Sharing Experiences and the Benefits of Attending Conferences

Leadership, Professional Learning

Over the next few months I am looking forward to presenting at a couple of important conferences. In particular the following two (If you are attending one of these please come and say hello):

The first conference is the International Conference on Teaching, Education & Learning in Prague in June. My address is focusing on “Developing a Process for Data Driven Change to Impact Student Achievement and Build Teacher Capacity“. Schools have been caught up in responding to the calls of external accountability. This has challenged school leaders to establish data gathering practices that ultimately lend themselves to creating school wide instructional systems to impact teaching and learning and offer a consistent instructional approach. This presentation outlines how our school established a data driven approach to improve teacher performance. This is being achieved by focusing on key elements from research literature as a catalyst for driving new innovation. In the presentation I share how a data driven focus (DDF) allows leaders to intentionally and systematically improve student learning. The presentation begins by unpacking the need to understand how leaders create the foundation to develop a DDF as a vehicle to facilitate information about student achievement within the school. The second part of the presentation presents the change process to implement DDF as guided by key elements. Being a data-focused school is a possibility for each and every school.

The second one is the 2019 IB Global Conference in Abu Dhabi in October. Here I am sharing insight into how our school is building staff aptitude and competence to positively impact student achievement levels. It is evident that we are teaching and learning in an age of scrutiny in school performances. With the growth in national and international attention to key benchmarking programs including PISA and TIMSS, the expectation (and dare I say competition) between governments, educational agencies and the wider public arena, to raise their performance scores, has had an inhibiting impact upon schools. A natural consequence of playing in this space is leading schools to becoming more focused on being evidenced based. This has seen an increasing focus on the collection of assessment data as well as other performance measures. The view is that such information  is analysed leading to more informed (instructional) data driven decision making processes. It is this scrutiny of data that has, as John Hattie has proclaimed, firmly placed teachers under the microscope. The focus on role of the teacher in leading school improvement has gained momentum. Teachers are themselves, being more reflective and collecting more data to help them make more informed decisions. The underlying premise is that at school, the teacher is the single most powerful influence on student achievement. However, the problem is nested in the lack of skills teachers have in this area of actively engaging in data use to drive instruction. Many teachers, particularly those that have completed their undergraduate studies a number of years ago, have not had much engagement or professional development in this arena. Which leads me to the crux of the presentation? How does an effective school use data driven decision making to enhance teacher performance; thus leading to improved student outcomes?

Although the research indicates that attending “one off” conferences does not have significant impact upon sustainable learning I’d like to offer the following benefits:

  • Opportunity to meet like minded educationalists: When you attend a conference you often build meaningful (and at times long lasting) relationships. Everyone attending has something shared experiences. After all, schools have many things in common with each other.
  • Stay Up To Date with Latest Thinkers: Listening to speakers share their knowledge and experience helps to keep you abreast of key educational trends and directions. Taking notes will help to revisit the multitude of content offered and will allow you to reflect more critically after the conference is over. Besides, sometimes its great to meet the authors of the material you are reading..
  • Making Connections: Getting inspiration from people that will help you in your own workplace is one of the positive benefits of attending conferences. Listening and learning about what others are doing and then considering how their learnings can assist you in the work you do is invaluable. Maybe you can grab their business cards and send them a note afterwards, just in case you didn’t get an opportunity to ask a question.
  • Share Ideas and Solutions: Making meaning out of material shared at conferences is one of the key points of attending. While at the conference, with the advent of social media, tweeting, live blogging, posting to Instagram and any other social networks that you associate with, is useful in sharing your new knowledge and experiences. After the conference you could share your learning by creating videos of the presentations you thought were particularly valuable, provide a quick overview of some key points at your next staff meeting, share information about any interesting contacts you met. Education is a collaborative enterprise and you can contribute to the learning of others via some of these easy activities.

Attending conferences, whether for professional or personal development, should be a worthwhile experience. Don’t forget to experience the extra curricular activities that often go hand in hand with conferences. Your time shouldn’t be all work and no play!

How to plan an effective lesson!

Instruction, Leadership, Learning, Teaching

Effective teachers know their students, have strong content knowledge and possess a wide repertoire of teaching strategies. They are well planned and very intentional about the practices they implement in the classroom. Effective teachers do not leave learning to chance!

School leaders (and indeed the school community) can identify the effective teacher through the preparation of their lessons. This is the teachers’ “bread and butter”. Researchers show that effective teachers include a number of distinct processes and stages in their lesson planning.

At Al Yasat we have taken the research and built a targeted lesson outline that ensures not only quality teaching and learning but also consistency across the school. We call it the “8 Elements of an Effective Lesson”. It helps teachers direct their planning to the needs of students, while implementing our school’s written curriculum; it offers school leaders direction in our class observations and walkthroughs; it provides a platform for our coaching and mentoring practices and most importantly; it is embedded in the best practice research and the many studies of what works in enhancing student learning.

Let me introduce the elements to you.

Beginning of Lesson

Element One: The Essential Question

We believe in the use of an inquiry approach to our teaching and learning and the need for students to have an understanding and the purpose of the lesson. We know that good questions direct students to dig deeper into content and processes, and delve deeper into the subject matter. More importantly they propel students to learn to ask their own questions. And within a subject they help focus content on the crucial and important parts of that subject. This is more than just letting the students know what they are learning to do in the lesson. It is about connecting prior knowledge to future applications.

Essential questions are non-judgmental, open-ended, meaningful, purposeful and they relate to the students. It is through the essential question that we as teachers, connect to our students.

Element Two: An Initiating Strategy

The purpose of an initiating strategy is to help students frame their thinking and focus on the concept at hand. The most important part of a lesson occurs during the first five minutes. If the activity engages students right away, you know there will be enough “sparks” to fly for the rest of the lesson and your job will be relatively easy. If the activity however is not challenging, repetitious, (”We’ve done this before!” Sound familiar?) there will be “lulls” that more often than not, result in discipline problems. The key of course, is to keep the “sparks flying,” but it all really depends on how you can spark up your classroom right away.

Simply google “best lesson plan hooks” and you will have plenty of ideas to “hook” your students into the lesson.

The Main Body of the Lesson

Research tells us that 80% of what a child learns is from their peers. Therefore we need to be more student centred with bulk time in co-operative/collaborative activities.

Element Three: Limiting Teacher Talk

We all love to talk in the classroom! So, we should; after-all, we are teachers! But ‘teacher-talk’ can (not solely) be a root-cause of poor behaviour and debilitate student’s acquisition of knowledge and skill during a lesson. Reducing teacher talk and allowing more time in lessons for students to be active participants in their learning, we believe is an important aspect of developing outstanding teaching and learning.

Element Four: Use of Graphic Organisers

Graphic organizers are important and effective pedagogical tools for organizing content and ideas and facilitating learners’ comprehension of newly acquired information. Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences posits that students are better able to learn and internalize information when more than one learning modality is employed in an instructional strategy. Since graphic organizers present material through the visual and spatial modalities (and reinforce what is taught in the classroom), the use of graphic organizers helps students internalize what they are learning.

For today’s classroom, nothing is more essential to successful teaching and learning than strategy-based instruction. It is through the use of specific teaching strategies and learning tools that students can be more successful learners. Graphic organizers are teaching and learning tools; when they’re integrated into classroom experiences, students are better able to understand new material. Creating a strong visual picture, graphic organizers support students by enabling them to literally see connections and relationships between facts, information, and terms.

Graphic organizers have dual functions. They are effective as both a teaching and learning tool. As an instructional strategy it helps teachers:

  • Introduce a topic
  • Activate prior knowledge and linkit with new information
  • Organize content to be presented and a visually summarize the lesson once taught
  • Assess student comprehension, identify and address any questions or clarifications needed

Element Five: Differentiated Groups

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a leader in the area of differentiated learning and describes differentiated instruction as factoring students’ individual learning styles and levels of readiness first before designing a lesson plan. Research on the effectiveness of differentiation shows this method benefits a wide range of students, from those with learning disabilities to those who are considered high ability.

Differentiating instruction may mean teaching the same material to all students using a variety of instructional strategies, or it may require the teacher to deliver lessons at varying levels of difficulty based on the ability of each student.

We know that teachers who practice differentiation in the classroom:

  • Design lessons based on students’ learning styles.
  • Group students by shared interest, topic, or ability for assignments.
  • Assess students’ learning using formative assessment.
  • Manage the classroom to create a safe and supportive environment.
  • Continually assess and adjust lesson content to meet students’ needs.

Element Six: Targeted Instructional Strategies & Active Teacher Movement

Connected to the differentiated groups is the need to decide on the essential teaching strategy for that engages small groups of students. Educational researchers have known for decades that a student learns best when teaching is targeted to what he/she is ready to learn. If the material is too easy, students can become bored and disengage. If it is too hard, students will flounder and may choose to misbehave or give up rather than face continued failure. In either case, little is learnt. But if teaching is targeted at what students are ready to learn, powerful progress can be made.

Choosing appropriate teaching strategy is the key to this element. It is not about “busy work” while you work with a group of students. It is your direct intervention, checking for understanding, monitoring and providing feedback as you move from group to group.

The active teacher is roaming, identifying the disengaged student, and bringing them back on task.

Element Seven: Higher Order Questioning

In today’s world it is necessary, but not sufficient, for students to achieve minimal competence in areas such as reading, writing and numeracy. Beyond the achievement of minimal competence, students also need to develop what are often called ‘higher order’ thinking skills including critical literacy, critical numeracy and cross-curricular competencies. A useful conceptualisation of higher order thinking skills distinguishes two contexts in which these skills are employed: contexts where the thought processes are needed to solve problems and make decisions in everyday life; and contexts where mental processes are needed to benefit from instruction, including comparing, evaluating, justifying and making inferences. The ability to employ higher order thinking skills in both these contexts is seen as essential in a rapidly changing world and the first context in particular is being adopted as a starting point for international assessment programs.

Afterall, isn’t this is the outcome of implementing the vision of the school.

  • Remember: Retrieving relevant knowledge from long-term memory (recognizing, recalling)
  • Understand: Determining the meaning of instructional messages, including oral, written, and graphic communication (interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, explaining)
  • Apply: Carrying out or using a procedure in a given situation (executing, implementing)
  • Analyze: Breaking materials into its constituent parts and detecting how the parts relate to one another an to an overall structure or purpose (differentiating, organizing, attributing)
  • Evaluate: Making judgments based on criteria and standards (checking, critiquing)
  • Create: Putting elements together to form a novel, coherent whole or make an original product (generating, planning, producing)

Information learned and processed through higher-order thinking processes is remembered longer and more clearly than information that is processed through lower-order, rote memorization. This may be the most important benefit of high-order thinking. Knowledge obtained through higher-order thinking processes is more easily transferable, so that students with a deep conceptual understanding of an idea will be much more likely to be able to apply that knowledge to solve new problems.

End of Lesson

Element Eight: Summarise and Reflection

The closure of the lesson is the time when you wrap up a lesson plan and help students organize the information in a meaningful context in their minds. This helps students better understand what they have learned and provides a way in which they can apply it to the world around them. A strong closure involves summarising and reflecting on the lesson. It can help students better retain information beyond the immediate learning environment. A brief summary or overview is often appropriate; it doesn’t have to be an extensive review.

In order to maximise the lesson there are a number of tactics which can support you to make the time more organised and productive.

    • End early. Don’t try to cover too much material in one hit. Don’t mistake pace for manic activity. Leave at least eight minutes to finish off the lesson properly.
    • Use a structured plenary/reflection to end the session. This should be a group or individual reflection on what has been learned.
    • Ask the pupils to identify two or three key points they have learned from the lesson. These can be shared in small groups either written or as drawings and cartoons. A review of these points could become a regular feature of a homework routine.
    • Summarise the learning.
    • Set the scene for the following lesson.
    • Have clear routines for an organised departure. Don’t fall into the trap of not clearing away apparatus in good time.
    • Vary the way in which the pupils are dismissed, for example, row-by-row, small groups, alphabetically, one by one after answering a question. This will help keep the lesson focused right until the end.

The impact of effective lessons can not be underestimated, even for the more experienced teachers. Our lesson expectations offer teachers guidance and support for the teaching and learning, but more importantly, helps lead to improved outcomes for our students.

Learning for the Future – Building the Right Learning Environments

Leadership

In recent years it seems every country has revised their curriculum articulating the knowledge and skills that students need for the new global workforce. With the close scrutiny that accompanies changes to current practice, the debate on quality and success follows. The consequence of such scrutiny has seen international comparative studies of student achievement, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], been used as the performance reference. This focus is such that “a global competition in educational achievement in core subject matter areas like reading, arithmetic/mathematics and science” has emerged.

There has been much written on what students need to know and be able to do in the twenty-first century. The establishment of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) has guided the conversation to ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in a world where change is constant and learning never stops. Their learning framework is explicit in the fact that twenty-first century learning is to be built on a foundation of basic knowledge taught through the core subjects focusing on a significant set of twenty-first century skills. With the rise of globalization and the increased role of technology in both our personal and work life, students
have access to information at a faster rate than ever before.

A few years ago, as part of an educational refurbishment to attempt to meet the learning needs of the “millennials” as a means to develop the necessary capabilities and aptitudes to embrace the future,  a personalised learning environment was created. This short video highlights our vision at the time. Time, and the explosion of personalised learning environments would indicate we were at the forefront of learning innovation.

Engineering the Future School

Leadership

The responsibility for improving learning opportunities lies in the hands of all educators, teachers and school leaders together. With input from the plethora of opportunities from social networking the information shared delves deep into the world of online learning as a key vehicle for engaging students in their learning.

The integration of information communications technology into the learning environment was seen as the most significant element in raising student engagement with their learning. With a myriad of digitally based applications incorporating social networking, online projects, linking with other schools and even connecting with experts in other online environments students have the opportunity to be active learners.

Implications for school leaders centres on the redesigning of the 20th century classroom environment to accommodate this rapidly developing 21st century learning environment. Discussion on how students learn, the ways teachers work with students and the relationships with the physical environment is urgently needed.

Developing curricular directions for learning will be one of the major stumbling blocks for educators as they wrestle between system/government accountability and the skills needed to be citizens in 21st century. The narrowing (or providing a prescriptive curriculum) of student learning though naive accountability measures will inhibit learning rather than enhance it.

The growing online learning organisations such as Coursea and MOOCs are leading the discussion through the development of online interactive learning programs and how schools can be supported in re-aligning learning experiences.

Such discussions will no doubt lead to some common assumptions. One major assumption is that all children can learn. The second is that the learning is not always at the same time; the same way or even at the same place. How we address these assumptions is the question.

The Evolving Classroom

Instruction, Leadership, Schools, Teacher

Through Our Students’ Eyes

If we as teachers begin to view the world from behind our learners’ eyes we will be able to build future learning environments. Looking at how our students interact outside the classroom provides an opportunity for us to learn about how we can improve the in  class environments. The environments outside the classroom are student centred. Their ‘play’ environment allows quick flexibility for collaboration, working in small groups.

When Students Learn

The conception that learning takes place only at school, behind four walls and between school hours is misguided. Students use social areas (libraries, cafes, parks, sports fields, loungerooms, etc) to gather and collaborate. What is it that engages students in their learning environment? The comfortable furniture in the social areas lures students to informal meetings to share and discuss and the opportunity to work socially to converse on issues. It is not simply an adult domain to meet at a coffee shop to share personal experiences and insight into their views on ‘things’.  Environments like these are places of action, full of energy and enthusiasm.

There is a terrific 5 minute video clip by David Thornburg offers further insight into the evolving classroom that highlights the changing classroom.

We know that basic technology allows students to create and build content for learning. Given the open, comfortable and flexible learning environment it is then the role of the class teacher to facilitating learning, stimulating conversations and addressing specific learning needs.