A culture of innovation requires trust and resilience

"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new” 
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Two quotes by Albert Einstein point to the importance of creating a culture within our schools (and organisations) that encourages experimentation, innovation, tinkering and indeed failure. If we are serious about embracing change, exploring new approaches, maximising the possibilities of new technologies, applying lessons from new research and truly seek to prepare our students for a new work order, we must become organisations that encourage learning from failure. 

There is an easy way to avoid mistakes and with the classroom remaining a largely private domain it is easily done. Rather than trying new ideas and sharing the results with your colleagues, maintain the status quo, hide any mistakes and avoid risky situations where your ideas might be challenged. Don’t volunteer for projects, don’t share new strategies and don’t ask for help when you are unsure of what to do. In many organisations, doing so will allow you to avoid critical feedback and ensure you many long and peaceful days. 

The danger in such an approach is that you are locking yourself away from any opportunity for growth and restricting the opportunities available to your students. By not sharing you limit the potential benefits of your innovative ideas to the students you teach and by not asking for help you limit the scope of possible solutions to those you might imagine. What hope will your students have of developing a growth mindset or desire to try new ideas if they never see their teacher doing the same. 

The alternative is to try new ideas, in public, while asking for help and seeking feedback. 

Often your ideas will be criticised. Sometimes they will be misunderstood. Sometimes people will be critical of you. Often your ideas will fail, or be blocked, or ignored. There will be times when you want to hide and their will be times when you want to give up. More importantly there will be times when your idea makes a genuine difference. There will be times when your idea meets the ideas of another and together they grow into something you had never imagined. Through the feedback you receive, from the critical comments, from the questions and by learning from your blunders you will find that your ideas can make a real difference. While it is true that the more ideas you share, the more criticism you face; it is also true that the more ideas you share, the more success you have. 

Being or becoming an innovator within an organisation requires a high-degree of resilience. The innovator must genuinely embrace the belief that ideas are better when they are shared. Innovators know and believe that the surest path to a truly innovative solution is to share that idea early in its development so that it might benefit from the wisdom of many minds. But for this to happen those receiving the idea must adopt a mindset of possibility. Too often our first response to a new idea is to find and share all the reasons why it won’t work or at least won’t work here. Rather than starting with “This won’t work because . . .” we need to flip our thinking and respond “This might work if we . . .”.

If schools and organisations wish to activate the innovators in their mix they must learn to celebrate the mistakes and missteps along the way. In biology the word ‘culture’ is used to describe a medium that promotes growth; a culture medium. When we embrace this idea and apply it to the culture of our schools we can see that the right culture creates the conditions necessary for growth. Innovation will only thrive in a culture where the individual feels safe to try new ideas. 

The challenge for schools in creating a culture that is accepting of failure is that the messaging of this is conveyed as much in the little things as in the public affirmations of a desire to innovate. The tone of an email, the subtle reprimand, the abrupt response to a question that shuts down the conversation are all factors which restrict innovation. Genuine encouragement of innovative ideas will see individuals and teams praised for the ideas that do not work as much as they are praised for the ones that do. 

I feel lucky to work an environment that encourages innovation and I have seen time and time again ideas that I have shared become better and stronger thanks to the input of many minds. Those who do not work in such an environment need to find ways to innovate within their context. Maybe innovations occurs within a small team. Maybe you share your ideas with a few trusted colleagues before sharing them with the whole school. Sometimes you need to try that new idea in private, gathering evidence of its utility as you do before you share it with a wider audience. Making connections with educators in other schools and other countries via social media can provide you with the support and sounding-board your ideas need. It may not be an easy path, and may often seem a lonely one, but your students deserve it, and so do you.

By Nigel Coutts

Starting the year on the right foot

Across Australia students are returning to school. Armed with fresh stationery, new books full of promise, shoes that are not yet comfortable and uniforms washed and ready to go, students will be heading off for the first day of a new year. What do they hope to find and how might we make sure their first day back sets them up for a successful year of learning? 

Above all else our students will want to know that school is a safe place where they can be themselves. Students will not take risks with their learning, engage in creative thinking, adopt a growth mindset or demonstrate grit and determination if they do not feel safe. A safe and welcoming school climate is one that embraces diversity in all its forms, is forgiving of mistakes and missteps, focuses on growth and sees learning as an iterative process. When we take the time to get to know our students, when we show that we want to hear their story, discover their interests and join with them on the learning journey that lies ahead we show our students that they are what matter most. Great teachers know their students well and use that knowledge just as they use their knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy to construct the right culture for every child's learning.

A teacher I worked with for many years would begin the term by writing each member of her class a welcome note. What made this practise special was the great care with which each note was written. As the students arrived in her class at the start of the year and the start of each term they would find their personalised note waiting on their desk. Each note was carefully crafted to show that the child was known and that their teacher was happy to have them as a member of her class. The notes shared with the child their teacher’s hopes for them in the weeks and months that lay ahead and her confidence in their ability to handle the challenges they would encounter. With this strong foundation, the first hours of the school year were dedicated to building connections and celebrating the rich diversity that the students bring to the class as a result of their backgrounds, interests, strengths and weaknesses. The time spent in these opening hours established a class that put empathy and compassion before all else. 

The start of the year is the perfect time to establish a culture of thinking in our classrooms. When we value thinking, make time for it to occur, ask open ended questions that permit it and when we set the clear expectation that thinking is essential in our classrooms we build a culture that advances learning. Many teachers start the year with stories of holiday adventures but fewer begin with stories of holiday thinking and learning. This can be the perfect opportunity to model your thinking as a teacher and as a life-long learner. By sharing with our students, the learning, problem solving, thinking and wondering we engage with we become the models of life-long learning they need. 

“What makes you say that?” is a powerful question and one of the Ten Things that Ron Ritchhart recommends we say to our students every day. It can be a confronting question and some learners who have not been exposed to it may see it as negative feedback. It is worth explaining to the class early on that “What makes you say that?”  (or the abbreviated WMYST) is a question you will ask often not because their response is flawed but because you value the thinking that led to it. WMYST is one way to take your students beyond right and wrong answers and to move the routine of the classroom away from what Dylan Wiliam calls “ping pong” questioning where the teacher asks a question, a student answers and the pattern repeats. WMYST opens up a richer dialogue where their are multiple perspectives and students are expected to reason with evidence. Establishing an expectation that students will articulate the thinking behind their responses early on brings the advantage that before long students will automatically extend their responses with the addition “and what makes me say that is . . .”. 

This is also the time to set up the conditions required to enable a “growth mindset”. Being clear from day one that this year will be full of challenges and that students will have many times when they do not immediately achieve success. Failure will be a part of their learning and is a necessary requirement for true personal growth. If we reimagine failure as a part of the learning process, as a way of finding out what doesn’t work and of exploring just beyond our personal limit, it stops being a barrier and is transformed as a hurdle on the road to success. Building on this, teachers need to be clear that they value personal growth more than right answers or high test scores. The students who take responsible risks, challenge themselves, look for what they can learn from every experience and who want to be shown where they might improve are the ones who will achieve the most. 

Our recently appointed Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons captured many of these ideas beautifully in her acceptance speech, words that will undoubtedly be shared by many teachers at the start of this year. "I’ve really lived by four mantras - do what is hard, place high expectations on yourself, take risks and do something that matters” Now is the time for us to establish a culture of learning in our classrooms that allow our students to do the same. The little things we do now, the time we spend building our classroom culture, sets us up for the great year of learning we all hope for. 

By Nigel Coutts

10 Things to say to your students everyday by Ron Ritchhart

Developing and Maintaining a Growth Mindset

 

Becoming Learners: Making time for OUR Learning

At the heart of all that we do as teachers lies the act of learning. Our hope is that our actions inspire our students to engage in a process that results in their acquisition of new knowledge, mastery of new skills and the development of capacities and dispositions which will prepare them for life beyond our classrooms. Increasingly our focus is on developing the skills and dispositions our students require to become life-long learners. We recognise that in a rapidly changing world, the capacity to take charge of your personal learning journey, to become self-navigating learners is essential. 
 
"The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly. (Ryan & Deci. 2000)
 
The challenge for teachers is to recognise the value of their personal learning for themselves, for their schools as learning organisations and for their students. Setting aside time for regular personal learning is vital for our professional growth. It is something that some of our most successful entrepreneurs recognise. Michael Simmons has researched the practices of people such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. He found that each of these people can attribute some of their ongoing success to their regular engagement with deliberate learning. Michael refers to this focused, consistent pattern of learning as the “five hour rule” in which individuals dedicate at least an hour of each working day to their personal learning. 
 
For busy teachers finding five hour each week to focus on our learning is a challenge, after all we have up to thirty learners in our classes who require our attention and every day it seems that our to do list expands. To change this, we need to change our thinking and understand that the time we spend on our personal learning is time that will ultimately enhance and enrich the learning environment we provide our students. This is a strategic thinking move that takes us away from what Stephen Covey refers to as “Fire-fighting” where our day is consumed with items which are important and urgent or “Distractions" which demand our attention but are ultimately not-important for our strategic direction. By deliberate action we are able to set aside time in our schedule for the important task of developing our own capacities. 
 
An easy way to start a learning journey is to set aside time for personal reading. There is an ever-expanding selection of books directly relevant to our role as teachers and I have shared such lists previously. If our goal is to expand our thinking then there is great value in exploring ideas outside of the immediate field of teaching and learning.
 
With this goal in mind here is a short list of books from outside of the field of education which are bound to get you thinking. 
 
Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back by Matthew d'Ancona
 
In this book, British journalist Matthew d’Ancona presents the argument that we are living in a ‘post-truth’ era where we are accepting and tolerant of lies and reluctant to accept the wisdom of experts. It is a book that might help you understand the current political climate and one that will encourage you to re-think how we prepare our students to be sceptical analysers of information and opinion. This is a book you will want to share and one you will soon be citing in conversations. 
 
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
 
We are a society that celebrates extroversion and outward displays of confidence and flamboyance but in doing so we ignore and devalue the strength of our introverts. In the classroom, our introverts go easily unnoticed. They consume less of our time and in class conversations seem to have less to contribute than their more extroverted peers. When you read “Quiet” your assumptions about introverts will be challenged and you will see the introverted people in your life through a new lens. For those who are introverts this book will help you better understand your strengths and help you handle life in a world that seems to focus on extroversion. 
 
 
Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team by Simon Sinek
 
With his best-selling book “Start with Why” Simon Sinek started a movement committed to understanding why we do what we do. In this new book Simon and his team share the strategies they have used as they help individuals and teams find their why. If you are a fan of Simon Sinek’s ideas and are looking for your why, this book is a must read. 
 
Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz
 
Gene Kranz is one of those amazing individuals who has played a critical role behind the scenes of some of the defining moments of modern times. For anyone with an interest in engineering, science, space exploration or who grew up marvelling at the adventures of astronauts this book is a must-read. Gene Kranz is perhaps best known for the role he played in the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts as depicted in the Ron Howard film where Gene was portrayed by Ed Harris. Gene tells the story of NASA through the eyes of insider beginning in the early days of the Mercury to flights beyond the Apollo programme. An inspiring read. 
 
Introducing Chaos: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar, Iwona Abrams
 
Chaos theory is one of those ideas that we may have all heard of but few of us truly understand. In this book, the authors provide a gentle introduction to the field of chaos theory through a mix of accessible text and supporting images. If you feel that things are increasingly becoming complex and characterised by times of chaotic change, this book is the place to start an exploration of what chaos theory has to offer. A book full of insights. 
 
and for something completely different . . 
 
507 Mechanical Movements: Mechanisms and Devices by Henry T. Brown
 
This is a delightful book and one that anyone with an interest in engineering and how things work will treasure. It is full of images of simple and relatively complex mechanical arrangements. The sort of book that would have been an essential reference items for engineers at the dawn of the 20th Century when it was originally published. If you are exploring maker centred learning this book is bound to provide fresh ideas and could inspire a novel solution to a mechanical problem. 
 

By Nigel Coutts

 

Related:

Five Great Reads

Good Reads for Great Assessment

Holiday Reading List

Suggested Readings to Inspire Teaching 

 

Taking the time to think

Time is the most precious of resources. 

It seems that we never have enough of it and the result is a feeling of constant pressure to do things quickly. As a result, we fall into a pattern of making quick decisions, with incomplete information and then proceed to take hasty action and seek short cuts. Our busy lives, the business of those around us, the schedules we set ourselves and the constant stream of distractions and interruptions ensure we have very little time to do things well and we never seem to get things done. 

"Could it be though that the disruptive, 24/ 7, multi-channel communications we value so much are actually eroding our ability to think clearly, creatively and expansively?” (Lewis, 2016 p1)

Against this trend towards doing more, in less time and at a faster pace is a trend towards slowing down, taking time and giving our minds time to catch up. 

Once we realise that as described by Chris Lewis we are moving too fast to think, we can start looking for an alternate course of action. The obvious answer is to slow down, to pause, switch off and take the time we need to reset but doing this requires deliberate action. We begin the process by recognising that taking our time, slowing down and being deliberate in the processes of thinking is a pathway towards becoming more productive, more creative and more attuned to the world around us. In what seems like a contradiction in terms, the best strategy for coping with the rapid pace of our lives is not to speed up but to slow down. 

Slow Looking by Shari Tishman

Slow Looking by Shari Tishman

In “Slow Looking” by Shari Tishman the reader finds an approach to slowing doing and taking the time needed to appreciate the finer details in the world around us. 

"Slow looking is a healthy response to complexity because it creates a space for the multiple dimensions of things to be perceived and appreciated. But it is a response that, while rooted in natural instinct, requires intention to sustain."

For educators, the practice of slow looking will align well with strategies from the Visible Thinking movement. If you have used strategies such as “Looking Ten Times Two” or “Look and Look Again” you have experienced slow looking. By deploying strategies which require us to switch modes and adopt a more contemplative stance backed by deliberate efforts to notice things on multiple levels, we open our minds to new possibilities. When you use these strategies with your class you will notice a new depth of thinking emerge from your students. The initial conversation may well disappoint. Surface level thinking and seeing is ingrained and takes time and persistence to overcome. As the students begin to look more closely, to see more detail and notice more of the stimulus they are engaging with a change emerges. Gradually the students embrace the opportunity that slow looking offers. 

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

"The Red Tree" by Shaun Tan is a beautiful piece of creative work by a master of the picture book genre. Each page has multiple layers of detail and meaning. It is a book that deserves time and slow looking. In a unit aimed at Year Six students we invite students to immerse themselves in this text. We begin the exploration of selected pages using the slow looking strategy of “Looking Ten Times Two”. In this strategy students are invited to look at an image quietly for at least thirty seconds allowing their eyes to wander before they stop and list ten words or phrases about any aspect of the image. The process then repeats and can indeed repeat again. With each new looking more detail emerges. The students deliberately look for details they did not notice at the first looking. After two rounds of slow looking we invite the students to share their observations. As each student shares their notes, fresh ideas emerge and the discussion takes on a life of its own. Soon students are not just discussing what they saw in the image but are asking questions about the artist’s choices, the meaning of the image and their personal take-aways. 

The strategies of slow looking are not restricted to the visual. Consider looking as a synonym for perceiving and you see its potential across multiple disciplines. Tishman provides numerous examples of “slow looking” in disciplines away from those most immediately associated with the visual and through senses other than our eyes. Consider the place of “slow looking” in science as an essential strategy for noticing what is taking place in an experiment or field observation. In music “slow looking” will allow the listener to notice subtle nuances in a piece and in literature “slow looking” encourages the reader to enjoy the language moves made by the author while the practice of slow looking is a valuable tool for the author to employ as they build descriptions. 

'Slow Looking' is a highly recommended strategy and those looking to implement this in their classrooms or in their own lives should begin by reading Tishman’s book. 

By Nigel Coutts

 

Lewis, C. (2016) Too fast to think: How to reclaim your creativity in a hyper-connected work culture. Kogan Page

Tan, S. (2001) The Red Tree. Hachette; Australia

Tishman, S. (2018) Slow Looking: The art and practice of learning through observation. Routledge; New York

Related:

Banishing The Culture of Busyness

Making time for quiet contemplation

Time- The Finite Resource

Exploring the Changing Social Contexts of Learning

Contemporary learning environments might be best understood when viewed as a complex mix of environments and overlapping social networks. Learners fluidly move between social networks and their learning is influenced by their participation within and across these physical and virtual networks. Understanding how mobile, global and virtual social networks influence our interpretation of socio-cultural theories of learning might allow us to better understand the interplay of settings and contexts within which learning occurs and in doing so better understand how learning may be facilitated.

The socio-cultural perspective on education has its origins in the work of Lev Vygotsky (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012) and is an approach which considers the individual and their interactions with the social environment as central to understanding the processes of learning. Learning is said to be that which occurs through interaction between the individual, and all that their biology brings to the table and the social context in which learning occurs. Such an approach shifts our thinking about learning and development as processes contained and constrained within the individual’s biology to a more diverse understanding that incorporates the social context within which all learning is seen to occur. For educators, this approach encourages us to look at the learning environment and the social context in which the learning we design for our students occurs and 'presents a fuller and more accurate picture of children’s learning and development.' (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012 p126) Sociocultural, and the in some ways related social-cognitive approaches build upon earlier research that focused on the individual as the unit of development but seek to explain the differences which were observed across groups and contexts which could not be explained without a wider frame of reference. 

By expanding the frame of reference to include the social context within which learning and development occurs a more complex image emerges of the interactions and processes which are at play. Vygotsky's (1978) research shows how interactions between the child and their social environment enables learning. He explores the gap between what a child can do now independently and that they can do with assistance. Termed the 'Zone of Proximal Development’(ZPD), this is the gap into which teachers hope to move their students (Vygotsky, 1978). Teaching strategies such as formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 1998) seek to identify where the ZPD is for students and then provide appropriate learning situations which scaffold student’s growth through this zone. Effective teaching will provide a context that allows students to achieve success on learning initially pitched within this zone with guidance while moving towards internalisation of new learning evidenced by success when the scaffolds are removed. It is with this process in mind that we develop teaching programmes and curriculums.

Given the multitude frames which might be used to inform our understanding of what culture is, (Jary & Jary, 1991) how it is constructed and how it shapes and is shaped by interactions with individuals and groups it unsurprising that there are multiple perspectives upon the nature of socio-cultural learning. This complexity is expanded when comparisons are made between socio-cultural perspectives and social-cognitive perspectives are considered. Emerging from the work of Albert Bandura (1977) social-cognitive theories like socio-cultural approaches are concerned with the learning that occurs within societies and the cross-cultural differences which such perspectives reveal. 'In contrast, social cognitive researchers have devoted considerable attention to the role of social variables in learning, how motivational processes affect learning, and how social cognitive principles can be best applied to enhance students’ learning from instruction.’ (Schunk, 2012 p117) A further differentiator is evident in the significance given to vicarious learning or learning purely through observation of others that is present in social-cognitive theory but is not evident in socio-cultural theories which emphasise translation of observations of others into action or learning by imitation of the observed behaviours. Social-cognitivists would show that learning can be acquired without the imitation phase. 

For teachers, social-cognitivist approaches shine a light on the factors which result in motivation towards learning. Learning is said to be enhanced when individuals have positive self-efficacy for learning (Bandura 1977). Motivational theories such as self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and attribution theory (Weiner, 2004) point to factors such as autonomy, purpose and mastery (Ryan & Deci) and locus of control (Weiner - internal/external stable/unstable controllable/uncontrollable) as key factors which influence engagement and perceptions of success. In social-cognitive theory these factors are described as acting upon the individual through changes in levels of self-efficacy. When social aspects of learning are accounted for the provision of a safe, supportive and nurturing learning environment is broadly considered to be significant (Tirri, 2011)(Marzano & Pickering, 1997). The complexity of social environments within which learning occurs presents challenges to educators looking to manage the environment in which learning occurs. Students are less likely to engage with challenging learning in settings where they feel unsafe or believe that their attempts to engage are likely to be judged negatively or where the rewards available are low. (Atkinson, 1957) (Dweck & Legget, 1988) (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). 

A shifting emphasis on what is valued as the outcome of formal education places greater emphasis on the capacity of individuals to be creative collaborators. In ‘Participatory Creativity’, Edward Clapp (2017) details the importance of collaborations between individuals in a form of collective agency derived from the work of Bandura. Collective agency acknowledge the role of the individual within efforts of a greater collective. Informed by this perspective and Cskiszentmihalyi’s view of creativity as a product of social systems, Clapp builds a model of creativity that results from the collective efforts of society and focuses on the processes through which ideas evolve rather than a more traditional view which attribution of a product to an individual. Creativity in such a model is like learning in socio-cultural perspectives a social phenomenon.

Significant differences in the socio-cultural setting within which the individual experiences learning can be shown to account for varied outcomes. An example of this can be seen in the exposure to language which occurs in different settings. Hart & Risely (2003) show that a five-year-old child growing up in a home with parents categorised as professionals would have been exposed to 45 million words. By contrast a child growing up in a working-class family would have been exposed to 26 million words and only 13 million if growing up in a lower-class family. This gap in exposure must be seen as more significant than a deficit in vocabulary within a socio-cultural perspective that emphasises the development of language as a critical component for development in general. According to Vygotsky, children learn to use language regulate their psychological functions (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012) and language is an essential tool in the scaffolding and modelling of learning that occurs both within schools and other environments in which learners learn. This gap in exposure presents significant equity challenges for educational systems.

Traditionally the socio-cultural setting in which learning and development occurs has been defined by the physical settings in which the learner is situated and the culture that is attached to that. Relationships between the individual and their immediate family play an important role in the early years of learning, as the child grows the social context in which they learn widens and peers, teachers and the wider community begin to play a part. As the child interacts with a growing number of social contexts they are able to draw upon an expanding set of models and observations as they learn to regulate their behaviour and adopt (and modify) the cultural norms required for adult life (Göncü & Gauvain, 2012). In more recent times this social context has become increasingly difficult to define. 

Through a variety of factors, such as globalisation, increased mobility and technology enabled networks, the individual is increasingly found to exist simultaneously across multiple cultures and societies (Leander, Phillips & Taylor, 2010). These multiple contexts and cultures bring to the learner new challenges and require learning of multiple norms along with the pressure to activate the appropriate norms for each context.

The once clear boundaries of the social context of learning and development is increasingly blurred and stretched by technologies and networks. In seeking to understand how this space influences learning and development it is necessary to consider the individual, the interacting social networks (physical and virtual) and the technology as agents which influence development. At best the experienced reality is ‘complicated’ (Boyd, 2014) as the individual within the virtual world is able to fluidly shape and reshape both identity and context. 'When teens engage with networked media, they’re trying to take control of their lives and their relationship to society. In doing so, they begin to understand how people relate to one another and how information flows between people.' (Boyd, 2014 p92) The blurring of social contexts further complicates the learning environment experienced by young people when it is recognised that they spend much of their time living within a culture that the adults in their world know little about. The norms, language, symbols, signs and meanings of the virtual worlds may be borrowed or appropriated from the physical world but are often wildly misinterpreted when decontextualised. Further still access to resources, knowledge and tools derived from technologies and their networked lives are viewed with suspicion in many traditional learning environments thus bringing artificial barriers to learning and de-contextualising the skills learned in school from those valued in the ‘real world’. 

From the research of Vygotsky, Bandura and others across socio-cultural and socio-cognitive perspectives we have been provided with a theoretical tool kit with which to better understand the interplay of the individual, society and culture. As we move further into an age dominated by technology and networks it is incumbent on all those with an interest in learning and development to look at the interplay of forces which act upon the individual. By seeking to understand the influences that physical and virtual contexts have on learning we can begin to imagine a model of education which makes best use of the diverse environments in which our young people are immersed.

By Nigel Coutts

Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359–372.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998), Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, King’s College, London: School of Education.

Boyd, D. (2014) It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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

Clapp, E. (2017) Participatory creativity: Introducing access and equity to the creative classroom. New York: Routledge

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273.

Göncü, A., & Gauvain, M. (2012). Sociocultural approaches to educational psychology: theory, research, andapplication. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol.1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, 125-154.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator 27(1), 4– 9.

Jary, D., & Jary, J. (1991) Collins dictionary of sociology; second edition. Glasgow: Harper Collins.

Marzano, R. & Pickering, D. (2009) Dimensions of Learning: Trainers manual 2nd Edition. USA: ASCD Publications.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Schunk, D. (2012). Social cognitive theory. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol.1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, 101 -123.

Tirri, K. (2011) Holistic school pedagogy and values: Finnish teachers’ and students’ perspectives. International Journal of Educational Research 50 pp159-195

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, Trans. & Ed., V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1934)

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68–81

 

Inquiry vs Direct Instruction - The Great Debate and How it Went Wrong

There is a debate taking place in the world of education. It is not a new debate but recently it has gathered new energy and the boundary between polite discussion of opposing views and hostility has been stretched. The debate is that between those who are advocates of inquiry based learning and those who believe direct instruction produces the best outcomes.
 
Like most conversations which occur within the public sphere of the online social media world, the debate has quickly devolved into a dichotomous debate where each side seeks to win points at the expense of the other. Humans have a natural tendency towards tribes, as biologist Edward Wilson writes "The tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-group members, has the earmarks of instinct.” It is a characteristic that may have once served us well but in modern times it focuses our attention on what makes us different rather than helping us to find a common ground. In debating topics like direct instruction vs inquiry based learning our tendency to form tribes causes us to drift from a rational position to a more extreme and one sided view.
 
There is in this debate a middle ground. Claxton and Lucas deal with this debate and the reality that most educators fall somewhere between the two extremes in their book Educating Ruby. They place Trads (traditionalists focused on knowledge transfer) and Roms (romantics who feel children learn by osmosis) at the extremes of the educational spectrum and Mods (Moderates) in the middle. "Almost everyone who works in education is a Mod. But because Mods prefer to tinker quietly than to bang big drums, it is easy to underestimate how many there are” (Claxton & Lucas, 2015)

The middle ground between Inquiry and Direct Instruction is that place where we take a little from option A and a little from option B. Sometimes we go with direct instruction and at others we go with an inquiry approach. This leads to models where children are taught the supposed fundamentals of a discipline or topic and then allowed to engage in some inquiry. Sometimes this model works, sometimes it misses the point. Often the inquiry component is redundant by the time students get to it, sometimes the direct instruction is an opportunity to lecture at students, sometimes the students are told what they need to know but are not taught how to make effective use of it.
 
Mixed models like this and indeed the debate between Inquiry and Direct Instruction seems to largely miss the point. Somewhere in the posturing and flag waving we lose sight of what we are indeed arguing for. Maybe we were never quite sure what our argument was. Simon Sinek (2011) claims very few people understand their “why”. The debate between Inquiry and Direct Instruction seems like a good example of this.
 
Contemporary advocates of Inquiry are for the most part all hung up about what children need to learn to succeed in a changing post knowledge world. The process of learning to learn and conduct meaningful inquiry, to find and solve problems is seen as central to the modern curriculum. While the origins of inquiry models might lie with a methodology of allowing students to uncover the knowledge base of the curriculum this is less the case in modern times. When we shift inquiry away from being a pedagogical method for teaching content, to a valuing of particular skills we see that Inquiry Skills and Dispositions are curriculum elements; the what students need to learn rather than the how they learn it.
 
But advocates of inquiry get caught up in a debate with advocates of direct instruction about the methods of teaching; the pedagogy. Advocating for the importance of Inquiry does not mean that one abandons direct instruction but that the curriculum is a skills based curriculum that teaches inquiry skills through and alongside other content. What a valuing of Inquiry, Problem Solving, Problem Finding, Project Management etc. does not require is an abandonment of direct instruction, only a rethinking of some of the skills we focus on. If we value, the development of inquiry we spend less time on methods that facilitate memorisation of content.
 
Direct Instruction is about the pedagogy but it gets caught up in a debate about the curriculum. Advocates of direct instruction claim it is the best method for scaffolding the development of student skills and knowledge, but then focus their energy debating the sort of content that should be directly taught. Advocating for direct instruction should not mean that one is committed to teaching basic skills and knowledge. Direct instruction does not preclude teaching students how to find problems, solve problems, act in creative ways, collaborate with others, and take charge of their own learning.
 
Advocates of Direct Instruction should be able to teach methods, skills and dispositions required for inquiry and advocates of inquiry should value scaffolding students as they learn the skills of inquiry. Indeed, as Claxton and Lucas state most teachers do exactly these things.
 
Where the debate goes very wrong is seen if you consider it from the perspective of questions like ‘what is the intended outcome of learning?’ and ‘what do our students most need from their time in school?’. They need to learn how to conduct inquiry, to be problem solvers and finders. They need to be able to communicate their learning and learn with and from others. They need to be able to critically evaluate information and ideas. They need to be taught how to do these things. They need to be guided through the process. They need to see how experts approach these processes. They need opportunities to practise these skills with appropriate levels of support and scaffolding. They need to be given tools to use and be shown how and when to use them.
 
The debate about inquiry and direct instruction does not serve our students well. It is a distraction from conversations which are more important and the sooner we move past this and focus our attention on how we best prepare our students to thrive in a world that values life-long learning the better.

By Nigel Coutts


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

Sinek, S. (2011) Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio Penguin: London

Why humans, like ants, need a tribe. by E. O. Wilson - http://www.newsweek.com/biologist-eo-wilson-why-humans-ants-need-tribe-64005

Related Posts:

The Purposes of our Pedagogy

Inquiry Based Learning is dead, long live inquiry.

Contemplating the consequences of constructivism 

 

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. 

General_capabilities_ACARA.jpg

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. 

OECD_2030_Competencies.png

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: