Trusting our Teachers

Much of the recent discourse regarding teacher education and the profession of teaching is about raising standards. This accountability paradigm insists that boosting the quality of teaching, increasing the standards of entry into the profession and improving the quality of teacher education programs will improve student outcomes. Student outcomes in this case are often narrowly defined.

Marilyn Cochran-Smith shared at the 2018 AARE conference that this accountability paradigm has emerged based on five policy, political and professional influences, namely:

  1. Unprecedented global attention to teacher quality tied to neoliberal economics.
  2. Teacher quality defined as teachers who produce large gains in student improvement.
  3. Continuous public narrative about the failure of teachers and teacher education.
  4. Teacher education defined as a policy problem focused on outcomes.
  5. The teacher education establishments own turn towards accountability.

These five influences have infiltrated, permeated and embedded themselves so deeply that they are often seemed to be self-evident. This tacit struggle is a form of cultural/political domination that de-professionalizes teachers and simultaneously reduces agency and voice. This narrative legitimizes certain institutions, practices and interests, produces policy based on contested claims and hyperbole and positions education reform as a simple cure for inequality.

What can those working in schools actually do? No one I talk to is arguing that teacher quality doesn’t matter. We want the best teachers teaching. We also have to value those that we have in the profession and provide the structures and level of support to move beyond individual and collective appraisal and explicit improvement agendas, to a system that has a focus on learning, growth and pedagogical quality. We do this through trust. By trusting our teachers we can change societal discourse, elevate the profession and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, increase levels of accountability. Not accountability to state or national standards, but accountability to ourselves, to our colleagues, to the students in our care and their families. A collective accountability that becomes a responsibility to enhance our profession. A moral responsibility to focus on what matters. A responsibility to tell our own stories, to change the narrative, to create our own visions and to define what counts as a successful education in our contexts.

In my experience the way schools typically enact teacher accountability and performativity measures is to have an appraisal process in place. In 2015, in conjunction with the introduction of a new professional learning model, I removed the need for our teachers to be judged on an annual basis and introduced a process based entirely around individual and collective growth.

From the communication that was sent to staff about the change.

It is recognised that The Geelong College has a responsibility to provide teachers with access to meaningful professional learning opportunities. It is also recognised that teachers are responsible for their own learning and responsible for ensuring professional learning is undertaken and the requirements for teacher registration are maintained.

In recent years teaching staff at The Geelong College have participated in a biennial Appraisal process to assist in the development of their professional skills and to document professional learning. Annual Learning Projects have become important self-determined professional learning experiences for teachers seeking to investigate their professional knowledge and practice. These projects are shared with colleagues annually and they have helped to stimulate greater vibrancy in the professional discourse among teachers. Over the last year or so, the Appraisal process has become increasingly aligned to Learning Projects.

The emerging strong relationships with Deakin University through the Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation (CLRI) and the professional value of the Learning Projects have resulted in an increase in the level of interest in post graduate research degrees among the teaching staff of The Geelong College. This is an exciting and significant development informing the next step in the ongoing development of our approach to the professional learning of teachers.

From 2016 it is proposed that a change in terminology be adopted moving from ‘Appraisal’ to ‘Professional Learning Program’ (PLP). It appears the term Appraisal no longer reflects the nature and needs of the College.

At some point every two years teaching staff will meet with the Principal (or delegate if appropriate) to review their PLP.

Key components of the PLP

  1. Annual Learning Project – this is to relate to professional learning and may include action research projects or the development of special projects related to improving student outcomes (academic, pastoral, co-curricular). A variety of methods and approaches can be adopted and may include, but not be limited to, classroom observations, interschool visits, action research projects and professional presentations
  2. Conference/course participation – documentation of participation in professional conferences and courses. This can be as delegates or presenters.
  3. Professional engagement – demonstrated professional engagement such as professional reading, VCAA marking, working with graduate or undergraduate teachers or other ways of contributing to the development of professional skills of other educators

*As a caveat, we still have a performance management and professional conduct process in place that can be evoked if needed.

In my experience, appraisal processes in schools are draconian in their implementation, or such a waste of time that they become a tick-the-box exercise. What we did was a fairly simple shift from appraisal to professional learning. The bi-annual meeting with the Principal or delegate now becomes a chance to talk about individual interests, contexts and passions, in a non-performative setting, that is influenced by a coaching approach. It was an initiative that was very well received across our community.

Systemic issues abound and can become overwhelming. But there are always small things that can be achieved in your own sites and contexts. A focus on trusting teachers is a good start.

Good Teaching

I have just finished reading an article by Claire Golledge titled Listen to the children. This is what ‘good’ teaching looks like to them.

Based on interviews with students around their perceptions of teacher quality and quality teaching, it was found that students valued the relationship they had with their teacher first and foremost, a variety of teaching methods and teachers who could inspire through their deep subject knowledge. Claire states “…students saw the best teachers as those who used engaging and innovative pedagogies to, as one student expressed it, “get us out of our comfort zone.””

This is interesting and I can’t wait to talk to Claire at the upcoming AARE conference to find out more about her research. I admit that this doesn’t necessarily corrospond with my own personal experience as a student, a teacher and also in my role as Director of Teaching and Learning. Of course everything depends on context and I have found that when students have a relationship with the teacher everything else can follow. If the relationship breaks down, then both parents and students question the use of innovative pedagogies. What constitutes a good student-teacher relationship will be left for another day, but this article made me reflect on two Professors I had in University. These two gentleman had a subtle, yet profound impact on the way I approach teaching and learning.

One was a short German fellow who often stopped mid-sentence and stared out the window. One time we asked him what he was doing and he told us he was letting his mind wonder and just stopping his thoughts momentarily to enjoy the beauty of the universe. He encouraged us to do the same, whenever we felt the need, as he believed it promoted deep thinking and an unconscious advantage when engaged in heavy cognitive lifting – particular in that Advanced Calculus class. I thought this was eccentric at the time but appreciate the simplicity and beauty of it now. He was wonderfully supportive and encouraging, quite explicit, and would not hesitate in giving you critical feedback.

Another Professor taught Advanced Cryptography. He was the opposite. Very abstract and wanted us to think and learn for ourselves. He would pose interesting problems that hadn’t yet been solved and expect us to grapple with them.  He would often stand very close to the whiteboard, facing the white board, trying to show us how to work through a complicated problem. He would mumble, scribble some stuff on the board, rub it out, start rubbing his head perplexed, stare at the board some more, go to start writing on the board again only to stop, scratch his beard – you get the picture. Often times he would take 20 minutes trying to figure out how to explain something to us or how to solve a particular problem. Most of the class thought that he was either unprepared or just didn’t know what he was doing. I found it very difficult at the time.

With the benefit of hindsight I now think different about this experience. On reflection I was seeing a mathematician in pure problem solving mode, grappling with complexity and pushing himself to the edge of both personal and discipline knowledge. He was modelling, perhaps unintentionally, thought processes and the way he approached difficulty. What would of it had taken for me to be aware of this at the time? Perhaps he needed to be explicit to the class and explain to us this would be his approach and what we as learners of the subject would get out of it as a result?

What I am sure about is that there is no one formula for great teaching and that’s what makes our profession such a rewarding one. Just like learning is a deeply personal endeavour – so is teaching. Teacher quality does matter. We want great teachers teaching the eager young minds of tomorrow. We also have to work with those we currently have in the profession and understand that teaching quality matters more.

Celebrating who we are

This short film is the result of a collaboration between our digital media guru Sam McIntosh and year 12 Media student Ollie Manton from the Geelong College.

Ollie stated, “The journey began on paper, concepts were drawn, presented and approved. Then the various film shoots were planned and shot. We used a variety of cameras; a #BlackMagicURSA, #PanasonicGH5, #Canon5D & 7D, an OSMO and a drone.”

The film was ‘co-shot’ and ‘co-edited’ across file hosting service Dropbox. Sam and Ollie would meet at various points to discuss the direction and styling of the film. Always sharing ideas and thoughts, the two passionate film-makers made light work of a large project. “Many of our catch ups were more about picking apart Christopher Nolan films or how to do particular shots with specific cameras. The catch ups were always fun and collaborative.”

Students and teachers working together is central to the Geelong College Vision for Learning.

Inspiring work by Sam and Ollie.

Assessment Focus Group

Back at the beginning of 2015 I established an assessment focus group at the College. It existed for less than a year and was part of a long term strategy around creating accelerator networks to overcome static and entrenched ways of thinking. By-passing the traditional hierarchy, it attempted to create agency and a more responsive and distributed platform for our staff to contribute to the future direction of the school.

I put out a call for expressions of interest via email and let participants know that we would be meeting twice a term for twelve months. I was looking for representation from each of our Junior, Middle and Senior schools and got 17 members – usually I would keep focus groups much smaller than this but I wanted to get as many people from each of the three schools involved as I could. The purpose was to create a space for dialogue that moved beyond using the terms assessment, reporting and grading interchangeably, and to change the student culture of anxiety about performance, to one of curiousity about what intellectual journey might lay before them. It took a great deal of effort and re-focusing to ensure that conversations remained about assessment as they inevitably (almost inexorably) drifted towards grading or reporting.

We workshopped ideas. People contributed research articles or blogs for discussion. Sub-committees formed and visited other schools. We looked at our current assessment profile across the College. And best of all, after some vigorous debate and discussion, we created actions that led to the creation and introduction of new policies and practices.

I recently found the following summary of one of our focus group meetings.

Can we rethink the basic tenets of teaching and learning and evaluate what students have done in a manner more consistent with our Vision for Learning? This is the question that has driven the discussion of the assessment focus group.

Our most superficial concerns have usually involved the practicalities of how to grade students’ work. Do we use a 5 point scale? A 6 point scale? What are the grade cut-offs? Do we use a normative or criterion referenced approach? We often put emphasis on how to detect plagiarism, rather than focusing on creating better assessments. This focus reinforces and reproduces the traditional paradigm of “test, grade, test, grade” and as a result many students become conditioned to this routine. Students then only engage in learning to a certain extent. They learn not deeply, but deep enough in order to learn how to play the game of assessment that is in front of them. Worse still, this paradigm can be damaging for many students as it reinforces self-narrative and familial discourse such as “I’m no good at maths.”

The discussions and workshops throughout our focus group meetings have attempted to move beyond this. Here we have debated and argued about the importance and necessity of allocating students a grade at every opportunity. We have debated the difference between a student in Year 1 and a student in Year 9. We unpacked the difference between assessment, feedback, grading and reporting. We workshopped alternative methods of assessment in order to provide a more meaningful approach that includes portfolios and a more formative focus on student understanding and progress.

After several meetings, almost unanimously the group recommendation is that:

Grades are only given to students on end of semester reports (EL-10) supported by a consistent ongoing online reporting/feedback/progress system, further supported by digital portfolios. In this case, ongoing reporting replaces end of semester reports.

This was a nice find as I clean up the files on my old laptop and a chance for me to reflect on how far we have come on this journey. This group did some great work and contributed to a more diverse assessment portfolio across the College, the introduction of new ongoing reporting platform and the introduction of a new College-wide assessment policy that I include below. I actually believe the policy is an exemplar policy because it is concise and underpinning it is the fact that we trust the professionals in our workplace to enact it in a way that is relevant to their area.

Get in touch if you would like to know more.

Assessment Policy

Purpose
The primary purpose of assessment is to help improve student learning. This process should develop students’ capacity to reflect on their learning and to assist their progress towards becoming independent learners. A secondary purpose of assessment is to provide teachers and parents with feedback about teaching and learning practices.

Policy Statement
The Geelong College assessment policy is informed by research and best practice. There is an expectation that discipline areas will draw on assessment research relevant to their field to underpin how this policy is implemented.

The statements below outline the principles of assessment at the College.

  1. Assessment must reflect the values of the College
  2. Assessment practices should be consistent with the College’s Vision for Learning, including a range of formative, summative, self and peer assessment strategies.
  3. Assessment practices must be conducted and undertaken ethically and with honesty and integrity by staff and students.
  4. An appropriate and diverse assessment portfolio in and across each subject area should demonstrate an articulation and application of knowledge and understanding, skills and competencies.
  5. The design of any assessment should take into account the requirement for timely, meaningful and constructive feedback to be given to students on their assessments.
  6. Assessment practices and processes must be continuously monitored for quality assurance and improvement purposes.
  7. It is expected that assessment tasks are assessed with clear expectations and this can include normative and criterion-referenced approaches.

Responsibility for implementation
Director of Teaching and Learning
Heads of School
Deputy Heads of School
Heads of Department
Curriculum Coordinators

Relevant policies
Reporting
Grading
Vision for Learning

Thinking in Bets

“Wanna bet?”

Former Poker Pro Annie Duke argues that offering a bet in any situation makes us refine and examine our beliefs, temper our generalizations and get closer to the truth by acknowledging the risk inherent in what we think we believe versus what we actually believe. By attempting to make explicit what is already implicit, we develop exploratory thought patterns that encourage open-mindedness and a more objective consideration of alterative hypotheses. By embracing uncertainty we can uncover biases and make better decisions. Acknowledging uncertainty then becomes an acknowledgment of a complex and uncertain world so that we are less likely to think in binaries, and more likely to think in probabilities.

In Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All The Facts, Duke provides a framework for decision-making that includes a variety of techniques, ideas and strategies for dealing with bias. Duke argues that organized scepticism needs to encouraged and operationalized. By providing permission and space for dissent, we invite others to play devil’s advocate by presenting the other side of the argument, to argue why a strategy might be ill-advised, why a prediction might be off, or why an idea might be ill-informed. By considering all perspectives the best decision can then be made. In order for this to become part of the fabric of how teams operate, some clear parameters need to be established so that dissent does not become about shooting the message or the messenger, but rather an open exploration of multiple viewpoints and perspectives.

Other good ideas for developing strategy with teams that resonated include;

    • Scenario Planning or Future Reconnaissance – identify possible future outcomes and assign a probability for each occurring. Build a decision tree and determine probabilities of different futures based on the information you have at your disposal.
    • Backcasting – working backwards from a positive future. Imagine you have already achieved a positive outcome, holding up a newspaper with the headline “We achieved our goal!” Then think about how we got there. A team leader asks the group to identify the reasons why they achieved their goal, what events occurred, what decisions were made and what went there way in order for this to happen. This enables identification of strategies, tactics and actions that need to be implemented to get to the goal.
    • Premortem – reveals the negative space. Imagine the headline “We failed to reach our goal.” A team leader then challenges the team to consider things that could go wrong. A premortem is an implementation of the Mertonian norm of organized scepticism. Once we frame the exercise as “Ok, we failed. Why did we fail?” that frees everyone to identify potential points of failure they otherwise might not see or might not bring up for fear of being viewed as a naysayer.

I read many books each year and don’t often take the time to summarize or reflect. It’s something I am working on going into 2019.

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All The Facts is a book that gets a little repetitive at times but provides some useful frameworks and excellent anecdotes about decision-making.

Turning the Page

Only when you turn the page do you find out what happens next.

At the end of the year I will be leaving The Geelong College and finishing my role as Director of Teaching and Learning and also as Director of our Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation.

Goodbyes are particularly hard when you have grown to love what you are leaving. I will miss the staff, the students and the families that I have worked with so closely over the past five years. It has been an honour to work alongside some of the most dedicated and impressive teachers I have ever come across. I’ve learned so much during my time at the College, and so many people have been a big part of that. The encouragement, support and guidance of those in the community have allowed us to create a unique culture of camaraderie; one that I hope will continue for many years to come.

I am excited to announce that in 2019 I will be starting a new role as Deputy Principal at Mentone Grammar.

New adventures await.

But before they do, I will be sharing and celebrating stories here over the next three months. Stories about the inspirational people, programs and approaches that make The Geelong College such a special place.

Student-led Expedition

On Christmas Eve, together with a team of Year 10 and 11 students, I returned from a 3-week expedition in Nepal. The team travelled backpacker style throughout the areas of Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan, soaking up the incredible culture, trekking through the Annapurna region of the Himalaya, viewing Mount Everest, and contributing to the rebuilding efforts of a school damaged via earthquakes in the medieval city of Bhaktapur.

This was not your ordinary school camp or tour however. This expedition was 100% student-led. Preparations began in March of 2017 as the team of students designed an itinerary, conducted travel simulation days at the You Yangs, raised funds for the community service project and developed skills of leadership, communication and budget management that would be soon put to use.

Each day in Nepal a student or group of students would be responsible for leading the group. Nothing was pre-booked, so these responsibilities included arranging accommodation for the night, transport, logistics and navigation, deciding on locations for breakfast, lunch and dinner, ensuring the team had enough drinking water and most importantly, managing the team budget.

Our Vision for Learning recognises that students require an awareness and understanding of not only themselves, but also the world in which they live. Students need to explore the world in a variety of ways to develop skills and attributes to communicate across cultures while expanding their awareness of the world’s complexities and learning to appreciate difference. By giving students opportunities to lead and make real decisions, they become skilled at making good decisions and develop a greater understanding of what it means to be a leader and indeed, a good citizen.

Students did both themselves and the College proud by showing resilience, perseverance, leadership skills, teamwork, confidence in travelling and being independent and self-sufficient. College programs like this student-led expedition empower young people to uncover their unique identity, develop life skills and embrace the world beyond their own borders through a combination of adventure, cultural immersion and experiential learning opportunities.

This Expedition to Nepal will become a permanent addition to our College calendar and is an exciting part of our commitment to student leadership development and community service.

The Geelong College Student-led Exhibition to Nepal, 2017 from CLRI on Vimeo

 

Thanks for the Feedback

Why do we dwell on criticism buried among an abundance of compliments and affirmations?

Feedback on a person’s performance which is then used as a basis for improvement is a natural element of some professions. Take sports as an example. An athlete has a constant stream of feedback to contend with. Whether this is the coach giving instructions from the sidelines, the roar of the crowd, the morale of team members, the look on the face of the opponent, or the physiological data collected on their cadence, heart rate or recovery time between hard efforts. Further feedback is then delivered post-game by watching game footage and analyzing positions, technique, work rate, commitment to the contest, adherence to the team plan or general game sense. Feedback is a natural part of being a sports person. If we put in a poor performance we want to know why and learn from it.

Not all professions are this open to feedback, however. Educators respond to feedback in different ways and with varying levels of comfort. An adverse reaction to challenging feedback can challenge our sense of who we are and what we stand for. Our identities are tied to a story that we tell ourselves. When feedback is received that challenges this story, our emotional bands are stretched and the elasticity of our emotions factor into the way this feedback affects us both physically and emotionally.

Thankfully, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, outline how receiving (and giving) feedback is a skill that can be developed by cultivating a curious disposition, active listening techniques, and adopting an empathetic system thinking approach to conversation.

When we receive feedback we can question the substance of the feedback itself and thus dismiss it as wrong or unhelpful but often issues arise when we question the motives of the feedback giver. Our previous interactions, their credibility, experience, expertise and our level of trust all influence whether we can disentangle the feedback giver from the feedback itself. Heen and Stone invite their readers to recognize that we each bring a unique frame of reference and usually only see part of the problem (the part that the other person is contributing). Systems thinking corrects for the skew in any single perspective. We can seek to understand by asking questions like, “Tell me more” or “I hadn’t thought of it that way. Can you give me an example?” or even “Can you help me get perspective on your feedback?”

One of my big takeaways from the book is the fact that we often have multiple issues present in any feedback conversation that confuse, disorient and lead to conflict. When this occurs we need to be explicit and signpost that this is the case with a statement like, “I think that there are two topics here. Let’s discuss each topic fully, but separately, as both are important. Ok. Let’s loop back to the start and start with the first topic.”

I found this book to be a great compliment to the work that I am doing in the Growth Coaching Accreditation Program and highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to further develop their ability to give and receive feedback.

CLRI Annual Report 2017

The Centre for Learning, Research & Innovation (CLRI) is a joint venture between The Geelong College, Deakin University and The Geelong College Foundation.

The Centre aims to provide people with the ability to affect beneficial change within their schools, institutions and organisations. We engage in research projects and create professional development opportunities, by recognising learning as an active, dynamic behaviour that emerges from interactions between the human brain and the social world.

Our 2017 Annual Report is now available.

Learn about what we accomplished in 2017 and our plans for the future.

Pause and Reflect

Around this time each year, I pause and reflect on the goals that I set back in January. I have realized for the first time that I actually follow quite a predictable pattern. With different projects at various stages of development and implementation, plans and initiatives underway for the following year, recruitment and the constant flux of relationship management across the school, the weight of the year can tend to weigh heavily on your mind. You can fall into a trap of letting the small number of negatives outweigh the many positives.

As I review the goals I had set for myself, I realize that I have achieved far more than I even set out to achieve. Given that I usually set quite ambitious goals, this period of reflection is a chance to look back on what I have accomplished in the past twelve months and to give some much-needed self-congratulations.

I look back on the successes (and failures), the wins, the moments of learning and the significant areas of personal and professional progress. As I reflect, I ask myself what I would do differently given the opportunity. I do not dwell on it, however. I pause and savour the moment, and then move on.

Each year I collect some data to help inform my future directions. In 2015, I completed the Genos Emotional Intelligence (EI) 360 survey, the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People 360 survey and a self-assessment using Paul Browning’s rubric for assessing trust and transformational leadership practice. I also used this rubric in 2016 and 2017. I have scheduled a Genos EI 360 survey for February of 2018 and it will be interesting to see how I have progressed.

My goals this year were on three areas – Developing Relationships and Trust, Enhancing Learning Culture and Personal Development and are listed below.

Developing Relationships and Trust

  • Visit classes for thirty minutes every day
  • Attend morning tea daily rotating across the three schools
  • Timetable fortnightly meetings with key people
  • Spend time equally across the three schools
  • Empower the Leaders of Learning and build a cohesive team to lead the different priorities of the three schools
  • Embed the GROWTH model of coaching into my daily interactions with others
  • Ensure accountability by always having actions after each meeting or conversation
  • Ensure graduates are supported throughout the VIT full registration process
  • Seek ways to affirm and thank staff members, publicly and privately, every day

Enhancing Learning Culture

  • Continue to provide permission to innovate
  • Engage staff in a managed process for focused collaborative review and improvement using both our Vision for Learning and Rubicon Atlas
  • Streamline and improve professional learning administrative processes
  • Develop a leadership development program informed by a coaching way of being
  • Drive the Centre for Learning, Research & Innovation’s strategic priorities and vision of success (See CLRI strategic plan)
  • Implementation of a new LMS that supports ongoing assessment and reporting and pastoral and data tracking across the College
  • Support staff in further developing an understanding of a Reggio-inspired approach in the Junior School
  • Develop the year seven model of contemporary team teaching and learning
  • Examine VCE data and engage key staff in determining an improvement strategy
  • Lead an elective review at year nine
  • Enhance experiential learning opportunities
  • Continue to drive Digital Portfolio rollout strategy
  • Meeting structure review in conjunction with Heads of School and Leaders of Learning
  • Develop an improved process for the placement of pre-service teachers across the College.
  • Conduct twenty-four recorded video observations of teaching practice and engage staff in dialogue

Personal Development

  • Sit colloquium for PhD candidature and begin collecting data
  • Collect 50% of data for PhD
  • Gain Growth Coaching International Accreditation
  • Train for a base level of fitness for Nepal Trek in December
  • Spend more quality time with family

Whilst I am happy with the progress made in most of these areas this year, being visible remains the biggest challenge of having a multi-campus role. One strategy for being visible that I recently come across was a Principal who every morning writes and hand delivers birthday cards to every student and staff member. A big commitment but one that quickly becomes non-negotiable through community expectation.

What strategies do you use to remain visible?