Learning to run, running to learn

I recently completed a 50km ultramarathon in Australia’s stunning Blue Mountains. With 2400 metres of ascent and descent and over 8130 stairs on the course, it was no easy feat!

I was thrilled with my effort and even more proud of myself for beating last year’s time by almost 1.5 hours. The immediate payoff for all the months of training in all types of weather conditions, suffering through blisters and stomach issues and making other sacrifices along the way (giving up alcohol for example), are that I now have a very attractive medal to show around AND I have full rights to refer to myself as an ultramarathon runner whenever the opportunity arises (or whenever I help the opportunity arise 😊). As I am coming to realise however, the long-term benefits of my running are much greater, and the more I run, the more I’m becoming convinced of the inextricable relationship between my two passions of education and exercise.

 

Exercise, learning and the brain

Participation in rigorous exercise improves alertness, attention, and motivation in learning (Mahar et al., 2006; Ratey and Hagerman, 2013; Winter et al., 2007).

I know myself when I’m passive all day I start to lose focus and am not as effective as I should be. My concentration starts to wane, and my decision making may not be as sharp as it should be (not good when you are supposed to be the person responsible for running a school!)

The sluggish, unproductive feeling I get when I am inactive for too long is one of the main reasons I purchased a stand-up desk when I first became a principal and why I could never work without one now. It is also the reason I have always included physical brain breaks whenever I am teaching (this is something I continue to include in my professional learning sessions for adults today).

In addition to improving attention, a German study illustrated the positive impact of exercise on cognition and memory, demonstrating that vocabulary learning occurred 20 percent faster after participants had engaged in rigorous exercise (Winter et al., 2007). Some research goes as far as linking participation in acute exercise with improvements on academic achievement tests in reading and maths as well (Hillman et al., 2009; Castelli et al., 2007). Interesting, considering many schools have found themselves forgoing time spent on physical activity in the pursuit of better academic achievement for students.

 

Exercise, learning and ADHD

The research on the impact of exercise and learning for students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) is even more positive, with studies showing that exercise programmes reduce ADHD symptoms and produced better long-term outcomes for these children (Berwid and Halperin, 2012). Aerobic exercise can improve anxiety, executive functioning and impulsivity for students with ADHD, which can lead to an improvement in cognitive functioning and social skills (Cerrillo-Urbina et al., 2015).

I have to say, these research findings don’t come as a surprise to me, as it has always seemed as though many of the students with ADHD I have worked with have ‘extra energy to burn’ and I’ve always instinctively leant towards engaging them in physical activity (such as running laps of the oval) as a break from their work to help them remain engaged. Interestingly, all the Occupational Therapists of the students with really challenging behaviours I have worked with, have always suggested these students engage in heavy lifting and other strenuous physical activity immediately before class and several times throughout the day, in order to keep them engaged in learning.

When it comes to impulsivity and executive functioning, the Rock and Water (Ykema, 2002) program teaches educators about the increase in testosterone levels in boys as they grow up and why it is important to keep them moving in school: “When we force boys to sit still (too long), we suppress their impulse to move. An energy bomb in your body is an irrational thing. If we do not teach boys to handle it, but-on the contrary- try to suppress it, this bomb will explode (always at the wrong moment) and…boys will do irrational things.” Hmmmm…sound familiar?

 “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.” – Plato

There is no denying it, our bodies are designed to move!

We may not all be ultramarathon runners, (like myself 😊) but we need to remember that exercise and physical activity are a very important part of the equation when it comes to effective teaching and learning. And, considering a recent Grattan Institute report suggests that many Australian students are ‘consistently disengaged in class’ and that ‘as many as 40 per cent are unproductive in a given year,’ now might be a good time to start heeding the advice of the research around exercise, learning and the brain.

 

Note: I didn’t get a chance to mention the numerous mental health benefits of exercise in this post- I will have to write about that another day…

 

 

References:

Berwid, O. and Halperin, J. (2012). Emerging Support for a Role of Exercise in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Intervention Planning. Current Psychiatry Reports, 14(5), pp.543-551.

Castelli, D., Hillman, C., Buck, S. and Erwin, H. (2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in 3rd and 5th grade students. Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, pp.239-252.

Cerrillo-Urbina, A., García-Hermoso, A., Sánchez-López, M., Pardo-Guijarro, M., Santos Gómez, J. and Martínez-Vizcaíno, V. (2015). The effects of physical exercise in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials. Child: Care, Health and Development, 41(6), pp.779-788.

Hillman, C., Pontifex, M., Raine, L., Castelli, D., Hall, E. and Kramer, A. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience, 159(3), pp.1044-1054.

Mahar, M., Murphy, S., Rowe, D., Golden, J., Shields, T. and Raedeke, T. (2006). Effects of a Classroom-Based Physical Activity Program on Physical Activity and on On-Task Behavior in Elementary School Children. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(Supplement), p.S80.

Ratey, J. and Hagerman, E. (2013). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown.

Ykema, F. (2002). Rock and water perspectives. Greenwood, W.A.: Gadaku Institute, p.25.

Winter, B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F., Voelker, K., Fobker, M., Lechtermann, A., Krueger, K., Fromme, A., Korsukewitz, C., Floel, A. and Knecht, S. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 87(4), pp.597-609.

 

 

Education lessons from the dog trainer

We recently booked our youngest cavoodle, Lola, into dog school to help her learn some manners (being cute isn’t enough in this world!). Before Lola could attend any classes however, we (the humans) were required to attend a 90 minute information session introducing us to the world of dogs and learning. Right from the first slide in the presentation I found myself madly scribbling down the connections between what the dog trainer was telling us about how to handle dogs and their learning and what I know to be true about effective education of children.

 “Everything we do is based on research about how dogs learn best.”

The trainer opened the information session assuring us that everything they do is based on research and best practice into how dogs learn. WOW! I wonder how many of us, as educators, can say the same? Which (if any) research about how children learn do we base our classroom and whole school practices on? (This was one of the things that struck me when I visited Google HQ in San Francisco- everything they put in place in the work environment was based on the research about the conditions that make workers more creative and more productive. This had me asking serious questions about the way we approach education in schools.)

We might have research behind our Literacy program or our Maths program, but what is the overarching research on which we base our general approach, beliefs and attitudes towards student learning? When you reflect critically on this question, you can see how it underpins every action and decision that takes place in a school. For example: if we believe due to studies such as “high impact running improves learning” (Winter et al., 2007) that students learn best when they are physically active, we will structure our timetable to ensure students have more time to engage in physical activity throughout the day.

What do we know about how children do learn best? How is this impacting what you do in your school/setting?

 

“We keep up to date with new research about how dogs learn so we can respect our dogs.”

Having strong beliefs about trauma-informed practice being implemented as a fundamental non-negotiable in all schools, I have found that the word ‘respect’ needs to be clearly defined within school communities. “The kids of today need to show more respect,” “children need to respect their elders” etc.

I believe the dog school’s definition is one all schools should use as a model for their own definition: “Respect means you do not expect your dog to do what you say because you are a human and they are a dog.” There is a very clear power shift from traditional roles when you swap the word ‘dog’ with ‘child’ and ‘human’ with adult: “Respect means you do not expect your/a child to do what you say because you are an adult and they are a child.” Having this clearly defined for all members of the school community in this way sets a clear expectation for the way relationships are established and conducted between adults and children in the school. It automatically sets the precedent for the development of a respect-based approach to working with children (this underpins the Victorian Department of Education and Training’s ’setting expectations and promoting inclusion dimension of the Framework for Improvement Student Outcomes).

‘No dog will ever learn when they are stressed, anxious or disengaged.’

The dog trainer explained that the dogs in their school were grouped by skill level rather than age as it doesn’t make any sense to group dogs together by age, when some dogs come with loads of training and positive experiences and some come with none. (This had me thinking of Sir Ken Robinson’s popular TED talk about creativity in schools) The trainer explained that putting a 7-year-old dog with no training in a class with a 7-year-old dog with loads of training would only induce anxiety and stress in the one with no training and no dog will ever learn when they are stressed, anxious or disengaged.

No child will ever learn when they are stressed, anxious or disengaged; this is the essential underpinning for all trauma-informed practice. This is the very statement that should underpin everything we do in schools, particularly when it comes to our approach to behaviour management. Just as the dog owners need to take responsibility for putting their dogs in situations in which they can achieve success, we, as the adults, have an obligation to ensure we don’t knowingly put our students in situations that will induce excessive stress and/or anxiety. (We certainly don’t have the right, as I have far too many times witnessed, to put students in these situations and then question why they either aren’t learning or are being disruptive to the learning of others around them.)

Your dog associates people/environments with how they are feeling and develops expectations. What’s the balance of your Relationship Bank Account?

I’d never thought of the concept of an emotional bank account applying to dogs as well as humans. Well of course it does, it applies to any circumstance in which a relationship exists!

The idea of an emotional bank account again reinforces the expectation of a positive approach to behaviour management in schools. For us to have a difficult (but effective) conversation with a student (a ‘withdrawal’), we need to have built up a healthy emotional bank account with that student prior to the ‘withdrawal.’ The requirement to establish this positive bank account balance is the very reason a school’s behaviour management plan cannot be solely reliant on sending students to another staff member/space to be ‘dealt’ with when they are misbehaving. Sending disruptive students to a welfare worker for example only strengthens the relationship the student has with the welfare worker. It will not help to build the relationship between the teacher and the student. This becomes a problem as the student will come to associate the teacher with negative feelings and develop expectations for what will happen when they are in that teacher’s class (setting up a negative spiral of bad behaviour in that class). This is the same for dogs.

In dog classes, the dog owner cannot simply send their misbehaving dog to the trainer to be ‘fixed.’ There are a few reasons for this, including: 1) the problem is likely to exist between the owner and the dog and possibly centres around the lack of respect in their relationship- therefore sending the dog to the trainer will not address the heart of the problem and 2) it is not long term sustainable to offload the problem to another person -when the dog and the owner go home, the trainer will not be there to rescue them.

 

Reinforcement over punishment

It has to be said, by this stage of the dog training information session I was practically on the floor hailing the dog trainer for their wisdom. Just when I thought the messages couldn’t be any more pertinent for education, out comes this research-backed golden statement: Reinforcement over punishment. Reinforce all behaviour you like, even the behaviours you take for granted (eg. sitting on their bed quietly).

Have you ever heard frustrated educators/parents demand ‘why should they get a reward for doing the right thing? They should be doing it anyway!’

Why? Because reinforcement builds a positive relationship between you and your child/dog, it is more pleasant for you and your child/dog and it actually explicitly teaches your child/dog what to do. The punishment cycle on the other hand can establish negative associations with environment/people, doesn’t build up behaviour we like and, most importantly, teaches your child/dog ‘safe’ vs ‘not safe’ rather than ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ As educators, we are in the business of teaching students; therefore, we need to teach them how to behave, rather than simply focusing on how NOT to behave. Could you imagine teaching maths in the same way that some people teach behaviour? We would tell a student every time they were wrong when working out a problem, without giving them any guidance or coaching on how they should or could go about working through it successfully- sounds like a very long winded and ineffective approach to me! (Not to mention the fact that I haven’t found any research that backs it up as effective).

 

The final message for the day:

Dog body language- learn to understand what your dog is telling you

Understanding the body language of our dog can give us strong clues as to how they are feeling in a situation. Ears back, yawning and lip licking can all be signs of stress or anxiousness for example. Just as humans do, dogs ‘level up’ the communication of the stress until the cause of the stress is removed. When a child pulls a dog’s tale for example, the dog may start with lip licking to show their stress, before progressing to head turning and eventually growling. If this final indicator is ignored, they may have no option but to snap at the child who is pulling their tail. As a good friend of mine always says ‘challenging behaviour is communication of a need unmet.’ When working with students we need to become adept at learning the signs and symptoms (including body language) of aroused states of stress in our students and work to intervene before these escalate into snapping. The beauty of working with humans is that we can have conversations around escalation and self-regulation to empower them to learn to take control of this themselves. (This is what teaching the ‘whole child’ is about: it may not be on the NAPLAN test, but it will be critically important in the test of life.)

 

So, there you have it, some education related pearls of wisdom from the Boroondara Dog Training school.

Now to start teaching Lola before her lesson so we impress the trainer on her first day. (We must make it fun though as they said they won’t move dogs up to the next level if they are not having fun- yet another pearl for teachers!)

We’ve got this Lola!

 

For more resources on trauma informed practice visit these sites:

Making Space for Learning (from the Australian Childhood Foundation)

Calmer Classrooms (from the Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services, Department of Education, Training and Employment)

Berry Street Education Model

 

References:

Winter, B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F., Voelker, K., Fobker, M., Lechtermann, A., Krueger, K., Fromme, A., Korsukewitz, C., Floel, A. and Knecht, S. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 87(4), pp.597-609.

Lessons in leadership: Mind your language!

 

There’s a cost effective and simple strategy, implementable by all levels of leadership, in schools of every size that will help build a strong positive school culture in your school: “Mind your language!”

 

There are two key messages in this strategy:

  1. How a leader speaks about their school (or how a teacher speaks about their classroom, a team leader about their team, a Parent Club president about their Parent’s Club etc.) will form the basis for what their followers believe and think about their sense of belonging in that school/classroom/club.
  2. Community members who feel connected to the school/club/cause will then work for you in further strengthening the positive culture within and outside that cause.  

 

Increasing a sense of belonging

The key to increasing that sense of belonging in your community is to use inclusive language that draws them into the cause and puts everyone within the cause on an equal footing (therefore valuing the contributions/skills/thoughts and attributes of all stakeholders).

As leaders, we need to ensure the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ are at the forefront of our mouths and fingertips when communicating with our communities.

Words/sentences that are in Words/sentences that are out
our school the school/your school
our classroom my classroom (e.g. “don’t come into my classroom and behave in that way)
our students the students
as a community, we need to… parents need to
we don’t do that here at ….. Primary School/that’s not who we are here at …. Primary School/that’s not how we roll here at …. our school. Don’t swear at school

Strengthening the positive culture

As a leader it is a good idea to imagine that each and every member of your community has a megaphone attached to their hand, ready to repeat your messages to the local and wider community whenever they feel the need.

Everything you say can potentially be shouted through this megaphone at any time.

man-with-a-megaphone-1467100857wJb

Be smart! Use this knowledge to your advantage by making sure you only communicate messages you want shouted from the rooftops by all of your community members. “We are doing great things in our school” vs. “We have a bullying culture in our school and it needs to stop.” Try your best to ONLY communicate the good news stories. Leave the negative things for the small specific number of trusted people who need to know and discuss it.
Consider this newsletter snippet from a school principal who is trying to rally the support of the community:

“The enrolment trend is continuing to slide as the community deserts its local school instead of standing up for its local school and supporting the leaders and college council to make the improvements for the local children. Our work is challenging as we learn to cope with students arriving below expectations, assimilate new arrivals and do our best to have students achieve their best. As parents I expect you to have a big say in making sure your child’s work is passed in on time, use the student planner for communication with the teacher and monitor that your child is doing their best no matter what the subject or event they are accessing at the college.”

 

Do you feel a sense belonging to this community? A sense of pride? Does it make you feel like rallying for the cause? What message would you be telling other people about how your school is travelling after you read this?

What message would be coming from your megaphone? (our kids are below par academically, the refugees are dragging us down, everyone is leaving and I can see why!)

How would the tone and message of the snippet be changed if inclusive and positive language were used?

 

“We have unfortunately seen a downward trend in our enrolments lately. We know we have work to do and we know we all need to come together to continually improve what we are doing as a school and as a community. There are a number of challenges in our school but there are also many great opportunities and wonderful people who can help guide us through these challenges. We have overcome issues in the past and we will do it again, that is the spirit of…. (suburb name).

Let’s all join together and commit to giving our best in everything we do and come out a stronger community as a result! It will take us time, but I know we can do it”

 

The language of a positive school culture costs nothing to use yet, used over time, can pay big dividends. It’s time to get the megaphones working for you!

I recommend keeping your ears and eyes out for opportunities to “mind your (and others’) language” this week.

Less us, more them!

I have always been a passionate advocate for ‘getting out of the way’ of the students. That is, releasing control and allowing and encouraging students to THINK and WONDER.

My motto for the students is to:

  • Be curious
  • Be brilliant and
  • Be the change

Last year, I unknowingly started what was to become a new experiment- an experiment in yard play and ‘getting out of the way’ of kids.

In the back section of the school ground we had approximately 500 bricks stacked behind a wire fence. They weren’t being used and no one had any plans for their future use. The kids were forever being told off for stealing the odd brick to add to their cubby huts etc. One day, a few students got in and ‘stole’ a whole heap of bricks from behind the wire fence and started building a brick house with them. While on yard duty I visited the back area and didn’t make any negative comments to the students who were building with the ‘banned’ bricks, rather, I enquired about the rooms and the layout of the house. The students took this as permission to use the rest of the bricks- and so the experiment started.

Within a week, students had come up with their own rules about the use of the bricks, there was to be no throwing of bricks and they were to be stacked to a maximum height of 6 bricks only. Each day a group of 20+ students became busy worker ants as they transferred a 4 bedroom house with bathroom extension one day into a castle ten meters away the next day. Interestingly, they number of issues in the yard declined during this time- this was not something we expected when students were playing with such dangerous objects!

The bricks then became the foundation of a remote control car track, laboured over by the usually boisterous and often problematic senior students at the time. Again, yard issues were reduced and, in fact, a new culture of car lovers and role models emerged as young boys followed the older boys around in awe of their machines and their daily work on the RC track. Towards the end of the year, discussions in the yard turned to the inevitable ‘handover’ of the track from the year 6 students who were heading off to high school, to the next year’s grade 6 students, who had eagerly been awaiting the coveted land title.

This year, the bricks have continued, as has the variety of their use- one week a mini golf course, the next a fort. It is truly fascinating to watch the creations emerge and change each and every day. Here is today’s house with grand front entrance:

brick house

This year, a twist in the experiment has occurred- this time in the front of the yard. It started with one student hitting a tennis ball against a wall, it progressed to a group of students standing on the seat in front of the wall and dodging the ball. The game was aptly named “Dead Duck” and quickly emerged as a favourite activity for students in the yard. The game obviously has its risks (there is a high chance students will be hit in the head with a tennis ball! ) and it was fo r this reason some members of staffed called for it to be banned.

“Less us more them,” chanting away in my head throughout the discussion, I decided to put my experimentational foot down and allow the game to continue and evolve by itself. The game has been a terrific addition to the play in our yard and one that has seen students identify issues, problem solve, develop solutions, modify, negotiate and collaborate- all the skills we bend over backwards trying to get them to learn in the classroom and all without the intervention if a teacher!

This newfound freedom and release of control has now lead to a very exciting new development- students have started to THINK and WONDER…

think and wonder

A few weeks in to the start of term this year I had two students approach me and ask if they could start riding their bikes and scooters on the basketball court. I obviously thought of the worst case scenarios immediately but decided not to can the wondering before it had been fully wondered. I told them they would have to write to the school council to state their case and ask permission. “Can we start straight away (at lunchtime)?” asked the two reluctant writers…

Last night I read out their letter to the school council and was bursting with pride at the demonstration of curiosity, team work, persistence, professionalism and leadership shown by the two students. The school council were highly impressed by the work and thought the students had put in to the letter (which included suggestions of possible issues and rules that could combat the issues) and wrote a response letter, granting permission for a trial.

I handed the letter to the students today and they were beaming with utter disbelief that their idea, the one that they dared to THINK and WONDER about, was about to become a reality! I am so proud of these boys for being the change and can’t wait to watch the next part of this unfold.

I have a meeting planned with them this afternoon to further plan the next steps so watch this space!

 

How have you built curiosity and student voice in to your settings?

  • How do you celebrate it?
  • How do you support students to be the change?

 

A reflection on the AEF’s National Conference

Over the last 2 days I was fortunate enough to attend the Asia Education Foundation’s (AEF) National Conference in Melbourne. Along with close to 500 other educators from around Australia (including some from Singapore and Hong Kong), I had the opportunity to hear from some of Australia’s top thinkers on the topic of Australia and its engagement with Asia.

Keynote speaker John Denton kicked off the conference by providing a comprehensive (and extremely well spoken) overview of what it means for our young people to be a part of the ‘Asian Century’ and the potential ramifications this has in future business (among other areas). Denton clearly outlined the need for students to engage in learning Asian languages and developing their intercultural understanding and awareness.  A strong sense of urgency was conveyed in his speech along with an understanding of the enormity of the change that needs to occur in our society in order for us to make the most of the Asian Century.

Yong Zhao presented twice at the conference and, as always, provided an inspiring and thought provoking speech on reimagining how we educate and prepare our students for the Asian Century.

Speaking with other delegates over the course of the last two days, I am sure I am not alone in feeling both the weight of the responsibility of leading this change and the excitement and honour in being charged with this critically important and future shaping task.

There were several key messages that surfaced throughout the conference sessions and I have left the conference with three major take home learnings:

  1. The critical need for our students (and all people in our society) to become proficient in speaking an Asian language
  2. The need for our students (and teachers) to dramatically improve their knowledge of Asia- including its various cultures etc
  3. The role and importance of technology in assisting our young people to learn about Asia and to learn Asian languages in an effective and sustainable manner.

On top of these key learnings I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with other educators from around the country. In particular, I was both surprised and reassured to find that the issues of conveying the relevance of Asian studies and languages that I experience working in a regional (predominantly mono-cultural) area, are not dissimilar to the issues faced by other educators in other states and towns across the nation.

What does this all mean?

As a passionate educator I need to lead my school and network (both online and offline) to become more Asia literate. In the first instance, I need to assess and then build upon the resources currently available to assist with this mission. Building on this, I need to take a good hard look at my symbolic leadership in terms of supporting the (currently struggling) school Indonesian program. (What do my current actions say about how much I value the Indonesian program? How am I going to champion this program and demonstrate the importance of this program for students? What simple actions can I engage in to help raise the profile and convey the relevancy and value of this program?).

As an educational leader, I need to think strategically about how to effectively build the Asia Literacy skills of my staff and of our students. After hearing about it at the conference, I believe that participating in the Asia Education Foundation’s ‘Asia BRIDGE’ program would go a long way in terms of building staff capacity and, perhaps more importantly, the community’s understanding of why this whole Asia Literacy caper is so undeniably important.

Ultimately, the AEF’s conference has reinforced my belief that the underlying mission of all teachers is to educate students to be active and contributing members of a global society. I now have a much wider network of educators who can work with me to achieve this goal and I am looking forward to opening the world to my students.

 

On a different note- I attended the Indian dinner last night (as a part of the conference’s Night of Australasian Stories) and loved both the food and the company. I particularly enjoyed the stories of the dinner guests- Kirsty Murray and Kylie Bolding and, as a result, shall now consistently stalk the AEF website awaiting the applications to open for the next study tour to India.

On a lighter note- I am wondering why I couldn’t get a cup of green tea within cooee of a national conference on Asia? Also, I would like to point out that Lisa Hayman from the AEF (@LisaHayman1) and I believe we were personally responsible for making #AsiaEd13 a trending topic on Twitter on the first day of the conference- check out the hashtag for loads of great resources, quotes and pics.

A final thought

With the passion, intelligence and wealth of knowledge and experience displayed by all the delegates at the conference, I am confident that our mission of shaping the future by preparing our students for the Asian Century is in safe hands.

 

Putting the G in ‘Genius’

Inspired by my recent visit to the headquarters of Google, Microsoft and Intel in the United States, I returned to school keen to recreate the supportive atmosphere created by these big companies in my very own classroom. I wanted to recreate the breeding ground of creativity of these huge multinational companies.

I wanted my students to feel as inspired and supported to create and problem solve and grow ‘what ifs’ and ‘I wonders’ into amazing ideas.

Before visiting Google I had heard about their concept of 20% time for their engineers and thought it sounded like an interesting idea that could work in the classroom. I didn’t understand the full effect of such an idea until I saw and felt it for myself though. It was while at Google that I realised the strong underlying cultural message such a program delivers- “we value you and your ideas,” “we believe in you,” “we trust you to develop your ideas into something fabulous.”

How does this compare to the underlying message in many of our classrooms today?

I put a question out to my PLN on Twitter asking for resources to help me launch 20% time in my own class and received a number of replies carrying the #geniushour hashtag (another name for 20% time). I sifted through a few of these, further convincing myself that I had to get on board with this and get my students involved.

Introducing it to the students

I started by explaining how 20% time works at Google then asking if it something they would be interested in doing in our own class. I had to make it very clear that 20% time is not free time- it is time to work on a project of your choice. In short, they could study or learn anything and present it in anyway.

I encouraged students to think about topics they had always wanted to learn about, things they have always wanted to know or be able to do. After discussing it in groups and then going home to discuss with families most students came back with an idea for a project by the end of the week.

Project guidelines

In everything I do with my students I have 3 goals for them: be curious, be brilliant and be the change. I therefore provided three ‘guidelines’ for the projects:

1)      Students had to learn something new while doing the project- it wasn’t enough to simply regurgitate information they already knew.

2)      The project had to tell me more about a topic than Google could- I had a collection of boys who wanted to make a video on how to play football (this probably contradicted guideline #1 anyway), I told them I could already go to Google to find out how to play football so they had to give me something more. I then encouraged them to further consider the third guideline:

3)      The project must have a connection to the community- this could mean that students interviewed a member of the community, got a member of the community to assist with part of their project, or maybe their final product educated the community in some way etc.

Once students had come up with an idea they had to map out a basic plan for what they would do each week for the next six weeks. They then had to book an appointment with me to discuss and refine their ideas. One pair of students were so keen to start on Monday they sent me a Google Doc of their 6 week plan over the weekend and asked me to leave comments and ideas on the side for them to think about.

Student Ideas

Interestingly, it was the students who are generally considered to be ‘at level’ who found selecting a topic the easiest. They generally had a good idea of what they were passionate about and were able to come up with an idea they felt comfortable with. The students who would generally be considered ‘above level’ seemed to struggle with settling on an idea and needed more prompting and support. The students generally considered to be ‘below level’ had the most difficulty with developing an idea that could run the length of the 6 weeks allocated. (They were great at coming up with ideas that would last for about 20 minutes!!)

Immediate effects

As soon as I introduced the genius hour to the students an excited buzz took hold of the room. I received several emails after school each night with different students testing out different ideas for projects and presentations. Just one week into the project I had a parent come in to say that his son had been outside digging up the garden every night planting plants to sell as part of his project. He had actually already made $40 selling plants over the weekend!

We have already had 2 one hour blocks of genius hour and they have been 2 of the most productive hours we have had all year!  Students are keen to take responsibility for their own learning, they are much more self-directed and require much less teacher support and nagging. They spread out all over the school and, because they appear to be very conscious of wasting their own time, there are only minimal issues with off task behaviour (a teacher’s dream!).

Some of the project ideas so far

  • A student with diabetes has decided to raise awareness of diabetes in the school and then try and organise a school fun run to raise money for Diabetes Australia.
  • Two students who have always wanted to learn about France are creating an information booth about France’s culture, food and attractions.
  • Two students who are passionate about animals are going to the local RSPCA to see how they can raise awareness of the work they do there.
  • Inspired by our current class novel (‘Trash’ by Andy Mulligan), two students are researching child labour and creating a project to educate others about it.
  • Two students are creating a video on what family means to different people in our community.
  • A student who loves plants is growing plants at home and educating people about them through a video. He has been to the hardware store (next to the school) and asked questions about plants and has sold some plants already.
  • Two students are creating a video on what it means to be a Campbells Creek footballer.
  • Two students are researching different programs used to create games and then creating their own computer game.
  • One student who has an autistic sister is created a website for other kids to raise awareness of autism and other learning disorders.
  • Two ‘hands on’ students are deconstructing an old school laptop- investigating all the different elements- and then hoping to put it all back together again.

Watch this space!!

A cold blooded reminder about the purpose of education.

I am sitting here in Oregon, USA in complete  shock this morning.

I woke up this morning and went down to the breakfast room as normal. The TV was on and on it was the breaking news of a horrific school shooting in Connecticut, USA. As many as 27 students and teachers could be dead. Students and teachers who were going about their own business in the safe environment of school.  I met a bunch of wonderful teachers from Connecticut just last week and I feel physically ill, hoping that they are safe.

Watching this sickening event unfold I went through several emotions, eventually ending in realisation and anger.

What the heck are we doing?

We have become so caught up in the rat race that we have forgotten the central most important thing about schools, schooling and education. The most crucial and simple fact:

We are dealing with humans.

Young humans who will grow up to be older humans.

We have been so caught up arguing about where we rank in the world for test scores, about our reading levels and our declining ability in maths and science. Countries are redesigning their entire school curriculums in order to improve their test scores to improve funding and improve their numbers. We have been collecting numbers, analysing numbers and even triangulating numbers. We have been giving ourselves numbers and comparing our numbers to the rest of the worlds’ numbers. Is THAT the purpose of our education system? Is THIS why we all signed up to be teachers? So we could really all be mathematicians?

Enough is enough!

It is time to take a stand and stop this lunacy. It is time to stand up for the real purpose of education: to educate children to become successful and contributing members of a global society.

This isn’t something that can’t be tested or even ranked. It IS something however that will make a difference to a better future for our whole world.

For Australian this means placing much more emphasis on the General Capabilities in the National Curriculum.  Why aren’t these abilities assessable? What message does that send to educators in our country? Until these capabilities are taken seriously and made compulsory they are simply a token gesture towards acknowledging that 21st century skills are important. Australia needs to take the lead from Victoria’s Essential Learning Standards  and make these 21st century skills an assessable outcome (Interpersonal Development, Personal Learning and Thinking Processes).

For America this means acknowledging that while the common core subjects are important, you are missing a hugely important element from your core- the human element. Educators and school administrators need to ask how far your children will have progressed towards the ultimate goal of becoming successful and contributing members of a global society if they are only exposed to the current common core standards?

It is time we, as a global society, took a stand against the emphasis placed on world rankings in education. It is time we started focusing on what really matters and what can’t be tested.

United, we need to stop the lunacy and be the change.

#bethechange

 

My thoughts go out to all of the people and families involved in this horrific event. I know I won’t ever forget this day and will pledge to do my part in attempting to prevent anything of this nature ever happening again.

Australia’s ‘disaster’ in Education

I have just finished reading this article from The Age newspaper labeling Australia’s education system as a ‘disaster.’

Below is my response to the article that states our system is failing behind the much more successful systems of Asia- including Singapore:

Are we really measuring our education system’s success solely based on a one off test of our students’ scores in Reading, Maths and Science?
What is the purpose of education? Is it to do well on tests or to be happy and successful (in anyway you define that) in life?
Where was the test on our students’ 21st century skills? Their ability to communicate, collaborate and create? These are the skills I would look for in a person I am employing.  Sure I want basic literacy and numeracy skills but their EQ (emotional intelligence) is just as important, if not more important than their IQ.

I am not comfortable comparing our students’ scored to those of students in Singapore- a country that streams its students from year 6. Are our politicians and decision makers aware that Singapore students are taught for five and a half years and then given 6 months of straight test prep before their life defining streaming test in yr 6? Are our politicians and decision makers aware that these students undergo hours and hours of outside tuition in order to do well on such tests. And speaking of funding, parents in Singapore are doing the funding! They are spending as much as $2000 a month on outside tuition for their children. How can we compare our schooling system to theirs when a large part of their schooling doesn’t even actually happen at school?
As they say not all that can be tested counts and not all that counts can be tested.

I would like to suggest to politicians, policy makers and the author of the article that they watch videos such as this one of Yong Zhao on redefining ‘success’ in education. As Dr Zhao states, a successful education system is not one that spits out identical students at the other end, it is one that prepares all students to be creative and entrepreneurial in an ever changing world. These skills cannot be tested on a pen and paper test such as TIMSS, PISA or NAPLAN.

It is time we, as a nation, collectively discussed and decided upon what we think is important in education and start to judge our system based on that definition. Being an island country disconnected from any other county by land I would suggest that Global Competence should feature highly in what we define as a successful education outcome.

What Australia can learn from Singapore’s education system

This blog post was originally posted on my other blog thelitladies.edublogs.org  (a joint blog I have with Anne Rochford)

 

According to OECD’s much talked about PISA testing, Singapore is one of the World’s leading education systems. Ranking 2nd, 4th and 5th respectively for Maths, Science and Reading, Singapore joins Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland at the top of the world rankings for the educational achievement of its 15 year olds.

I recently had the fortunate experience of visiting Singapore with a group of principals from Melbourne on a joint quest to find out what made Singapore’s education system so successful. What transferable skills, attitudes and approaches could we learn from a country that could fit inside our own country a whopping 10,995 times?

As a part of the tour organised by the Asia Education Foundation and the Bastow Institute we visited several schools as well as the Ministry of Education (MOE)The National Institute of Education (NIE– where all pre-service teachers in the country are educated) and the Academy of Teachers and Principals.

Throughout the discussions with principals, teachers and officials, some strong themes emerged and they can be divided in to three separate levels of influence: school level, ministry level and government and societal level.
School Level

Global citizenship

The world is Singapore’s classroom. Students are regularly given the opportunity to travel to other countries and engage in projects, partnerships and cultural learning. Singaporeans are very outward looking and realise the importance of knowing their place in the world.
Partnerships

Schools value partnerships with the community, industry and the outside world. Many principals discussed their industry based partnerships when talking about opportunities they provide for their students. Examples of these included links with scientists, specialists and community groups in other countries.

Technology and pedagogy

Technology is valued in Singaporean education however it is not the central focus. The pedagogy and curriculum come first and the technology comes second. This is not to downplay the importance of technology in a growingly technologocial world, it is just that Singaporeans do not want to integrate technology at the expense of rich pedagogy and curriculum.

Robust curriculum

Unless it is highly rich, real and relevant it is not done in a Singaporean school. There is a sense of urgency about the time involved in students education and it is very evident here that every minute counts. (I felt that although we have a saying ‘every minute counts’ to try and get our students to school on time, our schools could do more to ensure that every minute throughout the school day counts towards each child’s education).
Developing potential

Talent scouts are always looking for student potential. Once talent/potential has been identified, rich, real and relevant extension opportunities are then provided to the identified students. As one member from the Ministry said ‘The essence is that any child that is willing to work hard will be provided with the resources to succeed.’ (This was something that made me reflect on the lack of extension opportunities we have for our students at the top end).

Surveying the students

Several of the schools visited made reference to their use of student opinion groups in improving what they are doing in their schools. Schools make a point of speaking to the students past and present to evaluate the school program and learn from the students what they can do differently. It sounded as though these opinion groups were a regular feature and were also taken very seriously.

School branding

The success of previous students is celebrated at the entrance to the school. This immediately sets the tone of the school and motivates the students to do well.

Singaporean schools excel in selling their brand. This occurs internally as well as externally. Internal branding (done to positively impact school culture) included banners, photo walls, trophy cabinets and constant reminders of the school’s motto and beliefs. External branding was used to get people interested in attending their schools (even the state schools were big on this). The image at the bottom of this post shows an example of an  inspirational banner hanging in the school grounds at the Sport School.

 

Ministry of Education Level

Opportunities to apply knowledge

Whether organised by the Ministry, the Academy, outside organisations or even international organisations, students are given multiple opportunities to apply their knowledge in competitions and events. These events (such as the International Math Olympiad) act as benchmarking assessments for students and schools to compare their results against others. Events are not always based on academics, many sporting competitions are also held. Whatever type of event it is, they help to motivate the students of Singapore to continue to work hard and strive to do well. (What a great way to help students see the relevance of their education- giving them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in an authentic manner and more regularly than just at the end of a unit of work or at exam time. The medals / ribbons etc received in these events are then placed on show in the school- helping to build the profile of a culture of success and contributing to the school brand).

The teacher

The belief that the capacity of the teacher is the lynch pin of a good education system was highlighted in every conversation. Initial teacher training is therefore taken very seriously as is ongoing support for qualified teachers. The Academy of Teachers is an example of oe of the support services offered to teachers. They are responsible for offering professional development to teachers and facilitating educator networks across the country (beginning teachers, maths teachers, science teacher etc) throughout the year. This Academy is also linked to the Academy of Principals; responsible for the professional development etc of prospective and current principals.

Patriotism

Teachers continually refer to the fact that they are educating students for the future of Singapore. The Ministry of Education developed a Teacher’s Pledge that includes 5 different facets- one of those is ‘Our Nation, Our Pride’ and states that ‘We will guide our pupils to be good and useful citizens of Singapore.’  (This is probably not a theme we could emulate in Australia but admirable all the same).

Leadership Development

Just as the role of every teacher is to be a talent scout for their students, the Ministry acts as a talent scout for its teachers- identifying potential future leaders and providing opportunities to develop this potential. Teachers identified by the Ministry as showing potential as a future principal are placed into a 6 month principal training course before returning to their school and potentially being placed in a school as a principal.

 

Government and Societal Level

Early intervention

Across all levels of the Singaporean education system early intervention is prioritized. This intervention happens for students, teachers and principals. Pre-service teachers are invested in in order to ensure the initial quality of a teacher is high, the same goes for principals. Struggling students are identified early and placed in to early intervention programs in order to give them the best possible chance of success in school.

Value of education

The sign reads: Need a conducive environment to study but can’t find one? Visit our new learning centre on level 3. Open 10am-10pm.

 Education is highly valued in the community. The newspapers regularly report on it, there are signs everywhere in the community advertising it and there are even ‘learning corners’ in some of the shopping centres! Teachers are held in high regard in Singapore and many people every year apply to get in to the teacher education course at NIE. (The community hold the Singaporean education system in high regard- one taxi drive complained about all the road tolls and the extra costs for everything in Singapore but when asked about the education system he said it was excellent.) Singaporeans have identified that they have no natural resources in their country and must rely on the people as the main source of income for the country; education is almost automatically held in high regard by all as a result of this. Although this sense of importance cannot easily be replicated in our own country it is something we can continue to work on.

Final thoughts

Perhaps we can aim to instil a greater sense of the value of education in our current students through striving to develop their global awareness- giving them a wider perspective on the world and their place within this. Of course this is not the ‘silver bullet’ in motivating our students to want to learn, however it could be a starting point on our difficult journey to help students realise the importance and relevance of their education.

Reflecting on our education system compared to the Singaporean system I have become aware of the differing attitudes our students and wider community have towards education. Generally speaking, our students accept education as something they ‘have’ to do and something that is done ‘to’ them. Students in Singapore however, appear to take control of their education and work hard to reap the opportunities and benefits it provides. Their students’ role in education appears to be much more active rather than the passive approach of our own students.

Personally, I shall take home many learnings from this short visit to Singapore with the main three being:

  1. Singapore’s focus on developing the potential of EVERY child
  2. The importance of us developing globalised students and;
  3. The importance of our students learning about Asia.
Banners such as this one adorn the walls around the schools helping to create a positive school culture of success.

 

The new plague: Educational Technologyitis

I am using today’s slice to vent a frustration I am having in my role as an elearning coach in schools (remembering that I.T makes up part of who we, the L.I.T Ladies are). Here it is: EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGYITIS.

While acknowledging that schools need to adopt a 21st ‘centurised’ approach to teaching and learning in schools, there has been a large push to “inject the tech” into everything that we do. In Victoria, this focus on technology has seen the introduction of netbooks and ipad trials, the Edustar image and of course the Ultranet.

As an elearning/Ultranet coach, I have witnessed the growing phenomenon of “chicken-or-eggitis” coupled with “round-peg-square-holitis.” From a teaching and learning perspective, I am here to warn that these 2 ailments should be noted as being very serious and ones that need to be attended to immediately, before the situation worsens. Firstly, “chicken-or-eggitis.” What does come first: the learning outcome or the technology? The need for a program that helps x,y and z or the purchase of a program that can do a, b and c? In its more prevalent form this ailment presents itself as hordes of schools purchasing ipads and then asking “how can we use these?” in an attempt to be pushing the boundaries of innovation. Can I play the Devil’s Advocate and suggest that schools establish a strong foundation of technology integration using tried and tested methods/devices before trying to lead innovation in this area? The simple antidote for this ailment is for educators to ask themselves 1 question before they do anything with educational technology: “What is the outcome I am trying to achieve? Knowing that, is there any technology available to assist me with this?” We need to get out of the mindset of a) using technology for the sake of it and b) using technology in the wrong way.

This brings me to the second ailment, “Round-peg-square-holitis.” This ailment is quite often coupled with “chicken-or-eggitis.” It is displayed in the form of educators trying to use technology to accomplish a task for which it was not designed. The more recent (and most prevalent) form of this being educators’ use of the Ultranet. The antidote for this ailment is given in several injections of both Understanding and Knowledge. (It is important to note here that the injection of Understanding must precede the injection of Knowledge as without the first the latter is pointless.) The Understanding will help educators to see all technology programs and apps as tools that they can call on to perform different tasks. The Ultranet is one of the many tools available to educators. Like any tool, the Ultranet is designed to perform certain tasks. When using technology tools we need to think like tradesmen: Would a builder use a saw to nail a house frame together? The builder must first think ‘what outcome do I want to achieve?’ (This outcome is the ‘roundpeg’ of the ailment). They must secondly ask ‘which tool will help me to achieve this?’ The builder would then sift through their toolbox and locate the desired tool. This sifting part is where Knowledge is important.

Once educators understand that all tools have desired purposes they then need the knowledge of a range of tools to call on to achieve their desired outcomes. In order to develop the most enriching teaching and learning possible, educators need to be able to call on a range of high quality tools to help achieve their desired outcomes. It is, after all, the combination of several tools used together that result in an entire house being built.

There are some tasks that would be better achieved on the Ultranet, some on Google Docs, some on another Web2.0 website and some on the computer software itself. It is the knowledge of this range of tools (and how best to use them) that will lead to improved outcomes for our students. Moving in to the future, leaders in education need to be considering prevention measures for these 2 common ailments. The only documented evidence of successful prevention to date has been a wholistic approach to professional elearning. That is, when delivering professional learning around anything educational technology related, the tool being discussed needs to be treated as such: a tool. No more and no less. It is also important to note that this tool should never be discussed in isolation. (Could you image the design of our houses if this approach to professional development were replicated in the building industry?)

It is time we harnessed the power of technology effectively to get the best outcomes for our students. As educators, we need to ‘ask before we acquire’ and “put what before which” to stop the spread of ineffective and stifling uses of technology in some of our schools today.

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