Why traditional written reports should be challenged?

Well it’s reporting season once again in schools across Australia. The mandated twice a year written reports are being prepared for distribution in the middle of the year. It’s one of those things that has become entrenched as an expectation in our schools. It’s just the way we’ve done things for so long without much consideration as to whether it’s actually an effective model. Should we keep doing something just because that’s how we’ve always done it? I think not. I see written reports as playing a minor role in communicating with parents about their child’s progress at school.

At my school we have shifted the focus away from detailed, twice yearly, written reports and begun to focus on more authentic and ongoing opportunities to share learning progress with parents. We are mandated to provide written reports twice a year to parents and we still do this but it’s a brief (one page) report that provides a snapshot about a child’s learning progress. The main reason for this change from what was an extensive, complicated and long written report to our current format was that we believed it wasn’t meeting it’s purpose. The language used by teachers was often technical, pedagogical and difficult for parents to understand. Another issue was that teachers were spending hour after hour slogging away to produce a written report which parents not only couldn’t understand but was not providing them with a clear picture of their child’s learning progress. As a staff we decided that this simply had to change as after all parents are the intended audience and we felt the effort being exerted by teachers wasn’t having the desired impact. Teachers were burning the candle at both ends to write reports to the detriment of their health and ability to be effective in the classroom during work time. In addition the workload for executive in proof reading lengthy reports was a drain on their time.

So what should we do instead? This is something which needs to be considered in order to ensure parents are informed about their child’s learning. Our whole school approach to formative assessment meant that we had to consider how we would keep parents up to date with their child’s learning. We were monitoring student progress every day so why wait until the end of term 2 or 4 to let parents know how they’re going? We make it clear to parents that they don’t have to wait until they receive school reports to see if their children were making progress. Here is a list which describes just some of the things we do to inform parents about their kids learning:
– We connect with parents before and after school on a daily basis
– Learning Journeys are held to share student progress
– A focus on learning portfolios to demonstrate growth in student learning over time
– Phone calls to parents on a regular basis
– We use our Facebook page like a billboard of student achievements
– Our newsletter describes both our approach to student learning and progress being made
– Student led learning expos
– Twice a year brief written reports
– Our school app is used to communicate messages about school events to ensure parents don’t miss opportunities to see student learning in action
– Student led school assemblies focus on learning

Although the above list is not exhaustive it does present an opportunity to consider alternatives to simply relying on written reports.

Parents have embraced our approach and feedback about our modified written reports has been positive. We are working to develop a more intelligent and effective model for informing parents about their child’s learning progress in a timely and authentic way.

I welcome your comments and feedback about our approach.

How do you know if effective teaching is occurring in your school?

This is a question which all school leaders should be asking themselves. We all think that the approach we are taking is translating into classroom practice but how do we really know? Apart from just observation, which is very important, what rigorous processes can we implement to reflect upon and use to answer this question?

Our whole school approach to embedding formative assessment at my school has been in place for about 18 months. We needed a way of ensuring that it was authentically implemented in every classroom across the school. Having a presence in classrooms on a daily basis I can see formative assessment in action. But this wasn’t enough so we looked for a way to uphold our collective accountability for student learning.

The answer was to develop what we called our ‘scoreboard’. This was a set of statements which described what we would see in classrooms if we were implementing formative assessment effectively. The statements were developed by teachers and agreed upon after lengthy professional conversation and input from all staff. The end result was that teachers have ownership over their own accountability. That is they are being held collectively accountable only for things that they developed and agreed to do. This in itself has proven to be a critical aspect of our success.

Here is the scoreboard visual.

Here is the scoreboard visual.

Once the scoreboard was agreed upon we set about implementing a system of peer observation known as Educational Walkthroughs. The Walkthroughs are designed to gather information about the practices that are visible in classrooms and are described as our scoreboard statements. The analysis of the information collected is not intended to give individual feedback to teachers but to provide whole school information about strengths and weaknesses in the implementation of formative assessment strategies.

The Educational Walkthroughs are implemented using the following basic format:
– two teachers are released from class for a 45 minute session
– Walkthroughs occur two/three times a week at various times of the day
– two members of the executive team (Principal, Deputy & executive teachers) take the classes of released teachers
– observers spend 3-5 minutes in each class & record against indicators if they are present in the classroom
– observers also make note of strong examples of practice for sharing with other staff
– after completion of the session the two observers discuss their findings and record additional comments
– every teacher from preschool to year six participates in the Walkthroughs over the ensuing weeks

A high level of trust among staff is important to ensure the authenticity and success of the Walkthrough process. It is seen as a supportive way to ensure that we hold each other accountable for achieving our scoreboard. Having executive staff take classes and be observed means we are ‘walking the talk’ along with classroom teachers. This point is not to be underestimated as a critical aspect of our success.

After about 6-10 weeks of Walkthroughs we host a workshop to analyse the data collected and engage in high level professional conversations about how to improve our practice in areas that require development as well as building on our strengths. It is a collaborative approach that requires everyone to accept responsibility for reaching our agreed goals. Raising the performance of our entire teaching team is the focus as well as each teacher taking individual responsibility for improving their implementation of quality teaching practices. The workshop is also about setting new goals as we drive our improvement agenda into the future.

This is how I can confidently say that effective teaching is happening in every classroom in my school.

Yes Class Size Does Matter

It is with much frustration that I continue to hear some decision makers make statements such as ‘the evidence shows that class size doesn’t make a difference to kids learning’ or ‘class sizes aren’t important’. I believe that this is a very simplistic suggestion that should be taken with a grain of salt. Sure, class size may not matter in some schools, with some kids, some of the time. But like any other generalisation there are certainly exceptions.
My experience has taught me the following about class sizes.
1- Small classes can be very effective in the early years
2- Class size matters more in schools with a high level of student complexity
3- Schools with a high number of disadvantaged students can benefit from smaller class sizes

The push from decision makers to dismiss class size is more often than most driven by economics. Smaller classes cost more, it’s that simple. But an investment in the learning of students should never be about dollars and cents but return from investment. The push for equitable funding via GONSKI is essentially an attempt to provide opportunities for every student regardless of their background. Small class sizes can provide more equitable access for students.

At my current school we have an average class size of 19 across the school. Our student profile is low SES, high ESL and ATSI students. Every classroom has an extremely diverse group of students, many of which have significant learning needs. Small classes allow teachers the opportunity to provide the individual attention that the students require to improve their learning. A whole school approach to formative learning as a high impact instructional strategy combined with smaller class sizes is a formula that is leading to significant success in changing the learning trajectory of our students. Our teachers are very skilled in guiding the student learning in a way that would be hamstrung by large classes. They simply could not give students what they needed if class sizes were 25-30.
The next time somebody says to you class size doesn’t matter I challenge them to come and see small classes in action at Richardson Primary School.
Here is some of the latest evidence which supports my view that class size does matter.

http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb_-_class_size.pdf

www.nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb_-_class_size.pdf

https://www.dropbox.com/s/6omkqvzzx7oprph/pb_-_class_size.pdf

Our two kindergarten classes have 16 students in each group. What an amazing start to school for these students by having such individualised attention in support of their learning. The teachers are making an amazing difference to the learning of these students. Rather than struggling for their teachers time in a class of 30 these kids are having their needs met. I’m a firm believer in early intervention. What better way to intervene in a child’s learning than to give them excellent teachers in an environment such as this where their individual learning needs can be catered for.
People often ask me “how can you afford to do this?” My response is we can’t afford not to. It’s about making the things that have the highest impact the highest priority.

Class size does matter.

Why Homework is so Problematic in Primary Schools

Homework is a highly contentious issue with polarised views from both parents and educators alike. One of the problems is that many parents expect school to be the same as when they attended. The old ‘it was good enough for me to do homework’ approach. The problem is that homework is one of those things which cannot be monitored, is inconsistently administered and assumes that kids have households which are conducive to doing it.
My issues with homework are as follows:
– Some households are too chaotic and dysfunctional for homework to take place.
– The majority of homework has minimal impact on student learning
– It can cause major conflict between parents and kids which turns learning into a chore or punishment eg- “Do your homework or you won’t be going out to play”
– Many students have very busy lives outside of school which prevents time for extra school work
– Why do we need kids to be spending additional time at home doing school work?
– It is an equity issue in that not all kids have access to the same resources at home. Eg – internet, books, supportive parents/siblings and basic stationery supplies.

By setting homework for students are we suggesting that there’s not enough time in the school day to complete the work? I would say we need to make better use of the time we have with kids at school not give them extra work to do at home. I have listened to many of my friends who are parents of primary aged children complain about the daily battle they have with their kids over homework. The last thing kids want to do when they get home from a long day at school is sit down for another dose of school and do homework.

The research I have looked at suggests that there is almost zero impact on learning for set homework up to year two and minimal impact from years three to six. This means that we may be spending a significant amount of teacher time and effort in preparing, marking and delivering something which is not helping kids learn. Why wouldn’t we focus our energy on high impact pedagogical practices such as cooperative learning, formative assessment and quality feedback for students instead? We shouldn’t just keep doing something because that’s what we’ve always done.

It is definitely a challenge to influence the entrenched mental models that many parents have about homework. However, anything that’s worthwhile is never easy and I strongly believe that it’s worth the effort. We need to provide some key messages to our communities in ‘parents friendly’ language about homework. I have discussed this issue with many parents over the past 20 years and their views range from “my kids aren’t going to do homework” through to “I want homework every night for my child”. I maintain that as educators we are the professionals and thus need to be the ones to influence the debate. We need to work with parents in partnership to ensure that a clear understanding about homework is enjoyed by all stakeholders.

At my school we discourage set homework. When I arrived two years ago there was a homework club once a week after school. Kids would come in tired and irritable from a long school day and were expected to then sit and do boring homework sheets such as practice spelling words and maths questions. I swiftly closed the homework club and we engaged with the AIS Active After School Communitues Program which gets kids involved in physical activity instead. Kids actually enjoy going to these twice weekly sessions.

At my school we promote the idea of parents spending quality time with their kids which could involve reading, playing games or any other worthwhile activity. Kids need to have time to be kids, play outside and enjoy childhood. Homework intrudes into this very important time of their lives.

I may sound a bit radical but I believe in putting our energy into strategies that make a big difference for kids and discarding those that don’t. That’s why I don’t agree with setting formal homework for primary school kids.

Here are two links worth reading on the subject:

http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/rethinkinghomework.htm

http://www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-homework.html

Keeping it ‘REEL’. Activating learners.

At the beginning of 2013 I worked with my leadership team to develop a strategy for implementing our school plan. What evolved was the term ‘REEL’ which is Richardson Engaging Effective Learners.
The risk was that this was just another acronym with little more than rhetoric behind it. Our challenge was to bring the vision to life and activate effective learners in every classroom across the school.
How could we ensure that our teachers could deliver the substance that REEL represents?
We had been building towards using formative Assessment strategies and were looking to build on our cooperative learning focus. These two teaching approaches combined would become the drivers for REEL. We decided to implement formative assessment as our strategy of choice using Dylan Wiliam’s work as our platform whilst continuing to develop cooperative learning across the school. We began using Wiliam’s text ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’ as our main resource. Teachers positively engaged with this text and enjoyed the balance of theory and classroom examples that it provided.
The principles that underpin formative assessment could best be described as a way of operating in the classroom rather than a series of strategies. It is really about teachers identifying where students are with their learning and moving them forward from that point. It is also focused on building a classroom culture where all learners engage and there is no opportunity to opt out. The ‘no hands up’ strategy is a good example of this. We have all been in classrooms where the same students answer all of the questions during whole class discussions. Using formative strategies suggested by Wiliam ensure that this is no longer a feature of our collaborative and effective classrooms.
In order to develop a deep understanding of formative assessment we have facilitated Action Learning teams. This involves teams of 4 staff members who are delving deep into different chapters of Wiliam’s text, implementing the approaches and discussing the outcomes with each other. This has been a powerful teacher driven way to increase our whole staff capacity, knowledge and understanding.
Our executive team constantly reflect on our approach and know that if we get this right then the positive impact on our students learning will be both significant and long lasting.
The whole school commitment to this approach has been the main lever for its success. We took a couple of teachers to our ACT Leadership Conference to share our schools journey in the middle of the year. They were able to talk confidently about the purpose of our work as well as what it actually looks like in their classrooms. This was a very powerful experience resulting in many schools in the audience wanting to come and work with us after the conference. This also helped build the brand of our school in conjunction with the confidence of our staff.
Having the right people on your team is the most critical factor in implementing whole school change. I would like to acknowledge my talented executive team and skilful teachers who have driven this agenda in a positive and professional way.
Overall the main change so far is visible in school culture. There has been a shift from a multitude of strategies, school programs and focus on social welfare to a clear focus on learning. Classrooms are filled with students who see themselves as learners who are engaged in the learning process. There is more work to be done but it has been a fascinating ride so far and I’m loving it……. To be continued.

The Power of Collective Accountability

As I come towards the end of my second year as a primary school principal I now more than ever believe that collective accountability is crucial to the success of school improvement. I see that enlisting the skills, enthusiasm and knowledge of the team (entire staff) to drive and hold each other accountable for student outcomes has certainly led to a culture of learning being embedded at our school. Shifting the focus from blame and shame associated with national testing results to making student learning the ‘main thing’ has been a rewarding experience. A critical success factor has been to develop professional trust. This starts with the executive team but must be visible and real among all members of staff in order to have a real impact on student learning. Accountability is a word often used to describe measures to make teachers do something. However, I’ve found that working with staff to identify whole school goals and statements that we are prepared to hold each other accountable for is a far more successful approach. If the goal is improved student outcomes and making a difference for students then it’s not hard to be motivated to succeed. Including all staff in developing our measures of success has been a powerful example of collective accountability. We have subsequently implemented Educational Walkthroughs which allow us to track and reflect upon the goals that we set for ourselves. This is not about individual feedback for staff but about ensuring that we are improving as a team in a supportive and professional way.