Writing with new eyes

From days of old, students have been writing the information report. One week it was writing about frogs, the following week about the butterfly, and so on.

This information report followed a very precise formula, boiled down to only its essential elements. While the layout of the information report may vary, its essentially the same regimented structure. They may look like this…

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Stay on the anvil

In many ways this blog post has been 352 days in the making, and is not simply a professional reflection that I so badly want to write but can’t.

For the sake of clarity, on the first day of 2019, our then littlest girl was admitted to hospital with unknown reasons for a lack of physical development. With almost a month long stay and countless tests and specialists being  This was the catalyst for a number of ongoing and daily tribulations with three-hourly tube feeding, specialist appointments and weekly nurse visits. It also wasn’t the last extended hospital stay for our little girl with routine gastro bugs becoming very dangerous for her health.

Additional to this, we welcomed another beautiful little girl to our family. But it too didn’t come without its difficulties with significant and unnecessary worries from scans that apparently were read incorrectly by specialists.

Add to this an emergency surgery for my wife, while we were cleaning up from our house being robbed and ransacked and then being bookended by the same criminals stealing my car a week later, it’s fair to say this year couldn’t end soon enough.

The truth is it has been a daily struggle to put aside these intense and emotionally draining events and maintain a level of professionalism befitting to my leadership role all the while it being my first year at St Luke’s.

I will often say, I don’t know how I’ve made it to this end of the year. But I do know two things,

  1. The support I have received from staff at St Luke’s has been incredible. My most immediate team, Michelle, Nancy, Natalie and Meg have been pillars of strength when I haven’t felt any at all. Their focus, passion and humour have kept me from collapsing in a heap many times. The college principal, Greg has acted with patience and compassion, with many times calling during one of the extended hospital stays. The effect that this has had on our family was shown when our eldest girl was playing with her toy phone and she was ‘chatting’ to him while making a play meal in her kitchen. Furthermore, the whole staff who rallied together to provide gift baskets, care packages and even monetary gifts continue to astound me at their generosity and eagerness to help when we were in need.
  2. I have read this poem countless times this year. My family and I have had attempted to make sense of this year, but we cannot – nor are we meant to understand.

Stay on the anvil

Anvil_hammer_frizzell_drawing

When God wants to drill a man
And thrill a man
And skill a man
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part

When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!

How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him
And with mighty blows converts him
Into shapes and forms of clay
Which only God can understand.

How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes
How He uses whom He chooses
And with mighty power infuses him
With every act induces him
To try His splendor out —
God knows what He’s about.

Author unknown.

There is one line that plays in my mind, and calms tumultuous sea that sits in my chest daily, ‘How He bends but never breaks’. Many times this year we have been hammered and bent by blows that would surely have been too much for some. But we have never been broken.

God is in control and I will sing joyfully of the daily grace He provides.

 

Onwards and upwards for a more calm 2020.

 

 

 

How many words is a picture worth again?

One of my developing interests is the science behind how we learn. After some reflection, it became apparent to me that I had little to no understanding of this, aside from a rudimentary knowledge of Jerome Bruner’s Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract framework for learning.

I was already eleven years into my career, if I didn’t grasp the basics now, did I even need to know at all?

Or maybe because I had watched many teachers teach, shared spaces with many teachers, made a stack of mistakes and had been given feedback by leaders about my teaching, I already ‘knew’ about how we learn but couldn’t exactly articulate what I thought I knew.

The thing is, at the beginning of 2019, I was appointed to a role as a numeracy instructional leader and I soon realised that I haven’t the faintest clue about how we learn, let alone kids. And how was I meant to coach teachers in their understanding if I didn’t know myself?

(Cue the sudden onset of imposter syndrome)

So I leaned in on experts in the field. I read their books, journal articles and blogs, listened to podcasts and interviews, followed and interacted with them on social media.

Among Cognitive Load Theory, the talk of schemas and coming to understand that learning styles weren’t an actual thing, I found an interest in dual coding theory.

What is dual coding theory?

In short, dual coding is the effective combination of verbal and non-verbal information to maximise learning, and was posited by Allan Pavio in 1971.

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This image illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli captures the elements of dual coding theory. It relies on the concept that our minds process visual and verbal stimuli simultaneously, and without working memory being overloaded , can be used in a complementary way to obtain greater capacity to process information, which could ultimately result in stronger encoding into long term memory, and retrieval from long term memory.

In short: two complementary ways in to remember and two ways out to recall.

How does this theory impact teaching and learning?

We teachers want the best for our kids. We are well intentioned, desperate to cover content and curriculum, sometimes to the detriment of what works best in learning science.

Take the humble slide deck.

A blank canvas on which to put all the necessary information related to the learning.

Ah, but I need it to catch the audience’s attention, so I might just add some colours, cool fonts, some dot points, perhaps even some neat animations or transitions.

And it ends up like this…

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Don’t judge, but this is part of a slide presentation that I had previously created and implemented. 

In its delivery the presenter would likely read all of the information. There is nothing to focus on because it’s all important. There is limited attention to emphasis of main points. The title font is ridiculously messy. The choice of image isn’t relevant nor does it add value to the information.

The resulting audience attention level becomes compromised as the working memory would likely be overloaded by these factors combined, and even more so if the level of prior knowledge by the audience is limited. According to the New South Wales Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, “if a student’s working memory is overloaded, there is a risk that they will not understand the content being taught and that their learning will be slow and/or ineffective.” 

Mindful of the impact that carefully prepared visual and auditory information can have on the learner, I set about redesigning the content (acknowledging the nature of my learners), its layout/presentation and its delivery. Using Oliver Caviglioli’s Dual Coding for Teachers as my mentor text, I paid particular attention to his design principles of cut, chunk, align and restrain. Here is brief summary of these principles in action:

  • Starting from a clean white template, I used a simple cornflour blue palate for text boxes requiring impact;
  • To ensure the written content had its impact, I eliminated all information that was irrelevant to the learners, and chunked relevant content together. This process began on post it notes with key terms and ideas;
  • In an example below, I chose a graphic organiser (chunked tree diagram) to communicate the content rather than solid block of text. In another example, to capture more of the sequence, I chose a walkthrough in the style of a flow chart. The considered choice of visual representation was a result of acknowledging that organised visual information “is more computationally efficient” (Caviglioli p.26) in that the audience can search, recognise and infer with little working memory being enlisted.
  • Simple line icons that complemented the information were included in the slides;
  • Restraint was shown when selecting fonts and font sizing. I used consistent sizing, and only one typeface.
  • All slide elements were aligned to one another in one way or another. Setting up a grid template on my slides helped this.

The final product was a month or so in the making. There were even many iterations of the one slide, with the deciding factor being to what extent does the information being communicated in the slide assist the understanding by reducing cognitive load.

The end product

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An example of the cut, chunk, align and restrain to change my green abomination into something more visually appealing as well as informative.

 

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Another example of how cut, chunk, align and restrain were used to create visually appealing as well as informative presentations.

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This walkthrough of the MAI is an attempt to capture the process as well as content. Note the  impact the subtle variation of solid versus dashed lines has on the information.

Conclusion

There were three texts that I relied heavily on in the process.

  1. Understanding how we learn: a visual guide, by Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki with Oliver Caviglioli.
  2. Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, by Daniel T. Willingham.
  3. Dual Coding with Teachers by Oliver Caviglioli.

I was able to engage with Oliver on Twitter and even sought his feedback on some of my earlier iterations. I am very grateful for his willingness to share his learning and wisdom.

I feel incredibly vulnerable writing this post for a couple of reasons:

  • I spent a great deal of time shaping and creating the slides shown above, they became the sandpit in which I was putting some new, yet challenging, knowledge to the test;
  • I am still not sure If I completely understand that new knowledge, and I fear that I have made some statements that are a bit ambiguous or incorrect.

There were three texts that I relied heavily on in the process.

  1. Understanding how we learn: a visual guide, by Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki with Oliver Caviglioli.
  2. Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, by Daniel T. Willingham.
  3. Dual Coding with Teachers by Oliver Caviglioli.

I also used the nounproject to source the icons used in my presentation. It is a vast repository of icons that can be used to create or complement understanding.

 

As always, I welcome any feedback.

 

Making Connections: Engagement Theory & Dilemma Mapping

Throughout this year I have been completing a series of professional learning facilitated by my diocese and University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership. The course, entitled Growing Great Leaders, comprises of six modules and are aligned to the student-centred leadership model proposed by Distinguished Professor, Viviane Robinson. Her books, Student Centred Leadership and Reduce Change to Increase Improvement have been cornerstone texts in my edu-reading this year, with the latter being the lead text for school leadership teams across the Parramatta Diocese in 2019. I highly recommend both as essential reading for leaders across the experience spectrum.

Engagement into Theories of Action

A pivotal component of the GGL course and the texts is the acknowledgement that practices are driven by a theory (or theories) of action. Theories may be held at the personal/individual level, or at the collective/group level. A theory of action is comprised of three elements: key beliefs or values, actions/inactions, and finally, consequences. See the diagram below.

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p. 15. V. M Robinson, 2018
Reduce change to increase improvement

Robinson notes that engagement theory is where a change agent (teacher, leader, school, organisation) inquires into current and alternative theories of action, in a deliberate and dialogical manner before any possible change and/or improvement be made. Engagement is the ideal, but bypass is often exhibited.

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p. 26. V. M Robinson, 2018
Reduce change to increase improvement

Bypassing current and alternative theories of action may result in patchy take up of a change or a culture of compliance or submission.

The challenge in engagement theory is that it is reciprocal in that the leader must also honour true engagement by revealing his/her own theories of action – thus being able to situate themselves as a part of the problem and the solution.

Dilemma Mapping

I subscribe to a weekly newsletter entitled Dialogic Learning Weekly. It is created by Tom Barrett, a former teacher, and now an educational consultant through his business Dialogic Learning. His work includes learning space design, pedagogical development and leadership coaching. I first came across Tom when he was being interviewed for the Design & Play podcast in 2017. I was captured by the way he was able to talk about thinking deep through dialogue, and his work in creating a culture of innovation in teams and spaces. After connecting with Tom on Twitter, I came across his blog where my interest was piqued in three articles:

  1. Are you transfixed by a proxy for learning? I had just begun my coaching work in school and I was often having the conversations with teachers around engagement & learning. Tom’s words helped me to see that we may often use a placeholder for what we think the learning is. This I believe was the beginning of my interest in evidence informed teaching & assessing.
  2. The spaces you need to innovate Is another thought provoking post by Tom. In this, he identifies design aspects of the spaces we engage with. I was most interested in the temporal space, which happened to coincide nicely with some work being spoken about at school at the time. Piggybacking on his work with design teams, Tom offers insightful provocations that may help in looking freshly at these spaces.
  3. Extending the spaces you need to innovate (Further considerations) This post builds on the original post by synthesising some of Tom’s initial ideas and offering other areas to innovate. 

Needless to say I am a big fan of Tom and his work, and I hope that one day I am able to work with him directly.

In Issue 142 of Dialogic Learning Weekly, Tom introduced me to Dilemma Mapping as a strategic thinking tool to examine opposing or conflicting ideas.

In dilemma mapping, the ideas is that individuals/teams/organisations are dialogically and methodically map the values of contrasting ideas in a chart such as this.

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Dilemma Mapping Representation

Through a series of compromises, conflicts and negotiated requests a resolution may be found that benefits all parties. This is represented in the upper right of the chart. Tom was able to share an image that he constructed to further explain this concept.

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A crossover of ideas – Equality, Dialogue, and Inquiry

Here is where the engagement and dilemma concepts merge into two ways to explore innovation and change.

Present through dilemma mapping and engagement theory is the concept equality. While bypass strategies may often be done persuasively, possibly from a power imbalance, true engagement is an transparent approach where current and established theories of action are also examined critically – this includes those held by the leader or change agent.  Rather than fervently holding down positions, participants are encouraged to process their ideas and values through generative thinking and temporary suspension of judgements.

With equality as the fertile ground, dialogue can occur. I believe dialogue to be a shared conversation/s where the acknowledgement that each party involved has a voice and has opportunity to shape and re-shape values, beliefs and ideas. I am sure there are other more concise definitions, but it is apparent that both aspects acknowledge respectful communication and collaboration with a shared goal/s in mind.

This then leads to inquiry. From my understanding, both processes involve revealing the tacit components that drive actions, ideas and behaviours.

As always I welcome your comments on my thoughts. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of what I’ve written, and spent countless hours processing this blog post for it to even make sense to me. I encourage you to connect with Tom on his socials, all of which can be found through his website, Dialogic Learning.

 

References and Further Reading

https://thenextwavefutures.wordpress.com/2018/04/08/dilemma-thinking-innovation-strategy/

http://www.h3uni.org/resource_library/index.php?title=Dilemma_Mapping_Guide

https://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/pluginfile.php/332226/mod_oucontent/oucontent/6564/8a93f17a/8114e1f4/b847_learning_animations.zip/extra/dilemmatheory.pdf?

What are you thinking about?

How often do you think about what students might be thinking about when they are learning?

If you’re like me, the extent of your thoughts might be limited to what the students will ‘do’ in a particular task, not what they are thinking about while they are doing the task. You might even be thinking…

Is there even a difference between the doing and thinking?

Surely kids are thinking while they’re doing?

Stick with me, but consider this statement…

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Do you remember learning to drive? Recall how intensely you were thinking and concentrating on each and every gauge, the pressure on the pedals, how close cars were in the adjoining lanes, how low the radio needed to be to concentrate The task of learning to drive is an excellent example of repeatedly thinking about things and committing them to memory.

Daniel T Willingham’s expands on this important idea in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? He notes,

To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember.

While it goes without saying that we cannot control what the students are thinking about, it begs the question, are the tasks that you are planning, planned with consideration of what the students will be thinking about while they are doing the task?

I am wondering whether we help or hinder our students in the pursuit of creating that perfect rich, open and challenging mathematical task? I have seen many tasks where their clarity has been muddied because the mathematics has gone missing in amongst distracting information and unnecessary requirements.

One of the ways we may consider this is the use of a Mathematics Activities Analysis Page – a planning template that teachers can use to be purposeful about what we want the students to notice (and think about) during a particular task.

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An insight I have when I am asking this question or responding to the question myself, is that it often reveals the task to be a performance task or a learning task.

Is it necessary to make this distinction? I believe yes.

In tasks where students simply perform, they often aren’t using, or being given the opportunity to use, their acquired skills to think deeply about the content and transfer to a new context.

However, tasks where students are encouraged to think more critically, creatively and make connections, that is, tasks where the challenge is desirable, the likelihood of retaining learning is greater. In the same way as learning to drive a car on a busy street, such tasks are desirably difficult.

There are a few things that I’m attempting (albeit in a clunky way) to convey.

1) We need to be thinking deeply about the tasks to be able to remember them at a later point.

2) In planning, it is worth thinking about what the children might be thinking about while they are engaging with the task.

3) Tasks need to be desirably difficult for us to attend to them.

Comments, corrections and thoughts welcome.

The Front and Back of Mathematics- a very simple view.

The following is an email that I have sent to all K-4 staff at school. I’ve been moved by an experience I saw during one of my visits into a Stage 1 classroom and felt compelled to put some words to it.

Good afternoon all,

This week’s mini-PLM comes in the form of a quote from Reuben Hersh, an American mathematician and academic. He maintains that Mathematics has a front and a back. He notes,

“the finished product of mathematicians belongs in the well-ordered and more-or-less highly polished front of mathematics while the back is the area where mathematicians are busy engaging in but often practically fruitful activities of mathematicians​.​”​ ​​

While it may be difficult to think of our littlest students or even most vulnerable students as mathematicians in the vein of Rueben Hersh, his point was at the fore of my mind after hearing a S1 girl grapple with her understanding of faces on 3D shapes, in particular a sphere. It was clunky, with moments of dialogue between students and teachers. There was silence, coupled with sentences that began small snippets of conjecture. All  equally enabled by the students, teachers, the class environment, and curiosity.

It would have been far cleaner and easier to grab control of a such a conversation and steer it directly, but my point is, this was true mathematicians work. In this experience, each learner (teacher, too) had access to the front and back of mathematics. And it didn’t come through a pre-loaded worksheet where the content and process was delivered by teacher to the ’empty student’.

My final thought is this: do we value and make space for both the formal, precise and abstract front , AND the messy, intuitive and often clunky back side of Mathematics?

Enjoy your week.

Hersh, R. Experiencing Mathematics: What Do We Do, when We Do Mathematics?​American Mathematical Society​ (2014).​ ​p.35​​.

“If it is to be, it is up to me”: Respecting Choice

This is the second of my personal reflections based on Jim Knight’s ‘Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction’. Jim outlines seven principles that frame the work of partnership instructional coaching, which are:

  1. Recognising equality
  2. Respecting choice
  3. Encouraging voice
  4. Engaging in dialogue
  5. Encouraging reflection
  6. Enacting praxis
  7. Experiencing reciprocity

Today’s thought is about Respecting choice: Teachers should have choice regarding what and how they learn’.

One of the things I have been wrestling personally about myself as a developing coach, is to what extent are the teachers who I am working with reflecting upon and naming their own next steps for learning. If it is truly a partnership approach, my actions and words must begin from a perspective that each person in the partnership is equal and that knowledge can be co-constructed through dialogue.

So has choice looked like in the context of my role at St Luke’s?

In prepping to work with teachers at the beginning of the term, staff had the opportunity to reflect on an area of their practice that they felt as though needed developing. For some, this looked like developing mathematical tasks that was both challenging and open. For others, it was more about how to launch an investigation without “talking the children out of their curiosity”. Whatever their self-identified need was, my next step was meeting with staff individually or in small groups during planning time to unpack the why behind their goal. More often than not, it was an area that I had also identified.  Through collaborative discussion, we named:

  • look fors;
  • what evidence we may collect to determine success;
  • what time will there be for modelling and observation; and finally
  • when will we reflect on the process to determine our next steps.

At the first instance, choice was provided. The path forward was shaped together and co-constructed to honour the professionalism that is inherent in our Foundations staff. Without the choice the professionalism is bypassed and there could be a breakdown in the ownership of the goal, process and consequently lower student learning outcomes.

This term has been effectively my first coaching rodeo, or at the very least, the first where I have strategically thought about the process of coaching. These posts may seem like fragmented ramblings where I am trying to make sense of the duty, calling and honour it is to lead staff in such a manner, but it just seems so morally correct to begin from the platform of relationship in leadership.

Have you worked with someone who has operated from a platform of relationship where choice and equality were pillars in the relationship? How did it feel?

Conversely, what about times where choice has been withheld or taken away? What did it feel like?