Thursday, December 17, 2015

"...the only definite outcome is uncertainty"

The only thing we do know about the future is that is is uncertain. It surprises us. In our own lives and society, we know that unexpected challenges, problems and opportunities arrive. People and society is faced with everything from poverty and abuse to ISIS, climate change and natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornados. This doesn't even begin to talk about the uncertainty that we have about where technology will take us next. If for just one day, you were not allowed to use any technology that was invented in the last 15 years, what would your day look like? There would be no Facebook, no iPhone, so I would actually have to take a GPS with me. There would be no Netflix. Wait, there would be no YouTube. There would be no Wikipedia. Things are getting serious now. I would probably have to listen to a CD - oh the limitations to my playlist size! Scrutinise any part of your day, and you will notice the enormous influence that technology has had on our lives. Would we have been able to predict twenty years ago just how great the role of technology in our lives would be? You could try and argue with me, but if you just think about how many power outlet points there are in any given room in a house built this year compared to a house built twenty years ago...
"When contradictions, complexity and chaos
 combine with accelerating change the only
definite outcome is uncertainty"

Ziauddin Sardar sums up the ideas of uncertainty and complexity in today's day and age beautifully in his must read article, Welcome to the postnormal times; "When contradictions, complexity and chaos combine with accelerating change the only definite outcome is uncertainty"

It seems strange that the only thing we really do know about the future, is that it is riddled with uncertainty. Yet, in schools we seem to do little about preparing students for uncertainty. Instead, we give students timetables to tell them where to be every minute of their day. We tell them the learning objective at the start of the lesson so that they know what to expect and what to learn. We teach to a test or assessments, and we get upset if the questions surprise us. As teachers, we prepare our lessons, plan them out. In fact, how many schools and departments have the planning for the whole year ahead laid out, bit by bit? We are available to help students out when they get stuck. We tell student which strategies to use, what books to read and what thoughts to think. Before students learn to think about uncertain student finances, babies and children, political instability, we ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Then we ask them to make enormous investments in degrees that may or may not be useful as the market is too uncertain to know what will actually be useful. We help students believe that they just need to stick to the plan, and the all will be OK. There is no shortage of articles and research available about the disjoints between education and the workforce, both at a school and higher education level. Is it just me, or are the things that we teach, the ways we teach, actually doing the complete opposite of preparing students for coping with the unexpected and uncertain? And that's without getting me started on the helicopter parents!

I often hear teachers and parents talk about preparing students for the future. However I wonder if we have really thought about what this means. Does it mean teaching and learning of Shakespeare and Pythagoras as we have always done? But much like the economic ideas of continuous growth, that we perhaps try to do it better? Does it mean that we teach students coding and robotics? Perhaps it means that our schools should teach with devices, type those essays on Google Docs? Perhaps even collaborating on a Google Doc? Does it mean that we focus on things such as collaboration, problem solving, creativity, innovation?

So what then does teaching for and with uncertainty look like? It seems fitting that I am uncertain! However, my current approach to uncertainty involves rapid iteration and deep reflection. Hence, here are some of the things that I have tested and tried with various levels of success over the past year:

  • Design Thinking, the Scientific Method and PPDAC: You might wonder what these two have in common... As I see it, Design Thinking, the Scientific Method and PPDAC are problem solving approaches. Where Design Thinking uses empathy to solve problems, science and maths uses objectivity to solve problems. By teaching using these (and other) approaches side by side, I hope that my students begin to understand processes of problem solving, rather than simply looking for an answer. I hope that they learn to distinguish between the pros and cons of problem solving approaches, and learn to apply each approach accordingly. Or perhaps even to mix approaches when the moment is right.  In class, we explicitly discuss problems together and talk about what the best problem solving approach might be. 
  • When teaching maths in particular, sometimes I give impossible problems. Problems that can not be solved because I did not give enough information. Or sometimes I give problems with too much information. Sometimes I give problems that I have not yet taught the skills for. These problems are usually followed by reflections where we discuss our responses to uncertainty. Some of us get defensive, some of us act like we know when in fact we don't (and then sound very ignorant!), some of us simply give up, get distracted or even get angry. We talk about what might have been a better approach. We talk about what we could have done, alternative approaches. 
  • For some time now, I have also been an a fan of programmes such as Art Costa's Habits of Mind. This approach gives students strategies for 'knowing what to do when you don't know what to do'. It enables students to coach themselves through challenges by having strategies to draw on when they don't know what to do. 
  • Simulations: This year I was fortunate enough to co-teach with Steve Mouldey. Together, we ran an alien planet invasion simulation in class where students had to make decisions for themselves in a highly complex environment. This meant that students had to deal with real uncertainty and complexity on the fly. Without a doubt, this was some of the most powerful learning I have ever seen for a group of students. You can read more about this simulation here

Of course, as most of my experiments in the classroom goes, they only raise more questions...

  • If schools valued the ability to cope and thrive in uncertainty, would they want to measure it? How would it be measured?
  • What other approaches could I try to help my students cope and thrive in uncertainty? What does best practice for teaching and learning with uncertainty look like? Can there even be best practice for uncertainty?
  • How do my students feel about uncertainty? Do they feel as uncomfortable 'not knowing' as the adults?
  • Are teachers able and willing to work in a space where they don't 'know', a space where they too are uncertain? Are teachers able to challenge and redefine their identity as the one who 'knows' the answer? 
  • Why is uncertainty so uncomfortable? Why is uncertainty often associated with the negative rather than the positive? 
  • Is it foolish to be/act certain about the future?
With so many more questions, it would appear the the only thing I am certain about is that uncertainty is a key to thinking about Education Futures. Perhaps you are more certain than I? How do you think we might prepare students for a society fundamentally different than ours, so different that we can not know what to prepare them for? How do you think we might prepare students for uncertainty? Or perhaps, you think we shouldn't? 

Friday, December 11, 2015

I think, therefore I am - That time my Teaching as Inquiry went a little wonky.

The school year is drawing to a close so it seems appropriate that I wrap up my Teaching as Inquiry project for the year.


Focussing Inquiry: "In the focusing inquiry, teachers identify the outcomes they want their students to achieve. They consider how their students are doing in relation to those outcomes, and they ask what their students need to learn next in order to achieve them."

Although I did my teacher training in New Zealand, my first teaching role was in Ramsgate, England. From there I went on to Albany Junior High School where we had students from year seven to year ten. In 2013 I joined Hobsonville Point Secondary School as a foundation staff member where we started with only year nine students and have gradually grown from there. What all of this leads up to is the fact that I have never taught at NCEA level. Although I am a mega professional learning junkie, doing copious amounts of professional reading, attending conferences and even doing some more formal university study, this does of course not guarantee that my practice will allow my students academic success at NCEA. As passionate as I am about authentic learning experiences, creativity, problem finding and solving, diversity, sustainability, how do I know that these values, my philosophical approach to teaching and learning, will also lead my students to have success within the qualifications systems? I am a huge advocate for teaching with dispositions, in particular Art Costa's Habits of Mind, and our very own Hobsonville Habits. In my opinion, this provides students with the means to become life long learners, to build growth mindsets. It provides students with a toolset for managing their own learning, for finding and solving problems, but also to become more thoughtful in their actions.

In my practice, I am also constantly seeking to increase student engagement, to move from a covering content approach, to helping my students become curious, eager to learn more, keen to question, to think deeper. I want my students to keep learning without me, I would rather be the spark to their fire than the fuel. I want my students to want to learn. I want my students to have, hopes, dreams, ambitions, and to pursue these with their hearts and minds aligned. I want my students to have authentic learning experiences so that they feel empowered to contribute and make a difference in their world, so that they know that they can build the futures they want, both for themselves and the world. Over this year, I have also increasingly realised that I want my students to embrace diversity, able to collaborate, able to build and draw on the strengths of others. I want my students to have empathy, for the world and community, for perspectives different than their own.
As great as these goals and aspirations might be, my students still need to gain qualifications. They need these to move on to their careers of choice, to universities and more. Qualifications in today's world are usually the entrance ticket, even though once you get in they may not necessarily provide much value (this is a blog post for another day...). Hence, one of my professional goals for this year, but also the focus for my Teaching as Inquiry project became:
How might I ensure that I am deeply challenging my learners to promote further learning that leads to pathways for academic success?

Teaching Inquiry: "In this teaching inquiry, the teacher uses evidence from research and from their own past practice and that of colleagues to plan teaching and learning opportunities aimed at achieving the outcomes prioritised in the focusing inquiry."

Many educators around New Zealand will undoubtedly talk about their love for SOLO Taxonomy as a way to help students towards success in their qualifications. This thinking Taxonomy scaffolds deeper thinking in a clear, easy to understand way. Pam Hook has a phenomenal amount of resources, books, Pinterest boards and more. My colleagues here at Hobsonville Point Secondary also bring an enormous amount of expertise in this area, in particular Cindy Wynn and Megan Peterson. There are also those colleagues across the country such as Matt Nicoll and Mel Moore whom I have watched carefully over the years in regards to their use of SOLO Taxonomy. In the context of this inquiry, SOLO Taxonomy could be used as a tool to scaffold students towards speaking the 'assessment language', as well as the assessment for learning tool that it was intended to be.

As well as SOLO taxonomy and the associated assessment for learning practices, we also know from John Hattie's work that feedback has a huge impact on student achievement. "Self reported grades comes out at the top of all influences. Children are the most accurate when predicting how they will perform. In a video Hattie explains that if he could write his book Visible Learning for Teachers again, he would re-name this learning strategy “Student Expectations” to express more clearly that this strategy involves the teacher finding out what are the student’s expectations and pushing the learner to exceed these expectations. Once a student has performed at a level that is beyond their own expectations, he or she gains confidence in his or her learning ability." - source.

Of course, if academic success with the the NCEA framework was my goal, it was also important that I familiarise myself with the standards, the clarification documents and assessment conditions. It was important that I had a go at writing my own tasks, and completing the assessments myself. Of course the NCEA workshops also contributed here.

Teaching and Learning:


I used many rubrics throughout the past year. The one above was inspired by Austin Kleon's Show Your Work and the ongoing maths teacher frustration around students showing their working. This allowed students to self assess their working for problems, independent of whether their answer was correct or not. This saw a marked improvement in students communicating their thinking. I even went as far as designing a task where each question already had the answer directly underneath and the students simply had to give the working. It was a great activity to see where students were in their thinking. You can see the task here.You can also see a range of rubrics that I have constructed over the year here.

SOLO Taxonomy tools:
One of my favourite SOLO Taxonomy tools are the hexagons. Each hexagon has one key concept and students are asked to find connections between the hexagons. This is a great tool to help students consider how concepts, key words or ideas relate. 

Another SOLO Taxonomy Tool that I have used extensively are SOLO Hot Maps. Pam Hook Shares the templates and rubrics for these on her Wiki. These are great tools for helping students to build a more comprehensive understanding of concepts. It also helps student to go deeper in their thinking.

Developing my own SOLO Taxonomy inspired tools:

Throughout the year I also developed some of my own tools using the thinking behind SOLO and Hattie's work around feedback and reflection, and marrying them up with some other ideas that I had encountered over the year. Some of these include developing a Describe++ Rose Bud Thorn Thinking Map inspired by design thinking and a Data Feelings Impact thinking map inspired by a Complexity Theory leadership book called Simple Habits for Complex Times. Other tools I developed include the Super-gons and the Reflexagons. While Super-gons were an expanded version of the SOLO Hexagons where students had to write a PEEL paragraph about key words/ideas and then write explanations for the links, Reflexagons were aimed to help students gain a more comprehensive understanding of a large topic or idea. 

Students constructing their Super-gons

Learning Inquiry: "In this learning inquiry, the teacher investigates the success of the teaching in terms of the prioritised outcomes, using a range of assessment approaches. They do this both while learning activities are in progress and also as longer-term sequences or units of work come to an end. They then analyse and interpret the information to consider what they should do next."

Although I have undoubtedly increased my repertoire of teaching tools and strategies, and improved my understanding of NCEA, I felt that more often than not, I was not actually making much progress towards my goal. In fact, I frequently felt that I was doing something 'wrong' in my Inquiry because I still felt little confidence in my ability to help students achieve academic success. Being incredibly stubborn however, means that I could just not let it go. I kept banging my head against the goal that I had set for myself, trying to break through whatever was leading to my lack of confidence. It was not until the last few weeks that things really clicked into place as to 'why' I have felt this way.
Over the past year, I have had the privilege of working with Jane Gilbert in the area of Education Futures, as well as working at Hobsonville Point Secondary where I am actually able to test these academic ideas in practice. This has meant that I have grappled with the purpose of education, what knowledge is in a schooling context, and how knowledge is changing. This has meant that I have had more than a few existential crises this year. I feel real empathy for Descartes and his thoughts around whether anything is real! Once I started really questioning 'why' we teach things, and why we teaching things in certain ways, things really started unraveling. 

I increasingly found myself struggling to consolidate what I felt was important with what was required for success within the assessment criteria of NCEA tasks. What if students showed some powerful, deep and meaningful learning however there were no standards to recognise this? Where are the standards that recognise a student who can recognise and apply the unique approaches of learning areas (disciplines), can negotiate between what each learning area offers and then bring them together to consider problems and concepts in a new way? You know, the way Climate Change as a fields transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries and requires climatologists, mathematicians, sociologists, and more to make sense of ideas together?
More and more questions arose... Why are things like knowing about the carbon cycle assessed, but collaboration is not? Why did I feel that little if no understanding of the Nature of Science was needed for achieving at NCEA when this was the compulsory aspect of the science curriculum? You may have read my recent blog post about my issues with exams too.

Even just the word 'standard' started to annoy me. Although I appreciate that we need some measure of success, I feel increasingly conflicted with the idea that all students should 'know' the same things. Our students are so diverse, so talented and interested in areas outside of these 'standards' that I struggle to ask them to fit in within the standards. I am far more interested in developing my students' capacity to explore, make sense, think deeply and broadly, find and solve problems, make the world a better place than to ensure that my students meet a standard.
As it turns out, I think my personal philosophies clash with the approach that I sometimes need to help my students succeed academically. It took most of this year and feeling incompetent multiple times to come to this realisation. Often, I felt that it was simply because I was incompetent. I don't think this is the case... I am pretty sure that I could just teach to a standard, but why on earth would I want to do that?

I have to give a huge shoutout to Jill MacDonald here. Jill is the Learning Area Leader for Maths at Hobsonville Point and she has done a huge amount of thinking around how maths might look different. She has been relentless in her support this year as I worked through making sense of this NCEA business. It is thanks to Jill that I feel that I can somehow consolidate my personal philosophies with NCEA. It was Jill that helped me to recognise how easily the mathematics standards could map to the learning my students were doing. As for science, I am still working on reconciling. However, some little high flying birds told me that I was not alone in my feelings that some of the science standards do not necessarily map to the intent of the curriculum. No wonder it made me feel so frustrated! 

This has been a particularly tough Teaching as Inquiry project, however on reflection, I am very proud of it. How often do we really challenge our own assumptions and thinking in our Teaching as Inquiries? How often do we simply modify our practice without actually revealing or thinking about our hidden commitments? How often do we really examine our theory-in-use? I really appreciate those people that have helped me to do this, in particular Jill MacDonald for her leadership and support at school to make sense of NCEA related things, Matt Nicoll for blogging his rethink of the year eleven science programme, and Megan Peterson for her expertise both with NCEA and Assessment for Learning. Of course, my supervisory Jane Gilbert who regularly turns my brains to scrambled eggs with different ways of thinking. There are of course many others too!

Where to next you might ask? 

Well, the way I see it, I have on of two options. Option one is to investigate the use of e-portfolios as a means of assessing student learning more holistically. Option two is to show evidence of student learning that completely knocks the socks right of NZQA and the Ministry of Education. I guess 2016 will be another interesting year!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Are exams an anachronism?

As exam season for schools and universities around the country draws to a close, I find myself (again) reflecting on the purpose, point and goals of exams. Hence, I have a few questions for Mr Exam. I would appreciate if someone could pass the questions on. Or at least speculate on what his answers might be.

  • Why should students attempt to 'prove' their understanding in an artificial context? What is the point of recalling facts and skills in an artificial environment? Would you go into a meeting or a presentation at work without your notes? You can take notes into a job interview. When solving complex problems at work you are certainly not expected to solve them from memory! We do careful research, we collaborate, we seek feedback, we refine. When I have struggled with particular aspects of a role, I often make notes for myself. I check over them to help me complete the task. I struggle to understand why students should be expected to recall without notes, without their peers, without context and without an authentic purpose? When you have to use recall for your drivers licence test, there is a purpose. What is the point of recall in exams?

  • Do exams value recall or deep thinking? All of the most profound moments of realisation, understanding, application in my life, and I am betting yours, did not happen in exams. It involved deeply thinking in light of new experiences, information, discussion and so forth. Does this mean that exams are not about thinking? Perhaps they are about regurgitating and recalling your thinking? Although, I suspect it might also be about recalling someone else's thinking and not your own.
  • Do exams value efficiency or efficacy, quality? When students are given contrived time limits to recall and apply facts, skills, etc. are we suggesting that it is how fast you are able to do things, not how well? Are we suggesting that learning, Knowledge, skills, capabilities can be packaged into two and three hour blocks?
  • How can we possibly allow for diversity when we are expecting a whole country to sit the same exams? There are piles of research about the euro-centric approach in education, and piles about Maori and Pacifica frequently not 'achieving' at the same rate off pakeha (New Zealand European). This phenomenon is evident in other countries with indigenous peoples too. By making a whole country, district, class, year level sit the same exam, by standardising, are we ignoring cultural capital? Are we suggesting that cultural capital does not matter in academia? Why should all students know and think the same things? Does standardisation ignore and devalue diversity? 

  •  Are exams about equity or equality? All students are expected to write the external 'English exam' or 'Maths exam' at the same time, regardless of what is going on for them in their life. +Ros MacEachern gives a great example from her last school where students were leaving exams early because they were hungry. How many other factors like this is going on? Is that fair?
  • Are we assessing their writing or their understanding? All students, regardless of their strengths, preferences, cultural traditions, personal experiences, family situations and so forth at expected to 'write' exams. They have to give written explanations of their understanding. All teachers know students who can give incredible verbal explanations but struggle to do so in writing. We all learn differently, communicate differently yet exams seem to ignore this? Where do exams make space for different modes of thinking, learning and communicating?
  • How do exams help to build a better future? The value that we attach to exams, explicitly, implicitly and tacitly, are they actually making the world a better place? What values are they instilling in students? What are they teaching students, the community and families to value? What are they teaching about how we assess and individual? What are they teaching about what matters about an individual? Or about a group?

As far as I can tell, exams are not about learning, not about thinking and not about Knowledge. So what is the point? Are they just an an anachronism? A tool from a past age where standardisation was more valued than diversity? Where Knowlege was confined to the pages of linear books rather than the multi-dimensional reality of the real world? If the purpose of exams were about learning and thinking, how would they be different? Are we still making kids and students write exams because coming up with something better has simply been lumped into the too hard basket?