By Carl Hendrick.
I’ve long thought that one of the weakest proxy indicators of effective learning is engagement, and yet it’s a term persistently used by school leaders (and some researchers) as one of the most important measures of quality. In fact many of the things we’ve traditionally associated with effective teachers may not be indicative of students actually learning anything at all.
At the #ascl2015 conference last Friday, the always engaging Professor Rob Coe gave a talk entitled ‘From Evidence to Great Teaching’ and reiterated this claim. Take the following slide – How many ‘outstanding’ lessons have been awarded so based on this checklist?
Now these all seem like key elements of a successful classroom, so what’s the problem? and more specifically, why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning?
This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he writes:
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.” Furthermore, teachers are more than happy to sanction that kind of stuff in the name of fulfilling that all important ‘engagement’ proxy indicator so prevalent in lesson observation forms.
The other difficulty is the now constant exhortation for students to be ‘motivated’ (often at the expense of subject knowledge and depth) but motivation in itself is not enough. Nuthall writes that:
“Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.”p.35
Motivation and engagement and vital elements in learning but it seems to be what they are used in conjunction with that determines impact. It is right to be motivating students but motivated to do what? If they are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.
Learning is in many cases invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds us, ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ but unfortunately there is no easy way of measuring this, so what does he suggest is effective in terms of evidencing quality?
Ultimately he argues that it comes down to a more nuanced set of practitioner/student skills, habits and conditions that are very difficult to observe, never mind measure. Things like “selecting, integrating, orchestrating, adapting, monitoring, responding” and which are contingent on “context, history, personalities, relationships” and which all work together to create impact and initiate effective learning. So while engagement and motivation are important elements in learning they should be seen as part of a far more complex conglomerate of factors that traditional lesson observations have little hope of finding in a 20 min drive-by.
This is where a more robust climate of research and reflective practice can inform judgements. It’s true that more time for teachers to be critically reflective will improve judgements but we also need to be more explicit in precisely what it is we are looking for and accept that often the most apparent classroom element may also be the most misleading.
Slides: Prof. Rob Coe: From Evidence to Great Teaching ASCL 20 Mar 2015
Nuthall, Graham (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press
One thesis & five mini case studies
Last year, a team of us went on a learning tour across the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. We visited schools across different sectors, contexts and age-ranges.
Amongst our many discoveries was this: that often the most interesting schools are those with the clearest mission. From the best-funded, most rarefied private schools, to very small state primaries, to charter schools working in challenging areas of great cities, there are easily recognizable common strands to schools’ DNA. We all talk about “mission statements”; some schools live them.
In many cases, these very interesting – and often equally high achieving – schools are driven by a great single organizing principle.
Here are 5 very brief case studies of schools we visited which are clearly on a mission:
1. At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology just outside Washington DC, it’s all about science.
This school is remarkable. It is state funded (although it does a lot of development work and many of its projects and its equipment are sponsored) but it has a unique specialism and an impressively unified mission.
It is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) school and its focus is unwaveringly on project-based scientific research work. It transcends the idea of co-construction: students are the architects and authors of their own research, often conducted using cutting-edge technologies, sometimes embedded within industry and professional laboratories.
The students who showed us around exuded pride in their remarkable school (as indeed did students at all the most interesting schools we visited). TJHSST is a unique and quite extraordinary place. You can read more about it here.
TJHSST’s core skills and values are: critical inquiry and research, problem solving, intellectual curiosity, social responsibility. Expectation and common purpose are everything. For TJ, that unified mission is excellence in scientific research.
2. At Phillips Exeter Academy, one hour north of Boston, it’s all about Harkness.
Phillips Exeter has astonishing facilities. But its greatness lies not in its privilege but in its principle. And that centres on one, simple philosophy: Harkness.
All classes are taught around “Harkness” tables. Pupils and teachers learn and teach together; classes are characterized by debate and collaboration unconstrained by traditional boundaries. The quality of discussion and the responsibility the students demonstrate for their own learning are very impressive.
Students at Phillips Exeter, working together around the Harkness table, exhibit extraordinary manners and support for each other. This must also have a transformative effect on the pastoral life of the school: these students are genuinely kind to each other, they accept each other’s mistakes in lessons.
This amazing Harkness philosophy really does infuse everything that the school does and, as a result, gives Exeter students quite exceptional experiences. The Principal spoke to us about reading about “flipped classrooms”. “That’s exactly what we’ve been doing for almost 100 years,” he observed, wryly.
3. At Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia it’s all about MYP.
MYP (the IB’s Middle Years Programme) is the agent of chain, the engine for Glasgow’s reform and improvement. It starts with the key purpose – the everyday business of teaching, learning and assessment – and ratchets up expectations from the curriculum upwards. It’s also about service learning – a key component of the MYP.
The Principal of GHS talked to us with enormous integrity about the process of introducing the MYP, of getting the parents on board, of changing the whole culture. She’s taken a school which was struggling and made it into a centre of learning. And she’s done this with a rigorous, unflinching focus on an academic curriculum driven by formative assessment, planning with the end in mind, service learning and learning in context. MYP provides Glasgow with the focus to achieve their mission.
For them, it’s all about the MYP.
4. At KIPP in New York City it’s all about getting students to College.
KIPP stands for the Knowledge is Power Program. “Work hard, be nice.” The message couldn’t be clearer; it’s emblazed around the school. And KIPP charter schools have one simple mission: their students go to college. In the lower Bronx where, on average, 7% of students go on to further education, KIPP sends 85%.
The students all have “college” sewn into their uniform. The philosophy is just as permanently woven into the DNA of the school. You can read more about this transformative approach here. A simple idea, simply and brilliant integrated. That’s KIPP’s mission. It’s a progamme that’s not without its problems, as those of you who have seen the documentary Waiting for Superman will attest. But, it’s a mission and it’s all about getting to College.
And it’s a mission many have benefited from.
5. At Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, it’s all about music.
The final case-study is perhaps the most interesting of them all. CLCS is a tiny charter primary school in the Boston suburb of Brighton. Entry is blind and by lottery. The school could be filled many times over. Its mission is simple: everything is infused with music. Every child plays an instrument, they sing, listen to music, practise throughout the day.
When students first join the school, they make papier-mâché instruments with their families. The care that is put into this is quite extraordinary. They then form a paper orchestra – learning respect for instruments, posture, control and team-work whilst singing the notes and holding the instruments. When they graduate to the real thing they are already in control of their bodies musically.
The student ambassadors talk with such pride (it’s there again) about their instruments, their music-making and how lucky they are to be at this school.
Conservatory Lab is inspired by the incredible work in Venezuela of El Sistema. It is remarkable. But don’t take my word for it; have a look at some of the work they do with expeditionary learning: music-infuses a 3rd Grade project on snakes; listen to their orchestra (remembering that this is a small, state primary school).
In many ways these are great schools all. But isn’t it interesting that there’s that clear organizing principle behind everything they do?
Yesterday evening at Wellington College the academic staff took part in a learning ‘ideas exchange’. We all set up displays around the library to showcase what we do that is interesting or innovative, and then took an hour to wander around, chat, and find out about best practice across the College. It was a bit like attending a mini convention, with displays, constructive showing off, and the odd glass of wine.
For example, here is our slide from Philosophy and Religion:
Our theme was the different ways in which you can run a discussion with students; we chose just six of many different possible examples. Some of the most interesting conversations I had were with colleagues teaching maths and science, who wondered how the concept of ‘discussion’ could apply in subjects for which debate and discourse is not as important as theoretical understanding. It challenged us to think about what a meaningful discussion could be and how it could work in science in a non-contrived way. I certainly learned a lot from thinking about this cross application.
The ideas exchange is a totally brilliant idea for professional learning. By making the process sociable and making it into an event, the levels of engagement went right up. It also opens the eyes to how much brilliant education is going on, on your own doorstep!
My highlights include: GIS mapping (Geography), medical diagnostic activities (Biology), and really pushing the youngest students with texts (Classics).
If you are an educator, I would strongly recommend that you consider running an ideas exchange in your school or college. I hope that we will hold further such events at Wellington in the near future.
At the beginning of this term we set out to experiment with some new models for CPD or Professional Learning. One of the things we were keen to explore was whether simple technological models had any value in engaging teachers in discussion about teaching and learning that would help them to improve their practice in the classroom. We also had a hope that there might be better alternatives than the “all staff meet in one place at a particular time and listen to a lecture” model.
As one of the points of focus for the term was assessment and feedback, we set out to create a Google+ community to host a series of discussions. The idea was that anyone could sign up and that there would be no time-specific sessions so that individuals could interact when and how they wanted.
At the beginning of the course the “moderator” laid out a set of user principles for engagement over the 3 weeks that the community would be running. His short post read:
“Improving our assessment and feedback right across the school is a key focus for this term so this community could help to shape ideas and forge interesting ways forward as well as sifting our contacts and networks for examples of the very best that others are doing in this field.
I’m not sure what the outcomes will be (although I hope that a couple of you at least might be motivated to blog about our discussions and ideas). However, might I suggest the following as a kind of minimum requirement of being involved in the group? That, over the course of the 3 weeks we all:
- Post at least one link to an interesting idea/ blog/ link;
- Post at least one (however short) personal reflection on effective feedback and/ or assessment.
And that, in addition, we all:
- Comment at least once a week on any of the posts that have gone up.”
28 teachers signed up for the community and it remained open for the 3 weeks intended at the end of last half term. There was a fantastic range of curricular posts from English to PE to Maths to Economics and a decent discussion on many of them. Posts looked at a huge range of thoughts and ideas as well as curating blogs and recommending reading; the 3 headings for contributions were: general discussion; interesting blogs, websites and reading; reflections on interesting and innovative personal or departmental practice.
We discussed, as examples: the issues of grading work; ensuring the quantity and quality of all feedback; student reflections; using trackers; using digital strategies to support marking and assessment; peer-marking; critique; blogging as an assessment strategy, and much more. In fact, and on reflection, perhaps the range of material covered was almost too extensive and we might have been better focusing more on specific ideas and practices.
At the end of the course we sent out a very short survey to try to engage with how successful teachers felt that the process had been and whether this is a model that we could develop profitably in the future. The responses made for interesting reading.
Teachers who took part liked:
- “The flexibility to interact at a time that suited me and therefore allowed me to give it my full focus at that moment”
- “Learning about what was happening in other departments”
- “the ease of access and sharing ideas”
One of the feedback questions we asked was to challenge teachers to consider whether, in their opinion, the course had had any impact on student learning. The responses were surprisingly positive, several reporting that they felt there had been a significant positive impact on student learning in their classrooms.
A couple of respondents suggested a plenary session would be useful. This is something we will consider in the future; a Google hangout is obviously one way of conducting this that we might think about. Several contributors thought that more interaction would have made for an even more successful experience. Balanced against this, however, was an exhortation not to exhort: that requests to post made the experience feel “pressurized, and not natural.” That’s an interesting balance for future moderators to consider. Equally, some commented on the lack of quality control. That’s another one to think deeply about.
To finish: one final comment from one of the teachers who took part: “I am disappointed there is not a similar group next half-term looking at another topic.” Now it’s time to make that happen; step forward the next moderator, please.