I have an idea … instructional leadership in secondary education

In 2015, I was fortunate enough to have an instructional leadership role for technology as part of my school’s BYOD program.  I worked with every faculty in the school across Year 7-12 to build the capacity of teachers to use technology to transform learning. A Twitter conversation led me to revisit a more formalised instructional leadership strategy, Early Action for Success (EAfS). EAfS involves instructional leaders working in schools to build capacities of teachers in teaching literacy and numeracy. A look at their online resources revealed some interesting ideas to me, particularly the progressions of how children learn early numeracy skills like place value, mental calculations and using symbols. I also really liked the idea of instructional leaders building collaborative cultures of inquiry and supporting teachers in collecting, evaluating and using data to inform their practice.

So I started thinking about how a similar strategy of instructional leadership would look like in a secondary school context. Instead of literacy and numeracy, what would subject-based instructional leadership look like in secondary schools, particularly in Year 11 and 12?

Some of the challenges facing secondary schools include low numbers of students choosing to study Year 11 and 12 physics and higher levels of mathematics, lower numbers of girls studying Year 11 and 12 science and high level mathematics and implementation of integrated learning. How can we further improve curriculum instruction in these subjects to better meet the needs of students in local school contexts? What does quality physics instruction look like? Can instructional leaders play a role in this?

I tweeted this and it led to a very rich and diverse conversation about instructional leadership in secondary schools (click on the embedded tweet below to see the thread of conversation).

What if there were instructional leaders who work alongside head teachers, deputy principals and principals to support the school (or community of schools) for a specific need in time (eg. curriculum instruction in mathematics extension, science extension or integrated STEM)? These instructional leaders are selected by schools. They want to work with, and grow with the school. They aren’t experts parachuted in.

These instructional leaders work with school teams to build collaborative cultures of inquiry where teachers work together to use data and evidence to improve their practice. These instructional leaders are school-based and will continue teaching themselves (at a reduced load, say, 1 class).

How is this different to existing systems? How is this different to the role of existing head teachers, deputy principals and principals? These additional instructional leaders are for areas where the school may not have existing expertise. For example, a school implementing marine studies for the first time may not have anyone with expertise in that subject except for the classroom teacher of that class. An instructional leader for a community of schools requiring instructional expertise in marine studies can work with those teachers (and their head teachers) to build their capacities,

Like my tweet said, it is just an idea that came to me at 5am. And I like documenting and sharing crazy ideas.

What are your thoughts? Do you have instructional leaders at your school that are in addition to heads of department and are specific to a subject or area (eg gifted and talented; integrated learning)?

Taking personalised and differentiated learning to the next level

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I had my second child recently. Being a parent is one of the steepest learning curves. Learning to be a parent of  newborn again has made me reflect on myself as a learner. How do I learn best? I find myself different to many other parents. I don’t like people coming over to visit and “help”. I like to be left alone to try things for myself. The support I find most effective is to be allowed to work it out for myself. If I wanted help I would seek it out myself. I don’t need people to give me hints and advice if I haven’t asked for it. Even as a school student, I would prefer to find the information I need, try it myself first multiple times and then seek help from my teachers after multiple attempts. I hated it when I was forced to listen to the teacher’s ways of doing things step by step.

This got me thinking about personalised and differentiated learning. How can we as teachers design learning experiences to cater to the needs of individual students? A lot of the times personalised and differentiated learning translates to modified learning activities such as assessments, different levels of scaffolding, letting students choose how to present their learning (eg. choosing whether to do a presentation or a poster), allowing students to learn at different paces and creating individual student learning plans. These strategies are necessary and are often very effective but can we push personalised and differentiated learning to another level? Can we allow students to choose HOW they learn?

As teachers, we often force the same way of learning to all of our students, whether it is flipped learning, inquiry learning, traditional teaching, project based learning, etc, etc. In any class there will be some who love whatever strategy the teacher chooses, some who will adapt to any strategy and some who absolute hate the strategy. Also, students can prefer different strategies in different circumstances. Reflecting on my own school experiences, I like to be left to my own devices to work things out in science and maths,  but I preferred very structured, teacher-led instruction in art, English and physical education. Talking to students, they have expressed the same views. Some really like the very structured, teacher-led, sage-on-the-stage teaching style of one teacher and others don’t find they learn that way. So is there a way to differentiate and personalise pedagogy for each student?

The answer is probably no (if we are looking at the current schooling model). It will be impractical for one teacher to design a project based learning experience for some students and something else for the rest. However, if we break down the one-teacher-per-thirty-students model, then maybe it can work. If we got rid of the idea of classes and instead took a whole cohort of students (eg. all of year 10) and they had a teaching team (say 6 teachers), then pedagogy can be personalised and differentiated for groups of students. One teacher can lead project based learning experiences for a group. Another can lead a group who like to learn independently. Another can lead a group who like to learn in small groups. The different options can be tailored to the needs of the cohort of students. Students can choose which teacher they would like their learning to be led by based on the pedagogy the teacher will use. This way, teachers can teach to the strategy they are best at and students can learn in the way they prefer.

I haven’t tried this strategy myself or seen it in action. I’d be interested to find out if there are schools who allow students to choose their teachers based on who they think they learn best from based on their teaching strategies.

STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

 1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education? 

No longer the solo crazy dancing guy

We have all seen the crazy dancing guy video. The video emphasises that a leader must start a movement. At the start you will be dancing like a crazy lunatic by yourself but eventually you will have your first follower, then more followers and dancing like crazy will no longer be crazy but the norm. The important thing is to get the first initial followers!

For a while I have felt like I was dancing alone, but not anymore. I knew that when my faculty was programming for the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum and a teacher said “I think we should make the natural disasters unit project based learning” and other teachers agreed. It is no longer me who is suggesting new pedagogical approaches, but other teachers in the faculty.

I also had another teacher in my faculty move from very traditional styles of assessment to experimenting with new approaches. Instead of relying on written, research-based assessments, his Year 11 Physics class was given the challenge of teaching a historical model of the solar system to Year 8 students.

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Year 11 Physics students teaching Year 8s

There are heaps more examples of other teachers in the faculty embracing and driving change themselves. They are now becoming dancers as well and are encouraging others to dance with them. I am so proud of my faculty and how far we have progressed as a team, all with the aim of improving science learning for our students.

You want to do something cool? Let me get out of your way.

This week, a member of my faculty asked me if they could a re-design a store room into a learning space. We have a large storeroom in between two classrooms which houses scientific equipment that we can move into another storage space. So this teacher thought if we could clear and clean up the space and find some tables and chairs, the space can be turned into a small learning space where small groups of students can do group work or where students can do quiet independent tasks while the main classroom can be used for other activities. This requires the removal of some cupboards and rearranging some equipment and storage devices. It’s a big task and will probably need few consecutive days of work, but this teacher has volunteered to do it in their holidays. I haven’t prompted this teacher in any way. They just wanted to do this. They want to work for free.

I did have some hesitation at the start for a few seconds. As a leader I often want to take control of a project, but I decided it was a great idea and gave them the freedom to do what they think was best for the space, as long as they updated me and briefly told me what they were doing. But otherwise they had free reign. I told this teacher, “I trust you’ll do a great job. This is a really good idea that would benefit student learning.”

This got me wondering – Why do we do work for free? As teachers, we often do a lot of work for free. Whether this is after work hours at home, on weekends or during the holidays, we are planning lessons, helping our students with extra tutorials or painting our classrooms. Not many other organisations have their workers working for free.

Then I remembered an animation based on Dan Pink’s talk on three factors that motivate people and lead to better performance and satisfaction.

In this talk, Pink talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose as the key factors that drive better performance. Interestingly, money does not motivate people to perform any better. Once you pay people enough so they are not worried about finances, autonomy, mastery and purpose are the main drivers. These three factors are also what drive innovation within an organisation. The teacher that wants to voluntarily come in during Christmas holidays to turn a store room into learning space isn’t getting paid any extra to do this. They are doing it because there is a personal sense of purpose. And I gave them the autonomy to do it. I got out of their way. Hopefully this will be the start of more innovations.

So next time someone wants to do something cool, get out of their way J

Can you see the thousands of dollars?

My year 7 has had laptops now for a few weeks. The class received 12 laptops, which is a costly investment. A colleague once wisely said if that much money was spent you should be able to walk into a classroom/school and notice a difference. You should be able to visibly see that investment’s impact on student learning. So I asked myself exactly that question – Is the learning different in my classroom now? Is the learning better in my classroom now?

I’d like to say yes, and here’s my evidence:
-Students now use their laptops in small groups to demonstrate their understanding, often with higher order thinking skills. Today we explored the properties of magnets. Instead of doing the prac activity from the textbook and writing a prac report, students made a photo story to explain to other year 7s the magnetic properties they have discovered. This took 2 hours. Minimal editing was involved as I wanted the students to focus on the explanation of science, not on fancy video transitions.

-Laptops are used to differentiate learning. Year 7s have been learning about area of composite shapes and expressing area and perimeter through algebraic expressions. Students had to self assess whether they needed more practice in composite shapes or were ready to move onto algebra. Students who selected to refine their skills in composite shapes worked on a self-marking quiz on the laptops while the rest had small group instruction on algebra.

These are just 2 activities where laptops have enhanced learning. When you walk into my classroom, you can see, hear and feel those thousands of dollars making an impact.

Are your thousands of dollars of investments visibly making a difference?

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Innovation – what exactly is it?

innovation road sign picture

I’ll be heading to Auckland, New Zealand to represent NSW in the Microsoft Partners in Learning Teacher Awards. In 2011, I was selected as the NSW winner of this award, which is largely based on implementing technologies in an innovative way.

But what is innovation, and what exactly makes an innovative teacher? I’d like to start with what I think innovation ISN’T

Innovation isn’t about:

  • the latest technology – having the latest iPad doesn’t automatically equal innovation; neither does reading an e-textbook from an iPad
  • change only or change or the sake of change – just because it’s different it doesn’t mean it will make learning better
  • using technology – while technology is often related to education innovation, technology by itself is not innovation. For example using an interactive whiteboard to show PowerPoints to support lecture-style teaching isn’t innovation

I think innovation is more to do with teacher qualities rather than things and strategies per se. Innovation MUST also be able to enhance and improve student learning.

I think innovation is:

  • the willingness to take risks to try new things (technologies, strategies, etc) then reflect and evaluate on how this affects students’ learning.
  • not being afraid to “fail” and be able to see these “failures” as a learning process to grow as an educator
  • being able to  see that education is no longer based on a “knowledge is scarce” model, recognise that knowledge is now available to students at an instant and change as a teacher accordingly
  • thinking ahead; being proactive in understanding and predicting learning needs rather than being responsive and playing catch-up
  • being able to inspire others to join you

In the end, innovation in education, whatever it may be, must focus on improving student learning. As an educational leader, I also think it is vital that schools are environments where teachers are stimulated to be innovative. Schools should be environments where teachers feel that it is OK to try new things, it is OK when something new being implemented doesn’t go to plan and teacher successes in the classroom are celebrated and shared.

What do you think innovation in schools look like? How does your school encourage innovation?