Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Intuitive Assessment, Teacher Agency and Being a Disobedient Educator - Part 2

At the beginning of term three, my SLT (Senior Leadership Team) and I provided our teaching team with the opportunity to be a little 'disobedient' and to try something a little different and unconventional in relation to assessment.  You can read the blog post that outlines the process and background as to why and how, in part one of this series Intuitive Assessment, Teacher Agency and Being a Disobedient Educator - Part One.  

In a nutshell, teachers were given 3 options for the term. 

1. Status Quo - as in, stay working within the bounds of our current assessment outline
2. Go off reservation - as in, do what you want, how you want and when you want
3. Work in collaboration with someone else and do a mix of 1 and 2. 

There were some caveats, the main one being that teachers would share back in week 10 what they had done, to their colleagues, and that our learnings would help us shape where to next for 2018.  You can read more on the process by clicking the link above.  

So what happened?

It was interesting to be a bystander.  

Sometimes I saw assessment practices that I thought were a little old school and not particularly best practice but, because I (and SLT) said we would step aside and trust our team to go forth and experiment, I bit my tongue.  Sometimes, I bit it hard, and I know my Deputy Principal bit hers hard too.  

At times, our coaches used coaching to ask pertinent questions of our teachers about what was happening and why - not to pass judgement but to assist them to reflect deeply on their own WHY.  (Before you ask, knowing that your coach might ask you about which option you chose was one of the caveats, and was to be utilised to support teachers)

Sometimes we were surprised.  

Not as many teachers as I thought went off reservation.  Some tinkered around the edges, and despite thinking they might go fully off reservation, found that when the time came to do so, what they already had in place was best practice and so the need to go outside the box wasn't required.  

One teacher remarked that despite her initial excitement to do something innovative and different, once she had researched effective formative assessment practices, that actually, what we already do at our school was good practice.  So instead, she focussed on how she shared assessment with her students, and the language of assessment.  Of note, when I collected student voice out of her class for writing (something I do each term which you can read more about in this post about student voice and focus groups) her class of seven year olds were informed, and very sophisticated in their ability to talk about their learning, their goals and what they need to do to get better in their learning.  This class has consistently been good across the year, but I noticed that they are were much more sophisticated and more articulate than in previous terms! This teacher also talked about how she breaks the lessons and assessments down so that there is less anxiety - or as she phrased it - the 'freeze moment', especially in Math.  She did this by assessing all the time in an ongoing way (instead of one off tests) and by making students feel comfortable by working in a 1-1 conferencing style.

Creative and in-depth systems were developed in one class, where the use of conditional formatting and clever excel wizardry allowed one teacher to see at a glance where students are, where they need to be and where they had come from, in a range of assessments.  
This teacher also explained how he used the ARBs and NEMP tools to gather a wider picture of achievement in his class.  

One other teacher wanted to go off reservation but found instead she made some smaller changes for her target students by boosting confidence and working more 1-1.  What she noticed over the term was incremental improvements, and as she made assessment more transparent in her class with her students, students were motivated and parents engaged in helping their children.  

In another class, wandering off reservation was in small steps, with regular forays back to status quo.  Not because they were unable to go off reservation but noticing that each time they did, they discovered that what they had been doing was actually working.  This particular teacher upped the 1-1 conferencing in writing and found that more formative conferencing had a positive impact on achievement.  

The use of Seesaw played a predominate role for quite a few teachers, as they experimented with how Seesaw might enhance what they do.  In particular, noting how its power came from how the students were driving it, using video to record learning and making the learning process transparent as students took ownership over their  learning.  This collaborative accountability for learning and teaching makes for a powerful tool for students, teachers and parents.   

In one class, the teacher introduced elements of our coaching process to assist students to set goals, whereby the students look at the current reality, what they want to achieve and ways they might go about it.  This was very effective - helping her class of 6ry olds become more confident in talking about their learning.  

Integration also played a starring role for some (handy given the need for our teachers to come back to this as the profession ditches National Standards and comes back to the New Zealand Curriculum).  During the term all teachers were working with students to produce a film for our production which was a film premiere.  One of our teachers took this concept and turned it into a big integration project that spanned the length and width of the NZC!  His class created go carts (from designs on paper to actual go carts which involved lots of parent help, power tools and a whole pile of kiwi ingenuity!) and they filmed the process.  It was integration magic.  High engagement and high learning.  What this class was doing was making learning stick - a process they will forever remember!  

Reggio inspired learning and assessment has been an interest in our school for sometime, and one of our teachers shared with us her version of what can only be described as Seesaw in a big book!  It was a stunning visual hardcopy (she also does a digital version) that parents and students pour over and share.  The power of it being in a book meant that the sharing of learning in a physical way - child to child, child to parent, child to teacher, teacher to parent, made learning a shared. interactive, sincere and visceral process, something not so easily achieved in the digital form.  Most importantly, you can see real progress.  It really was a beautiful way of displaying a little persons journey through photos, voice and drawings - on display for all to share as they enter the classroom.  Combined with the digital format, a very powerful tool.  

One teacher talked about the power of lifting the glass ceiling and letting students fly!  This teacher used a beautiful painting metaphor, in that whilst they would have liked to have gone off reservation, they were recently back into teaching after a break away.  They were like Van Gogh, not quite ready to paint Starry Night yet, so they stayed status quo and practiced welding the brush, starting off by painting 'Potato Eaters' - still good, but knowing that in time they would be great!  So, she focussed on more 1-1 conferencing, improving student confidence and working alongside RTLB to accelerate at risk students.  

For another teacher, an emphasis on play based learning and student voice where hands on tasks like using a basket ball to count forwards and backwards, helped keep students, especially boys, engaged and active participants in their learning.  

A real stand out for our leadership team was the presentation that two of our beginning teachers (second years) shared.  They went off reservation, collaborated together and took the tent and set up one of the most effective assessment camp sites I have seen, in proportion to their experience.   Together they produced a powerpoint of what they did, what they achieved and how they did it.  They linked back the work they did to the PLD they had been involved in, the coaching and mentoring they have undertaken as beginning teachers (and how this supported them) and how they used OTJs (overall teacher judgements) and moderation to substantiate their findings.  They started with a baseline, created google forms based on the needs of students (initially filled out by them but then owned by students), worked within fluid groups giving students ownership, introduced an independent group (with a 3 strikes you are out policy) and they had a trial group.  Feedback from parents was both positive and supportive.  They noted that what made the difference and accelerated learning was their high expectations, conferencing and the use of high standards. They both talked about how reflective practice and ongoing dialogue around summative vs formative practice, helped keep them on track and overcome barriers.  Perhaps what was most impressive from my perspective was how they let their professional curiosity guide the inquiry and how open they were to trying new things, researching best practice and seeking guidance as they experimented.  

Every teacher shared their story, whether it was going off reservation, staying status quo or doing something in between.  Some teachers felt validated about what they already did, others took it as an opportunity to do something new, and all teachers were able to share highlights about how what they did, accelerated learning.  What I noticed was that irrespective of story or pathway, a foundation for good outcomes was the power of reflective practice.  The above is a snapshot of stories! 

What I noticed: The commonalities overall:

  • Seesaw featured as part of the trial in a variety of shapes and as a result will be a foundation of reporting going forward
  • Teachers remarked on increased Whānau engagement as learning was made more transparent 
  • Students took more ownership over their learning and were more able to talk about where they were, where they had been and where they needed to go next 
  • Formative assessment practice was more timely and ongoing, making assessment more relevant and contextual 
  • An emphasis on Oral Language and conferencing was prevalent 
  • Engagement and lifting student confidence is foundational in accelerating learning 
  • Teachers, when given the space, are creative and do awesome things! (actually I knew this already but during the term I saw more examples of this which was inspiring)
  • Teachers focussed on what things they could do to make a difference 

Perhaps most importantly, there was a bit of a buzz around the place as people talked about what they were doing and shared resources and ideas.  It wasn't forced or contrived but instead came from a place of genuine collaboration and professional curiosity.  Going forward, our term three of 'disobedient' inquiry will stand us in good steed as we tackle the task of unravelling the tangled web of National Standards.  We will be able to take our learnings into assessment and use it to help us pave our new road into the future.  The timing (given the change in Government) couldn't be better! 

Finally, I take my hat off to my staff.  It was one of the best professional development sharing sessions I have had the privilege to attend.  I will confess that their creativity, openness and willingness to try, really blew me away!  My staff are pretty amazing and I felt like a proud mama bear.  

I challenge other leaders to hand the control over to their teachers - let them take ownership and exercise agency - sit back and watch the magic.  In short - exercise some disobedient teaching and leadership! 

(UPDATE:  I have had some great feedback around the use of the word 'Disobedient' and why it is not just a matter of course that leaders just trust teachers with the autonomy/agency described above and I just wanted to clarify that; firstly, the context for the WHY of things is outlined in the first blog post - and that secondly, an understanding of the New Zealand context for the past 9 years in relation to assessment policy driven from a neo-liberal (you can read my post on what exactly the fuss about neoliberalism here in my post 'Dangerous Ideology - the Neoliberalization of Education') perspective, is a foundation for the questioning of pedagogy.  Thank you @Moronicinferno for your reflective questions and wondering, can I say, that whilst you may be new to the profession, it is your questioning and wondering about the WHY of education that is to to be commended, and I appreciate your thoughts.  It would be fair to say you have inspired me to write a post on how teachers self impose restrictions on their own autonomy - most certainly food for thought.)