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Detour

I wrote about the project I am doing for the Strategic leadership course and how I have decided on a topic. Of course things have changed – I think the most shocking thing that could happen at work is if one day I complete a project that is the same as when I started.

I think this is where the art of project management, or really any type of management, comes into play. A lot of people seem to think that project management is about Gantt charts and budgets, but that isn’t it any more than time tables and cost centres are what school management is about. Or maybe that’s the difference between management and leadership?

It seems to me that some of the difference between leadership and management comes down to how you handle the unexpected. There are lots of options when something new comes along:

  • Panic
  • Ignore it (are these the same?)
  • Minimise the disruption and aim to get back to normal
  • Work around it
  • Embrace it and embed it in your new vision

Several of these are positive, and I certainly don’t want to say that there is a ‘best’ way of doing something – it always depends on the circumstances. But I find the last idea the most exciting. It’s a spin on the old saw that we have opportunities, not problems. It can only be done with a very clear vision of what you are trying to achieve, because you have to ask yourself if a new pathway is going to move you towards that or not. If you don’t, your new and improved project will not achieve what you want, but will meander along ineffectively.

I’m probably getting repetitive on the importance of what rather than how, but this is a good demonstration. I was asked to be a guinea pig for something, which was relatively easy. But in the process and speaking to others, we realised it could be much more. If we’d stuck with how we’d been asked to do it, it would have worked. But by going back to what we were trying to achieve, we made it more effective and gave more control to the people who will be responsible for the work.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, consultation, feedback, change of format, change of program and testing with several examples, we have a visioning template that can walk people who’ve never done it through the process, or let experienced people fill it in quickly and move on. It ensures they hit all the highlights, and automatically pulls the important pieces together and prepares them for the next step. Now it’s ready to be used by other people, and hopefully we’ve bomb proofed it enough that it will do what we want.

It’s the same type of work I was intending to do for my project, but in a different context. Rather than trying to get back to my original plan, I think I’ve achieved something bigger by running with a new opportunity.

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Post image for Questioning, connecting, and something else???

We’ve been challenged to think about a leadership headline or mantra. Leadership needs different things according to the circumstances and skills of the leader, so the idea is to try to distill what you are trying to achieve.

The first part of mine is easy – I think one of the most important things I do is questioning. Why are we doing things this way? What are you trying to get out of this? What is causing the problem here? Have you thought about?

And I think the best answers come from connections. This might be connecting people who are working on similar things, or information that comes from different places, or projects that become richer or more efficient when they are brought together.

But the last one has me stumped. I know exactly what I want it to be, but can’t think of the way to encapsulate it.

One of the things I’ve seen over and over again is having too much knowledge resting with one person. When they leave, no-one can find anything on the server, or remember how to organise the sports carnival, or what the process is for a student who needs an individual behaviour plan.

Then there are the things we all do over and over again, like programming, data analysis or contacting parents.

If you start from scratch every time, think of all the creative energy you use having to think of what to do Every. Single. Time. This is why I am an enormous believer in processes and structures. Some people think they are rigid, but I see the opposite – by taking care of the what, they let me spend all my creativity and imagination on how, and still be confident that I’ve included all the important things.

I feel one of the most important roles of a leader is to give their people this structure and boundaries. Let your imaginations run wild and be the best you can be, so long as you stay within these walls. You will always be sure of what I am asking for, because it is all on this list and the same every time. (Except of course when we refine it together.)

So I know exactly what it is, but it’s hard to boil it down to one word. ‘Structuring’ doesn’t quite cut it, or ‘giving boundaries.’ For the moment, I’m stuck with

Questioning, connecting, and something else.

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Post image for Project – Finding a topic

One of the things we have to do for the strategic leadership course is an ongoing project. I think this is great, I love projects as a way of tying things together for long term practice and experiential learning. But what to do? Projects are my bread and butter – Project Manager is right there in my job title. If I’m going to learn and develop my leadership through this it can’t be one of my normal projects.

Funneling the mess mass

It needs to:

  • develop my leadership – something that is for my unit or the schools I am working with.
  • be a natural part of my position
  • use my strengths
  • contribute to sustainability, through well being and distribution of leadership.

I was originally thinking of doing something on how we work with outside stakeholders and contractors, as that was an area I was new in at the time.

I knew I wanted to do something on how we work as a unit – I love creating processes and structures. I see it as giving people the freedom to be creative, if they don’t have to go back to the beginning all the time and waste energy thinking of what to do. All they have to do is follow the process and they can go wild with how to do it. It plays to all my critical thinking, learning and analytical strengths.

Thinking time

I find it really necessary to mull over things in the background, it allows me to tie everything together and find the connections, in this case between my work and what the course is trying to achieve. It also allows time for serendipity to turn up, which it did on schedule.

My work unit has had some staffing changes and my Director took the opportunity to do some group strategic development, reviewing our ways of working.

The topic

This  has made my topic bigger, but at the same time given it more coherence – rather than looking at one part of our work in isolation, it is firmly centred in our priorities.

As part of our re-organisation and ongoing improvement as a unit we are capturing our ways of working and developing some internal policies. We are trying to build our corporate knowledge and capacity, rather than being dependent on individuals.

My project is to capture some of our procedures and tie together project management theory, the experience of people in our unit, and the needs and culture of our workplace. Then review and refine these procedures as we use them, so we end up with a responsive system that gives us the structure to be free.

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Visualise

I‘ve been lucky enough to be accepted for a strategic leadership professional development course. It seems to be a good opportunity to get back to blogging, which I’ve been away from since I’ve been working, and have a regular space to reflect on what I’m learning and how it relates to my work.

One of the topics we spoke about in this session was performance management and professional development. It’s a really big topic and I’m not going to talk about it directly here, but about something it sparked. I like finding connections between different topics, it lets me explore them and see them from a different perspective. What I found interesting in this session was the emphasis on discussing and describing what makes an effective teacher.

That connected all the way back to when I was doing classroom management coaching – we used to get people to visualise good teachers they had had in school and describe what their classes were like. It also connects to what I’m doing right now in project planning. A really important step in scoping a project is to visualise and describe what teaching and learning will be like after a successful project. We do this because it helps us make decisions along the way – if I go with this solution, will it take me to where I need to be?

I think this is a deep connection – one that tells us about a similar process, rather than just a similar activity. These are all change processes where we are trying to change a system to a new state – all three of them are looking at evaluating, developing and maintaining new teaching practices.

So are there other areas where this technique would be useful?

  • Teaching itself is a change process, we are changing the students’ knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • The department has several reviews and reports in the pipeline, that will be changing the way remote and middle years schools work.
  • My work unit is being reorganised and has a change of staff.
  • I am developing myself as a leader through this course and professional learning in general.
  • It could be useful in managing up, to have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve or to lead a team through the process to get buy in and build the change community.
  • Introducing technology in schools! It is so big and moving so fast that knowing what you are trying to achieve is essential to stop it being an expensive waste of unused devices.

I think it’s important to note that in all of these cases you are clarifying a vision of what, not how. How is about solutions – it shuts down creativity because you are already directing movement into a particular pathway, and it discourages you from critically examining that pathway. Describing what opens up the possibilities because there may be many ways of getting there, and you have a clear final destination to help you weigh the costs and benefits.

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Before we get into the next installment, I want you to go to AC: Science and have a little play, if you haven’t already. One of the things I love about this curriculum has nothing to do with the pedagogy or science and everything to do with the presentation. Those little symbols up the top that look like an optometrist’s test let you decide whether the year levels go down the page horizontally or across vertically. You can choose which year level to look at. You can choose whether you see the achievement standards, the content descriptors or the whole shebang. You can even choose to see the links to the cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities in there. Or not. It’s the first document I’ve seen anywhere, not just in education, that really takes advantage of the fact that the web is not linear.

And that makes it a joy to use. I spent today writing advice on multi-level classes. Nothing can do everything right and this is the bit that the AC: Science does horribly. That’s not to say I can think of a better way right now and 9 hours of solid work may have hammered out a compromise, but it’s ugly. At least while I was writing it I could arrange the years vertically and clear everything else away to compare the achievement standards right next to each other. Then add in the content descriptors to see if it still worked. When I was writing an exemplar for a year 2 program I could just look at the specific standards, descriptors and elaborations for year 2. This is a complete change in the way we can use this document, far more useful and flexible than any book we’ve been given in the past. And that makes it a pretty darn good metaphor for the AC: Science itself, because this curriculum is not only based on the latest thinking and research, it completely re-writes the goal of teaching science and therefore the way we teach it.

One of the big concerns at #onsci was where is the science for general life? The answer is right there. Throughout the entire curriculum in every single class.

In the past science education was aimed at producing future scientists. There was some nice fiction that every student in our classes could be going on to become a scientist, so that was what we had to prepare them for. This has changed.

Now, our goal is to produce scientifically literate future citizens. There is national and international acknowledgement that not everyone is going to become a scientist, but everyone needs to be able to grapple with the big issues facing us as a global society, which means being able to understand how science works and how it affects our lives even if you aren’t specialising for a career.

AC graphic

Click for full size

This is one way of representing AC: Science. It’s actually much more complicated, and I will love forever anyone who manages to design a graphic for the rest of it. I’m thinking of multiple paths to the same destination and weaving. But this bit’s fairly reasonable.

The Achievement Standard is the most important part. If you’re a non-teacher forget the content descriptors. I know they take up lots of room and look important, but they are just suggestions of how to meet the standard. Suggestions you need a darn good reason signed off in triplicate to ignore, but ‘the order and detail in which the content descriptions are organised into teaching/learning programs are decisions to be made by the teacher.’ The achievement standard, on the other hand, is the bit that we expect every Australian child to have the opportunity to achieve.

Below the achievement standard are the most important strands that contribute to it. And front and centre you can see ‘Science as a Human Endeavour,’ which is the fancy name for science for real life. And right there next to it is ‘Science Inquiry Skills.’ No longer are they tucked away in a corner as something along the lines of ‘Working Scientifically,’ they make up fully two thirds of the curriculum and the achievement standard. Biology? Chemistry? Physics? They’re the ones tucked away, down below in the sub-strand level. They’re still important – knowledge is an important element of scientific literacy – but they are in many ways just the context for learning about scientific ways of thinking and doing.

Now let’s look at an actual achievement standard so you can see what I mean. They all follow the same pattern, so I picked one in the middle.

By the end of Year 5, students classify substances according to their observable properties and behaviours. They explain everyday phenomena associated with the transfer of light. They describe the key features of our solar system. They analyse how the form of living things enables them to function in their environments. Students discuss how scientific developments have affected people’s lives and how science knowledge develops from many people’s contributions.

Students follow instructions to pose questions for investigation, predict what might happen when variables are changed, and plan investigation methods. They use equipment in ways that are safe and improve the accuracy of their observations. Students construct tables and graphs to organise data and identify patterns. They use patterns in their data to suggest explanations and refer to data when they report findings. They describe ways to improve the fairness of their methods and communicate their ideas, methods and findings using a range of text types.

That entire second paragraph is all about the Science Inquiry Skills, the doing of science. In the first paragraph, we have a sentence on chemistry, a sentence on energy, a sentence on the solar system and a sentence on biology. Then we finish with a longer sentence about science as a part of daily life and how we got to where we are.

Facts and pracs are no longer an option. In order for students to pass science, in order for them to be able to do the things that we have decided are important for all Australian children, investigation of real-world questions important to the students themselves is not the jam you get to if you are lucky, but the absolute bread and butter.

But wait! There’s more! In part three we’ll meet the Overarching Ideas.

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This is a response to the #onsci twitter chat on the 9th of August about the Australian Curriculum (AC) that I think might be useful generally. Judging from the chat there seem to be a few broad themes of concerns, some of which I’m placed to explain or discuss. This seems the appropriate time to put in the obligatory disclaimer – this is all my personal understanding and opinion, and is in no way official.

I work in a state curriculum area, so the short answer to ‘who determines how science is taught now’ is ‘Me.’ And of course my colleagues, within the constraints of policy and working together with all the other teams including other learning areas and assessment and reporting, differentiated learners, English as Another Language/Dialect (EAL/D) learners, student services, technology, the list goes on. And determines is rather a strong word – we can suggest and provide advice, interpretations, templates, professional learning and examples. We may even get to contribute to policy. But in the end it all comes down to schools, resources and teachers. And teachers already have a full time job.

My colleagues and I have the time that teachers don’t to grapple with the curriculum and consider the wider implications, then hopefully come up with frameworks and tools and explain them to teachers so they can successfully use it. I currently have a happy little group of guinea pigs who have volunteered to use the AC in their classes, so they tell us what problems they are having, what we aren’t explaining clearly and what tools they need, and from that we modify our message or try to get it for them. Eventually it will go out to all staff, and believe me I know how frustrating the vacuum is because I’ve been on the other side, but getting the wrong message or unclear and conflicting advice out there would be even worse.

So what and how curriculum is applied is an extremely complicated and specialised question with a myriad of influences, and I apologise to non-teachers if I don’t explain something clearly. But I would like people to understand that curriculum development and implementation involves specialists just as much as something like immunology, and many newspaper stories about education resemble reality about as much as vaccination debates on Facebook. I’m definitely not complaining that other people want to be involved and have opinions – passion and engagement is good and even a responsibility for an informed populace. I just want to provide a bit more context than is possible in chats broken into 140 characters.

Firstly, there seems to be some confusion about the different levels and responsibilities in getting to the classroom.

On top is ACARA, which developed the AC. This involved several versions over many years, with contributions from states, teachers, universities, scientists, industry and lay people. This includes the Australian Academy of Science, it doesn’t get much more expert than that. I wasn’t involved in any of this because I was employed later, but it is still on-going with feedback now it is being used, further developments for senior years and assessment trials.

There was public consultation that may or may not have been advertised effectively – I knew it was happening even though I wasn’t employed with an education department, I know of at least one group that should have put in a submission and didn’t, I’d be shocked if industry and professional or interest groups hadn’t got their act together and submitted their concerns or opinions – the opportunity was there. How that process was done and whether it was fair is a legitimate question and area for creative solutions because other curriculum areas are still being developed.

ACARA runs a limited amount of professional learning but it’s mostly aimed at people like me rather than teachers themselves – they don’t have enough people to do that as well.

At the next level, when, where and how the AC is implemented is a question for the state education departments and there are many different solutions. NSW has opted out, Queensland has mandated a set of units for all students (C2C), I have my happy little guinea pigs (who, by the way, are an awesome bunch). States still put in place the policies on things like assessment, mandatory hours and subjects, and run most of the professional learning. Two states following the AC can still come up with very different looking science classes.

In addition, states all have their own forms of registration for teachers which sets out their ongoing learning and performance management requirements. The registration boards include several stakeholders and accredit professional learning, including learning put on by outside organisations such as national parks or even mining companies (if they wanted to, I have no idea if they do or not).

Finally the schools and individual teachers make decisions about resources such as text-books or programs. In most states teachers write their own programs to cater for their individual class, context and interests, taking into account all the other organisational limitations in a school.

In reality it’s far more complicated with other levels and influences going back and forth but that’s the overview. If you have a particular problem with the general way the curriculum is set up or don’t think year 3s should be learning about heat*, for example, that’s ACARA. If you don’t like the way your kids are being assessed and reported on (including common or mandated assessments), the way units are put together, or feel you aren’t getting enough support to teach it, talk to the states. And if you don’t like the textbook or emphasis the teacher is putting on the uses of heat, start with your school. From what I understood about the #onsci chat, most people’s concerns are actually with their state departments’ implementation and schools, not the AC itself.

Part 2 will be about the parts of the curriculum and how it works, especially the popular ‘science as a part of life!’

 

* The Year 3 achievement standard, which is the important bit, reads in part:

“students use their understanding of the movement of the Earth, materials and the behaviour of heat to suggest explanations for everyday observations.”

That’s 3 of the 4 ‘traditional subjects’ dealt with, the next few words are about biology. There is just not that much scope for bias at the generalised level of the AC.

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This is not some technical detail. It’s the basis of the entire mass education system, the social contract of teaching. In the past, wealthy people hired a tutor or governor, someone they could oversee and be sure exactly what their children were being taught. Poor people were grateful for whatever they got.

With mass education, parents no longer have direct control over what their children are taught, so there is an unspoken but very real agreement – teachers will teach what society has agreed upon, and not go off on their own tangent. That’s the entire point of the curricula, frameworks and testing that underpins education systems.

Choosing what teachers are allowed to teach is the reason for private schools – so parents have the option of particular pedagogies or religions. Parents don’t enrol their children in a Montessori school to have a teacher say ‘Sorry, I don’t like that philosophy, I prefer this one.’ Bad luck teacher – you don’t have that option.

And that is true for every single philosophy or opinion that teachers offer in the classroom. As a science teacher I’m sensitive to it, it’s the basis of the creation wars and the reason that science outcomes are very, very carefully written. There are certain things that you may not teach in a science class, except to demonstrate how they are not scientific. As a teacher you can believe anything you want, but the Big Bang, unchanging speed of light, and evolution are not options. If you can’t do that, then you cannot teach science. At all. Ever.

But what about the softer subjects? It’s incredibly easy, even there. You see there are three wonderful little words that need to be an integral part of every teacher’s vocabulary:

“Some people believe … “

Even better if they are followed with options, like

“Others believe …”

Because then we might actually get into comparisons and discussions of why and then even talk about tolerance! What an exciting, and empowering, thing for kids to learn.

This is an absolute pass/fail for any teacher, but it’s especially important in the Territory. You might get away with it when your students believe the same things you do, but the vast majority of students out here don’t share your cultural baggage. Blithely spouting your own beliefs might go against and devalue important beliefs of your students, which is not going to make school an engaging place or you an effective teacher.

It’s a slap in the face for your students and their parents every time you open your mouth – I wouldn’t willingly send my kid to a classroom with such a blinkered teacher, who blatantly fails the very basics of their job. How can I trust them to actually teach anything of worth when they show contempt for their own students and the agreement that is the basis of their employment? How can I trust a school leadership which not only allows, but as far as I can see as a parent, supports and encourages biased treatment and incompetent teaching?

Now the argument could be made that there are some things at such a deep level, such a basic part of your world view, that you don’t realise it’s an opinion and that others view things differently.

No.

While we all stand up at PD days and mouth that we want our students to be life long learners, to be curious and self motivating, that excuse doesn’t cut it.

Teachers are both the obvious result of our education system and its avatars, responsible for perpetuating it. If teachers are so unreflective that they haven’t thought about the differences between the culture they grew up in and the culture of their students, they are failing. If they are so lacking in curiosity that they are unable to use Wikipedia, they are failing. If they are so unmotivated that they can’t even make three little words a habit, they are failing.

Pathetic.

It doesn’t matter whether it is religion, or the value of having a job, or the relative abilities of boys and girls. The only word for a teacher who is failing so miserably and a school that allows them to is pathetic.

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Planning heirarchy

I‘ve been in a few conversations lately that have made me think about my way of viewing classroom problems. Top down and bottom up aren’t quite right, but I suppose it’s such a common metaphor that I’m finding it difficult to break free of it. The top and bottom in this case are not people but the different levels of action and planning that go into teaching.

Have a look at the heirarchy at the top. The base level is the classroom, the things you do in the moment. Above that is your lesson planning, the detailed short term planning. Then there is programming, where you ensure that your activities are leading to your outcomes and you have the assessments to prove it. At the top is your class philosophy – your vision, your goals and your behaviour management policy. The size of the step indicates the time spent in each level, and each step does some of the work for the step below it.

All levels are influenced by outside things like school policies and procedures. But they cannot be replaced. It may sound as if it’s just extra work, but spending a bit of time clarifying and writing down how you want your classroom to run and why supports everything else you do. It keeps you on track because you know where you are trying to go. It gives you a range of options for managing behaviour that you’ve already thought about.

Examples

By classroom problems I mean things like engagement, assessments that aren’t working or behaviour – the day to day ‘this isn’t going how I want it to.’

Focusing on fixing the problems individually is bottom up thinking. Looking at your whole program or delivery is top down thinking. Say you have a group who are coming late, opting out and mucking around.

Bottom up –

  • You could have a consequence of making up the time they’ve missed, either through lateness or not working.
  • Set a minimum amount of work that has to be done and chase them in their own time for it.
  • Have a system of escalating consequences that are followed through including involving parents, contracts and other supports.
  • Use routines, agendas and break lessons down so that there is a sense of moving forward, not getting bogged down.

Top down –

You might analyse the pattern in the classroom and decide it is based around non-engagement, they are deciding not to be involved in the work and finding ways to avoid it.

  • Look at your program and try to increase buy-in so they want to do it. eg negotiated curriculum or directly relevant work.
  • Increase learning activities that play to their strengths and interests, eg art or presentations rather than essays.
  • Have lots of active lessons such as visitors, experiments or going places around the school so they aren’t spending a lot of time sitting at their desks.

Conclusion

I’d like to emphasise that there is nothing wrong about either of these ways of dealing with classroom problems. Both are valuable strategies and should be used in their place. However teachers have a tendency to get stuck in bottom up reactions rather than pro-actively looking for top-down preventions. It’s top-down that is going to give you long term momentum, and ultimately it becomes less work.

Yes it’s a little more at the beginning of term. It does give you less control if you are negotiating (although I question how much control you actually have). It can be hard to think of inventive ways of teaching some topics. But it soon becomes a habit and a style you don’t have to think about. I haven’t done more than re-read and tweak my behaviour management philosophy in years because it’s at a point where it’s working for me. And that is far easier, and much less depressing, than writing out incident reports after every lesson or giving up my breaks chasing students.

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Literacy

It’s holidays, and the girls (almost 4 and 6) are miserable with a cold. So they asked if they could work on their book. They are snuggled together in my bed:

  • Using a book (Animalia) to get ideas for each letter.
  • 6 yr old is telling 4 yr old how to type the words into Neon Image Search on the iPad,
    • Making reasonable guesses on spelling with phonetics and environmental clues, then self-checking if they don’t get the expected pictures coming up.
    •  Choose one together and save it. duckling
  • Last time I used Fancy Pages to put the letters in, I’ll see if they want to have a go this time. Lion
  • Then they use WordFoto to choose a picture,
    • Come up with a sight word list for that letter and take turns typing them in
    • Take turns setting the style. horse

And there is their very own set of letter posters to put up around the place. It didn’t last that long, but they work on it a little at a time and move on while they are still happy.

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Standing Desk

My desk is currently covered in boxes, and I’m loving it.

I work at a little table that fits in the space between the window and the bookcase, opposite the lovely large table with the sewing machines on it. I use a laptop that sits directly on the desk and a cheap office chair. It’s crowded with paperwork, rubbish, cords and electronic equipment, things I looked up a while ago and random offerings from my children. I’m a fidgeter and I swing, wrap my legs around the chair base, lean sideways and twist.

None of this is ergonomic, and I’m used to waking up in the morning almost unable to walk because my back has set solidly. Sometimes I’m tempted to get a sling to support my right arm after a night of heavy mousing.

I knew I had to rearrange and get at least the basics right, when I was prompted by a blog post on standing desks. I’ve seen them talked about before in an educational setting, and as a science teacher I love the fact that I get high benches and stools. So I thought I’d try it out.

Two of the boxes I’ve been meaning to unpack from under the sewing table put my screen at exactly eye level. Some paper trays with a shelf on top and more with a favourite hard-cover picture book now hold my keyboard and mouse so my elbows are almost at 90 degrees – it’s not quite perfect. A cleared shelf of the book case holds boxes with all the sorted crap.

And I stand in front of them, rocking from foot to foot while I think, stepping back and considering, even a little pacing and handwaving while I work out the next paragraph. I swing, move, stretch and stand on one foot, then come back and stand in an ergonomic position while I type.

My shoulders are back and my back is straight – I don’t know if it’s even possible to slouch and type when you’re standing. And it’s definitely cut down on my procrastination – standing and flicking through Facebook just doesn’t have the same effect.

I do have sore feet and knees, about equivalent to when I started teaching and was standing all day. And just like teaching, decent shoes make a difference. It makes me appreciate sitting down to relax, but then I find myself fidgetting and want to spring to my feet again. (I don’t work full time, just at night or when my daughter is at preschool.)

The absence of stiffness in my neck is a revelation. I find myself stretching my neck and turning my head several times a day just to feel how freely it moves. I know this probably has more to do with the screen height than the standing but for God’s sake people, MOVE YOUR SCREEN UP TO EYE LEVEL NOW.

I am filled with an evangelical zeal and want to tell the sitting world to cast off their chairs and stand. And can you imagine how cool this would be in a classroom? Difficult to see, sure, most teenagers are taller than me. But look at all the energy they would use productively and possibly even healthily. The difference in perspective and focus I’ve discovered is huge, and I’m someone who loves my work. I could be really annoying for my next line manager.

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