The role of curriculum

In the second NPQSL face to face session we looked at leading the quality of teaching and learning within a school. We were asked to think about what high quality teaching and learning looks like in our schools and what this means to us personally. This provided some good reflection time for my own thinking about this means for me. I concluded that high quality teaching and learning is where students are forced into thinking about the topics of the subject under discussion. Thinking takes variety of forms. For me and my project, focused on implementing the DP, TOK is the key to horizontal collaboration within the DP programme, catalyzing not only a change in the way that student think but also how teachers think. Going forward I need to Establish a working group of teachers who are interested in improving their links to TOK.

At the start of the session on “driving the quality of teaching and learning” we were asked to list three priorities with regard to the quality of teaching and learning. Mine were:

  1. Making thinking the basis of both
  2. Developing good knowledge of the whole curriculum (Martin Robinson’s story)
  3. Developing knowledge of good practice – can the teacher make reasoned judgements about why they do what they do.

We then considered learning centered leadership: – how do we model, monitor and have dialogue. My group felt that it was important for leaders to be:

  1. Modelling preparedness, calm, openness and friendliness
  2. Still teaching?
  3. Using data
  4. Observations
  5. Conversations
  6. Diagnostic audit of peoples and there skills

Next we were asked to list ten ingredients for great teaching and to discuss why leaders may want to observe lessons, what the purposes of lesson observation were. My ingredients for great teaching were:

  1. Dialog
  2. Content knowledge
  3. Pedagogical content knowledge
  4. Evidence for teaching practice
  5. Prior knowledge
  6. Contextual – relevance for kids
  7. Focussed on concepts
  8. Timing – knowing when an intervention is appropriate or not
  9. Collaborative – outside the silo
  10. Firm friendliness

I also felt that observation is a great way to learn and be coached and time for teachers to observe each other is valuable if we want to enable coaching, mentoring and further development.

After sharing these within our groups we had to decide on the groups final five. We had a lot of good discussion about how learning is often confused with performance and other proxies, and that learning is actually quite a hard thing to actually observe in a lesson. Any attempt to observe a lesson for accountability purposes was doomed if you are hoping to look measure learning. Instead my group agreed that the best we could hope for was to look for proxies that may indicate high quality teaching. My group decided that our priorities were to look for :

  1. Positive relationships
  2. Feedback
  3. Knowing the students
  4. Knowledge of content and pedagogy
  5. High Expectations

I reflected that evidence is a key thing here: Knowledge in education is so tentative and unsure that no one can say with certainty this is right, or this way is wrong. Thus if we focus on the thinking behind what teachers are doing and why – are teachers able to engage with discussions and evidence why they are doing somethingt. To ensure great teaching I think it is important for leaders to smile, be open and approachable. We need to encourage discussion between teachers about their practice, provide opportunity for observation between teachers and focus more on teaching and learning, instead of getting drag into secondary tasks.

Going forward I need to work to facilitate this in my community and help to provide opportunity for this to happen, time for teachers to observe each other and time for them to have discussions with a view to improving the quality of teaching within the school. I need to support a focus on developing an understanding of the links between the subjects – horizontally and vertically – and encourage teachers to come out of the their silo.

How might this session influence your staff professional development policy?

How can you measure the impact of CPD? Carry out observations of trying out TOK activities, carry out a staff survey, have the CPD, start the written curriculum and then observe more activities and carry out an additional survey. Invite staff to take part in TOK and ATL collaboration.

Models of change and influence: reflections on NPQSL F2F3

Session 3 began with a reflection of a change project that the participants have already been involved in. We were asked to reflect on our involvement in such a project and think about what steps we had taken to ensure change occurred with impact, as well as the threats to change that existed.

Some of the steps we identified were: appropriate staff training, making time for whole team discussion and collaboration both vertically (within departments) and horizontally (between departments), covering classes for teachers so that they could get out and observe new practice, identifying key players (later in the session I identified these as “early adoptors”) who were in position to help bring about the change, space and time for leadership to reflect on options for change, timing of communicating change, and taking the time to develop relationships to build trust.

Some of the threats to change that we identified were: low energy levels and the risk of burnout, too much to do to have time to look at the big picture, general resistance to change, and teacher workload.

We discussed the need to manage our own behaviour to ensure that a project could be a success. In international schools this can have the added complication that your colleagues also take the place of your family and friends; your support network. It can be all too easy to find yourself at home of an evening with your guard down and a comment can be made in front of a friend who is also a colleague.

The most insightful part of the day came when we turned our attention to particular models of change. This is new learning for me and excitingly provides a scaffold to really help me with my own work of implementing the IBDP at my current school. We looked at Kotter’s “8 steps of change” which, to me, is a model that focusses on the stakeholders and the structure of a change project. It provides a useful scaffold for thinking about a change project and therefore aids in planning it.

We then looked at the Kubler-Ross change curve, another model but one that focusses more on the human element and therefore provides a helpful model for thinking about the impacts on stakeholders – not just teachers, but parents and students too. The model could help explain why we have the parental problems we sometimes have and how to move them forward from those issues.

The second half of the day considered leadership behvaiour for successful leadership: Commitment, Collaboration, Personal Drive, Resilience, Awareness, Integrity and Respect. It was interesting during these session to reflect on my previous experiences. I can identify a time when good leaders have catalyzed me and moved me forward in my own thinking, or even got me thinking. None of these characteristics particularly stick out, although I would agree that they are important, but also good leaders, I think, are inspiring. They excite and challenge you to be more in your thinking and behavior.

Another useful point of the day was when we considered Roger’s adoptive categories. This was really interesting. It presented a way to think about approaching the role out of a project. Thinking about the last eight months, I can definitely idenftify colleagues who were early adoptors or innovators, providing support to the changes I have been trying to bring about. Knowledge of this model, once again provides a useful scaffold but one for building relationships as we move through the change process. Here we also identified the category of laggards, and sought reasons as to why individuals may resist change and how we can overcome this.

Before the final coaching session where we were able to spend time thinking about the development of our project, we considered the different styles of leadership and when these may or may not be appropriate. It made me once again think of prior leaders and really question what they were doing. I remember being frustrated at times, when decisions needed to be made and they weren’t – I put this squarely at the feet of leaders who were using an inappropriate leadership style for the situation. On reflection, I now have some clarity about why this year is proving so challenging. Sure, I have been teaching the IBDP since 2008 and guidance counseling since 2015, and I am no stranger to challenges and setting up new programs having had some particularly trying years doing so particularly 2016-2017, where my guidance counseling hours were reduced but the class sizes remained the same. That year I was setting up a program, teaching four classes of Biology, one class of TOK and running the DofE’s International Award. It was a frustrating year where I felt unlistened to and unsupported by leaders who just didn’t seem to get it. This year is different. My leaders get it. They are supportive but the real challenge comes not from learning another new job; DP Coordination, but learning this new job and learning how to effectively lead it at the same time, in addition to learning about college counseling in Asia.

Side effects in Education

Recently, in my NPQSL course we have been asked to reflect on the question “What is the moral purpose of education?” Education can be argued to have many moral purposes, and it comes down to an educators point of view; this is an opinion that I think many teachers and leaders would accept.

For example you could argue that the moral purpose of education is to allow individuals to experience a fulfilled life where they can experience and appreciate the whole of their humanity. You could also argue that education’s purpose is to serve society and better the community at large.

Where ever you stand on this spectrum, the very fact that there is a difference of opinion here makes education, as a profession, a little unique. Doctors, for example, would largely agree that the moral purpose of education is to save life.

In what works can hurt, Yong Zhao asks if educational research should be concerned with side effects in education. However appealing this analogy is misleading. In medicine there is a clear moral purpose: do no harm. This is a moral purpose that all medics subscribe too. Medics are driven by the desire to save and prolong life.

No single unifying moral principle exists in education and different schools and different teachers have different moral purposes.

Yong Zhao cites the medical profession as one that requires researchers to investigate side effects as well as the main affects of interventions. In light of calls for educational research to adopt similar methodologies to medical research and become more scientific he argues that this is an area that is overlooked.

Educational research is exclusively focussed on what works without looking at how much it hurts.

Reasons for this may be that education is universally perceived as good, although I would argue that medicine is also. I think the reasons that the education does not consider side effects so much is that the moral purpose of education is much less clear. As well as, this damage due to eduction may take a very long time to be observable and you can only measure that which can be observed – also there are huge numbers of conflating variables.

Zhao writes that education is dominated by a narrow focus on cognitive abilities derived in a small number of subjects measured by standardized tests so that scores in these tests become the measure of effectiveness. Other outcomes are rarely measured so we don’t know about any adverse effects.

More evidence is unlikely to stop the battles within education, but a consideration of side effects might. The education pendulum swings but there is really no progress. I can agree with some of this as any look at the history of the debates does see that these arguments do go on quite a way back.

A way forward to resolving the traditional/progressive debate may be the consideration of both main and side effects in education interventions.

Zhao highlights that direct instruction is effective but can stifle creativity and reduce confidence. He cites the progress of some Asian countries, where students have a lot of knowledge drilled into them but students suffer from lack of confidence, versus Western countries where students know less but have more confidence, as evidence that what works can hurt.  I wonder if this may be a relic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Student may well be further along the knowledge curve and therefore less confident.

Many interventions that have sought to improve reading scores have reduced access to other subject areas, by eliminating subjects to make more time for reading prep. The negative effects of these interventions are now well documented: reducing access to other subjects only serves to reduce literacy scores.

I do think that by focussing only on what can be measured can lead us down the wrong path. Measurement is important and does have a place, but there are elements of human life that we don’t know how to measure or have barriers to measuring like cost and time. We shouldn’t ignore these areas.

Notes on Trivium 21c

Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c was an absolute delight to read. Thought provoking and enlightening it presents an eloquently articulated history of the educational ideas and, through this radical history, a persuasive argument for the great synthesis of traditional and progressive teaching methods, united via the ancient arts of the trivium.

The trivium in teaching

The trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, originally used as the basis of the school curriculum in the middle ages are explored from a variety of different paradigms and meanings for Robinson to final expound his view of how this mantra could be utilised in modern schooling.

Grammar, Robinson argues, is not only the teaching of the rules of the language arts but is equivalent to the transmission of all of the basic facts and building blocks of knowledge that make up a particular discipline or subject. Grammar is also the transmission of the structure and rules of culture, which, of course, encompasses all the academic disciplines as well as other elements. To Robinson, modern grammarians are those of us on the traditionalist side of the great education debate on methods. Grammarians value knowledge and the methods best shown to help students gain this knowledge.

Dialectic, to Robinson, is the art of critiscm, skeptiscim and questioning of grammar. It is an art that needs to be taught in order to enable future adults to be able to think clearly about and with knowledge, in order to not simply be absorbers of knowledge but users and producers of it. Dialectic is important as it allows students to manipulate and use the knowledge acquired through grammar, by questioning it, reflecting on it and potentially rejecting or changing it. If grammar represents tradition, then dialectic represents progression; the dialecticians are those of us in education who aspire to the more progressive methods in the great educational debate.

The third art of the trivium, rhetoric, is the art of communication. Not only should learners be taught to acquire knowledge through grammar, taught to question it through dialectics but they should also be taught to communicate their thoughts through the arts of rhetoric.

Should the purpose of education serve the common good or enable someone to live a good life?

As someone who has moved from being deeply religious to being so no longer, I found myself agreeing with Robinson’s sentiments that curiosity is not best served by prejudice and that teachers must not model the closed mind of someone who thinks there is only one path that leads to meaning or, I guess, truth. In this vein he asks us to attempt to live, as teachers, with the uncertain position of holding the traditional and the progressive together, investigating ideas from across the range of opinion.

Robinson asks if all teachers in any given school understand the narrative of a the curriculum? He argues that only by seeing how their part fits into the wider curriculum can teachers deliver an education to students that allows them to be knowledgable, critical and reflective. He claims that students must learn the unifying concepts, the concepts that come up again and again, of each discipline again and again. This put me in mind of Thomas Khun who claimed that expertise as a scientist only arrives through exposure to many examples. Scientists are experts because they have been able to generalise from the many specific examples and they apply this knowledge in new scenarios.

Robinson also claims that teachers must move away from omniscience, which reminded me of an early career conversation a chemistry teacher who claimed that not knowing in a teacher is a sign of weakness, and that students don’t like it. I agree with Robinson that all teachers need to honest about what society doesn’t know, they need to embrace the uncertainty in their discipline.

A good teacher has mastered the core knowledge and more of their discipline as well as holding an appreciation of what society doesn’t yet know in their field.

We need to understand that teachers should have the authority to teach but recognise that all knowledge is probable and uncertain.

Teachers should use language in such a way that ensures uncertainty has its place.

Robinson’s book draws on many sources and aside from his main argument is highly informative of the history of educational ideas. His arguments are compelling and interesting but the book is worth reading not only for this but also for your education in the history of educational ideas that it draws upon. This book has helped me begin to see the synthesis of the progressive and traditional narratives and has got me wondering about how I can go about making argumentation an important part of my biology classroom in the second stage of the trivium. How can I use debate to really challenge kids to think and learn all sides of an argument? How can I introduce students to the, Dissoi Logoi in science, the art of seeing both sides of an argument as true within their contexts. Instead of dialectic argument as being right vs wrong we can make both as right. Dual thinking explores the possibility that both sides can be right.

Learning in the age of Dataism

Last week, I outlined in this post how modern schools and the modern western education system are built on the principles of humanism, showing how many of the modern assumptions in education are based on humanist claims. For example the roots of what is termed progressive education are based on post-romantic ideas about the beauty of individual experience, an idea that is also the underpinning of capitalism and democracy; two ideas that are practical manifestations liberalism, a creed of humanism. On the other hand ideas within the modern traditional approach to education are rooted in the idea that all humans are created equal and as such have rights to an equal education; an idea that has its roots in Communism, another humanist tradition. In this post I want to explore how the ideas of Noah Harari, written in Homo deus, may relate to the modern education system.

Harari contends that society at large may soon be leaving the age of humanism and entering an age of dataism. Dataism is defined as an emerging ideology in which information flow is seen as the supreme value. It is used to describe the mindset created by the emerging significance of big data.

Harari goes on to argue that Dataism, like any other religion, has practical commandments. A Dataist should want to “maximise dataflow by connecting to more and more media”[8], and believes that freedom of information is “the greatest good of all”. Harari also argues that Aaron Swartz, who took his life in 2013 after being prosecuted for releasing hundreds of thousands of scientific papers from the JSTOR archive online for free, could be called the “first martyr” of Dataism

Big data is only just beginning to make inroads in education and yet already we are seeing its potential. One of the areas that I have begun to witness this is in university guidance. All ready platforms are springing up that aim to utilize big data to help students make sense of the options available to them. Companies like BridgeU use algorithms to help locate universities and courses based on student preferences. Information flow here is already quickly becoming the supreme value and will allow individuals to make slicker, more efficient, choices, perhaps with a lot of time saved to boot. On one hand, this appears to be at odds with the individual focus of human university counseling. Indeed some colleagues have told me that they prefer the platforms, like Unifrog, that have less of a data driven, algorithmic, inhuman agenda. But I actually think that these systems have the potential to improve the lot of many individuals by freeing up time and making research on an overwhelming range of options more focussed. Sometimes less is more.

Elsewhere, big data is behind standardised testing programmes like those administered by CEM and the success of many new pedagogical applications that aim to help to apply scientific findings of learning to course material like the textbooks developed by Kognity.

On the face of it, information flow as a supreme value could seem to be at odds with the current paradigm of education: humanism. Isn’t it the love of more data that can drive poor interventions in schools, like when schools require more frequent testing and measurement of progress, so that students and teachers alike are pressured into making decisions to maximise progress? Often these interventions come at the demise of learning, causing poor behaviours like teaching to the test and cramming. Or how about when teacher spend hours agonising over data collection and data entry instead of planning the next teaching sequence?

Schools love data. Whether it is data on student progress or on student performance, teachers and senior managers love it. However, in some ways many schools have gone through the dataism paradigm already, and come out the other side. The debate, in the UK at least, is shifting away from purely data driven measures of progress to measuring quality of education, by including curriculum measures, something far more qualitative than quantitive. While schools love data they are also fundamentally humanistic in nature. Whatever the motivations of educators have been historically, education is an affair of the human experience. It is a someone who is being educated. It is a someone who is having their mind and thinking patterns altered in someway.

In a sense, though, knowing is data flow. While information and knowledge are not the same thing, knowing relies on using information. It is how the mind works with information that results in knowing. And so, if society were to progress into an age where data would reign as the supreme good, education would still be able to maintain its focus on the individual experience.

Harari analyses human history through the idea of dataflow, the new emerging modern value. He  writes that “the crippling thing about religion is that it reduces data flow“. By this he means that modern religions, are not innovators in religious experience. They are conservative and restricted by holding onto old and outdated traditions and values. I know this first hand. Growing up in my evangelical family I was not allowed to read books by David Hume because he was a “humanist”. This conservatism restricts knowledge transfer to and development within the individual, thus from a dataist point of view: religion restricts dataflow.

Schools, then, could well be institutions that, through learning of knowledge, promote dataflow. Education could develop a dual purpose, the traditional humanist purpose of educating the individual for their benefit or societies, and the modern purpose of ensuring that dataflow is maximised and made efficient through the education of individuals as producers and consumers of data.

If this is right, perhaps this is more cause to be concerned with the fad of 21st century skills. In this previous post I partially outlined why there is no such thing as generic skill acquisition. Real 21st century skills will require lateral thinking, stress management and an ability to see the big picture as well as know the details and have expertise. All of this requires knowing. The more you know, the easier it is to learn more. Yes, humans may never be able to outcompete computers for what they can know but that doesn’t mean we should give up learning. Actually we need to give more careful thought to what our students do know.

One of the areas where dataism and big data may well come to play a larger role in the education system and also benefit the liberal philosophy of many schools is through personalised learning. The ability of big data, algorithms and artificial intelligence to tailor learning experiences to individual needs to is already being seen in a plethora of learning applications and websites that are adaptive in formative assessment and tailoring of content. I imagine that we will see a lot more of these tools becoming available in mainstream schools as we progress through this century.