Apparently turning up is essential!

assessment, engagement, learning No Comments »

Do you remember roll call at school? If your childhood was anything like mine, you would have turned up to school every day of the year – no matter what. In fact, if I had a severed arm, but there was still some sinew attached, my parents would have sent me to school. Tonsillitis and an operation kept me away for a few days in primary school, but that’s about it. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ – we just went to school.

My worry this week is attendance. How many days a term would you say was a reasonable absence rate in high school? 2 days per term? 4 days per term? 2 days is 4% absence. 4 days is 8%. It adds up very quickly. On average, students in some year groups are only turning up 85% of the time. That’s 30 days away for every student across the year!!truant

It looks even worse when you calculate the relationship between attendance and performance in school based assessment. The negative correlation is as high as -0.3. So, turning up is essential and not turning up is going to have a seriously negative effect. The really prickly question is: why aren’t they turning up.

Here’s where we leave numbers behind and begin to deal with assumptions.

Top 5 reasons why kids don’t come to school 100% of the time

5.  They’re genuinely sick
4.  They feel like they don’t belong at school, or are being bullied
3.  They believe their learning and their school experience is irrelevant
2.  They do not experience success
1.  They do not love learning

So, apart from being sick, the rest of these reasons are well within our control. It doesn’t take an expert to see that the more kids are connected with meaningful learning experiences in a safe and welcoming environment, the more they will want to turn up.

I need to stop now. This situation makes me feel ill!


Thinking out loud

assessment, leadership, learning No Comments »

I have jut looked at the NAPLAN results for my Year 7 and 9 students and I’m more than a little concerned. What is the opposite of a learning gain?  It must be a learning loss… although I have heard some people refer to it as a negative learning gain!!  I think if my bank account were to show a negative savings gain, I’d be in trouble. When I see that, between Year 7 and Year 9, a students’ learning has deteriorated – it makes me ask “What has been the actual impact of two years of learning here?”. This profound question throws into relief all of our reflection about their learning; our innovation, our focus on excellence, our interrogation of assessment evidence. How can it be that some of our kids are going backwards?

During that same period, the federal government spent a bucket load of tax payer’s money on resource funding, capital funding, quality teacher programs, computers in schools and national partnerships. My school received its fair share of this investment in learning…  AND STILL THESE KIDS SLIPPED BACKWARDS!

When my colleagues and I look at the list of students whose learning is in the red, no one expresses surprise – only dismay. It is as if we could see this coming like a slow motion car accident. If we are not surprised now, then why didn’t we do more to intervene beforehand?

Maybe we don’t know what to do?

I am thinking about undertaking some research over the next few years. As most educational researchers would say, refining a focus is one of the first and greatest challenges.  Here’s what’s on my mind:

  • What is the correlation between the home learning culture and education outcomes?
  • How successful are particular interventions in closing achievement gaps (didn’t John Hattie already do that?)
  • How do we forge the link between evidence and improved practice (in the iterative cycle)?
  • Do teachers teach better when they know what individual kids need?
  • Why doesn’t billions of dollars improve learning?
  • What cultural obstacles prevent us from challenging under-performing teachers?
  • Is it possible for teachers to be too diagnostic?
  • What strategies create a profound love of learning?
  • Is it too late by high school?

I know most of these questions have been answered many times by far more erudite thinkers than me. But, if they have been answered, where is the concomitant improvement?

I may have to search for answers myself, because I will not stand by while students have a negative learning gain…

Happy little Vegemites

engagement, learning, thinking No Comments »

It’s the first day of Term IV and students streamed into school in various states of readiness for the 10 weeks of learning that lay ahead of them. It brings to mind something which has been bugging me for years: our students are happy little vegemites who like school, but do they love learning?

We are blessed in Australia with prosperity, peace and opportunity. For many people in many countries, such blessings are a distant dream, as they struggle and fight against violence, poverty and oppression in its many horrid forms. Even in relatively affluent Europe, young people must look to the future with anxiety about what it may hold for them and for their livelihood. As resources diminish and competition increases, surely students in these places must see education as critical to their very survival. Wouldn’t students in these places come to school each day hungry to learn the skills they need to prosper? In such places wouldn’t school itself be seen as a bridge out of oppression and into hope?

In fact, isn’t that what every school is?

As I look at my students, here in sunny Australia, I wonder if they have any sense at all of the importance of their enterprise here at school. Sure, they’re happy.  Their parents are happy. By and large, their teachers are happy. Perhaps that is just not enough…

A love of learning is very important to me. It is a deeply held value given to me by my working class parents and it manifested itself as a voracious appetite for knowledge and skills of all types. In the days before the discovery channel we had a ‘project box’ in the bottom of the linen cupboard. It was filled to overflowing with old National Geographic magazines, Bulletin magazines, cuttings from Time, even Women’s Weekly special supplements. I remember spending lost hours trawling through the project box with no aim in particular except to marvel at how amazing the world is. This is learning as an end in itself.

Even today, I am seduced by TV documentaries about anything and everything: the cuneiform writing system, dark matter, the reproductive habits of fungus -whatever!

I wish to pass this onto my students – this gratitude for knowledge and skills, and an appreciation of how learning equals opportunity. I would love for them to bounce off the buses in the morning ready for adventure. But I’m not sure how to do that.

Learning: “…it puts a rose in every cheek!”

Is Digital Citizenship the key?

citizenship, engagement, learning, social networking No Comments »

I’m at the CEO looking at a new Digital Citizenship course to be offered to high school kids in the near future.  Have you seen the research that explores why anti-smoking campaigns and anti-drinking campaigns for young people are doomed to fail?

Any parent knows that kids don’t like being told what to do by grown-ups.  My concern is that the more we say Facebook is evil; the more we say be nice online; the more we say don’t share identifying info the less likely our young people are to buy into our messages.

Citizenship, however, carries a message of shared responsibility that I find quite powerful, but the messages have to be targeted and authentic.

I’d really like to ask kids what they think might work.  Would they prefer to hear the voices of their peers?  Would they like to produce the content.

I have a feeling what would certainly work: get the kids to create Facebook groups that promote the authentic messages.  Create Facebook games where people compete to earn citizenship points, or promotions.  And who knows what might be possible when Google+ comes out of Beta?

But, back to citizenship.  Young people thirst for a strong sense of belonging, as we know.  We should leverage this desire for belonging and the need to identify, and associate it with the really positive outcomes of social network: social activism and justice, community celebration, networks of support, personal learning communities, etc.  That way, citizenship has its benefits.  Isn’t that what community has always been about?

How to lose an arguement

brain food, engagement, learning 2 Comments »

I was chatting with some students who observed that I never “throw” a student out of a class.  It’s true.  I can’t see the point.  Now, I’ve been teaching for a long time, and maybe I have a few tools in my toolbox that younger teachers don’t, but I have rarely made the assessment that excluding a student is the only way to solve a problem.

Continuing the conversation with me about classroom management, a boy said “You know we don’t actually mind being thrown out.”

“Why is that?” I ask.

“Because it means we have won the argument!” he said.

Sad but true!  How much of what happens in a classroom is about power and identity?  In its worst guise it turns teachers into bullies.  Even in more milder forms, the concern with power in the classroom leads to tightly controlled environments where nothing is left to chance, and where every variable is accounted for: including the students themselves.

If I feel that the behaviour of students is getting away from me, it causes me to ask the questions:

  • What is creating this?
  • Can I shift the focus and the mood?
  • Are the kids busy enough?
  • Is this an engagement problem?
  • Am I feeding the poor behaviour?
In a broader sense, if I know my students, and they know me; if they know how much I value them; if I prepare relevant and challenging activities, then there should be no reason for anyone to leave.
It’s not surprising to see students standing sullenly outside classroom doors.  Perhaps the teachers inside deserved to lose the argument.

Why so serious?

engagement, fun, learning, thinking No Comments »

I have little in common with the maniacal Joker from Batman, however, I do look at life in school, particularly in the classroom, and wonder where the joy went. Of course, teachers are not entertainers and classrooms are not Vaudville theatres, but we are in a very human enterprise which brings people together in the same space every day for years and years – let’s live a little.

I get the pressure of accountability and high stakes testing, but just think about the positive outcomes if I approached the classroom with a little bit more joy…

  • my students might do more than endure their time with me
  • the lesson will more easily be linked to our experience of being human
  • my students will know that I like to be with them
  • there might be less unfocused exuberance from the easily distracted
  • I will go home healthier at the end of the day, week, term and year
I was talking to my Year 10 students about the joy of fresh baked bread as a symbol for life and community.  Not one of my 30 students had ever tasted bread straight from the oven.  This morning, the bread-maker timer went off at the same time as the bell for class.  We cut the bread while it was still steaming, spread ample butter, and shared a new and joyful experience.  The cost?  Some planning and about  $2 in ingredients.
We’ll be remembering that lesson for quite a while.
We work with kids.  The joy is not buried too deeply.

Three wise monkeys

brain food, learning, professional development No Comments »

I did a presentation for the Sydney CEO Assistant Principals recently and, in preparation, developed an analogy you might enjoy.


What we have here is the researcher, the classroom teacher and the student….

The researcher refuses to see what the reality of the classroom is like. With eyes resolutely covered, they can happily design systems and theories to create learning nirvana.

The teacher feigns deafness whenever they hear a researcher speaking. At the very mention of ‘educational research’ the oh-so-busy classroom teacher plugs their ears and sings “la-la-la-la”.

The student conducts constant evaluation of the learning process. She monitors her own motivation levels and assesses her own mastery of the lesson content. But, out of politeness, tradition or apathy, never shares this data with her teacher. Could it be because we never ask??

The punch-line? Practitioner enquiry opens the eyes, unstops the ears and frees the voice of the student in one sustainable and iterative process.

Easy! (see the ‘Learnopoly’ presentation here)

Shift happens – what if it doesn’t?

learning, social networking, thinking  Tagged , , No Comments »

A few unpredictable things have happened to me in my interactions with kids lately, and all of them point in one direction: my students are conservative and risk-averse. Sure, what they do on the weekends may be an entirely different kettle of cetaceans, but as learners and social beings they seem, well, prudish.

shift doesnt just happen

shift doesn't just happen

First, we ask students about their politics, they say they have none, but ask them to take a stand on political issues, and they begin to lean further and further to the right.
Second, we asked the students what changes they’d like to see in the school rules. They want stricter, clearer rules with punishments that modify behaviour!
Third, I offered all of our new college leaders access to social media tools to manage their profiles in the college, create networks and spread good news about their work. What do you think happened?
Awkward silence.
Then came the type of skepticism you’d expect from end-of-career teachers, retired on active duty. The students said “Whoa, that’s a bit too risky in the school environment!” One student said “That couldn’t work”, another just asked “What for?”
So the real question is, in the face of the social media megalopolis – what is it the students don’t get?
I think the answer is, nobody is teaching these kids how to use powerful tools.
If I asked all of the MySpace, Facebook and Twitter users in my school “How could these tools improve your learning?” they would not know where to start.
Hey, it’s St Mary’s… maybe we should just start another club!

Effervescent Learning!

learning No Comments »

Sometimes I think we could do a much better job listening to students.  I was at a forum on Catholic Education where leaders, parents and students responded to thoughtful questions about what we do well and what we don’t.  It was refreshing, frank, confronting, but not at all surprising.  The students assembled all love learning, love their schools, but did not unanimously love the experience as it was mediated by their teachers.  In response to a question about the teaching of Religious Education, one student said “Schools are not authentic and tend to cloud belief”.  Challenging!

What do you need from a teacher?  “I need to be engaged by someone who loves what they do.  I need an effervescent teacher.  I want to be able to see the learning fizzing out of them!” 

I don’t know about you, but there are few days when I feel effervescent in the classroom.  Maybe on a really good day I might feel a little fizzy (think asprin), but rarely would I communicate effervescence (think Verve Cliquot champagne).

So, what is the standard for student engagement these days?   I hate the thought of the new generation of teachers needing to be entertainers first: Late Show meets Early Class?!?  The related question is “will high engagement = improved learning”.  I know I may be sounding conservative (think old), but should the profession be competing for attention with popular culture?  I don’t need my doctor to deliver her diagnosis in rap just so I will pay attention: I want to know and understand what she has to say.

So maybe, just maybe, it is a combination of quality relationships and a compelling lesson.  If we place too much emphasis on engagement, we run a real risk of losing the balance and students will see the show for what it is:  froth and bubble!

Coming Soon!

learning 1 Comment »

I have just finished the script for a documentary about the Learning Projects at St Mary’s in Wollongong.  The film will trace the history of Action Learning at the College, our relationship with the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools and the process for sustaining action learning in out context.  I am quite happy with the last scene where, scenes around the school slow dissolve with images of teachers engaging with students in collaborative learning, the voice over says:

St Mary’s:  a college where the students teach the teachers, where teachers submit assignments, and where no-one has all the answers.  It is fast becoming a community of learners deeply committed the development of everyone and to the notion of building knowledge through deep listening and powerful reflection.

Teachers learning – learners teaching.

Whaddya think?

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