Yes, we all know that we should be moving rapidly towards models of education that can be described as self-directed, self-regulated, student-driven, learner agency etc… and many of us are genuinely trying to do so. Many more have been trying to do so for many years… bit-by-bit, step-by-step. If you’ve been part of this for a while, “hello again”. If you’re just joining us, “welcome to our struggle”.
Creating the conditions for these types of learning to occur is not simple. It just isn’t as simple as handing control over to students and saying “go for it”. Like all people, our students need to know what “successful” looks like and how they can be it. At some point, someone has to articulate what we are looking for from our students. In collaborative teams, this means argument, compromise, semantics and considering what the different stages of learning might be as students work towards success. Assessment should be formative, purposeful and provide students with the guidance they need… it should illustrate their next steps. The language this is articulated in should be instructive, easy to understand and present in the daily vocabulary of your learning culture. Creating the tools and strategies for this to happen effectively is a very hard task, but it is hard because it is worth doing.
This notion of “successful” cannot remain a nebulous, abstract notion in the mind of an individual teacher. There can be no “hit and miss” about whether or not this notion of “successful” is communicated clearly to students, or even communicated to them at all. There can be no half-hearted attempts or abandoned thinking just because it’s difficult or “uncool”. Teachers and groups of teachers must deliberate about:
- where the learning is going
- what they’re looking for from the students
- how they might reach – or get close to that
- how they will guide students in that direction
Guess what… that’s going to end up being a rubric or a continuum or some other form or model of criteria – because that’s the point we’ve reached so far in the evolution of education. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to move beyond tests, multiple choice, right and wrong, yes and no, good or bad. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to turn the abstract into the tangible, to convert randomness to clarity and to extract what has been hidden in the minds of teachers and make them visible to students. They symbolize the attempt to allow for more freedom of pedagogy, more room for manoeuvre, more real, on-going differentiation and the recognition that our students learn and do at different rates.
Like everything in life, there’s some amazingly good examples out there, and there’s some incredibly bad ones, and a whole lot in-between. What makes them amazingly good is thought. What makes them incredibly bad is lack of thought (I feel a rubric coming…). If you’re not a fan of rubrics or continuums, or don’t think they’re fashionable… come up with another way of doing what’s in the bullet points above and share it with everyone. Fashion designers don’t ditch the previous season’s designs and tell everyone to go around naked until someone randomly suggests an article of clothing! They come up with new designs, they innovate. I’m sure everyone in education would be very interested to see what you come up with, although I can’t promise a “Paris Rubric Week” any time in the near future!
Let’s face it, without guidance, most students would be completely lost… largely because their teachers would be equally lost because they never really bothered to discuss what the learning was really about. The “blind leading the blind” is never used as a positive example, unless as a joke.
Our job is not a joke.
Now, of course, the ideal situation is for students to be defining “successful” in their own terms, in the contexts that they design instead of those designed by teachers, setting their own goals, and to be articulating:
- where they think the learning is going
- what they’re looking for from themselves
- what they’re looking for from their peers
- how they might reach – or get close to that
- who might guide them in that direction
But… guess what… they’re going to need their teachers to work with them on those things. They’re going to need to get good at doing those things… they are skills that are developed in steps (sound familiar?). Teachers will be need to be observing, noticing, assessing and giving useful feedback/feedforward about how the students are learning, the levels of autonomy or independence they are demonstrating, their ability to reflect on themselves and use those reflections to move forwards. But how will they make sure they’re using a common language? How will they make sure they have a shared vision of what “good looks like”? How will they ensure they’re consistent in their support and guidance for students? How will they make sure they appreciate the steps students take as they make progress? How will they help their students appreciate their own development?
Right now, I don’t see a better way to frame those conversations and decisions than in the collaborative creation of rubrics or continuums. Do you?
So, make your rubrics or continuums about that. And if you don’t like rubrics or continuums, come up with another way of communicating with students about their learning, share it and be a person who is part of the evolution of education, not a person who gets in our way while we try to do so.
I often hear people who are reluctant to talk about assessment tools use the very clever line about “thinking outside the box”… probably because (yes, its subtle) many of them look like boxes. It’s scary that creative people use this sort of reasoning as they seem to forget – almost instantly – how useful boxes are, how beautiful they can be, how many sizes, colours and shapes they come in and how they can be transformed into other things.
My wife came home today and talked about how great it had been working with one of our colleagues on something. The way she talked about it really synthesized many of the things I have been wondering about recently, particularly with regard to planning, collaboration and why (or why not) people are able to do it well.
She talked about how the generation of ideas had been centre-stage and that this person had been able, so quickly and naturally, to adjust her initial ideas based on new information that led to inevitable change. Rather than be upset about it, take it personally or complain about this new information and the reasons behind it… she just adapted.
This is a great example of the ideas being much more important than the ego. This is something that is inherent in good teachers. They love to discuss ideas, to share them, to develop them, to change them, to play with them and even to return to the original ones! They know that these processes are vital as teachers struggle with the complexities and challenges of making things as purposeful as possible. They know that their part in this process is important, valuable and worthy of their time.
Most importantly, they know that the process exercises their brain, expands their thinking, keeps them fresh, challenges their intellect and helps them make connections with other people.
They know they’re learning.
Critical in all of this, also, is the understanding that we shouldn’t fear our own ideas, we shouldn’t fear “being wrong”and we shouldn’t be annoyed by the refining of our ideas by other people – that’s the exciting part! As educators, we try to guide students towards being able to exchange ideas without an adversarial approach – “I’m right… you’re wrong” – but so often get caught in that petty, dichotomous behaviour ourselves.
Take a look around you when you’re next at school. Look out for the people who…
- just come out with their ideas without second-guessing themselves or other people’s interpretation
- love to listen to other people’s ideas just as much as they love to say their own
- visibly learn and grow as ideas are shared
- refer to other people’s ideas
- have a sense of excitement, freedom and chattiness about ideas
- discuss ideas socially as well as professionally
- understand that ideas are not about knowing everything
- know that the discussion of ideas is time well spent
- understand that ideas are not responsible for the people who thought of them!
… and let them know you appreciate them.
By contrast, but equally important, keep your eye out for the “Idea Killers”! (see the fantastic list of 16 ways people kill ideas in this posting, from which I also got the header image for my posting)
The word “ego” often comes up in conversations about teachers, and not in a positive sense.
We hear teachers being described as having a “big ego”. However, this is usually in reference to teachers who are confident. This confidence comes through by:
- consistently putting ideas on the table
- coming up with an approach and going for it
- refusing to allow oneself to be bullied
- projecting an image of confidence to students
- looking confident
- taking on the challenge of leading people
- stepping up to deal with situations
- consistently contributing to discussions in large groups
Sure, these can sometimes spill over into arrogance or an inflated ego, but usually only when people feel cornered, subject to critical scrutiny by colleagues or – inevitably – malicious gossip.
I think a teacher ego – in it’s negative sense – is much less visible than the things in the list above. I think a negative teacher ego manifests itself as:
- believing one is much better at one’s job than one is
- claiming good practice is obvious, yet not actually doing it
- being a know-it-all
- always referring to one’s own ideas, thoughts and practices and not those of other people
- making it clear that other people’s perspectives matter less than one’s own, either consciously or subconsciously
- consistently talking while other people are talking
- finishing other people’s sentences
- shutting people down
- consistently judging other people’s practice and behaviour
- believing other people are interested in one’s negative or critical thoughts
- struggling to see anything from other people’s perspectives
- consistently making everything about oneself
- making one’s problems someone else’s problems
These behaviours are subtle, divisive and destructive… and particularly so because they are not usually the behaviours of people who are often described as “having a big ego”. Instead, they are often the behaviours of people who come across as insecure and, as a result, are quite hidden.
I should clarify that I’m not writing this posting because of anything that has happened to me recently… some, but not all, of my postings are autobiographical! I guess I’m writing this posting because I would like to see an increasingly sophisticated understanding of:
- what confidence is and why it is important for young people to be taught by confident adults
- how to avoid writing off confident people as having a “big ego” and preventing that initial observation from manifesting itself as malicious gossip
- how to deal with the more subtle, egotistical behaviours that do more harm in our schools than any confident, or even over-confident, behaviours could ever do
image from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/positive-ego-nancy-steidl-1
We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.
My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.
Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.
These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.
It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.
Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!
I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:
“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”
“Why are the cows lying down?”
“Where does the water come from?”
“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”
“Who does this land belong to?”
“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”
“Where does that path go?”
“What is making that sound?”
“Who made that rope swing over the river?”
And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!
Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.
There was a recurring theme in the recent feedback on school leadership by teachers in the school I work at – favouritism.
The gist of it is that there are certain teachers who are considered, by a few, to be the “favourites” of the leadership team. This is quite an interesting point, really, because… to be perfectly honest… people in leadership positions do – inevitably – have favourites. Let me elaborate a bit on that.
There’s always some people who don’t need to be managed, they get on with their jobs and do so to a high quality and in a way that symbolises and encapsulates, to the best of their ability, the vision of the school and the type of pedagogy that school leaders hope to see. Some people might believe they fit into this category because they just “get on with their job”. However, they may not realise, understand or be willing to admit that their practice simply isn’t what school leaders are looking for.
There’s always some people whose practice inspires school leaders and stretches their vision of the school and of pedagogy. Let’s face it, the minute you step out of the classroom and become an “administrator” of some type you will inevitably be referring to pedagogy that you used to practice. School leaders need teachers around them who push their boundaries, reveal new possibilities and teach in ways that are better than they would be able to teach themselves!
There’s always some people who are just natural learners – they ask questions, they are interested in the world, they read books and blogs about education, they seek advice, they pop their heads into offices to run an idea by you, they wander the corridors of the school to chat to people and find inspiration or possibilities for collaboration, they try stuff out. School leaders adore people like this… sorry, there’s no point denying it.
There’s always some people who have classrooms and learning spaces that are welcoming. Their students can’t wait to get to school because their classroom feels like home, because it is stimulating and comfortable, because it belongs to them and because interesting things happen there. Guess what… it’s not only kids who feel that way. School leaders are drawn to those rooms by the buzz of learning and students who are happy, motivated and involved in doing interesting things. They are often invited to join in conversations or get involved in the learning somehow – either explicitly or just because they can’t help themselves. When you’re walking up a corridor, you’re naturally attracted to classrooms like that and, yes, you end up in them more frequently than others.
There’s always some people who know that improving things involves their active participation. People like this don’t complain about the way things are, they take steps to do something about it. In fact, they usually go further by seeking out things that need to be improved and naturally thinking about solutions. They don’t plop their gripes on the desks of school leaders and hand the problem over to them… but, if they do seek you out they do so with a clear indication that they wish to be part of the problem-solving process. It’s only natural that people in leadership positions will respond to people like that with more enthusiasm, more willingness to help and less dread when they see their heads pop in the door or see them coming up the corridor.
There’s always some people who are just good to be around – they know that people in leadership positions are trying their best, they understand all the hidden complexities involved in such positions, they communicate respectfully and without confrontation, they listen actively in meetings and professional development sessions, they are open-minded and willing to see things through different lenses, they are humorous and don’t take themselves too seriously, they abstain from gossip and negative judgment of people they work with, they attend social events and stick around for five minutes to chat after meetings.
The biggest problem with all of this is, unfortunately, that all of these qualities are usually rolled up into the same, small number of people… the ones who get labelled as “favourites”. So, my feedback to the feedback would be to try to aim to have more of the qualities outlined above. Not so you can be a favourite, but just because they’re pretty good qualities to have!
Anyone who knows me would say I’m not exactly the most positive person in the world! But, I’ve been thinking about positivity and negativity a lot recently, and particularly this quote:
It has become increasingly obvious that there is a negative default for many people who work in schools. And, that this negative default builds up to a disproportionate sense of entitlement and readiness just to be critical of everything.
So, for example, an improvement is made to an aspect of the school – say, the playground – and then, as soon as that improvement is complete people forget what it was like before and then complain about the improvement. They pick faults in it or moan about “not being consulted”. In short, they will find something to complain about. Indeed, it is impost impossible to interact with some people without some complaining happening!
Now, of course, this negative energy is really debilitating. But, more worryingly, it reveals a lack of memory… or a lack of willingness to remember. This immediately reduces our ability to have perspective. Perspective doesn’t just come from going somewhere else and seeing things differently because of a change of location, or meeting a different person and seeing things differently through them. Perspective also comes through time, and schools’ relationship with time is often so abusive that we may well have lost our ability to achieve this.
How often do we ignore all of our success and focus purely on our failures? How often do we ignore our “Done List” because we’re so obsessed with our “To Do List”? How often do we forget to congratulate ourselves for our achievements because we’re blinded by our goals? How often do we allow someone’s negativity to infect everybody else’s positivity? How often do we focus our emotional energy on responding to negativity and leave ourselves too depleted for the positive energy?
I’d like to see a movement towards living by the quote above and away from the gravitational pull of negativity and negative people. Schools should be positive places full of positive people – I don’t mean that in a trite, naive or ignorant way – but positive in a way that still has substance. You can sense the overriding air of positivity very strongly when positive people dominate, and great things happen as a result. You can equally sense the air of negativity very strongly when negative people dominate, and the potential for great things to happen slips down the nearest drain.
This video features my daughter, Zahra, and Linh Huyen, wife of my friend Richard and outstanding Vietnamese singer and performer.
Zahra has had dance lessons – ballet and jazz – but recently gave them up because she wasn’t enjoying them any more. However, she still loves to dance… as you can see!
I wonder how she can continue to develop this love for dancing without having to go to structured, formal lessons. Is it possible for her community to provide her with opportunities and situations like this one – where she is truly in the zone – but learning alongside a true performer and role-model.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that often the best learning happens in informal situations, when people who are driven by the same interests and passions come together, when it is not organized or planned in advance. In the absence of structure, magic happens.
Of course, there is still structure in what takes place in this video. Multiple structures – rhythm, pitch, choreography, language, communication and so on… the structure that is absent is premeditation, timetabling or even the foresight that things would work out this way. Structures like that may evolve out of this experience, Linh Huyen and Zahra already started making plans to do another performance, this time with rehearsals and costumes and a bigger audience.
When I think about some of the most powerful examples of learning that have happened in my school this year, I believe they share some of the same features. They emerged out of natural inclinations, genuine connections, meaningful interactions and spontaneous decisions. They went to greater depth because the people who became involved could see how deep it was possible to go. The adults involved believed in what the students were capable of.
Really, our job is to create the conditions for that type of learning to become more and more likely.