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Mayhem, Madness and Multiple Messages. What Really Works In Our Schools?

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Today's guest blog is written by Debra Masters, Education Performance Development Consultant and co-author with John Hattie of Visible Learning into Action: Case Studies of Impact. She is located in Melbourne, Australia. 

Over the past 20 years I have been lucky enough to work in over 40 countries alongside education system leaders as well as school leaders and teachers in hundreds of schools. I have worked in the professional learning space with teams to develop frameworks and workshops that educators can use at both education system levels and school level to guide them in the important work of striving for the very best education and outcomes for their learners. The frameworks have been evidence based and when actioned with fidelity they have an impact and there is plenty of evidence of that impact.

I read widely and look forward to learning from new research that will impact on my thinking and ways we can support educators. One thing we can be sure of is that there will always be plenty of research published and new ideas and evidence presented. I sit in synchronicity with John Hattie and his motivation for conducting the visible learning research. Hattie was motivated by wanting to know (among the thousands of great ideas out there) which ones actually work - and then which ones work best. That approach makes sense to me - let's analyse all of the research so we can move forward with confidence - lets have one co-ordinated 'all singing' and 'all dancing' framework.

But I wish it was that simple. Currently I am working in an organisation and have got closer to some of the realities of scaling up the frameworks and great ideas. And while it seems easy on the surface the reality is far from easy.

Last week I sat with a school as they listened to a new set of professional learning messages. As we talked throughout the day this was their reality.  Over the past 12 months they have been working in a collective of 5 schools and have developed a shared problem of practice that has been a focus of some of their literacy learning. In that collective they have developed an action plan with targets.

As part of working within their system framework they are required to report on their five pillars of practice and use an online self-reporting tool that reports against four dimensions - which has recently been changed to nine dimensions. Added to that over the past two years they have been part of a collaborative impact program that includes a series of workshops that offer frameworks and tools, systems and processes for learning about pedagogy, practice and impact in their school.

  • They have an action plan with targets against five teaching and learning strands and they are also tracking their actions across ten beliefs or mindframes.
  • They have data.
  • They have observation data, national tool data, data from two local assessment tools as well as student feedback data, class walkthrough data and data on the levels of trust in their school.

I sat with them at a session being presented with new ideas about how to best use evidence to add to their thinking. This time there were 14 dimensions for them to consider with a case study approach to implementing professional learning. The final session for the day asked them to look at the evidence they had brought and consider their critical challenge and plan their actions.

They froze. They were sitting there with pages of evidence. It was colour coded, in charts, spreadsheets and wonderful graphs. It told stories about teaching and learning, impact and leadership. But these three educators were lost. The look on their faces will stay with me for a long time as they tried to decide what to do next. While they could quite happily understand the theory of what they were learning, while they could espouse what good practice looked like in their school - their reality was quite different. Now they had yet another framework to consider and another approach.

Their questions went like this:

  • If we use this framework then what does it mean for our other framework?
  • Do we now add a framework or do we get rid of the old one?
  • What do we do with our data?
  • We have these data but what does it tell us?
  • Can we use this data alongside that data?

This data is telling us our students are doing well in year 4 reading, but that data is telling us they are not. How can we make sense of this and what do we do next?"  Their instinct was telling them to abandon all previous work and just use this new approach. They had come to this session to make their job easier, but it had just made it a lot harder.

There are so many parts to this story.  But the critical part is how we address it? How do we help schools and leaders make sense of the numbers and research, of new ideas and old ideas, to weigh it up in their own context and make sense of it? How do we support them to put this new material into their own learning schema rather than take up the ideas we are presenting lock stock and barrel and see it as the magic answer - to stop and consider the key ideas they have learnt from our session and to put it alongside their own professional knowledge and thinking.

It's about setting up the culture of learning in schools where new information, research and publications are absorbed and processed. Where time is allowed and privileged for that to happen. Where schools take their foot off the accelerator of the day to day 'stuff' of schools to become learners - to talk, debate, question and wonder about the world of education and consider what it means for their school.

In order to support schools effectively we must help them to make sense of the information. To present our ideas to them as another part of their learning and to work alongside them as they consider it in their own context. Only in that way can we truly do justice to supporting them.

Connect with Deb on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

Finding Common Ground author Peter DeWitt works with John Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer. 

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