Category Archives: professional development

Balancing internal and external expertise in professional learning


I’ve spent a number of days recently in a couple of schools where I’ve been working with school leaders and staff for an extended period of time now, assisting them with their strategic visioning and planning, and in coaching and mentoring staff leading their in-school professional learning programmes. I find this highly satisfying and rewarding work – and it reminds me of just how complex the setting of a school is, and  how important it can be to have a variety of perspectives included in the process of designing and implementing an effective PLD programme that will (a) help a school achieve it’s strategic goals, (b) enable individual teachers to develop and grow professionally, and (c) contribute to raising student achievement as the ‘end game’.

New Zealand schools are currently coming to terms with what the new environment for professional learning means for them. The Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako that they are being encouraged to form are described as a group of education and training providers working together to help learners achieve their full potential. The significant difference here is that previously the agenda for government funded Professional Learning was determined by the Ministry of Education in order to meet their objectives – where now the onus is on schools and Kāhui Ako to take on this responsibility – and then proceed to find the approach that will best suit them to achieve this.

As someone who has spent much of the past two decades working alongside schools and teachers I am very interested in the approaches being taken (and in some cases not being taken) to engage with external expertise as a part of this process. In the Best Evidence Synthesis, Helen Timperley et al. (2007) emphasise the role of external expertise, which they say can assist in creating more challenging dialogue across a group. They found that “all studies of professional communities that did not lead to improved outcomes for students lacked external input. In these studies, challenges to assumptions held by community members typically did not happen” (p.203)**.

So it was with interest today that I came cross a report titled The State of Educators’ Professional Learning in Canada (pdf) from LearningForward, which provides a  useful overview of the experience in Canada – across the diverse approaches taken across the ten states and three provinces – of the provision of professional learning in schools.

Overall, the study findings indicate that valuing, respecting, and promoting a range of professionals’ and students’ outcomes is important in Canada. Student achievement matters; however, outcomes are not only about test scores. Generally, professional learning content needs to develop teachers’ efficacy, knowledge, and practices in order to support students’ efficacy, engagement, learning, and equity of outcomes.

In relation to my point above regarding the role of external vs internal expertise (and direction setting etc.) the Canadian report concludes..

Overall, the findings indicate that system- and school-directed professional development can be important to support current priorities; however, such development also needs to be balanced with flexibility for teachers and other educators to identify specific professional learning needs for themselves linked to their students, schools, and contexts. Opportunities for teachers to lead their own learning, and that of their colleagues, can benefit individual and collective professional learning and support changes in practices to benefit students’ learning.

This finding should offer some encouragement (and direction) for New Zealand schools who now have the mandate to operate with similar agency as they identify specific professional learning needs for themselves linked to their students, schools, clusters and contexts.

The key findings in the report are:

  • Evidence, inquiry, and professional judgement are informing professional learning policies and practices
  • The priority area identified by teachers for developing their knowledge and practices is how to support diverse learners’ needs
  • A focus on a broad range of students’ and professionals’ learning outcomes is important
  • The appropriate balance of system-directed and self-directed professional development for teachers is complex and contested
  • There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to professional learning; teachers are engaging in multiple opportunities for professional learning and inquiry with differentiation for their professional needs
  • Collaborative learning experiences are highly valued and prevalent within and across schools and wider professional networks
  • Teachers value professional learning that is relevant and practical for their work; “’job-embedded” should not mean school-based exclusively as opportunities to engage with external colleagues and learning opportunities matter also
  • Time for sustained, cumulative professional learning integrated within educators’ work lives requires attention
  • Inequitable variations in access to funding for teachers’ self-selected professional development are problematic
  • System and school leaders have important roles in supporting professional learning for teachers and for themselves
**Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., and Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Practice-based learning


The start of the school year in NZ is not far away now and I’ve been gearing up for a number of teacher only days with schools in various parts of the country. As part of my preparation I’ve been talking with some of the principals and senior staff in these schools to determine exactly how my contribution will assist them in achieving the goals they have set for staff etc.

A common theme that is raised in these conversations concerns how well (or not) teachers are being prepared for their work in schools the approaches taken to initial teacher education in many of our pre-service providers. A critical concern is around the perceived gap between theory and practice, and what appears to be the limited amount of time pre-service candidates spend in classrooms practicing and refining the things they have learned in the lecture halls and classrooms of their initial teacher ed provider.

It’s an age-old debate – one that was certainly alive and well when I was a lecturer in one of these institutions, and that was before the amalgamations with Universities had even occurred. And it’s not simply the domain of education in focus here – we’ve seen similar developments in health, with nurses being trained in primarily in tertiary institutions and less on the ground in hospitals for instance.

It always seems to polarise opinion. Advocates for greater amounts of time in classroom-based experience argue that it ensures candidates are more ‘classroom ready’ when they graduate, particularly when it comes to aspects of behaviour and classroom management. Those advocating for more theory argue that building such a base of knowledge better prepares students for the diversity of experiences they may encounter in their career. A sub-argument in this group is the fact that it’s often cheaper and less resource intensive to cater for larger groups in a lecture-style environment.

practice-based-importantI am personally disposed toward a practice-based approach. Just a few  years ago I had the privilege of being part of the team that designed and developed a new pre-service teacher education programme for the Eastern Institute of Technology. This three-year Bachelor of Teaching qualification is a practice-based teacher education programme providing a balance between theory, research and practice. The practice-based approach involves the candidate teachers working alongside experienced teachers in local primary and intermediate schools for two days a week as part of the programme. The other days in the week are spent on campus exploring the research and theoretical aspects of curriculum and pedagogy etc.

A point to be made here is that practice-based approaches are about much more than simply finding a place for candidate teachers to spend time observing and then mimicking what they see being modelled by their host teachers. An argument against practice-based approaches is that they can simply result in a ‘replication’ model of classroom practice – where bad habits and poor teaching strategies are perpetuated. Practice-based approaches will only work where both the candidate teachers and the host teachers are working together to resolve the issues and concerns they face in the classroom on a daily basis, drawing from experience, evidence and research as they do so.  The strength of the EIT programme is that it is a true partnership between the candidate teachers, EIT as the provider organisation and the schools which provide much more than simply a place for the candidate teachers to ‘practice’.

The report illustrated at the top of this post titled ‘learning to teach‘ outlines essential features for providing high-quality, structured, and sequenced opportunities to practice within teacher preparation programs. The report recommends that programmes should fully incorporate the following features into all practice-based opportunities:

  • Modelling is how teacher educators provide candidates examples of what expert performance looks like in practice.
  • Spaced learning opportunities are those that offer candidates opportunities to practice the knowledge and skills acquired in coursework over a period of time, that are sustained and repeated, and that are scaffolded to deepen candidate expertise.
  • Varied learning opportunities are those that provide candidates with opportunities to practice the knowledge and skills they learned in their coursework across varying contexts, with a diverse range of student learners, and with differing degrees of support.
  • Coaching and feedback opportunities are those in which supervisors provide explicit coaching and constructive feedback as candidates practice the knowledge and skills they acquired in their coursework. The focus of the coaching and feedback is on improving candidates’ practice and expertise.
  • Analyzing and reflecting opportunities are those in which candidates practice the knowledge and skills they acquired in their coursework while engaging in analysis and reflection upon both their practice and their impact on student learning.
  • Scaffolded practice-based opportunities are those in which candidates apply the knowledge and skills they acquired through their coursework, within teaching experiences that gradually increase in complexity over time with fading support from teacher educators to promote deeper learning of content, improved instructional implementation, and, ultimately, autonomous performance.

Arguably, these same features could (or should) just as easily characterise effective in-service professional learning. The point is that the relationship between pre-service and in-service teacher education so often focuses on what makes them different, rather than what makes them the same or similar. If we are truly committed to principles of life-long learning, teaching as inquiry and responsive practice, then we need to be thinking more of developing an approach to professional learning that is more collegial, more collaborative and more inquiry-focused – where the openness to changing practice in light of evidence is the norm.

So let’s stop the rhetoric that ‘blames’ others for the perceived failure to adequately prepare for or grow within the profession and let’s start 2017 with a commitment to working together to find new ways of addressing the issues and concerns in our classrooms, schools and clusters, using methodologies and approaches that draw upon the vast pool of experience, research and evidence that exists in our midst.

A collaborative approach to PD


In a previous post I described a new era of professional development, outlining four key principles drawn from both research and experience in this area. I reflected further on that today as I read a report from leading Australian researcher Ben Jensen, titled Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems in which he analyzes the way four high-performing education systems provide professional learning to their teachers.

Across all four high-performing systems analyzed—British Columbia (Canada), Hong Kong, Shanghai (China) and Singapore — professional learning is central to teachers’ jobs. It is not an “add on,” something done on Monday afternoons or on a few days at the end of the school term. Teacher professional learning is how they all improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs.

While these systems are quite different, the key to all of them is that collaborative professional learning (teachers working with other teachers to improve curriculum, instruction, school climate, etc.) is built into the daily lives of teachers and school leaders.

According to Jensen's reserach, this is reinforced by policies and school organizations that:

  1. Free up time in the daily lives of teachers for collaborative professional learning
  2. Create leadership roles for expert teachers who both develop other teachers and lead school improvement teams
  3. Recognize and reward the development of teacher expertise
  4. Enable teachers and school leaders to share responsibility for their own professional learning and that of their peers.

These points align with the rationale promoted by the New Zealand Ministry of Education in its current policy initiative, Investing in Education Success (IES). According to the IES policy, schools will receive additional funding to release other teachers to spend time on the job, continuing to develop their professional skills for the benefit of students in their own classrooms. Specifically,the IES policy promotes a greater emphasis on Inquiry Time,  providing more time for teachers to focus specifically on working together to tackle achievement challenges. The proof will be in the pudding, of course, as to how effective the drivers that are being used to implement this policy are in terms of promoting the desired shifts in behaviour at a school and system level. 

There's no doubt in my mind that the principles identified by Jensen in this report provide a useful framework for the design of an effective approach to PD, at a school or system level – but the success of any implementation will depend on the following:

  1. the buy-in of all involved – not just school leaders or a few enthusiasts on the staff,
  2. an emphasis on a collaborative approach, where the rewards are availabe to be shared equitably, and where everyone's voice is recognised and valued in the process,
  3. sufficient resources are available to support local initiatives – including mentoring support and external expertise where appropriate, and
  4. well developed frameworks and models exist and are used for evaluating the effectiveness of the process – including the impact on student learning and achievement. 

We stand on the brink of a radical change in the way PD is 'done' in NZ schools – my hope is that those who are leading the approach within the different schools and clusters (and nationally) take the opportunity to delve deeply into the theory and practice of professional development, and ensure the strategies they adopt and promote meet the standards of what the research has been informing us about over the past decade or so. 


A new era of professional development

Teacher PD

There’s an old saying, “There’s nothing more certain than change”, and this will certainly be true as educators in NZ prepare to return to work in 2016. Whether we’re re-thinking what we teach, how we teach, where we teach and even who we teach, dealing with the demands of change is the biggest challenge facing schools, kura, and centres today.

Consider the following examples of change on the horizon in our education system in NZ in 2016…

These are just a selection of the drivers at a national level for 2016 — in addition, there will be all sorts of drivers at a regional and local level that may need to be considered.

Change confronts and challenges our ability to address the needs of our learners in a productive and relevant manner — at both a personal and system level. While many of these changes may not appear to be immediately relevant to the teaching and learning that occurs in individual learning environments, collectively they point to some significant changes for our schools, kura and centres, and for our system as a whole. As such, there will inevitably be an impact on the work of individual teachers and the work they do with their learners.
It is imperative that educational leaders understand how to engage their staff, and lead their school/kura/centre (or cluster), in collaborating around change. Don’t be afraid to draw upon the advice and guidance of external expertise where this will help — engaging a critical friend at this stage can save a lot of angst as the year gets under way. When it comes to effectively managing change 'nobody's as smart as everybody' because schools/kura/centres/clusters must consistently identify and resolve critical change issues, innovate the way they work, and find new and different ways to grow.

This can only happen if time has been spent considering the following:

  • Is our school/kura/centre/cluster aligned around its educative purpose? Does this clearly identify the learner at the centre?
  • Are we guided by a clear vision for the organisation, for our students? Whose vision is it?
  • Has this process involved genuine consultation with the community — including local iwi?
  • Do we have a set of collaboratively developed and owned values that guide how we work?
  • Have we clearly identified the challenges that we must address — and why?
  • Are the responses to the questions above clearly articulated to the staff, BoT, and community in an action plan with well-defined goals and outcomes that can be measured?

If the questions above can be answered affirmatively, then your school/kura/centre/cluster is well positioned to move to the next stage of designing and implementing a change management programme.

Of course, managing change in any educational setting isn't as simple as implementing some seductively attractive turnkey change management model. This is because educational change isn’t primarily about introducing new systems, facilities, or resources — it’s about changing people. It’s about changing hearts and minds, and about ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in the change process, and not feel that it is being ‘done’ to them.

Professional development in collaborative groups is needed to understand and collectively build the trust, shared values and beliefs, shared purpose, shared goals, and shared responsibility. Along the way there will be provision for meeting individual needs, ensuring that individual staff are provided with the support and resources required to prepare them personally for the change. However, achieving whole-school/kura/centre change requires everyone to be committed to the same change goals. Ultimately, these change goals must reflect a concern for the learners, with every learner achieving to the very best of his or her ability.

An effective professional development programme must offer more than a sequence of ‘one off’ learning experiences for staff — in the form of isolated staff meetings or off-site workshops. The programme must be a part of the ‘weave’ of everyday activity in your school/kura/centre, with regular opportunity to identify and celebrate the successes along the way as the change goals are achieved.

If you are responsible for the design and development of professional development programmes in your school/centre, here are four research-based principles that should underpin your planning and decision-making.

1. In depth
The change process will inevitably challenge existing beliefs and behaviours. The change won’t occur by simply sharing what the ‘new’ beliefs and behaviours must be. There must be opportunity for engaging deeply with the background rationale and evidence, and for in-depth discussion and debate.

2. Sustained over time
“Rome wasn’t built in a day” (or so the saying goes), and effective, lasting educational change doesn’t occur as a result of a single staff meeting or workshop. Sure, a single event may act as a catalyst for change, but for the change to be embedded and sustained the professional development must be sustained over a significant period of time to allow for iterations to occur and the new behaviours to ‘bed in’ and become the ‘new normal’. An iterative approach that builds on action research or cycles of inquiry provides opportunities for the refinement and ideas and approaches that eventually establish the changed culture and patterns of behaviour.

3. Contextually relevant
Meaningful change cannot occur simply by borrowing ideas from elsewhere and assuming they’ll work the same in your context. Your staff, your students, and your community are different. There will be different needs and different opportunities and resources for you to tap into. Sure, an idea from somewhere else may serve to stimulate your thinking, but you need to do what will work for the learners in your context.

4. Linked to practice
Finally, there’s little point in any professional learning that isn’t linked to practice. Stories abound from the days where teachers periodically went off-site to attend PD sessions, most of which were aimed at providing ideas and experiences that may be useful ‘just in case’ the need emerged when the teacher went back to school. Nowadays, the focus needs to be on PD approaches that provide access to these new ideas and approaches ‘just in time’ — so that they can be implemented, trialed, reflected on, and refined in the context of the teacher’s own practice. Not only must the PD be linked to practice, but there must also then be evidence of the impact of this on that teacher’s practice.

The approach outlined above places high expectations on the leadership in our schools/centres. The competing demands for the limited financial resources available in most schools/centres to support professional learning can create tensions that are difficult to resolve. Approaches that rely exclusively on externally designed and delivered PLD are no longer viable (or effective).

The changes announced to PLD by the MoE aim to grow leadership capability across the system and strengthen profession-led support for curriculum, teaching, and learning. The momentum must come from within our schools, kura, and centres — but doesn’t exclude drawing on external expertise. Indeed, a further goal of the MoE changes to PLD is to mobilise quality assured internal and external expertise — drawing on the strategic wisdom and critical support of external providers where this is aligned with and adds value to the internally agreed goals and direction for the school, kura, or centre.

As you contemplate the changes that lie ahead in 2016 in your school/centre, now is the time to review your vision, values, and action planning, and to ensure that a well-designed programme of professional development is a key part of this planning.

NOTE this was cross-posted from the CORE Education blog on 21 Jan, 2016

What makes for effective PLD?


At a meeting I attended last week a group of people were discussing approaches they might use to 'bring teachers up to speed' with the ideas and approaches they were discussing (in this case, computational thinking). The discussion that ensued raised all of the usual issues around why it's difficult to find effective PLD solutions: teachers are time poor, the overloaded curriculum, lack of expertise, reluctance to change etc. When turning their attention to finding a solution the predictable list appeared: provide more teacher only days (TODs), introduce a range of incentives (carrots), introduce mandatory requirements (sticks) etc. The discussion also ventured into the problem with providing PLD support that is 'just in time' rather than that which is 'just in case'.

As one of the few professionals in the group whose work is built around designing and delivering professional learning and development, I was asked to offer my thoughts on what makes for effective professional learning and development. Having spent much time exploring what the literature says about this, and being involved in significant national research efforts to identify the same, my list was easy to share:

Effective professional learning and development has the following four characteristics:

  1. It is in-depth
  2. It is provided over time
  3. It is related to practice
  4. It is contextually relevant

I use this list as my litmus test when designing PLD approaches with principals and schools. Based on more recent experience, I think I'd add a fifth point: 5. It is collaborative. I see this increasingly as the differentiating factor in the level of success with PLD programmes in schools I work with.

Clearly, it would be easy then to eliminate the one-day workshop, or attendance at a one-off seminar or conference if using this list. So too a one-size fits all style of 'course' that is 'delivered' on a large scale with no provision for customisation or adapting to a personal need. 

This sort of thinking is certainly contributing to the current government policy in NZ, where the 'evidence' suggests that most forms of PLD to date have been ineffective, and that a new approach needs to be taken. In NZ's case this appears to be based on recognising the expertise that exists within schools and clusters and providing support for internally designed and developed approaches to PLD. 

Teachers know bestSuch moves are not surprising. In the US, similar dissatisfaction with existing PLD approaches has been reported, with a recent publication titled "Teachers Know Best" from the Boston Publishing group, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, reporting that large majorities of teachers do not believe that professional development is helping them prepare for the changing nature of their jobs, including using technology and digital learning tools, analyzing student data to differentiate instruction, and implementing the Common Core State Standards and other standards. The report provides a detailed breakdown of the types of PLD that teachers consider work or don't compared with what is provided.

Based on their research, the report authors suggest that principals and teachers in the US largely agree on what effective PLD looks like, and it is summarised in the paper as:

Characteristics of professional development associated with improving student achievement:

  • Sustained and content specific
  • Teacher learning goals aligned with standards
  • Involving active learning techniques (e.g., observing expert teachers, leading discussions)
  • Including established teams to facilitate “collective participation” and teachers using data in making instructional decisions

Two formats that hold promise:

  • Coaching has been shown to improve teachers’ abilities to adopt and implement new teaching practices
  • Collaboration helps to build relational trust in the school building, which enables teachers to more effectively make difficult decisions

In a recent blog post titled Developing Great Teaching that explores these same issues I referenced a report from the Teacher Development Trust which identifies 8 characteristics of effective PLD (repeated below) 

  • Duration: effective professional development lasts at least two semesters, and needs a ‘rhythm’ of follow-up and consolidation;
  • Targeted: the content should be relevant to the teachers’ needs and day-to-day experiences;
  • Aligned: no single activity is universally effective – instead it is a combination that reinforced the message from different perspectives that works;
  • Content: successful development must consider both subject knowledge and subject-specific teaching techniques;
  • Activities: successful development features common types of activities including discussion, experimentation and analysis and reflection;
  • External input: constructive external input provides new perspectives and challenges orthodoxies;
  • Collaboration: peer support gives participants an opportunity to work together and refine new approaches;
  • Leadership: effective leaders get involved in development, define opportunities and provide the support needed to embed change.

While there are some differences in each of the three lists above, there are also some very strong alignments. These are the sorts of things that we need to be taking notice of and building our future PLD programmes around.

It's too easy to look at PLD in a 'fractured' sort of way, thinking about each PLD event in isolation, without appreciating how, if a systemic view was taken, these elements could actually be aligned and understood as a part of a continuum of development, rather than an isolated experience. This is where the analysis in the Gates report is weakened, as it examines the reported effectiveness of each PD event (i.e. workshops, conferences, in-class observation etc.) without referencing how that might 'fit' within the overall programme of development of a school or district. Clearly, since the reports were based on teacher perceptions, those who were surveyed didn't have an appreciation of that – or the survey design didn't allow them to report that. 

Back to the NZ scene, I'm very excited about the increased emphasis on supporting schools and clusters to take a more proactive role in designing and developing their own PLD processes and approaches as clearly the mandated, imposed sorts of approaches are becoming less relevant where the needs are so diverse. There's a danger we must be aware of, however, in that cluster leaders will themselves need to be fully aware of and able to lead PLD approaches that are founded on the key principles that the research and evidence reveals, or else they two run the risk of implementing some of the very same practices that we know don't work. 

The secret is to take a system-level view, one that is designed to take all staff on a journey, over time, towards achieving both personal and school/cluster goals. and which has strategic means of measuring impact and outcomes. 

Developing Great Teaching

Developing Great Teaching

My earliest experiences of professional learning and development (PLD) tended to be short courses focusing on introducing a new skill, strategy or technology. I can remember as a young teacher being 'sent' to courses on how to use an overhead projector, or how to use simulation activities in social studies classes. Sometimes these things were useful to me when I returned to the classroom, other times they were more 'just in case' courses, simply provided because the opportunity was there. 

Since the time I began as a teacher the expectations of teachers have increased, and so to have the expectations of PLD programmes and providers. My professional career has been focused on the professional development (PLD) of teachers for nearly three decades now, and in that time I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of educators across all sectors of the education system. In the work I have been responsible for I have seen a significant shift to participation in programmes that provide quality professional learning that is in-depth, in context, sustained over time, and designed to meet the needs of individual staff and whole schools. 

I am anticipating that the findings of the NZ PLD Review (when it is eventually published) will support this – empahsising that the most effective professional learning is that which occurs within schools and is focused on supporting school goals targetting the improvement of student learning and achievement. 

Whether the PLD focus is on individuals or whole schools, whether short programmes or longer term engagments, the common concern of most teachers remains "where do I find time to fit this learning in?" The increasing demands on teachers across a range of areas means that PLD is often relegated to the 'nice to have' pile, instead of being accorded the priority it deserves. This creates challenges in terms of the sorts of PLD activities and approaches that should be offered.

A new report, Developing Great Teaching: lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development, sheds some light on the sorts of activities that are worth our while. Written by researchers from Durham University, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) and UCL Institute of Education, the report confirms that the right PLD (or CPD as it is known in the UK) not only improves teacher practice but also improves outcomes for pupils.

Key findings include (emphasis mine):

  1. The content of effective professional development should involve both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy to achieve its full potential, with clarity around learners’ progress. Activities should help teachers to understand how pupils learn, generally and in specific subject areas.
  2. The duration and rhythm of effective CPD requires a longer-term focus – at least two terms to a year or longer is most effective, with follow-up, consolidation and support activities built in.
  3. Participants’ needs should be carefully considered. This requires stepping away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to creating content for teachers that integrates their day-to-day experiences.
  4. There should be a logical and consistent thread between the various components of the programme and creating opportunities for teacher learning.
  5. Certain activities are more effective – these include explicit discussions, testing ideas in the classroom and analysis of, and reflection around, the evidence and relevant assessment data.
  6. External input from providers and specialists must challenge orthodoxies within a school and provide multiple, diverse perspectives.
  7. Teachers should be empowered through collaboration and peer learning; they should have opportunities to work together, try out and refine new approaches and tackle teaching and learning challenges.
  8. Powerful leadership around professional development is pivotal in defining staff opportunities and embedding cultural change. School leaders should not leave the learning to teachers, they should be actively involved themselves.

One thing that the report identifies is clearly not helpful is sending teachers on one-day external courses which they say is likely to be wasted time unless participants also have in-school collaborative and iterative activities for preparation and follow-up.

The report also emphasises that schools that have stopped using external expertise completely are missing out on a key ingredient of effective PLD. It says that external experts and courses are an important element of in-school processes if we want to improve pupil outcomes. The point here is that the external 'expertise' can no longer be the person 'wheeled in' to provide the new ideas and strategies etc, but their role is changed now to being the critical friend, mentor and strategic adviser, allowing the leadership within the school to take responsibility for leading and managing the PLD programme. This is a particularly interesting to me as the pendulum appears to be swinging here in NZ, away from external providers to supporting the internal PLD leadership of schools.

Innovating to create 21 century learning environments

OECD-ISTP15 The International Summit on the Teaching Profession is under way this year in Banff, Canada, with a contingent of NZ educators attending. Last year I had the privilege of attending this event when it was held here in NZ, and it provided a a great opportunity to hear from a variety of international 'experts' and leaders from a range of countries in the OECD. 

Among them was Andraes Schleicher who is the OECD's director of the Directorate of Education and Skills, and the person most will associate with the research behind the PISA results. He is also author of a new report titled Schools for 21st Century Learners which has been prepared for this year's Summit. 

I've only had a chance to browse the document, which has three key themes  around building responsive schools for 21st Century Learners:

  • Promoting effective school leadership
  • Strengthening Teacher's confidence in their own abilities
  • Innovating to create a 21st Century learning environments

Each of these themes is already a strategic focus in our NZ education system, and no doubt we'll see some of what happens at the Summit feeding back into our context. 

Of the three, however, I have spent a little time looking at the third one, Innovating to create 21st Century Learning Environments (p.61 in the downloadable PDF). 

The study concludes that schools and education systems will be most powerful and effective when they:

  • Make learning central, encourage engagement, and be where learners come to understand themselves as learners.
  • Ensure that learning is social and often collaborative.
  • Are highly attuned to learners’ motivations and the importance of emotions.
  • Are acutely sensitive to individual differences, including in prior knowledge.
  • Are demanding of each learner, but do not overload students with work.
  • Use assessments consistent with their aims, emphasising formative feedback.
  • Promote horizontal connectedness across activities and subjects, in and outside of school.

The chapter describes how some schools are regrouping teachers, regrouping learners, rescheduling learning, and changing pedagogical approaches – and the mix of those approaches – to provide better teaching for better learning. These are all themes that CORE is currently addressing in our work on Modern Learning.

The commentary and examples provided, together with the conclusions that the reearch team draw from, this will provide a useful reference for school leaders pursuing modern learning approaches in their schools, and who may find themselves responding to requests for 'the evidence' that this will contribute to better learning outcomes. 


Thinking about engagement…

engaged learners

It's official… excellent teachers, supported by gifted and visionary school leaders, keep students engaged in the learning process and hopeful about their future. These are two of the crucial outcomes the recent Gallup Student Poll measures.

I was speaking with a school principal yesterday who is working to develop his school's strategic focus for next year. Placing student achievement as the overarching priority for the school, his focus moved to student engagement as the critical success factor for the cohort in his school.

Our discussion then moved to what the indicators of engagement might be that he and his staff could agree should be the focus of their efforts in 2015. The criteria used in the development of this Gallup Poll could be a useful starting point – they ask students, teachers, principals, and other professionals about their levels of hope, emotional engagement, and well-being at work or school.

In the New Zealand context engagement is described in a variety of ways – in their Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, Christensen, Rechly and Wylie point to the following:

  • Behavioural engagment – referring to student's actual participation at school and in learning
  • Emotional engagement – referring to a student's emotional response to teachers, peers, learning and school
  • Cognitive engagement – referring to investment in learning, seeking challenge and going beyond what is required 

Using these criteria as a guide provides a useful framework for developing a shared understanding of engagement and what it looks like in the classroom. Unfortunately, our system tends to stress the indicators of 'dis-engagement', drawn primarily from the Behavioural Engagement category – including stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions. And so the focus on engagement becomes more a case of "how can we mitigate these things occurring?" instead of "how can we increase the extent of engagement, behaviourally, emotionally and cognitively?"

According to the Gallup survey, and using their wide range of measures, 55% of American students scored high on engagement. That's a pretty disappointing score in anyone's book I feel. I wonder what the equivalent might be in NZ schools? Across the board? And in specific schools? I imagine we'd find a wide range of results – but the fact would remain that every child represented in the percentage of un-engaged, or dis-engaged is a child unlikely to achieve in his or her academic studies either. 

One of the key findings from the Gallup survey is that students who strongly agree that their school is committed to building students’ strengths and that they have a teacher who makes them excited about the future are more engaged than their peers who strongly disagreed with both statements. Again, no surprises, with clear messages there about taking a learner-centred approach, and promoting student agency – and for teachers, that their relationships with the learners, and their interest in and passion for what they are teaching is 'infectious'!

The contentious aspect of this logic is another finding in the Gallup research, which reveals that, unfortunately, most teachers are not in a position to share excitement with students. About 70% are classified as disengaged, which, according to the report, puts them on par with the workforce as a whole.

Now that's what's got me thinking about engagement…

Defining success

SuccessI was working with the staff of a local secondary school yesterday, and in the context of our discussion we shared our thinking around the question of 'what is success?' in relation to the purpose of school and schooling, and the focus on assessment that currently dominates much of the thinking in our school system and drives most of our curriculum design and delivery.

We were specifically thinking about the issues raised in the NZCER publication, "Swimming out of our depth" where the authors suggest…

"We need to think differently about what schools are for, about what students should learn in them and about how we should measure the “success” of all this. (p.4)"

The definitions of 'success' and 'being successful' lie at the heart of the design of our schooling system, and drive the activity of everyone in it – from the policy makers through to the students in classrooms. From a current analysis of what we see happening in the NZ school system it wouldn't be difficult to conclude that what we regard as success is intimately tied to academic achievement, and the relentless pursuit of excellence and results measured in terms of standards at a national level and our comparative rankings at an international level. 

Now as an educator I'm not going to argue that academic achievement shouldn't be a key focus for schools – but we do need to consider whether there's more to it than simply that? If we aspire to engage with and grow young people and see them develop as citizens into the future, ought we not be thinking about more than simply academic success as measured by (in the most part) summative examination scores?

While many may argue that the curriculum and educational discourse here in NZ has moved past this narrow thinking of success, the evidence I see when visiting schools and talking with students (particularly at this time of year when exams are the focus) would suggest that academic success is definitely the high priority for most. 

One of the consequences of this for our learners is the stress it creates – particularly at exam time – but also through the year when the relentless pressure (external and internal) to achieve consumes so many – spurring them to pursue goals beyond what is reasonable or expected in many cases (consider the students who asprite to achieving excellence in 120 credits!)

An article in yesterday's Toronto Star highlights how this should be a concern for all educators – from policy makers to teachers, and parents as well. Titled "Student Stress Must Be Addressed" it begins..

“Schools are first and foremost social-emotional institutions,” says York University professor Stuart Shanker, adding that failure to address issues leads to “early dropouts and lots of disorder.”

Professor Shankar's research is part of a broader move, launched by People for Education, to have schools actually measure how well they foster social-emotional skills, citizenship, physical health, creativity and a positive school climate overall — beyond the 3 Rs.

Such concerns would resonnate with the group I worked with yesterday, where student welfare ranked towards the top of every group's list when we were considering the priorities for the design of new approaches to learning in the school. 

Perhaps we need to reflect more seriously on the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and consider how, in the frentic busy-ness of our lives in and out of school, we make time to embrace the significance of these measures of success for ourselves and our learners.




Connected Educator Month – half way through!

NZ teachers appear to have really gotten behind the first Connected Educator Month here! The info-graphic below illustrates how it is looking as we hit the half way mark for the month:


The numbers will all be larger as you read this – and the month’s events aren’t over yet!