Finding a new paradise for education in times of chaos

Sugata Mitra describes learning as an edge of chaos phenomenon, a concept that seems to fit so nicely with the very idea of learning as a process for deriving a new sense of order out of disorder. The chaos and complexity that is inherent in educational systems (schools in particular) is inescapable.
 
Through any lens schools are complex places. A melting pot of human, social, political, economic, technological, physical and philosophical tensions. At once the stronghold of our cultural traditions and facilitators of our future wellbeing, schools serve as pillars of stability constructed at the event horizon between our now and our tomorrow. Perhaps at this point in time more than ever is this tension between the role that schools play in indoctrinating our youth into the ways of society at odds with the imperative to prepare them for their futures.
 
Sardar describes these as “postnormal times”. "Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future.” (Sardar, 2010) At the edge of chaos schools confront the pressure to pass down the knowledge of this past that we have increasingly left behind and cannot return to, while preparing our learners for a future we can hardly imagine.
 
But this contradiction in purpose should not cause despair even while we come to understand its implications. As educators, we are in the business of helping individuals and even whole societies of them to confront and adapt to change. When we empower our students to step into the role of learners, as we shape their dispositions for learning and as we take their understanding of their world to the edge of chaos and beyond, we prepare them for a world of complexity, uncertainty and change.
 
When we value the process of learning and recognise that the capacity to learn and relearn is our most certain pathway to success in a world of uncertainty, we begin to imagine a future that is a paradise for education. Freed by technology from the need to be societies' dispensers of information, educators can focus their attention on the skills and dispositions of learning. With vast fields of knowledge as our playgrounds we are able to instill our learners with a love of learning and the skills and mindsets they require to be powerful life-long learners.
 
Learning and creativity are endeavours which should be understood as closely connected. Creating is placed at the top of Bloom’s revised taxonomy of learning with good reason. Creativity might be seen as learning in its purest form, where the learner moves beyond what is known and explores new territory. Creativity is what allows us to take learning beyond the edge of chaos and is required if we are to bring any sense of order to the complex and changing world we confront.
 
Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi describes how the creative process is stirred into existence. "The creative process starts with a sense that there is a puzzle somewhere or a task to be accomplished, perhaps something is not right, somewhere there is a conflict a tension, a need to be satisfied.” The volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world of the postnormal overflows with opportunities for creativity. The challenge for schools is to reimagine learning as a creative endeavour. To scaffold the processes required for intelligent action, to train our students to maximise their cognitive tools and to provide a strong foundation of knowledge and skills upon which they can innovate.
 
When we change our thinking away from learning as a process of accumulation and see it as one of creativity, we are able to shift the focus of our efforts and provide opportunities that require our students to blissfully think and act with what they know at the edge of chaos.
 
 By Nigel Coutts

Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi (2013) Flow: The psychology of happiness’ and creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention. New York; Harper Perennial. 

Mitra, S. (2014) The future of schooling: Children and learning at the edge of chaos. Prospects, 44:547-558

Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times. Futures, 42(5), 435-444. 

What truly drives change in Education?

You do not need to look very hard to find a report claiming that schools and education needs to change. 

According to Sarah Goner of “The Hechinger Report” the latest study by the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the US indicates that "Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind". The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) identifies from their research eight “enterprise skills that are essential for young people as they "engage with a complex world and navigate the challenges they will inherit”. Skills such as problem solving, communication skills, critical thinking, creativity and teamwork are listed. The FYA goes on to state "Given that many young people remain ill-equipped for what employers are demanding, we need to better promote these skills in our education and training systems".

Foundation for Young Australians - The New Basics - Access the Full Report

Foundation for Young Australians - The New Basics - Access the Full Report

Lists of essential skills, competencies or dispositions are common and there is much overlap. The enterprise skills identified by FYA echoes those presented by others such as the Four Cs of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration & Creativity) and the Seven Cs developed by Lucas & Claxton in “Educating Ruby” which adds confidence, curiosity, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship. The Australian Curriculum makes a good effort at a similar list with information and communication technology, critical & creative thinking, personal & social, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding sitting alongside a back to basics appeasing mention of literacy and numeracy. 

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The OECD has used their extensive research base to develop a response to the question of “What do children have to learn?” An intertwined model of knowledge, skills and attitudes & values results. According to the OECD students require; disciplinary, interdisciplinary and practical knowledge, cognitive & metacognitive, social & emotional and physical & practical skills, and an unidentified triad of attitudes & values. 

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More evidence for the need to change education can be found in the recently released work of Miranda Jefferson and Michael Anderson. The title reveals the authors position “Transforming Schools: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration” and they state their case for change eloquently "Education needs to take account of the prevailing conditions of postnormality (chaos, complexity and contradiction) to equip young people for their rapidly changing future.” 

In Britain the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has added their voice to the clamour of those calling for change. Their report titled "First Steps” claims that it "deals with the most important part of the UK’s long-term growth strategy – improving education”. The CBI has a list of characteristics that they feel we should aspire to, “The system should encourage young people to be Determined, Optimistic and Emotionally Intelligent” this will produce a “Compelling Individual” 

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The answer according to CBI includes a “clear focus on attainment for every child”, “better parental and community engagement leads to more vibrant schools”, “better teaching” a curriculum with "rigorous expectations of every child, on both knowledge and the development that we expect schools to deliver” and holding schools accountable for delivering all of these outcomes. Australia’s Productivity Commission added its voice to the conversation in a recent report that became the subject for an article by Ross Gittins of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Productivity Commission states "A good school system ensures that people have the key foundational skills — numeracy, literacy, analytical skills — and the capacity to learn so that they can easily acquire knowledge throughout their lives. And‘soft’ skills, such as teamwork, collaboration, leadership and creativity are equally essential to adaptability and retention of employment”. According to Gittins "It's obvious our classroom teaching isn't as effective as it needs to be, but we've done little about it.”  and the productivity points the finger at teacher effectiveness and calls for "a more rigorous micro evidence base about what works in schools and how it should be implemented”. 

The pattern here is clear, schools need to change, education needs to shift its focus and the point of action is at the coal face with better teaching and accountability. But this seems to ignore the most significant obstacle to change, the elephant in the room perhaps. 

Assessment is probably the strongest driver of education and the most significant obstacle to change. While high stakes testing focuses on low order skills, an emphasis on recall of knowledge and learned strategies for responding to predominantly content based questions progress will be stifled. Open a dialogue with teachers about the need to teach dispositions and it will not be long before someone says “That’s all very good, but I need to get my students ready for the test”. 

Not that students suffer when we provide them with a curriculum that includes content and competencies, capabilities or dispositions. As research by the likes of David Perkins, Ron Ritchhart and Guy Claxton makes clear: If we teach our children to think then they will do better on the test and they will do better in life. Nevertheless, educational reform would occur at a faster pace if an at least equal emphasis was placed on gathering evidence of students attainment of the dispositions that so many are claiming to be essential. What we test is what we value and if we do not test for dispositions such as creativity, critical thinking and collaboration they will continue to be second rate citizens to foundational skills in numeracy and literacy.

By Nigel Coutts

 

 

Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind - Sarah Gosner

Foundation for Young Australians

Claxton, G. & Lucas, B. (2015) Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn. Wales; Crown House Publishing

First Steps - CBI

Miranda Jefferson & Michael Anderson (2017) Transforming Schools: Creativity, Critical Reflection, Communication, Collaboration. London; Bloomsbury

OECD 2030 Framework for Education

Something's gone badly wrong with teaching

Australian Productivity Commission - Shifting the Dial

Educational Disadvantage - Socio-economic Status and Education Pt 3

Pedagogy and curriculum that engages students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and is deemed personally relevant to the lives they live, are seen as important factors towards equality of outcome by Wrench, Hammond, McCallum and Price (2012). Their research involved designing a curriculum and pedagogy that would be highly engaging to students of low-socioeconomic status. 'The interventions involved curriculum redesigns that set meaningful, challenging learning task(s) (culminating in high quality learning products); strong connection to student life-worlds; and a performative expectation for student learning.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p934) 'Themes included: identity and agency within a community context; models of communities of practice that focused on learning in social settings; and, a holistic approach to the constructions of well-being and engagement.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p935)

The inclusion of ‘place-based’ learning and experiences that created a sense of community were found to be important factors along with well-being aspects of a holistic programme that engaged learners with their learning and allowed students to better engage with their aspirations. 'Re-designing the curriculum with a well-being focus provided the opportunity for students to explore and imagine possible futures and aspirations beyond their current life-worlds.’ (Wrench et al 2012 p943)

In exploring a pedagogy of poverty Haberman (1991) found that the tendency is to align the students with a model pedagogy, one that is reactive to the perceived needs of a setting where economic disadvantage is the norm. ‘Simply stated, we act as if it is not the pedagogy that must be fitted to the students but the students who must accept an untouchable method.’ (Haberman 1991 p292) Haberman notes that in schools with a low-socioeconomic status teachers are not judged for their failure to educate their students but for a failure to elicit compliance. This results in a particular pedagogical style dominated by top-down control with limited student agency.

This ineffective pedagogy is absent from quality schools regardless of their student population replaced by the strategies of ‘good teaching’. Student involvement with issues they believe are important, discussion of human differences, student planning of activities, student application of ideals such as fairness and justice, inclusion of real-life experiences, heterogeneous groups, critical thinking, polishing and improving work and active reflection are the hallmarks of quality teaching according to Haberman (1991).

Programmes such as ‘School is for Me’ (DEET NSW, 2006) aim to alter the way that students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds perceive and engage with school. By focusing on presenting students with engaging messages around who possesses valued knowledge, who has ability, who is in control, who owns the place and who has a voice in the school the program aims to reveal to students that school is a place for them and not one that is owned and controlled by teachers or others external to their community. The success that such a programme has had in engaging students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, who had previously shown disengagement from school reveals that funding alone will not produce equitable outcomes. Changes to the messaging systems of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment need to occur so that all students see the personal relevance of school to their lives. 

In a deficit discourse students of low-socioeconomic backgrounds are described as disengaged and having low-aspirations which schools need to raise but this view is contradicted by research undertaken by Reid and Faye (2014). This research indicates that indeed students in their study 'positively expressed a desire to be engaged in their learning and to succeed in their schooling.’ (Reid et al 2014 p205). What the students required was assistance in mapping a path towards their aspirations and dreams and help in expanding their capacity to aspire, something schools can and should play a part in.

Shifting how we view the purpose of education plays a part in discourses of educational disadvantage. When viewed as a screening measure differences in educational outcomes, even those that occur systemically and for reasons beyond the individuals control are excused. In a society where education is imagined as a process for screening candidates into future career pathways based on the identification of ability, the failure of this system to account for differences not related to ability is excused for the good of the result. 'It means that unequal incomes and unequal social standing in adulthood are seen as the outcomes of greater or less merit in an impartial process of selection'. (Connell & White 1991 p20) If education is about something more than screening students and if we are able to see that a multitude of factors play a part in allowing for academic success we will look to maximise the place that our educational systems can play in the future lives of every child and every community. 

by Nigel Coutts

References

Barr, A., Constable, E., Pike, B., Bartlett, D., Lomax-Smith, J., & Welford, R. Scrymgour, M., Firth, V. & Gillard, J. (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Ministerial Council on Education.

Bauman, L., Silver, E. and Stein, R., (2006) Cumulative social disadvantage and child health, Pediatrics, Vol. 117, No. 4, April.

Connell, R., Johnston, K. & White, V. (1991) Rethinking the relationship between poverty and education in Running Twice as Hard: The Disadvantaged Schools Program in Australia. Geelong, Deakin University Press. 

Department of Education and Training (2006) School is for me: Pathways to student engagement. Sydney

Foucault, M. (1990) The history of sexuality: Volume 1: an introduction (Melbourne, Penguin).

Gonski, D. (2012). Review of funding for schooling. Canberra: Dept. of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

Haberman, M. (2010). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(2), 81-87.

Levin, H. M. (1998). Educational vouchers: Effectiveness, choice and costs. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 17(3), 373–392.

Lim, P., Gemici, S., Rice, J., & Karmel, T. (2011). Socioeconomic status and the allocation of government resources in Australia. Education + Training, 53(7), 570-586.

Najman, J., Bor, W., Morrison, J., Andersen, M., & Williams, G. (1992). Child developmental delay and socio-economic disadvantage in Australia: A longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 34(8), 829-835.

OECD (2012), Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting disadvantaged students and schools, OECD Publishing

Reid, A. & McCallum, F. (2014). 'Becoming your best’: student perspectives on community in the pursuit of aspirations. The Australian Educational Researcher, 41(2), 195-207.

United Nations (1948) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Accessed Online 22.4.2016 http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ 

Vinson, T. (2007)  Dropping off the edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia A report by Professor Tony Vinson for Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia. Jesuit Social Services / Catholic Social Services Australia

Vinson, T., Rawsthorne, M., Beavis, A., & Ericson, M.(2015) Dropping off the edge: Persistent communal disadvantage in Australia. Jesuit Social Services / Catholic Social Services Australia

Watson, L. & Ryan, C. (2010). Choosers and losers: The impact of government subsidies on Australian secondary schools. Australian Journal Of Education, 54(1), 86-107. 

Wrench, A., Hammond, C., McCallum, F., & Price, D. (2013). Inspire to aspire: raising aspirational outcomes through a student well-being curricular focus. International Journal Of Inclusive Education, 17(9), 932-947. 

Educational Disadvantage - Socio-economic Status and Education Pt 2

An unavoidable element of the discourse around educational disadvantage or equality is how we define and assess equality. One definition will see this as being in equality of access to education, funding for education and/or resources. Such an approach has largely been seen in government funding models however subtle variations on this theme have resulted in significant differences in resulting policies.

A simplistic funding model would see each school that is funded by the government receive a fixed amount per student (something like $9,697 per primary student and $11,945 per secondary student in 2011 (Gonski et al 2011 p59)). In Australia subsidies for non-government schools (Independent and Catholic) has resulted in relative disparities in socio-economic status with government schools. Parental choice for school type has resulted in a higher concentration of high-socioeconomic status families in non-government schools according to Watson and Ryan (2010). 'Adverse peer effects generated by high concentrations of low-SES students in public schools can be expected to place further downward pressure on student performance in the public school system’. (Watson & Ryan 2010 p104)

This concentration of low-socioeconomic status children in public schools means that funding demands for these schools will be higher conclude Watson & Ryan (2010). Complicating the distribution of students between public and private sectors is research by Levin (1998) who found that families with high-socioeconomic status and high academic achievement levels are more likely to choose a school other than the default public school option for their children. ‘Families that are better-off may be more likely to take advantage of school choice than those that are worse off because of better access to information, greater ability to afford transportation, a higher penchant to exercise educational alternatives, and greater generic experience with choice and alternatives.’ (Levin, 1998 p379)
 
An alternate funding model was proposed by Gonski et al in what is commonly referenced in the media as the Gonski Report and has given rise to the social media campaign ‘I give a Gonski’. According to Gonski 'Public funding arrangements need to react to the nature of the educational challenges faced by a system or school given its characteristics and student population, regardless of whether it is in the government or non-government sector.’ To do this a new schooling resource standard was suggested; 'The standard would be explicitly linked to expected educational outcomes, rather than historical levels of resource inputs, and geared to providing all students with the opportunity to meet agreed national educational outcomes.’ (Gonski et al 2011 p69) Gonski uses socio-economic status as a value in determining the need of schools using data from Australian Bureau of Statistics to adjust the required funding level. This report resulted in additional funding for schools to be provided over six years starting in 2014. This funding is now under review by the present government.
 
Models such as that outlined by Gonski are aimed at providing schools with the level of funding they require to achieve a national standard of educational outcomes and aim to take into account many of the factors which influence the success of schools in areas of economic disadvantage. 'Likewise, pressing for additional skilled support to help ensure the successful launching of children’s education and to help maintain their meaningful engagement in school and post-school training and education, would also address another of the recurring features of the most disadvantaged areas'. (Vinson, 2015 p14)

As the largest percentage of school operating costs are directly associated with teacher salaries (78% for private schools (Watson & Ryan 2010 p92)) it is not surprising that much of the debate around school equity relates to teacher quality and teacher/student ratios. Attracting quality teachers into areas of socio-economic disadvantage is a goal proposed to enhance the quality of learning that occurs but is one that significantly oversimplifies the reality of what is required. 

Having attracted quality teachers into an area the imperative is to then keep them and to extend and enrich their capacities. Access to professional development is essential and this carries direct and indirect costs. A culture of collaboration and efforts to develop professional learning communities are effective strategies towards this goal. Free quality Professional Development is increasingly available through a mix of social media and free events such as Teach Meets. A school culture that promotes participation in these learning communities has benefits for all. 

In Part Three we turn to the question of pedagogical adjustments which benefit students from from low socio-economic backgrounds. 

By Nigel Coutts

Read Part One

Full references published with Part Three.

 


 

Educational Disadvantage - Socio-economic Status & Education Pt 1

The role that education plays in issues of social equity and justice cannot be undervalued. It is acknowledged by the United Nations as a human right, 'Everyone has the right to education’ (United Nations, 1948) and as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians 'As a nation Australia values the central role of education in building a democratic, equitable and just society— a society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse, and that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures as a key part of the nation’s history, present and future.’ (Barr et al, 2008). Such lofty assertions of the importance of education as a right and national value should be sufficient to ensure that all Australians have access to an education of the highest standard with equitable outcomes for all, the reality is that this is not the case and the reasons for this remain complex, divisive and politically entrenched. Discourses of equity, power and societal expectation play a part in helping us understand how access to education and disparities in the quality of outcome experienced shapes Australian society and advantages some to the detriment of others. 

The connections between socio-economic status and education are intertwined such that a deficit in one is linked to a deficit in the other. 'The persistent social and economic marginalisation of individuals and groups within society has significant detrimental direct and indirect impacts. Such marginalisation tends to create a “vicious cycle” of disadvantage, limiting access to educational opportunities, which in turn leads to poor labour market outcomes and low earnings.’ (Lim, Gemici, Rice & Karmel, 2011 p570) The connection between socio-economic status and educational achievement is made clear by Professor Tony Vinson whose study of factors resulting in disadvantage and its distribution across Australia states that 'The report highlights the particularly strong link between intergenerational poverty and low educational attainment.’ (Vinson, 2007 p1) Vinson’s study outlines how disadvantage on measures such as education, health, criminality, access to services, employment and community services is unevenly distributed and 'finds that just 1.7 percent of postcodes and communities across Australia account for more than seven times their share of top rank positions of the major factors that cause intergenerational poverty’ (Vinson, 2007 p1).

Vinson reveals the complexity of the interconnections between aspects of disadvantage and the complexity that exists as one tries to describe its causes or identify solutions. 'Poverty, low parental education and single parent family structure are not simply proxies for a single underlying disadvantage but have additive effects on the life chances of children.' (Bauman, Silver and Stein, 2006 p1326) While implicated in many studies as a factor (Connell & White 1991)(Lim, Gemici, Rice & Karmel, 2011)((Vinson, 2007 & 2015)(Bauman, Silver and Stein, 2006) (OECD, 2012), equity of educational outcome alone can not explain the distribution of social disadvantage and measures to minimise its influence will not be achieved through educational reform alone. As Connell and White assert ‘Poverty and education is an issue no one likes to own. It is complicated, it is frustrating, and it does not lend itself to grand gestures’. ‘In fact the issue is both welfare business and school’s business’. (Connell, Johnston & White 1991 ch2 p 1)

'The observation that children reared in socio-economic disadvantage experience developmental delays and intellectual deficits raises basic questions to do with appropriate social and welfare policies.' (Najman, Bor, Morrison, Andersen & Williams, 1992 p833) This finding by Najman et al reveals a connection beyond academic achievement and indicates a connection between low-socioeconomic standing and attainment of normal developmental milestones. This research indicates that more needs to be done to redress the influence of socioeconomic standing than improving schools as there are broader health issues implicated in this study. A discourse of school blaming or school failure oversimplifies the reality of the situation but is a common element of analysis. The OECD when addressing ‘Equity and Quality in Education’ writes that 'Educational failure also imposes high costs on society. Poorly educated people limit economies’ capacity to produce, grow and innovate. School failure damages social cohesion and mobility, and imposes additional costs on public budgets to deal with the consequences – higher spending on public health and social support and greater criminality, among others.’ (OECD 2012 p3) The implication in the phrasing ‘poorly educated people’ is that the remedy lies within the school and the quality of education received, broader societal issues that impede the capacity of the school to achieve equitable outcomes for students are overlooked in such a simplistic analysis. 

Understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of the issues causing and impacted by socio-economic disadvantage allows individual elements to be addressed singularly while not ignoring their relationship with others. As Foucault warns 'we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies.' (Foucault, 1990, p. 101) Such an approach is useful within education and for those operating within educational systems. Identifying the multiplicity of discourses connected to power and policy that influence the trajectory of social endeavours such as educational reform is essential. 

By Nigel Coutts

In Part Two we explore definitions of Equity and in Part Three Pedagogical response. 

Full references will be published with Part three

Project Zero Turns 50

This year is the fiftieth birthday of Harvard’s Project Zero, a research project designed to explore the nature of thinking and learning and from this suggest pedagogies which align with what we know about the mind. For its birthday celebration Project Zero shared insights from its five decades of research with presentations from Howard Gardner, David Perkins, Shari Tasman, Steve Seidel and Daniel Wilson. The presentations revealed the changing nature of the work of Project Zero from its early days and focus on arts education to its current position as a research organisation with broad interests across education but with a focus on thinking, understanding and the workings of the mind.

By keeping changes in Mind in mind, we might move beyond replicating classrooms from the 1850s

By keeping changes in Mind in mind, we might move beyond replicating classrooms from the 1850s

Daniel Wilson set the tone of the presentations by stating that educators must keep changes in Mind in mind. The implication being that as our understanding of the mind expands our interactions with it through learning and teaching must also evolve and expand; something that Wilson shows has not occurred historically. This has been the work of Project Zero and projects such as Teaching for Understanding and Making Thinking Visible provide teachers and most importantly learners the frameworks required. The great value that Project Zero brings lies in the research basis for its work and the clear connections its researchers make with practices which are applicable in the real world and real classrooms. 

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Howard Gardner took us back to the early days of education where in the 1850s much of the structure of education was invented and implemented for the first time. Over subsequent years and decades our thinking about the mind changed from behaviourist notions with a strict focus on the visible behaviours which could be manipulated through rewards and punishments, testing of intelligence where what was considered intelligent was what the test tested, towards a science of cognitive psychology and an interest in what might lie behind the behaviours and on to more modern understandings from neuroscience. Beyond the individual social factors for thinking and learning evolved and with each new piece of research our understanding of Mind has expanded and evolved. From its early days of exploring linkages between the arts and the mind to today, Gardner shows how Project Zero has evolved our understanding.

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David Perkins in his engaging storytelling style shared with us the story of the Evil Empire of IQ and revealed that contrary to popular belief intelligence is so much more than is revealed by a score on a test. Perkins asked the question "what does it mean to be smart” and his response showed that the errors in the common understanding. He reminded us that the evolving understanding of the mind shows:

  • Smart as multiple - we are not all smart in the same way nor are we smart in a singular way. There are the smarts we use when we are being creative and these are not the same as the smarts we use when we are being business minded and these are not the same as the ones we use when being social
  • Smart as learnable - that through the development of thinking strategies and the use of scaffolds for our mind we can enhance our smarts
  • Smart as dispositional - that much of what we consider as smart are indeed dispositions and that can be developed or enhanced and that the utility of these dispositions requires not only the capacity for the disposition but the desire to deploy it and a sensitivity to its utility in given circumstances all of which can be learned
  • Smart as performative - It’s not the knowledge, it’s what you do with the knowledge, It’s not knowing a lot it’s how you think with what you know.

Perkins concluded by urging us to consider the implications for this broader definition of what it means to be smart and what this looks like in the classroom. "Imagine a classroom where what’s central is not repeating what you know or repeating the standard routines, but this further layer of exploration putting that knowledge to work. In Jerome Bruner’s famous phrase “Going beyond the information given” That's what should be our earmark for a really rich generative setting for learning “Going beyond the information given”.

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Shari Tishman focused on the work of the Visible Thinking project; "Visibility as a force for learning - a rich area of research Project Zero - two decades and going strong”. Tishman asked "What happens when instruction is designed to help learners externalise; to make visible their thinking to themselves and one another?” With examples from the classroom Tishman showed that by making thinking visible we allow learners and teachers to understand where they are with their thinking, how they got there and to move forward to a deeper understanding. She shared how the use of thinking routines such as “Notice, Know, Wonder” allows for a deep engagement with learning and takes students beyond recall of knowledge, towards understanding. 

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Steven Seidel urged us to “turn teaching on its head” in response to what we now know about Mind. In his words:

"The radical preconceptions of the minds we have been hearing about and our new understandings of how people learn suggest we probably need a radical reconceptualisation of what it means to teach and indeed I think we do, just as these streams of research and theory have led us to turn our concepts of mind on their head, so to speak, clearly we need to turn teaching on its head as well. "
 
"To be sure while we have evolved our understanding of the mind in many if not most schools, classrooms and other learning environments, we have not changed our minds about what it means to teach. We may have changed our minds but we haven’t changed our practice so much. If you look in on most classrooms today you’ll see variations on old models of teaching, not radical reconceptualisations of what it means to learn and therefore to teach."

Sadly, as Seidel noted "Paradigms don’t shift until they are ready"
 
Seidel urged us to see teachers as curators of three core principles at the heart of education; as curators of curiosity, curriculum and culture. 

  • Teachers as curators of curiosity, both their students and their own - students and teachers as creators of knowledge - Seidel noted that teachers are well placed to develop and extend our understanding of the curation of curiosity.
  • Teachers as creators of curriculum - building on what is there but also on what is within the community and what matters to learners. “A different model of a curriculum, one that is long term, often place based, open to taking new directions as it unfolds, aesthetically rich, community connected and oriented to produce products and performances"  - not a teacher proofed commercial curriculum or one mandated by government and monitored by high stakes testing. 
  • Teachers as creators of Culture - Not as transmitters of the culture of the dominant society. but to "think of things as if they could be otherwise, to use our imaginations in service of our ethical sensibility and to recast our works as teachers toward the creation of just, equitable and democratic classrooms and school cultures”
Learning as . . . according to Steven Seidel

Learning as . . . according to Steven Seidel

The work of Project Zero is ongoing and increasingly global. In the words of Howard Gardner, it is an institution that is not the lengthened shadow of one man as imagined by Ralph Waldo Emerson but is the shadow of a whole community. It is a community dedicated to the betterment of education for all, and one that seeks to understand and respond to debates around the purposes and processes of education with sound research and respect for the complex nature of the subject.

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As a teacher who has benefited from the thinking of Project Zero I thank all involved and wish you a happy birthday. We will watch with anticipation to see what comes next. 

Learn more - 

Project Zero 50 Years

Project Zero Website

By Nigel Coutts
 
 

Modern Spaces for Contemporary Learning

Think back to how you felt after the last day you spent at a conference or course. If things went well you probably came out feeling enthused by new ideas but also exhausted and fatigued in ways that you don’t after a regular day at work. If the presenters have done their job well and you choose your workshops wisely, the day should have been full of learning that resulted from you having to think. Days like this should work our brains hard and it should be no surprise when we are fatigued by such an experience.

Conferences bring other fatigue inducing factors. A change of routine, the temptations offered by the catering and day under artificial lighting. They also often require long periods of motionless sitting, in chairs that offer little genuine comfort, arranged in cramped rows that afford little to no personal space. Conferences are a great escape, but it is nice to return to our normal routines and give our minds and bodies time to reset. 

Now imagine you are student in a traditional classroom; a student in one of those classrooms that looks just like classrooms did in the 1800s. Let’s assume that you have teachers who challenge your thinking, who are engaging and present lessons full of stimulation. Every lesson throughout your day is a model of quality teaching and you leave every class wanting more. Let’s assume your classmates are actively engaged in their learning and inspire you to do the same. This is perhaps the dream learning experience and yet at the end of the day it should still be no surprise that you are feeling more than a little fatigued by the experience. 

With your brain awash with ideas you head home. After an evening of extracurricular activities, daily chores and an hour of homework you finally get to bed. Throw into the mix a busy and at times challenging social and family life and the average day brings a significant cognitive load. While you sleep your brain busily processes the learning from the day before, makes new connections and extends your knowledge banks. 

In the morning, you awake and do it all again. And then again the next day and then the next. 

In reality, amidst the mix of spectacular lessons are a whole lot of fairly average experiences and some you would rather forget. There are probably whole sections of the curriculum that you don’t connect with and teachers with whom you have barely connected with at all. There are classmates who are distracting, disruptive and difficult to learn with. There are changes to the routine, interruptions and special events which break the flow of your learning. Lunchtime and recess are often the highlight of the day. Boredom more than fatigue becomes the enemy and the mind wanders. 

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This is when traditional classroom seating comes to the rescue. Uncomfortable, hard and restrictive seating brings your mind back into the room but takes it nowhere near the learning. You notice the painful pressure points and are overwhelmed by a desire to fidget as you try to find a more comfortable position. At this point any distraction is a welcome one and you long for the lesson to end so you can move again. All learning has stopped. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives and many learning institutions are exploring what is possible. Inspired by innovations in the corporate world from tech giants such as Google office design has seen some radical changes in the past decade. Beige is out, colour is in. Static, rigid seating is out and movement permissible options abound. With options for sit/stand desks the notion of office seating is completely challenged. Meetings occur in spaces resembling lounges and sitting on the floor or in a comfortable bean bag is more than OK. Google images of 'innovative office spaces’ or combine IDEO or Google or Pixar with office spaces and you will be amazed at what you find. Places that are as imaginative as the products produced within them.  

Search for Innovative Office Spaces on Google and this is what you find.

Search for Innovative Office Spaces on Google and this is what you find.

Schools are starting to embrace these new ways of thinking and companies that design furniture for them are responding. Look at the catalogue of any of the large manufacturers of school furniture and you will find items you would happily place in your home. The shift is away from a one size fits all mentality to spaces that are full of comfortable options with the flexibility needed to adjust to changing circumstances. The most innovative spaces combine comfort with a sense of whimsy which invites creativity and inspires the imagination. Why learn in a classroom when you can learn on a pirate ship or in a pod that looks like it grew out of the floor. 

As with all change in schools the biggest obstacle is tradition. We have strong ideas of what a classroom should look like and balk at ideas which challenge this. Many believe that rigorous learning can’t possibly take place in environments which do not align with images of the traditional classroom; the type that they experienced. We need to challenge these ideas and show that it is indeed possible to create spaces that are a joy to learn in and where comfort, creativity and learning go hand in hand. Contemporary learning expects a great deal from its students and they deserve spaces which ease the physical load while inspiring their best thinking. 

By Nigel Coutts

For ideas look at these manufacturers:

 

Making Time for Quiet Contemplation

In our busy and highly connected lives it can be difficult to find time to slow down, to deliberately and mindfully engage in reflective contemplation. Taking the time to do so can be significant for success, creativity, mental well-being and learning and yet we seem to struggle to commit time to this valuable practice. Schools, in particular seem to offer little time for students to slow down and think, and with the busy lives students lead such time is often entirely absent.
 
Taking time to sit and think should not be considered a luxury but as a vital component for learning and growth. Having actively engaged our minds in the activities of learning we must then allow ourselves the time we require to process our new ideas and for this new learning to be incorporated with our prior-understandings. Deliberate reflective time requires us to disengage from highly cognitive tasks. By both reflecting actively on ideas and giving our minds time to “play” with ideas in the background of our consciousness we create the circumstances required for deep learning. 
 
These times when our mind is not harassed by the general noise of our day-today lives is also the time when new ideas are likely to spring forth. Sadly, the time for such endeavours is often blocked by our always on and always connected lives. We are never more than a few clicks away from our connected selves and the seemingly engaging distractions that this world entices us with. The challenge is to find times in our days where we are almost forced to disconnect and allow ourselves the time we require for contemplative thinking.
 
For me this time is often during my daily commute. While I travel to work and back each day amidst the stop-start traffic that is the norm of any large city, I find the time for my mind to drift and wander. On weekends the daily walk with the dogs provides a similar experience, although this is frequently disrupted by the excitement of a passing cat or an unusually interesting smell and the resulting jerk on the leads as my companions explore. It is in these times that I make some sense of the day’s events or when possible solutions to challenges emerge. More often than not the best ideas, the more creative solutions, emerge from the quiet moments where the problem is floating in the background of my mind rather than heckling for attention. 
 
The weekly process of blogging has proven to be an excellent reflective practice. From pondering possible topics, to exploring them in depth through the writing process I have found that I gain and hopefully share insights. I read once that you should only decide to blog for your personal benefit, dreams of building an audience should not play a significant part in the decision. I have found great value in the process of writing each week and for me the blog has become a catalog of my thoughts over the years along with a repository for ideas I have researched and explored within my professional learning. Such a practice of regular reflective writing has value to students and along with daily engagement in reading is a practice that should be encouraged. 
 
The tendency to fill every waking moment with activities is a trend we should seriously take stock of. Our time is precious and there are many ways in which it can be wasted but the deliberate and mindful process of contemplative thought should not be confused with mindless inactivity. The processes of learning, problem solving, ideation and creativity occur as much or more so during periods of inactivity as they do during times of activity. When we value learning over work we become open to the possibility that a student whose mind seems to be wondering, who is not actively “doing” the set task may indeed be fully immersed with their learning. The subtle shift in our language choices from ‘work', with its focus on productivity and activity, to ‘learning’, associated with cognition and the building of connections between ideas in the mind, allows us to value periods of apparent inactivity. Too often does the ‘work' minded teacher break the mental flow achieved by a learner in a state of contemplation with the call to ‘get back to work”.
 
Find the time for contemplation and reflective thinking. Value it as a part of your professional practice and never feel guilty for taking time away from the active doing of your duties. 
 

By Nigel Coutts

Contemplating the consequences of Constructivism

Constructivism is one of those ideas we throw around in educational circles without stopping to think about what we mean by it. They are the terms that have multiple meanings, are at once highly technical and common usage and are likely to cause debate and disagreements. Constructivism in particular carries a quantity of baggage with it. It is a term that is appropriated by supporters of educational approaches that are in stark contrast to the opposing view; constructivism vs didactic methods or direct instruction. The question is what are the origins of constructivism and does a belief in this as an approach to understanding learning necessitate an abandonment of direct instruction or is this a false dichotomy?

At the heart of most cognitive approaches to understanding learning is the notion that knowledge is constructed by the learner and informed and influenced by the learner’s previous experiences. Constructivism, in particular, is an approach to understanding learning that begins with the notion that meaning is constructed by the learner. (O’Donnell 2012)

The common element across models is that the learner, exposed to stimulus from the environment, creates, adapts or evolves internal representations or schemata (cognitive structures) and in doing so extends their knowledge. What varies, and it is subtle, is whether new knowledge is a reconstruction of structures in the environment, an internal re-structuring of existing structures in response to the environment or an internalisation of processes modelled and then practiced. The degree to which social factors add further complications. In each case learning is a process which occurs within the mind of the individual as they process stimuli arriving from their sensory buffer from their environment (broadly speaking), into working memory and onward into long-term memory. 
 
From this basis and underpinning it are a host of beliefs about how the brain processes and stores information, how it uses affect to notice and respond to significant stimuli, while filtering unimportant stimuli and how it manages cognitive load. 
 
Constructivism is sometimes conflated with ideas about self-guided learning or self-initiated learning and direct instruction but should not be seen as providing a strong case for one over the other. Quality learning should include a mix of both as relevant to the need of the learner and the learning. 
 
Direct Instruction provides a particular environment in which learning can take place. It provides the learner with relevant stimulus and when well designed should overcome some of the barriers to learning such as directing the learners attention to what is significant, managing cognitive load, providing appropriate modelling and monitoring of learning progress through appropriate means of assessment for learning. Coupled with opportunities for independent practice and application with scaffolding this provides an effective learning environment and the research on what produces effective learning supports this.
 
One set of goals for learning is to develop the skills and dispositions required by learners to inquire, explore, discover and create or extend knowledge. This desire is evident when we expect our learners to be scientists, historians, geographers, researchers and problem solvers/finders. With this goal in mind we provide instruction in and scaffolds for the processes which the students will utilise e.g. teaching the scientific method or an inquiry cycle. We teach the skills of inquiry, problem solving and experimentation and then provide opportunities for independent practice. We at times model how content might be explored and understood through such processes and at other times we allow the content to be explored by students as they independently practise the skills of inquiry we have previously instructed them in. The skill of the teacher is in knowing which content requires direct instruction and which can be utilised by students practising their inquiry skills.
 
Self-regulation and the desire to produce learners who are able to initiate and guide their own learning complicates things, but only slightly. Schools should be providing students with opportunities to take charge of their own learning and to inquire and explore topics of their choosing. Inquiry, Project and Problem based learning methods that include elements of choice allow for this but such methods still involve the teacher as the professional guide to learning. A gradual release of responsibility model, where the teacher gradually removes themselves from the learning as the learner gains and confidence ensure the learner develops the skills and dispositions to tackle this style of learning.

The gradual release of responsibility model of instruction suggests that cognitive work should shift slowly and intentionally from teacher modeling, to joint responsibility between teachers and students, to independent practice and application by the learner(Fisher & Frey. 2011)

The order in which we offer direct instruction, scaffolded application or learning and independent practice is worth considering. It is not always the case that learning is best served when the process begins with direct instruction. As an example, the research by Manu Kapur on Productive Failure in Learning Math, indicates that the best model can be to begin with an independent exploration of new content even when this produces failure, before moving to direct instruction. 

However, students who engaged in problem solving before being taught demonstrated significantly greater conceptual understanding and ability to transfer to novel problems than those who were taught first. - These results challenge the conventional practice of direct instruction to teach new math concepts and procedures, and propose the possibility of learning from one’s own failed problem-solving attempts or those of others before receiving instruction as alternatives for better math learning. (Kapur, 2014)

Not all learning is a result of a deliberate, planned and external effort, such as that which is delivered by a teacher. Much of the early learning that occurs and a great deal of the social learning which we rely on, is a result of our immersion within stimulating environments and our innate capacities to learn. Schools provide a rich environment within which such learning may occur. By managing the physical environment in parallel with the social and cultural context, schools maximise their impact on the learning that occurs.

What constructivism does bring as a consequence for teaching is a shift in how we engage the learner. Pedagogical models where the teacher is the sage on the stage delivering sermons, where notes are copied from the board and where the learner is a passive sponge are examples of poor quality teaching. In opposition a classroom can be a place full of questions, shared knowledge, discussion and debate and a teacher directed. The learner’s experience of what might be termed direct instruction does not need to be a passive one. What makes some educators nervous is an implementation of the constructivist classroom where all structure is dissolved; where the learner is left alone in the environment to learn what they might, to overcome problems as they arise with no guidance or scaffolding. A Claxton and Lucas (2015) caution in “Educating Ruby”, advocates of such an approach have “never read Lord of the Flies”. Rather than suggesting we retreat from an active role in empowering and enabling learning, constructivism urges teachers to ensure that the learner is at least as involved in the process as their teachers are. 

Ultimately we need to understand that learning is done by the learner, as Dylan Wiliam so clearly articulates - "The crucial thing is that teachers are involved in a creative act of engineering environments within which learning takes place. Teachers are responsible for creating those learning environments but you cannot do the learning for the learner." 

By Nigel Coutts

Related to this: Inquiry based learning is dead, long live inquiry.

Claxton, G. & Lucas, B. (2015) Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn. Crown House Publishing; Wales

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2011) The formative assessment action plan: Practical steps to more successful teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
 
Kapur, M. (2014) Productive failure in learning math. Cognitive Science. 38 pp 1008–1022
 
O’Donnell, A. M. (2012)  Constructivism in APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief)

Wiliam, D., & Leahy, S. (2013) Embedding Formative Assessment Professional Development Pack. Hawker Brownlow (DVD)
 

Sharing our Puzzles of Practice

Einstein is often quoted as having said “If I have an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Clearly Einstein understood how to attack puzzling problems. As teachers we face a host of puzzles on a daily basis. Every student we teach, thanks to their idiosyncrasies presents a unique puzzle. The interactions between students further complicates things. Our goals for our learners, their learning needs, the demands of the curriculum, pressures from beyond the classroom all result in puzzles for us to manage and to solve.

Sometimes the approach taken by teachers is one analogous to the Hollywood action hero. We rush headlong into the situation relying on our past experience and bravado to win the day. Time is of the essence and the solution must be applied immediately. We act our way towards a solution and when at first we don’t succeed we try and try again. Such an approach to problem solving is a typical human response. We are short on time and thinking is hard work. Stopping and digging beneath the surface of what is going on might be the approach we advocate as intelligent beings but in the spur of the moment we respond to what we see right there in front of us or we use the methods which have become routine. 

Taking the time to truly understand our puzzles can be challenging. The process begins with realising that we indeed have a puzzle and that we do not have the ideal solution already in our tool-kit. More than that we need to recognise that we have a puzzle that we do not fully understand. Maybe this comes when we see our initial efforts are not working. By this time the puzzle is likely to have been made worse and when our mishandling includes puzzles involving people we are likely to have shifted into damage control. 

A culture that embraces and rewards the identification of puzzles is an important piece of the wider solution. In schools this can be particularly challenging to achieve. With each of us isolated in our classroom it is easy to imagine that we alone are kept awake at night by our puzzles of practice. We imagine that every other teacher knows the answer and that if we share our puzzles we may be seen as unable to cope. Such fear is a danger to a profession facing great complexity and rapid change. Our puzzles are only likely to increase in size and quantity as we explore models of teaching and learning best suited for “post-normal” times. 

Taking the time to share and explore our puzzles has been the theme for a group of Sydney based teachers over the past twelve months. Project Zero Sydney Network was founded as a collective of teachers keen to share their learnings from Harvard’s Project Zero. The focus has been on classroom practices that result in quality learning outcomes for students; life-worthy learning within a culture of thinking. We are united by our Puzzles of Practice and our strength has come from our willingness to share not just solutions but our puzzling puzzles. We have seen that the more time we spend unpacking and understanding the puzzles we confront the more likely we are to find solutions which work. 

For teams looking to explore puzzles there are a host of tools which can be leveraged once the right culture is in place. One place to begin is with thinking routines. As David Perkins explains, thinking is hard work and something we are not very good at, so we need tools to make our thinking more effective. Two simple strategies are:

Circle of Viewpoints - Should you need to understand a complex problem with multiple stakeholders this routine is ideal. It encourages you to see the perspective of each person or group and to understand how they are approaching the situation. It develops new questions and puzzles to be explored that had not been seen before alternate perspectives were considered. 

Circle of Viewpoints - a thinking routine that will help you see diverse perspective and look at a situation from another person's point of view. Useful in small groups.

  1. Brainstorm a list of different perspectives and then use this script skeleton to explore each one:
    1.  I am thinking of ... the topic... From the point of view of ... the viewpoint you've chosen
    2.  I think ... describe the topic from your viewpoint. Be an actor – take on the character of your view- point
    3.  A question I have from this viewpoint is ... ask a question from this viewpoint
  2. Wrap up: What new ideas do you have about the topic that you didn't have before? What new questions do you have? Record your thinking with a mind map, locating differing points of view around a circle.

Connect, Extend, Challenge - is ideal when you are dealing with complex and new circumstance. It encourages you to identify what you are familiar with in the situation, what is new and what is challenging.  

  1. How are the ideas presented Connected to what you already know? What new ideas are presented that Extend what you know? What is still Challenging for you about the new topic and/or its connection with prior learning? 
  2. Use individually recording your responses on paper or in a group with each member responding to the three questions in turn.

As our puzzles increase in complexity we require strategies that unlock the wisdom of the collective. Such a strategy can be found in the “Brainstorming Possibilities Protocol”. Protocols are a structured conversation that establishes the circumstances for constructive dialogue. The imposed structure of a protocol can at first be confronting and seem awkward, but it is the structured nature of the protocol which allows for conversations which would otherwise be stifled by social convention. In the “Brainstorming Possibilities Protocol” one member of a group presents a puzzle, describing the context and why the puzzle matters to them. The facilitator allows time for clarifying questions before pausing the discussion and giving time for the group to ponder potential solutions. After this time the group shares their potential solutions. When sharing a possible solution the group members are careful to use language that reinforces that their idea is just a suggestion. The presenter is referred to in the third person and response take the form “One possible solution that Mary might like to try is  . . .” or “I wonder if Mary might find this idea useful  . . .”. At the conclusion the presenter is given time to share their reflections on the suggestions and the group reflects on the process. 

Once we recognise that we all have puzzles that we struggle with we open the door to solving them intelligently and collectively. As Simon Sinek states in his little book of inspiration “Together is Better”. By spending more time with our puzzles and avoiding the rush to apply potential solutions, we are more likely to find the best response and enjoy the process along the way.  

By Nigel Coutts

 

 

Good Reads for Great Assessment

Recently I have been diving into the world of Assessment, seeking to better understand how we might design effective processes around this essential phase of the learning cycle. In doing so I have found a wealth of resources and quality reads that offer insights and strategies to be applied into our classrooms. Here then is a sampling of what I have been reading. 

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical Techniques for K-12 Classrooms by Dylan Wiliam & Siobhan Leahy

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If you are interested in formative assessment then the research and writing of Dylan Wiliam is a must read. This accessible and immediately applicable book brings it all together with theory and practice covered. This is one of those books that needs to be in the hands of every teacher. Its opening chapters provide a clear understanding of the importance of formative assessment as a tool for learning and its advantages over traditional methods with their focus on measuring and recording achievement. Later chapters provide strategies to be used in developing quality assessments for learning and for activating students and their peers as agents of learning. The book is made complete through the inclusion of numerous resources for teachers to use in their classroom.

Embedding Formative Assessment: A two-year professional pack for schools and colleges by Siobhan Leahy & Dylan Wiliam

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If you need to beyond what is available in their book of a similar name, this professional pack will certainly meet your needs. In the two DVD set you will find video, slideshows, meeting agendas, rubrics, articles and trainer notes. The perfect set of resources for a school looking to deliver quality professional development to its teachers. The price might seem high, but when looked at as a resource with the potential to change the practice of every teacher in your team it is well worth it.

The Formative Assessment Action Plan: Practical steps to more successful teaching and learning by Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher

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Backed by extensive research and full of practical advice this is another book that will enhance your understanding and practice. The authors reveal the value of having a system for formative assessment and reveal how this might be developed. The book breaks assessment down into a set of questions which guide the learner; Where am I going? Where am I now? How am I doing? and Where am I going next? Further the authors outline the role that assessment and the four questions play in the gradual release of responsibility from the teacher to the learner; an essential step if we are to produce life-long learners. 

Mindful Assessment: The 6 essential fluencies for innovative learning by Lee Watanabe Crockett and Andrew Churches

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Anyone familiar with the work of Lee Watanabe Crockett will know he is on a mission to transform learning and teaching. Through the Global Digital Citizen Foundation he and his team provide an excellent range of resources for teachers looking to bring their pedagogy into the 21st Century. The “Fluencies” are at the heart of this and many students have benefited from the use of these scaffolds for thinking and learning. Have a problem to solve, use the Solution Fluency. Need to be more creative, the Creativity Fluency will guide you. Using Information or Media, there are fluencies for those too. In Mindful Assessment, written with Andrew Churches the details of how to assess each of the fluencies is made clear. The book is full of resources which reveal what success with each criteria looks like and is invaluable in developing learning opportunities that will take students from where they are with their learning to where they need to be.

Hacking Assessment: 10 ways to go graceless in a traditional grades school by Starr Sackstein

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Driving change from the middle out can be hard work even in schools that recognise the important role that their middle leaders play. The “Hacking . . .” series of books aim to empower those seeking to make changes from where they are, starting in the classroom and enlisting followers who are amazed at the results being achieved. In “Hacking Assessment” the author provides 10 hacks which can be implemented without a complete rethink of the system within which the teacher is operating. Each hack is well documented and the reader can implement just one at time, adding others as their confidence grows. Hack number six “Maximise Time” is bound to appeal to every teacher. 

Essential Questions: Opening doors to student understanding by Jay McTighe & Grant Wiggins

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While not strictly aimed at assessment, this book is an invaluable guide to the closely linked task of asking questions that engage the learner and require them to think deeply and develop a true understanding. If our goal is to teach for understanding, then we must be asking questions which require it. Using this book as your guide you will be asking questions that are highly engaged and that reveal where your students are with their level of understanding. One warning, the questions you ask after reading this are likely to spark lengthy debate and extended responses from your students.  

Maker Education on a Budget

There is growing interest from schools in the Maker Movement and Maker Education but with this have come some subtle misunderstandings about what it is all about. For one the modern maker movement is all about the mindset of the maker rather than developing a set of specific skills for making. The second confusion stems from a belief that the maker movement is all about the tools and the makerspace and that as such it involves large budgets.
 
Agency by Design is a research initiative by Harvard’s Project Zero that set out to understand the benefits which might be derived from adopting a maker mindset. A key finding is that Maker Empowerment is a vital component of successful maker projects within schools. 

"Maker empowerment: A sensitivity to the designed dimension of objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to shape one's world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or hacking." (Agency By Design)

This implies that the maker is an individual who sees the world as a set of objects and systems which can be improved, modified and adapted to new purposes and who engages in the process of making these changes. The maker according to the framework proposed by Agency By Design, looks closely at objects and systems so as to understand them, explore their complexity as derived from their parts and how people and systems interact with them and then seeks opportunities to unlock the hidden potential in what they have noticed. 
 
This model aligns beautifully with Design Thinking. In Design Thinking we find a model for the sort of action that is central to the maker mindset. A process for understanding what is there and through strategic thinking and an iterative process of planning, testing and modifying, allows new ideas to be revealed. Founder of IDEO, David Kelley explains that "the central tenet of Design Thinking, isn't one of aesthetic or utility, but of empathy and human observation’. We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers. We have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.” This is echoed in the words of NSW Draft K-6 Science and Technology Syllabus that states "Design thinking is the thought process involved in understanding and developing solutions to design needs and opportunities. Consideration of economic, environmental and social impacts that result from designed solutions are core to design thinking. Design thinking methods can be used when trying to understand a problem, generating ideas and when refining a design based on evaluation and testing.” (NESA)
 
The Draft K-6 Science and Technology Syllabus has an increased focus on both Design Thinking and Maker Education. It is broadly divided into two overlapping parts; Working Scientifically and Design & Production. In Design and Production "Students identify factors that may influence and dictate the focus of the design idea. They explore options, consider existing solutions, generate alternatives, represent and refine ideas and communicate design decisions for a range of audiences.” They will also be required to “undertake a range of practical experiences” linked to the processes of Design and Production. This requirement is likely to cause school administrators stress as they contemplate the cost involved in meeting this requirement. 
 
Making can however be achieved without access to the more expensive toys of the maker movement. Indeed, much can be learned from working within the constraints of a very minimal budget. A first step towards a successful low budget maker programme is to embrace the concept of the prototype. Here the aim is to produce at low cost a physical representation of a design that captures the essence of the idea but does so with low cost materials. Paper, cardboard, tape and recycled or repurposed items are often sufficient when developing a model that will demonstrate the idea without the polish of what would become the finished product. Low cost prototyping is also more likely to encourage a rapidly iterative process where design ideas are radically changed or completely abandoned. A 3D printer might produce a more detailed and impressive looking model, but the time taken in both designing it and printing it is likely to discourage students from starting over with a new idea. 
 
Cardboard is a great material for school students and most schools have an abundant supply. Either brought from home by students or gathered from the office or canteen, corrugated cardboard provides an ideal building material. Students can explore its properties before using it in their constructions and in doing so are bringing an understanding of the materials they use to the process. Traditional methods with cardboard involve copious use of tape and glue in the production process. Hot Glue Guns can bring an element of speed to the process but also bring an element of risks when students ignore the clear warning in the name “Hot Glue” until after a visit to the nurse.

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MakeDo is a company that has produced a simple solution to the process of joining pieces of cardboard together. They produce a set of plastic screws that can be easily used to hold two or more pieces of cardboard together. The process is simple enough for Kindergarten students to master and the screws are immediately and readily reusable. A set of cardboard saws with safe plastic blades and plastic screwdrivers complete the the tool kit. It is s simple idea but it focuses attention on the iterative nature of design thinking and allows the maker to quickly experiment with ideas while producing very little waste. Ideas like this are what will bring making into the hands of every learner.
 
Adding technology to the mix brings additional affordances for learning and new opportunities for exploration. LED lights and button cell batteries are cheap way to add electronics to a project. Electric motors, servos and solar cells can be purchased cheaply online and used to build a kit of maker supplies that are used on a project and then recycled into the next one. Adding an Arduino based computer can also be achieved at very little cost and for educators willing to spend some time in the online markets can be had for less than what is spent on most craft projects. The end result may not have the aesthetic appeal of a store bought robot but will have involved the students in hands on learning and a product that they played a part in bringing to reality. 
 
By Nigel Coutts

 

For more ideas on using paper and cardboard as materials for Maker-Centered Learning see:

"Make: Paper Inventions: Machines that Move, Drawings that Light Up, and Wearables and Structures You Can Cut, Fold, and Roll" by  Kathy Ceceri

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Why such a rapid pace of change?

Change fatigue is the response individuals exhibit when the pace of change and the consistency of change becomes too much. Its symptoms are diverse including resistance to change, anxiety, withdrawal and anger. It is not surprising that change fatigue is common in schools, after all change seems to have become a permanent companion and the pace of change only seems to accelerate. For those driving change, there is a constant balancing act that we play between implementing change at the pace we feel is required, while avoiding overload. For those confronting change, there is the easy recourse of blaming those who are driving the change for the anxiety and stress that they feel. Questions are asked and fingers are pointed. Allegations of change for the sake of change are made and purposes are questioned. 
 
In this climate change becomes difficult and complex. The urgency to change is not distributed evenly and some cling defiantly to the past. There is a belief that what worked in the decades before will continue to serve our needs. There is a questioning of the need for change at such a rapid pace. Change after all is nothing new, so why must we change so rapidly now?
 
I am currently reading “Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations” and have found in this the answer to these questions. In essence we are confronting two types of change, one that we have always faced and one that is unique to our current times. 
 
People and the human systems that unite us into societies change at a slow pace. The pace of change at which people and society change, has altered but a little overtime. We slowly learn and adopt new ways of responding to our world. We develop social systems in response to change and when that change is forced to accelerate the results are often troublesome and chaotic. World Wars, civil unrest, political turmoil, violence and upheaval seem to accompany such times. Our responses to the change do not keep pace and we find ourselves struggling for new ways of functioning. The birth and spread of western democracy or the adjustments to work and the economy that came with the industrial revolution are examples of us adjusting our social systems to cope with change.
 
The other change is that resulting from the exponential growth of technology, population, globalised markets and changes to the very nature of our planet. The difficulty is that all of these changes are occurring at a pace that we are not able to cope with. Take technology alone and consider the implications of Moore’s Law. Named after the cofounder of Intel, Gordon Moore it predicts that processing power will double every two years with little change in cost. Since 1965 this law has held true and for at least the next few cycles is predicted to continue. It is this constant doubling that we humans are not very good at coping with. Thomas Friedman, author of “Thank you for being late” use the story of the inventor of chess to demonstrate the power of this type of growth. The story goes like this, the king liked the newly invented game of chess so very much that he offered its inventor the opportunity to name his reward. A clever man, the inventor asked for enough rice to feed his family. He stipulated that in the first square of a chess board the king should place but a single grain of rice. In the second square twice as many grains as in the first and in the third twice as many as in the second. This pattern repeated still every square was covered with constant doubling from one square to the next. The result is in the order of eighteen quintillion grains of rice. 
 
The initial change that this sort of growth makes seems small. One grain of rice is not significantly less than two or so it seems. In the early days of computers a doubling of speed seemed like barely enough to meet our need for faster processing. But now as Friedman describes we are entering the second half of the chess board. The changes being felt now are significant and we are struggling to keep up. Schools in particular find it hard to keep up with such a rapid pace of change. With most change projects set to occur over seldom less than an academic year and any new idea needing to be accommodated in the following years budget we quickly find that we are embracing outdated changes. 
 
More so than before the affordances of the new processing power are set to change how we interact with technology. Our computer systems backed by access to massive data sets, huge processing power and social networks are altering the way we interact with the world. This is resulting in new ways of doing business, think Uber and Amazon, new demands on information, think of the power of the mobile phone, and new pressures on society, think lifelong learning so that you are able to maximise the opportunities just emerging.
 
Technology is just one area where the pace of global change is outstripping our ability to keep up. While population growth in some parts of the world has slowed in others it is increasing and it is doing so in areas where access to services and quality of life is least. Our social systems have not kept pace with improvements to health care and where mortality rates decline and fertility rates remain high population growth becomes exponential. Our environment faces similar challenges and despite the rhetoric of politics climate change continues to accelerate. 
 
What does this mean for schools? Firstly, we need to accept that we are living in a time of rapid an unprecedented change. That the pace of change is now such that the children we teach today will enter a world of work that is very much divergent from the one we know. They will require a different set of skills to compete in a world that is dominated by an unstable climate, accelerating technology, a larger much more connected population and a market driven by forces of globalisation and acceleration. Change is going to happen whether we like it or not. Moore’s Law will win. 
 
But this does not mean we should despair. While we may not be able to describe the exact opportunities that will emerge from this change, we do have an understanding of the skills which will allow our students to thrive. The capacity to think and behave intelligently with what we know, creativity and a disposition for problem finding, skillful communication and empathy will serve us well. By providing our children with opportunities to collaborate with their peers, to access global networks, to solve problems that matter and to do so through models which are responsive to changing circumstance such as design thinking we can prepare our students to thrive in a world of accelerations.

Highly recommended reading:

Thomas L Friedman (2016) Thank you for being late: An optimists guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.

 

By Nigel Coutts

Avoiding Assessment Mistakes

Assessment is arguably the piece of the learning cycle we get most wrong. Whether looked at from the perspective of the learner, the teacher, the school administrator, the politician or the parent, assessment is misunderstood and poorly utilised as a tool for learning. The importance of changing this situation is only made more salient in light of the countless research studies from the likes of Jon Hattie & Dylan Wiliam that points to the power of effective assessment. So, what are the common mistakes and how might we avoid them?

Effective assessment is a part of the learning process. In their book "Mindful Assessment: The 6 essential fluencies of innovative learning”, Crockett & Churches compare assessment to the processes driving lean startups. The fledgling startup aims to develop a product that is a just viable product and rapidly releases this to market. The product launch begins an immediate process of product evaluation driven by user feedback. Through a rapid process of iteration and refinement the product evolves to meet the needs of the market. This is how assessment of learning should be. The learner feels comfortable sharing their learning in progress, they don’t need to wait for it to be a polished piece of work before they share. Feedback is sought early and the feedback provided is specific and allows for improvement. The learner makes changes and adjustments based on the feedback, the process repeats. With each cycle of feedback the learner moves closer to their goal but the process never stops.

Effective assessment is timely. This is where we make the biggest mistake. Assessment is seen as an end point by the learner and by the teacher. This is made very clear when the assessment is placed at the end of a unit of learning and feedback is then provided after the learning has occurred. The concluding assessment, the final test at the end of the unit send a message to the learner that assessment is the end of the learning process. According to Dylan Wiliam, "It is formative only if the information is used by the learner in making improvements that actually take their own learning forward. That is why to be formative, assessment must include a recipe for future action.” When assessment is only provided at the end of the unit, or the most valued assessment occurs at the end of the unit, it offers no opportunity for adjustment and sends a clear message that learning is not a continuous process.

Timely assessment needs to occur as close to the performance of understanding as possible. If you are coaching a child to catch a ball you go through the process and after each turn offer feedback. “Keep your eye on the ball”, “relax your arms as the ball hits your hands”, “move your body so it is behind the ball”, “don’t overreach”. You back the verbal feedback with modelling of the desired actions, you make adjustments to the throw of the ball to allow for success, you allow multiple practice opportunities and over time you praise improvement even when the growth is small. If we learned to catch the way we might learn mathematics or writing we would be given one or two examples, be left alone to apply the new skill and then be given an assessment of our ability. More than likely the result would be in the form of a grade or percentage and we would be left with few if any insights as to why the ball continually ended up at our feet. 

We value grades and percentages more than quality feedback. The disappointing reality is that when we are given are grade or a percentage as feedback on an assessment no learning occurs. Indeed, the damage goes deeper and impacts our desire to learn. Where grades are offered Ruth Butler found that interest and performance declined, where only comments were provided the opposite was true. If both comments and grades were provided the results paralleled those achieved with grades alone. A grade sends a clear message to the learner that the learning is done with according to Crockett and Churches, and a grade handed down by a teacher removes learner agency from the equation. Apply the typical pattern of assessment and grading to the process of building a house. The foundation is laid and assessed with a percentage for overall quality of say 75% and a B grade. By this stage the framers are on the job having started while the foundation’s assessment was still being processed, when they finish they achieve a percentage of 80%, slightly better than the foundation but clearly with room for improvement. The roof follows, the bricks are laid and in no time at all the house is found to be falling behind code, a building certificate is never issued and the house is condemned. The trouble is the fundamental issues with the foundation and each subsequent step were never addressed. Now imagine the same process applied to a child’s years of schooling and it is little wonder that we have students with significant learning gaps. Sadly, as Lane Clark points out we are too busy moving on to the “Electricity” unit to stop and address any issues.

Assessment needs to be of the learning that matters. We know that the skills which will matter most for success in the "age of accelerations” (See Friedman - Thank You for Being Late) are critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, an innovators mindset and a good grasp of models for problem finding and solving such as design thinking. But, this is not what we traditionally assess. Instead we test for recall of information, an awareness of basic theorems and the formulaic application of knowledge, all of which is easily replaced by machine learning or artificial intelligence. Testing for the skills valued in the 21st century, assessing socio-emotional intelligence and the capacity to function effectively within dynamic teams is difficult to do at scale, so we instead measure what is easy to measure. The trouble is in doing so we assign an inflated value to the parts of the curriculum which matter least and then lock ourselves in to teaching for these skills even when we know they are obsolete. The truly sad part is that the assessments we cling to and that drive so much of what we do in schools, are no longer valued by universities and employers; the very people we designed them to serve. 

Education needs to be about more than placing students on a curve. If the only purpose that years of formal education serves is the ranking of children, then we are wasting our time. The factors which result in individual success are diverse and there are better more efficient measures which might serve our needs. To better understand the confluence of factors which on average result in success read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The story of success”. The emergence of ‘Big Data’ is only likely to provide us with new approaches to identifying those whose life circumstances and biology prepare them for any specific role, but surely this not a direction we wish to pursue.

Assessment needs to involve the learner more so than any other person. Hattie found that the empowerment and self-regulation that is achieved when students become skilled in methods for self-assessment had the highest effect size. Dylan Wiliam identifies three critical agents for assessment; self, teacher and peer. Self-assessment is critical in activating students as owners of their learning according to Wiliam and as such is a critical component of life-long learning where learning continues beyond the classroom. 

If we wish to cling to traditional methods of assessment and view the first twelve years of schooling as little more than preparation for the final school assessment, we need to acknowledge at least one rather disturbing reality; most of what we teach and assess is rapidly forgotten. "From this perspective, the research on educational attainment is especially disheartening. For more than 75 years, studies have consistently found that only a small fraction of what is learned in the classroom is retained even a year after learning.” (Matthew Lieberman (2012) Education and the Social Brain. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1 (2012) 3–9) Unless we take the time to develop assessment processes that clearly reveals to all concerned, where our learners are with their learning, where they are going and how to get there, this situation is unlikely to change. 

By Nigel Coutts

Learn more about quality assessment:

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for k-12 classrooms by Dylan Wiliam & Siobhan Leahy

Mindful Assessment: The 6 essential fluencies of innovative learning by Lee Watnabe Crockett & Andrew Churches

The Formative Assessment Action Plan: Practical steps to more successful teaching and learning by Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher

Assessing 21st Century Skills: A guide to evaluating mastery and authentic learning by Laura Greenstein

The Power of Feedback in Review of Educational Research by John Hattie & Helen Timperley

And you might also like:

Thank you for being late: An optimists guide to thriving in the age of accelerations by Thomas L. Friedman

Outliers: The story of success by Malcolm Gladwell