Gonski? Let’s get serious about school improvement

Good news: the Prime Minister is reconsidering his government’s decision not to fund the remaining educational reforms recommended in 2011 by the Gonski Report. However, the depressing track record of so many school improvement efforts was highlighted last week when new education minister Simon Birmingham noted:

We need to acknowledge that state and federal governments have ploughed lots more money into schools in recent years and with all of that extra money we haven’t necessarily seen improved educational outcomes” […] “There’s far more to getting better outcomes than just putting more money on the table.”

And he’s right. New work from Tony Bryk, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in Australia this week, shows just why educational improvement efforts so often fire blanks — but also, how his team is building the capacity of education leaders and practitioners to address complex educational problems, rigorously evidenced.

Improvement Science uses disciplined enquiry and analysis to inform ‘on-the-ground’ change efforts, adopting rigorous protocols for testing improvement ideas in practice.  In this way, leaders’ and practitioners’ ‘learning by doing’ accumulates through rapid prototyping, into practical field knowledge capable of producing quality outcomes.

Improvement Science has targeted deep-seated weaknesses in the US public school system, serving similarly challenged demographics to priority groups in Australia, with very encouraging results on student developmental mathematics, student agency, and new teacher retention and effectiveness. An equally important outcome from this work is learning how to initiate and sustain such improvement processes, a new approach that we are now initiating in Australia, based on our schools work over the last decade in the UK and internationally. Tony Bryk is the leading figure in the Educational Improvement Science movement, and is in Australia this week giving public lectures and running Masterclasses for educational leaders in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, with support from NSW and SA Departments for Education, university education departments, and and leaders from diverse schools.

This deeply engaged way of working with practitioners in the trenches is also profoundly challenging for universities to scale sustainably. Academics are used to short-term collaborations with partner schools — for as long as the next grant lasts — from which emerges academic knowledge but rarely an intentional effort to deliver practical tools or capacity-building for the school. Models of systemic innovation diffusion — and we mean two-way traffic between the universities and schools — point to the potential of strategic partnerships with educational consultancies who can scale and localise educational innovation and staff development in ways that universities struggle to deliver. This is a learning journey for universities, as well as for policymakers, school leaders and students.

Here’s the closer argument for the Minister and his team to consider. What would count as an approach that not only takes seriously the best educational research, but is committed to translating this into practical approaches for schools, and leverages the networked power of “the cloud + crowd” to share rigorous evidence of successes and failures? The furrows in the playing field of educational inequality certainly won’t be levelled by a new steam roller driving through tougher standards. You don’t help someone grow merely by measuring them more often at higher resolution. Veterans in the field know that sustainable improvement comes from growing learning partnerships with school leaders, teachers, students, parents and local community. Easily said, but that takes a holistic, systemic mindset. It might even take a bit longer than the next election.

When it does come to quantifying impact, how do we do this intelligently, with integrity? It can be tough to gather good evidence in the daily routine of school, and teachers rarely bring expertise with research methodology and tools to gather quality data. Short of having your own personal team of academics on hand to support your school, how do you innovate in a disciplined way, at scale, with evidence, sharing successes and failures on the way? Worryingly, the Gratton Institute reports systemic weaknesses in schools’ capacity to gather and use effective progress data. The bigger flaw they point to is the blinkered dependency on very high stakes, disturbingly stressful and infrequent national tests, a poor diagnostic for an improvement strategy.

So for us, the question of demonstrating impact begs the question what kinds of learners are we trying to create? Ultimately, it is the assessment regime that drives what goes on in the classroom and how schools (and pupils) are judged. Universities must also bear responsibility for escalating the ATAR-arms-race that drives such behaviour in schools. For this reason, at UTS we often have to ‘de-program’ many first years out of their ATAR-egos, to explain that to really grow as learners, they are going to have to develop skills and dispositions that are not encouraged by high stakes exams. This drives our priority on using the power of learning analytics to provide rapid feedback loops for innovation, to develop not only literacy and numeracy — critical as they are — but the new student qualities needed to thrive in turbulence and complexity, and the new teacher qualities required to transform their practice.

Alternatively, we can let educational academics continue to generate the research outcomes that define the academic pecking order, while school improvement efforts continue to struggle — and wonder in another few years why the new dollars didn’t seem to make a difference.

Simon Buckingham Shum is Professor of Learning Informatics, and Director of the Connected Intelligence Centre, University of Technology Sydney

Ruth Crick is Professor of Learning Analytics & Educational Leadership, School of Education and Connected Intelligence Centre, University of Technology Sydney

Chris Goldspink is Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Incept Labs Sydney

Tony Bryk Australian tour kicks off

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Ruth, Chris and I are delighted to be hosting Tony Bryk this week, with colleagues at a series of events in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Tony is the leading figure in the Educational Improvement Science movement, and we look forward to stimulating conversation with colleagues at  the NSW and VIC Departments for Education, and leaders from diverse school contexts.

Learn more. . .

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Network for Evidencing Transformative Learning

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Network for Evidencing Transformative Learning

The Learning Emergence team is collaborating in setting up a Networked Improvement Community for enhancing Students’ Resilient Agency. Working initially with schools in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, there are already aspects of this Network for Evidencing Transformative Learning (NETL)  in place, aligned to school improvement priorities.

Purpose

The (NETL) brings together teachers, school leaders and researchers to design and develop a Networked Improvement Community with the shared purpose of improving pedagogy to enhance students’ resilience in their learning and life narratives.

School as a learning community PPT Slide - HG - 07.02.2011

  • Leaders’ learning will focus on enabling teachers to engage productively in professional enquiry tuned to school improvement.
  • Teacher learning will focus on pedagogies that support students’ resilience in learning and in life narratives.
  • Student learning will be conducted through authentic enquiry.

Objectives of the NETL

To understand and evidence the processes which contribute to the development of resilient agency in learning and life narratives for young people in formal and informal learning contexts

To systematically model and represent these processes in such a way that the data can be used for self-evaluation and improvement at all levels of the learning organisation – students, teachers, leaders, system leaders.

To understand and develop both the social and technical resources that are necessary for sustainability in networked improvement communities.

The distinctive contribution of the NETL is that it will provide a means for schools to holistically and systematically improve their capability in pedagogies that nurture student resilience and agency. The project draws on improvement science and is positioned within a framework of participatory decision making in which key stakeholders collaboratively determine and systematically evaluate key processes and outcomes, rather than being determined by external regulation. The engine for improvement is the disciplined learning journeys of all stakeholders at all levels. This will provide a foundation for scaling up and sustainability.

Why does it matter?

  • There is a growing body of evidence that standards are plateauing in many schools and that current approaches to change and improvement have taken us as far as they can
  • Current approaches are over-simplistic and predominantly managerial, encourage shallow learning and are not fit for an effective education in the 21st C; instead, schools should be seen as complex, adaptive systems that support deep learning across the whole community
  • Several long-standing, complex issues continue to hamper further pupil progress, e.g. the negative impact of key transitions; slow progress in embedding best practice about teaching and learning within and between schools; the long ‘tail’ of underachievement
  • International evidence that the best education systems (in terms of sustained improvement) focus on the quality of teacher recruitment, professional learning and the development of outstanding, learning-centred leadership to ensure that pupils become resilient agents of their own learning, supported by parents and carers
  • Head teachers are constantly challenged to focus on day-to-day operational issues rather than essential strategic, values-related and learning-focused activities improvement at scale, driven by stakeholder purpose.
  • Well being and resilient agency is a challenge for all schools: Promoting physical and mental health in schools creates a virtuous circle reinforcing children’s attainment and achievement that in turn improves their wellbeing, enabling children to thrive and achieve their full potential.

Social Organisation of the NETL

Researchers will be ‘critical friends’ with key leaders in schools. We will build directly on the experience and expertise in Improvement Science of colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching in San Francisco and the experience of the Learning Emergence Network (www.learningemergence.net). Since we are concerned with the whole system, we will co-design interventions from three viewpoints: leaders, teachers and students. A key principle is that all members of a learning community take increasing responsibility for collaboratively leading their own learning and change:

  • Leaders will pilot visual mapping tools to gain insight into the complex dynamics of their schools as whole systems, in order to inform strategic planning, personal development and organisational learning
  • Teachers will engage in authentic enquiry & professional learning aimed at developing learner-centred practices, in order to develop professionally as facilitators of learning
  • Students will engage in personalised learning through authentic enquiry which enables them to self asses and develop their learning power and enables them to progressively take responsibility for their own learning journey — in and out of school

Schools will have the opportunity to use state of the art learning technologies for supporting critical enquiry, coaching, social learning and knowledge mapping. Evidence will be gathered throughout the three-year project providing feedback for schools and data for researchers.

Virtual Organisation of the NETL

The Hub of the Networked Improvement Community will be based at the Connected Intelligence Centre at the University of Technology Sydney. The rapid prototype interventions designed by key stakeholders will be supported and scaffolded through a framework of tools that facilitate feedback for self-directed improvement whilst allowing for each site to design contextually specific prototypes. Three key platforms form the technical ecosystem for the project which supports its social organisation:

The Surveys for Open Learning Analytics Platform

Set up through crowd sourced funding by the Learning Emergence Network, SOLA will provide rapid feedback of data for users, including students, which can be used for improvement whilst at the same time capturing raw quantitative data for researcher analysis of the impact of the user led interventions. The Crick Learning for Resilient Agency Profile (CLARA) is a key tool provided through this platform. Other tools and resources developed by the network will be available via SOLA’s identity management system.

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A Social Learning Platform

for sharing and annotating learning resources.

An Evidence Hub

for pooling and evaluating learning from the rapid prototyping across the project, linking researcher and practitioner evidence.

A Network of Networks

Each leading stakeholder in the NETL (a school or learning centre) will itself be a node within a wider network. With close support from the NETL Hub each school would be invited to engage in three inter-related programmes.

  • A two year professional learning programme, aligned to AITSL standards, which embeds teacher learning in the work of the NETL
  • A structured retreat programme for system leaders
  • An Australian Research Council funded Linkage Research Project (under review)

These programmes are distinct and inter-related, designed to build capacity in the leadership of each stakeholder group to continue and improve after the project is completed. A network of networks will develop supported by the social and technical resources at the Network Hub. In this way we expect to build capacity and sustainability and demonstrate inclusivity.

We are actively fundraising for this programme through formal research bids, crowd-sourcing, philanthropic and corporate sponsorship.