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This weeks topic for #youredustory comes from Steve Brophy with the question being “What is Pedagogical Innovation?” Here is my addition to the conversation. More a question than a clear cut definition …


In a recent conversation about innovation and education reform, the argument was put forward that graduate teachers should not be expected to be ‘moonshot thinkers’. That is, thinkers who are pushing for the supposed impossible. The point was that if everyone had their heads in the clouds dreaming of a completely different answer, who is on the ground working for today. In addition to that, graduates must be allowed a certain amount of time to get their bearings before being asked to be innovative. I was left with the question, who should be innovative and is there an opportunity missed in encouraging graduates from the start? 

When I teach essays in English, I explain to my students that guides and strategies, such as TEEL, are not a rule, but rather a starting point. That instead of memorizing a structure, they needed to understand that all writing is structured for a reason, but ideally they needed to find their own structure associated with their intended purpose. Something that Austin Kleon explains when talking about voice, “The only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you.” I think that innovation is much the same.

I have seen too many graduates been spoon fed in their first few years only to then falter when the additional support disappears. The problem that occurs is that all the focus is placed on the what, with little guidance on the why or the how. My concern is that after their first few years, too many become indoctrinated and believe that the power of change rests with somebody else. Sadly, when I reflect on my experiences, I feel that I spent too many years in other people’s shadows believing that they would drive the change that I saw was needed.

I think that where this change needs to occur is with the whole program of graduate accreditation. In Victoria, graduates are asked to develop a portfolio in order to become provisionally registered. Too often this is seen as a tick box activity where the predominant question asked is what do I need to do, rather than why and how will it benefit me and my students. 

I was lucky enough last year to mentor a music teacher enrolled in an accelerated learning program where he was supported both in and out of school. For his registration process the university required him to complete an action-based research project. Although this seemed somewhat more rigid than the usual accreditation process, from my perspective it was much more meaningful. Instead of capturing an example of learning and teaching as most often do, he focused on assessment and reporting. Across the year I watched his practise move from being teacher centred to allowing students more flexibility as to how they chose to learn. This included a move to make music more hands on, as well as a move to involve more play and experimentation. I felt the true success was that it led me making certain adjustments to my own practise and pedagogy.

I understand that there may be a question of workload and a push to increase teacher retention rates. However, How does spoon feeding graduate teachers help? Couldn’t the extra time and support be used to really kick start pedagogical innovation from the start? Just wondering.


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The big announcement that came out of the recent review into the Australian Curriculum was that it was crowded. There is nothing new about this perspective. People have been making noise for a long time, particularly in regards to the primary curriculum, since the introduction of subjects such as science and history in the Early Years. However, is this really the case or is there something else at play?
One of the areas that people often get caught up with is the interdisciplinary learning. These strands span the areas of:
  • Communication
  • Design, Creativity and Technology
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Thinking Processes
I have been in many different settings and I have yet to see these strands implemented effectively. I remember sitting in a session nearly ten years ago where the presenter explained that the purpose of the strands is not about adding to the curriculum, but about intermingling them through all area of learning. Coming from an inquiry pedagogical point of view, she suggested that it is about making learning more explicit. Although it may be inherent within good teaching, by making it clearer in the curriculum, this removes some of the ambiguity.
As is stated in VCAA’s F−10 Curriculum Planning and Reporting Guidelines:

There is a view that acknowledges the development of these capabilities as an important role of schooling but regards them either as forms of pedagogy or as attributes that students acquire through a process of osmosis. That is, if the right conditions of learning are put in place and the right learning experiences provided, students will naturally pick up, acquire and develop these attributes. And of course for many students this is the case.

But this same argument was used for many years in relation to the acquisition of literacy skills, that is, that if the right learning conditions were put in place, all children would learn to read. That view has been almost universally rejected in favour of one that recognizes the importance of explicit instruction within a context of rich, meaningful learning conditions.

Sadly, this desire to create a rich and meaningful context is often lost on many educators who begrudgingly worry about who is assessing what, missing the point that the students are more often than not already doing the skills within their learning whether they choose to realise this or not.
I was again faced with this connundrum this week as we were put in a team to write the ‘ICT’ comment bank. Returning to the VCAA guidelines, there is reference made to electives. However, from my reading there was no reference to making ICT an explicit subject. I know I should be glad that students have the opportunity to ‘study’ ICT, but really they should be doing many of these things within their own learning. As +George Couros points out, “Technology should be at the point of instruction and be as accessible in learning as a pencil; it shouldn’t be an event. How many pencil labs do you have in your school?” The problem is that ICT is often confused with computer science. I have subsequently spent the last two years trying to shake the moniker of the ‘ICT’ teacher, instead focusing on topics such as media, publishing and robotics as the drivers for deeper learning and investigation.
The question that I have then is whether it is the curriculum really is over-crowded or do we just need to think more creatively about how we cover the different domains? How are you combating the crowd and covering all facets of learning, I would love to know.

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One of my goals this year has been to move towards a more student-centred approach. Whether it be reducing the time spent on instruction or providing more meaningful tasks, I have sort to evolve my own practise. Often such conversations open up into talk about choice, authentic projects and placing students at the centre of discussions. However, a particular ingredient that I have added to my cocktail this year has been the focus on ambiguity.
 
Ambiguity can come in many shapes or forms. For me, it maybe leaving a project open for interpretation or providing a task where students are given a space to decide on various elements. In his book on digital literacy, Doug Belshaw wrote a fantastic explanation of ambiguity, influenced largely by William Empson’s book Seven Types of Ambiguity. For me, ambiguity has come in the form of narrative. My focus has been to move the focus away from what to focus on why. Although this feels like a long way from +Ewan McIntoshcall for students to find their own problems, it is at least a step towards a space where students can play and explore. I feel that at its origin all learning is ambiguous and messy. The biggest challenge is what we do with this.
This year has been a bit topsy turbo in regards to my allotments. I have had the opportunity to teach a wide range of subjects, including music, media studies, literacy intervention and business studies. Some of the challenges I have facilitated have included creating a yearbook and developing a performance based on space, not just content. However, the topic that I found most interesting was the use of 3D shapes with a group of Year 7 Numeracy Extension students.
 
I always find intervention and extension classes interesting. Unlike a traditional classroom where you maybe in charge of implementing the curriculum, I always feel a responsibility to not only provide support based on where students are at, as all teachers should, but also to sustain some sort of connection to what is occurring back in the classroom. Therefore, I always ask the usual teachers if there is anything that they would like me to cover? This term the students had been focusing on shape and measurement, I was therefore asked to explore surface area. 
One of the interesting things associated with extension classes is which pedagogical cocktail do you use. I made the decision to provide the students with a beginning, interested in where they would take it. I decided to use measurements associated with houses. So after brainstorming all the different forms of measurement associated with houses, I gave each student a net of a simple model house created using Foldify and asked them to choose a particular form of measurement to focus their investigation. I am going to be honest, I was a little nervous, but isn’t it amazing how with a little faith students can achieve amazing things.
 
Although I spoke to the students about surface area, I encouraged them to focus on any problem and said that I would support them with whatever they came up with. Some of the projects that students posed were:
  • how much paint would be needed to repaint the exterior
  • how much glass would be required to replace all the windows
  • how much wood would be required in making a staircase for a second story
  • how many tiles would be required to replace the roof
In addition to the problem, I told the students that they could use any measurements that they liked. If they wanted their house to be twenty meters wide then they needed to consider the height and whether it was still logical based on the model at hand.
What was great about all of the different problems was that each of these tasks was just as unfamiliar to me as it was to them. Unlike the situation that often arises in class where the learning at hand is relatively familiar to the teacher providing support and instruction, in handing over some sort of ownership and providing an element of ambiguity, the role of sage is truly compromised. What takes pride of place in such situations is learning.
Although +Ewan McIntosh makes the point the challenge of finding a problem is often the first decision taken away from students. I feel that providing the situation for them to develop their own problems is at least a step towards this. To me this is also a step towards what +Peter Skillen‘s calls Tinkering-Based Learning, where the focus is on exploration that leads to questions, rather than vice versa. 

So what has been an ingredient that you have added to your pedagogical cocktail this year and how has it turned out?

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I am not sure if I was being naive or slightly arrogant, but this post began its life as an effort to provide an overview of the different modes and methods of inquiry. Whether it be challenged-based, project-based, problem-based or plain old inquiry, I was trying to bring everything together in my own head, to make more sense of it all. However, what I soon realised was that the more I explored the topic, the more variants that appeared, with so many different ideas and interpretations. It all came to a head when +Richard Olsen shared a blog with me from +Ewan McIntosh on the difference between project-based learning and design learning. As you read through both McIntosh’s post, as well as various comments that follow, you realise that there is little consistency throughout. Although many of the differences are only marginal, there is little agreement on what constitutes either problem-based learning and design learning.
At the end of the day, the reality is that every teacher is different – we just choose to deny it. Even though we may practise a certain pedagogy, it does not necessarily mean that it will be the same as the next person. Rather, everyone has their our own intricacies and twists on the way they do things. What then starts to matter more is the practitioner rather than the pedagogy. I think that this is the point that John Hattie and co are trying to make by moving the focus from the student to the teacher.
I believe that this re-visioning of education is best summed up by Kath Murdoch in her fantastic post on the attributes of an inquiry teacher. Murdoch argues that inquiry-based learning is more than planning a unit, it is about facilitating this learning in the classroom. As she states, “Inquiry is not just about knowing how to plan – it’s about how we teach.” This got me thinking that maybe a better approach to work towards isn’t about identifying the ‘best’ practise as revolving around curriculum where the end is decided before the beginning, maybe our focus should be on how we teach and adjusting this to the needs of each and every situation.

The Pedagogical Cocktail

The idea that caught me was the metaphor of a cocktail. While chatting with some new found members of my PLN (Dick Faber and Alan Thwaites) it occurred to me that our chats were something akin to being at a bar and what we were drinking were pedagogical cocktails. However, unlike a traditional bar where you go up and request your drink, all the ingredients are laid out for us to make up our own. This creates a scenario where choice is only limited to our own creativity. Then after enjoying a cocktail or two, we are able to share back and reflect with those in our networks, hearing about the ups and downs, and helping us with our next choice of cocktail.
I think that the problem is that sometimes we think that we feel that we can only partake of a particular cocktail, that someone else always knows better, therefore we should listen to them. However, this denial of choice often results in teachers who have little engagement and ownership over their curriculum and classrooms, while it also restricts many potentials and possibilities. Instead, teachers maintain a status-quo that often no longer accounts for the world that will come tomorrow, let alone we live in today.
In an interview for the +TER Podcast, John Goh captures this situation by suggesting that, “all of us have a ‘default’ value from teachers college.” This concoction of tastes reassures and comforts us. That old friend whose welcoming aromas makes us feel at ease. The challenge though, as Goh goes on to propose, is that “we need to make sure that we move on from that.” Although we may know it, like it and find comfort within the default value, we need to move on and adjust our choice of cocktail to the food on offer or to the environment being set. It just wouldn’t feel right drinking a stock beer with everyone wearing tuxedos. The reality is that it is not enough to going back to the tried and trusted again and again.

The Right Method for the Moment

I entered this year with the endeavour to provide more time for student lead learning. Other than exploring +Mark Barnes‘s The 5-Minute Teacher, I took to exploring the potentials of different modes of inquiry. Having had some history with inquiry-based learning, I returned like the prodigal son, but this time instead of sticking to one particular model, I was instead interested in identifying the right method for the moment. This is portrayed by two contrasting units of work, one for Robotics, while the other for Business Studies.

An Introduction to Robotics

Having taught the class for three years, it was due for an overhaul. Fine, I had refined things each year, but instead of rolling out the same assignment with a set of questions and tasks containing a restricted set of ideas and information, I had taken to providing more opportunities for students to follow up on their own interests. So I began with a series of lessons focused on immersing students into different aspects of robotics, such as what constitutes a robot, some of the history associated with robotics and how everything is represented through popular culture. Once students had completed these tasks, they posed questions associated with each of the three areas. They then chose one of their questions to investigate and present back. As a class, we then created a measurement for greatness to provide a point of reflection for students to work towards. I really wanted to share these collaboratively and get everyone commenting and questioning on each others presentations. However, due to some technical restrictions, we weren’t able to do this.

How Can we Measure Success?

On the flip side, for Business Studies I started the unit by posing the question ‘how can we measure success?’ From there the class investigated who they consider as being successful and what makes them so. After that, I gave the challenge of coming up with a way of measuring the success of a student, the principal and Lionel Messi. They then shared their different conceptions with each other, giving feedback about what they thought was good and what they would improve. Once they had fixed up their various forms of measurement, the class then used Socrative to vote on which one was the most effective and why. With this decision, they then decided to work in pairs to make a series of profiles of successful people and combine them into a book.

Although I am sure there are some who would argue that I have not really done inquiry, that I have probably cut corners and that I haven’t really taken authentic action. I would agree and I admit that this is something that I still need to work on. However, sometimes ideals aren’t always ideal. At the very least, a move from the teacher at the centre to the student was a positive change.

Know What Your Drinking When Ordering from the Bar

It can be so easy to jump on a band wagon, to wear a certain ‘ism’ on your sleeve as if it were some sort of given. The reality though is that there are no ‘givens’, instead their are choices and consequences, as I have stated elsewhere. The most difficult thing to do is actually making the best choice for the current context and situation. In a recent interview on +TER Podcast, +David Price suggested, “I’d rather you do didactic learning well, than project learning badly.” His point is that we sometimes choose a particular method because we feel we have to and baulk at others, because they are seen as flawed or contradictory. However saying a blanket ‘no’ to didactic learning is just as bad as saying a blanket ‘no’ to inquiry-based learning. No is not really a useful word when discussion choice.

+John Spencer makes a similar point in his insightful post ‘Seven Horrible Things That Really Aren’t All That Horrible‘. In this post, Spencer discusses such taboos as worksheets, multiple choice tests and textbooks, arguing that sometimes it is how these things are used which is the issue and that sometimes they do have a place.

In the end, the most important thing that we can do is be conscious of the decisions we make. I am aware that this is no simple matter, as was pointed out to me by +Darryn Swaby on Twitter:

@mrkrndvs #pedagogicalcocktail Here’s the thing…I’m not sure I know [what pedagogical cocktail I’ve been drinking]. I think that is why your analogy resonated with me.— Darryn Swaby (@DarrynSwaby) March 28, 2014

To me this all starts by asking yourself, what does my classroom look, feel and sound like and how is it different from other classrooms. I think that this may be what +Richard Olsen is aiming at with his new venture ‘The Modern Learning Canvas‘. Where teachers are not only encouraged to identify the how and what associated with learning and teaching, but most importantly, the why. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to at least be informed, through data and feedback, so that we can make the best choice possible, rather than keep on drinking the same old cocktail again and again.

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It is so easy to get caught up wanting one thing, but not necessarily wanting everything that it may bring. Take for example, the following:
  • Want an 8 cylinder car, but don’t want to pay for the increase in petrol
  • Want to use Google Apps/Chromebook at school, but don’t want to invest in quality Internet and appropriate infrastructure
  • Want to go on a holiday, but don’t want to pay for accommodation
  • Want writing proofread, but don’t want to discuss any of the changes
  • Want students to be at the centre of learning, but still as a teacher want to have all the control
  • Want a bigger house, but don’t want to clean it or pay the increase mortgage repayments
  • Want to have a big night, but don’t want to put up with the hangover in the morning

And the list goes on … This happens in all facets of life, where there is a discrepancy between what we want and the reality of the full situation. However, it is becoming more and more pertinent in schools.

 
So often the ‘next best thing’ is brought in. However, all that will be discussed is the idea, the concept, the skill. What is often missed is the baggage that it brings along with it. For example, I remember when Restorative Practices came into my first school nearly 10 years ago. People thought that it was simply about using the right language and reading off a cue card. Although this is a part of it, for some it failed to bring about the desired results because deep down they still wanted to punish the students, they still wanted to enforce control and discipline. For although they would ‘read through the scripts’, it was what they did beyond those moments that undermined the whole program. What was missing was a change in mindset, a move away from punishment to a focus on relationships.
 
Another great example of wanting one thing, but not necessarily recognising all the other consequences, was outlined in the latest +TER Podcast in an interview with +David Zyngier about engagement, curriculum and pedagogoy. Through the course of the discussion, Zyngier discussed some of the myths and misnomers associated with creating an ‘engaging’ classroom. One of the things that came up was the call for smaller class sizes as an answer to engagement. However, as Hattie and co have pointed out, class sizes in itself has little impact on  student achievement. What Zyngier points out though is that smaller class sizes combined with a change in pedagogy can have a positive impact, particularly in the early years. The problem is that so often we feel that continuing with the same old approaches will somehow achieve results simply because there are less students to teach. I think that ironically, the whole conversation between Zyngier and +Cameron Malcher,which started with ‘engagement’, basically pointed out that you can’t simply have ‘engagement’ in itself. Rather, engagement is something that intrinsically attached to so many other aspects of learning, such as knowing students’ background and interests, and if we are unwilling to recognise these requirements, then we cannot be surprised if students are not engaged.
 

As I have stated elsewhere, just as we have choice, so to do we have consequence. Often the worst decisions that we make are the choices where we are not also recognising the consequences at the same time.

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