October 29

Collaborative professionalism – thoughts on Hargreaves and O’Connor

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting phrase on the grand serendipitor Twitter – “collaborative professionalism”. What made it even more interesting was the book of that name that bore the names of Andy Hargreaves and Michael O’Connor . I have used Hargreaves’ work before, one of his seminal papers  is on the list of my all time go to papers I would invite any educator to read and chew through (maybe a post about that next time). I have also been passionate about teacher agency for a long time and recently I was delighted and honoured to have written a chapter for the upcoming Flip The System Australia. In short, reading Hargreaves & O’Connor’s Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All  fell on some pretty fertile soil and I couldn’t resist a Twitter invitation from Andy and Michael to let them know what I think of the book.

‘Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All’ is a book about educational leadership. Now, I am not exactly a leader (or perhaps am in that fluid and contest[able] sense of the word Jon Andrews spoke about at the recent ACEL conference ). I am ‘just’ a teacher. But reading the book reveals very quickly that this is a text for the leaders as much as the teachers. It speaks to us all in education.

Collaboration, of course, is nothing new in teaching. Quite the opposite it seems, as we are encouraged to collaborate in our work even more these days. There is no dispute whether we should collaborate, only really about the purpose, format, scale and frequency of it. But not all collaboration is of course the same. It can often be a soft sell of how-to-get-staff-buy-into-our-idea-while-appearing-they-had-a-say, ragtag of episodic, contrived conversations that are superficial, weak in effect, usually added on to teaching, polite, uncomfortable for the fear of sticking one’s neck out to avoid appearing as either boisterous or bashful type, or they quickly descend into the useless trad v prog loops. If you have never seen this you either a) don’t work in a school or b) you do work in a school but are incredibly lucky not to have seen, felt it.       

Hargreaves & O’Connor posit that effective collaboration is a ‘mixture of pride and humility’ (xv). Pride in one’s capacity that diminishes us all if withheld, humility in acceptance that no one knows everything. Or as they put it:

“Admitting that, at first, we don’t know what the issue might be is part of our professionalism. Inquiring together and acting upon is the essence of collaborative professionalism. “

They helpfully point out the obvious, so often hidden in plain sight, that “no profession can serve people effectively if its members do not share and exchange knowledge about their expertise or about the clients, patients or students they have in common.” This is the essence of professionalism and co-labor-ating (co-working).

I invite you to read how Hargreaves and O’Connor distinguish between professional collaboration and collaborative professionalism (CP). The former takes forms of talking, sharing and reflecting together as teachers. We have been doing professional collaboration, with varying degrees of success and impact on our students and ourselves. We have also done it often to satisfy some distantly-derived rubric (xyz ‘hours of approved PD’, myriad of local and national teaching standards etc) or apply some well-intentioned school-based initiative ‘from the top’. Professional collaboration is descriptive (and sometimes pre-scriptive) as it delineates what should teachers do.

Collaborative professionalism is normative. It proposes, then seeks to critique in order to optimise the positive impact on students as a COLLECTIVE, not as individuals, in a given context.  The lexicon of collaborative professionalism is one of unceasing inquiry and open critique, matched and supported by solidarity, care and trust. Collaborative professionalism extends beyond mere meeting, sharing, reflecting … and then going back doing our own individual thing. It is de-privatising individual teaching practice – we’re all in it, no exceptions. In it, failures and successes are not attributable to a specific individual but to the collective. This “shields professional learning and failure from the possibility of personal shame and blame” (p. 39) as teachers bear “collective responsibility for other [teachers’] impact”. In collaborative professionalism, teachers’ work is not about my students but all about our students.1

Collective professionalism however is not some nameless, de-personalised drudgery inside a common system. Quite the opposite in fact. Individuals are valued as part of the collective. Diversity and disagreement of individual perspectives is essential (see previous point about the mixture of pride and humility) – but always open to critique along the collectively agreed standards of feedback, behaviour and protocol. To use a sporting parlance, you as a teacher are as good as you help your team improve, not as good as your individual score. What matters is the collective, rather than individual, efficacy – belief of teachers in their deliberate attempts to make a positive influence on students TOGETHER.  While often disputed (links forthcoming), research by Hattie (2018, 2012) indicates that giving teachers feedback on their work and collective teacher efficacy have a very significant impact on student learning.

Collective efficacy is just one of the ten tenets of collaborative professionalism identified by Hargreaves and O’Connor. Many of them would (and do) truly rock the boat of the existing systems. For example [collective autonomy]:

“Collective autonomy means that educators have more independence from top-down bureaucratic authority but less independence of each other. Collective autonomy values teachers’ professional judgement that is informed by a range of evidence rather than marginalising that judgement in favour of the data alone. But collective autonomy is not individual autonomy. Teachers are not individually inscrutable or infallible. The egg crate has emptied; the sanctuary has gone. Instead, teachers’ work is open – and open to each other – for feedback, inspiration and assistance.”  (p.109)

Imagine having this sort of agency next time some other ‘what works’ is dropped in from somewhere else to be copied in applied as the solution to (y)our problems with no consent, critique, and depending on a small number of evangelists who may leave at any time.    

And herein lies the trouble you say …   

Apart from the obvious enthusiasm for collaboration, the authors helpfully point out a few cons, threats of collaboration. Collaboration can lead to groupthink and culling of tall poppies, hiding in the crowd, suppression of critical judgement, bending to the will of the tyrants, passivity and compliance in the form of conflict avoidance and more. Collaboration can also be very weak, while giving the appearance of vitality. 

You and I would not be the first people to recognise that the shifts and nuances of power flows in any knowledge sharing/power sharing designs (Monsieur Foucault is smiling in his grave…) can easily undermine the best intentions. These would need to be seriously attended to because CP would seriously bruise egos and wobble many a career path. Collaborative professionalism is NOT easy. The challenging conversations, one of the cornerstones of the model, could be “oppressive” (p. 95) too, (un)intentionally so.

To establish healthy CP, the authors point the importance of recognising the four Bs – before, betwixt, beside, beyond. The recognition of what was there before (CP) is crucial in recognising the longer trends of applying innovation and collaboration in a given context. Recognition of the broader culture into which CP lies alongside with, or rather is entangled betwixt with, is crucial in avoiding ineffective, and possibly foreign, unwelcome carbon-copies and transplants of models of CP across the world. Recognising what is provided beside CP in the form of support is crucial in providing and sustaining resources to implement CP. Finally, it is important to consider what connections doing CP has beyond the given context. Connections and learning not just from but with others beyond the confines of a given school or area is important for the longevity and quality of CP.

Paying attention to these four Bs demonstrates the importance of paying attention to local cultural practices and their history, reasons for the need to collaborate, and resources available for this to happen. The diversity of these factors are a caveat to anyone thinking of parachuting a copy of something done well in Hong Kong or rural USA will work automatically in Western Australia, something the authors are at pains to point out throughout the book.

“Reform is like ripe fruit: It rarely travels well. Designs for collaborative professionalism are the same. But designs coming from afar can work if people actively figure out the relationship with their own culture.” (p 131)

The proposed ten tenets of collaborative professionalism and the four Bs to serve as a lens to see them through are an incredibly useful starting point in starting, or perhaps continuing, a path towards collaborative professionalism.

The book explores five highly functioning examples of collaborative professionalism: a high-performing state high school in Hong Kong; network of rural teachers across the north-western USA; primary school in affluent, stable Norway; professional learning communities in schools in a low socio-economic areas with high percentage of Indigenous students in Canada; and a truly transformational network of hundreds of school across the decentralised educational landscape in Colombia. The examples almost could not be further apart but the authors’ choice was deliberate. They simply wanted to show how the design of CP thrives in these wildly different contexts. They do so not to position CP as a universal, cookie-cutter (quick) ‘fix’, but as a provocation of what is possible when a genuine purpose meets thoughtful, contextualised application of the model.

Importantly, the purpose for CP is also very different in these contexts and depends highly on their needs. While in all of them teachers collaborate, in varying degrees, on pedagogy (ways of teaching), some of them spend more time on the matters of curriculum while others spend more time in collaborating on evaluation. Similarly, the PLCs of Canada and Escuela Nueva seek to transform the broader society they operate in while the Hong Kong, Norway and USA cases transform the school they work in. These differences clearly demonstrate the need for a very clear and precise purpose CP is established for in a given context.    

Throughout the book there seemed to be another dimension, or rather reason for CP that is perhaps less explicit but crucial and ever present – establishment, maintenance and modelling of good, functioning, healthy, culturally responsive relationships between students, staff, school leaders and the communities they serve. In other words, teachers collaborate not only to improve pedagogy, curriculum and/or evaluation to improve either whole society or a single school more narrowly. They collaborate to enact, benefit from and ultimately model good relationships which sustain CP. This ‘relational’ extension stems from a particular view of teaching process (PCRK model) my wife, a counselling psychologist, and I have been exploring lately. It is no surprise that the model was inspired by the seminal work on the importance of emotions and relationships in education by, you guessed it, Andy Hargreaves.

The final chapter suggesting what we should stop doing, continue doing and start doing (sounding similar to “The Russian Brothers” Ridoff, Moreoff and Startoff we jovially refer to in our school sometimes) is a provocation to action. I for one would love to connect with educators in these schools and jurisdictions to pick their brain as I have picked this book for articulating something I have long felt and sought. Thank you Andy and Michael for giving these thoughts a name, shape and examples to stimulate and lead.

Now go and read the book!

 

1 Incidentally, collaborative professionalism design reminds me of the practice of workers self-management in a country I grew up in and does not longer exist. Anyone living in the former Yugoslavia post World War 2 will remember the word samoupravljanje. Collaborative professionalism shares many idea(l)s with this practice which delivered great results for decades but eventually cracked under the collective weight of economic, political, social instability and aspirational turbo-capitalism in the region.    

 

June 21

Career turn…not again?

Breaking news

One thing one probably couldn’t accuse me of is doing the same thing for many years. Teaching, ed tech, Moodle, PhD, back to teaching, different schools and approaches – a moving feast. Latest? Well, I am sliding away from teaching ‘social studies’ (geography, history, philosophy, politics, sociology …) I have taught since 2000. Next week, I am starting an intense six-month course (1 year equivalent) to re-train as a Design & Technology teacher. I will still teach at YBC of course but I will spend last two weeks of Terms 2,3 and 4 at uni (hence the image above I tricked my class with). Bus(ier) school terms and holidays here we come.

But it will definitely be worth it.

At the back of our school, we have massive manual arts workshops which have been gathering dust for many years. We have a number of potential mentors in the community who would be keen to work with our students through Mens Shed and other channels. We have many students who do and would love getting their hands moving and mind engaged differently in their learning, chasing their passion that the Big Picture model affords so well. We enjoy a long standing supportive relationship with Brierty Engineering. Personally, I have the support and blessing of our staff and as a sweetener, my course is actually paid for by the Department of Education due to the shortage of Design & Tech teachers. It seems that this change of tack in my teaching career is a bit of a perfect storm and one that is simply too good to miss.

I have a vision. Details of it will sharpen and change as we go but I can see a living, breathing learning space, infused with hands-on/minds-on experiential learning ethos with 3 questions (asked by the late Grant Wiggins) plastered all over the place:

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • What does this help you do that’s important?

Call it STEAM or ‘maker education’ or more old-school manual arts, woodwork or metalwork … the labels explain as much as detract sometimes. I may have been a humanities teacher but I have seen many a ‘no good’ student in class absolutely shine when they had a physical, tactile, spatial and similar problems to solve. From fixing bikes, making buggies, boxes, shelters, claymation, transport baskets, monopoly boards, simple switches, mini basketball hoops, plaster-of-Paris models, laser-cut wooden heralds and mock weapons, laying ground cover and more, so many of these kids felt valued, engaged and useful. I have seen them turn from sullen, careless or aggressive teens to a different, usually calmer, smarter, even funnier person in a very short amount of time. Difference? In most cases, they had a purpose that appealed to them, they were judiciously left to create or solve own problems, learning went from tangible to abstract, and usually in the company with others too (Dan Pink’s Mastery-Autonomy-Purpose spring to mind). Something we all desire in our work perhaps?

Now, I am not changing (or rather adjusting) my teaching direction to merely keep the hands of the lost, uncatered for souls in the educational landscape busy. I am doing it to provide new paths for any student at our school to taste success, flourish and learn the lessons of life and themselves through materials and people they will be working with.

Well worth the effort, I think.

hands on minds on

April 23

Technologies of delight

Yesterday, I took our two boys (aged 6 and 3) to a place where they could be their best. Not the only such place but a great one nevertheless. The place is called Naturescape, free and right in the heart of Perth’s Kings Park. It is an impressive place with a particularly impressive (if not obvious) feature – its design was based on extensive survey of kids. What did the kids want? Dirt, water, sticks, rocks, stuff to climb, stuff to build, to craft and move.

Our boys dreamt up games, challenges and scenarios. They hung on and drew their breath while crossing creeks on tricky logs, climbing tall ladders, hanging off ropes or waiting if the structure they built with sticks is going to hold out. They built a dam, a bark boat, a ‘rock harbour’, read the map to find the way around, pretended to be Lorax standing on a chopped trunk (spot them on the pics below :-), spotted different rocks, plants and bushes, ran around a maze, fell off ropes, got wet, sandy, dirty, tired … a great few hours spent. It has also triggered a stack of stories and (no doubt) upcoming pictures, annotated cartoons, Lego creations on the theme and more.

As stated in the opening sentence – they were at their creative, acting, learning best.

When our 6 year old goes back to school this week, he will be expected to sit in a chair pretty still and ‘behave’ from 8.45am to 3pm. His teacher will be expected to ‘show progress’ with our kiddo on some pretty narrow parameters that dominate newspapers and societal DNA on ‘what schools should do’.

Likely results? Mr 6 will not be bouncy, creative self as much for sure and his teacher might feel guilty for not bringing the best out of him. Do I feel sorry for both of them? I do. Because a chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day are not necessarily the things, the spaces, no wait … the technologies (!) that bring out the best in people. Every day I watch ‘at risk’ teenagers who turn into zombies when they walk through the school gate but they are brilliant mechanics, traders (just don’t ask what they trade…), bike riders, carers, navigators, budding chefs and lawyers (judging by their ability to argue finer points :-)) out there.

A chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day (with a teacher who ‘knows’ and students who ‘don’t’) are simply historical accidents that we have found comforting to fund and support.

Now please, I would not just ‘get rid of schools’ but I would like us all in a society to think deeply and carefully about the lessons we can learn from watching the kids in places like Naturescape. And don’t for one minute think adults are hugely different and don’t want to play and learn.

Change by delight, not by fright. An old line we could heed a bit more.

And as I got home I came across this post by an old friend…

March 5

What if the educational system IS working well?

HelloYarn Fiber (Thrive)

I have been around the ‘change education’ discussion for a while now. I have argued for changes. I have heard the myriad of grand visions of changers and edu-pundits, waded through the ocean of cliches and (mostly) flowery visions pretty much lambasting the status quo of mainstream schooling. And for the record, I have never been terribly comfortable in a mainstream school for a number of reasons.

But just what would you say to a kid (and their parent) who is thriving in the current mainstream educational system so many (of us) are trying to change?

(Because millions of kids do just that)

Over to you … thanks.

February 14

Mad or what?

The heart of it all. Questions !

The heart of it all. Questions, glorious questions !

This isn’t a ‘flipped classroom’. This isn’t ‘disruptive’ pedagogy or ‘disruptive technology’. This isn’t (just) about what is often understood as ‘critical thinking skills’.

I had tinkered with it and applied it in pieces in a mainstream school. Only in dosaged pieces because at the heart of it, this thing goes against the purpose embedded in the very (classroomed, corridored, square) building, let alone the way a ‘school’ is organised and thought of by most people who come in contact with. And this time, I’m going for it full throttle at our awesome … school.

About 45 years ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote an eloquently genial and provocative book about it. Even that cranky old Greek called Socrates would probably like it (he just wouldn’t like it for being written down, for fear of de-personalising and de-contextualising).

After such a bombastic opening you are probably expecting to read about something terribly clever, innovative, creative and so on. But it isn’t, it is so damn simple and quite old really but with a contemporary e-twist.

This is what we are up to, a factual account.

At our first individual, in-person meeting for the term, the student (six so far, half my group), myself and often another person (a colleague, friend, support staff, parent, carer …) sit around the table with a big sheet of paper. In the middle of the paper sits the topic of student’s interest with words What? Where? Who? Why? When? How? What if? as visual reminders under it.

Together, we come up with as many questions about the topic as we can. We go for about 30 – 40 minutes and we are only interested in questions, answers not permitted. We ensure that the student contributes a healthy chunk of questions (least we’ve had is about a third, most about 80%, usually around 60%). The student can veto ANY generated question at any time but has to explain the reasons for the veto.

When done, the student is given options on the format they would like to use to work on these questions, keep them organised, interact with others and so on. So far, all of them have chosen a website over other formats (eg. portolfio, folder, poster …) for this purpose. A unique Google Site takes about a minute to set up with all the capacity needed to gather, curate and interact.

The student and I share the editing rights for the site. I am the tech hand, (s)he is the content manager and vice versa. We collaborate. I’m not a ‘sage on the stage’, nor a ‘guide on the side’ – I’m a ‘meddler in the middle’ (thank you Erica McWilliam for the phrase, seminal paper). We (will) involve others too as we go along, locally and (inter)nationally.

And the questions, some still in their raw, ungrouped, un-critiqued, un-pulled apart state are the term’s curriculum. That’s it! What is worth learning to this person, right there.

Here are a couple of examples about becoming a visual artist, joining the Navy, online gaming and an earlier effort about drugs. All are in their embryonic stage but with questions there.

If you look at the questions, some contain a dozen PhDs in them if explored to extraordinary lengths. And they can! They are there to trigger that wonderfully humbling paradox of learning: “the more you know the more you realise what you don’t know yet.”

As the advisor (umm, ‘teacher’) I question, praise, challenge, argue, poke and prod, interpret, scaffold if need be. I encourage the student to do the same. I educate in the sense of the original Latin word educare – drawing out the potential, the latent from a person. These kids are not passive ‘recipients’ of knowledge – they produce it. The job is not that easy as it may sound but I have not been this energised about my own profession for many, many years.

Now … where will we end up with all this? Frankly, I don’t really know (probably THE most frightening aspect to many of my colleagues in education and students too). But I DO know that these kids will have a much deeper, meaningful, contextualised understanding not just of the topic they are looking at but ways of learning, thinking, interacting, reflecting, and – acting!

Some of you reading this might see this as great for all sorts of reasons – pedagogical, technological, social and so on. Some of you may be indifferent: “Meh…” Some of you may be truly horrified and you may be right: “How can you track this to syllabus? How can you test this? How can you make sure they are covering areas other than just what they are interested in?” Valid questions. But if you ask them, go beyond the superficial and ‘common sense’, ask the odd ‘why so’ along the way then wrestle with it honestly.

Yes, students starting the term with about 50 of own questions rather than a set course in something their teacher is probably good at is probably an anathema to what society considers as ‘school’. But if I have the engagement of these ‘hard-to-engage-in-schooling’ young people after the first few days to go by – we are onto something.

These kids CAN question. They CAN lead. They CAN learn. They CAN see themselves in a light a school would rarely (or never!) have them before.

Mad, courageous, awful, irresponsible … ? You decide.

December 15

What I learned in 2011

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

My big(gest) lessons and reminders of 2011:

The importance of doing what you love doing in your career.

I never have or will regret joining Moodle HQ but I never have or will regret leaving Moodle HQ this year either. Thank you Martin & Moodle HQ. I love Moodle and its community but I am really happy to be a Moodle volunteer again and get paid (less) to work with teens that I dare say majority of teaching colleagues would not want to see in their class.

The importance of expectations.

You don’t significantly change or disrupt status quo by doing more of the same (way) but harder. Changing expectations shifts things dramatically.

Picture the expectations of a kid (and his surrounds) who has been told, overtly and covertly by the system of mainstream schooling, that most he can aspire to be is a dumb poor loser with some dead-end job as his only option (like many in his family). Suddenly, he completes a great project in the field he is passionate about. He is told, for the first time in his life, that a local university is offering courses in that field, and that, on the basis of things shown and in all sincerety,  going to uni and/or getting a well paid, challenging job in the industry is a realistic option for him in a couple of years if he puts in the effort. I saw the reaction of this kid and his parents. And it gives me tingles as I write this.

The value of Big Picture.

Big Picture is not a panacea for all our educational ills. It also isn’t for every kid out there. It requires a special kind of educator to really ‘get it’ too. But from what I have seen, learned and experienced this year after working in a Big Picture school and seeing some great work of kids and colleagues in BP schools around the country and the world, it is an approach, a state of mind rather, that truly empowers.

‘School’ is deeply ingrained in our societal DNA

It is soooo damn hard to ‘forget’ what ‘school’ looks like and does. In a ‘school’ you learn to play the game (usually called ‘what does the teacher or test want me to say’) then pass … and largely forget. There is a teacher, the knower, and a bunch of students who need to be ‘taught’ stuff prescribed by often someone else and contextually remote. You need a grade to show how much you are worth. Above all – you don’t ask (tough) questions. Things like: ‘What are we doing this for?’ And if kids don’t learn, the teacher says ‘I taught them that but they didn’t learn it’ (akin to a realtor saying ‘I sold them the house but they didn’t buy it’ …).

No wonder it takes us a very long time at our school (yes, we are one, but a Big Picture one) for kids and parents to come to terms with statement/questions like: “What are you passionate about?”, “What is worth learning?”, “No, I am NOT going to tell you what to do next, but I am happy to figure it out WITH you.” “You (student) know more about this (topic) than me (teacher) already so I am going to learn with you.” Crazy stuff huh? Or is it? Ask yourself why (not).

The value of networks

You have no idea how grateful I am of my, well our, network. This goes particularly when I see you from around the planet interacting with kids at our school, kids who, in most cases, have barely left their suburb all their life. Things like comments to ‘John’s’ motorbike website or ‘Billy’s’ ‘World Of Drugs‘ wiki project (one I am hugely excited and hopeful about in 2012) are small but priceless.

Every comment here on Human, every @ reply on Twitter, every *Like* on Facebook, every email, Skype call, shared document or other interaction reinforces my liking for Stephen Heppel’s observation: Previous century was about making stuff FOR many people. This century is about helping people help each other.

and finally … drumroll …

Watching students flourish in front of my eyes in moments during the year and particularly during their Big Picture exhibitions reminds me why I want(ed) to work in education: not to be “the knower” in some field and bang on about it as if it were the most important thing in the world but watch and help others becoming knowers (of) themselves in the fields they chose and share.

PS. If I don’t post anything before Christmas/New Year it probably means I am playing with my own kids and enjoying a bit of holidays. But I do check in here and Twitter …

Have a peaceful Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Kiss your kids and loved ones and tell them you love them. Often. And mean it.

October 6

Overschooled and undereducated

Yesterday, I read and keenly tweeted a link of a(nother) excellent post by Ira Socol (@irasocol) called ‘Schools That Matter‘. It’s vintage, eloquent Ira. A few replies later, I noted a link shared by Geoff Alemand (@scratchie, thanks mate) that pointed to an absolute gem, shared below.

I borrow the post title from a book by John Abbot (@21learn) and Heather MacTaggart I am about to order. You can read more about the book and explore the excellent site of Born To Learn animation series and (of) its associated organisation 21st Century Learning Initiative.

I’ve seen many a 21st century call-to-arms but this one, for my 2 cents, stands above the pep-crowd with its simplicity, research support and an easy-to-grasp genealogy of current mainstream schooling. Bit of confirmation bias perhaps here but you know …

I am embedding the three clips here, in no particular order. They could be used in so many presentations, sessions, workshops and similar gathering to stimulate truly important conversations.

If I were showing these at a staff meeting, teacher education or similar, I would strategically pause the third clip (Class Reunion) at exactly 2.48 into the clip and ask the room for responses.

They may just frame the essence of the(ir) view, purpose and reasons to be(come) an educator.

Enjoy!

Born to Learn from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

The Faustian Bargain (Trailer) from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

Born to Learn: Class Reunion from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

Thank you Geoff for sharing, thank you John and Heather for your work.

July 21

Great Moot but …

#mootau11 collage

A memorable moot !

Quick slideshow…

This is what I tweeted at the end of 2011 Australian Moodle Moot 2011:

To sum up #mootau11: We flew First Class! Thank you @ns_allanc [Allan Christie] and @netspot crew.

It was truly wonderful.  Great ideas, great people, great venue, great organisation, great community vibe. It was a three day Moodle love-in.

Highlights – meeting soooo many people I have net-known for a while but we have never crossed paths in person (Mary Cooch, Helen Foster, Geoff Young, Nigel Mitchell, Shannon Johnston, Nathan Hutchings, Michael Woods, Claire Brooks, Jon Powles … to name just a few!!!), working collaboratively with the one and only Sarah Thorneycroft on the game-based learning stuff, sitting in some very cool sessions and speakers, watching Martin strut his stuff on the dance floor, toughing it out with four fellow moodlers at the inaugural MoodleMoot jog on a wet, cold and windy morning, doing the Baywatch slo-mo impersonations with the indomitable Louisa ‘Buzz’ Wright … and so much more!

Mark Drechsler has posted a few reflective posts day by day and I invite to you to head over for a great rundown with added personal reflection of a team member who has worked very hard to make this moot such a success.

But it made me a bit … sad, too.

Sad because ideas like:

  • Give students a course to create and demonstrate what they can do and care about.
  • Give students the power (and associated responsibility!) to edit and become co-creators in a course/parts of you run.
  • In staff PD, get reluctant teachers to come up with examples of use of a tool as a buy-in before they learn how to set it up.
  • Pique curiosity with quest(ions), interesting challenges for staff or students to complete and build-in some feedback as they go along (game-based learning).
  • Don’t spoonfeed – teach how to think not how to do the new tool.
  • “You never know more than the people you train.” – be humble and listen, value, adjust.
  • Get the audience to contribute their ideas via real-time editable doc and use, build on those.
  • Instead of building new ‘portals’ for content to hoard and lock down – open up and build networks instead with a few simple, existing tools and invest in people instead.
  • Make your assessment match the conditions of the ‘real world’, make it as authentic and relevant as possible.
  • and more …

were met with ‘wow’ and gushing tweets how ‘fantastic’ and ‘innovative’ that was to hear and see. Yeah sure, these are all great things. But why aren’t they as common as dirt? They are hardly new or revolutionary – arguably, they have been around for millennia in different contexts.

It is truly sad to see ‘tighter submission of assignments’, ‘improved procedures for protecting content’, ‘better tracking capabilities’, ‘faster delivery of content’ (whatever that means …), ‘building content portals’ etc. becoming so pressing yet normalised concerns and ideas.

It is equally, if not more, sad that things that we as species are so intuitively damn good at, such as ‘working out a problem’ and ‘challenging ourselves’ and ‘being curios’ and ‘wanting to be involved’ and ‘valuing listening’ seen as some incredibly smart, ‘progressive’, bleeding-edge notions?

Hey, some folks are making a mozza on speaking circuit peddling the obvious…if we took a second to think for ourselves. But I do wonder how and why have these rudimentary human strivings become so counterintuitive to ask, wonder about, and try to stimulate for learning?

I know schools and universities aren’t going to disappear or change in a hurry. And they shouldn’t, for my money. But if education is/were a business, what is its currency? What do you/we want it to be?

I know I’m using broad brush strokes here. I know the minutiae of our professional lives prevents the odd navel-gaze and wonder. But it is important to see the forrest from the trees sometimes.

Once again – thank you organisers of 2011 Australian Moodlemoot. I hope to see you next year on the Gold Coast, weather (aka $$$) permitting.

June 28

Performance vs Learning

Balancing Act

I am getting a little tired of unreflective grade-and-test-bashers, silver-tongued and ‘inspirational’ gurus on the educational speaking circuit peddling a rosy picture of learning and lame ‘garden-like’ analogies.

I am getting even more tired of assessment-standard-accountability-statistically-crazed literacy-with-funding, 3Rs, ‘core knowledge’, test and merit pay, bean counters, vote counters and ‘good old days’ pundits.

Well, the former lot is waxing lyrical about ‘learning’, the latter about ‘performance’.  Let’s put ‘learning’ in one side of the continuum and ‘performance’ on the opposite side and ask three questions:

Is there a difference between learning and performing?

Definitions abound. I loosely borrow from Dweck’s that makes a lot of sense to me.

Performance is about doing well when required and expected. The ability to deliver  generates reputation, often hierarchical when in relation, compared to others.  Performance has standards and is data-driven (data as ends, not means), quantifiable, measurable. It is efficient, gets things done. ‘Facilitating  performance’ is about removing the obstacles to overcome. Similarly, risk, error, uncertainty are to be avoided or at least minimised so one can stay in the zone of competence.

Performance is extrinsic. It is about winning positive judgement and avoiding negative ones. Since error is likely to produce condemnation (poor results, diminished status etc), one needs to look smart, competent and avoid looking dumb, oft at all cost. Errors are also likely to produce low self-efficacy (a ‘belief in our ability to succeed in specific situations’; Bandura), and trigger blame on self (“I’m useless …”) and others (“it’s teachers’ fault I failed the unit…”), even  giving up.

Do we need performance in our lives? Sure do, with all its good and bad sides. We all like  doctors to prescribe the right treatment, train drivers to drive safely, athletes in our team to win … you name it (next time you see a politician, remember the above paragraph).

And then there is learning.

Learning is about mastering a new skill, understanding, growing. It cannot be pulled up on demand nor shut down when not needed. It is not a goal but a process, a strateg(ising) to deal with. Whether it’s maths, kissing, football or philosophy, ‘facilitating learning’ is about creating meaningful, challenging obstacles to overcome. Risk is welcome, errors are something to learn from.  Learning is data-informed (data is means to ends). It is intrinsic. It is about being smart, not just looking like it at all cost. Learning breeds high self-efficacy.

Learning is also messy, un-predictable, un-measurable (at least in ways many performance fans would have us believe). It requires going out of zone of competence, which can often be a very uncomfortable and a brave thing to do, especially if others, public are involved. Learning can be very inefficient, wasteful even.

Do we need learning in our lives? Silly question really… Ask a scientist about  discovering a cure for a disease, a parent working out what makes their child eat vegetables, a footballer practising a better way to kick … another endless list.

In short: Performance = doing and not screwing up. Learning = screwing up and doing it better.

Is learning better than performing?

I have never liked telling people what to do, but I do love watching them coming up with their own answers. So, no silver bullet from me today (and run away from anyone who tells you they have one, fast !). But for the record – we need a smart, local, contextual, holistic balance between the two.

‘Learning’ with no ends, consequences, checks, expectations while magically holding-hands-and-singing-Kumbaya shields us from the realities. It does not make resilient learners that sometimes need to stand up and deliver, decide, make a tough call, lead when needed. I have nothing against assessment for example, I just don’t think it’s a great way to motivate, stimulate, nourish interest in something.

Contrary, overemphasis on performance, the seductive simplicity of ‘objective’ standards derived from de-contextualised data and delirious joy of thinking things are repeatable and replicable with people, abnormal focus on winning positive judgement from external others (hello ‘tiger mums’ out there …) leads human flourishing to a ‘performative trap’ – seeing oneself and others in terms of standards, points, wins, data collected. The obsession to ‘look good and be right’ is filling an ocean of human sorrow and anxiety around you and me right now.

Why are these questions important to ask?

The ‘performative trap’ is encroaching our societal, shared mental modes which frame our experiences, shape the view of reality and with it priorities. We are increasingly calling it up to simplify complex reality around us. And because we are social animals, we tend to share it and reinforce it with choices we make.

And just why is it a trap? Take this example from McWilliam:

[W]here error results in painful condemnation from external others who are marking, grading and measuring each move, then it is more likely that a student will avoid uncertainty at all costs, not embrace it for what it might conceivably offer to fresh understanding. So too an institution’s performance, dependent as it is on the judgment of external others, is vulnerable if and when its ‘mistakes’ (ie, a less than dignified place on league tables) are out in the open. When the price of failure is a lack of enrolments, diminished reputation, and/or a funding cut, it is to be anticipated that ‘best foot forward’ can become not simply an important imperative but the dominant imperative that renders all others to marginal status.

So, I answer the above question with a set of further questions (all first-pass, top of the head stuff) that you may recognise, ask, expand upon in your own context. Then work with the push and pull …

To a student:How important are school grades to you? Why? Do you think you would learn as much if there were no grades, tests? What does that tell you about the way you learn? What will you do in situations where there will be no grades and ranks? What do you think of people who don’t get good grades? If/when you have children, what will you encourage them to do at school? Why so? …

To a teacher: How important is to you to ‘get the marking right’? Do you think Bell curve is a necessary thing? Is assessment a good motivator? Why (not)? Are there better ways to stimulate learning? Are students you teach primarily an economic resource to be classified and passed on? Why (not)? What have you learned today? How important is it to you to have the answer students ask for? …

To a parent: If your child seems ‘behind’ in one area but ‘ahead’ in another, what do you do? What should the teachers do? Why so? Is it OK for your child to be happy learning something but not reaching what you think is their full potential in it? How much do your school grades matter now? Why (not)? …

To a school administrator, to the Prime Minister, to the radio pundit, to your P&C council, to your Twitter followers … you get the drift, surely 😉

I acknowledge that all this ‘performance vs learning’ may be a bit chicken-or-eggish, even a false comparison to some, but sure is a good way to get your bullshit detectors working.

Use them.

PS If intrigued by the ‘seductiveness of figures’, head over to these couple of recent posts by Ira Socol  (Measurement and overpromise and Art of seeing ) or an older series of co-writing right here on Human. Good stuff that may get you angry, or thinking … or both.

References:

Dweck, C. (1999) Self-theories: Their role in motivation, Personality and Development. Ann Arbor, MI: Psychology Press.

McWilliam, E., Taylor, G., & Perry, L. (2007). Learning or performance: What
should educational leaders pay attention to? Paper presented at the The 13th International Conference on Thinking Norrkoping, Sweden.

March 14

Ed-tech snake oil

snake oil

A re-read of an old gem (Postman’s speech ‘Informing Ourselves to Death) and a brief conversation with @pcoutas at our local Sunday morning markets prompted me to note a few questions that just scream to be asked every time people talk about ed-tech tools and their use.

  • What problem will use of [insert a tool] solve? (or asked differently ‘if [insert a tool] is the answer, what is/are the question(s)’?
  • Why is that (not) a problem to [you/others]? (or rather ‘who cares’, at this point refrain from ‘why should they care’, important to listen, not talk!)
  • How important is this problem to [you/others] ? (and how do/will you find out…)
  • What will be gained and what will be lost as a result of using [insert a tool] ? (technology giveth, technology taketh away…)

Be honest. If you don’t have or generate locally and contextually (no universals please!) sound answers and generate a bunch of questions as you go along – you are either selling or being sold snake oil.