Saturday, March 18, 2017

Is Modern Learning a Fail? - Reclaiming Student Agency at St Joseph's

Is Modern Learning a Fail? 
- Reclaiming student agency at St Joseph's

In the years 2012-2015 at St Joseph's we formed a very clear idea of the skills and competencies we wanted our year 8 leavers to have.  The following two videos give some good examples of what this looked like:

Joel and Rhea explain Innovative Learning (2015)




Our students were raised on a consistent journey from year 4 to 8 where the senior teaching team had stable and well established practices of:
  • key competency development, 
  • individualised learning,
  • collaborative learning, and 
  • learning to learn strategies.  
The year 8 classes of 2015 and 2016 exemplify the success of this long term development.

The practice itself led naturally into the MLE-type changes in teaching and learning in 2015 which people have called "the hubs."  Unlike many schools which have MLE-designed buildings but have not developed the pedagogy, we had the pedagogy but not the buildings.  We chose to work around the buildings and do the best we could with them.

Children had a big say in designing how they would use their learning spaces.  The 2014 year 7 class designed them in Minecraft.  They set up their own Minecraft server and shared world which was our learning world for maths - measurement, direction and scale.  Here they talk about the design of the intermediate area for 2015:



What Happened?

Collaborative teaching and learning and flexible environments had been happening for several years already in our school but at the start of 2015 we had a tipping point with more staff ready for them than not and the decision was made to do it schoolwide.  Unfortunately it corresponded with a time when key staff moved on for promotions.  By mid 2016 the whole of the senior leadership team which had enabled this practice, including the principal, had changed, all securing promotions or sought after positions.

The outcome for teaching and learning by the end of 2016 was generally agreed to be a "fail."  The fail had nothing to do with learning environments or how the learning was structured.  All of our evidence over the period shows when key competency, collaborative learning strategies, and student understanding of learning rubrics, learning progressions and SOLO are in place, the students exemplify well managed, self-sustaining life-long learners who thrive in flexible environments.

I returned as principal at the end of 2016 and the community, teachers and many students were very vocal in letting me know the system had failed.  Just looking at it, I agreed.

I was able to establish through staff surveys, interviews and observations that what was really lost was:
  • key competency development, 
  • individualised learning,
  • collaborative learning, and 
  • learning to learn strategies.  
Without which there is no point attempting innovative learning.

So called "hubs" which we actually called Engaging Learning Spaces, evolved to meet the advanced needs of our learners and the pedagogy of some of our teachers.  Maybe the mistake we made was that it didn't suit the pedagogy of all of our teachers.   There was certainly sufficient in-built scope within the system as it was initially set up, to meet the needs of all of our learners.

Our 2015 and 2016 year 8 classes who had been well coached in these systems were a huge success for 21st century learning capacities.  This video shows how the children reflect on their readiness and how we structured the environment to support growth in self-management without forcing it past its limits:



In 2013-14 we worked closely with St Kevin's College in the Learning and Change network.  It has been inspiring to reopen these conversations with St Kevin's in 2017 and see how much they have taken from our learning practices at St Josephs.  They tell us these practices are highly successful for them and that they came directly from our collaboration in 2013-14.  Once again, these are to do with tracking the key competencies, knowing each learner individually, focusing on skills and processes and integrating curriculum.  All the things we are focusing on in 2017 for our rebuild.

Trish and Mannix present about our learning to teachers at St Kevin's College (2015)


If anyone doubts the necessity for collaborative learning and teamwork in the 21st century - have a look at my blogpost analysis of the requirements of the world's top employers: Its what we do together that sets us apart

These videos (with thanks to Jenny Jackson for taking and storing the videos) show this type of learning works for children who have been well-schooled in 21st century skills.

However, if these skills are weak, this type of learning system is not at all appropriate.

I am sharing this not because I have any intention of bringing back the "hubs" as people saw them.  We are talking with the diocese at the moment about a complete physical remodelling of St Joseph's and we will not be attempting to use our existing buildings as MLEs in the forseeable future.  We will not be attempting to do anything "out there" with our practice either.  But we will be bringing back the key things we have lost. We will always use our environment as an innovative learning environment though, as innovative learning is what we do once we get our key skills back together again.

At the moment we have children sitting in desks, in rows in many cases, well controlled by the teacher, and device-use limited.  This is a big step back towards 20th century learning and one we hope is temporary.  The needs of the moment dictate this response.  We need to start again.

I know that we can get back to the place where we can have children engaging thoughtfully in the environment beyond the school, where they can engage in meaningful self-directed projects and where holistic, cross-curriculum learning reflects our Catholic worldview on social justice.  As our charter summary shows:


2017 - Consolidate
Embed St Joseph’s curriculum and pedagogy
Knowing our whakapapa: being a Dominican school
High achievement, future-focused, making a difference, being Catholic
2018 – Platform for growth
Using technology,, design processes, critical thinking and creativity in transformative ways,  to engage with a relevant, active, purposeful curriculum
2019 - growing
Making a difference to our community and world through solving problems that matter

It is staggering to find how quickly good things can be lost and how hard we have to work to bring them back and rebuild a team which can do this together.  Luckily and, I believe thanks to extensive prayer, we have an amazing new team and we just need to continue to focus our energies on the task ahead:





Thursday, January 19, 2017

Modern Learning Environment or Modern Learning Pedagogy?


St Joseph's Oamaru - start of 2017

Bearing in mind the extensive feedback gathered last term from parents and students we have promised that we will:

1. Provide every child will have a desk / workspace of their own and the children won't be out working in the corridors or sitting on the staircase.
2. Technology-use will be limited and purposeful.
3. We will have strong structures for learning


1. Every child has a workspace
It is not MLE that makes a difference it is MLP (pedagogy).   For a good example of MLP have a look at this blog post: http://stephenlethbridge.com/?p=312   The underlying pedagogy behind this is the same pedagogy that our systems were built on which is nothing to do with chairs and desks but with ASSESSMENT FOR LEARNING.  The key text for this is Michael Absolom's book, "Clarity in the Classroom" which we have at school and which I encourage everyone to read.  For teachers who were around between 2005-10, pd in this was provided through the three year MoE AToL (Assessment to Learn) contract which was the most powerful pd I have taken part in. This sort of pedagogy is the basis for our practice at St Joseph's it can happen and has happened in our school and the classroom described in the blogpost above has happened here. This was the model that we hoped to spread through all classrooms/hubs at the start of 2015.  So we should not be putting any energy into "desks or no desks," "corridor or no corridor" - its irrelevant - we should be putting our energy into assessment for learning.

The reason for limiting the desk-type classroom furniture in the first place was to get the children to think about what they needed for different types of learning, and their own style e.g. have space to have a round table for group discussion, space for single quiet work areas, beanbags for relaxed reading, floor space to make a whole class circle, or dance as required.

Our energy is much better focused if we are teaching children to use learning progressions, manage their next steps, evidence their learning and develop agency.  An example of this is self-timetabling which needs needs to be purposeful and can only be done if the children have a really good grasp of learning to learn strategies.  Skipping that stage leads to chaos.

The rooms will be fuller if each child has to have a desk/table-space to sit at.  But then we have to teach the children to vary their space, move the desks effectively, rearrange the room for different learning needs at different times and be flexible.

When you're planning your hubs remember the MAIN INTENTION for having collaborative learning was so that one teacher could focus on the direct teaching of curriculum skills and knowledge and one could focus on the learning to learn aspect - being a mentor/coach to help children evidence their learning and supporting them to co-construct what going deeper looks like and help them achieve it (in our school scaffolded by SOLO).  That was the one thing that would add such huge value to our system that it was worth going out on a limb for.  

We can still focus on that, the chairs and desks or class layouts make no difference, you are grouped in teaching pairs and finding ways that can work for you and your children so that at least one teacher can be explicitly teaching key competency development and learning to learn strategies, on the coalface, as needed - that's the main goal.  Its also our focus for 2017 so if you're not sure what this really means now I hope you'll feel more comfortable to develop it as the year goes on.  It can be done in a single-cell class as our intermediate department will prove and if it works better that way sobeit.  But let's try and explore what collaborative teaching teams can add to this.

The corridors and stairwells are through-traffic areas and not designed to be effective learning areas.  The standing leaners can be used as intended but within reason.  Of course the corridors are still good places to practice plays or role plays where children need to be noisier and away from the class group.


2.  Technology-use was always intended to be limited and purposeful.  I think most of the time it is.  Some points to consider:

For what I think is sufficient technology-use in a classroom focused on assessment for learning, I analysed all the different activities in my class over several weeks and this is the time breakdown.  Also see "A Day in the Life of a BYOD classroom" tab above to see how little technology was actually used.



Children do need to learn to do effective searches on the Internet but they are not expected to be able to evaluate bias and compare texts fully until level 4 so they don't have to have free Internet-access until level 4.  They do need scaffolded access before this to build up the skill.  They have to learn to do effective note-taking etc.  When they're ready to practice finding and comparing texts for usefulness, to avoid getting side-tracked they need a time limit - e.g. 30 minutes - to find the notes they need to address the question.   If it takes a lot longer than this or they need to troll through the Internet for two hours, they haven't got the skills and need to step back and have more direct skill-teaching before they can do this. Prior to level 4, the skimming, scanning, note-taking skills can be done on a teacher-given text or two or three texts for comparison and they don't need to be able to find these themselves.  Similarly with presentation - if they are going to use Google slides for presentation, make sure everything is already planned and prepared and limit it.  With an open timeframe a lot of time can be spent choosing pre-made colour schemes and slide transitions - which is not adding to learning.

Of course there are really useful apps that you can use prior to this stage of literacy development.  For the early years, BookCreator, an ipad app, is an example of a good use of the class ipad for creating multimedia books which can be published to Itunes.  An app like Aurasma can add a virtual reality element when students present their work.  For those things we need to think not in terms of gimmick but what does it add to learning?  If a child can present a piece of learning with the potential of a virtual reality movie added where they explain their learning intention and how this work meets the learning intention and provides evidence of them being a Level 2 writer - then its a worthwhile use of technology.  

The ipads can help students to record and evidence learning through Seesaw, or Explain everything or Educreations.  If it helps us with our primary goal of deepening assessment learning practice and student agency, then its a good use.  Help them be creators using Tinkercad or Scratch or teach them how to make and program a robot.  We don't have to be experts ourselves but its all out there to investigate and bring in and we're all capable of it.  I don't know how to make or program a robot but I've promised myself by the end of this year I will.    
Remember how addictive the technology is for our children and how they seem to slump into lowest common denominator, semi-comatose symbiosis with their devices.  We can't solve that by putting the devices away and never touching them again - we won't be preparing the children for the world of 2001 (that's not a typo) if we do that.  We have to teach them to be masters of their destiny.  If we are going to let them touch this technology, it has to be for a higher purpose with complex and creative problems to solve. OK I know they need to practice things in order to get mastery and technology can be good for that too but let's not kid ourselves we're using technology effectively if that's all we're doing.  I managed to learn my times tables and how to spell (up to a point) without it and so did you.  So let's add value.

Our focus moving for 2017-19 is developing how we can use technology to TRANSFORM learning, for children to be CREATORS not consumers of technology.  

3.  Strong structures for learning:
The teachers are still the adult in the mix.  We set the tone, we model the behaviour, respect, courtesy and gratitude expectations we wish our students to show.  If the room or corridor is messy or excessively loud, we are responsible for that.  Yes, its the children's job to speak at a reasonable volume, stay on task and clear up after themselves but we are responsible for making that happen.

Our children need to clearly know what is expected in class and around the school and have that consistently and fairly enforced.  We want them to become self-managing and do the right thing but that needs to be structured for them.  The best way to hand it over to them is to be explicit about your teaching practice, explain why you're doing things a certain way and coach them to take more and more responsibility for that.  A simple example is a teacher saying, "Johnnie you're talking to Freddie please move yourself to the front next to me."  The progression from that would be, "Johnnie I can see you're having trouble concentrating, is there a better place you could sit?"  Even better is the conversation with Johnnie that helps him understand the things that distract him so he takes pre-emptive action himself.  But that won't just happen without your help, because Freddie is actually really funny so there's not much incentive unless Johnnie has some help.  So what's the incentive for Johnnie?  His learning.  But only if he owns it.

In classrooms where there is a strong and embedded "Learning to learn" focus based on assessment for learning there is no behaviour to manage, no incentive schemes, and no consequences needed - no matter what the mix of children or potential for disorder.