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.