In the Pursuit of Answers

Is it enough to be able to find answers? In this day and age, is the challenge really even finding the answer? Answers have a way of helping us to feel knowledgable and accomplished. What happens if the answer is ‘wrong’?

As teachers, we experiment, research, explore and challenge in the pursuit of answers. Sometimes we may even be striving in the hopes of finding the holycheck grail of answers to a multitude of educational ills. However, in our own pursuit of answers we can be lost and this is often transferred into the learning space. Students may be deceived into believing that the answer is all that matters. Students need to be able to develop habits of learning and questioning, in the understanding that knowledge cannot be force-fed.

A disadvantage to students in suggesting that the answer is an end result, might be that they may not seek to understand how the answer plays into their own world. ‘Correctly’ identifying a metaphor in a passage of text simply works to highlight that a student knows the answer. Do they recognise the significance of this knowledge and understand the way in which it interacts with their world?

How might we focus more on helping ourselves and our students develop habits of learning and questioning? It is important for students to be able to identify, recognise and deduce accurately bodies of information, but delivered in isolation they are effectively mining for answers.

In ‘Can a school be built on questions?’ Warren Berger shares five learning skills, or “habits of mind,” matched up with corresponding question:

  • Evidence: How do we know what’s true or false? What evidence counts?
  • Viewpoint: How might this look if we stepped into other shoes, or looked at it from a different direction?
  • Connection: Is there a pattern? Have we seen something like this before?
  • Conjecture: What if it were different?
  • Relevance: Why does this matter?

Finding an answer can be hugely beneficial to developing understanding but I wonder if at the heart of what we are trying to achieve, is greater understanding. Understanding how to question will lead to a self-perpetuating pursuit of answers.

The teaching of nationally assessed standards is all too often driven by the need for students to produce the ‘right’ answer. In most cases it is difficult to ascertain who is driving. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we are certainly more fortunate than most, in that NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) allows the flexibility to develop the requisite habits of learning and questioning. The question is, do we avail ourselves the opportunities afforded to us?

Deborah Meier asked “what if our schools could train students to be better lifelong learners and better adapters to change, by enabling them to be better questioners?”


 

5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners

The Quest to Ask Better Questions

Can a school be built on questions?

The Right Thing, Said Once

Educational Workspaces – The Common Sense Approach

What if teachers from different learning areas worked in the same office space?

Many schools house teachers from the same learning areas in faculty or department offices, buildings or workspaces. These spaces are often a hive of activity in which much is accomplished to further the cause of teaching and learning within a specific learning area. It just seems to make the most sense, doesn’t it?

What would happen if this wasn’t the default setting for schools? A school determined to enhance cross-curricular experiences would certainly be interested in ways to break down the ‘subject silos’, wouldn’t they?

Sometimes the smallest of things can have the greatest of impacts. Here at HPSS teachers are separated into working spaces by community, not learning areas or department. Teachers in a community represent a cross-section of learning areas from across the curriculum. For example, as an English teacher, I share a workspace with science, maths, digital technology, social science, physical education and performing arts teachers. This is my home base each school day. We work together, we coach (advisory) students together, we critique and challenge together.

When you put a group of people into an enclosed space they are going to interact. The interesting thing is that when you place a number of staff from different learning areas in the same office space, amazing dialogue and collegiality is created. A strong sense of identity and curriculum ownership are created in the individual. We feel safe to discuss views, our own learning and are valued as a ‘learned’ colleague in the group.

Some of the by-products are:

  • that students benefit because teachers are exposed to different views and perspectives
  • the breaking down of ‘echo chambers’ in which traditional departments operate
  • the deconstructing of ‘mental walls’ about teaching and learning
  • the challenging of traditional discipline specific approaches to teaching and learning
  • seeking support from those who hold different perspectives
  • learning and discussing cross-curricular approaches and perspectives
  • increasing sense of value and belonging as an ‘expert’ in the workspace
  • exploring different approaches to teaching and learning
  • the honouring of the perspectives and values of colleagues
  • gaining insight and opinions from a diverse range of people

So really, does it make sense to maintain the status quo in a world that demands confident, connected, actively involved and life-long learners? How might we empower teachers to become increasingly connected to those around them?

Those who believe this is not achievable in a ‘traditional’ school need only consider what is required. Moving desks.

I’m a Teacher and I’m a Hypocrite – Practice what we Preach

Avoiding hypocrisy in teaching is not just about the things we do, or not as the case may be. It’s about being honest. None of us are perfect practitioners, probably not even close. There is nothing wrong with that. Teaching isn’t about obtaining perfection, ‘silver bullet’ solutions or even about imperfect teachers comparing themselves to perfect teachers.

The hard truth is: often, we are hypocrites because, in some ways, we are hypocrites.

Maybe it’s because of what we say. We want students to reflect and evaluate, but we struggle to find the time for observations or critique of our own practice.  We want students to be creative, energetic, and enterprising, but we are reluctant to be try ‘new’ things in our own classrooms. We ask students to “seize the opportunities offered by new knowledge and technologies, but we say we don’t have enough time. We want students to accept criticism and feedback on their work, but we are unwilling to have ‘open to learning’ conversations. We want students to be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners, but lack the conviction to be these things ourselves. The reality is teachers are people and people are flawed.

The word hypocrite is rooted in the Greek word ‘hypokrites’, which means “stage actor, pretender, dissembler.” So think of a hypocrite as a person who pretends to be a certain way, but really acts and believes the total opposite. Usually it’s talking a big talk but failing to follow their own rules.

The reality is, we’re not hypocrites because of what we say or because of what we do—we’re hypocrites when we hide our faults and try to act like we’ve got it all figured out.

We expect a lot of our students, and rightly so. Do we expect the same of ourselves? One day, the young people we teach will be you and me. At what point do we expect them to stop being the people we expect them to be now.

Lately it has been a struggle to share anything. Not because there isn’t anything to share, quite the opposite actually. I simply lacked the motivation. My Hub students reminded me of the need to at least practice a little of the things I preach, especially because that is my expectation of them.

In the end, we do matter and we can make a difference. A teacher has immense power to influence the life of a young person. We must take care and accept the responsibility that is ours to care for and prepare learners for more than the status quo. At the same time we must not forget that we too are learners.

“Actually, we have misidentified hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is not the failure to practice what you preach but the failure to believe it. Hypocrisy is propaganda.” (Peter Kreeft)

School Reporting. What’s to keep secret?

After my previous post on report comments, I have been stuck on how to approach a blog post on the process of reporting and design of reports. Then I was pointed to a gimmicky piece on Stuff.co.nz, “Busy teachers share report-writing secrets”.  I was slightly bemused by the whole thing, though I was reminded of the need to raise teacher expectations giving students the confidence, skills and understandings they need to exceed their own expectations. The question I was left pondering most was whether the ‘secrets’ talked about were worth knowing? While, I don’t have any reporting ‘secrets’ to share, I do have some thoughts from our work at HPSS:

  • Reporting is an evolving process. There is a genuine willingness to adjust the reporting process to meet the needs of our students.
  • Reporting is about learning AND personal development. Students are at the heart of the reporting process. Reports are written for and directed to students.
  • Different modes of reporting are used, none of which is a secret to students or their whanau. There are four main ways that we communicate progress. This is through Individual Education Meetings (IEMs), Progress Reports, Formative Reporting and student-owned Learner Narratives.

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  • Reports are shared with students and whanau electronically using the KAMAR web portal.

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  • ‘Formative Reports’ are learning-focused and directed to the student. Comments are on student progress in relation to the learning objectives from each learning area. This report is a snapshot, signposting learning habits and strategies that are going well which students can transfer within or across learning areas and/or learning objectives.
  • ‘Progress Reports’ are completed 4 weeks into each term. These are a snapshot, signposting learning habits and strategies relating to key learning dispositions. The learning dispositions encompass our Hobsonville Habits. Progress reports are published in a timely fashion to capitalise on the reporting opportunity. Unlike the traditional 4-6 week delay between, printing, proofing and mailing there is very little time lost between report creation and it reaching the student and their whanau.

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  • Students are provided with opportunities to reflect on learning dispositions prior to reports being issued, and reports are informed through teacher/student input.  The indicators in this report will not be a surprise for students and by extension, their whanau.
  • The Progress Reports are an opportunity to provide a high level overview while encouraging students to dig deeper into areas for improvement. These reports indicate ‘Always’, ‘Mostly’ or ‘Not Yet’ in all areas of their learning. (Learning Modules/Classes, Learning Hubs and Big Projects).
  • A ‘Not Yet’ is used to indicate areas a student may need to improve and a comment provided. Comments are focused on helping students to improve by developing dispositions and encouraging reflection.

Progress

Not Yet

  • Initially, our progress reports included the indicators ‘sometimes’ and ‘concern’.  These indicators were replaced with ‘not yet’ in order to directly draw students away from the negative. Embracing a Growth Mindset attitude means that it is not a about whether or not the student has achieved. The focus is on helping students to improve by developing dispositions, reflect on their learning and employ strategies to support growth.
  • Opportunities are provided for students to undertake pre-report reflections and to make comparisons with actual reported indicators.

Compare & Reflect Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 1.47.04 pm Hattie explains that students are incredibly accurate about predicting their performance. What students often do is set safe targets. Our job as teachers is to disrupt that. Understanding what targets students set is only part of our job, the other part is to inspire them to do better. The way we write about our students should be beneficial for them. If a student can’t understand what has been written about them, does it make a difference if anyone else can? The child is at the heart of education. We so desperately want them to take more ownership and responsibility for their learning but refuse to acknowledge them directly in this part of their learning experience. The Stuff article talks about the idea that teachers would not tell a student they are “thick” because “if you tell people they’re thick, it stops them from learning.” Would it make a difference if telling a student they were thick helped them in their learning? No. I wouldn’t tell someone they’re thick because it is plain rude.

Stuck in the Mud – A Challenge to Educators

Of the many things I have learned working at HPSS, three key principles have helped me to be more responsive and responsible for my practice and to have a view of education that is future focused.

1) Learn your Duty as a … (insert appropriate wording as necessary – Teacher, Coach, Principal, Head of Department, Dean, Critical Friend, Educator, etc.)

If we are to do what’s best for our students, we are to be responsible to them, their parents, and their community. Therefore we must begin by learning, understanding and accepting those things that will most benefit their learning today and in the future. I see my job as including a moral obligation or responsibility to act in the best interests of my students. This includes challenging long-held views I might have and being willing to learn, seek understanding and acknowledge when change may be necessary. Merely, having a desire to do what is right or best is not enough.

In the story of Alice in Wonderland, Alice does not know which way to go, so she asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

The cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Alice says, “I don’t much care where.” “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the cat.

2) Make the Decision

Ultimately, the choice is ours whether or not we act according to the new knowledge we gain. Choosing to act on that new knowledge frees us from the incapacitating burden of ‘what I’ve always done’ and affords freedoms only experienced by those willing embrace a perspective that is truly future focused.

Uncertainty and indecision prevent us from achieving most of what we set out to accomplish. Ciaran O’Connor explains that “indecision is an Illusion. (It) implies that we are unable to decide…That no matter how much you might like to think otherwise, you are constantly, unrelentingly forced to make choices…Even when you are not making a decision, you are deciding not to decide.”

3) Act Accordingly

After learning our duty and making the decisions that are associated with that learning and understanding, we must act accordingly. Simply put, if there is something that we believe will benefit our students, then why are we not doing it? For example, deliberate acts of teaching do not require the approval of the Principal, Head Master or HoD. In fact, that’s what we’re employed to do. Claire Amos suggests, “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Everyday I am faced with challenges, left undone they would consume me. Every time I choose to act, I open myself up to new possibilities. It is difficult to receive feedback on something we have not done. It is even more difficult to change something we are unwilling to be a part of.

Lately, I have been trialling new ways of delivering the English curriculum and have challenged myself to create resources that would support these new ways of thinking. The reality is often far less glamorous than what I had imagined, and sometimes exceeds expectations, however it is the act of doing that empowers me with confidence to learn more, make further decisions to act and to act accordingly.

As a profession, we seem to be paralysed between making the decision to act and acting accordingly. We revel in deep discussions about our practice, our students and the things that could change or transform learning, but somehow we neglect to act on those things. We can grasp a vision of what might be possible and almost immediately begin to rationalise why it is not possible. Really, we become stuck. We can become totally consumed by the need to ‘rescue’ the profession, our school, our students or other teachers that we forget about ourselves and we are careless in acting on those things we know can change the outcome.

Teaching can very much feel like being ‘stuck in the mud’. We know what to do and how to do it, but we become stuck. If we are totally consumed by the need to ‘rescue’ others we forget to look at ourselves and are less focused on learning, our own included.

The story is told of a panic-stricken hen who is convinced that her beloved chick is meeting his doom in the farmyard’s deep, thick mud. A succession of helpful animals get stuck in the mud trying to get the chick out. Responding to the squawks—“ . . . My poor little chick! / He’s stuck in the mud . . . / and the mud’s deep and thick!” — Cat and Dog, Sheep, Horse and even Farmer run to the rescue, only to find themselves muddy and stuck. At the peak of the carnage that had unfolded, the chick casually hops out, having never been stuck in the first place, and cheerily skips away, clucking “Mud is great fun! / I’m sure you’ll agree. / I love mucky mud—thanks for playing with me!” One of the most interesting things about this story is the struggle of the hapless and chagrined group toward a totally unnecessary rescue. (Stuck in the Mud – Jane Clarke)

At HPSS I have been given the freedom to explore and experiment with truly transformative practices which has been demanding, frustrating, exhausting and time-consuming. At the same time I feel liberated and exhilarated by the possibilities for change and growth.

My challenge for each of us is to learn our duty, make the decision to act and then act. Educational change can only occur if we make it happen.  Those who know me will know, I love to talk but in the words of Aesop, “after all is said and done, more is said that done”. Go and get it done.

Growth Mindset and Writing Report Comments

At times, writing comments for school reports seems to be one of the most futile endeavours facing teachers. Often, we attempt to condense an extended period of time with a student (at least a term if not more) into a confined space of a limited number of characters. We decide which behavioural qualities of a student were significant enough to prevent them from learning some snippet of information or a particular skill. Then, (sometimes) we devise ways in which to word a comment as not offend either the student or their parent but still send a strong ‘message’ about the behavior which is preventing them from achieving. The ‘Ctrl C’ comments are also popular. We write a few generic report comments and zealously employ the Ctrl C (copy) & Ctrl V (paste) functions. Write a comment, copy, paste and change the name.

These methods, particularly in secondary school, of writing comments for reports reflect larger issues in the profession around time and pressures for a single teacher to respond to increasing numbers of students.

However, it is irrelevant that comments are ‘creative masterpieces’ or ‘cloned’ if what they say exerts no positive influence on a students learning.

In many cases, students (and their parents/whanau) will receive two ‘written’ reports a year, especially in Years 9 and 10 (reporting is usually part of a bigger picture which will be covered in future blog posts). These reports tend to be formative in nature and come at the end of a term. At which point, feedback about behaviour that has been ongoing, seems a little redundant if issues have not been resolved beforehand. In addition, report comments often reflect the incapability of a student and lack any focus on their abilities and how to build on these.

Who are report comments for? Is it the incompetent parent who needs to improve their parenting skills? Is it the delinquent child who needs to improve their behaviour in society? Is it the school, under pressure to meet demands of a relentless education system? Certainly none of these fit the intended audience for report comments. Most likely, the intention is that report comments are written for the child with the child in mind. In other words, a student can easily understand their learning progress, know what they need to do next and their parents and whanau can easily make sense of the report so they can help learning to move forward. Therefore, the way in which we frame comment on a students progress should enable a student (with the help of their parents and whanau) to change something in order to progress or improve their learning.

Changing the way we write comments may seem like a trivial thing however, as part of a bigger approach to student centred learning, how we feed back to students about their progress, in whatever form it takes is hugely important.

At Hobsonville Point Secondary School we are attempting to develop a framework for writing report comments that is informed by Growth Mindset thinking, which is directed to students and provides clear direction of the next steps in learning. The example below illustrates how we view writing comments for reports.

HPSS guideline for writing report comments.

HPSS guideline for writing report comments.

Undoubtedly there are other ways to offer feedback about behaviour and certainly more efficient ways rather than writing about it in a report comment. In some way the misbehaving or absent student contributes something and can contribute something more to their learning. It is simply not enough to say they have behavioural problems and that they were not present (‘so and so is never here’). In the case of the absent student, obviously they know they were not at school so what good does it do to tell them that they were absent? Even offering a solution like “you need to attend more regularly in order to achieve” does little if anything to help a student see value in their learning. Surely, timely communication with whanau/family is far more productive in addressing these issues?

When we think about communicating with students, parents and whanau, report comments tend to be relegated to the back benches. However, they offer a significant opportunity to contribute to the learning discourse of each student. The key is in reframing how we view reporting and maximising the opportunity to effectively communicate about learning with our students, their parents and whanau.