Making Thinking Visible

Yesterday at PLC Sydney we held a whole-staff PD workshop with American educator Mark Church.  Mark is a co-author of the book Making Thinking Visible, as well as a contributor to the Project Zero team. I found myself really resonating with much of what he had to say. I liked the fact that his focus was on really good pedagogy, and although I could see many connections to the sorts of thinking that I find myself constantly exposed to in the edtech world, his message had very little to do with the use of technology. It was really just all about good teaching.

PLC brought Mark out from the US especially for this workshop after members of our senior leadership heard him speak at another event. They were really impressed with his message and felt it was just what our staff needed. I tend to agree. In schools like ours, where we are essentially teaching to a largely compliant, affluent and  literate demographic, it’s doesn’t seem to be too difficult to have our students achieve significant levels of success without teachers needing a big “bag of teaching tricks”. We provide kids with content at a sophisticated level, and they generally perform very well in the traditional ways of measuring school success. Based on our HSC results, we certainly manage to create a disproportionate number of highly successful students, although I certainly don’t always agree with the conventional way we measure that “success”. Mark’s message was that we can do much more to really expose the thinking of our students, to help them develop greater understanding of what they learn and to make the learning more authentic and meaningful. To all of that I certainly found myself in much greater agreement.

The first part of the day was spent on some big picture stuff, ideas about education and the ways in which we build a culture in our schools. Enculturation, or the way we create a culture over time, is a critically important aspect of education and schooling and something I feel quite passionately about so I very much resonated with this part of the discussion. The second half of the day was spent looking at a number of pedagogical ideas – Mark called them “routines” – that provided some terrific examples of ways in which we can be better at what we do. I found the day insightful and refreshing, and felt quite energised by the ideas we covered.

Along with some other members of our staff, I used Twitter (and the hashtag #plcpdday) to capture some of the key ideas and thoughts during the day, and I thought I’d just recap a couple of my more salient tweets here, and expand them beyond Twitter’s sometimes frustrating 140 character limit.

Unless a teacher takes time to understand the culture of students, the students will never care about the culture of the teacher

This idea has always been a big one for me. It’s kind of a rephrase of the old “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” line, but I’ve always found it so incredibly true in schools. It drives me crazy that most educators seem to think that “their stuff” is so intrinsically interesting and valuable that students will just automatically be interested in it. They won’t. Students are people, and people want to feel valued before they will buy into what you want. In every school I’ve been in where there’s tension between teachers and students, it is nearly always because of an overly militant, authoritarian approach that says to kids “just shut up and do it my way”. A highly disciplinary approach might win the battle, but it’s never going to win the war. Respect, care, and dare I say, even love, are the basis of a good relationship between teacher and student, and until there is a good relationship it’s going to be an uphill battle.  I suppose this idea particularly struck a chord with me because it something I’ve also talked about a fair bit elsewhere.

Dispositions are developed through enculturation in thoughtful settings over time. OVER TIME. time to uncrowd our curriculums?

The notion of a learning culture is also something that is central in the way I think about schooling.  Too often we think that we can “teach” kids something by giving them a lesson or two in it, and that’s enough. We run sessions about cyberbullying or plagiarism or creativity or digital citizenship, and we act as though by pouring this information into our students’ heads that we have done our job. “We taught it, so we now expect them to know it”. It’s all nonsense of course. We don’t create enduring dispositions by running a session or two on a particular idea and then ticking it off our todo list as done.  Building a disposition is about creating a culture based on the values of that disposition. And that culture needs to permeate everything. It needs to become part of the way we think, the way we act, the “way we do things around here”.  You don’t teach creativity by running a couple of workshops about it.  You teach it by having the values of creativity become an ingrained part of the way you think. You don’t learn it, you become it.  And the key thing is that it takes time. Lot of time. Lots of repetition, iteration, example-setting. You model the big ideas, all the time, over a period of time.  In a teaching sense, this makes it even more imperative that we find ways to uncrowd our curriculum to make space for  this to happen. We need to create the space to have the time to build worthwhile cultural dispositions.

Focusing on the average in education is like looking at the average of a mountain range. All the peaks and valleys disappear.

We build our education systems for the average student. Too often we pitch to the perceived middle.  Sure, we try to come up with strategies to differentiate, but when it’s all boiled down, the structure of most schools is built on the idea that we can process students in groups of 25+, and that by designing for the needs of the whole group we hope to be able to meet the needs of most of the people within it. And as the mountain metaphor shows so well, if you focus on the average high of a mountain range the peaks and valleys disappear. By catering to the needs of the group, we often fail to meet the needs of the individuals within that group. It hard to do well, but so important that we keep trying to be better at it.

It’s far too easy for kids to have the “right answer” and still have no idea about what they supposedly learned.

As a teacher, how many times have you thought you taught students something, only to realise that they still really don’t get it.  You explained it, demonstrated it, they tried it themselves, the practised it, the seemed to master it… and then when they really needed to demonstrate that knowledge or skill, you realise that they still don’t get it. Or worse, the can demonstrate the skills you want them to have – the can pass the test, do the activity, get the right answer – but you can see that there just isn’t any deep, real understanding there. It can be quite demoralising, but it happens a lot. The idea of Making Thinking Visible is to get to the root causes of misunderstandings so that true understanding can be reached.

Mindset change: what if what I teach today shows up on a test 3 years from now? How would I teach it differently?

I liked this idea. We often teach things to our students on the basis that they will need to pass a test on it at the end of the lesson, or the end of the week, or end of the unit. But what if we taught in ways that presumed the information we taught today would not appear on a test for another three years. Would we do it differently? How? What would we change?

The big picture… What are the residuals of education? What does education leave kids with long after they have finished school?

I guess this is the same kind of idea as the last one, but I liked Mark’s idea about the “residuals of education”. A residual is the stuff you’re left with when everything else is gone. So after the homework is forgotten, after the tests and exams ar done and the reports are handed out, what are we left with? What is the truly important stuff that sticks with kids when the ephemeral nature of “school” has passed? And if what we have left over is not the same stuff that we usually give so much importance to, why do we keep giving that other stuff so much importance in the first place?

Let’s change the language… Let’s stop using the word “work” in our classrooms and start calling it “learning”.

Homework. Classwork. Schoolwork. “Get your work done .” “Where is your work?” “What are you working on?” What if we stopped calling it “work” and started calling it what it’s supposed to be… learning. Better yet, what if we stopped giving kids “work” to do, because so often it’s just pointless busy-work that does little more than just keep them busy. It’s colouring in. It’s making titlepages. It’s making a PowerPoint. It’s doing “research” into things that they already know about. Why do we do that? Why don’t we make more effort to ensure that the precious time we have with our students is spent doing real stuff, real learning? We could start shifting this mindset by at least not referring to what we get kids to do as “work”, and start calling it “learning”. Because we’d soon feel pretty stupid referring to their colouring-in and titlepage-making as “learning”.

Looking at how time gets used in your classroom sends a big message about what you value in your classroom.
How does the environment in which we teach say a lot about what we value about learning?
what does the language and style of communication we use in our classroom say about what we value about learning?
If a classroom is set up with rows of desks all facing the front, what does that say about what we value about learning?

These tweets were all focused on the same core idea… how does what we say is really important manifest itself in what we actually do on a daily basis?  If we say we value teamwork and collaboration but our classroom desks are set up in forward-facing rows, what does that tell us? If we say we want our classrooms to be student-centric places, and the teacher still does most of the talking, what does that tell us? If we say we want independent, self motivated learners, and we still infantilise our students by spoonfeeding them with content, what does that tell us?  If we say we want to meet the needs of every child, but we don’t allow for their choices and preferences and learning styles, what does that tell us? The bottom line is that we need to ensure that our beliefs about what and how we teach are in alignment with what we actually DO every day, or things will always be out of whack.

Routines for building understanding… See-Think-Wonder, Connect-Extend-Challenge, What makes you say that?, 3-2-1 Bridge.

Mark wove many of these techniques (he called them “routines”) into his presentation during the day. You can find a more complete list of these routines on the Visible Thinking website. Some people might just call them common sense or good teaching, but they are still a useful collection of teaching techniques that I will certainly be trying to build into my repertoire of classroom skills. It’s far too easy to fall into familiar patterns of teaching, and I think especially so in a school like ours where, let’s face it, the kids are easy to teach, generally compliant and focused on passing the test.

It’s the questions our students ask, not the answers they give, that really let us see what ideas they are grappling with.

In most schools we seem insanely focused on getting our kids to provide answers. We test them with quizzes and exams. We get them to write factual essays. We ask them to solve math problems using the correct formula. We get them to do science experiments where we already know the end result. We seem to always want our students to be finding “the answer”, and the correct one at that. Instead, maybe we should restructure things a little to allow them to ask more questions. More wondering. More curiosity. If we can know what questions they have, we might have a far better insight into what’s actually going on in their heads. We’d get to see their thinking, to observe their understandings (and their misunderstandings). We would be able to see their thinking. Getting kids to give us “the answer” might seem like the obvious thing to do, but it doesn’t really let us see what they understand.

As I hope you can tell, there was lots of great stuff presented during the day, and most of our staff seemed very receptive and enthusiastic about it all. Something that I’ve felt has been missing at our school for a while now has been this common educational language or direction, and I’m glad to see that we finally seem to have found a focus we can all latch on to as we move forward. It’s really refreshing to have a whole staff focus on a shared pedagogical idea – visible thinking –  and one of the things I would like to see happen is the creation of some Visible Thinking study groups where keen staff members could openly explore some of these ideas with each other, sharing suggestions and best practice, and pushing themselves forward to become even better teachers.

I definitely want to be part of that.

The Connective Writing Project

I’ve been keen to get more of our staff blogging, since I know from first hand experience what a powerfully reflective process it can be. I’ve always found that taking the time to write causes me to think more deeply about what I do, it makes me more aware of the ideas and approaches that I’m using with those I teach, and it’s also made me a much better writer than I once was. I’d argue that blogging really helps improve your communication skills on many levels while building a stronger foundation for understanding your own beliefs and convictions. There is something both magical and affirming about putting your thoughts down in words, and even moreso when you decide to publicly share those words with others. As you can probably tell, I’m a bit of a fan of blogging (or connective writing, to borrow a phrase from Will Richardson)

During 2011, our school had the opportunity to apply for an AGQTP grant. This grant program is funded by the Australian government’s DEEWR as part of the NSW Quality Teaching Program and, in the case of our school, administered by the AIS. Its goal is to help teachers develop their own professional learning through the creation of action research projects. Our principal asked me to put a proposal together, which turned out to be about creating a blogging project for our Year 6 teachers and students.  It was quite successful, and as well as a complete written report, we also produced this 7 minute video to summarise what we learned.

I remember tweeting about the fact that we were applying for a grant to get our teachers blogging, and getting a reply back from my kiwi mate Allanah King asking why on earth you’d need a grant for that. Allanah, who is not just a fabulous blogger herself but a real pioneer in the ways she has used blogs and other social technologies with her students, found it difficult to understand why blogging had to be a complicated and beaurocratic process. She quite rightly pointed out that you don’t need a government grant to blog, you just need to open one of the many free blogging tools available and start writing!  And she is correct. But what the AGQTP grant process bought us was the time to do that. By providing the funding to get our Year 6 teachers released from class, we could set aside the time to learn this new skill in a far more focused and somewhat systematic and committed way. While it would be nice to think that teachers would just go and learn new skills in their own time for their own motivations, sometimes that just isn’t realistic, so getting some financial assistance to help build teacher capacity was seen as a very welcome thing.

As a follow up, I was also interviewed about this by Selena Woodward from CEGSA in Adelaide after she saw the video. Selena was intrigued by the deliberately open and public nature of our blogging project, a feature that I was insistent was critically important to the project. Blogging behind closed doors, without the potential for writing to an authentic audience, seems completely pointless to me. The South Australian DECS attitude to blogging is somewhat less open-minded. Some people refer to this reluctance as “the Upton effect” because of the shitstorm that DECS created a few years ago when they very publicly  showed their cyber-ignorance by closing down teacher Al Upton’s very popular class blog, the MiniLegends. The regrettable fallout from what happened to Al seems to have caused many South Australian teachers to be overly gun-shy of any online use that might be vaguely interpreted as “social”.  It’s such a shame.

Back in 2008, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote address at the CEGSA conference, where my topic focused on how important it is to be a connected educator, to form PLNs, to get both ourselves and our students connected and functioning safely in this highly networked world we live in. I blogged my thoughts about that keynote at the time, and looking back at that post now, and hearing that so many educators  are still just as wary and frightened of the online world as they were in 2008, makes me sad and disappointed for the kids in their care. It is disappointing that in the last 3 years, during which I believe we are finally starting to see far more educators beginning to understand the really significant shifts in the way technology is affecting the process of education, that there are still such outdated attitudes to learning online.

Overall though, I’m happy with the progress we made with our own blogging this year. It was progress. It wasn’t perfect, and there is lots that I’d change next year, but it’s a good start.

Catching up (and some slides)

It’s been a while since I blogged here, basically since I got back from ISTE about 2 months ago.  Not sure why, just been super busy. I’ve got a heap of things happening at work, exciting things that I’ll be writing about here soon, but it’s just been hard finding the time lately to sit and write.  I need to change that. I miss doing it.

I presented the keynote at the IWBNet conference in Sydney this morning, which was fun. The topic I was asked to present on was “Why Interactive Whiteboards”, and a few people asked for a copy of the slides so I’ve included them below.

Gotta fly, I need to be at the airport in an hour or so to catch a plane to Japan where I’m spending the weekend with Kim Cofino running a workshop for EARCOS called The Networked Educator.  I guess I’ll have more to write about that later!