Sabbatical – Part 7

What have we been working on at school? Vision & Values

The purpose of this sabbatical was to compliment and support where we were already headed as a school.

Significant work was already planned or had taken place leading up to my time of learning and reflection. This sabbatical was to reflect on how the assessment and reporting arms would contribute to and compliment (or not) our work.

So what have we been up to and why? Here is an overview and some background.

1. Pre-ERO conversations…

As part of our preparation leading up to our last ERO visit, I posed a question to the rest of the leadership team: How can we show ERO that we know how are learners are progressing in what we really believe is important? (I was also new to the school having been in the principal’s hot seat for about a term).

We knew that we could show this in reading, writing and maths but we couldn’t in the areas that made up our school vision at that time: agency, creativity, excellence.

But it was not all doom and gloom! There was a massive light at the end of the tunnel. Throughout 2016/17 the school lead a Teacher Led Innovation Fund (TLIF) project that focused on learner agency. One of the last acts of this project was to develop a tool to support learners in self assessing themselves against the key elements of agency.

The Agency Wheel as this was known, was a solution the very question I had posed the team. I knew they would be on to it!

2. The Agency Wheel, Maths Dispositions and the Key Competencies

The emergence of the Agency Wheel kick started a whole lot of other conversations. These came about from a range of noticings in our learners and a desire to pull into the wheel our school values, the NZC through the Key Competencies, and a maths dispositions framework which was gaining momentum through involvement in the Maths Specialist Teacher (MST) programme.

What is shown below is when a few of the leadership team sat down and started trying to map out all of these threads and align them to the Agency Wheel.

So what happening next… not much; summer holidays and 2 key members of the leadership left for higher honours.

The Wheel got parked, but not forgotten.

3. Our Vision & Values

At the same time as the Agency Wheel emerged, the school was also wrapping up significant community consultation regarding our school vision, values and strategic direction.

This resulted in 2 changes:

  1. The vision changed from Inspiring agency, creativity & excellence both within and outside the four walls of the classroom to Empowering agency, innovation and leadership. There is so much more to the why of these changes – if you want to hear it, please just get in touch.
  2. Our values changed to the 10 shown below. Yes – there is another story behind this…

4. Beliefs around Learning and Assessment

As a staff we took a day to explore the following concepts:

  • Learning – what are our core beliefs?
  • Assessment – Perform and audit of what we do & why.
  • Our Context – Identify our learners and explore global impacts on learning?
  • Assessments – What do we need to keep/develop?
  • People – What type of learner, teacher, parent will make it all happen?

We made the following realisations:

  • That we needed to get the balance right between the front end (vision, values & competencies) and back end (curriculum area achievement objectives) of the curriculum.
  • That we needed to reframe our approach to assessment and the tools we use in order to align these to our core beliefs.
  • That we needed to clarify and develop our understanding further about these things called dispositions.

5. Learner Behaviour

(Not learning behaviour, in old speak this is about behaviour management…)

As far back as 2017 it was clear that the way we managed inappropriate behaviour required a bit of a refresh. Not a huge refresh but to align documentation with practices and to make it consistent and consistently understood across out school and community. Initial conversations centred around maintaining our positive approach strong in the pastoral care of children and how we can better use our values as the foundation of a positive behaviour programme.

Coming together as a staff we focused our discussions around the following 5 areas to help us review our practice and start designing a refreshed way forward.

  1. Summarise our thinking so far
  2. Complete self-assessment & summarise
  3. What do we know works in other schools?
  4. What innovative ideas do we have?
  5. Agreed actions moving forward

Through unpacking and sharing these areas we recognised needs in the following 4 ways

  • Our school values underpin our expectations for behaviour
  • Our values need to be broken down into observable behaviours
  • Our current systems and documentation are outdated
  • We need to explore other approaches eg Restorative practice

The first 2 points became very apparent. Our values outlined the types of expectations and behaviours we want in our children BUT they currently were not deliberatly incliuded in our approach and more importantly, were not brokenm down with clear descriptors to enable staff and learners to compare their behaviour to.

Creating these descriptors was clearly a priority moving forward for our school.

6. Exploring Dispositions

The purpose of these discussion and work was to follow up and act on our previous need; to clarify and develop our understanding further about these things called dispositions.

This started with an activity designed to bring out what dispositions our learners need, prompted by the following questions:

What is it about your students that makes you think they need to learn how to think? 

What do you see them doing, hear them saying, and what are they feeling?

How would you like them to be?

Take a group of teachers and ask them to contemplate these questiosn and record their thoughts in their section of the template. Then they discuss, debate, compare, contrast and agree on a set of areas their learners need to grow in. Shown below.

Now take that set and list them on the left, now try and align this on the right to the disposition/competency/thinking/attitude that may need to support them overcoming the problem identified. Shown below.

What did we learn from this process?

  1. There is a very strong link between what our learners need and our school values
  2. There is also a very strong link between the underpinnings of the agency wheel and what our learners need.

So what does all of this mean?

Well, there is a plan of how we can bring this altogether. Read on for Sabbatical Part 8…

Sabbatical – Part 6

Bidding for Badges

I have been lucky enough to visit Ormiston Junior College twice in recent times. My DPs and I make a conscious effort to spend 2 or 3 days away from school at least once a year and visit other areas of NZ to hear and see what other schools are doing to realise their vision for learning. One of these times we visited OJC, and I also went there by chance really, as part of my Principal PLG.

On my first visit to OJC, I heard about their approach to awarding badges. On the second visit I saw the process in action. This has stuck with me and as I continue to reflect on this experience, the more powerful I believe the whole approach is.

Now… before you picture in your mind a traditional badge system in schools, where perhaps you qualify for the Academic Badge because you got a credit of higher in ICAS, or you represented the school in 2 sports and got your Sports Badge, or you did road patrol and got your Service Badge etc… you need to banish this mental image from your mind!

What we are referring to here is a system that puts the learner right in the very centre. They demonstrate how they have met a range of key criteria, derived directly from the New Zealand Curriculum. They pitch their evidence to their peers and it is they who decide if the badge should be awarded and to what level.

A few more details from a booklet we were given on our visit:

  • Students are able to set goals and bid for badges for their assessment
  • They self assess and are encouraged to track their learning journey
  • When students feel they are ready to bid for a badge they advise their learning advisor
  • Many do it at the end of the term but they can come at any time
  • They stand in front of a group of 10-15 other students and are questioned by the group.
  • The discussion is dynamic
  • Evidence is accepted from outside school too

And some nuggets:

  • Students have to demonstrate their learning and they have to learn to be smart about how they bid
  • They also learn about giving feedback to others
  • …it set the processes for students to talk about their learning
  • Students are now able to navigate their learning
  • Students are directing their learning, selecting badges based on goals they have set with parents and teachers
  • Students can show their learning in a way that makes sense to them

It was a real privilege to see the process of bidding for badges as it was happening. I saw and heard a rich dialogue happening between learners and between the group and the teacher who facilitated the conversations. The process was well thought out and was consistently rolled out across the groups we observed.

So what is it about this that really interests/excites me, and how does this link in to the direction of this sabbatical inquiry?

  • OJC have identified what is really important to learn and therefore demonstrate through their graduate profiles and linked them to an authentic real assessment process i.e. measure what you treasure
  • The process is driven by the learner. They are the ones in control. It is not being done to them, they set goals and then demonstrate how well they have met them
  • It’s real. Learners use real examples both from within and outside the school, not some boxed in standardised mechanism that doesn’t have any relevance to what is actually happening in a learner’s life.
  • It’s collaborative. The collective intelligence of the group is used to support the bidder. They are not alone. The process supports other learners as they look to make bids in the future.
  • The teacher supports the process but makes no judgements. Their role is facilitative; with the bidder in sharing what they have done; and with the group by guiding them to question, seek clarification and even advocate for the learner bidding.
  • It’s open and transparent. The curriculum drivers, the process, the outcomes are all clear for everyone involved. No information is withheld or filed away in a teacher’s file.
  • It assessment as it should be. It’s powerful and in the hands of the learners.

While it appears evident that this type of approach dovetails beautifully with the developing direction of transforming our learning priorities, assessment & reporting practices, I do wonder about implementing this type of approach into RSS and how it would go down… lots of questions.

  1. OJC is a junior high with Year 7-10 learners, RSS is Year 1-6. What adaptations would be required to make it work for younger learners?
  2. How will parents view this and understand that a badge approach like this is as valuable as traditional assessments in literacy and numeracy? How will we develop that understanding so they are alongside us rather than at us?
  3. Are our teachers beliefs in line with this as well? What shifts it practice and pedagogy will need to take place?
  4. How well do our learners really know themselves as learners? How well do they make links from what they are doing to what they are learning, and additionally, learning in a broader dispositional sense? what is their capacity to deeply self reflect?

The cruncher really is, how brave am I (are we) prepared to be in implementing this?

If the answer is not much, then how as a school are we staying true to our vision; empowering agency, innovation and leadership?

Sabbatical – Part 5

Disobedient Teaching

Aaaah, revisiting one of my favourite reads. Such a pleasure to go back and reread this text which I find is always rewarding and one that never fails to pull you back from the brink of jumping on board the great conveyor belt of education compliance!

While there are many many aspects of this book that feed into the discussion about the purpose of school and what is important to learn, I will just focus on Part 3, Assessment.

Initially the discussion takes a historical perspective starting with a look at our ongoing use of streaming learners in our classrooms . J. C. Daniels is referenced , with makes a good side read…

Streaming, most junior school teachers believe, is a method of school organisation which allows children to progress, educationally, ‘at their own natural pace’; bright children are, it is believed, held back by being taught in classes containing duller pupils, whilst duller pupils tend to be overawed, and consequently are retarded, by the presence of brighter pupils in their classes. Consequently, it is widely believed that both dull, average and bright pupils make maximum educational progress when streaming policies are operated. The evidence of this investigation suggests that streaming does not in fact have these effects—rather that the contrary is true…

THE EFFECTS OF STREAMING IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL
II.—A Comparison of Streamed and Unstreamed Schools
J. C. DANIELS

It is a good prompt isn’t it? Why do we largely still pursue this approach that has long reaching consequences? Is it our obsession with data and accountability? Is it parental expectation? As I side note I know that teachers are exploring and implementing mixed ability grouping, especially in maths at our school. Some teachers struggle with this, but why? Is it just easier to group and the organise learners by achievement? Is it because teachers don’t have the knowledge, yet, to facilitate a different type of learning? Is it due to their core beliefs aligning to a streamed approach?

Good questions, worth pondering, but let’s refocus back to the book…

We know, and Ings reinforces this, that judgements of progress and achievement reduced to a mark really tell us very little at all. We gain no insight in to how learners learn; their thinking, their approach to problem solving.

I feel fortunate to work within a school that increasingly looks at the whole learner and is making a real effort to balance to the traditional areas of schooling (literacy & maths) with a core set of dispositions. Furthermore, while we still employ some ‘grade’ based assessments based on a line in the sand benchmark, what is really important is the progress our learners make towards their learning goals. We don’t want teachers teaching to the test/assessment, we want them responding to the individual needs of their learners and taking them from where they are at towards where they need to go.

We are also exploring a new approach to make this ‘assessment’ more learner centred and now after being more informed reading this book, an approach that links to past academic practice. Ings describes how assessing learning traditionally took the form of being oral and public:

Following a process of challenge and defence, students were expected to argue their thesis. They weren’t marked.

Ings, W. (2017). Disobedient Teaching. pp. 53

Sadly, these practices are really only reserved now for much older students presenting their PhD thesis. We are looking to change that, and change it with our primary school learners. More to come on that later in another post.

Ings goes on to remind us of practice in Finland, long known as a highly effective educational system and amongst the highest ranking in equity and excellence globally (heard those terms in your most recent ERO review??). There there is no formal assessment of learners for the first 6 years of schooling, and there is only 1 mandatory test at the age of 16, and there is no streaming, yet they have one of the lowest differences between the weakest and strongest learners.

What can we learn from that?

The final area to discuss from the chapter, before looking at Ings’ solutions, has strong links to the previous post and the “measure what you treasure” line of thought.

Ings argues the our usage of standardised assessments narrows our views of what is valued and therefore taught. We know what it can’t measure (Ayers, 1993, as quoted by Ings):

  • initiative
  • creativity
  • imagination
  • curiosity
  • effort
  • commitment…
  • and a whole other host of valuable dispositions

The relevance is clear for us., With a school vision of Empowering Agency, Innovation and Leadership, it is dispositions such as those listed above that will support us to realise our school goals. Once again are measuring what we treasure?

And how will we do that?

THere is plenty more in this chapter. The last nugget I will pull out is this (in reference to our dependency on measuring/testing:

…because despite the fact that the average New Zealander spends 12.6 years in school, they actually know very little about themselves as learners. Very little.

page 60

I am determined that we will stay true to our school vision and empower our learners to be well on the road to understanding who they are as learners and how they learn before they leave our school.

Sabbatical – Part 4

Lifelong Kindergarten

This is a good read for any educator. The author has been integral in the development of LEGO Mindstorms robotics as well as leading the team developing the Scratch programming software. The examples he uses to reinforce his message draw from the use of these two products plus a whole lot more real life contexts.

If you have anyone in your school such as a staff member or parent who doesn’t understand why coding or robotics supports developing learning and any number of thinking dispositions, then give them a copy of this book!

For the purposes of this inquiry I will really just focus on the section of the book that deals with assessment, the Tensions and Trade-offs.

It discusses the skills that employers are increasingly looking for. This also featured in the another text, Innovate Inside the Box by Couros & Novak (2019) who discuss the 2022 Skills Outlook. The following graphic reinforces the point that all authors are making – we need our learners/young people to be able to adapt, problem solve, adopt new strategies when faced with unexpected situations i.e. life.

World Economic Forum, 2022 Skills Outlook

The problem is though that we in education still seek to measure progress at school in traditonal areas (reading, writing, maths) and by using quantitative data evidence to know if we are doing a good job.

But are we measuring the things that will make the biggest difference in people’s lives? Here is a great saying from the book;

We treasure what we measure.

What are we currently treasuring?

This question is pretty central to the core purpose of this inquiry and one that Resnick discusses further. It is easier if I just show you:

Resnick, 2017, p. 152

For me this again reinforces learnings to date where as a school, as a profession, we seem not to be focusing on what’s important. Are we actively prioritising, or at least treating equally, these areas, these dispositions for want of a better word? Or systems… our tools… our perceptions of good schools, are all based around a measure of traditional academic success. We need to at least balance it out, to even the scales between a dispositional approach and an academic approach. Or do we need to completely flip it and start everything we do from a dispositional standpoint?

Final words from Resnick:

If we truly care about preparing today’s children to thrive in tomorrow’s society, we need to rethink our approaches to assessment, making sure to focus on what’s most important for children to learn, not what’s the easiest for us to measure.

(Resnick, 2017, p. 153)

Sabbatical – Part 3

What are these things called dispositions?

Dispositions are a bit of a edubuzz word currently and one that has increasingly been cropping up in our discussions, greatly due in part to the school’s involvement in the Maths Specialist Teacher (MST) programme where a set of mathematical dispositions are integral in developing effective mathematical habits and mindsets in our learners. Our MST teachers have a very good understanding of these dispositions but the rest of the staff are catching-up. So what are dispositions and do they fit in with a learner driven approach to learning and assessment? 

But dispositions are nothing new. Reading the text Dispositions: Reframing Teaching and Learning (Costa & Kallick, 2014), provided a wealth of information and answered many questions. It clearly outlines what dispositions are, why they are important, provides examples of different disposition sets and provides guidance for deciding on what dispositions are important for your school and learners. It also, and importantly for the context of this inquiry, devotes a chapter to Observing and Assessing Growth in Dispositional Learning which provides insights into how you might gather evidence in relation to learner progress in dispositions.

So what was learnt from this book?

  1. In essence dispositions should be thought of as thinking dispositions, “…a tendency to think in a certain way under certain circumstances” (Costa & Kallick, 2014).
  2. Literacy and numeracy (and all other traditional areas of the curriculum) continue to be important for our learners however at least equal time should be spent planning for and actively teaching dispositions.
  3. Time spent teaching dispositions (or capabilities, attitudes, tendencies, competencies… whatever you want to call them) will in turn enable learners to more effectively access the curriculum content.
  4. Prioritising dispositions within learning and curriculum design is about realigning our focus. This includes 3 reframes:
    • From knowing the right answers to knowing how to behave when answers are not readily apparent
    • From transmitting meaning to constructing meaning
    • From external evaluation to ongoing, formative self-assessment
  5. Dispositions will be different in every context and what one school may focus on will be quite different from the next and even this will change due to the changing learner profile. Just like a school vision is personal to each school, so too are dispositions. 
  6. Simply adopting an off the shelf dispositions set e.g. Habits of Mind, short cuts the process of establishing what is really important for your school’s learners. What you notice about your learners’ learning habits are a crucial to establishing what your focus is.
  7. The role of the teacher is crucial to take dispositions from words on a page to being internalised in a school’s culture, learners and learning talk. There are some key strategies that can underpin this process outlined in the book.
  8. Learner growth in dispositions cannot be assessed using traditional content based approaches. It should be continuous and ongoing, formative, rich in self-assessment. There is a great Spirals of Continuous Learning graphic that illustrates this perfectly (reminds me of my thinking back in my e-fellowship days with the ePortfolio Learning Cycle – if only I had known about this!).
Spirals of Continuous Learning, Costa & Kallick, 2004
ePortfolio Learning Cycle, Nick Rate, 2008

Finally, focused on how we might assess growth in dispositional thinking, here is a rich summary of what is required.

There are plenty of other good reads regarding dispositions including the following with an NZC or Te Whariki context:

But to be honest, I think that if you just read these or any other disposition focused text you are only getting half the picture. You need to also to read or re-read anything that outlines the essence of formative practice. Remember the good old AtoL days? Remember Shirley Clarke? Inside the Black Box? Identifying what your core set of dispositions is and embedding these in your school will fall over unless these pedagogies are deeply embedded in practice.

So beyond the list of learnings above, 2 big picture takeaways in order for us to move forward in this area…

  • Teachers need to facilitate learning rich in the underpinnings of assessment for learning where:
    • learners are involved
    • learners self-assess and receive specific descriptive feedback about learning during learning
    • learners collect, organise and communicate learning with others
    • teaching is adjusted in response to ongoing assessments
    • a safe learning environment for risk taking and focused goal setting supports learning. (Davies, 2000)

and…

  • Teachers need to provide the opportunities for learners to engage in deep thinking. They need to be sufficiently challenged to have to draw on the thinking dispositions. This may involve (Costa & Kallick, 2014);
    • making decisions
    • strategic thinking
    • long-term planning
    • creating something new
    • testing theories etc

I think I will add much more to this last list when it is compared and contrasted with a number of other texts in my reading list.

Lastly… soft skills – you have heard of that term right? People may refer to things like communication, empathy, team work etc as soft skills. Aaaaaarrrggghhh! This goes against everything I believe (and the authors of the book). Soft [dictionary definitions: easy to mould, weak and lacking courage, subtle effect…] implies that dispositions are not important where we know they are crucially important! Please join with me in banning the term sift skills!

Sabbatical – Part 2

Learning, what is important to learn and what is important to assess.

Attendance at a Modern Learners Lab What Really Matters: Reimagining Assessment for Modern Learning with Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon provided an ideal forum for initiating reflections and conversations around this question, and kick-starting this inquiry. More specifically, they prompted  deep thought around the following themes:

  • What are our beliefs about how children learn most powerfully and deeply?
  • Under what conditions do people learn most productively?
  • What assessments do you currently use in your practice?
  • What might we conclude that you believe about how kids learn most powerfully and deeply based on your current assessments?
  • What are the gaps between what we believe and what we currently do?
  • Who are our kids?
  • What are some of the major changes in the world that affect the way you think about classrooms today?
  • So, given the kids you serve, and the realities of the world today, what are the most important outcomes that you want for your students on graduation day?
  • How well do the assessments you currently employ support your mission?
  • In what ways has technology changed what’s possible in terms of classroom learning and assessment?
  • Who owns the assessment?

As one can see these are a pretty powerful set of questions to work through and reflect upon and as such as part of this inquiry they have since been worked through with staff who confirmed what we all know and think about learning… (to list a few of them) powerful learning takes place when learners; are curious, ask questions, can follow their passions, face challenges, make connections, contribute. Not, as Dixon and Richardson (2018) noted, through; sitting in rows, with no real world application, teacher controlled, someone else’s questions etc. We also realised that what we assessed didn’t align with what we believed was really important for our learners.

What Really Matters: Reimagining Assessment for Modern Learning with Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon

Overall the conversations resulted in some pretty clear outcomes and actions including;

  1. a desire to focus more on the ‘front end’ (competencies, vision and values) rather than the ‘back end’ (learning areas and achievement objectives) of the NZ Curriculum
  2. a reframing of our approach to assessment by removing the unnecessary and ensuring that what practices we utilise reflect our vision and beliefs for learning
  3. investigate and develop a more competency based curriculum built on ‘dispositions’ for learning.

Why do we want to do these things?

We want to align our curriculum with the needs of the students and their future lives. If we truly believe that we should place as much or more value on the teaching of dispositions as we do in the teaching of traditional areas this will require a shift in our practices. This belief/focus will enable learners to access and activate learning across the curriculum and beyond. Doing this creates a direct need to change what and how we assess.

In relation to the sabbatical inquiry, developing an innovative approach to assessment and reporting needs to move to a place that is outside of our current box. Actively recognising and centering our curriculum around a dispositional framework is clearly worth investigating further.

Sabbatical – Part 1

Introduction

Russell Street School is a decile 8 U5 urban contributing primary school in Palmerston North. Our roll is made up of approximately 15% Māori and 60% New Zealand European. As a school we celebrate te ao Māori through every classroom and especially our Māori enhanced learning space, Poutokomanawa. Our school has always embraced new ideas and modern pedagogies which enable us to realise our school vision of Empowering Agency, Innovation and Leadership. Our learners are central to everything we do.

We also know that what we do is deemed to be effective, at least through the eyes of ERO, where we are currently on a third consecutive 4-5 year review cycle. However we are not complacent and a restructuring of our leadership team and being involved in other initiatives such as MST and TLIF has brought in new ideas and a new direction, which is well supported by an effective pedagogical foundation that the school has built up over recent years. 

One area that has not seen huge amounts of innovative practice and thinking is in the area of assessment and reporting practices. Perhaps this was due to the impact of the former National Standards assessment and reporting regime, or simply that there were more important aspects of the teaching craft that took priority when developing our strategic direction. Regardless, our current approach of predominantly teacher directed assessments and sending home written reports twice a year with learning conferences thrown in does not closely align with our vision. Yes there is still a formative approach to learning design and great examples of agentic practices in our learning spaces but I know that over time we have just lost our way a bit.

It is this disconnect, the distance between what we believe and what we do that drives our desire to improve and change our practice.

The challenge I see in classrooms and hear about in conversations with students, teachers, administrators, and families is that there is a misalignment between our aspirations – what we believe that learners needs – and what we actually do in schools.

Couros & Novak, 2019, p. XV

As such, this inquiry focuses on looking at innovative ways to assess and report on learning and achievement and how this process can embrace our school vision of Empowering Agency, Innovation and Leadership. It also stems from a desire to

  • confirm what is important to learn, and therefore what is important to assess
  • adopt an assessment approach that is genuinely driven by the learner
  • ensure what is assessed and how it is assessed reflects what we believe and know is important for effective learning
  • develop a reporting approach (for all contexts i.e. the learner, parents, Board and community) that also stays true to the essence of our vision.

In order to do this, the inquiry provides the opportunity to attend workshops where the same questions are asked, investigate what other schools may be doing, as well as extensive reading on learning approaches that are innovative and empower learners.