I have been working with my team to look at ways to make communication more effective, considering how assessment and parental and student access to it can drive this. I have included the initial conversation paper that i shared with them to begin our conversation.
The first stop in this journey for me is that the mode of parent teacher evenings are out-dated. Parents scampering across corridors to try and see all of their children’s teachers or specialists for that all important 5 minutes, which we all know is not enough, yet we are still doing it.
When we add something into the programme there is a need to look at what we are also moving out or evolving. For me the element that is not working is the parent teacher meeting and therefore I believe a change in the communication agenda is our opportunity to re imagine what parents want from communication and in what format and what we do better to support them, to ensure the kids are the winners at the end of the day.
The catalyst for parent teacher meetings generally are the publication of a report or assessment information that we want to share with parents and discuss. For me these are the wrong reasons, they should be part of the conversation but I believe parents should already have access to this information through the availability of live assessment information. With the variety of communication technology available we need to be smarter about how we allow parents to access the classroom and their child within it.
The mentality when I began my career was to withhold internal data as that was ours and to only give parents what they 'need' to know. As shallow as this thinking was its influence can still be seen in our profession and is not supporting parents, student or the teacher.
To fully engage parents as partners in the process we need to ensure that they are also an informed partner and live assessment allows this. When parents and teachers do meet we are quickly able to get down to what we all already know and what we can do about it as well as broadening the conversation to include key elements such as wellbeing, friendships, confidence and development of the child’s identity.
If the parent teacher evenings were driven less by the feedback of reports or assessments because of their continuous availability to parents already, then we could look to do away with set evenings with parents rushing round corridors, or days where we are losing learning to a more continual cycle of ongoing face to face conversations and phone calls, with a frequency that makes the parent teacher meeting an obsolete process in the school. The recent Y9 and Y11 individualised and personalised face to face consultations to discuss subject choices are a great example of how this can be achieved with a heightened sense of engagement and personalisation.
I have had a series of conversations about School Management Systems (SMS) recently and what is becoming more clear is that our SMS is not working efficiently enough with us and the tools that we want to overlay across this (Classroom Monitor, Go For Schools, Seesaw…) we need tech to take the stress out of these situations for us. I also want to visit schools using combinations of these platforms to ensure that we are building a framework for live assessment to carry us into the next few years for the school.
Amongst this shift in communication and advocacy I think there is an opportunity to build something more effective and sustainable that what we currently have.
I started this morning reading an article on Tony Little and how he sees social media playing a role in young people's lives and society on honeykidsasia.com. I then read an article in today's Gulf News 29/12/16 about online tutors being the way of the future replacing teachers. There is certainly an argument that removing the human element might eliminate mistakes and allow for a more individual approach.
This evening I then watched a video clip by Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace and the elements that his research has shown to be lacking in children coming out of the education system. As Tony Little states an education system should be judged not by the children that it turns out when they leave school but how those students turn out when they are 30, 40 or 50.
Simon's presentation highlighted that no matter how much time we move into a virtual world, schools still provide the human element that our learners need to succeed in life. It also raises the challenge to schools about the essence of our curriculum and the value of the soft skills that you need in human interaction and guidance to develop them. Beyond skills, it also challenges the weight that is put on assessment regimes that don't take the whole child into consideration.
An education, understanding the learning process, and how these apply in a virtual world to empower learning is the essence of a quality education. Social media is not a replacement for the human element that builds well rounded empowered individuals, It is a tool that enhances learning and not something that we should be scared of.
I met with a parent today and we talked about learning in the modern context and how we as a school and a learning community are moving to address and develop learning.
As an English National Curriculum school, we have undertaken the transition to a new Early Years and Primary curriculum and this has been further enhanced by the direction given to us by the UAE National Agenda to meet the 2021 Vision for the UAE. In our interpretation, these elements have empowered schools to refine their teaching process and build an enhanced learning model to underpin the delivery of learning and develop learning capacity in students.
When I spoke with the parent she reflected to me without knowing the details of the work we are undertaking that learning felt like it was built more around each student and following their needs. While the old model of learning felt more like a march from one point to another hitting the learning objectives along the way but not stopping to support those that might need more time in certain ways or who have interests in another direction, that might slow down this march to fulfil the curriculum objectives.
We believe that there is a way to move learning that meets the students’ needs while addressing the objectives and the curriculum.
This was further reinforced when interviewing for new teachers and asking them about their beliefs for learning. Most of them talked about structured lesson plans and meeting the objectives of the curriculum in sequence. Rather than the magic moment that can happen in the learning process, driven by the shared passions of the learner and teacher and how the expertise of the teacher can then match this to the curriculum objectives that they need to meet.
Education has been in a revolution for the last few years and as an educator, the model of learning that we are building to empower both teachers and students is the most exciting thing that I have been a part of in my educational journey to date and we are enjoying riding the wave of change.
Over the past two years I have had a revolution in my own thinking and practice in order to achieve the best outcomes we can for the kids in our care. I heard some key people speak, such as Dr Abdulla Al Karam of the Knowledge & Human Development Authority here in Dubai, Sir Anthony Seldon and I read a book by Richard Branson. All of which led me to start questioning my current practice and to start looking for another way.
Previously, my thinking was to drive my staff to deliver the best results possible for our kids, my role was to do a lot more managing, while leading where I could. Our mantra was 'hotel level hospitality' and we felt that this was going to make a difference. Yet at the same time I was reading and following educational practice such as that from John Hattie that states that teachers are the most important factor in an educational setting. It took me a while to realize that I needed to give more independence and empowerment to my teachers to allow them to perform at their best. As a school we had always been recognised as having a distributed leadership model, but the reality is distributed leadership can operate within a restrictive framework also.
What we were looking for was something different, something that enables teachers to teach and to step away from the restricting pressures of over bearing timetables, curriculums and lesson plans, while at the same time maintaining the levels that the school had already achieved. What we got was a staff more empowered in their profession, children engaged and owning the learning, which has led to positive movement in assessment levels and happy teachers and kids which meant we no longer needed to worry about 'hotel hospitality'.
To begin with we started small to let teachers know that we were thinking about them, sweets on the reception desk for them, less prescriptive time requirements and targeted programmes being brought into the school to reduce teacher workload. We then began talking to teachers about what they wanted in order to be a better teacher and to be able to express themselves in the classroom.
The first issue that teachers raised were timetables that were too prescriptive and built to follow a curriculum in a pre-determined sequence. When we looked at things from a learning perspective this is not how learning operates and therefore we needed to do something else. The answer to us was obvious pass the responsibility of meeting subject time requirements and when we teach what over to the teacher, rather than allocated through timetables. This gave teachers the space to be teachers, working with their students to best meet their needs.
The other factor that was not working for staff was the delivery of professional development (PD), too many people stuck in a hall listening to someone present something that was generally only relevant to a portion of the room. What we did was pass PD back to teachers and working with their coach they create their own professional pathways and learning. Our responsibility was to ensure that we had a menu of PD available to staff on a weekly basis, normally offering five different learning opportunities that staff can self-select and attend. Staff could also choose to do their own professional learning within this time via blogs etc.
Staff also wanted to have a space within the school that enabled them to relax and unwind and while we had a staffroom this was an under utilised space. We conducted some design thinking with teachers and came up with a new concept for our Staff Lounge. This included smaller more personal spaces, couches rather than chairs, positive quotes shared by staff, a book sharing library, a positive feedback wall for staff to feedback to each other and most importantly cushions. Once this was created staff reacted positively and we have seen a significant uplift in the use of the room.
While all these focuses were happening to target staff welfare, we were also working with the staff to build a learning framework to underpin all of this work, (See previous blog). This has given us a model to structure some of these decisions on and support the empowerment of the learning and teaching process. This has included work with educational consultant Mark Treadwell to develop this model and method of teaching within a concept based curriculum, again developed and purposed to extend and push learning beyond simple learning objectives and into transferable concept frameworks.
This has led the school to a point where I feel that staff are more empowered to direct learning by co-constructing the learning process. As a positive reflection we have only had 3 staff members of our 80 teachers that are looking to leave this year, none of which are moving to a competitor school in the UAE. I see recruitment of teaching staff as a critical element in maintaining our focus. When recruiting I don't see many teachers that are working in the same way and therefore capacity to change and learn new things is a key talent for us. Those with a growth mindset, looking to operate in a new model for learning thrive at RDS and we have been deliberate in taking staff with us in the journey by introducing elements when the need appears and then letting teachers drive the progress. This transparency has allowed those not wanting to move forward and uncomfortable with this level of autonomy and accountability to move on.
Teacher empowerment, welfare and an ever focus on learning and how we develop learning within our learners is the heart of what we do at Royal Dubai School and we are excited about where this journey will take us as educators and our learners as they move forward in the learning journey.
I was working in a school in Westham built in the 1800's, the school looked a lot like a prison, the school management team and a lot of the staff were knew and I had been brought in to pick things up and get things going again for a class that were particularly disruptive. Once I was comfortable with the class it would be handed over to a teacher who would take it on long term and i would move on to the next class that needed support.
I remember this class as it was the first time that I actually was beginning to question if I was going to be able to win them over, they were the wildest class I had been with. I had kids painting the soles of their shoes and making footprints on the carpet, kids systematically painting out a page of their library book and then sticking the pages together. Children walked out of the class when they felt the need and generally came back when they wanted to. They tended to do things in packs and I was attempting to attack them a pack at a time but things were simply not working and I was beginning to feel trapped and it wasn't working. However, the next day proved to be one of the changing moments in my career.
It was about 6.30am and I had just got off the tube at Westham and on my walk to school I stopped in at a corner shop to get a newspaper. When I stepped into the shop I was blasted by reggae music pumping out and this smiling dreadlocked sales assistant rocking away behind the counter, waving at me. I got my paper and spent the next half an hour talking to this guy whose face just lit up when you spoke to him and when he laughed. He could not of cared less what I was buying as he was more interested in talking with me and engaging. I remember walking out of the shop and feeling really good about life. I felt like I had brought a piece of his happiness and had the realisation that whatever the kids threw at me I had to be able to throw more positive energy back at them and back this up with enthusiasim.
So when the paintbrushes came out that day I suggested they think a little bigger and we have a go at a mural and I managed to lead that pack/group into doing that and I made it big enough and exciting enough that it dragged all the kids in. When they wanted to start singing and dancing I got the guitar, and when they wanted to run I took them out and we ran.
It took time but slowly I felt them coming together again as a class and finding their way with learning and the structures that they were really looking for to be able to operate.
As a school, we have been developing a model of learning as a foundation starting point for the school. Initially, we built this around the John Edwards model of 'The Pit' where teachers, students and parents understand the process of learning and associated feelings and language to support the journey from the unknown to learning success. The purpose of our shift is in the empowerment and development of student agency in their learning. Understanding and being able to talk about the learning process is integral to be able to make this step.
The next step in the journey was to define a model of learning that works for our school, based on the principles of 'The Pit' but bringing in our ownership. Teachers played with the model and language that goes with the learning journey and began to define the model in context. Not only did we begin to hear and see children talking about learning from a more knowing place, but we also saw symbolic ropes appearing in classrooms to signify 'throwing a rope' to help students still in the pit and to empower those that have been successful in their journey.
Across the school, we saw roller coasters of learning and pathways of learning all shaped like a pit but the one that caught our attention was the visual of a learning wave. The wave flowed like the learning journey we were on, had the same analogy of moving down into the wave similar to the pit and we liked the idea of learning having a tipping point, where prior learning tipped you over into your next wave. It also allowed us to recognize that waves like learning come in different sizes at different times and certain waves are large and more difficult to conquer.
At this point, we were also introduced to the concept of the Sigmoid Curve, again which had the same flow of the learning journey that we were looking for. We also saw this as a specific learning journey tool as the engineers of education as it gave the concept of an optimum point of learning when the learner needs to step of one learning wave and join the next before they begin to plateau. It also taught us that in the journey we need to be aware of where the learner is so as not to introduce new learning to early on in the process when the journey has not been maximised.
This then led us to our final part in the journey where we are now in developing our model, where we are looking to combine both the Sigmoid Curve to reinforce to teachers the importance of their role in the learning wave. Alongside the wave model which we will use across our learning in the school. Once we have a shared and embedded understanding of the model across the school we aim to add the language of learning to the model matched to stage and age.
I wanted to update this post following the progress that we have made in the development of a model that works for us in our context. We have taken our initial waves model and further enhanced using our understanding of the learning process. Our focus for this has been the process of wondering which leads to a dive into new learning and entering the discovery phase where we explore and build on our understanding of a concept in order to move on to the application of that knowledge in order to build depth and mastery.
While this is happening the teacher and educator need to have an awareness of where they are in that learning wave to ensure that the learning flow doesn't drop off or the wave overcomes you. This is where the sigmoid curve supports us to think when is the right time to begin wondering about our next wave and thus creating an Optimal Learning Zone. When we have achieved what we wanted to know but are now being led into deeper learning opportunities and further questions to wonder about.
Essential to this process are our I-Care learning dispositions that underpin this model and are the building blocks of the learning process to help students move further through the learning curve and understand how they learn in order that they can drive and own this themselves.
As illustrated by these children in Y4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wbj_le2Ddh0
I remember having a long conversation with my leadership team and Mark Treadwell over an afternoon, discussing if teaching is a profession and what defines a profession and in particular the language that we express our work by. Is it consistent and regular across our 'profession'?
This week I saw the term engineer and thought about how this term suits me as a professional. Teaching most certainly is an art form when it is functioning well and the initial part of any lesson before it happens is in the planning and construction of the lesson. In this sense 'Educational Engineers' is a relevant term as we build and co-construct frameworks and learning opportunities to meet the needs of our learners.
The special sauce kicks in when the engineering is visible and the ownership resides with the learner and not the teacher/engineer. If we can support via frameworks and then empower learners to start building the blocks to their learning within these then we can start to build empowered self directed learners.