Should Big Brother Always Be Watching?

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by ell brown: http://flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown/4421119738
 
Obviously I am just too nice, because Derrick rang back on Friday. I brushed him off last week, telling him I was too busy, but clearly he wasn’t going to accept the same excuse twice. So today I decided to listen. Basically, he was trying to sell me an audio visual set-up where two cameras and a microphone would be installed in a classroom. The premise behind this was that it would take out the requirement for another teacher to sit in and interrupt the learning experience by physically recording the lesson. This would also transfer the ownership of the experience to the teacher, rather than the responsibility of a coach, to support the improvement of teaching and instruction. We all have ideals, but in my opinion they are always something different in reality.
 
My first concern is with the notion that installing cameras gives some sort of objectivity. Here I am reminded of Clifford Geertz’ work in regards to anthropology and the notion of ‘thick description‘. His premise was that no matter how hard you try to remove yourself from the situation you are trying to observe, you are always a part of it. Therefore, all that we can ever hope for is a thick description, which tries to account for as many  variables and differences as possible, where there is never the promise of completeness. Coming back to Derrick’s AV equipment, not only would you always be conscious of its presence, but it is only ever one part of the puzzle associated with reflection and improvement.
 
To me, there is little point recording and reviewing a lesson if a culture of reflection does not already exist. I was really taken by a recent post from +Dean Shareski where he states, “Being a connected educator is important but I think being a reflective educator trumps that.” More so than purchasing permanant AV equipment, we need to foster reflection as a habit, both in and outside the classroom. Instead of wondering where people get the time to go back over a lesson or write a reflective blogpost, these habits need to become a part of our practise. For as Seth Godin suggests, “I didn’t have time, actually means, it wasn’t important enough.” We therefore need to make reflection important. Just as it is unfair to expect the introduction of 1:1 devices into the classroom to magically make students collaborative, the same thing can be said about videoing lessons. It all needs to start with reflection.
 
A part of the problem with creating a reflective mindset though is how success is often measured in schools. With the Global Educational Reform Movement influencing many policies and decisions in education at the moment the focus of processes such as the annual Performance and Development review become about supporting a fixed mindset, where there is a supposed magic bullet for success and all else is failure. Although the intention of the AV equipment maybe to improve the standards of all teachers and create a repository of best practise, placed in the wrong hands I can imagine it becoming a vehicle for pushing an agenda of pay performance. In this environment, all that ever gets celebrated is the status quo, but is it the status quo that brings about change and improvement?
 
One reason I could see a benefit in such a setup is where, instead of being focused on reflection, the purpose is to share the learning on. That is, make instruction available for all to access at a later date. A great exponent of this is +Eddie Woo. Unlike the idea of the flipped classroom, where students gain access to information before the lesson, Woo records his instruction as he teaches and posts them on Youtube. He describes this practise as the ‘not quite flipped classroom‘. In addition to posting later, there are also many smaller rural schools who stream lessons to provide students with a wider variety of subjects to choose from, particularly in the senior years. Although most schools seem to use Polycom devices for this.
 

 
At the end of the day, my biggest concern is the belief that the best form of reflection can occur in isolation. That is, one teacher sitting at a computer watching their own learning. The best form of reflection, in my view, occurs where there is a dialogue. Two examples of such a practise are Jason Borton’s learning walk or +Amy Burvall‘s PD Walkabouts. Another great tool for reflection is the Modern Learning Canvas. What is interesting about the Canvas is that it provides a platform for teachers to collaboratively reflect upon their learning and together identify possible areas for innovation.
 
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there is a benefit to installing AV equipment. Maybe it could act as a repository of best practise. However, maybe it could be used as a way of monitoring teachers, making sure that they are sticking to the script. I can imagine both possibilities, what about you?

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Collegiality Under Threat – AEU News Letter to the Editor

AEU News Vol 21, Issue 4, June 2014

Here is a copy of my letter to the editor printed in the latest edition of the AEU News, responding to the recent changes to the performance and development process …

I am a believer in lifelong learning and development, but I really question whether the recent changes to the performance and development process will achieve this? I worry that it will achieve the opposite if we don’t manage it locally. Instead of a climate of collegiate collaboration, this creates an aura of self-interest where ironically our prime focus is ourselves, rather than our students.

John Hattie suggests that the greatest point of influence on education is teachers and that our goal should be to help improve every teacher. Yet I wonder if a process with the spectre of fear hanging over it is going to achieve this? If we really want the best then schools need to foster an environment that not only challenges teachers, but also welcomes error and provides adequate feedback. In this scenario, teachers are able to passionately engage with their teaching based on the evidence at hand.

The problem is that a focus on pay means that we miss the point. Instead of saying ‘how can I be the best’, the focus is on ‘what do I need to do to achieve my next increment’. Our view then is of today, not tomorrow.

With a new system being implemented we have an opportunity to make this review process work for us.  We need to demand that the implementation be consulted on at our schools and that it support and advance the work we do, rather than let it be something that is done to us.

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When the Assessment of Performance is not Actually about Performance

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After trying to swing the axe to the performance and development process last year, the Victorian government has returned with a range of changes in a draft format for consultation. This time they have brought a ‘balanced scorecard’ to the table. A series of goals spread across four areas depending on whether you are a principal or a teacher. These goals are to be developed in the context of each school’s annual implementation plan (AIP) and are aligned with the AITSL teaching standards. In addition to the goals, teachers agree to the evidence that they will be assessed against and if they fail to get in the top two tiers of the assessment scale then they will not move up their increment.

 
Now I must start off and say, I believe in goals. Whether it be something that is fluid in the sense outlined by Kath Murdoch in her focus on one word or a more structured approach that I have spoken about elsewhere. However, I am not so sure about setting goals that are so explicitly attached to financial progression. To me goals help drive us by guiding our journey, giving us direction, but they are not necessarily things linked to monetary gain. When I set my own goals this year, I didn’t do so with a financial incentive in mind, instead I set my goals in an attempt to be the best I can be. Here then are some of my concerns with the governments new guidelines:
 

Whose AIP is followed? 

With a key focus on AIP’s, which school do those teachers who manage their time between two or even three different schools align themselves with? I understand that such teachers have a base school, a school where they teach the most. However, lets say that the teacher in question teaches five days a week and only two days at their ‘base school’, is it fair that their progression is measured on only a proportion of their time? In addition to this, who is responsible for providing support and ‘development’ for such teachers, especially when such activities occur during scheduled meetings and the teacher in question is at a different school on those days.
 

Beyond the Key Domains

I have found that, with the introduction of more and more data, schools have become really good at measuring the performance of key learning areas, such as English and Mathematics. This is often because the goals set in the AIP and information on the My School website directly relate to these areas. However, what happens if you teach outside of these domains? For example in Physical Education, Humanities or Technology, what datasets are you to base results on there? It can be hard to measure ‘students outcome’ when you may only teach a cohort for two hours a week and you are basing your improvement on Progression Points and the Student Opinion Survey. This is something that I have spoken about elsewhere. In addition to this, what about those administration roles such as Year Level Co-ordinator, Daily Organiser, Timetabler and Report Co-ordinator. Although they do not have a direct impact on student learning, such individuals often lay the foundation of learning. For example, I remember in my first year of teaching half out my four sessions of English had been timetabled for the last two sessions on a Friday. This had a dramatic impact on what learning I was able to facilitate. How then do you measure these roles?
 

No Room for the Personal

I understand the need to align goals with the school’s Annual Implementation Plan, however how are we really fostering individual passion and innovation that teachers bring into a school. As I have suggested elsewhere, schools need to provide more time and support for teachers to explore their passions and then look at how this can be tapped into or made use of within the school community. This is something that both +Chris Wejr and Jason Borton have written about respectively. See for example, Creating a Time for Teachers to Tinker with Ideas by Chris Wejr and ‘Leading by Enabling – My School Leadership Approach‘ by Jason Borton.
 

Measuring the Immeasurable

While reflecting on an article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, +George Couros posed the question: “how will a system that is so focused on grades and marks deal with developing skills that can’t be easily measured?” So often attributes such as humility, resilience, adaptability and the love of learning are integral to working as a team, yet when everything is brought back to grades, scores and evidence, where do they stand? Although they are important, they don’t necessarily fit with our endless desire for data and measurable results.
 

Lifelong Learning

To me, goals need to be more than just about being SMART, they need to be personal and they need to be meaningful. I understand that there needs to be accountability. However, enforcing goals from the outside in provides little aspiration towards life-long learning. Instead teachers will negotiate generic goals set and manage them as a team.
 

No Room for Failure

As I have written elsewhere, we are really good at celebrating what we deem to be ‘success’, however is that really that successful? However, it is how we embrace failure that often spurs us on to achieve greatness. With the negative consequences associated with failure, there is little room left for taking risks and breaking with the norm. I understand that change for changes sack is not a good thing, but simply doing the same things again and again because it is easy and comfortable denies the changes that occur regularly in the world around us.
 
The biggest challenge when it comes to thinking about the performance and development process is what would be a better solution. It can be a bit of a cop-out to simply say how everything is ‘wrong’ all the time, but I do not disagree that there are certain aspects of the current system that need to be adjusted. 
 
In a recent post, Matt Esterman spoke about the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards’ (BOSTES) process for becoming a Professionally Accomplished teacher. In this, he reflected on the process involved in moving through the standards. This involves providing evidence and reflecting upon practises in order to be accredited for the next level up. Clearly this comes back to data and evidence. However, from what I can see, it still allows a teacher to fail and learn from their experiences, rather than be reprimanded at the first speed hump.
What struck me the most in Esterman’s post was the need to document progression. Whether accreditation processes, such as the VIT Graduate Program in Victoria, are a ruse or not, there is always something positive gained out of reflecting on learning. Here I am reminded of +George Couros‘ post about the importance of maintaining a digital portfolio. Maybe the solution is that instead of forcing teachers to set arbitrary goals they should be forced to maintain a professional blog reflecting on their learning. Maybe that way staff will better identify areas for improvement.
 
Clearly, no matter what solution is chosen there will be someone disgruntled with the choice. However, there has to be a better system than one that seeks to scrutinises rather than celebrate learning.

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Tinkering, Passion and the Wildfire that is Learning

In a post I wrote a few months ago I spoke about what I called the ‘hidden professional development‘. That informal learning that occurs unplanned and on the fly, whether it be at lunchtime, while photocopying or even when swapping over on yard duty. Basically anywhere, anytime, simply where two or more passionate learners meet. The big question then and the question now is how do we encourage this? What structured opportunities do we provide for this?



Tinkering Teachers

In a fantastic discussion as a part of +Ed Tech Crew Episode 240 focusing on what it takes to be an IT co-ordinator, +Ashley Proud spoke about the demise in tinkering amongst students. Although +Mel Cashen and +Roland Gesthuizen mentioned about taking things a part, giving the conversation a more mechanical theme, I feel that tinkering is best understood as a wider curiosity into the way things work. 

I believe that one of the reasons for such a drop-off belongs with teachers. Although this criticism does not belong with all teachers, I think that there is a status quo out there who ask one thing from their students and model a different thing in their own day to day practise. Although teachers themselves have a large part to play in this, I also feel that one of the deeper issues lies with what opportunities teachers are provided with to actually be curious and creative, and I don’t simply mean curriculum planning. 

For example, the other day, I was asked to cover a yard duty for a colleague as her and her team wanted to get together at lunchtime to create a collaborative birthday video. I asked what they were going to use to film it and whether they wanted to borrow my iPad. The eventual product was not great, but it was a development on past productions. Most importantly though, it was a skill to take back into the classroom and share with students. What this whole scenario got me thinking was that, more than just opportunity, we do not provide enough encouragement for such activities.

Genius Hour … For Teachers

One initiative that has taken off in schools during the last year or so has been the idea of ‘Genius Hour’. Known by many names, such as 20 Percent Time or Passion Projects, Genius Hour is basically where students are given a license to develop a personal project of their choice. For a further explanation, I recommend +Anthony Speranza‘s post, ‘My Experience in Getting Started with Genius Hour‘. 

The background is that it comes from Google, where workers are (or were) provided one day a week to work on Google-related projects of their own choice. I think what needs to be understood is that, as +Ryan Tate suggested in his post for Wired, 20 Percent Time is not “a fully fleshed corporate program with its own written policy, detailed guidelines, and manager.” This is significant as what Tate is saying is that Genius Hour is not about a set of actual practises, as different companies have different notions of it, rather it is about the ethos behind it. This is why it has transferred so well into schools, with teachers creating their own twists on the whole affair, but still continuing to capture on essence of passion and innovation. However, one area that has been left untapped, as far as I can tell, has been the idea of teachers conducting their own ‘Genius Hour’, that is, teachers finding a passion of their own and running with it.
One of the failures with a lot of professional development is that it is dictated to staff with little choice, a stark contrast to what we ask of most teachers in the classroom. Fine there is a time where some information needs to be given or staff need to conduct certain work, but wouldn’t it be good if teachers were able to dabble in other things in a supported manner. As Tom Whitby put in a recent post ‘PD: Same Old, Same Old‘:
Professional Development needs to be more than an occasional workshop that can then be checked off of an Administrator’s list of things that need to be done for the year. PD must be prioritized and supported on an ongoing basis. It must be part of the workweek. In addition to providing access to new ideas, technology, and methodology, time must be afforded for educators to collaborate on what they have learned. Educators need time and support to put into practice what they need to learn.
What stands out to me in Whitby’s description is the focus of what teachers ‘need to learn’. I think that many teachers do not really know what they ‘need’. However, a starting point for this is to support teachers with what they want to learn and then go from there.

Life-long Learning Can Happen at School Too

Too often the more ‘personal’ professional development is left for teacher’s own time. I have two problems in particular with this. Firstly, in leaving learning to chance means that some teachers never actually do it. Like the hidden professional development, personal learning is one of the first things to get crossed off the list when times get tough. Secondly, staff are not being properly supported in their forays into the great unknown. As Tom Whitby suggests: “Learning about technology and how to incorporate it into learning specific to one’s class may be a bridge too far for many educators.” We all talk about ‘getting connected’ as a way of overcoming this problem. However, that too involves technology. Instead, one possible way to bridge this gap is to provide teachers with a specific time and space during school in which they are able to explore their own interests, knowing that they have support all around them.
One of the greatest fears in opening up professional development to the whims of the staff is that to some this time either gets wasted or is underutilised. My school tried to introduce personal learning a few years ago where there were some random sessions offered, as well as the option for staff to choose their own professional development. Most people ended up passing on the offer of finding their own learning and stuck to one of the sessions on offer. This is not to say that the sessions on offer weren’t powerful or important, but I feel that one of the key reasons why staff did not take up the opportunity of finding their own professional learning was that there was a lot of confusion about what was required. Was it completely open or were there some things that were prohibited? Did you have to write a reflection? What the situation needed was a little bit of structure, a little bit of guidance about what was and was not acceptable. The problem is that there is often a lot of conjecture about what does and does not constitute professional development. I would argue that ALL learning can be deemed as professional. For just as +Alec Couros suggested in an interview with the +Ed Tech Crew that, “some of the best learning happens each day on Youtube whether it is meant to happen or not”. The big question is whether we actually recognise it. One way of doing so is to encourage it by making the often informal ad hoc learning more formal by adding a certain sense of structure and uniformity.

 

Providing teachers with the opportunity to identify an a passion, something that they may be interested in but ignored due to time and effort. Although this may not be an ‘hour’ each week, maybe every fortnight, it is a regular time to work either individually or collaboratively. A time to identify and touch base with other experts. A time when teachers know that they are both free and supported to take ownership over their own learning. 

Clearly with such ‘freedom’ also comes a certain sense of constraint. This learning needs to be explicit and needs a purpose, a question to drive the project. With this needs to come some goals, both short and long term, about what is trying to be achieved. Attached to these goals is an element of on-going reflection and accountability for what Bianca Hewes calls the ‘mushy middle‘. At the end, there needs to be an opportunity for sharing and celebration about what was achieved and what has been learnt. This could be sharing to your team, participating in a smorgasbord, as a part of a performance and development meeting, writing a blog post. It does not really matter what means it is, what is most important is that it happens.

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by C G-K: http://flickr.com/photos/cgk/3795790211

Helping the Wildfire Grow

Often the greatest joys come when space is provided for learning to happen naturally. A colleague, who is not always big on introducing technology into the classroom, told me about a situation where he gave his students a group task and they automatically created a Google Doc and shared it between themselves. I love this story as it highlights that not all learning is direct. We may introduce a skill with a limited response. However, staff and students may see some other benefit and use it in another situation. I have seen this happen with programs like Padlet and Edmodo, where given some amount of freedom, people have found their own purposes and contexts. To me, learning in this situation is like wildfire.  Given the right conditions, a fire that takes hold, is disruptive and very much uncontrollable in itself. As +George Siemens suggests while talking about connectivism as an answer for the digital age, “learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.” The role leaders and co-ordinators in this situation is to manage things, conducting back burning and creating fire breaks to contain learning rather than control it.

The question to consider then is whether you are creating an environment where learning can take flight – dry kindling, tall trees – or are you creating an environment where, with a lot of damp branches, there is a lot of smoke, but little fire?


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What Comes First, the Support or the Criticism?

The Victorian government seemingly stepped up their efforts this week to move a step closer ‘performance pay’ this week. Principals across the state have been briefed by the government about a series of changes to current system. The government have been arguing that if you look at overall student results that they form a bell curve with roughly 30% not making the grade. The belief then is that, even though it is often impossible to ‘measure’ effectiveness and success, that the same distribution can be applied to teachers, with the suggestion that, just like students, 30% of teachers are not performing at the adequate standard and should therefore not be simply moved up to the next increment.
 
The whole scenario is best summed up in an extract from a bulletin published by the AEU today, in which they state:
The DEECD Secretary replied to the AEU this morning, asserting that “no changes to the existing performance and development guidelines have been implemented or proposed for the 2013/14 performance cycle.” The Secretary cited “reasons of good public administration” for advising principals to “apply appropriate rigour in assessing the performance of staff in their school”. (18/10/13)
There are two aspects that stand out to me in this statement. Firstly, the reference to ‘good public administration’, and secondly the use of the word ‘rigour’. The notion of ‘good public administration’ puts down the current administration, implying that things are being done poorly. While the word rigour, suggests that the processes in place could or should be more thorough. 
 
What concerns me most about both of these ideas is what the government is doing to support administrators and teachers? Maybe I don’t really know, but it would seem that the since coming to power, the Liberal government has frozen funding, collapsed the number of regions and basically gotten rid of much of the support that was previously available to schools. Much of this is done with some sort of effort to provide schools with more autonomy. It makes me wonder though whether this is what is meant be ‘good public administration’ and ‘rigour’. Many of the changes that have been made feel like an effort to apply more scrutiny and pressure on individual schools, rather than actually provide thorough support.
 
What disappoints me the most is that I do not necessarily disagree that the whole performance and development process could not in fact be improved. However, don’t you endeavour to put in place a better structure first, before making the threats? For example, AITSL provide some really good support for teachers. They are progressively making the process more explicit with the use of various videos and resources, but how many teachers know this or a shown this? Time and assistance is still required to help move towards this supposed ‘rigour’.
 
In the end, surely the government should be encouraging staff to see themselves as life-long learners, I just don’t see how they are doing this?

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