Listening with intent – what your students can tell you about your practices.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Education Matters Magazine (Primary).

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During my seemingly short teaching career, there are two questions that I have constantly grappled with: ‘What makes an effective teacher?’, and to a greater extent, ‘How does one measure their effectiveness?’.

In my opinion, John Hattie’s (2009) influential work in the study of what makes a difference in our classrooms, has made huge inroads into answering these complexities of teaching. It is with little surprise that Hattie’s work is gaining in worldwide popularity and momentum. His study represents the largest collection and analysis of evidence-based research which investigates what is actually working in schools when it comes to improving learning.

I became interested in Hattie’s work after his first major release, Visible learning: A synthesis of 800+ meta-analyses on achievement. After hearing him speak, I took a number of his principles into consideration, mainly in the areas of calculating effect sizes, providing quality feedback to students, and constructing meaningful learning intentions and success criteria with students.

In his second major release, Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning, Hattie presents eight ‘mind frames’ or ways of thinking that must underpin every action and decision made in schools and educational systems if they are striving to improve the quality of education. Hattie argues that teachers and leaders who develop these ways of thinking are more likely to have major impacts on student learning:

  • 1) Teachers/leaders believe that their fundamental task is to evaluate the effect of their teaching on students learning and achievement
  • 2) Teachers/leaders believe that success and failure in student learning is about what they, as teachers or leaders, did or did not do…We are change agents!
  • 3) Teachers/leaders want to talk more about the learning than the teaching
  • 4) Teachers/leaders see assessment as feedback about their impact
  • 5) Teachers/leaders engage in dialogue not monologue
  • 6) Teachers/leaders enjoy the challenge and never retreat to ‘doing their best’
  • 7) Teachers/leaders believe that it is their role to develop positive relationships in classrooms and staffrooms
  • 8) Teachers/leaders inform all about the language of learning

(Hattie, 2012, pg 169)

 

Assessment for the teachers, from the students

Mindframe 4, the idea that student assessment can be treated as feedback to the teacher can be a hard pill to swallow for some teachers. It forces us to realise that every single student in our care has the capacity to learn, and that the teacher and school is responsible for facilitating that progress of each child. Too often, teachers tend to blame ‘undesirable’ outcomes or academic results on student absence, attitude to learning, or social / behavioural factors. However, by believing that we, as teachers, can master ways to progress every child, we can begin to make decisions which will lead to actions that make this happen.

Hattie states that all schools can be optimised to esteem the positive impacts that can lead to improved student learning, and for teachers, ‘knowing thy impact’ becomes crucial in determining and understanding one’s own effectiveness. Hattie suggests that teachers administer the following ‘personal health check’ for the principles of what he calls ‘Visible Learning’:

 

Personal health check for Visible Learning

  • 1. I am actively engaged in, and passionate about teaching and learning.
  • 2. I provide students with multiple opportunities for learning based on surface and deep thinking.
  • 3. I know the learning intentions and success criteria of my lessons, and I share these with students.
  • 4. I am open to learning and actively learn myself.
  • 5. I have a warm and caring classroom climate where errors are welcome.
  • 6. I seek regular feedback from my students.
  • 7. My students are actively involved in knowing about their learning (that is, they are assessment capable).
  • 8. I can identify progression in learning across multiple curriculum levels in my students work and activities.
  • 9. I have a range of teaching strategies in my day-to-day teaching repertoire.
  • 10. I use evidence of learning to plan next learning steps with students.

(Hattie, 2012, pg 193)

More recently, our school was fortunate enough to participate in the Visible Learning Plus program; a guided change process of professional development and practice which is based on Hattie’s work. One of the first topics of conversation, after being inducted into the program, was to complete the suggested checklist by Hattie.

For me, the point of seeking ‘regular feedback from my students’ particularly stood out. In the last few years I have come to realise the merit of asking students for feedback on my practise, but I determined that it should be increased in frequency, across multiple subjects or curriculum areas, and at various points of the teaching and learning cycle if I was to be the best teacher I could be.

In Bill Gates’ Ted Talk Teachers need real feedback (2013), Gates highlights the concern that despite teachers having one of the most important jobs in the world, many institutions and educational systems lack an effective approach to providing quality feedback to help teachers do their jobs better. He discusses his project Measures of Effective Teaching, which works towards building quality teaching practices, by analysing classroom observations, conducting student surveys, and measuring student achievement gains; which seem to go a long way in allowing teachers to reflect on their practises.

I think that the problem of teacher reflection is that, every day, the minds of teachers are filled with processes to carry out and tasks to accomplish. We think about how we meet the needs of a variety of students, all encompassing of learning, social and behavioural factors. We see our role as implementing curriculum that has links to content, outcomes and assessments. We plan and deliver lessons continually, occasionally reflecting in haste.

Often when delivering lessons, we are so caught up in the process, that we forget to stop and try to perceive learning from the eyes of our students. We tend not to realise the direct impact on our students, and whilst in ‘teacher mode’, our fundamental role should be to evaluate that impact on our students using a variety of sources.

I believe that a powerful source in evaluating the impact of the teacher can be with the assistance of students themselves.

The power of honest feedback from the people who matter most in the classroom should never be underestimated. It takes a certain level of bravery, and a possible paradigm shift of ‘it’s my fault they are not learning, not theirs’ in student to teacher relations. However, by listening intently to student voice, one can empower themselves to refined practises by constantly reflecting on their impact to improve.

 

Seeking feedback

In the past years I have been looking at ways of regularly seeking feedback from students. This has ranged from a variety of paper-based templates and tools to illicit anonymous and honest input from students. More recently, I have prefered to use electronic platforms with increased efficiency and effectiveness for gathering feedback.

Using Google Forms (a free online web survey collector) has been a great way to collect feedback from students. A form can be designed with a range of methods for collecting information, from short or long answers, to providing scales or multiple choices. The form is sent to students who can complete the survey on any type of electronic device. Students can easily enter their feedback, and the collection for the teacher is an absolute breeze. At a glance, I can see all of the results and even manipulate the electronic data to filter results and understand trends. Reserving 2 minutes at the end of the class becomes really worthwhile, as you explain to students that their feedback will, in turn, make you a more effective teacher.

Below are some examples of questions with short answers that I ask students. They are designed toillicit interesting responses and give insights as to how the student views themselves, the topic, and the role of the teacher. I may ask only one question or several at a time:

  • What worked well today?
  • What could be improved for next time?
  • Were you successful today? If so, how do you know?
  • Will you be able to use this learning later in life?
  • What further questions do you have about ______ ?
  • How much did you enjoy today’s lesson?
  • How much did you learn in today’s lesson?
  • What did you like about this lesson?
  • To what extent do you feel that your skills in ______ are developing?
  • How much have you learnt about ______ this week?
  • What do you now understand better after having completing this topic?
  • What would you like to learn more about in the next lesson?
  • Was today’s lesson useful for you?

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At other times, I prefer that students think about a statement, and provide an answer to their agreement using a Likert scale:

  • To what extent do you agree with the following statements?
  • My teacher helps me to achieve.
  • My teacher helps me understand the work.
  • My teacher helps me to learn new things.
  • My teacher sets goals that are challenging for me.
  • My teacher’s lessons are interesting.
  • My teacher makes me feel welcome in the class.
  • My teacher gives clear instructions that are easy to follow.
  • My teacher often gives me feedback about my work.

Often, text fields are given to students so that they can explain their reason for agreeing or disagreeing with the statement.

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Conclusion

There are many factors that contribute to the overall development of students. Influences such as parenting, family situations and social status all contribute to students’ learning. However, in most cases, the manipulation of these factors are completely out of our control.

Conversely, the quality of teacher practises that lead to student achievement in the classroom being the largest influence that we do have control of, can certainly be improved through reflection. Personally, I have found that seeking honest feedback from students has helped me to reflect and develop my own professional understanding into how I approach teaching and learning.

Sometimes when I read responses from students, I may be affirmed, surprised, or even laugh. On occasions, I have even been mortified! However, I can honestly say that every single piece of feedback that I have received from students has made me a better practitioner. I believe that great teachers are never afraid of inviting or facing difficult challenges. Most importantly, inviting student feedback has helped me to become a better, more empowered, and reflective teacher every year.

 

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References

Cantrell, S., & Kane, T. (2013). Ensuring fair and reliable measures of effective teaching: Culminating findings from the MET project’s three-year study. MET Project Research Paper. Retreived from http://metproject.org/downloads/MET_Ensuring_Fair_and_Reliable_Measures_Practitioner_Brief.pdf

 

Gates, B. (2013). Bill Gates: Teachers need real feedback [Video file]. Retreived from https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates_teachers_need_real_feedback

 

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of 800+ meta-analyses on achievement. Abingdon: Routledge.

 

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

Blogging as an essential literacy for contemporary learning

This text was originally published in the May 2015 edition of the Australian Educational Leader and has been modified to suit this post.

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[Photo credit: Got Credit]

Educational blogging in the 21st Century has quickly become an essential fluency and skill for both teachers and students.

Through an ever increasingly complex and connected world, the concept of literacy has changed, and whether educators realise it or not, it is no longer sufficient to teach students how to read, write and think via paper mediums only. If this is what students are faced with in their educational settings, then sadly, it will fall short in preparing them for their 21st Century lives. Notwithstanding the need for students to be fluent in understanding and producing paper and print mediums, our students also need the opportunities to explore, analyse and create contemporary mediums, including digital platforms, tools and media.

Through blogging, educators can teach both traditional methods of communicating as well as engaging students in modern 21st century skills.

When creating a blog, a new space with a myriad of benefits is opened for social interaction. By involving students in blogging, they are able to improve their writing skills and are encouraged to share and collaborate about topics. Teachers often post websites, resources or activities which students can access in class or at home. Students can also ask questions about varied topics. If the teacher doesn’t respond, another student or parent might! Blogging is also an efficient way to communicate with parents to keep them in the loop as to what is happening with their child’s education.

This article describes three different types of blogs that are visible in education today.

 

School blogs

A school blog can be defined as a space where an individual class, year level, or entire school community can blog about the happenings within their educational setting. These blogs are set to be viewable by the school, wider community, or the whole world, and often invite viewers to leave comments and to interact with the community group.

Teachers often use class blogs to post assignments, create class newsletters, or post articles for discussion about special school events or units of learning. Photos and videos which enhance the experience for the viewer can be included in posts. Through blogging, opinions and ideas can easily be collected from viewers without having them physically present inside the classroom.

Blogging within the school community is a great way to engage in partnership with students because they enjoy electron-ic mediums and social interaction with their peers. They enjoy seeing their work published on the web and are therefore more likely to engage in reflective classroom topics during class or at home. The comment and interaction aspects of blogs make it easier to facilitate feedback and constructive dialogue amongst students, parents and teachers.

Some teachers use their blogs to link to other schools and communities who are also blogging. In this mode, teachers are able to provide a much more well-rounded view of the world, and open up a new perspective for students. Learning partner-ships can be fostered, allowing multiple school communities from any corner of the globe to come together and collaborate or learn from each other on a particular area of interest. Students love to read and receive comments from other people their age who are outside of their immediate school community, and are fascinated to learn about other people of the world (akin to the idea of pen-pals).

The opportunity for students to interact and publish for an expanded audience via this electronic medium can be highly motivating, and provides a viewership that is real and authentic. Writing to communicate in the traditional sense can be encumbered by physical limitations, and also limited to the pen and pa-per. traditionally, students write their understandings in exercise books, which are often only read by themselves, the teacher, and at times, possibly parents. A blog opens up a whole new community of people who can offer ongoing encouragement, feedback, and dialogue.

One of the most important opportunities that comes via blogging with students is the tangent of facilitating the ethical use of technology. Rather than paying lip-service to the idea of respectful technology use, engaging in cyber safe activities, or minding one’s digital footprint and identity, teachers can integrate these vital messages in meaningful ways through blogging. It is much easier to explicitly show students or to let them experience how to protect one’s privacy, or the conventions of respectful and effective digital communication, if you have a tool such as a blog as a way of making this meaningful.

Moreover, blogging is a way of modelling to students to appropriately use digital technologies for learning. The ‘digital native’ argument, where today’s generation are born with the innate ability to become fluent with technologies, is one that I don’t hold much value in. In my experience, young people today have little fear in using digital technologies, but often don’t demonstrate how to appropriately use digital tools. Through blogging, educators can model how to write for a purpose and audience using electronic mediums.

Some teachers use their blogs to link to other schools and communities who are also blogging. In this mode, teachers are able to provide a much more well-rounded view of the world, and open up a new perspective for students

 

Examples of school blogs can be seen at:

 

  • Mrs Yollis’ Classroom Blog (yollisclassblog.blogspot.com) – Mrs Yollis and her third graders in California, USA connect frequently with other global learning communities.
  • A Room with a View (aroomwithaview.edublogs.org) – A group of Year 5 and 6 students blog from North Yorkshire, En-gland from a classroom window with a stunning view of a castle which once belonged to King Richard the Third!

 

Personal student blogs

A personal student blog can be defined as a space where students are able to curate, reflect upon, and showcase their development of learning. Often these blogs are facilitated by the teachers of the class, in partnership with parents, as a means of maintaining an electronic portfolio.

Through blogging, a teacher can transform expectations of their students. Students no longer create for themselves, but potentially for their peers, and their school community. Personal student blogs open the possibilities for a diverse audience in new ways, so that when they are writing or authoring for a purpose, they are considering how it will impact on their viewers, and in turn, drive their intrinsic motivation to publish with quality.

A public blog, open to the world, is a great way to encourage students to have a positive impact on their online digital identity. They also love the potential of receiving comments from other nations. Students can showcase examples of their projects which are curated over a period of time, and can then be demonstrated year after year and beyond their school years.

 

Examples of personal student blogs can be seen at:

  • Alyssa’s blog (alyw.weebly.com) – Alyssa (Year 5) attends Junction Public School in Newcastle, Australia and provides her readers with wise words: “don’t focus on the future, don’t focus on the past, just focus on the present cause it might be worth a laugh”.
  • Christina Online (christinaonline.edublogs.org) – Christina (Year 6) lives in Canada and has been recently blogging about her science project.

 

Personal educator blogs

An educator blog can be defined as a space where teachers or those interested in education curate resources, thoughts and ideas for their own professional development. The blog is often used to articulate their own understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning, to share success stories and resources, or as a means of expanding their own Professional Learning Network (PLN).

Blogging about professional experiences can be a worthwhile experience for teachers if done correctly. One of the most difficult parts about blogging is finding something meaningful to write about. Some teachers start strong and aim to write a post weekly or fortnightly but sometimes run out of steam. Engaging in reflective blogging and communicating with a wider network of peers is a habit that definitely pays off. One of the reasons why teachers are reluctant to blog, or don’t blog as frequently as they should is because they don’t think that what they have to say is important; but someone else might think so!

Social networking and micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter can be integrated to expand the audience and interaction of educator blogs, making it easier to connect globally with other educators. Through this experience, I have personally met (virtu-ally or otherwise) many other amazing educators.

I have been able to find blogs which provide great resources for myself and for others who I can share with, both in my immediate school community and my (now) global profession-al network. I have read posts that have affirmed, challenged, or changed the way I think about a particular topic. Blogging is as much about sharing with one another as it is about finding one’s own voice.

 

Examples of personal educator blogs can be seen at:

  • What Ed Said (whatedsaid.wordpress.com) – Edna Sackson, Teaching and Learning Co-ordinator from Melbourne, Australia runs a fortnightly discussion on Twitter for teachers interested in the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (#pypchat).
  • The Principal of Change (georgecouros.ca) – George Couros, Principal from Alberta, Canada shares fascinating and inspiring stories of learning and leading, as well as presentations and re-sources from his global speaking appointments.

 

Conclusion

In a traditional sense, education in the past has been separated from learning communities across location, language and culture. With technology at our fingertips and at the disposal of our students, these obstacles are no longer present as barriers; blogging is a great way of expanding the immediate classroom community.

Moreover, teachers are able to incidentally include the development of keyboard / typing skills, teach about copyright and Creative Commons, allow students to develop their navigation and research skills, and foster the smart, safe and respectful methods of electronic communication; thus giving the students the potential to become more literate with technology.

 

Further reading

Henderson, M., Snyder, I., & Beale, D. (2013). Social media for collaborative learning: A review of school literature. Australian Educational Computing, 28 (2), pp. 1-15. Available at:
http://journal.acce.edu.au/index.php/AEC/article/view/18

EduTech15 – Getting your school going with the Digital Technologies Curriculum

This week I will be speaking at EduTech 2015 on implementing the new Digital Technologies Curriculum.

This presentation builds upon some of the ideas discussed in my recent article for ETS Magazine. Furthermore, the challenges for implementation will be unpacked, as well as the most useful starting points and resources for teachers and leaders who are ready for partial or full adoption of this much needed curriculum in our schools. The slides can be found here or below: