Sunday, September 20, 2015

Slow Learning

While our main focus over the last 3 years has been to create a quality learning environment for the students and teachers of Hobsonville Point Secondary School we have also made it clear to ourselves, and to anyone else who cares to listen, that we are out to redesign the NZ secondary schooling environment.

Back when I first started talking about this I most probably was thinking mainly about school structures and programme design features - structures and design features that would enable our pursuit of relevant and personalised learning. While I am convinced that these changes are vital it is more evident to me that the whole culture of schooling and learning that needs to be revisited.

I am absolutely over the moon with what we are achieving in our establishment journey but we a re very conscious of colleagues and other institutions and wider community who are critical of the culture we are trying to develop and the practices we are building to support that culture. We often get told we can only do what we are doing because we have a brand new building, we have hand-picked our staff, we are high decile etc.

Others talk about us using students as guinea pigs and having teething problems (I hope we always have teething problems!). Others have a view, without ever having visited our school, that there are no structures, that our students can do what they like and that we can't prove, as other schools can, that our students are learning.

Each one of these points could be the focus of its own blog post (and they may well emerge in one later). As far as I know every school hand picks it's staff. As well, I know that I have not been in a school whose structures that support Years 9 and 10 learning are so rigorous and where learning is tracked so closely. And yes, students have a huge say in their learning. We ask them to identify which contexts they would like to explore their learning in and we ask them to suggest the best ways for them to process their learning and the best ways to evidence their learning. As well, we seek their views on any major decisions we are going to make. We do not, however, abdicate any responsibility for curriculum coverage, learning progression or for having high expectations of what they are capable, especially when it comes to making responsible decisions about their own learning. Why would we want anything else in a school?
Staff listening to student voice on MyTime

We have had hundreds of visitors from schools across NZ, from Australia, from Singapore, from Korea, and from USA. What is hugely satisfying is that they not only leave impressed with what they see and experience, largely by talking with students, but that they feel inspired to go back into their environment and lead change to a different type of schooling.

I have the awesome privilege of escorting many of these visitors throughout our school and to hear what students say to them, to observe students in the act of learning, to hear what teachers say to them, and to observe teachers in the act of teaching.
Students explaining learning to one of our many visiting groups

I know our teachers are working very hard; there is no place for pre-planned units of work taken off a shelf in a school which is setting out to personalise learning and to make authenticity and relevance visible by linking subject disciplines together in forever changing combinations. As well, for the first time in their careers, teachers are Learning Coaches, Project Guides and collaborative planners, teachers and assessors. What I have noticed more clearly now, though, is that the act of teaching is calm, unhurried and responsive.
Calm, unhurried, responsive collaborative teaching in action

This has got me thinking about the concept of slow learning.

One of our Principles is to inspire students through deep challenge and inquiry, This is impossible to achieve when school is a mad rush to get through stuff while at the same time continually assessing the stuff. Such a culture place too much stress on both teachers and students.

I'm liking the sound of the slow learning movement. This has been reinforced through a series of meetings Claire and I have had with the 15 Year 11 students that we have and their families over the best pathways for them as they attempt to  move through their qualifications pathways. The realisation I have come to is that these students and their families enrolled in our school because they had faith in the model of learning we were aspiring to - which includes not contributing to the culture of assessment anxiety that exists in almost all schools (see ERO). Yet what we initially proposed to support this small group of learners was going to do just that (and create too much stress for staff). Claire really nailed it when she started talking about there being no need to rush and that it is OK to take time to move through and eventually graduate from school. As a result, almost all of these students, with the support of their parents, have decided to travel through school with the current Year 10 cohort with the likelihood of 6 years at secondary school. I see these students as the pioneers of the slow learning movement.

And when you look at our Vision (and I expect most schools') to create an inclusive and stimulating learning environment which empowers learners to contribute confidently and responsibly in a changing world and at our 2 Pathways of Excellence - Academic Excellence and Personal Excellence - how can you rush this through in a pressure cooker environment.

What might a slow learning movement mean?

Who's going to join us? We've got a group of lone nuts and first followers who would like you to join in.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Aligning Vision With Practice

To create an inclusive learning environment which empowers learners to contribute confidently and responsibly in an ever changing world.
Hobsonville Point Schools Vision

I love our vision because it not only refers to the what but also gives the why or the intent. Our intention as a school is to empower our learners (skills, knowledge, disposition and mindset) so that they can be active participants and contributors in a world that we acknowledge is forever changing (and doing so quite rapidly).

This vision tells us that it is now no longer good enough to just equip our students with a strong qualification, largely built around literacy and numeracy skills and fashioned around single bodies of knowledge known as subjects.. It requires us to do so much more.

The first thing it requires us to do is not to go to the back of the NZC where we see there are 8 Learning Areas and simply cross out the heading Learning Area and change it to Subject. An ever changing world requires graduates who can see connections across learning areas.

The second thing it requires us to do is to develop strong dispositions that point towards contribution, confidence, responsibility and those that equip people to cope with continual rapid change.

The first thing we did in planning to open this school was to settle on two equally important excellences that aligned with our vision. These are Academic Excellence and Personal Excellence. We believe these two help us to grow graduates who can contribute confidently and responsibly in an ever changing world.

Of course, the Academic Excellence is quite straight forward as schools are good at tracking and reporting this and we can use Curriculum Levels and NCEA as the main tool and measurement. But our vision requires learners to have more than this as it does not guarantee the ability to contribute confidently and responsibly in an ever changing world.

The problem with Personal Excellence there is there are not many existing models that point to what is needed to achieve our vision. At HPSS we settled on 10 Hobsonville Habits which might be seen as the equivalent of the Learning Areas from the Academic Excellence side of things. The challenge for us has been how do we define the habits, how do we make them visible, how do we make them part of our learning and how do we track progress against them. This is difficult but exciting work and we are looking forward to cracking it.

Like all schools we have a Mission Statement and ours is Innovate Engage, Inspire. Quite correctly you will say that all schools have similar aspirational words in their Mission. What I like about what we have done is to expand on them and to develop them into a set of principles that guide all curriculum decision  making we get involved in. In these uncertain times of developing a new school which is looking at secondary schooling through a different lens it is vital that we have such a set of principles. I am proud to say that they are proving to be strong guides for us.

These principles are supporting us when making very important decisions about learning. For example, when finalising our plans for our students in their Qualification Years as they move towards their NCEA L2 over 2 years we ask ourselves the following questions:

  • do these proposals allow students' learning to be personalised or are they simply attempting the same batch of standards as others who happen to be in the same programme as them
  • are students able to partner with experts in other learning areas and beyond our school walls and link their learning to the wider community
  • are they being required to be immersed deeply in their learning while pursuing challenging questions or are they merely covering enough to gain a large number of credits.

I love this framework we are operating in: a strong relevant vision, 2 pathways of excellence to support this vision, a defined set of dispositions to support this vision and a set of principles to guide our decision making which keeps us aligned with the vision.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Backstory - a source of pride

We hosted the Auckland secondary school participants in the National Aspiring Principals' Programme at HPSS on Friday and I was asked to spend half a hour outlining the journey I had undertaken to develop a vision for HPSS which was driving our establishment band implementation. Because both Claire and Sally were part of that group was going to be somewhat restrained by the need to tell the truth!

While the journey to this point has been very rewarding it has also been extremely challenging with many moments of uncertainty and imposter syndrome. However, this week I had read  a draft report from Noeleen Wright from the University of Waikato who has spent almost 3 years tracking our journey. Her descriptions and comments on our journey and what we have arrived at at this point was affirming and filled me with pride. I was able to link where we were at quite firmly to our vision.

The night before my NAPP session I thought about where the personal vision, moral purpose and set of principles had come from and while doing this was once again overcome with pride and a sense of satisfaction.

I thought about my time when I started teaching at Ngaruawahia High School in 1982 and how I quickly came to realise that this teaching and learning business was quite clearly a relationship thing. Coaching rugby and cricket, learning te Reo with parents, becoming comfortable on Turangawaewae Marae, sitting on the paepae and being immersed in Kingitanga kawa and history and then supporting parents to bring about the construction of a Wharenui on our site (which also included a takeover of the PTA and eventually Maori representation on BOT!) all shaped for me how teaching and learning was truly about ako and reciprocity. My ability to stand and whaikorero (with various levels of competence) was a result of me being the akonga and parents and students being the kaiako.

When I was at Opotiki College I was then in leadership positions and began to exert influence beyond my narrower sphere (eg classroom or department) and now more school-wide. This was made possible during my 10 years as DP as I worked with a wonderful Principal, Andrew Taylor, who shone the light on others and strongly encouraged and supported the leadership of others.

After spending `10 years overseeing the suspension of students and the exclusion of too many, when I was appointed I was determined to find another way. I eventually stumbled across the ideas of Restorative Practice (thank you Margaret Thorsborne) which gave me a framework to create processes, systems and responses more closely aligned with my own moral purpose. We completely stopped suspensions and quite unexpectedly achievement levels rose, ERO congratulated us on a respectful culture and the sun came up and went down (and, of course, kids were still naughty!).

Despite excellent achievement levels I was always haunted by knowing the names of the 30 kids who left every year without any qualifications at all so wondered what we could do to address that. That's when I started thinking about the idea of taking the concept of Relationship-based Behaviour Management and trying to establish a Relationship-based Pedagogy. Out of that came 100 minute learning periods (you try to teach in the traditional fashion for 100 minutes and see how you get on!) and small group Learning Advisories having two 100 minute blocks per week (you try only taking the roll and reading the notices and see how you get on!).

When I applied for the position at HPSS I boiled all of my preparation for the interview down to two sides of one A4 page with 2 simple headings of Curriculum and Pedagogy. These included a vision, a set of principles and a set of descriptors for each as well as a possible whole school framework. I checked this page out as part of my preparation for the NAPP session and was blown away by how this thinking is still driving us, with lots of what I had written actually present in our school.

What a nice place to be.