Change…

We started the new school year after the summer break, with a focus on ownership of learning for teachers and students alike.  A couple of months later, our exciting Unleashing Learning conference provoked further thinking and action, followed by a week of learning and sharing with Sam Sherratt. And now, as the seasons change and we settle into the year, it’s exciting to observe bright spots of colour and evidence of new growth…

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One team is exploring a new project based approach to maths. Another is experimenting with unleashing writing through play. Year 6 is investigating a year-long approach to the PYP exhibition, allowing students time to discover what they really care about, with a greater focus on sharing the learning journey. Two different groups are reading and discussing The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.

Teacher A has let go of control and seen what happens when students have agency. Teacher B is well on the way and feeling the exhilaration of learning unleashed. C wants to rethink the school musical and find a way to give students more ownership. D has realised that authentic, meaningful learning experiences trump delivering curriculum… and noticed that much more of the curriculum is addressed incidentally via this approach! E is rethinking the way she used to do things and collaborating with others to reimagine her role. F and G are changing the way they reflect with their teams and refining the process as they go. H is breathing imagination and creativity into everything she touches… And I? 

I hear the steady drumbeat of hope for real and meaningful change.

Once unleashed, there’s no stopping the learning… 

The story within…

In an attempt to switch off the buzz of thinking emanating from the past week of learning, I walk in the drizzle, breathe in the smell of damp grass and enjoy a beautifully written and evocatively narrated audio book, set in another time and another place..

“Somewhere in there was a story, which she had yet to find,” I hear this sentence and lose the flow of the narrative as my mind shoots back into the reality of the past week. Being busy and distracted has made me a lazy writer! My previous post was a simple recount and a few bullet points and now I need to scratch the surface and find the layers of story beneath.

Unleashing Learning was a conference by teachers for teachers, and it was filled with powerful, interlinking stories…

The story of collective inspiration…

A hundred and fifty passionate educators grappled with similar issues, applied ideas to their contexts, exchanged experiences, challenged ideas and explored solutions together. The principal shared how his own learning was unleashed by a teacher who encouraged him to take ownership and pursue his interests. Sam Sherratt asked us to think about whether the same old pedagogy will suffice in a rapidly changing world. Rebekah Madrid urged us to start a revolution in our own practice, to ask forgiveness not permission. 12 year old Jazi confidently told an audience of teachers that despite her struggle with words, spelling and reading, she is capable, creative and interesting. Another student, Georgia, explained her perspective on unleashing learning through student empowerment.  Jake asked the audience not to blink while he gave them insight into Tourette’s, then explained that trying to control his tics was like us trying to control our blinking. And woven through the fibre of the all of this, was a powerful message of change and hope.

The story of community…

The conference brought people together in delightful and unexpected ways. Every member of our staff added value in some way, via organising, printing, greeting, presenting, planning, sharing, supporting, facilitating, participating, inspiring or cleaning up.  Relationships were built and strengthened through the interactions of a community working collaboratively towards the twin goals of Unleashing Learning and unleashing learning. Having people who used to work at the school participate in the conference, rekindled relationships from the past. Visitors from other schools and other countries enriched our community with their insights and instilled a sense of pride in our teachers at what we have achieved and what we have to share. As always, the sense of community was enhanced by shared passion and vision, common purpose, and active participation.

The story of belief…

When Jina set out for Learning2 in Manilla, she had never travelled on her own, nor been to an international conference.  She came back determined to provide the same sort of experience for other teachers, and would not allow limited time or money, or any other obstacle, to stand in the way of the momentum inspired by the experience.  Lauri is a natural comic who thrives on inquiry, but not on public speaking. Bolstered by our delight in her story of children’s inquiry (and why flies have bums) she overcame the jitters and stood on stage to share it with all. Desiree and Rubi (like others who had not presented before) kept telling themselves that agreeing to present a workshop was a mistake, but pushed on determinedly and were rewarded by the positive feedback from participants who loved their sessions. Nathan, Lesley and others volunteered to facilitate reflection groups, something out of the ordinary for them, requiring an extra degree of courage and confidence. All of these stories and more are manifestations of our belief in our people and their growing belief in themselves.

The story of empowerment…

This story includes themes of trust and autonomy. Its characters include a principal who encouraged us to bring our vision to life, leaders who allow their people the freedom and space to explore and to innovate, and teachers who take up the challenge to lead from wherever they are. It’s a story of choice, in who you want to learn with and what you want to learn. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, in which you decide the future direction and you have the power to make it happen. It’s a story of teachers who simply will not let frustrations with accountability and compliance deter them in their march towards learning, their own and that of their students. It’s a true story of students who have overcome obstacles like Jazi and Jake and students who have taken their learning into their own hands like Georgia. And an imaginary story of what is yet to come.

It’s a story of unleashing learning…

Making space for innovation…

When did you last spring clean your school events calendar? Are there items that you’ve had for years and may be ready to be modified, improved, replaced or thrown out? Are there things that don’t match any more? Don’t fit any more? Don’t work any more? Don’t excite you any more?

In today’s leadership meeting, we brainstorm some of our traditional ‘events’ and ‘customs’, each jot them down on sticky notes and then place them on a continuum according to our personal feelings about them:

Loathe it – Lament it – Live with it – Like it – Love it.

 

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It’s a refreshing, honest activity, where we say what we think and the data is fascinating.  Apparently there are still lots of things we do because… well we’ve always done them. It’s the first step towards a thorough spring clean in which we will address which items to modify, which to replace and which to give away entirely.

The next step is is to conduct the same exercise with teachers and then students!

Looking forward to making space for innovation…

 

Does your practice align with your beliefs?

The power of filming and then watching yourself teach has become evident during our coaching and growth review processes. What did you notice? What are the patterns?  What do they make you think? What surprised you? Does what you see yourself doing match what you think you do?

On a larger scale, having educators from other schools visit us in the past few weeks has provided a similar opportunity. Viewing ourselves through the eyes of others and becoming aware of different perspectives has been both validating and enlightening. In the process of planning for and evaluating the visits and observing our school’s practice through a different lens, we have asked ourselves the same sorts of questions. Does our practice align with our beliefs about learning?

Some years ago we spent time collaboratively developing a set of learning principles that encapsulate our beliefs about how learning best takes place. Since then we have worked at deepening understanding of these principles and ensuring that they underpin every decision we make in regard to learning within our school. 

Our learning principles:

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning includes acquisition of skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to different contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and is enhanced by collaboration and interaction.
  • Learners need to feel secure, valued and able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, which support learners taking ownership of their learning.

Developing learning principles is the easy part.

How do you ensure that practice aligns with beliefs?

Initially this reflection led me to thinking about the barriers; factors that are often out of my/ our/ sometimes-even-the-school’s control, but I’ve started building a list of things that are working well so we can consider how to amplify those. (This is the influence that exploring coaching has had on my thinking. I can even coach myself now!)

As educators we live the learning principles ourselves through…

How does your school ensure that your practice aligns with your beliefs?

What kind of teacher would you rather have? (Or be)

A is new to Melbourne, T is new to teaching and they are both new to my school. Neither is new to thinking about learning, which is what makes my introductory session with these passionate young educators so exciting. They both have deep beliefs about how children learn and they seek the best ways to build learning experiences on those foundations. They question existing systems and challenge the status quo of schooling in their quest for the best for all learners.

A visitor from another school, participating in our conversation for a while, told us about a group of willing new teachers at a school where she worked, who always accepted and agreed with everything. She didn’t talk about their practice and perhaps they ‘run lovely classrooms’, but I wonder how great a teacher you can be if you don’t constantly strive to understand how your learners learn, if you never challenge the way things are done, if you fail to question others and the system… and yourself.

In a recent conversation, a friend from another school expressed concern about a new teacher she has been mentoring. This teacher demonstrates passion for teaching and learning. She is a deep thinker, with strong beliefs about learning, who is reluctant to go through the motions of delivering prescribed programs and assessments that she does not believe are purposeful. On the other hand, she has yet to develop skills in classroom management. Her mentor is frustrated by her lack of organisation and attention to classroom behaviours.

I think you can learn classroom management. Can you learn to be passionate about learning if you’re not? Can you learn to care deeply if you don’t? Can you learn to base your practice on beliefs about learning, if you don’t really think about how learning takes place?

What kind of teachers are being trained in our systems? What kind of teacher would you rather have? What kind of teacher would you rather be?

Becoming a true digital citizen – a bit like a first date

Guest post by Michael Stafford, newly active digital citizen…

Becoming a true digital citizen was quite nerve-racking. After a workshop focusing on Digitial Citizenship, I was inspired to change the way I interact through digital media. 

After a quick self-reflection it was obvious that I fell under the label of ‘consumer’. I consumed goods through the platform of Ebay, I consumed professional resources through a range of teacher websites and I consumed a range of useless facts and irrelevant updates about people I hadn’t seen since I was twelve through Facebook. I wasn’t creating anything for others and there was nothing I could consider meaningful interaction. I guess I was ready for things to change.

Here is where I’d like to introduce my vehicle to becoming a true digital citizen – Twitter. This is where the first date similarities flood in. I was entering an arena where I did not know much at all. The layout, etiquette, basic functionality, hashtags, little @ symbols….. how on earth did this work? As far as I could tell everyone was an expert already except for me. I wanted to get involved but for some reason was strangely nervous. Self-doubt crept it’s way into my mind. What if I did a bad tweet? Would I come across as an idiot? Would they like me? How would I sound professional in my bio without sounding like I was big noting myself?

After asking the Twitter world a few questions and getting quick and informative answers, I could see the benefit of it all. First date going well…. not sure what I was so scared about. However, one of my questions threw me right in the old deep end. “Would anyone be willing to help out my class with their learning?”. Within a day I had attention from India, South Africa, China, Singapore and just up the highway in Melbourne. They were all keen to connect through Skype. This digital relationship was about to go to the next level. Besides the sweating, increased heart rate and mental over-preparedness, the first Skype call actually went really well.

The students’ learning has been amplified through rich, authentic and meaningful connections and we now have peers that we can reconnect with in the future. I am now extraordinarily excited to see what else comes out of it.

It all came down to risk vs. reward really. Risk a bunch of little ego related worries and the reward can be huge. I’m glad I took the risk.

@mstafford1988

Making the PYP really happen…

It was the first time I had led a ‘Making the PYP Happen’ workshop and it was for teachers at my own school, so I approached the planning with a strong sense of responsibility. How would I ensure the workshop was valuable and would impact on practice?

MTPYPH is a workshop for teachers new to the PYP and its name describes it. The purpose of the workshop is to support participants, not just in understanding the principles and practices of the PYP, but in actually ‘making it happen’ for themselves and their students in their own particular learning environments.

The philosophy and underpinning principles of the PYP correlate closely with my school’s beliefs about learning. One of our new teachers (with a background in PYP schools) said ‘ The difference is that you LIVE the PYP here’. I’ve thought a lot about what that means! It means we go beyond fulfilling requirements and ticking boxes. It means we are not afraid to question or challenge the aspects that are less compatible with our beliefs. It means we constantly reflect on how best to make it meaningful in our context.

So planning the recent workshop, with my colleague Joc, included thoughtful consideration of how to take it ‘beyond the book’ and make it relevant and thought provoking. We wanted to focus on the big ideas in order to  help the teachers make connections between the separate elements.

This unit map was helpful in pulling the elements together and went far beyond the original intention (as learning experiences do when the learners take control!) The teachers changed the directions of the arrows and added their own as they realised connections and developed new understandings. This led to ideas for how to improve and develop the unit map for future use.

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The workshop focused on  inquiry, concept driven learning and constructivism. Teachers explored the PYP curriculum model and essential elements through the lenses of these big ideas, by inquiring, focusing on big ideas and constructing meaning themselves, both collaboratively and through individual reflection.

It’s been gratifying to hear them reflect on the shifts they are already making…

  • What I previously saw as disasters, I now recognise as opportunities for learning.
  • I’m realising that the less I talk, the more students do and learn.
  • I’m not planning the learning in advance so much. I’m allowing the learning in each lesson to shape further learning.
  • I’m accepting that learning is messy and realising that students are not all on the same learning path.
  • I’m not so stressed about ticking boxes and completing tasks. The learning is more organic as I hand over more to the kids.
  • I’m stepping back a bit, allowing the students to lead more, reflecting more as a teacher…
  • Relinquishing control, choosing intentional questions so the children can have more ownership of learning.
  • Providing more opportunities for student choice.
  • More opportunities for problem solving and collaborative thinking.
  • Trying to make more connections across different learning areas.
  • I’m reflecting more with my class on the learning.
  • I’m allowing myself to be more of a messy learner, pursuing my own learning and developing the bigger picture of the whole child.

Seems like they ARE making the PYP happen.

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Collaboratively reflecting on what we can learn about students from various samples and photos…

A sense of loss…

Layla, my colleague and friend, has retired very suddenly for personal reasons. Processing my sense of loss, I have this to say…

Would you like to work in a place where you have time to absorb and process one idea before racing on to the next? I’d rather work with Layla.

Would you like to work in a place where you have the space to just be, without disagreement and constantly being challenged? I’d rather work with Layla.

Would you like to work in a place where things are always crystal clear, precise and well mapped out for you? I’d rather work with Layla.

It’s easy to work with people who think in the same way as you do (or don’t think much at all) – You make a suggestion, they agree. They make a suggestion, you take it up. No argument, no raised voices… no progress?

New staff witnessing dialogue between Layla and me are often taken aback. We argue, we disagree, we force each other to examine our beliefs, clarify our goals and adapt our thinking. This is real collaboration and what grows out of it, is dynamic and exciting … often leading to meaningful change.

It’s easy to relax and go with the status quo, accept things because they are good enough or because they have always been done a particular way. It takes courage to constantly question and to fight for what you believe in, even if you upset people along the way.

I’ll miss my thinking partner. I’ll miss pushing her into a corner and making her explain her thought process, examine her motivation and justify her thinking. I’ll be looking out for someone passionate with strong beliefs about learning, who’s not afraid of change… because I need to be pushed in exactly the same way myself.

If you’re someone who doesn’t like being challenged, who doesn’t value debate, who isn’t able to take the seed of a creative idea and use your imagination to grow it yourself into something flourishing… then you might not miss Layla.

I know I will.

Teacher coaching…

I could write a formal post using fancy language, quoting research about coaching if I wanted to, but I choose not to! (There are plenty of those around, just google.)

After much research, including reading, viewing and valuable conversations with experienced coaches, Joc and I have begun to coach teachers.  It’s part of an ever evolving approach to professional learning at our school, which includes teacher choice, a focus on growth rather than judgement and a desire to constantly refine and improve our practice.

The content of coaching sessions is confidential, but we regularly reflect on the process and refine it as we go. Most of the teachers being coached are less concerned than we are about confidentiality. One shares her reflections in a meeting, another talks animatedly in the staffroom and a third is blogging about the experience!

Here’s my take on the roles of the coach and the coachee…

COACHING

I’ve already learned..

  • to talk less
  • to listen more
  • to craft purposeful questions
  • the value of collaborative reflection
  • to see things through the eyes of the teacher being coached
  • that teachers’ goals shift and grow as they see evidence of change in themselves and their learners
  • the value of protected time for teachers to reflect and talk about their practice
  • that positive relationships contribute to effective coaching
  • that effective coaching builds positive relationships
  • that teachers’ observations of their own practice are even more powerful than observations by others
  • that some teachers are happy to share the process of their growth, not just with other teachers, but with their students too
  • that, even in the early stages, coaching can make a dramatic difference to teaching and learning
  • that instigating change requires trying something different
  • that self-directed learning is the most powerful kind there is
  • the power of using data (about yourself as well as your learners) to inform teaching and learning…

Next steps…

Can we replace the old, evaluative model of teacher appraisal with a growth model, based on the coaching process?

Watch this space…