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.

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.

A Different Type of School

I stand here today… to apologize.

Our education system is failing your children – which means that as a teacher, I am failing your children. I am failing to prepare them to be creative thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs – due to an educational system steeped in tradition, nostalgia and old ideas.

Well, its time for a new tradition. Its time to rewrite the rules of education – to imagine a school with no timetables, with industry partners and one where technology is not only necessary but ubiquitous. A school where lifelong learning is modeled every single day, where children follow individual interests and passions and where they are invited to see the world in a playful way.

Its time our education system adapted to todays student, rather than having students adapt to it.

It’s time to lead a major paradigm shift that changes the face of education forever.

It’s our time – together, lets build a different kind of school and show the world what’s possible.

This was my one minute talk at Creative Innovation 2011. I think it missed the mark.

I received plenty of interest about what I am currently doing and ways business and industry can support Quantum Victoria, but the ‘big picture’ idea that I was trying to pitch, I think was lost on the audience. A majority of it is most certainly my own fault for not appreciating the backgrounds of those in the audience, but perhaps it is also a case of people not thinking big enough. There has been much talk about education at this conference, especially from those not involved in education, with most over-simplifying the concept of reform – aside from Stephen Heppell, everyone outside of the field has an ‘easy’ solution – and this is the problem. Everyone has a vested interest in education, and becasue they have spent varying amounts of time in places of education, everyone claims a level of expertise. There was not enough talk about the purpose of education and indeed the relevance, especially at the tertiary level, in a world with ubiquitous access to information and people – the dialogue, for the most part, still centred around ‘the old way’ of doing things.

And this is the conundrum. At the Creative Innovation conference, where you find some of the most successful and creative people in business,  industry and entrepreneurship – how do we elevate the dialogue around schools, and shift old mindsets? Because if it can’t be done here, I’m thinking we are going to struggle.

Many people and education departments site instances of ‘innovative’ practice in some schools, but they have missed the fundamental premise of education reform – radically different, better kinds of schools.