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!

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