Opening up thinking about education today for tomorrow - Imagining possibilities and solutions

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Looking for opportunities: Systemic reform, system learning? (Part 2)

This isn’t the Part 2 I had intended – but I thought that it is an example of how the system may actually be getting in the way of improvement and transformation.

Yesterday I picked up a series of Tweets from Greg Whitby about a recent policy talk from NSW opposition leader, Barry O’Farrell on proposed education policy. It had all the usual suspects:

  • Real choice for parents
  • Flexible system
  • Evidence-based policy reporting

And light on detail.

The identified policy problem was that there is

“one in five Year 9 students at or below the minimum [Australian National] standards in reading, writing and maths; it’s time to change our approach towards literacy and numeracy.”

More of the same. So what have we learnt?

The proposed O’Farrell plan for NSW focuses on investing in early intervention in literacy and numeracy and commitment to ensuring

“children develop the foundations for success in literacy and numeracy at an early age.”

No one can really disagree with this. It’s common-sense. And it's been a focus for improvement for nearly two decades now. (see Hill and Crévola (1997); Fullan, Hill and Crévola (2006); Fullan and Sharratt (2010)).

The proposed policy solutions appear to be about doing more of the same: providing more intervention teachers, more accountability, more measuring, national and international comparisons.

An old model, no structural change.

There is also an assumption that a focus on the early years and establishing strong foundations will solve the literacy and numeracy issues in later years.

How does this thinking contribute to the student learning outcomes we have? Where is the learning for the system? How have policy-makers, politicians and political cycles contributed to the educational outcomes we have? What have we learnt?

Are we asking the right questions?

At the school level we have come to understand what makes a difference to student learning:

  1. Teachers do make a difference. Some things make a bigger difference - use of data, feedback, explicit teaching (Hattie (2009), Visible Learning; Steve Dinham (2009), How to get your school moving and improving).
  2. Particular approaches to professional learning that are focused on student learning outcomes, teacher inquiry and knowledge building (Timperley (2009), Teacher Professional Learning and Development).
  3. Particular actions of leadership focused on student learning (Robinson (2009), School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why).

I have started to frame questions around these understandings.

  • What is it about my teaching that leads to those student outcomes?
  • What is it I do as a leader that leads to those student outcomes?
  • What can I change in my teaching and leadership to achieve better outcomes and opportunities for students?

I use these questions when working with schools to open up reflection, thinking, analysis of practice and conversations about learning.

The same questions I think can be asked at higher levels:

  • What is it I do in my work with schools that contributes to those student outcomes?
  • What is it I have done as a policy maker that contributes to those student outcomes?

New thinking for new solutions

Doing more of the same, but more intensely, won’t address the issues of improving learning for all students; nor will it create the solutions we need.

Part of the problem is partisan politics within short-term political cycles. There has been very little inquiry into how policy-makers and politicians contribute to "one in five Year 9 students at or below the minimum [Australian National] standards in reading, writing and maths."

The complexity of the issues that face schools in the first decades of the 21st Century requires long-term solutions focused on deeper change. There needs to be a stronger focus on learning across the system - learning for students, teachers, school leaders, educational bureaucracy leaders and administrators, parents, policy-makers, politicians, and researchers.

The answer has to be deep engagement with other colleagues and with mentors in 
exploring, refining, and improving their practice as well as setting up an environment in 
which this not only can happen but is encouraged, rewarded, and pressed to happen.’ 
(Fullan, M. 2006: 57, Turnaround Leadership.)

Shouldn’t policy create those conditions that are necessary for the educational professionals to engage in inquiry, innovation, development and research that is focused on improving outcomes and opportunities for all students?


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Looking for opportunities: Wide-open opportunities to invent or build (Part 1)

Sometimes things are serendipitous!

Innovation has been on my mind. Not that it is never too far away from my thinking; but recently I have been thinking about innovation in schooling and why it might exist in individual sites and pockets but not systemically.

I work with leaders in a networked learning community. It seems to me that intuitively these leaders of schools and the principals’ consultant know what it is that needs to happen to not only improve schools but to transform them. The strength is in leaders working together to solve the problems that they face together.

Traditionally we tend to isolate school sites, their leaders and their teachers and expect them to find solutions to the professional problems that face them. System level support is more often than not isolated to individuals working in individual schools. Efforts to de-privatise practice seem to not deliver the improvements and transformations we might have hoped for.

This got me to thinking: Perhaps it is the system that gets in the way of improvement and transformation.

Schools are expected to improve and even transform to deliver learning for today; and yet systems don’t look to themselves to radically change. There might be external reviews leading to restructuring, but somehow things don’t change. Maybe schooling systems are more resilient than schools.

Yesterday two things happened that fed into my thinking:

Firstly, I met with one of my former Directors from Sydney CEO, Seamus O’Grady. In the course of the discussion we got onto talking about strategic management and annual team achievement plans that consisted of lists of what individuals might do to contribute towards the year’s strategic plan for the system.

An alternative might be a more collaborative approach focused on projects and initiatives rather than individual contributions.

Secondly, I had dinner with a leadership team I worked with a couple of years ago. In discussions with the principal we talked about the inadequacies of system support being controlled by the system. We discussed the position I have arrived at in my thinking:
That systems should provide structures and scaffolds that allows for the leaders across the system – school leaders and system (office) leaders - to work together as system leadership with a focus on system improvement rather than school improvement.

One of the ideas I have been playing around with is the notion of schools being held accountable to each other through peer to peer accountability such as principals being accountable to each other for the educational opportunities and outcomes of their schools.

Coupled with this is a re-thinking of accountability as being not just achievement based and competitive, but rather a for schools, by schools approach where it is as much in my interest for you to be successful as is for you to be successful.

This is counter-intuitive to market forces thinking.

Imagine schools working together for the good of our kids and society rather than competing for enrolments, achievement levels and funding!

Part 2 tomorrow: Looking for opportunities: “Greenfield” schooling.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Value adding in education: Most Likely to Succeed:

Greg Whitby's recent tweet alerted me to this interesting article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell from December 2008.

Effective teachers have a gift for noticing—what one researcher calls “withitness.”
The link to the article is below:
Annals of Education: Most Likely to Succeed:
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