Friday, January 13, 2012

Education to realize the talents of all - students and teachers.

This book by educational researcher Helen Timperley published 2011, is all about tapping the power of teachers to enable all students to succeed. It is about helping teachers learn rather than telling them what to do; about putting student learning at the heart of the educational process; about developing a explicit inquiry approach to learning for teachers, students and principals;  about engagement not compliance. It seems like common sense -  but well researched common sense.

It seems their is a new consensus emerging - one that places empowering teachers as central to educational change. For many Timperley's book simply confirms beliefs many of us have held for years -  that it is the teachers professionalism that counts.  Developing teacher capacity to make informed judgements using an inquiry learning model  has underpinned the writings of Gwen Gawith ( Action learning) and Dr John Edwards, David Perkins,  Guy Claxton, Dean Fink and, more recently, even Michael Fullan who now writes that creating conditions to develop teacher confidence and ability is the key rather than imposing national agendas.  For those with a longer memory the excellent research of the Learning In Science Project ( 1980s) fits in with this 'new' constructivist thinking an approcah that values the prior ideas of students but with  a greater emphasis on teachers' thinking.

Creative principals and teachers have aways believed this although Timperley's book certainly outlines the inquiry cycle in endless detail. It is a shame the government is not following this capacity building approach instead of their obsession with imposing National Standards. This is a book that sees teachers as reflective professional judging success by evidence  not technicians complying to top down demands.

I am sure this will be a popular book for principals who want to  develop 'their' schools as inquiry learning communities where 'self regulated learners'  are able to demonstrate 'deep learning'.

In the introduction the editors of the series write that  education's mission  is 'enable everyone, without exception, to develops all their talents to the full and to realize their creative potential'.

To me this is the point of a modern education system .

The editors write that education has not 'aways kept up with the times'  and 'still seems in the past century'.  They continue that 'tinkering around the endless will not help' and that 'a bold and imaginative re-orientation to educational purposes' is required ; 'about what education could be; not what it has been'.

Unless school leaders appreciate that current thinking is the problem, that there is a need for a 'step change' in professional development,  they will continue to be 'tinkering'.

The book challenges school leaders to develop the 'conditions teachers need to learn in order to make a difference' and that these conditions reflect those needed by their students.

The book is about how teachers learn and why certain approaches to professional development work - an approach valuing and  engaging teachers prior conceptions. It is about appreciating the importance  of what teachers think about their studentsabout teachers  believing all students can learn rather than having a fixed innate intelligence.

The book is premised on the need for teachers to be engaged actively in practical  activities rather than just sitting and receiving knowledge from those who claim to know more than the teachers themselves.

And that the key to any success is teachers seeing their students improve as a result of their actions

Such ideas challenge school leaders and learning facilitators to create the learning conditions to empower teachers and to ensure student progress results. 'For far too many teachers...staff development is a demeaning mind numbing process and they passively sit and git"'

The various chapters of the book outlines in detail an inquiry process that actively involves teachers and implications for school leadership.

The  teacher inquiry model and knowledge building cycle is as follows:

What knowledge and skills do students need to meet important goals.

What knowledge and skills do we as teachers need to meet the needs of their students.

Opportunities to deepen and refine professional skills.

Engaging students in new learning experiences.

Evaluating the impact of changed actions?

( As mentioned in the introduction the editors of the series write that  education's mission  is 'enable everyone, without exception, to develops all their talents to the full and to realize their creative potential'. Imagine if the inquiry learning cycle was based around teachers working to realize this?)

The book makes it clear that this inquiry mindset  is an ongoing iterative process  resulting , if successful, in adaptive practitioners who are aways on the alert for opportunities to improve their teaching. It is also a process that is the default mode that humans are born with and one that underpins scientific and artistic innovations - all forms of 'enlightened trial and error'.

The cycle begins and ends with students and is sited in the real life circumstances individual teachers work in . The process is highly dependent on teachers assessing what students already know and what they can do - their prior experiences, and what they need to do, and how will they know if successful.

The second part of the cycles is determining what teachers need to know and be able to do to ensure all students achieve identifiable success. Students success depends on what teachers  do.  Teacher skill is the single most important influence on students learning so deepening teacher professional knowledge is vital and this is best learned through the inquiry process by trying out and evaluating  new ideas.

It is obvious that the school leaders role is to ensure conditions are in place for teachers to learn and to challenge and support their teachers - teachers are, in this respect, the leaders class. And, as with any class, it is not possible to believe all teachers are equally skilled. And also, as with teacher, leaders cannot choose to work with only those willing if a difference is to be made for all teachers. No teacher can be 'let of the hook.'

The remainder of the book details the various stages and implications of the learning inquiry process.

If I have a criticism, in contrast to the fine words in the preface about developing full range of talents of all students most examples refer to literacy programmes and the author writes that  some feel ( as I do) that  'has been at the cost of a wider and richer curriculum'. It is obviously easier for schools to use fit for purpose assessments of literacy and numeracy but a 21stC education requires a broader view of learning.

One example I enjoyed was  how one secondary teacher developed new knowledge to deal with misbehaving students.Another excellent example was the outlining of the research of Russell Bishop's Kotahitanga research which  illustrated the importance of relationships and cultural differences - and the negative impact of deficit theories of learning.

My favourite example was that of a UK secondary school exploring the development of the six personal learning and thinking skills to develop students as 'independent inquirers, creative thinker, reflective learners, team workers, self managers and effective particpators', to ensure students were prepared for a more challenging curriculum. The staff at this school developed a set of indicators to be considered as evidence of students being more reflective and independent.

If I were a principal this would be the area I would want to develop, along with a focus on developing all students gifts and talents, as they reflect the essence of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

The key to develop engaged learners requires a rich inquiry based programmes across the curriculum and it would be  shame to see inquiry cycles limited to literacy and numeracy.

The book discusses the value of outside catalysts  to bring in a 'new lens' and to challenge 'existing social norms where these norms are directed to reinforcing rather than challenging the status quo'. Respectful relationships (  'relational trust') are required in all situations to promote inquiry habits of mind throughout the school. The importance of coaching, scaffolding of help, that leaves responsibility with the teacher is also an issue.  This of course applies to teachers and their students as well as between leaders,  facilitators and teachers.

The inquiry approach, if implemented,  will uncover teacher beliefs that will be problematic particularly if teachers hold traditional transmission view, or beliefs about innate fixed ability in contrast to growth mindsets. To ensure success  prior views  of teacher must be valued - the evidence of student success needs to be seen as the final arbiter. Uncovering teacher views is vital for any development to occur or for conflicts to be revolved.

The importance of school wide coherence is important but the author writes it 'can conjure up images of alignment with everything looking the same....Coherence  in a learning system, in fact, requites high levels of energy and innovation with studnts'. 'In reality, if leader wish teachers to become responsive to students, then adaptations should be expected'. ' The question is not about faithful implementation - 'adaptive experts are disciplined innovators who monitor their effectiveness in terms of the engagements, learning and well being of all students in their care'.

Adaptive students, adaptive teachers and adaptive schools is  the point of powerful professional learning.To be successful requires the collective will of all involved.


Anonymous said...

The first question a school involved in any professional development should ask is: What is the purpose of education in the 21stC? And then what attributes will students need to thrive in uncertain but potentialy exciting times? Or how do we ensure all students are engaged in learning? At the very least schools should focus on realizing their mission/vsion - or the vision of the 2007 New Zealnd National Curriculum, other wise it is 'tinkering' not transformational.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I couldn't agree more.

The last decade has seen exciting rich programmes across the curriculum being sidelined by an obsessive emphasis on literary and numeracy.

This is not to suggest literacy and numeracy are not important but they ought to be seen ( 're framed') as foundation skills central for students to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'( NZC 07)

Timperley's book has little criticism of the conservative position schools find themselves in - in fact her emphasis has solidified this traditional position.

And the introduction of National Standards in literacy and numeracy will push schools into an obsessive compliance mode.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. In fact it is incredibly timely. I am relatively new to leadership and have always been one of those teachers who "tinkers"to develop my practice and pedagogy. My tinkering has proved incredibly valuable to developing a self-regulating, student centred programme but this is only within my classroom. My next step is to leave the cowboy hat at the door and get the team on board. I work with an incredibly talented and dedicated group of teachers but it is time for them to develop a vision for how our children learn NOW not how they themselves learned.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Great challenge for 2012 anon