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A better understanding of quality teaching

Disclaimer: This post is not intended to be an explanation of developmental stages of learning to read, I’m sure many others cover that ground…

I’ve written about how most of the rhetoric around teacher quality is unhelpful and punitive, so I thought it was about time I offered a suggestion of a better way to understand teacher development.

Here in Victoria Australia we use VELS (Victorian Essential Learning Standards) to guide curriculum and assess student learning, or maybe it is now called AUSVELS thanks to the Australian Curriculum, but anyway. VELS and AUSVELS divides (student) development into levels. The problem is that the names they’ve applied to these levels are meaningless (Level 1, Level 2, …)

Think about students learning to read, in VELS levels 1 and 2. A much better alternative to calling these level 1 and level 2 would be to give the stages descriptive names because that is how learning to read, or developing as a reader, is better understood. Developmental stages go something like non-readers, beginning readers, and then independent readers. Naming the developmental stages as such would much better clarify the developmental process of reading. These labels make sense as they are descriptive, we know what kids do at each of the stages. A non-reader can’t tell which way the book is meant to be up. A beginning reader, makes up their own story. An independent reader engages with the writing. We could build out a much richer picture of what each of these stages look like but the point is that we could look at a student reading/attempting to read a book, and get a pretty good idea of at which stage of development (non-reader, beginning reader, or independent reader) they are. We can’t say the same things about VELS level 1 and VELS level 2, they don’t have the same rich meaning. VELS levels also make learning to read a jumble of independent skills and concepts that need to mastered, rather than seeing development as a transition from one stage to the next stage.

There are many more implications of understanding which stage of development a learner/reader is at but this is not the point of this post….

So what about teacher development?  Are there similar developmental stages that teachers progress through? If so what are they?  And, please don’t suggest Beginning or Graduate Teacher, Expert Teacher, Leading Teacher as developmental stages as these titles are also meaningless as far as development is concerned. I don’t really have an opinion about what the stages of teacher development, so unfortunately this is where I’ll leave this discussion, but the point is that if we’re going to talk about quality teaching then we need to understanding the stages of teacher development. These stages need to described descriptively, with the characteristics of each stage being unique. Think of the characteristics of each of the stages of reading development, understanding how a book is technically constructed doesn’t apply as a descriptor at every stage although it certainly does at the beginning reader stage. So please, don’t suggest that teacher/leader quality frameworks that simply list similar but increasingly complex statements as being useful for understanding the stages of teacher development.

One last thing…

Think about the rhetoric around teacher quality, when people say “we want every teacher to teach like the best” — this it is punitive, intending to separate the best from the rest. We don’t say we want every student to read like the best, or talk about quality reading! We don’t say we want every student to read like Lily (obviously she is the best reader in the class),  instead we say we want every student to be an independent reader.  Maybe if we had a better understanding of the stages of teacher development we would see the end of teacher bashing…

Assessing teacher development (or anything really)

I was pointed to “Licensed to Create: Ten essays on improving teacher quality,” as part of the current conversation on twitter about teacher quality and teacher bashing. According to the website,  “Licensed to Create is a collection of essays from some of the leading thinkers in education. 11 authors offer their unique perspective from practice, policy and academia on how we can improve teacher quality.”

I haven’t read any of these essays, and I don’t intend to… here’s why.

A quick search finds the word evidence is used eighty four times (admittedly this includes its use in the various references). I guess this is pretty good, after all we don’t just want to just rely on someone’s opinion, we want hard evidence, not conjecture. But wait a minute… on what is this evidence based? Let’s check. Whoops, the word theory is only used a single time, and that single occurrence (p. 45) is not concerned with the theoretical underpinnings on which the numerous points of evidence are based. The words pedagogy, pedagogies, and pedagogical are used sixteen times combined, again none of these uses illuminate the theoretical or pedagogical underpinnings of the frequently cited evidence. For all we know, the educational theory and pedagogical beliefs underpinning these ten essays were obtained from the fish and chip owner down the street! Although, I do admit this is highly unlikely… I’ve spoken to her and she doesn’t think much of teachers!

My advice is that you’d be foolish to believe any educational evidence that doesn’t explicitly define and detail how it uses educational theory to validate its evidence. Take all of these ten essays with a big grain of salt. And when you read any other essays, blog posts, scholarly papers, or whatever, first assess the educational theory, and only if you’re satisfied that the theory provides a solid basis then assess the supposed evidence. If not, treat the writing as an opinion piece, despite what they try to make you believe.

 

So how might educational theory be used to understand teacher quality?  Let’s look at two possible (of many) approaches Instructivist, and Cultural Historical Theory.

Instructivist Theory

Instructivist theory suggests that learning is a change in student long term memory, which enabled by the teacher providing concepts, procedures and strategies. This knowledge needs to be explicitly taught rather than discovered. If nothing changes in the long term memory, then nothing changes and the student can be considered to have learnt nothing. Identifying learning is therefore relatively simple, we pre-test what the learner knows and then post-test after the learning sequence to assess what the learner now knows. The difference between the two shows what they have learnt.

Assessing teacher quality using an instructivist approach should therefore be pretty easy, we simply test their knowledge, or observe them teaching.. inferring what they do is what they know. With the instructivist approach it is also easy to tell who stored the most learning in the long term memory, we could even call them the best, if we wanted to. We could also find the student who has stored the least in their long term memory, and label them the worst, if we were that way inclined. And if a learning theory is not explicitly given by an author it is a pretty good guess they are using instructivist theory… but they should be explicit about this.

Yet, there is an obvious problem with this view of learning… what if the test is wrong? What if we’ve misunderstood what is important? What if we’ve required student to learn the wrong things? The test is the weak point, and it is very fragile to say the least.

Cultural Historical Theory

Cultural historical theory suggests that a study on the fragments of student development, (as in the case of an instructivist approach’s study on only long term memory) doesn’t allow us to understand the development of the whole student. In fact, cultural historical theory suggests understanding the process of development is far more important than understanding the results of development. This is because development occurs through a series of stages, for example consider the stages of physical development, this puberty being a particularly obvious stage of development we all go through.

When assessing teacher development using cultural historical theory, we study the teacher functions for which development has not yet started, the teacher functions that are currently developing, and finally the teacher functions that are fully developed. Cultural historical theory argues that development can only be understood at looking at the whole development cycle, think of the gardener tending plants, just looking at the plants that are in full fruit, and ignoring the budding plants, fails to give an accurate picture of development.

In the same way, looking at the fruits of development of the teacher (eg what they currently do) does not give an accurate way of understanding teacher development and/or teacher quality. Further, comparing stages of development of one student to another is futile. To suggest one teacher is better than another, is like suggesting that a child entering the stage of puberty is better than a child that has not yet entered puberty. They are simply at different stages of development. (Obviously, we could explore whether a teacher is at the expected stage of development, and then seek to understand why they aren’t if that is the case.)

 

 

Obviously there are many other theoretical approaches the authors of the ten essays could have used by which to make their arguments about teacher quality. My hope that is post has encouraged you to question the educational approaches and beliefs that underpin the evidence that teachers are exposed to. I also hope that educational experts and other authors take up the challenge to make explicit the education theory that underpins their evidence.

Maybe it also has caused you to question whether an instructivist approach is capable of assessing teacher quality.

Who are the best teachers?

Apparently, Maxine McKew at a Bastow Seminar something like “How do we get more teachers teaching like the best?” I wasn’t there but I assume something similar to what was reported was said, because experts say these sort of things regularly.

This is a very poor question, and one that I suggested on Twitter was teacher bashing, but let’s for a minute consider that it was not…

Many argue that there is nothing wrong with this rhetoric. “Don’t you believe or want teachers to improve?” and “I’ve met lots of teachers who are have given up!” or  “There is nothing wrong with having high expectations of teachers.” or ….

 

So, if we want to get more teachers teaching like the best, it must be asked who are the best teachers and how are they teaching?

For me this is a no brainer. The best teachers are those using play or project-based learning approaches. I believe that these approaches are the most pedagogically suitable, I believe that these approaches lead to the most effective learning in students.

So naturally I must believe that the worst teachers are those not using play or project based approaches… except I don’t.

Why?

Because labelling teachers as the best suggests that there are fully in control of everything they are as a teacher and everything they do as a teacher. That they must be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps so that they can too be like the best teachers. Firstly, suggesting that teachers are free agents, able to use the most pedagogically appropriate approaches in their school, doesn’t account for the pressure that accountability that teachers are under. Even if teachers were free agents, suggesting that despite their everyday experiences, teachers can somehow learn (that play and project-based learning approaches are most pedagogically appropriate) spontaneously despite their history as teachers and their school environment, goes against everything we as educators know about how people learn and develop. Learning and development doesn’t happen independently and spontaneously, it needs the right environment.  Pleading for teachers to just improve is useless, about as effective as pleading with them to spontaneously grow bunny ears!

 

Of course, you probably disagree with me about who the best teachers are.. and you might even think that teaching like the best (your way) is easy. If so, I really think you’re either underselling the role of teachers, or dismissing the complexity of teaching.

 

So why do experts and others continue with labelling teachers as bad teachers rather than defining what makes the best teachers the best? Who knows? But I wish they’d stop because they are damaging the profession and making substantial changes in the way student’s learn in our schools all the less likely.

[I have edited the last sentence of this post to clarify that I am suggesting student learning needs to change, not the teaching profession.]

Plans and changes for 2014

I know it is not exactly the start of the year anymore but it about time that I publicly state my intentions for 2014.

Short story, I’ve started a new company and enrolled to do my PhD.

 

The longer story is that the company is the natural evolution of the work that I’ve doing at ideasLAB and on my own for the last five years. It has become increasingly apparent that the major stumbling block for the successful re-imagining learning and teaching is our lack of pedagogical understanding. This has been proved to me over and over as I’ve been working on and presenting about the Principles of Modern Learning over the last year. This doesn’t mean that I’m dropping the Principles though, far from it, for those waiting the book will be out soon!

The company that I’ve founded is called Validated Learning, whose first, and flagship, product is the Modern Learning Canvas. The Modern Learning Canvas builds on the best ideas from the business and entrepreneurial world. Basically the idea is that if entrepreneurs can have a business model to describe, understanding and design innovative businesses way can’t and don’t educator have a learning model to describe learning and teaching? Why don’t we have a framework for understanding, describing and designing for innovative learning and teaching? Well now we do!

It enables teachers to more beyond a pedagogical understanding based around the lesson plan and the how and what of learning and teaching, to pedagogical language and understanding of the why of learning and teaching. In doing so it enables teachers even with completely different practice to engage in meaningful pedagogical conversations.

The Modern Learning Canvas is still in closed beta but it will be launched in a matter of weeks, so stay tuned! In the meantime check out the canvas on the site and download the free creative commons printable version.

The second big change is my decision to pursue a PhD, something that I was certain that I would never do. In September, the Modern Learning Canvas started working really well and I began writing a (soon to be released) white paper on it. At that time I began considering whether academic research would be beneficial for the development of the Modern Learning Canvas. In speaking to universities about it, I became more and more convinced that it was a natural and sensible decision. So just a few weeks ago I enrolled at Monash University, initially I’ve signed up to do a Masters of Research but the plan is to switch over to the PhD program later in the year.I couldn’t enrol directly in the PhD program as I didn’t have a research component in the original Master of Education!

My supervisors are Dr Phillip Dawson and Professor Marilyn Fleer. So a big thank you to them for seeing merit in the idea!

Yes, a big year is on the cards…. stay tuned!

Why everyone should learn to code [eventually]

Will Richardson pointed to Bret Victor’s critique of code.org highlighting Seymour Papert’s writing where he laments the misinterpretation of his book, Mindstorms, that programming in itself is worthwhile.

Spoiler alert: It is not. Programming without the purpose of exploring ideas is just learning to code. Nothing more, nothing less.

Case closed… I guess?

But what about reading? And writing?

Take the  passages from Papert’s “What’s the Big Idea?” paper that Bret Victor has highlighted and replace the word “program” with the word “read” or “write.” Is it any less true that reading does not “in itself have consequences for how children learn and think”?  Is it any less true that writing does not “in itself have consequences for how children learn and think”?

It a lot of ways whether programming in itself is necessary for students to learn is the wrong question. The bigger question is what do students need to learn, period. If we’re throwing things such as programming in and out of some supposed curriculum and unspoken (for Bret) but crucial pedagogical framework, then we need to put everything on the table: reading, writing, programming, quadratic equations, surds, history, geography, …. everything.

So what do students need to learn?

Students need to learn what they need to learn, just like us. We need to learn what we need to learn when we have to solve real problems. Students are no different. Curriculum is designed to predict need. We can do better now. We no longer need to teach programming, reading, writing or anything else just in case. Having said that, over time, through a variety of experiences our students will most likely cover all the good bits of the old curriculum.

Of course, using that criteria, I doubt there is any debate that reading and writing would make the cut. That quite early the need to read and write would be necessary for whatever the students were exploring.

I’ll leave it to the mathematics, history and geography teachers to argue the rest of my list above…

Since 2000, when Seymour Papert wrote this quoted paper, the world has gone digital. In the space of 14 years we (and our students) deal with digital information and content continually. Programming gives us (and our students) powerful tools to play, explore and make sense of of this information. Whether it be a simple  function to manipulate data in a spreadsheet, or a script to scrape data from a website that thinks it “owns” our data, a website to communicate with the world or many other cases, without the ability to program our students will be constrained, limited and frustrated.

Authenticate problem solving, ideation and play in our digital world requires the ability to program. I can’t believe how any student can go through the schooling experience without being faced with that fact. If our students are working on meaningful problems and projects, if our students are seeking to understand their world, and explore big ideas, programming in some shape or form is essential.

 

 

Note 1: Yes, I probably agree with Bret Victor’s caricatures of the rich and famous’ reasons for learning to code, but that doesn’t mean I agree (and I’m not sure what Bret actually thinks) that student shouldn’t learn to code.

Note 2: This is not meant to be a critique of Bret Victor, I love his ideas and work. Bret suggests that you read Mindstorms if you haven’t already, I second that.

What do they expect to see?

So someone somewhere thinks it might be a good idea to videotape teachers in the classroom.

I wonder what they expect to see?

I wonder if they’re able to distinguish good practice from bad practice, or good teachers from bad teachers, and if so, how?

“The best way of learning is to see yourself and have somebody help you.”

Wrong. It is a myth that if you’re not succeeding (whether we’re talking about teachers or students) it is because you’re not working hard enough.

The best way of learning, is to have a process that enables you to make good decisions about your learning.

 

Finally, if videotaping was the best way for teachers to learn it would also be the best way for students to learn. Yet they’re not suggesting that students be videotaped, I wonder why not?

Melbourne teachers – beta testers wanted

My (sort of) secret project, The Modern Learning Canvas, is ready for beta testing. In a nutshell the canvas provides context that enables teachers to understand and discuss  their learning and teaching approach, and design for learning.

I’m looking for teachers who would be willing to act as beta testers. Ideally, a professional learning team from a Melbourne school, where the whole team would work on the canvas together.

If you’re interested, I’d love to speak to you about this. I would be happy to give a demonstration to you before you commit, and the time commitment for the team would be a single session for about 45 minutes. Email me at richard@richardolsen.me or contact me via twitter @richardolsen

Lessons in spelling ‘have no place in 21st century schools’

Lessons in spelling ‘have no place in 21st century schools’

By Graeme Paton

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, said good spelling and grammar was necessary “maybe a hundred years ago” but “not right now”.

He insisted that children should be encouraged to express themselves in a number of different ways – including using mobile phone text messaging – rather than relying on established linguistic rules.

The comments come despite a new drive by the Government to promote the basics of English language throughout compulsory education.

Under new plans, a revised national curriculum is being introduced that requires pupils to accurately spell 200 complex words by the end of primary school.

 

Another trotting out of the line, that nothing has changed in 100 years, which is false, silly and unjustifiable. But Sugata has a point, to a degree, and the 200 most common word list is a great example. The 200 word list is a compromise because as Sugata points out we require our students to learn them before they use them not as they use them. Technology allows us to learn as we need to, however, it does not replace the need for learning, as Sugata seems to be suggesting, in fact, spelling and grammar is exceedingly more important in todays world of instant publishing.

Maybe the 200 words could be instead used to audit our teaching program? If our students are exposed to a variety of authentic experiences they can’t help not learning those words.

Making Sense of Selfies

Making Sense of Selfies

by Pamela Rutledge

But what if taking selfies is perfectly normal?  The prevalence of selfies is one of many manifestations of the rise in self-publishing of all kinds of information and images.  The venues, such as Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Vine, Twitter, YouTube and others, are practically endless.  Social technologies have redefined “normal” as more public.sharable and searchable.  Like most digital self-publishing, selfie-ing is easy.  All you need is a camera phone and a Facebook page or Instagram app.  This makes it ripe for exploration and identity experimentation, particularly among ages where identity formation and emancipation are key developmental tasks as well as for those who are still interested in looking at themselves.  Both of these may contribute to why user demographics skew young.

At last some common sense commentary on selfies, shame it didn’t come from a cyber-safety expert.

Ten big impact measures to have a positive effect on teacher quality and student outcomes

Ten big impact measures to have a positive effect on teacher quality and student outcomes

by Stephen Dinham

“The biggest equity issue in Australian education today isn’t computers, new buildings or equipment. It’s each student having quality teachers and quality teaching in schools supported by effective leadership and professional learning in mutually respectful local community contexts”. (Dinham, 2010)

I think teacher quality, as an individual that effects student learning, is largely a myth, probably perpetuated by universities to keep their perceived value high. The pedagogical approaches and the professional culture of the school is far more important in lifting student outcomes than individual teacher training. You could argue that individual teacher ability might matter more at secondary level but given that students are largely already pigeon holed, as far as their academic prospects, by the time they finish primary school this is probably a moot point.