Many of us educators of a more mature vintage would recall being told the classic "children should be seen and not heard" line often and by many family members in the home and beyond, and indeed teachers too in a range of academic locations. Thankfully now so much has changed and when the students in my class can only be seen and not heard, I get worried, really worried.
Sir Ray Avery, Ian Taylor, CBE and the author
Yesterday I had the the privilege of hearing "two of the smartest guys in the room" speak. In the afternoon, It was Ian Taylor, the founder of Animation Research Limited and yes, years ago a presenter on Spot On (a legendary children tv show back in the 80s). Ian was the keynote speaker at Interface Magazine's Edtech expo in Manukau. Later on in the evening, it was Sir Ray Avery's turn as one of Sparklab's Innovation speakers. Both men have been highly successful in their chosen careers and care deeply not only about those around them but also about the country socially and economically now and going forward. Both men are very, very smart and savvy businessmen but when I got time to spend with each of them on a one-to-one basis, it became very apparent that there is a number of reasons why these two are literally the smartest guys in the room.
My Year 11 English class's weekly #VIP session
Often I wonder if there is an unwritten rule that I don't know about, that bans fun in high school learning spaces. I know students of teenage years do have a lot of fun at school but it appears that this enjoyment occurs for the most part, outside of the classroom rather than inside where it would be most valuable. Now I'm not saying every lesson has to resemble a comedy show or a circus (not that either would be a bad thing) but I do think we as high school educators tend to take (or more accurately) present the learning of our students a little too earnestly, maybe just a little too seriously?
Every Thursday morning,we start our double period of Year 11 English a little different to our other English lessons and no doubt most other high school classes. At 9.40am every Thursday, the students in my class dance in various shapes and modes for one minute to a different student-chosen song each week. But what's the point? Well, there's actually many and for a range of outcomes
Earlier today, I was fortunate enough to be involved in a #engagechat twitter chat moderated by Eric Davis on Gifted Education. What I love about Eric's US-based chat is 1) it often features participants I don't usually have a lot of contact with and 2)the chat content is also often very different from a traditional Australasian twitter chat. By the chat's close, the many participants (who ranged from Gifted and Talented Coordinators to full-on sceptics and the likes of me somewhere in between) in my opinion raised almost as many questions as were ideas and provocations suggested. The chat led me to think deeply and confrontingly about one pivotal question, "Are school-centric gifted and talented programmes worth it, really worth it?"
A long time ago in a university far, far ago, this teacher left the hallowed halls of Massey University no longer a teacher trainee or student but a fully qualified provisionally registered teacher. I was ready for the classroom, at least my enthusiasm was. Talent and ability could always come later!
The Manurewa Intermediate Skatarama
On my way home last night, I finally pulled over and took the above photo. But what's so special about this photo I hear you think? How does this photo suggest that this is a #coolschool. Well for what it's worth, here's my argument. The concrete structures visible in the photo behind the gate and in the school are the intermediate's very own skate park. Yip, that's right, this school has its own skate park. Wow! What is even more impressive that they publicise it through two massive signs (one is visible). What is even, even more impressive is that the facility is completely spotless, no rubbish or graffiti visible what-so-ever.
In this, the last of three articles on how students "rate" your class, we look at the most influencing entity in any classroom or learning space, that's right the teacher. For all the extolling about student agency and independence, it is still for better or worse, the educational professional in the room who determines the type of pedagogy-in-play. As a result, it is the teacher and student dynamic that to many students, is the most common lens through which they rate a class and by default the teacher.
When we think about it, teachers are the odd ones out in any learning space. We are often far older than the other people in the classroom, the only ones being paid and in reality, the least important stakeholder when it comes to the significance of academic success. Teachers for the most part, get paid on longevity of service and while remuneration is moderated by qualifications, most teachers are paid fairly similar regardless of student satisfaction or otherwise.
Students often follow teachers rather than subjects. I, as a student changed classes to ensure I was in the same learning space as a Mathematics teacher, generally and widely regardless as very, very good by students at Awatapu College in the early 1990s. In my time as a student and my incumbent time as a teacher, it is not surprising that the personality of the teacher has a lot to do with how students feel about one class compared to another. When you as a student are in the same classroom as an adult educator up to five times a week, it is far easier for all parties if co-existence is to the positive, if not at the very least, neutral.
When I asked my English students how do they rate a teacher, they went quickly beyond "looks" (thankfully!) and instead focused on the following critical (to them) elements:
Students rated classes and teachers where not only did they have a voice, but where this voice was not only listened to, but where appropriate was acted upon by the teacher concerned. Many students despite being asked for their feedback feel this is tokenism at best and the teacher is not listening or prepared to take on board the voicings expressed. Almost every student who responded, pointed out the futility of class-asked questions which appear to the students as almost teaching-by-numbers and aiming at everyone and hitting no-one. Students in a counter context felt challenged, empowered and valued when questioned 1:1. In such a localised situation, students had time and also a confidence to present their answers and just as much, their doubts in terms of subject content. Students also felt more likely to approach the teachers who practised 1:1 questioning as they felt this teacher (or type of teacher) was more accessible and valuing of the individual learning experiences within the one classroom setting.
In a incredibly diverse and multi-cultural school such as Aorere College, students also rate teachers and classes where their culture is acknowledged, respected and where the teacher makes an effort to try (in this teacher's case, not always successfully) to pronounce Polynesian, Maori and a range of other non-English names and words correctly. In all honesty, I do struggle at times with some Polynesian names but never-the-less, the students appreciate my valiant efforts and my persistent willingness to accept the student (or students) concerned teaching me the correct pronunciation. I never used to think too much about the correct pronunciation of names when I was in predominantly European schools. However having now travelled a fair bit now, I can understand how frustrating it is when your name (an indelible part of you) is mispronounced and even more so, when little effort is made in terms of the correct pronunciation. When students are valued and respected and feel as such as individuals, good teachers know that the learning process becomes far easier and enduring for all parties concerned.
Students of mine over the years have always been quick to point out how much teacher movement influences how much they think of a class. Many students with (unfortunately) considerable ease, recall a number of teachers who arose from their desk only to greet and dismiss their students, if that. Teachers who resided behind a front-of-classroom desk are seen by students as mere transmitters of knowledge and content and ones who appear to have little interest in student production and/or conversation. I do note that teachers in high schools do tend to "live" at their desks a lot more than is common-place in intermediate or primary schools. No doubt, the activity and student energy in these latter locations necessitate greater teacher movement and collegial engagement. I have never been a fan of teachers sitting predominately at their desk while a class is in session, least of all at the front of a class. It is not realistic to expect a student unsure of current work to walk the trek of shame past their student colleagues and up to the front of the class. When teachers are up and moving, not only is off-task behaviour a lot more difficult, by virtue of the teacher being amongst the students, such locations suggest more "us" than "you and me" and also enables discreet checking of understanding by both teacher and student more readily.
Lastly according to my students, the final way they rate your class is in terms of the expectations and academic rigour. Students (I am informed) want deadlines, affirmative academic empowerment and pressure to learn. Students who do not face teacher pressure to complete tasks on time and to an appropriate level often talk much about only learning from the outcome, and little from the process. Those students in the higher levels also want to be seen as growing and emerging adults both in education and in society. They understand and respect guidelines (even more so when legitimately co-constructed) over dictatorial non-negotiated rules. Students rate teachers who each day expect greatness from those, regardless of what has occurred the day or even week before. Now I'm no brilliant pedagogical expert but I think I do know the importance of my students leaving my classroom each day knowing that this educator not only thinks each student can do well, but that they should and will. If a teacher fails to clearly show perpetual belief in his or her students, what chance do the relevant students have? Educators need to be remember that even the smartest of our youth, are just that, our "youth". In fact, many of the smartest students I have ever taught have ironically needed more empathetic and encouraging support and on a more often basis than many regular students. Many of these students have been in my opinion, well beyond their years in academic competency but often far less so in terms of emotional and social competency. Any student who feels safe (in all its forms), valued and individually respected and expected, will flourish and acknowledge those teacher(s) who want the best for them now and in the future.
In closing, teachers hold and will continue to hold immense influence in any learning space. They can literally raise or crush student engagement, achievement and belief often with little knowledge of the impact of their actions. For teachers to be successful, they need to ensure the individuals over the students in front of them are targeted, supported and believed in individually and collectively. In so doing, teachers and classes will be rated not just for their current effectiveness but for student and personal benefit beyond the leaving behind of the school environment and its incumbent learning environments. To be respected in the future over being liked in the now must surely be the preference for all teachers. Now that's what I call really being rated.
The best advice I have ever got about blogging was to write on what I want and never on what I want people to hear. Even so, I was very surprised at the response to "How students rate your class: Part 1." Even my students were very pleased with the honesty and accuracy of the article from their point of view. What's even cooler was that once they had had finished the article, they had no hesitation in "informing" of all the other ways they rate classes. To say their contributions were enlightening would be a severe understatement.
Student attendance, participation and engagement. My students have always impressed me (for the most part, after they are teenagers!) with their attendance, participation and engagement. In reality, I don't need to ask them if they're engaged and thus learning, I can see it, hear it and feel it. Teachers know! For a number of years, it has been very obvious to me for a number of years that student attendance is the most powerful indicator of the extent to which students value and "rate" their classes. Initially, it is not uncommon for students to seek out learning spaces and classes with teachers they like due to the non-academic freedom and lack of course hardness. After a while however, students seek out classes that challenge them in the now and will prepare them more for the future in and out of the classroom. To this extent, I have always been conscious of my classes being respected for their future value while not necessarily being liked in the interim. I also endeavour to make the course/class valuable and academically enjoyable to the students not due to the teaching personality in front (although this does play a part) but the quality of the learning experience, empowerment and learning space. Let's be honest, some students don't fit with "school" and so seek to withdraw from all their learning environments. For the most part however, and evidence supports this, many students vary their attendance from class to class, often seeking to spend more time in classes that don't have a one size-fits-all approach and prioritise student choice and learning over teaching. To be blunt, if students are in school but not in your class, this should speak volumes that you the teacher simply must hear. Is the work too hard, too removed from their context, or do they simply feel like a passenger in the learning journey?
At Aorere College, we have awesome teachers and simply amazing students. Yet occasionally I am surprised when I visit a class of students that are involved in a collaborative and/or group activity and some students (despite the appeal of the activity to this old campaigner) are still sitting on the outer and in the class but not in the activity itself. As a a huge sports fan, I used to loved Physical Education (PE), the theory and of course the practical undertakings. Yet often when I see classes of this subject playing tag or netball some students are sitting on the sidelines often presenting a visage of almost depression. I find this occurrence even more intriguing when this class in question is not a compulsory subject but one they have chosen to be a part of. A number of students particularly in terms of senior PE classes severely underestimate how rigorous the academic elements of the course and severely overestimate just how much play they will be exposed to. Furthermore, students in subjects where their efforts are clearly visible to classmates need to feel comfortable in this visibility and have an allowance of student agency in terms of participation levels. The choice of participation levels to some extent has been the key to the success of my English class' #VIP sessions which involves the whole class and all teachers in attendance every Thursday lesson starting the period dancing for one minute to a student-chosen song. Students by collective agreement have to be involved but the level of dancing is completely up to them and no recording or criticism is allowed.
It is one thing to have students in you class, it is another to have students in your class participating, it is a whole new level to have students rate your class through engagement. Now we're not just talking semantics here. Engagement over participation is about ownership over mere reception. When students are engaged, l believe students are rating positively the learning and indeed the class for its current and future benefits. Experienced teachers know that engaged students are the ones that don't want to leave the learning-in-process, let alone the class at its timed conclusion. The engaged students literally run to the class and grudgingly trudge away, almost desperate for the next learning episode. I know that my students are engaged and appropriately rate my class when they are frustrated if I don't get there on time or change the learning-in-play without their input and consideration. The ultimate way to qualify just how engaged your students are, is to be aware of the student leadership in and around the learning. If the students are merely doing the work, to me that's participation, if they're questioning the nature of the work or individually owning and extending the learning, that's engagement. The number one indicator that students rate your class and in the inherent learning? Academic questioning and reflections by the students to you and to each other. This is where students rate learning through ceasing to be mere consumers and increasingly become the producers and consumers of their own learning.
In reality, all teachers want to be respected and liked for the learning they provide to their students. We want attending, participating and engaged students increasingly leading their own learning and futures. They are the stakeholders, we need to see them in effect as our customers. If these customers don't like our service or products, they will go elsewhere. And as we know, the customer is always right, whether we like it or not!
Our Aorere Digital visitors from Longburn Adventist College
Today, Aorere College hosted three staff members from Longburn Adventist College (Manawatu, New Zealand). keen to get a first-hand experience of our digital learning platform and experience. Longburn Adventist College is a mid-size co-educational school that has a big and aspirational modern learning desire. Even though these fine people were our guests and the idea was that they would learn from us, by the end of the visit, I could not believe just how much we had learned from their visit. Confused? Please let me explain.
To be fair, our digital evolution has been described by many people as almost "too fast"; ironically for us particularly those of us who are part of Aorere Digital, we like to think our progress has been not fast enough! It is only when one has visits such as this one that we have time and indeed a necessity to sit back and think "what have we done?" and in terms of what we have done, "how good have we done?" Over the three and a half hour visit, the highly committed and clearly capable visitors asked a range of questions that we rarely hear or no longer hear at Aorere College. Thankfully we passed this series of impromptu test questions but the point however was made very clear to us, the hosts. One must also take time to stop and reflect and in reality, stop and smell the roses. In being questioned by someone not of our community, a real focus was put on what is valued by another school and as a result maybe what should be valued or be valued more by our school.
The three staff members arrived not only with great questions but also a real freshness and genuine willingness to enquire but at the same time challenge us on our practices, policies and vision. Rather than be offended, it signaled to me and my team that this school is in safe hands now and in even safer hands in the future as they move forth in terms of their digital progression. The fresh perspective reminded me that we often need to keep looking objectively at what we are doing, often from the outside in and with respect to not just our community but also with respect to the wider national and global communities of which we also of. I learnt a great deal from these visitors as they saw things as they are and not what had been before or what we want to come.
One of the visitors during morning tea made a comment that surprised yet pleased me and my team. Over the course of the morning, I had spent a lot of time explaining our network ,devices, teacher and student engagement. It was a real surprise at morning tea when the focus of the conversation was not around any of the above but on how the school had established such a strong culture in terms of our digital elements. This was a really perceptive observation and to be honest, one that my team and I hadn't really put much thought or consideration into. Looking back now and at the culture referred to in the discussion, it is quite clear that whether planned or otherwise, our collegial and collaborative approach to Aorere Digital has in reality fast-tracked not only our evolution but also the breadth of updtake and willingness of our staff to accept and embrace fail-learning. If we didn't have a culture where staff could take risks or try new apps or learning contexts, there is no doubt that staff would default to the conservative, not try at all or in many cases even withdraw or recede.
As we travelled around the various classes and our wonderful students had no difficulty extolling the virtues (or otherwise) and their opinions of everything from the state of the Wi-Fi to required devices to being world-ranked for teen fiction on wattpad, I was starkly reminded of the key reason for all the device introductions, network and filter upgrades, and our compulsory digital citizenship sessions. It wasn't for fame or certainly fortune. It was not even for the students now. I was clearly reminded that everything Aorere has done, is doing and will do, is for the students' now and their futures and their families' and wider communities' future and indeed if I can be a little bit selfish, this writer's future as well. The more we provide for these students now, our adults, leaders and workers of tomorrow, the better for them, me and all of us.
Not bad learning eh, particularly when we were the hosts of the visit this time. Next time we host, you can be sure we'll be ready to not only give as much as we can, but take as many lessons as we can from our visit and indeed our visitors. Right then, who's our next visitors?
I often wonder why students literally sprint to one class while the same individuals often get "lost" making tedious progress to another and then, upon arrival have in all essence, not really "arrived" and may never do. This is despite often the classes appearing remarkably similar in terms of content, assessments and location. So what's the difference? Here's a few ideas from this old-timer.
Idea 1: Students value the subjects if teachers value choices of the student concerned. Now this valuing of said students and subjects is more often perceived not by what is taught, but now-a-days more through how the academic material is delivered and the level of student ownership and agency. One most recent example of this is with my Year 11 English class. Together we co-constructed two Level 1 English assessments a Create an Oral Text assessment, and a Create a Visual Text assessment. We discussed collectively how long the students would need, came up with a deadline and decided on the resources to be used together. It was rather fascinating to see how much some of the students struggled with being involved in the planning process. It was not that they were incapable of being involved, it was more that such engagement was so foreign and unusual to them.
In the end, the topics for the Visual Text (All about Me) and Oral Text (My passion) were student-driven and therefore student-owned. Within reason, I didn't care what topics/contexts were decided on, as overall the topic/context is not really being assessed. To my students' credits, they were also very mature about the deadlines. They realised that the longer they gave themselves, the more likely they would "muck around" while a shorter deadline meant that they had to get going with the required work. Too short a deadline on the other hand would ensure that too much pressure would mean that they would default to stock responses and conservatism, two occurrences that horrify me.
In a tribute to the individual maturities and work ethics of my students, I also decided against distinct checkpoint deadlines, wanting these students to develop strong, independent work and time management habits through being responsible for their process of completing the required work. I did however check in with each student 2-3 times a week as a sounding board but in some cases, conversations were 2-3 minutes, some 10-15 minutes long.
In the end, every student completed their chosen assessment on time. One of my students was very effusive in commenting that they in making their wevideo, they had actually forgotten they were working on an actual NCEA assessment.
This was the first time I had split senior NCEA assessments in this manner and to be honest, the buy-in and individual, collective commitment of the students highlighted that when trusted while still supported sufficiently, they won't just go well, they'll go great. Hard to believe but true, now rather than having an assessment "break" and then returning to their alternate assessment, they could not wait to get back into assessments. Why? Because what they're doing isn't NCEA's creation or even mine. It's their own creation, their own voices and ideas heard. They didn't just visualise their own assessments, they realised them both in set-up and completion. It just goes to show, when you value student choice and voice in assessments, the hard work is already done..,,now for the assessment.
Confession time: I used to be a brilliant teacher in the traditional form. I could speak all day if required. I could purely focus on outcomes and results to great effect. Students under my instruction have gained subject scholarships, subject competition prizes and many have gone on to be English teachers themselves. However that was then and this is now. 16 years into my teaching career, I realise that back then "I" was the most important word in my teacher-student dynamics. So what's changed and has had to change?
In 2016, there is a fear in many teachers that they are being expected to go from the traditional "I" the teacher in charge to "you"; the student now having all the power, content and decision-making in our learning spaces. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The "I" had to go. It smacked of the idea that student were to be seen and not heard, mere consumers, vessels to be filled with content with little regard for the how. The classroom was about teaching, now it's about learning and we're not just talking semantics.
Students for all their collective and undoubted capabilities can't do it all by themselves so the "I" has not been and can't be transplanted by the "you". Instead it is the "we" that is now being seen and acknowledged as the key to successful learning and teaching (in that order please) and journeys and outcomes (in that order too please). When we think of "we" in our learning spaces, the mindsets of all involved has to evolve as does the practice. "we" implies explicitly that the learning has to be partnership-based with give and take on both sides. The teacher also has to embrace the concept and reality of them learning and often needing to learn from their students. Likewise the students need to be prepared when required to be the teacher, the guide, the navigator for the journey forward.
The power of thinking as "we" also ensures that the first priority is the learning and not the achievement. Both teachers and students have often been so focused on the outcomes, (in many cases assessment performance) that the beauty and essential learning of the journey has been sidelined or forgotten entirely. Now the establishment and maintenance of the "we" in the classroom is no easy feat. It really requires both teachers and students to prioritise needs over wants and to work backwards from these. It also requires both parties to think, "is what we are doing now going to be important outside the classroom to each of us, now and in the future?" Notice the use of "us" in terms of the doing importance. Both teacher and student need a degree of selfishness to ensure that their individual and collective needs are met. Wants are negotiable but in most cases, where the "I" needs are not fulfilled via journey and destination, the learning space dynamic becomes unsustainable and problematic.
Increasingly in my opinion, the "we" will arguably be seen as the most logical and "natural" way forward for learning and achieving. It explicitly implies partnership, trust and embracing of the individual and collective. In the "we", we can literally and in reality, achieve 1+1= 3. Hey it must be the key word in the classroom, after all Nintendo named their best-selling game console after it!
The New Zealand Herald reports:
Are you a school-aged inventor with great innovative ideas? Then a new competition could be just what you're looking for to showcase your talent.
Software giant SAP is bringing its flagship youth innovation programme Young ICT Explorers to New Zealand. It is designed to inspire and encourage school-aged children to use technology creatively.
Pupils will be tasked with developing an innovative ICT project which will be showcased in an event in October.
It's hoped the programme will encourage young people to take up careers in the IT and tech industry.
One day, I hope our NZ tech stars are as famous if not more than our sports stars. Competitions like the one above do a great job in giving like-minded a platform to display their talents.
In light of the following existence, we need as many of these competitions as possible:
"According to Statistics New Zealand, 10.9 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds are not in employment, education or training. And enrolment in, and graduation from, tertiary ICT courses is still declining."
This is really scary. Is it how ICT is perceived by students. Could the tertiary ICT industry be doing more in terms of promotion, education in schools? The longer this paradox exists, the more difficult it will be to fix. New Zealand needs to be seriously looking at the tech and edtech fields as priority areas for economic and social growth.
Every year, I'm fascinated by surveys that suggest alongside dying alone, one of the other things adults are most scared of, is speaking in public. The obvious exception here has to be teachers and politicians doesn't it? In all seriousness, in today's revolutionary (hopefully!) learning environments, the onus must surely be on greater teacher silence than ever before. Here let me explain.
In the good old days of teacher-led content, method and instruction, the teacher was everything in the classroom and students were to be "seen as not heard." Teachers used to speak and write on blackboards with chalk and then via Overhead Transparency Projectors (yes to my younger readers, both blackboards & chalk, and these projectors did actually exists and were actually used by teachers and frequently). Then came the whiteboards and whiteboard markers and televisions in the classroom and who says technology is awesome now eh? Regardless of all this resource support, it remained until the best part of around 10 years ago until teachers on the whole really started to question the level and quality of their teacher speak and the potential damage and/or limitations of such oral publications.
In a fascinating study by Auckland University, the researchers coded teacher talk for a period as to whether it was in response to a student query (pastoral e.g. toilet release or academic clarification), teacher pastoral, or teacher academic (instructional or philosophical) and individual or group focused. The findings were startling. The vast majority of teacher talk was towards the whole class cohort and for the most part was 1)instructional, very closely followed by 2) pastoral. Very little of any of the lessons saw students dominating and/or leading the talk in the classroom and for the most part, their queries to the teacher were of a pastoral nature or request.
What were the recommendations of the researchers? Basically for teachers to shut up, excuse the bluntness. They argued the more teachers talked and particularly so on pastoral matters, students withdrew from choosing academic discussions amongst themselves and with the teacher. The suggestion was also put put forward that understanding questions put to the whole class were for the most part only answered by the most confident, followed by the confident and capable, to the undoubted pleasure and relief of less confident and/or less capable students. These latter students were quite happy to be seen and not heard. A final interesting point raised by the researchers was the low level of questions put forward by the teachers compared to statements and just how few statements or questions were of a 1:1 nature. Even if the statement or question was presented to the whole cohort or 1:1, the researchers also found that the teacher wait time was so brief only the most swift students had time to respond and due to the inherent time pressure, often responded with the most superficial of responses.
I should point out that this above study was around 5 years ago and to a certain extent, I'm not sure how much has actually changed and when I say changed, I mean for the better! All teachers whether they admit it or not like the sound of their own voice and due to the way we learnt or to be more accurate they way we were taught or to be even more accurate the way we were lectured, it is difficult to break away from this mindset and practice.
The more silent I become however, the more I realise the effectiveness of the silence and the talk when I do speak. In 2016, I use Google Classroom as my primary means of disseminating lesson requirements to students whether physically present or otherwise. This is indeed a transformation of learning as although I have a loud voice, even this teacher can't compare to the digital reach of Classroom. Such use also means that students hear my voice even before entering the classroom and furthermore can revisit my digital voice as often as they need to, without the need for me to say the same thing numerous times.
Teacher silence is also very powerful in that it gives students a sense that the request for their responses is not just tokenism but more so valued and actually desired. I've often thought if my Level 1 English class was renamed Level 1 English Question Time, the focus of this time would be more understood and greater applied. In a brilliant article, reminding us of Mary Budd Rowe' 1972 promotion of "wait-time" and "think-time", the authors reassert:
The concern here is not that 2.9 seconds is bad, while 3 seconds is good, and 5.3 seconds of silence is even better. The concern is to provide the period of time that will most effectively assist nearly every student to complete the cognitive tasks needed in the particular situation.
In my experience, a wait time of five seconds or more would initially be very uncomfortable for the teacher, least of all the students. I know in all honesty, I struggled initially until I realised that first of all the student has to take in the question, then come up with a range of possible responses, maybe also seek clarification of the question and then present their best response. If we think of this process being necessary of all our students, even the most capable and confident would need at least 5 seconds, in all probability 10 seconds or more. What is also interesting is that the article points out for the silence to be effective, the pre and post contexts must be aligned with the silence offering. In other words, students must know that they have time on their side before needing to respond and can therefore prioritise quality and depth over brevity and speed. Furthermore post the silence period, it is essential that the thought and response process is acknowledged as much, if not more than the actual accuracy of response.
It can also be strongly argued or to be honest I'm arguing, that the more teachers are silent in the classroom particularly class-wide, the more there is gravitas and time attached and allocated to student to student discussions and teacher to student 1:1 discussions. These are the academic conversations that in my opinion offer the best learning and checking opportunities for both teachers and students. It is in these conversations (yes, not monologues) that students have time, space and the necessary emotional safety to really learn at their own pace and literally through their own words. For the teachers, such conversations are immensely powerful as they inform oneself on individual understandings over whole-class capabilities. Although I still place a premium on oral conversations, I am also simultaneously using Google Forms to get recordable feedback on student academic understandings. By using both methods, I am ensuring that students via digital or verbal are able to present safely their learning progress or concerns.
To be fair, teachers more and more are getting used to the sound of their students' voices in terms of feedback and feedforward but it needs to more and more via methods determined by the students more so than the teachers. When we give silence in this context to our learning spaces, we are not giving time and encouragement to students, we are also ensuring learning over teaching is the priority in the class. In such classrooms in terms of the teachers and the learning, maybe just maybe silence is golden.
16 years into my teaching career and I've been stopped by a question I'm not really sure that I know the answer to... anymore. Pre the revolution of edtech around the world, school was the primary location for the imparting of content and knowledge to students, yet everything has now changed. When students can literally learn their syllabus off the internet via the Khan Academy and/or via New Zealand's world-renowned LearnCoach, schools no longer have the content exclusively under their influence and control. Many students in today's world would no doubt argue that in many cases, teachers and by extension schools now impede rather improve their learning. Thus it was very timely only recently that a teaching colleague of mine asked "what is the point of schools now?" Here is my answer.
Most schools hopefully have always seen themselves as not just developers of academic students but holistic well-rounded individuals. In every school I've been in either as a teacher or student, I've found that balanced engagement in co-curricular activities only adds to the ability and engagement of teachers and students in the classroom and most importantly, the learning. This is also why I've never been a fan of the STEM push. We ignore the Arts & Languages and Physical Education/Health learning areas at our peril. Yes, it may be well be that the future and economic prosperity is angled towards STEM but this should not be exclusively so. In the Arts and English, students learn communication, expression and how to manage their creativity. Likewise in the Physical Education and Health areas, students learn to think fit, be fit and learn the how & why of physical function among other learnings.
Another point of school is to also prepare our students to exist in an increasingly multi-cultural society where we don't just accept but indeed embrace one another's cultural uniqueness. If schools didn't exist, there would exist little facility for students to be exposed to cultures other than their own and furthermore, there would be little opportunity to see just how similar and different various cultures can simultaneously be. Having attended schools in predominantly very bi-cultural schools as a student and initially as a teacher, little prepared me for the wonderful multi-cultural melting-pot of Aorere College.
If schools adhere to the traditional testing of content regurgitation and focus on the destination or achievement, well then there is little point in reality to such institutions. However when schools focus on developing skills and focus on journeys or learning, then these institutions have never been more relevant or important to student presents or futures. In our school in 2016, each student in Year 9 or 10 is assessed against only four learning area skills, considerably down on the assessed elements of past reports and an explicit task focus. In my role of Principal's Nominee and Deputy Principal- Assessment & Reporting, I am constantly reminding staff and students that we don't have to report on everything we assess, and arguably even more importantly, we don't have to assess everything that is taught or more significantly, everything that is learnt. I remember when I first became an HOD, the school I was at had 13-14 assessments for Year 9 English students. I couldn't believe it, where was there any time for learning? In light of the school year being around 38 weeks long, the above excessive assessment workload averaged out to an assessment just under every three weeks. Yikes!
I also think schools still have a strong raison d'etre in terms of developing the leaders of today and tomorrow whether in the classrooms, on the stage or in the sports arena. In fact, many schools in New Zealand have arguably gone a little too far in this respect to the extent that sadly, one principal was quoted in our most-read national newspaper "you can judge the quality of your school by the quality of your 1st XV rugby team." Yeah right! Never-the-less, schools do provide a wonderful opportunity for students to be exposed to and to experience a diverse range of co-curricular undertakings and pursuits. Furthermore, whereas years ago there were very limited opportunities in career pathways in sport or the performing arts, 2016 tells a very different story with many former students proving the point if you're good enough in any field, you can derive a living from what used to be often considered nothing more than a pass-time or hobby. Schools also enables students to lead in a range of different contexts across multiple years and in many schools, the achievement of "prefect" is seen as important, if not more important than one's sole academic success.
The more I think about my colleague questioning the point of schools or otherwise, the more I realise the need for such questioning and the regularity of such questioning. When schools cease to continue to evolve to their students', community's contexts, expectations or requirements now and going forward, they do become irrelevant and little more than dinosaurs of the past. However the schools that seek and endeavour to develop life-long globally-capable learners and leaders who are embracing of their culture among others will not only continue to be relevant but will arguably become even more so in the future.
What's the point of schools? As it turns out, quite a bit actually!
At the recent Wellington Edtech GAFE Summit, I attended a session facilitated by Scott Mackenzie, a teacher and Senior Syndicate Leader at Hampden Street School (Nelson, New Zealand). Considering he had one of the last sessions before the summit closed, he had to deliver something pretty impressive to not only get me interested but get me really engaged. Suffice to say he did, in a really big way!
Scott (after explaining the community of this school), then stunned the attendees by explaining that his students for the most part are on individual education plans (IEPs). Now we're all no doubt heard of IEPs but the way Scott and indeed his school do IEPs, it is somewhat extraordinary. Not only are his primary school students to a significant extent in charge of their learning, they can learn in any space within the the confines of their syndicate and can learn from any teacher within the syndicate. Now just to be clear, Scott was not joking at all. By the time he had finished his presentation, people were not only in awe of the ambition for these students but even more for the fact that the implementation was in place and working. Needless to say, Scott was bombarded with questions during and after his awesome presentation!
This got me thinking at the time and even more so now, the best part of two weeks after the presentation. If such agency worked for primary school students, could such freedom exist in and work in high schools. To be honest, I'm not convinced; certainly not in the traditional high schools that are still in the majority. Here's why?
Hopefully in time, more and more high schools are prepared to give real agency and freedom (physcial and academic) to their students through the ideas discussed above. Many students would initially struggle with such freedom and agency but this does not such aspirations should be binned. Learning to use the new freedom would require on behalf of many students, a different mindset and arguably an additional skill-set. Come to think of it, the same would apply to many high school teachers as well... wouldn't it?
I work in an amazing school- Aorere College. This is school that is highly diverse in terms of culture, ability and it used to be the case, digital access and digital possession. Thankfully the last two digital references are increasingly becoming artefacts of the past and not too soon in my personal, professional opinion and philosophy. Aorere College is classed as a Decile 2 school for funding purposes by the Ministry of Education. This means that the vast majority of our families are not exactly high-earners but this does not mean in any way, shape or form that these same families do not have high expectations and aspirations for their sons and daughters. On the contrary, many of these parents and indeed their off-spring are the most ambitious people I have ever met. Why? Because these parents want a better life-style and affordability in the future for their children. They want our students to have careers over jobs, vocational opportunities that many of our parent population currently don't have.
Less than 10% of schools in New Zealand obtain a 4-5 year review cycle by the Education Review Office. You could count on only a couple of fingers how many of these schools are Decile 1 or 2. Aorere College is one of them. Why? Because every single staff member is committed to giving our students the best learning and achievement environment possible not just relative to other Decile 1 or 2 schools in New Zealand but ANY school world-wide. And what are the two best ways to achieve such a feat 1) awesome pedagogy and learning-in-place that is student-focused, student-driven, and that gives as much student agency as possible and 2) edtech that is world class.
Now one of the dilemmas of providing edtech that is world class is that it costs money, lots of money, lots and lots of money. The other issue that we have found out is that the age of our school (50+ years and counting) means that many of our buildings when built weren't exactly set up for modern and/or digital learning. Never-the-less, in 2015 our school made a philosophical decision to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to not just make our digital platform good but awesome and future-proofed. To put this necessary transformation into actual numbers, last year alone we spent tens of thousands of dollars on Fortigate filtering, even more on 60 new internal Wi-Fi access points and 7 brand new external Wi-Fi access points and installed another brand new hi-spec computer lab.
We also decided on and publicized the following BYOD position:
All Aorere College students are expected to have their own digital device for learning purposes. Aorere College recommends Chromebooks...
What was the result at the beginning of this year? Despite the vocal minority of nay-sayers, hundreds and hundreds of our students bought into such expectations and brought in or bought devices ranging from Macbooks to Chromebooks and countless smartphones. Many parents of low-income status went to great sacrifice to ensure that their child did not go with-out. It should be pointed that we didn't start from scratch in terms of the device philosophy. In 2015 students were allowed to bring in their devices but at this time, we did not have the explicit expectation of such devices in student possession.
What was made and is made very clear to me by the students and indeed many of the parents is that low decile meant that hi-tech was one of the only ways forward not just to improve student learning and academic success at Aorere College but was one of the most viable ways to lift the fortunes and futures of the families and community involved. To be low decile and thus low-tech is not only wrong, it's close to being unethical and condescending. Now we're hi-tech, we're still restless, still aspirational. We're now aiming for highest-tech. Here WE go!
My GAFE Summit Slides "students" who justified my belief in them
All teachers know (or should know) that the best way to connect with the learners in the classroom is through getting the personal relationships established first. Key to such a development is the mutual trust and belief between the teacher and student. However it is one thing for each party to believe in each other, it's another whole thing entirely to show such belief and often. Often only then, do I truly believe learning and growth benefits are maximised for teacher and student simultaneously.
The image displayed at the top of the article is from the Slides workshop I ran in the last session of the last day of the recent GAFE Summit in Wellington, New Zealand. Despite the attendees at breaking point in terms of information overload and mental & academic exhaustion, I set a goal for this session to be that we published to the net one massive and awesome collective Google Slides presentation. Nothing like authenticity and a bit of peer pressure eh?
Needless to say, every single attendee got their Slide completed on time, much to their and my satisfaction. Now truth be told, a number had prior experience using Google Slides and completed the task in no time at all. However a number had never even used Slides in any capacity before. Undaunted and believing, I dismissed this last constraint immediately and encouraged those who had finished early to assist with those who were finding the allocated tasks reasonably taxing. Bear in mind, this was a group of adult educators who had given up part of their holidays and were now no doubt looking and thinking about heading home. Regardless, of their mindset, my belief and subsequently their self-belief and lastly their belief in each other as a wider collective, meant that the task was not only completed, but done so rather well in my professional but maybe not exactly objective opinion.
Students more of the teenage years, likewise often surprise themselves when they are believed in and are for the most part, grateful and valued as a result (whether the teenagers show explicitly such pleasure is another matter entirely). Teachers need to believe in their students long-term and always keep this perspective close by, just in case it goes wandering time-to-time. I love the concept of lessons being "chapters" or "episodes", a small but important part of something bigger, something continuous. When teachers perpetually show belief in their students consistently and without deference to minor failings, the impact on the students personally and academically can be transformative.
I've lost count of how many students I've encountered over the years who refer to themselves as "dumb", incapable and withdrawn citizens. These students are often the ones who will do anything to avoid doing any work that in their perception will reinforce their dumbness. It is not uncommon in my experience that lower capability students are most prone to such disbelief in themselves, often unintentionally or otherwise reinforced by teachers setting easier work for them or tolerating less than average learning and/or assessment performances. Although the teachers in these situations may not explicitly voice their disbelief, their actions speak for themselves. Often these students are quite happy to some extent being perceived as "not capable, dumb as consequently less work and/or quality of work is expected or required of them. More often than, these students deliberately misbehave to get themselves removed from their learning spaces as a means of ensuring personal and academic safety.
To be blunt, whether a teacher genuinely believes in a student's capability or otherwise is actually quite irrelevant. What really matters is the student's perception of themselves as a adequate or better learner, one that understands failing is learning and not a reflection on themselves or their character. Without belief in them from themselves or others, these students never quite become at one with the learning and can easily withdraw. Those that believe they can, do and do so often. This is where believing in students can be so hard for teachers. If learning was perfectly proportioned in terms of progressions, there would be little need for teacher-extolled beliefs. Unfortunately learning in my experience is often four forward, five back, ten back and then some!
In learning advances as variant as with what occurs with most students in the classrooms of today, it is essential that one constant is the belief of the teacher in the student and explicit promotion of such belief. Obviously the belief has to be realistic and as much as possible individualised but it must be stretched to encourage the student to forward and grow due to the belief-in-play. For many teachers, they often have to learn and/or relearn how to show belief in their students, however as with anything repeated consistently and often, habits and traditions soon form. It is also far easier in my opinion to stay believing than to start believing a little too late. Regardless of whether a student leaves each classroom with a little bit more academic knowledge or understanding, one thing that every student should leave any classroom with is and must be a little bit more teacher-belief and student-belief in themselves. After all, there is nothing really to loose here, is there?
Teacher training graduates about to join the best profession in the world
As somewhat of a veteran of the classroom and an observer of literally hundreds of not thousands of beginning teacher lessons, I would now like to share the observation what was almost the best one I've ever seen.
The teacher who is now an expert teacher at Aorere College and vastly competent and highly respected and admired by both the student & staff communities, started out as a very green yet highly enthusiastic and passionate provisionally registered teacher (PRT) at our awesome school around 5-6 years ago. In order to tell this tale but at the same time be respectful of anonymity and confidentiality, let us call this person John and he.
From the moment John joined our teaching community, I was impressed by the level of his questioning of pre-existing and proposed learning over teaching pedagogy. He constantly sought other staff to be in his classroom in order to gain objective reflections on the effectiveness or otherwise of his classroom and his students' academic undertakings. After a period of two terms settling in, I visited John to complete an appraisal lesson observation. In advance of the scheduled visit, John ensured that I was fully briefed on the current state of unit progress for the class concerned, and on the morning of my visit, I was presented with a comprehensive lesson plan with lesson content and activities planned to the absolute minute.
I arrived at the observation lesson just before the bell and was politely acknowledged by this PRT. This was despite a number of students encircling John with questions about the just-completed lesson; an occurrence highly complimenting of any teacher and in reality, much desired. When these students headed off, John followed the school-mandated instruction of the time lining the students up outside the classroom (something by the by, I have never done and never will do, we're in education, not the army!). The first issue then arose through some students coming from the other side of the school being delayed by their teacher. Eventually the classroom was filled with energetic and interested juniors. The lesson started off with a recap of the previous lesson's work. Rather than ask for a show of hands pandering to the most confident and often vocal, the teacher randomly choose a handful of students to reflect back on previous learning, and in doing elicited highly complex and reflective student responses. In return, the students received clear, targeted and affirmative feedback. The student cohort then settled down to the main lesson activity. The students instantly saw the connection to their personal circumstances and the previous lesson's work and therefore set to work with much gusto and attention. John had a wonderful classroom set-up with no front of class clearly discernible and him consistently roving and giving 1:1 feedback and feed-forward; as much as time and space would allow him.
I should point out at this stage that our school was rather fixated on Blackboard Configuration (BBC, something else I have big problems with) at this time with what I saw and still do as an almost obsessive adherence to structure, lesson roll-out and adherence to time-checks through-out the lessons and the need for a formal lesson close/plenary. Thankfully we have now all moved forward for the most part from such unnecessary rigidity to what I now term #flowlearning, (more on this in an upcoming article).
With 10 minutes to go in the lesson, the students were way more immersed than I or even John had believed they would be, and according to the lesson outline were now 15 minutes out of scheduled action, activity. Two factors I believe influenced such positive student scheduling disruption, 1) each student had significant input into activity mode and thus the qualitative outcome and 2) a number of side-learning experiences occurred due to the main activity stimulus and John's perpetual and supportive communication and the promotion of "learn, think, do" in various orders. It was with so little time to go that I assumed John would as they say in sport "run the clock down". Instead I noticed John becoming somewhat worried, almost to the point of distress. He then made the fateful decision to close down the main activity with only about 5 minutes to go, much to collective student surprise and disappointment. By the time, John had settled and explained to the students that it was time for the formal plenary, there was barely any time left and to be honest, barely any student enthusiasm left either. To be polite, the plenary was a disaster with students very reticent to provide feedback, feedback that had been so forthcoming at the beginning of the same lesson. Those that did provide, only sought clarification about when they would return to the much-enjoyed lesson activity. Upon the bell ringing, the students exited for break, ironically appearing somewhat broken.
Having given John time to tidy and collect the resources, we then had a brief catch-up. Ever the optimist I acknowledged the quality of the lesson I had observed and John was grateful for the positive and immediate feedback. I then queried John about the emerging concerned look on his face in the latter stages of the lesson. He confided in me that he had been taught to ensure that any lesson had clear progressions and clear lesson book-ends in the form of robust introductions and conclusions. Then it hit me, John for the most of the lesson let the students guide the learning and associated speed of learning and understanding. It was only at the very end of the lesson that John remembered the book-end decree and wanted to complete the pre-planned lesson structure and timeline. It was only at this stage that teaching and not learning became the focus and in reality the lesson became more about the teacher and less about the students.
Now many years later in 2016, John and I often reminisce about this most unique of lessons. Since this original observation, I have been in John's learning spaces numerous times and have observed many times, John's decision to often forgo formal lesson closings in favour of #flowlearning. Often, not always but when done so with a wink of the eye and within my earshot, John mentions to the engrossed students that they can do a formal recap at the beginning of the next lesson, noting "this lesson is a chapter and not the whole book." What a great way to sum up the natural flow of lessons within a unit and in the wider scheme of teaching and learning and engagement.
Now this sounds like the perfect lesson!