Tuesday, September 27, 2016

NCEA: My personal thoughts on a way forward

I've really enjoyed the series of articles in the NZ Herald on NCEA. Well done Kirsty Johnston!

While agreeing with the issue of disparity in the story: NCEA The Only Brown Kid In The Room I'm not comfortable with the status given to external exams as a 'higher' form of assessment. While the selection of programmes and standards for every student must be closely monitored I think it is a credit that schools and students can make strategic decisions. There seems to be a view that not doing external standards might be some sort of dumbing down. I prefer to see the opportunities for personalisation and responsiveness.

It was great to see in the article: The English Exam No-one Wants to Take strategic decision-making which seems to be OK because even "high achieving kids" choose not to sit this external.

If the answer to the question Are Exams Only For The Elite is yes I say good luck to the elite! Maybe the reason might have more to do with my belief that it is in the low decile schools where you see more innovation, responsiveness and personalisation. The simple path is to take all students down the same pathway with the range  and balance of internals and externals as we have always done them. We have to break down this acceptance of some special status for externals. Go Kia Aroha College.

I loved reading about Heretaunga College with Bruce Hart's focus on quality over quantity and the interesting and engaging courses his staff have innovatively created and the courage it has taken to reduce the  number of assessments.

Where do you reckon kids are more engaged in quality deep learning and achieving to their potential? In schools of innovative and responsive thinking like Heretaunga College and Kia Aroha College or in those schools where they start the year looking at the tsunami of assessments coming at then throughout the full year culminating in the 'elite, high status' externals at the end of the year?

We just need to remember the headlines from only a week ago when 15 year olds were "reduced to tears" with the stress of facing an exam which didn't look like the one they thought was coming at them. I was staggered to hear that schools found this a problem because this one external (worth 4 credits) was used as the sole prerequisite to allow a student to do Level 2 Calculus! What are we doing to our kids to subject them to this level of stress? How do such practices lead to deep learning and engagement, surely the goal of every school.

I recall reading in an ERO National Report on Priority Learners in 2012 where ERO's position was that "innovation and responsiveness should be the NORM (my emphasis) in all schools." And then in 2015 they issued a report on student well-being in secondary schools and I struggled to sleep after reading some of their findings. They included:

  • "The key factor was that students in ALL (my emphasis) schools were experiencing a very assessment driven curriculum and assessment anxiety (me again)."
    • Have a brief think of what might be meant by assessment anxiety and how it might act upon teenagers!
  • "In many schools the only people who understood the overall curriculum and competing demands on them were the students" !!! (me again).

I would like to propose a way forward:

  1. NCEA Level 1 becomes a qualification for priority learners only and it will be achieved over 2 - 3 years. It begins in Year 11 and not before.
  2. NCEA L2 is achieved as a result of a 2 year journey with same credit requirements as now (60 at L2 and 20 at any other level.) It begins in Year 11 and not before and students are not permitted to be entered in more than 40 in Year 11.
  3. Remove subject endorsement ("subjects" need to be replaced by courses that include learning and standards from a range of "subjects". Subject endorsement serves no useful purpose and unlike Course Endorsement for some reason has to be achieved in a calendar year - this reinforces subject siloisation and arbitrary time frames on a learning programme.) After all the NZC says, "All learning should make use of the natural connections that exist between learning areas and that link learning areas to the values and key competencies." (p 16). It also says, "When designing and reviewing their curriculum, schools select achievement objectives from each area in response to the identified interests and learning needs of their students." (p 44).
  4. Remove external assessment credits as a requirement for certificate endorsement. Do we really want to consign those students at Kia Aroha College to a 'lesser' qualification because of this antiquated requirement?
  5. Abolish the current scholarship arrangement and award the equivalent number of acknowledgements and funds to those who indicate a superior level of excellence at Level 3.
  6. NZQA works with universities to develop a less restrictive portfolio of evidence for entering restricted entry programmes. The current requirements are one of the biggest drags on innovation and responsiveness in the senior secondary school. (As an aside I would argue that the lack of agility on the behalf of universities is one of the biggest threats to their relevance.)
If you are a teacher I am sure you would welcome the huge reduction in your workload which must be addressed for you well-being and so that you can be innovative and responsive. These suggestions will reduce workload and stress for teachers, students and their parents while allowing innovation and responsiveness to flourish and make the way for deep, challenging learning.

We're putting some of these suggestions in place at Hobsonville Point Secondary School. This link takes you to a page on our website which documents our approach which is centred around a 2 year journey to a quality NCEA L2 with a limit on credits available in Year 11.

I'm going to encourage my DP, Claire Amos, to publish her thoughts on how the internal assessment process can be operated innovatively to free teachers up further so watch out for her post.

I'm keen to hear feedback on my views and proposals so please get in touch.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Others' Voices

I had a topic I was going to post about tonight which was going to try to capture some early-forming thoughts on the differences and tensions between the two principles of excellence and equity and some thinking on good practice in relation to having a better chance of lifting achievement for targeted students. My thoughts on both of these areas are still developing so it risked being a bit of a ramble.

Fortunately before I began the post I clicked on the updated posts from my staff and after an hour of reading and posting brief comments I thought there was nothing better I could do but highlight their posts and encourage you to read them because this is where the truth lies.

I started with Trace's post which highlighted her commitment to carry out the same blogging habit that she was expecting from her students. This was neat to see but the real gold for me was following the links from this post to the blogs of her Hub students. Please view (and comment!) on some of these blogs. I was so proud of this small sample of our students who were making their academic and Habit goals visible to all who wished to see - and they were setting goals that showed they had reflected well on where they needed to focus. The stuff I have read tonight will be influencing my own goal setting in our Professional Learning this Friday.

I then viewed Vanna's blog which is a lovely mix of nervousness, courage and optimism which typifies that thing called 'mindset' which is often difficult to define but is clear and obvious when you  see it in action.

Somehow I had missed Andrea's post from last week which perfectly captures the why and how of our connected learning model. Having someone come from the 'real world' to teaching confirm that what we aspire to in our model and for our learners is what this real world needs. Andrea's observations of how naturally our students assume this way of learning to be was a true tears-in-the-eye moment for me.

The power of blogging was also brought home to me via Ros's post which captured Monique's (our Guidance Counsellor) presentation to staff last Friday on mindfulness and resilience. Monique had made a neat link to our mantra of Warm and Demanding and our underpinning principles of Restorative Practice but the SLT had to leave early to look after the Learning Communities as our professional learning time needed to run over time. Ros's post included the key points, links to resources and some important commentary which filled in the gaps for me.

Gerard's reflections in his post of how he is supporting habits in his Hub not only show the great work he is doing with them but shows how he is on his own journey in exploring these dispositions and how best to inspire his students to develop in each of them.

I then went back and re-read one of our new staff members' blog (Mic). What I loved here was a new staff member who, after only 2 weeks of being involved in the Big Project element of curriculum was able to produce a coherent explanation (and justification) of this important piece of curriculum framework.

And then from 2 weeks ago is Heemi's outstanding post on the work he is doing to track growth in the elements of our dispositional curriculum and Sally's post on our school's recent and wonderful focus on whanaungatanga and the building of relationships: the cornerstone of all effective learning.

This collection of student and teacher voice is where the truth lies.

Thank you to all, staff and students, for making our story visible, authentic and the truth.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Leadership Musings

I have a simple aspiration in my job and that is to be a good leader every single day.

Unfortunately, rather than being simple this is quite complex (as volumes of research on the topic will attest to). Leading a school requires you to lead students, lead staff and lead your parent community, at the very least.

Of course, when I talk leadership I mean much more than managing the status quo. For me it means leading massive change. Unfortunately (or excitedly), this also means attempting to show leadership across the wider education community.

So there are competing demands. What might be seen as good leadership by students may not be viewed in the same way by staff or parents etc etc.

Various personalities, including your own, have to be managed. I see myself as largely an introvert with a bit of extroversion thrown in and I try to juggle this internal confusion in a way that infects others with optimism, self-confidence and pride in their contributions. A previous leader I worked with (you know who you are, Boss) inspired me with the way he made sure the light shone on others and has motivated me ever since.

Despite ongoing symptoms of imposter syndrome I am developing a more settled view of leadership.

I am convinced a leader must have a clear vision which others can see the sense of and they must have a set of values which resonates with others and they must have a set of principles that support decision-making.

But once again, it's not as simple as that.This all comes to nothing without the leader having a strong sense of moral purpose AND courage to bring life to that moral purpose so that the vision can have some hope of being realised.

But it's both of these together. Moral purpose without courage seems pointless, maybe self-indulgent and will mean feeling far short of achieving the vision. And courage without a moral purpose may achieve little as it's like beating your chest merely for the sake of beating your chest.

Bit of a ramble, but that's how it is.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Building Relationships

Even though we are about to start Week 2 of the 2016 school year tomorrow will be the first time all of us will be gathering together. Our first week was spent doing what we believe is central to our school: building relationships. Every student and their family had a 40 minute meeting (some did go for over an hour) with the student's Learning Coach. We're firmly of the view that if you believe that strong relationships are central to learning then you need the structures, the commitment of time and the processes to build those relationships.

This first week was stunning and something I have never experienced before. Learning Coaches, both experienced and those in their first week in the job, were having powerful conversations with students and their families, talking about their passions and the way they like to learn. It is investing these types of conversations which put 'money in the bank' and will allow withdrawals later on.

All of the elements of our curriculum model are important as are the structures that support them. Learning Communities and Learning Hubs, as structures, and Learning Coaches as teachers who are the warm and demanding adults each student has in their corner, are crucial in our desire to build relationships and personalise learning. A great outline of this feature can be found here.

But it's tomorrow I'm really looking forward to; especially when we all gather together at the start of the day as we begin a full week of continuing to build relationships and to explore how learning best happens at our school. Even though the overwhelming emotion will be that of joy and promise there will be some sadness. Just this weekend the father of a new staff member passed away and 2 weeks ago another staff member's wife passed away. And we will once again acknowledge the three workers building our school who were killed when a tornado passed through in 2012.

I want to emphasise our vision with our students:

To create a stimulating and inclusive learning environment which empowers learners to contribute confidently and responsibly in a changing world.

It will be stimulating when we see students and teachers excited about their learning, planning it together, asking questions, seeking ways to show the evidence of their learning, looking for ways to participate, to contribute and to lead. We achieve the inclusive part when all, students and teachers alike, no matter their gender, their gender identity, their ethnicity, their nationality, their learning needs, their aspirations or their personalities find that they have a place in our school, a place where they are valued, where they are respected, where they are able to flourish without fear or anxiety.

I also want to emphasise the key principles that drive our curriculum decision-making. We want learning to be as personalised as possible. If students want to go to a school where everybody is doing the same thing as everyone else, where students plough their way through a textbook, where students complete worksheets for homework, where teachers provide all of the information, where they answer all of their questions for them, then this is not the school for them. Our teachers expect students to be involved in planning their learning, asking questions but not expecting someone else to provide the answers and they expect students to grow the responsibility to take charge of their learning.

As I have said earlier, we believe learning is a relationship-based activity, that’s why we all gather in a school together. It is not just a one-way street between a teacher and learner as an individual student. The best learning is based on powerful partnerships: partnerships with students and their teacher, with other students in the class, with teachers and students throughout the building and with our community both down the street and throughout the world. And if the result of this learning benefits someone else, helps them solve a problem or learn more themselves, then our learning comes alive.

Deep challenge and inquiry is a cornerstone of our school. We’re not about covering lots of stuff at a surface level, ploughing our way through textbooks, doing test after test, collecting credit after credit. We want learning to be deep, we want students posing and answering questions that are relevant and meaningful to them and which prepare them for a world which is quite different to that for which traditional secondary schools were designed for.

Like all schools we've still got challenges going forward especially as we cement our pathway to high quality qualifications and the development of personal excellence for all of our learners. However, there is a great vibe in our school. We've welcomed 11 new staff and are about to all come together for the next stage of our exciting and wonderful journey,
Taheretikitiki Building Relationships Amongst Staff

Collaborative Planning

Workshopping Learning Design

Project Planning and Decision Making