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.

Harbouring Dreams

I have always identified as an athlete. Not a professional, not even close, but someone who worked hard, put in the required amount of time in the gym, and had some decent success at a local or amateur level. Like most young people I harboured dreams of pursuing sporting greatness and whilst these were never anything more than dreams, they instilled in me a work ethic that enabled a belief that I was someone who could do whatever it was that I put my mind to. This mindset has transcended sport and enabled me to achieve things in my life that I never thought would be possible.

As you get older however you can no longer physically do what you once did. Sure, you can still train, keep fit, play sport and use exercise as a release from everyday stress, but the physical toll of pushing your body starts to present itself through injury. When you can physically no longer do what you once did there becomes moments in time when your identity is questioned. What you thought you knew about yourself is challenged. Grounding yourself in a more fluid notion of identity based on more enduring qualities takes some serious work.

I am sure at some point I will be able to look back more objectively, but setting yourself personal goals and falling short due to your body not having the same strength as your mind is deflating. The challenge is to overcome your self-definition of what you once did. There is freedom in this. Letting go of who you thought you were enables a more flexible understanding of who you were, are and might be in the future.

Thankfully I am making peace with this new reality. However, I still harbour dreams…

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.