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?

LMS Evaluation & Selection

We have the great fortune of having some talented developers on staff. Many of our ICT platforms over the years have been custom developed to suit our needs at any given time. However, the reality of this current landscape, whilst operational, utilizes many disparate systems that lack cohesiveness, integration and certainly timely access to student data profiles.

Our College ICT Strategic Plan outlines the provision of a secure and integrated student information system that provides access to student learning information throughout a student’s life at the school, including learning pathways, assessment, reporting and data on student wellbeing. A recent review led to the development of a strategic intent that supports the internal business drivers and demands from external influences, but also sees us aim to increase the knowledge we have of our students, to increase the level of communication between home and school and to gain efficiencies by reducing the overall complexity of our systems and processes.

This has meant us adopting a new Learning Management System (LMS) for 2018. Our LMS evaluation and selection process took place over a twelve-month period (yes you read that right) and involved five major steps: needs analysis, requirements definition, product evaluation, staff consultation and product selection.

The market is saturated with different products including Schoolbox, Canvas, Schoology, Edumate, Moodle & SEQTA. We have decided to go with SEQTA.

All staff across our College had the opportunity to view a demonstration of different platforms on multiple occasions. This followed by opportunities to provide feedback that has informed the process at different levels. Although this is a time consuming process, involving staff in the evaluation process results in them having greater ownership of the resulting decision. No matter how much you communicate and consult however, you will still have some staff who are critical of the process. Identifying and engaging with critical staff and having them involved right from the outset is something I would definitely advocate for those going down a similar path.

These platforms often promote conformity and tie you to a single way of doing things. This is problematic considering that my modus operandi is to promote bottom-up innovation and to encourage people to use the tools and resources that work best for them. That being said, I think there is a nice middle ground when an LMS provides a central repository for attendance, welfare, analytics & continuous reporting, but doesn’t require the use of the course creation modules.

For those going down a similar path I have included below a copy of our LMS Research Timeline and proposed implementation plan for our preferred platform SEQTA.

Reach out for a discussion if you are doing something similar.

Building Capital

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identifies cultural capital as the assets an individual possesses in terms of financial and social resources, in conjunction with an individual’s knowledge, status and formal qualifications.

Professional capital is defined by Hargreaves and Fullan as a function of human capital (the talent of individuals); social capital (the collaborative power of the group); and decisional capital (the wisdom and expertise to make sound judgments about learners).

Professional capital is essentially about the growth and development of the people within a school. In The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Fullan suggests we need to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader.” I argue that it cannot just be the principal; it needs to be all leaders across a school – a united team focused on leading learning for teachers and students.

The question “how do you ensure accountability?” then becomes “how do we create the right conditions for all staff to grow and develop?” This necessitates a shift away from measuring, supervising and evaluating teachers to a more trusting and collaborative approach focused on growth and development.

Call it naïve optimism but I firmly believe that if you invest in capacity building or in the growing of capital, people will automatically become more accountable. Firstly to themselves and their own learning, but also to their peers, their students and their workplace.

School Culture Recharged

There are not too many books that I read that I don’t like. I’m not sure if it is because I have a genuine love of reading or whether it is just a case of choosing judiciously.

In saying that School Culture Recharged: Strategies to Energize your Staff and Culture really missed the mark for me. The authors engage in circular reasoning with statements like “culture shapes people, people shape culture” without actually providing many concrete suggestions as to how this might take place. Many of the few examples given are simplistic and obvious ranging from “praise people for their work” to “smile because it’s contagious.” Other suggestions include, “if you have teachers struggling with classroom management, you might suggest they try dressing more professionally” and “add donuts to meetings to help make attendees feel appreciated.” At least I got a laugh or two…

Culture is a nebulous concept to be certain. But a quick glance at the literature should enable us to go a little deeper than what was presented in this book. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) in a critical review of culture list one hundred and sixty definitions, whilst more recent studies attempt to explore the nature of culture as being either an external or internal entity, fixed, variable or existing only in the mind of an individual. My simple definition of culture would be that it is a set of shared and enacted values, beliefs and ideologies.

Whilst I did enjoy the small section that explored how leaders can strategize by positioning influential people at different points in the organization, the book adds little to those looking for actual strategies to enhance school culture.

False Dichotomies

Constructivism is a fad according to Steve Dinham in his new book Leading Learning and Teaching.

He cites Hattie’s meta-analysis that gives constructivism an effect size of 0.15 against an effect size of 0.59 for direct instruction. Later in the book however, he suggests that the most powerful form of professional learning for teachers is via participation in an active learning community, which is very much a social constructivist endeavor.

Without getting into the critique of Hattie’s use of meta-analysis and effect sizes or examining how and if children and adults learn differently, I had the opportunity to discuss this and other topics with Steve on a keynote discussion panel at the recent Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) Excellence in Professional Practice Conference.

Steve’s main point is that constructivism is a valid theory of learning but is not an effective approach to teaching. My argument is that theories of learning should inform our pedagogy and that a constructivist perspective develops a disposition of active inquiry through both a learning and teaching lens.

False dichotomies abound in education and the direct instruction/constructivist debate is a classic example. Those who self-identify as constructivists do not believe that children must discover all knowledge for themselves. That does not make sense. They do know that it is important to invite a learner to grapple with ideas and complexity through inquiry, but they also know when they need to step in and provide guidance.

The question is never just, “what works?” but rather “what works, for whom and under what conditions?”

From my limited experience the best pedagogy is very much constructivist in nature, learner centred and learner driven, project-based and experiential, but interspersed with purposeful periods of direct instruction. It is never just one or the other.

The Inevitable

Technology is an inexorable force for change that is accelerating the evolution of our species, argues Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that will Shape our Future. He shares 12 forces that are shaping our immediate and not so immediate future, all fascinating, but a chapter titled ‘Screening’ really captured my attention.

Historically culture revolved around the oral tradition of lecture and storytelling but was disrupted by the mass production and access to books through the invention and spread of the printing press.

In the subsequent years, an author was considered an authority, with the ever present and fixed nature of the written word etched in ink, that could be referenced, referred to and cited with the understanding that what was written was true, verifiable and immovable.

The ubiquity of digital screens and the ability for amateur creators to publish, journal, share and comment has created an interesting period of tension with the segmentation of people into two categories that Kelly refers to as the People of the Book and the People of the Screen. People of the screen prefer the dynamic flux of pixels – the fluidity and flow of ideas, opinions, tweets, half-baked thoughts, memes and social commentary. Truth is no longer what is written, but rather the assembly of multiple streams of information interpreted, evaluated and re-interpreted through an individual and social construction and reconstruction of truth. Authors and authority are not given the same weight as an individual seeks to discover for themselves the validity of that which appears through their state of conscious and unconscious acquisition of knowledge and evaluation of arguments, counter arguments and opposing viewpoints.

Truth with a capital T, becomes truths, plural. Is this what we might refer to as a post-truth society? Maybe. Maybe not.

The call for children in schools to be able to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ is the necessity for them to develop finely tuned bullshit detectors as they navigate a multiplicity of streams of information from different sources. I sit right in the middle of this Book V Screen tension. Having grown up with the first personal computers and gaming consoles (hello Atari 2600), I find that I read a ridiculous amount on a screen. I also read many books each year. I am currently studying a PhD which requires me to search online databases of relevant literature. I find that if I want to read something deeply however, I prefer a hardcopy. A print out of a research paper allows me to physically highlight relevant sections. Indeed, the tactile sensation of a hardcover volume somehow facilitates a deeper contemplative state. Why is this? I’m not sure but my guess is that a hardcopy text creates a more relaxed and passive conscious state as opposed to the activeness, interconnectedness and hyperlinked online environment.

Herbert Simon is quoted as saying that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” and this creates for me an interesting conundrum. What do I focus my attention on? Is it ok to wander down a rabbit hole of ideas, new media and tangentially related topics? Do I read a paperback non-fiction book or do I read it on a kindle and allow the sharing of my highlighted passages and annotations with an almost unlimited audience? Is reading a solitary or a social pursuit? Can I benefit from the collective commentary of and interaction with potentially thousands of other readers or am I ok with individual contemplation and reflection?

Kelly suggests that much like Wikipedia, the future is a state where all the books in the world combined with all the digital text on the web will become a single liquid fabric or interconnected world of ideas. This is both exciting and terrifying. A challenge to the identities of the People of the Book for sure. Identity, capital I, is a focus of my research as I seek to uncover the factors that inhibit and enhance an individuals ability to engage in identity formation and reformation.

In a recent Virtual Reality (VR) experiment at Stanford University, participant’s arms became their legs and their legs became their arms. That is to kick in VR, participants had to punch with their arms in ‘real life.’ This experiment resulted in what I think is a mind blowing outcome – it took a person on average four minutes to completely rewire the feet/arm circuitry in their brains to make this feel natural and allow action without conscious decision-making.

Our identities are far more fluid than we think and despite the tension that always exists between the new and the old, perhaps Marshall McLuhan was right when he said, “first we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”

How We “Learn”

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens is not so much a book about learning but more the Cognitive Psychology of memorization. If you’re looking for general learning strategies or research into more effective ways of learning, you won’t find that here.

What you will find is a synthesis of cognitive psychology research that contradicts many of the long held beliefs about how the brain works. Much of it makes sense to me even though I wasn’t expecting a book about learning to be solely focused on memorization.

Through an examination of the literature, the author suggests that to optimize study that seeks memorization of facts as an outcome, an individual should;

  • Not have a quiet study zone as distractions can aid learning. Taking a break and checking facebook allows for incubation and may actually facilitate a solution;
  • Study in different locations as this can enhance memorization;
  • Engage in spaced repitition, varied practice and interleaving, that is spacing short regular study periods and mixing related but distinct material during study leads to transferrability. Repitition of the same skill over and over again has the potential to create a powerful and dangerous illusion. The illusion of fluency or actually knowing. With traditional ‘drill and kill’ repitition, skills improve quickly and then plateau. Transferrability is also suspect in this case. By contrast, varied practice produces a slower apparent rate of improvement in each single practice session but a greater accumulation of skill and learning over time;
  • Recite what you are learning out loud;
  • Start something early, leave it for an extended period, and then come back to it often;
  • Procrastinate as this leads to percolation, and this is a good thing for a motivated learner.

A interesting perspective on memorization and how we can benefit from the distractions of everyday life.