Tag Archives: Professional Learning

Agency – Student Driven Learning

If you walk into JJ Purton Jones’ room you will see students doing a whole lot of different things at the same time. There are some students working on their reading, others are tackling maths and then a few more writing. In fact each and everyone of them could be working on something different. Visitors often comment “where is the teacher?”

Agency for us is an extension of Assessment for Learning Practices. Our primary goal is to shift the locus of control from adult to student. This has been a long journey for us that started with the work that Evaluation Associates did before I started in 2006. Since then we have used Formative Practice as the umbrella for all our professional learning. Teachers regularly use the Evaluation Associates Teacher Competency Matrix to plan their next steps, they gather data and iterate new actions to move toward enabling students to make decisions about their learning.

Some people would say that JJ’s class looks like a free for all and that there is an absence of teaching. If you spend time watching and listening to the children talk about what is happening then you would realise that there is a lot of teaching, it is not necessarily just from the teacher. You see to run a class this way takes an organised on to it teacher and is actually a lot harder than a regular teacher led classroom.

The students have good data and the teacher can structure teaching clinics that students opt into around this data. The beauty of the way things run in JJ’s class is when the students say “I’ll run a teaching clinic Miss PJ!”

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Each and every student can explain what they are doing in their ILPs (Individual Learning Plans), more importantly they can tell you why they have scheduled their timetable in that way. But it gets better…

JJ runs an Adventure learning time, an extension of Google 20% time. Again some people see this as a teacher opting out of teaching. Yet the rigour is amazing! I recall a student coming to my office and saying “Mr L, do you have the NZ Curriculum” to which I handed over my copy… she then said “I need another 26 because we want to map our Adventure Learning back to the curriculum documents”

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I cannot wait to see what these students with a great sense of autonomy and agency do this year.

See what Steve Wheeler said about the innovative learning in JJ’s class or read Jenny Magiera’s blog on undiluted student agency

The Power of KiwiFoo – expanding horizons

In 2013 I was lucky enough to receive an email from a guy called Nat Torkington. It was an invitation to attend something called KiwiFoo. After a bit of investigating I accepted the offer. The general consensus from people was that if you get an invite to KiwiFoo camp you drop everything and just say yes.

What followed was a mind expanding weekend of listening and dialoguing with the most diverse and amazing brains. There were sessions about the role of media, blue sky discussions about where we wanted to be in the future, and we even built a hovercraft out of a leaf blower.

The beauty of the weekend is it is an unconference. A co-constructed gathering where the knowledge is in the room. After that weekend my mind was buzzing with ideas and more importantly connections. It made me realise that there is so much to learn from people who have absolutely nothing to do with education and those very people can learn much from us.

I was lucky enough to get invited back in 2014 and it was an even better experience. I met so many talented people and even more connections were made. Nat and Jenine run an amazing weekend and the people who attend are just amazing. A two year run is about the most you can hope for.

This weekend is KiwiFoo15 and I am not there, but what is even better is that three people from Taupaki School got an invite to attend. Kim Baars, JJ Purton Jones and Paula Hogg will be having the same mind explosions about know. The challenge for me is to harness the energy of Foo with these three upon their return.

Sometimes people question why they get an invite to something like KiwiFoo. People get the invite because they are doing awesome things. If you ever get an email from Nat inviting you to Foo don’t question why just say yes!

The Expertise Gap

Have you ever observed in another classroom and thought that there is absolutely no way I’ll ever be able to replicate that? Do you remember watching a talented mentor pick the perfect moment to  ask just the right question to student? Did you then think how on earth did they do that?

I remember watching my Tutor Teacher Mrs Jane Mackie with a sense of wonderment and awe. She seemed to be able to know exactly what each student needed by simply looking at the whites of their eyes. I knew there must have been more to it than that. She must have been so well prepared, planned to the hilt. She must have anticipated every possible situation in her head and then planned a suitable response. She was an expert teacher. When I asked her how she did I was surprised to hear that she hadn’t spent 4 hours planning that lesson. When I pushed further she really couldn’t help me step through the process or provide me with a recipe.

I was a bit slow on the uptake and I really only understood the reason for Jane saying ‘I just know, it’s hard to explain’ when John Edwards and Bill Martin of the OUREducation Network introduced me to the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition. There was a lightbulb moment. I was an absolute novice and she was an expert.

Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. Image from John Edwards, Bill Martin OUREducation Newtork
Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. Image from John Edwards, Bill Martin OUREducation Newtork

Jane had developed Personal Practical Knowledge that allowed her to make decisions based upon the context and the situation. As a new teacher I was reliant on rules to govern my decisions and actions. I needed lots of – if this then that – thinking.

We all experience being a novice when we do something new or start in a new place or position. I was a novice principal, I relied on rules and regulations to drive my work. I was always consulting what the policy says. Again I had an expert mentor principal who had left me scratching my head thinking how does she do that? Right now I would say I am pretty proficient but I know that if I got another principal’s position I would be an absolute novice in that position.

Knowing this, why do we pair novice teachers with expert mentors? Are we setting them up for the “I can’t possibly do all those things” moment that causes nagging doubts about their aptitude for the job?

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition is the reason we try to (within the constraints of a small school) partner teachers with 3 – 4 years of experience with those who are beginning their career. The advanced beginner or proficient people know what it is like being in the novices shoes. They make great tutor teachers as they have recent memory of things that the experts have long since forgotten.

Innovation – fresh initiatives through creative means

If we are really honest with ourselves our schools haven’t really changed a great deal since the idea of compulsory schooling began. We are all aware of the numerous ‘21st Century Learning’ presenters who talk about 19th Century production line education turning our standardised products for the industrial age. Trying to break free from the constraint of established buildings, systemic structures and engrained mental models of how things should be done can be a challenge.

Having fresh ideas and new ways of doing things can be challenging to established norms but necessary if we are going to progress learning to the ideals espoused by many proponents of 21st Century Education. One of the stumbling blocks to innovation is the notion of Best Practice. This very idea that there is one state or way to do things is from a stance of a Fixed Mindset (Dweck, 2012). Sometimes the pursuit of ‘Best Practice’ can be to the detriment of ‘Better Practice’. An iterative, growth mindset approach leads to better practice.

Innovation for us is all about deepening our pursuit of effective learning. Over the years we have implemented many innovative ideas including Student Led Conferencing, Bring Your Own Browser, Robotics, Coding, 3D printing, e-textiles, student driven timetables and maker culture. All these ideas have come from being connected to others, professional reading, and conference attendance. These initiatives have (or currently) started small in a trial environment before slowly scaling them up. Enabling teachers to connect and share via social media (especially Twitter) and face to face encounters provides a rich source of ideas, energy and enthusiasm from a variety of places and industries. As leaders we need to model the use of these vehicles for sharing ideas.

It is vitally important that innovation is a not linked to one individual, it needs to be part of the culture. This year we established an innovation team who are charged with finding new practices that will align with our school vision and deepen our understanding of effective learning. This team is lead by two teachers and has a voluntary component to the team composition. The team is not limited to teachers – board members, parents, scientists, IT brains, business people are welcome. The leaders of the team are given one management unit each ($4000) to coordinate the ideas, generate feedback loops and plan next iterations. The innovation team leaders report to the Leadership Team about their progress and thinking. As principal it is my job to coach these leaders in how we package and implement these new ideas in a way that will get maximum buy in and engagement from the school community.

Staffie coding session

A very recent outcome from the Innovation team is the ‘Staffie’ – a regular voluntary gathering of staff in an ‘unconference’ approach where we learn from each other. This was the result of our innovation leaders attending numerous educampsunconferences and non-edu events that highlight our belief that the knowledge is in the room. Innovation, and therefore better practice, starts with an inquiring teacher given permission to think, act, reflect, re-design and share.


Image Source http://pixabay.com/p-223322/?no_redirect Author: geralt


Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. [eBook version]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com

Sustainable Practice

Teaching is a profession where we can collectively agree to a vision and a set of practices that we will live by. It is also a profession where we can ‘do our own thing’ within the walls of our classrooms. As a profession we are great at giving the appearance of change whilst maintaining the status quo of established routines and norms. This is frustrating for leaders who are implementing change initiatives centred upon solid evidence of effective practice.

So how do we open our practice so that we attain a sustainable reality that meets the needs of the students we teach? By now it should be no surprise that we have a deep belief in Assessment for Learning practices. These practices are firmly entrenched in the use of quality data and analysis of this data for next learning steps. In my last post I addressed the idea of Teaching as Inquiry as a means investigating evidence based strategies in the pursuit of student achievement. For us, the answer to sustainable practice can be found in peer coaching and reflective journals.

We have a mental model that if it is good enough for students then it is good enough for teachers. If we believe that students need time to reflect and gather evidence of their learning (development) then adults need to do the same. Teachers identify their priority learners and then foreground them in their online professional journals. Next teaching steps are planned and then information gathered about how these steps have helped move the priority learners closer to their goals. This then results in an iterative inquiry based upon data.

Peer coaching and observation is a crucial component in sustaining any innovation or shift in teaching practice. Once teachers have identified next teaching or learning steps they need feedback. This comes in the form of a coach, a trusted colleague, coming in to observe the teaching. The key difference here is that the teacher seeking feedback is asking for feedback in a particular area of our assessment for learning teacher matrices. They want information so that they can reflect about what they need to next.

After the observation the coach and teacher dialogue about the data collected. It is important to note that the coach is not there to fix the teacher being observed. The coach uses facilitative questioning techniques to help the teacher come to their own insights about where next learning steps may be. These insights are recorded in professional journals and the process begins again. The data from the observations forms part of the picture and is collated in the online journal along with reflections, ideas and thoughts about next steps. These journals can be shared with colleagues so they can contribute.

This expectation that we all give and receive feedback about our teaching and learning practices ensures that there is a collective responsibility towards sustaining and improving our assessment for learning pedagogy. This shared responsibility for priority learners and their achievement ensures that we all hold ourselves to account and are always pushing ourselves to learn and teach more effectively.

The Road to Self-Regulation

The ultimate goal of any school should be to develop self-regulating, self-monitoring and self-motivated learners. Children who develop a capacity to ‘know what to do when they don’t know what to do.’ These broad dispositions or key competencies can be hard to measure, and in political circles can be seen as ‘soft’ data. Yet these very capabilities are what determine a child’s capacity to learn.

Data is an important aspect of the learning and teaching cycle. Professor John Hattie argues that quality data about what a child can or cannot do is extremely important in planning learning – this is common sense but too often in schools we have a preconceived notion of teaching to a standard rather than starting where children are at. An assessment for learning approach is very important for teachers and students.

New Zealand Schools are very familiar with the notion of ‘teaching as inquiry’,

New Zealand Curriculum Framework page 35
New Zealand Curriculum Framework page 35

it is an important part of our Curriculum document. In a nutshell it is an iterative cycle. The key aspect of our inquiry into practice is centred on student capability. We ask questions like…
• What is the data telling me about progress of students?
• What is the data telling me about the teaching strategies I am using?
• What does current research tell me about effective practice in this area?
• What am I going to try as a result?

At our place we gather data that gives us detailed information about what students can do, we use a rage of tools and understand that each assessment tool gives us different information. In Years 4 – 8 the use of e-asTTle assessments helps the learner to become more aware of their strengths and areas for development. Teachers and students use this data to plan their next step learning.

Teaching clinics are becoming the norm. We are encouraging students to look at their data and make choices about what teaching clinics they need in order to progress their learning. It is important to note that teachers are acutely aware of the needs of these students and if they notice that a student hasn’t self-selected a teaching clinic then they get alongside that student and have a conversation about their learning needs, suggesting they may need to attend a particular clinic. This ensures that the student is getting what they need in order to progress but also serves as a coaching conversation based upon data, thus developing their learning capacity.

This approach is grounded in valid and reliable ‘hard’ data. Yet the way we use the data develops the broader goal of self-regulation. In shifting the locus of control to the student were are developing the more important key competencies that they need in order to become life long learners. We capture this journey via our Learning Management System in our student learning journals thus giving us a window into student metacognition.

Assessment for Learning mental models drive our professional lives and our teachers are focussed upon the importance of data in everyday learning. This approach takes some time to embed yet the rewards for student and teachers are invaluable in the quest to develop self-motivated, self-monitoring, self-regulating learners.

Learning from Robert Fritz

Dealing with difficult times during change initiatives

We have all started the year focused upon a common goal. We have had alignment conversations that enable us to contribute to the vision of our schools. We have intent and now we are in the first part of the year where our actions reflect that collective purpose.

For many of us the strategic focus of our schools is around developing an aspect of school that we want to improve. This involves investigating our current practice, reflecting upon the results and planning actions that will lead us to a desired state that aligns to our collective vision. This sounds relatively simple yet our lived lives as school leaders tell us that it is easier said than done.

Reactive Tension drags us back to current reality
Reactive Tension drags us back to current reality

According to Robert Fritz there is a structural tension in any new venture. This is the tension between the vision and current reality. Reactive tension is those thoughts and feelings that drag us back to the current reality, the “things were ok weren’t they?” or “it is really hard this new thing – I want the old way!” thoughts. A Leader focuses upon creative tension to problem solve and negotiate around hurdles and obstacles in the drive toward the vision.

We have a desired state centred around reflection and feedback in our KnowledgeNET. Our desired state is one of student, teacher, parent feedback that evolves into a reflective dialogue about current learning and what needs to happen next. Four years ago we had paper portfolios called LiPS – Learning in Progress Samples (Our LiPS tell us about learning). These were huge folders of annotated samples that went home at the end of each term and were a massive workload for teachers. Active reflection is a key component of developing self monitoring, self regulating, self motivated learners and LiPS were partly meeting these needs.

The change to KnowledgeNET was a purposeful act designed to move us away from the current reality to a place of active reflection and feedback. It was hard. There were technical issues, there were implementation issues and there were competing mental models on the nature and purpose of assessment. These issues were at all levels of the school from staff, students, parents and board members. Learning something new is always difficult and new learning should be sustainable – after all as Pascale (1990) says “ideas acquired with ease are discarded with ease.”

The formative years of KnowledgeNET implementation were constant alignment conversations as people grappled with these issues. We focused upon collaboratively solving problems around the technical issues. We were clear about the desired end state of what we wanted to achieve and proactively communicated this to all stakeholders and asked for their input toward this end. As leaders we could have said “yes you are right it is too hard” but we focussed upon creating positive dialogue around the possibilities once we nailed implementation – imagine the conversations we will have about learning, imagine the type of student this will help develop. This focus on creative tension makes our initiatives sustainable thus imbedding them in the fabric of our classrooms, schools and communities.

Mystery Teacher Only Day

I thought I would try something a little different for one of our Teacher Only Days this year. The letter I send to all staff each year details the staff only days and what we want to cover. This year it said – Mystery Day (wear comfortable shoes) and that was it. The faces when we met the day before did show a little concern. I have often said we should do Paintball as a staff, or a High Ropes course. Those words ‘Comfortable Shoes’ had some a little uncomfortable.

A clue and a Public Transport Card
A clue and a Public Transport Card

At the end of our first Teacher only day each staff member was handed an envelope containing a clue, a Public Transport Card, Inner City Map, a coloured hair tie,  some chocolate, and a Bridge Climb Bungy Jumping brochure.

I hoped people would get in the spirit of things and the next day I was pleasantly surprised. Teachers made their way via ferry, bus, train and car pool to Britomart and their morning challenge began with finding their teams.

Great to see some Taupaki Tee Shirts too!
Great to see some Taupaki Tee Shirts too!

Once all the colours were grouped the task was handed out and the Taupaki Amazing Race began. I spent the morning wandering the streets watching where the teams were heading. I saw Conga Lines formed, Busking attempted, Photos with famous people snapped, Negotiations of high vantage points for photos. I saw smiling and I saw teamwork. Everyone arrived at the first checkpoint and I was amazed at the level of competition for the trophy!

National Library of NZ Auckland
National Library of NZ Auckland

The next phase was a little more sedate – a short bus ride to the National Library for a tour and a Digital Literacy/Citizenship session with Andrew Cowie thank goodness for Bean Bags in their Modern Learning Environment as the preceding race was a little tiring. The resulting dialogue will serve to give more background to our development of digital literacy in our children.

The afternoon saw another bus ride to The MindLab where we met up with Chris Clay for some programming using Scratch, then taking the digital to the physical with MaKey MaKey musical instruments using everyday objects. The creativity of the teams was superb.

The robotics challenges really tested the logic and problem solving skills. Teachers needed to program the robot to accept bluetooth commands from a remote control to then race around the grand prix circuit.

The final challenges saw teams programming their robots to be autonomous search and rescue machines that could grid search using photo-resistors. This produced a lot of frazzled brains yet some considerable success for some teachers who had never experienced programming or robotics! After a long day we settled in for some well deserved pizza and beverages!

So why the need for Mystery?

Well – apart from the fact that I like surprises – this was a lesson in what children in class experience when they have no idea what is in store for them. As teachers we need to remember what it feels like to have someone else organise and plan your day. Some of our staff would have absolutely hated this experience! Some jumped at it, others followed along. Some withdrew, others helped. I kept people in the dark because I wanted them to experience uncertainty and confusion and not because these are bad things but because they are necessary elements in learning. This was about people working with their colleagues doing completely random things! I bet Kim and Rochelle have formed a life long bond after busking with the Fresh Prince Rap (I must get that video online!).

I hope the team enjoyed their day. There are some MaKey MaKey kits on the way thanks to the team at Mind Kits and hopefully we can get them into an outdoor maker box as well as look at an interactive sensory sculpture… more fun ahead.