with ‘teacher’ on one side and ‘researcher’ on the other.

When I read the TES article which presented quotes from Hattie, a number of questions arose for me. What does Hattie mean when he says that teachers are not (and perhaps cannot be) researchers? What is his definition of ‘researcher’?

Is he discouraging teachers from reading academic literature and collecting data to inform their practice? Is he telling teachers they cannot be (taught to be) systematic thinkers who investigate, trial, collaborate, communicate and utilise scholarly literature and evidence to inform their practice?

Many teachers have been involved in action research projects, or Masters or PhD dissertations. Are these teachers, too, incapable of conducting and applying research thinking and methods? For me this is an issue of identity, of sense of self. Am I a teacher who researches? A researcher who teaches? A teacher and a researcher? Is Hattie suggesting that these identities are unavailable to me?

Is research in a real educational context by a real educator less valid than that of an academic from a university?

Many have responded to this conversation. Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, warns against encouraging teachers not to pursue evidence, as he articulates in this TES article.

Teacher Chris Parsons explores how the teaching profession might strategically develop its use of evidence to inform practice.

PhD candidate Charlotte Pezaro, writing for the Australian Association of Educational Research, explores ways in which academics and teachers might interact.

Policy analyst Patrick Watson in this post argues that we need to identify research which is worthwhile for informing practice, build the research-literacy of teachers and encourage action research to facilitate reflection and deeper understanding.

The 2012 Grattan Institute report ‘Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia’ asserts that high-performing school systems view teachers as researchers, continually developing their knowledge base through practices such as professional reading and action research. My PhD cites examples of literatures which promotes participatory action research as transformative for individual practice and collaborative cultures. All research and all researchers have limitations. I wonder what the impact is of viewing teachers as researchers and of encouraging teachers to think of themselves as researchers. How does it shape teachers’ identities, self-perceptions and practices if they are encouraged to be consumers, curators, engagers and creators of research? Perhaps it is partly a question (to reflect Dweck’s work) of developing a research mindset.

One of Wiliam’s points is that research cannot tell us what could be only what we already know. If we are always basing our practice on what has been done, we aren’t innovating or trialling new possibilities. Teaching and schools should be about more than doing what has been done and what is known; it should be about moving forward and even about innovation and creativity.

Perhaps teachers who see themselves as researchers could call themselves ‘teachers as innovative, research-literate, reflective, evidence-informed, systematically-thinking, data-using-and-interrogating practitioners who drive their own learning and improvement in regards to what benefits their students.’ Or maybe that’s a bit long.

While I understand that the issue of whether teachers can or should be researchers is nuanced, complex and riddled with semantic argument, I (as someone who identifies as teacher and researcher) would like to think we can view teachers as researchers, by my definition, if not by Hattie’s.