01 November 2016

Mind the Gap: Research and Schools

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Image by Mikel Ortega at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikelo/217048717

Last week I attended the AIS Education Research Symposium.  When I worked at Oakhill College I was part of the team that created and implemented REAL (Relevant Engaging, Active Learning) and then we researched its impact.  Unfortunately I left Oakhill before the end of the two year research project but thankfully I remained involved to an extent.  We designed REAL to create a paradigm shift in the teaching and learning environment at the school through a transparent curriculum in a detailed but clear (student-friendly) format, structured for students to know each lesson or week:
  • What is to be learned
  • How it is to be learned, and
  • The evidence of successful learning
The research project examined the impact of REAL on student outcomes but effectively discovered the effect it had on teachers too.  The research revealed REAL as a significantly successful program, although teachers found it hard to adapt their practices, and I’m proud to have been associated with it.
But this post is about the symposium.  The main participants at the symposium are from schools that have received a research grant from AIS and are at the start, middle or end of a two year research project.  It is also for any other teachers who are keen to make stronger links between research and teaching practice.  And the first keynote speaker, Dr Stacey Waters, was exactly on this topic.

It is extremely hard to make a cultural shift in any institution, let alone a school which has so many entrenched perceptions of what it should be like.  Nearly everyone in the world experiences school and our experiences are reinforced by pop culture’s representation of it, this image being a teacher up the front instructing students sitting in rows, resisting the learning process (except when they have a superstar teacher like Michelle Pfeiffer or Robin Williams).

This is not the one best way to learn.  Academic research has indicated this repeatedly, yet many schools resist changing (much like their students resist learning).  I think part of it is the conflicting voices dominating the discourse of how schools should operate. As mentioned before, there is the entertainment industry image but there is also the political viewpoint that schools must do better, meaning better at publicly published score achievement (PISA, NAPLAN, HSC).  In education conference circles there are a few (mainly men) who have a certain popularity, often stringing out their one concept stories for decades (I’m thinking the hole-in-the-wall story and the idea that schools kill creativity).

The academic voice is often lost in all this.  There are some who are picked up by politicians and/or the media. For example, John Hattie and his Visible Learning ideal is lauded by politicians and the media.  However, even the John Hatties often remain ignored in the day-to-day classroom, for a number of reasons.

Personally I think it stems from a dominating need of isolated teachers in their classrooms to have control and order.  Control and order is easier if learning is considered to be the mere accumulation of knowledge.  It casts a dark shadow on education.  Teaching is better if it is collaborative, learning is better if it is collaborative, but it is much harder to maintain control and order in a collaborative environment when there isn’t a desire to learn in the first place, by teachers or students.  It is harder to know what individual students are doing in a collaborative environment and if it is known that they are not participating in the learning process, it is hard to know what to do about them.  There are plenty of theories, methods and systems that can be put in place but really, it all comes to dealing with individual motivations and desires to learn.  And to be honest, the better learning environments take more time and energy to plan and monitor.  I love an active collaborative learning environment in my classrooms but boy, it’s hard work a lot of the time.  

Prof Ruth Deakin Crick shared this quote as part of her presentation about the use of technology to change school culture from exam-driven teaching to a learning culture with dynamic pedagogy and engagement (image, however, was clipped from elsewhere):

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Teachers are so busy and comfortable with what they know well and what they’ve been rewarded for in the past, they don’t want to become even busier and take risks that result in lost control and disapproval.

So now we can see why some resistance to change exists, let’s return to the academic voice and other reasons why it is difficult to implement research findings into school practice.

To be able to research in a detailed, scientifically credible manner, academics focus on narrow areas to reduce multiple confounding factors in their study. They generally want to discover a cause and effect, and the size of that effect, but to be specific and certain they can only concentrate on one cause and one effect at a time, whereas education is much much more complicated than that.  It is like reducing economic modelling to two products in the market.  It illustrates a concept but an economy with just two products is not real life.  This is why Hattie’s study is so appealing, it throws hundreds of studies into the mix and calculates which causes have the most effect.  However, one point worth noting, is how long this all takes.  A research project can take years, and then months to write and publish in an academic journal, and then even longer to garner the attention of those who it really affects, people in schools.  I’m not sure of the age of the studies Hattie includes in his meta-analysis.  Due to the narrow focus and time-lags the question was raised at the conference as to whether the academic rigour should be sacrificed, to an extent, to allow more pertinent and practical studies be undertaken in a more timely manner.  I don’t know the answer.

The publish or perish pressure on academics is a significant factor too.  The money associated with grants often comes with a proviso of what must be researched. Dr Stacey Waters also referred to the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) system which awards points according to the category of grants.  To be published, it helps if the research is something new and different, rather than going deeper into something that has already been examined.  The dream situation for an academic though, is selling books.  And books sell if they have something novel and easy to implement.  We all know how hard change management is, but just how many books advocate just ‘x’ number of steps (eg Kotter’s 8 steps) like it is a simple linear process?  It’s not.

Even if academics find something that is commonly considered important to implement in schools, the process is slow and usually ineffectual. Researchers are already balancing teaching and research and then they need to market their findings so that schools will take their ideas on board, when so many ideas are already present.  Dr Stacey Waters says that publishing and even training people is not enough. One of her presentation slides said:

Implementation is most successful when…
  • Practitioners receive training and coaching
  • The organisation provides the necessary infrastructure for training and coaching and regularly evaluates
  • The community is fully involved in the selection and evaluation of programs
(Fixsen, Naoom, Blasé, Friedman & Wallace, 2005)

She argued that schools should build relationships with universities and establish a research culture by providing easy access to academic journals and having a forum to discuss what these journals have to say.

Before Oakhill obtained the research grant from AIS we asked some universities to help us perform academic research.  We discovered that not only did they want to be paid consultation fees, that some even wanted to virtually take over the whole process.  We backed away quickly and were relieved and grateful to receive the AIS grant.  As part of the inaugural recipients of the grants there was only minimal guidance but still, some important structural requirements, including an academic advisor.  However, we ended up only spending 50% of the budgeted amount we allocated for the advisor. He was extremely helpful for implementing research that produced quantifiable data and how that data could be used, but partly due to how late we were and partly due to the lack of need, we didn’t use as much of his services for the writing part as we thought we would.

So here we were at a conference that was bringing together academics and teachers, albeit those already interested in research. As Terrie Jones tweeted, “Teacher practitioner researchers in partnership with academics bridging the research practice divide? This room. #AISRandD16”.  One of the sessions I enjoyed the most was about Case Study as a form of research.  From what little I have been involved in research at a tertiary level, I have found case study methods frowned upon because it is not appropriate to extrapolate something that works in one circumstance as being applicable to a wider range of circumstances.  Dr Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn argued that yes, three case studies are better than one, but much can be learned from them and proceeded to demonstrate how powerful they could be but also recognising their limitations.  I tweeted that I’d love to work on a case study with Dr Kimberley and she responded with a “Let’s talk” which I will probably take her up on some time next year (see screen grab below).  However, I’m not looking to do research like this until at least 2018.  I started a Master of Research (MRES) at Macquarie University this year but stopped just a few weeks in due to lack of time. I’m currently not working full-time so I can help my son through his HSC (he has autism and anxiety issues).  I considered studying also during this year ‘off’ but I need to make him the priority, not my own work. After that I’ll be open to all sorts of projects!

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The people at this conference are the core people of their organisations interested in learning and continuous improvement.  What we we actually need to learn as researchers within schools, is how to gather-in colleagues to a learning mindset and join with us.

When we first attempted researching the REAL project ourselves, we applied to present at academic conferences in Seville, Spain, and New York, USA, and were approved for both based on our ‘abstracts’.  This was before the AIS grant even existed and we were without any support from universities.  We then had to write papers for these conferences, the New York paper being subject to a peer review.  It failed one reviewer but the other advised us to change the format significantly, which we did, and it was then published <http://shanihartley.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.264/prod.58>*.  We also had to review other papers which was a great learning experience for us.  At these conferences there was much said about education at all levels but over 90% of the presenters were from universities.  Universities seem to take a more hit-and-run approach instead of working in tandem with the schools they research.  It would be nice to see or even experience more collaboration between schools and universities in the research process at academic conferences.  Perhaps we were better off without a university’s own agenda. We were unusual in being school teachers conducting and presenting our own research.  There should be more of it.  
 
* Despite numerous emails to the publishers, the bios of the authors were not corrected.
* This post is also found at http://shartley.edublogs.org/2016/11/01/mind-the-gap-research-and-schools/

20 October 2016

TeachMeet: Solve For x

Phillip taking a selfie before presenting.
I'm the one waving up the back.

I have been to several TeachMeets.  This particular TeachMeet was held at Google headquarters in Sydney which was one of the main attractions for me.  I missed out on one two years earlier and as I searched for the Twitter hashtag for this evening I found an exchange that occurred about the use of #TMGoogle - the issue being that TeachMeets are supposed to be teacher ran and teachers as presenters, no sponsorship.  However, to host a TeachMeet in a cool location such as Google HQ there is a trade-off.  Tonight I felt the trade to be rather unequal.  The hashtag was not #TMGoogle but perhaps it should have been. It seemed every second speaker represented Google and was promoting something, useful somethings, but advertisements nevertheless. An extra grating factor was that teacher presenters were held to their time limits, albeit poorly, speakers not being deterred by soft Star Wars toys being thrown at them when their time had expired, yet Google presenters had limitless time.  And trust me, the teachers were much more interesting than the Google employees.

The stated theme of this TeachMeet was ‘Solve for x’, thereby promoting problem solving in education, that students solve whatever issue ‘x’ represented for teachers and/or students. The evening was officially launched by Kimberley Sutton through a YouTube video to explain the concept: Moonshot Thinking: Solve for x @ Tribeca Film Festival. Our first teacher presenter linked a goal to this theme nicely.

I have known Phillip Cooke through TeachMeets and Twitter for many years.  He is a passionate secondary school educator and declared this evening that his moonshot concept is teaching for life instead of for exams, a policy I am also passionate about.  I have enjoyed seeing Phillip present on this theme in many variations before. He is always interesting because not only does he and his colleagues come up with the ideas but they actually implement them, although I’m sure he wish he could implement more.  Phillip was intricately involved in the complete rebuild of his school, a school often seen in the industry as an alternative option for the misfits in our education system and thus had a poor reputation for a long time for drugs and disruptive behaviour. However, its hands-on practical approach to education is becoming more dominant in industry discourse and it has featured on a TV show for doing things a little differently.  

Phillip’s attitude towards authentic learning is borne out by some of the initiatives he has shared:
  • Establishing an annual Creative Careers Day where the future implications of their learning come to life through the people operating in creative enterprises
  • Implementing cross-curricular activities, such as Design and Technology with English and Drama to create wearable art costumes for a production of Othello, "Students didn’t just read Othello – they lived it"
  • Printing art designs of students on tea towels and selling them, simple but effective (also make great thank you presents at Teach Meets)

If I was to give my own moonshot for teaching and learning is that I desperately want students to be thinking for themselves. As a senior school teacher, I hate how much teaching is about preparing for HSC exams, such as artificial artifice that it diminishes authentic learning.  This is why I always like what Phillip has to say.

Dominic Hearne set the tone of his talk by quoting Gary Stager, “Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love”. In line with this philosophy, Dominic’s school has introduced a series of compulsory critical thinking courses, which I absolutely applaud. These include:
  • Future Problem Solving
  • Visions of Leadership
  • The Art of War / The Ethics of Peace
  • Epistemology (how do we think, why do we think, what influences our thinking and perception)

My daughter is currently studying International Relations and Human Rights at university. She would have loved the opportunity to examine some of these topics at school.  Her response being:
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One of the students undertaking this course used several sources to investigate the Jewish holocaust and, as might be expected, referred to movie representations of the holocaust such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He also had access to his grandmother’s letters and other documents depicting her time as a Jew interned by Hitler.  The result was not just a well researched product but the rest of the class had a new insight into the atrocities.

Nick Brierley hooked me by not only emphasising the thinking skill of problem solving but linking to the TV show Stranger Things, where the children in the show are constantly having to solve problems, not always successfully. He advocated the use of BreakoutEDU, a resource for creating engaging problem-solving games in classrooms. This is definitely a tool I will investigate further.
Technology definitely has a role to play in developing students’ critical thinking skills. A primary school teacher, Alfina Jackson commenced with the statement that she hasn’t heard students say they need PD before they can use technology, so if they can do it, teachers can do it too.  Glib, but mostly true. I have come across many teachers who are so ingrained in teaching the same way, with the same worksheets, year after year, that they truly struggle with making more than the occasional change to their regular modus of operation.

Alfina has her own YouTube Channel, mainly consisting of videos made by K-2 students.  These videos demonstrate learning in an authentic and meaningful way for our modern age.  Without many of us realising it, children are learning all the time through YouTube.  Actually many adults too.  I recently used YouTube to learn how to cast-off my knitting.  Alfina is therefore not only teaching students a particular topic, she is teaching digital responsibility.  Creating public videos also motivates students through the hands-on activity and real audience feedback.  All of this requires several higher-order thinking processes.

Another initiative Alfino implemented was Year 1 completing book reviews on Google Slides. For the content, the teacher taught students to use three simple sentence word-starters:
  • I liked the part…
  • I disliked the part…
  • I would change…
However, after a quick introduction to using Google Slides, the students worked out for themselves and taught each other the various creative features of using the slides.  After the first drafts were completed the teacher provided feedback through the comment feature which prompted students to comment on each other’s reviews, leading to a discussion of how to write positively, particularly in a public domain.

On the other hand, I don’t believe technology should be used for simply its own sake.  Alfino showed how students learning to write could trace the letter on an iPad.  I’m not sure how this particularly improves on the pen and paper version except simply for the hook that it is on an iPad.

The highlight of the evening was the dynamic Kathleen O’Rourke. Kathleen is learning to become a Primary School teacher at Macquarie University after a decade or so in the workforce. She is passionate about many things and her LinkedIn profile reveals she is not only an advocate for education and the marginalised but she walks the talk.  At first I thought she was also going to emphasise technology due to her tagline, “Is it OK to ask students to do something that we are not comfortable to do ourselves?” Instead, Kathleen answered that question with, “If we don’t pursue our x’s how can we expect our students to?”

As part of being a pre-service teacher, Kathleen decided there wasn’t enough professional development on offer, beyond the regular uni courses and practicum experience so out together some events and now the concept has exploded.  As a full-time carer for her grandmother, Kathleen found it difficult to access working disabled toilets, particularly in medical institutions.  Consequently, she has an aim to develop an app that lists and user-rates them. I spoke to Kathleen at the end of the evening and found just how determined she is to put theory into action. Earlier that day she had been at a school presenting to teachers and discussing with them a university assignment. This was not part of the set work.  She has also tutored primary-aged students who are newly settled refugees on a volunteer basis.

I was not the only one who thought Kathleen was amazing. This was the reaction on Twitter:

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All in all it was worthwhile attending this TeachMeet.  I learned about some new Google products and enjoyed hearing how other teachers are implementing problem solving and other critical thinking activities.  However, I’d prefer it if future TeachMeets adhered to the no sponsorship ideal, even (especially?) if it means returning to the pubs and clubs where they began.

17 October 2016

The Drover's Wife - Review


The short story of The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson was a favourite of mine as a child, my mother often reading it aloud upon request.  Its depiction of a woman facing isolated rural existence with four young ones and an absent husband added to my eternal fear of snakes and tapped into my loneliness.  It introduced me to new phrases with my young mind puzzling over “castles in the air” for so long it now feels etched into my brain.  I worshipped the strong and stoic woman, and her dog, Alligator, his name conjuring up a graphic image of a gnarly beast.

Leah Purcell has taken this story as inspiration for her own version of a drover’s wife.  In Henry Lawson’s tale a handful of dramatic events were reminisced over during the night of waiting for the snake to appear.  Due to the sameness of the land and its days, these occasions were rare, perhaps years apart.  Well, they were all jam-packed into the Belvoir Theatre in the hour and a half experience, the busiest three days a drover’s wife has ever seen. There were numerous visitors (partially based on characters from the original drover’s wife’s reminiscences), the coming and going of her son (Danny), a birth, and a few deaths.  This frenetic activity was necessary to cover the multiple feminist and indigenous issues addressed by the play but detracted from the plausibility of the story.  

The feminist issues were most confronting in their physicality.  There was audience laughter at labour pains as the drover’s wife swung her gun around at unwanted visitors, weaker laughter as her waters break, and a mixture of laughter and horror at the declaration that one foot had already popped out. Later her breast milk leaks down the front of her clothes and is visible for the remaining time.  As the play reached its climax, there was a rape scene where the perpetrator took time reaching his. An audience member walked out.

The drover’s wife has a name in this version, Molly.  No other women were seen on stage but they were talked about. Two white women performed treachery upon Molly but black female characters were represented with more affection.

A raft of indigenous issues were covered, starting with a wrongful arrest, featuring an iron collar digging into the prisoner’s neck, and concluding with taking the children away.  Likewise, Molly started trapped in the mentality that all Aboriginal people are trouble, her opening sentence ending with “you black bastard” but ended with all her prejudices taken away, embracing the culture.  Since this radical transformation occurred over a mere three days it was difficult to believe, despite all the drama that had entailed over this time.

The set was simple and stark and thus worked well. A hessian curtain hung parallel to the back wall, acting as the hut wall and protecting the audience from witnessing the birth, a chopping stump and axe was placed centre stage, a substantial branch laid on the ground on one side and a gun was constantly on hand. Sand covered the floor depicting the action upon it until Molly swept it away.

The acting was superb. Despite just two actors playing the five white adult male roles, they were each distinct, yet equally reviled. Leah Purcell, on stage the entire time, embodied the character she wrote with passion and depth. This drover’s wife aligned quite comfortably with the strong and robust woman I had pictured decades ago.  I attended on a Sunday evening, and even though I had issues with the pacing of the action, it provided a powerful punch to end an otherwise slow weekend.