Posts Tagged Reflection

researchEd Sydney 2015: A day of reflecting on research in education

 Is evidence based educational research a fad? Isn’t teaching more a craft than a science?

These were the questions  asked early in the day at researchEd Sydney that challenged and framed my thinking for the rest of the day. researchEd was started by Tom Bennett @tombennett71 in the UK as a vehicle to promote the need to better evaluate the educational silver bullets and/or claims along with masses of educational research that is accumulating.researchED-logo

After listening and taking part in a lot of discussion,  I came to see the value of both; educators need to be aware of educational research and it’s application to the classroom and they need to be artful practitioners of the craft of teaching. This is nothing new and a lot of the preaching that occurred was to the converted.  What follows are my reflections to date on what I heard and learnt.

Teachers as researchers

One discussion that has changed the way I think relates to peer reflection and research.  There are a range of ‘research practices’ that teachers undertake that are helpful for evaluating what is and isn’t working but generally they are undervalued from a academic ‘peer reviewed’ research level.  An excellent example was provided by Michaela Pinkerton @kaiako_nz from Albany Senior High School NZ. It would be interesting to work with universities or other educational research organisations to formalise this reflection so it can be considered valid at a peer review level, but also kept the level of reflection achievable for the classroom teacher.

Research Leader

I love the idea of a Research Leader role in a school proposed by Tom Bennett and reportedly gaining traction in the UK. A Research Leader is someone who:

  • reads and shares ideas within an educational institution
  • critically challenges school leaders using research
  • runs training and seeks answers to school based questions
  • coordinates action research in collaboration with a teaching team
  • organises a Journal Club where educational research is discussed and implemented and reflected on by a group of peers

The Journal Club is something that I had already been organising at my school and it is the 30mins of PD a week that truly helps me reflect and change what I do in the classroom and has involved some of the best conversations I have had in the educational context. I came away from researchEd inspired to continue in 2015 and to increase its influence if possible.

Teaching and Learning Tool Kit

Teaching and Learning Tool Kit

One valuable educational research tool was introduced by John Bush @bushjb from Social Ventures Australia (SVA). The Teaching and Learning Tool kit allows you to search through summaries of educational research on intervention or practices and quickly see their educational benefit, cost of implementation and the validity of current research in one glance. It then allows you to dig deeper into the actual research. It will be invaluable in testing some of the claims I heard on the day such as:

  • engagement and activity are a means to an end…not the end themselves
  • giving students control over learning has a low effect size
  • worksheets need scaffolding
  • discovery learning not as effective as guided discovery
  • learning is not fixed, this is where you are, now know the ‘what next’

Innovation in learning? What if there is no research?

Another question raised was how do you innovate if you need to be evidenced based?  I think the answer here is straightforward: if you try something new, you must reflect and gather some evidence of its effectiveness. Of course many innovations have been tried before, the whole open classroom revolution occurring at present has been tried in the past. Have we learnt anything from previous implementations?Have we gone back and asked questions about why it did not succeed in the past and what we will do differently to produce better results in the current implementation? Are we reflecting on what does and does not work and documenting this in a way others can gain from it? This is what I feel is true innovation.

Humans as learners

I think one message I heard on the day that needs to be sent a little louder to the ‘innovators’ is the question “Has learning really changed?” Humans as learners have not gone through any radical reinvention in recent history, the fact is our biology and the way we learn has not changed at all. We are getting better at understanding how we learn which means we can refine our teaching practises to improve learning but it’s an evolution rather than a revolution.

Finally, I felt that some of the research on how we learn could have been better applied at the researchEd Conference.  I was in cognitive overload shortly after lunch and I would say there was definitely too many workshop sessions and not enough stop, reflect and debrief times. While I informally met and made many new connections it would be great to have built this more formally into the day somehow.

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A walk in the bush, provoking kids to think!

It’s Friday afternoon, it’s warm and it’s the last lesson of the day, and I have a restless year 9 Science class. Another teacher and I decide to take our two classes out to teach some ecology using a story. The story is a traditional dreaming story from the D’harawal people from the south of present day Sydney. It tells the story of three beautiful sisters, with golden hair and green eyes and the warrior who thought he was a ‘clever man’ who wanted to marry one of sisters. The sisters were very similar in appearance and to marry one all the warrior had to do was to find a way to tell them apart. After years of careful observation he fails, the sisters grow old and die and are rewarded for their faithful service to their people by being transformed into three different wattles which continue to provide for the people. The warrior has it revealed to him that the only difference in the three sisters was the shade of green that coloured their eyes, if only he had been more observant!   I have told this story before, with other groups, but usually I  tell the story while scratching aboriginal symbols in the dirt or sand on a bush trail, to represent the different characters of the story, and I pick leaves from different wattles as I walk and place them on my dirt picture to represent the different eyes. Today was different, the students were obviously suffering Friday afternoon, restlessness and we did a long walk to a shady spot on a rocky outcrop in the National Park, to help reduce the restlessness. With no dirt patches I resorted to getting students to act out the story as I told it.  The immediate result were the same as previous telling’s of the story; students were able to point out a number of learning outcomes for the story such as the importance of careful observation required to survive in the Australian bush, the complexity of bush land ecology and there is always a wise female student to point out the arrogance of the warrior and his need for humility. The thing that stood out on this occasion was not the different approaches to recounting the story, but the reaction of some students on the walk back to school. Having walked out further than we normally do, we had a longer walk back.  This allowed time for those students that wanted to know more to ask. I walked back with a large number of students wanting me to point out what there was to observe in the different plant communities along the track and to add as much information as I could. The questions and reflections of the students surprised me, the activity had produced far greater reflective thought than you achieve on most Friday afternoons. Months later students can still recount that afternoon, and often ask if we can get out and go for a walk, now all I need are some good stories that help explain atomic theory.

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Think deeply about what and how you learn.

Research demonstrates that an effective way to enable students to improve learning outcomes is to help them develop the skills to think deeply about what and how they learn (Hattie, 2009). If students are to successfully transfer what they have learnt to new situation and problems then they have to develop a deep understanding of the content they have studied (Darling-Hammond, 2008).  There are three levels at which something can be learnt and understood; surface, deep and constructed understanding. That is we can know information at a surface level, repeating facts but not truly understanding them.  A deeper level of understanding of a concept is developed when we are able to transfer it to new situation making relational connections between two or more concepts or being able to elaborate or extend the concept (Hattie, 2009).

Think deeply about what and how you learn.

Barron & Darling-Hammond (2008) report on the growing body of research that shows students who engage in constructivist inquiry learning; project-based learning, problem-based learning and design-based learning benefit from gains in factual learning that are equivalent or superior to gains from traditional types of instruction, as well as demonstrating a deeper understanding of concepts and an increased ability to take what they know to new situations and problems.

Current cognitive research suggests that there is a general intelligence or general cognitive ability,  that is the ability to think logically, apply knowledge from one context to another, demonstrate deep understanding of a concept, be creative, ask surprising questions and go beyond the given (Philip Adey, Csapó, Demetriou, Hautamäki, & Shayer, 2007).  The concept of a general intelligence is in opposition to the widespread idea that there are multiple intelligences (i.e. Gardner’s  M.I.).  Abby, et al. (2007) argue there is little evidence to support the concept of multiple intelligences.  Research has demonstrated that general intelligence has plasticity; it can be influenced and transformed by the environment. Adey, et al. (2007) state that if teachers  know that they can help students throughout their formal schooling period continually to raise their ability to process information then this must be what teachers should be striving for. It is by far the most efficient use of schooling time, to concentrate on raising intelligence levels so that students become generally more effective learners.

Adey, et al. (2007) list the following as an action plan for raising general cognitive ability.

  1. Learning activities must be generative of cognitive stimulation, i.e. they must have the potential to create challenge rather than being comfortably within the reach of the learner’s current processing capability.
  2. Learning should be collaborative in the sense that learners learn to listen to one another, to argue and to justify, and become accustomed to changing their positions.
  3. Continually raising awareness in students of metacognitive processes

factors in the concept, such as the organization or the quantity of information that cause difficulties in representing and processing;

connecting the present concept to others already in their possession, as they differentiate it from other concepts, and even as they decide that some concepts need to be abandoned;

transferring control of the thinking and learning processes so that the student gradually becomes self-reliant and self-regulating, rather than depending on the teacher continually to monitor and guide his or her thinking.

Adey and Shayer (1994) developed cognitive acceleration programs  incorporating three principles presented as ‘pillars’ to build their lessons around; cognitive conflict, social construction, and metacognition. The cognitive conflict was a problem presented to students to solve. Students were then placed in collaborative groups for discussions around the problem and finally asked to reflect on their thinking and understanding.  Adey and Shayer (1994) have been able to demonstrate tangible gains in both academic outcomes and cognitive development.  They also demonstrated that these gains were not limited to the subject the cognitive acceleration was focused around, but influenced students metacognition and outcomes across all their subjects (Philip Adey, 2004; Shayer, 1997, 1999).

Adey, P. (2004). Evidence for Long-Term Effects: Promises and Pitfalls. Evaluation and Research in Education, 18(1), 83-102.

Adey, P., Csapó, B., Demetriou, A., Hautamäki, J., & Shayer, M. (2007). Can we be intelligent about intelligence?: Why education needs the concept of plastic general ability. Educational Research Review, 2(2), 75-97.

Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (1994). Really raising standards: Cognitive intervention and academic achievement. London: Routledge.

Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). How can we teach for meaningful learning. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (pp. 11-70). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Shayer, M. (1997). The Long-Term Effects of Cognitive Acceleration on Pupils’ School Achievement, November 1996. Report: ED408195. 16pp. Mar.

Shayer, M. (1999). Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education II: Its Effects and Scope. International Journal of Science Education, 21(8), 883-902.

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Thinking, collaboration, problem solving, adaptability and creativity…

21st Century Skills

The ability to think deeply and creativity, to collaborate with others , to problem solve and adapt to rapidly changing situations are described by many as the key skills required for success in the knowledge age of the 21st century.  Is this the complete list?  Should we add other skills? Is one more important than the others? Which should we focus our energies on in the classroom? Will certain focuses produce better outcomes for students than others? How do we go about training students to develop, build and improve on these skills? How do we measure the attainment of  such things?

These are all questions I am taking into the start of this year, with the plan to investigate and apply some of the solutions / answers ( suggestions) I find in my classroom.

Note: Thanks to Kristy Brown’s helpful comment I have also added communication skills,  cultural understanding and sensitivity towards others and knowledge of digital media and technology to the list of  skills for the 21 century.

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Learning Communities

At the beginning of this year I read an article by Darling-Hammond & Richardson (2009) that summarised the current research on professional development (PD) for teachers.  The ideas in this article have been circling around in my thoughts and starting this blog  has been one of the developments in my thinking. The research presented in the article suggests that while short term training will always have a place in schools, a long term approach to PD is required for the transformation of teaching that produces improved student outcomes.  I know I personally have attended a number of one off PD days that have had little or no effect on my teaching once I’m immersed back into the rigours of a busy school.  Darling-Hammond & Richardson (2009)  argue that PD needs to not only be sustained over longer periods of time its content needs to be student centred, integrated into the context of the school and designed with thought into how teachers learn. This PD needs to allow teachers time to experiment with and develop new teaching approaches and paradigms. It needs to give teachers opportunities to reflect individually and collaboratively on their teaching methods and the engagement and outcomes of students.

Darling-Hammond & Richardson (2009)  go on to argue for the need to develop professional learning communities that produce sustained, job imbedded, collaborative learning opportunities.  The question I have been asking myself since reading this article is how do we do that? One of the answers suggested in the article is the development of study groups, where professional communities can study practice and research together, developing understanding and supporting each other as they implement new ideas. With the restrictions on available time in schools this idea throws up a number of its own challenges.  How do you find time to reflect with others about your professional reading, classroom experiments, successes and failures? How do you do it in a meaningful way so that  as a teacher you are involved in deep reflection of your practices?

I’m not sure if a blog will provide all the answers to these questions but it does give me the opportunity to record my professional thoughts, investigations, trials and reflections for others to read, reflect and comment on.  So maybe it is one way to start developing a professional learning community that is not restricted by the limitation of timetables, classes or even the isolation of individual schools.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Richardson, N. (2009). Teacher Learning: What Matters? Educational Leadership, 66(5), 46-53.

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