Tidying the Toys in the Sandpit

sandpit

It’s very rare that you can bring together a room full of educators to talk about where we should be going in education without pretty universal agreement that the status quo is not acceptable. All will agree – things must change! In such circumstances you then really have to wonder why so little really does change.

When there is change, I would argue that almost all of it really amounts to little more than twiddling at the edges. Somehow, despite the voiced acknowledgement of the need for significant changes, we just really haven’t changed anything very much. I find this the equivalent of lining up the toys in the sandpit. It’s still the same sandpit and the same toys and it can only be a matter of moments before those toys are thrown all over the sandpit just like before, with no evidence remaining of how tidy they were.

99% of change and reform in schools and in education is pretty much the same.  Incrementalism is the norm. So, a teacher or group of teachers take a process or a policy. Debate it to death. Tweak it a bit and then move on to the next thing. If enough of these little tweaks happen in a school, then the school gets tagged with the label ‘progressive.’ To some, that’s praise – to some, an insult implying that they just leave well alone.

Often these initiatives are so fragile and minimal that a change of personnel and the phrase, “this is how we used to do it,” can be enough to make them disappear leaving no evidence – just like the toys in the sandpit. The response from parents and students is often a rolling of the eyes and phrases like, “I wish they’d make up their minds what they’re doing.”

Attempts to reform, bring real change or to get people to look at education in different ways also come up against big challenges. I have noticed an invidious process whereby something new gets attacked with the challenge, “prove it works.” This leads to paralysis by data and supposed research. One striking recent example is in relation to Grit. This was a concept expounded on particularly by Angela Duckworth and expanded in her book:

Angela Duckworth – Grit

I found this book very thought provoking and intuitively felt that the ideas in it were valuable and had a real place in education. However, subsequently, since that book was published there seem to have been a whole bunch of ‘experts’ who have been hell-bent on refuting the key points behind the ideas. Their tools are to “teach” the principles of Grit to children and then “Test” to see what impact that has on students’ achievements. To me, this is just awful science, little to do with education and also deliberately distorts the intentions behind the original ideas. For example, if Grit gets built in to the values and principles in a school and that results in a pupil sticking through tough times in a job or a marriage 25 years later  – how can you have tested for that? How do you put a value on that? Also, what exactly are you testing for? Whether children produce higher/ better academic outcomes because this particular material was taught? I’m really not sure that was ever the idea.

Something is not only valid because you can do it, then test for it and prove some outcome in the traditional tests that have always been a part of the academic system. I would really want to see a far more optimistic, open and positive attitude towards change and new ideas.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to see how all real change can get closed down by narrow blinkered testing for ‘proof of impact.’ Then, that tempts people to focus only on the little incremental changes, the little tweaks.

I want to see us being far more bold, challenging and questioning big issues. In the coming weeks i have a whole bunch of these where I want to raise the questions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but hope that I can stimulate debates and discussions that will shift the needle. I would also love to hear from readers with your ideas for the big things in education and schooling that we can and should challenge or question. Let’s bring forward the debates on these issues.

 

Is Talent A Thing?

As something a bit different, today i want to share a really thoughtful and interesting radio broadcast from the UK BBC Radio 4, on the subject of talent.

It comes from the perspective of how people get employed for jobs and how the typical recruitment interviewing process does a rather poor job of matching the right people to the right role opportunities. The presenter, having done a pretty good job of debunking talent as a reason for recruiting people, goes on to explore what would be effective and sensible criteria for recruiting.

Along the way, she takes inputs from Google HR, Carol Dweck (on Mindset) and Angela Duckworth (on Grit). She also explores the concept of ‘cultural fit’, growth in intelligence (at the individual and society level) and some techniques for better interviewing that gets us beyond simply employing the people we like.

BBC Radio 4 – Is Talent A Thing?

These are issues that go to the very root of how we ensure that, as often as possible, we get “the right people on the bus.” Maybe there are no organisations where this is more important that schools. I believe it’s so critical that we be given the support of our school communities to recruit for character and attitudes, rather than paper qualifications etc. However, when companies employ for attitude they do so in the knowledge that they then give themselves the time to train for the skills specifically required on the job. However, in schools, parents have a direct interest in the skills levels and their expectations are immediate. Therefore, often, a parent will want that the person with the better immediately applicable skills (subject knowledge, classroom management techniques etc.) is employed as that immediately impacts their child’s education, even though that person may not have the best attitude or be the best person to have in the school for the longer term.

In International schools where the Principals and other campus leadership are on relatively short fixed term contracts, these short term vs long term issues are even more critical. The teacher who can deliver something today will too often be preferred over the one with much to offer in the longer term. When compared with other types of organisations, i fear this puts schools at too big a disadvantage. can you recruit for immediate skills and teach/ train/ mentor for attitude? I rather fear that is a long and bumpy road. I’m really not sure that schools are ready or able to train teachers for those things.

For us as educators, there’s another dimension that is critical. This is that we must also be helping our children to acquire these attitudes and attributes to enable them to have the best possible choices available to them and the best chances for success in their future lives. Grit, Mindset, resilience, EQ and other factors have to figure prominently in our thinking for the pupils – and they won’t come from drilling syllabus in to them! Further, teachers with Grit, growth mindset and positive social and emotional skills are most likely to be equipped to help pupils acquire those skills and attributes.

Student Engagement

Student engagement can be considered the opposite of ‘bored students’, though I believe our aims should go higher than simply trying to prevent children from being bored. As educators, we should aspire that every student in our care develops the habits and inclinations of a lifelong learner.

This is a phrase so glibly batted around in the education environment today with little regard to what it truly means or why it matters. To me, to be a lifelong learner means;

a) A person has the inclination to continually learn throughout life, in both formal and informal ways. Too many adults let themselves off the hook by saying – ” I learn from the people around me and my experiences. That’s lifelong learning.” In the meantime, those people never pick up a book or a journal related to their professional field while slowly they and their peers slide slowly in to irrelevance. That’s no different to what all but the worst have done in workplaces since the industrial revolution (and even before that). This is something way more than that – it’s about being what I call a ‘learnivore’, hungry to acquire new knowledge directly and indirectly related to one’s professional field.
b) The person’s open and flexible to ‘unlearn’ and doesn’t cling on to old dogmas,
c) The person sees learning as a ‘pull process. They’re not waiting for someone to ‘do learning to them.’ There are telling examples here when you see the reactions of some teachers to new information technology. When you put new hardware or software in to the hands of a youngster, they experiment in order to figure out how they can use it and what it can do for them. When you put it in the hands of a teacher, all too often you hear, “when am I going to get a training programme on this?” Of course, part of the reason for this is an unconscious need to be the ‘sage on the stage’ and to always know more than the students.
d) Related to that, lifelong learners are prepared to be vulnerable, to admit what they don’t know enough about and to seek out new knowledge from wherever they can find it. They don’t just try to bluff their way out or avoid.
e) Lifelong learners leave clues – they read, they consume high quality media (e.g. TED lectures, online educator debate forums etc.)
f) Lifelong learners actually relish and enjoy the learning process, in fact, so much so that sometimes they may need to place restrictions and some restraint on themselves regarding how much time they devote to furthering their learning.
g) They have developed the skills and the wherewithal to learn, to reflect on their own learning and to plan a course of learning for themselves that never ends, but always moves them forward.

Returning to the issues of children in school – if that’s the ideal of the adult lifelong learner, then what do we need to be doing in school to provide the right climate and environment to create lifelong learners. This is not just a side issue. Vast numbers of schools today proudly declare lifelong learning as a core value and principle of their school.

First – we must start off remembering that every child starts out innately in love with learning, fascinated in the world around them, ever curious and inquisitive. Too often, the poorest educators destroy that love so totally that the student will never get it back. Moving beyond ‘do no harm,’ educators need to work to keep each child connected with that part of themselves and to give them all the reasons to apply that love to the syllabus learning and beyond.

Secondly, I believe, in age appropriate ways they invest significant time in helping children to develop the habits and skills of learning, to understand their own learning, to reflect on it and to plan for future learning towards desired knowledge goals. In other words, there’s attention to the process of learning as well as the content and the end goals.

Thirdly, the educators exhibit being lifelong learners themselves, including showing vulnerability when things come up where the students may know more than them.

Next, teachers are courageous and bold in planning lessons. This does mean that some of them won’t come off – and that’s OK. They will also build genuine differentiation in to their lesson planning, supporting each student in the appropriate way. This means avoiding the traps of simplistic categorisation and pigeon-holing of their pupils. They will also invest considerable effort in knowing the pupils (not just those who actively speak up and volunteer information during classroom discussions. Perhaps more teachers would be sitting down to lunch more often with their pupils.

Student motivation is a critical factor. Attention to it should be built in to the agenda of the whole school and every member of staff from the Principal down. This also touches upon issues of student voice, agency and continually monitoring real engagement. On the latter topic, I recently came across an interesting article that highlighted the need to go below the surface to explore genuine engagement – not to get lulled or fooled by pseudo-engagement;

KQED – Mindshift – Are Your Students Engaged? Don’t Be So Sure

The article makes very clear why, and the extent to which, engagement matters. Engagement levels carry direct clues to future potential and achievements. It goes on to dissect some of the dangerous myths regarding engagement and especially the false evidence that can lead a teacher to believe a student is engaged. Pupils know their teacher wants to see engagement. As a result, many have learned strategies to ‘fake it’ within wider school cultures that motivate them to give as little as they can get away with – the path of least effort.

Quite rightly, it also points out that a classroom where everyone’s having carefree fun and a good laugh isn’t a substitute for engaged learning. As it says – there’s real effort involved – rigor, relevance and stretch – what Angela Duckworth termed called ‘grit’. Children aren’t afraid to sweat in athletics or other sports training – if they’re not ready to ‘sweat’ a bit in their classroom learning, we’re still doing things wrong.

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