Building Learning Power

At my school we practice building learning power, Guy Claxton’s innovative approach to learning to learn. Personally I think it’s brilliant. It builds students’ dispositional thinking to enable them to experience success in their learning. It gives them strategies that they can use to negotiate difficult situations in their learning and elsewhere in life too. It builds on the key competencies, adding a richness and depth that I find really engaging. Plus it has given our school a common language to work with as we learn, grow and explore.
I’ve been practising building learning power for the last 3+ years now, and I can really see the positive benefits it has had with my students. However I wonder whether I have taken it deep enough. Yes, I use the language, but have I really allowed it to change my teaching practice, to filter down into ALL of my conversations in ALL learning areas ALL of the time? Probably not. That’s a big ask. But I can look at my progress, and I can hold this as an ideal to work towards. (Yes, that’s me, forever the optimist!). I love the phrase that teachers at HPSS use – ‘warm and demanding’, by which they mean being kind, compassionate and approachable, but also having high expectations of students, staff and selves, and finding ways to raise them up so that everyone achieves their potential.
So how am I being warm yet demanding?
Firstly by not shying away from tough questions. My students this year, seem to be taking a bit to wrap their heads around the type of questions I’m asking – not so much of the what, where, who or when, but rather why and how might we? I also believe in reciprocity – if I’m going to ask my students tough questions that challenge them to actually think about their ideas, rather than just remember information, then I need to take their questions seriously too.
I need to have high expectations of my students and myself. I need to communicate these clearly but gently, and make every effort to help my students reach these expectations. My expectations need to be a realistic stretch for my students and they need to be differentiated so that they can all experience success.
I need to be kind, compassionate and considerate and gentle with my students, other teachers and myself. I need to place value, and spend time helping my students to tend to their Hauora, their wellbeing, and of course I need to be approachable. I need to ensure that my busy-ness doesn’t get in the way of spending time getting to know my students, particularly in the mornings, which is so easy to do!
I need to ensure I create rich programmes that are engaging, require critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, innovation, while giving students scope for some self direction. And this brings me full circle back to Building Learning Power. By moving beyond a traditional knowledge dissemination model of education, we allow students more freedom to develop their dispositional thinking, to learn how to be learners, what works for them and what doesn’t. To fail and grow from it. To wonder. To question. To try. To succeed.
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Evolving the Curriculum: Focus on Values

There is so much dialogue about the need for education to evolve. From TED talks, to twitter chats, youtube videos to HuffPost articles -it’s literally everywhere; in popular literature, academic literature, on the news, in the media, in politics and of course in schools. But for all we talk about it, the question has to be asked – are we actually evolving education? And if we’re not, why not? If we are, are we doing enough?

 

This year I realised I’d done enough thinking, and I really needed to start doing. So I did (don’t worry it wasn’t thoughtless change – I kept thinking too). And the place I started was with our own New Zealand Curriculum. This document is amazing. It has already laid out a map for our learning evolution, now we just have to be brave enough to follow it.

In the front of the curriculum (page 7 to be exact) is this diagram entitled ‘directions for learning’ (see I told you – map!). What I love about this image is the way it organises learning. At teachers’ college I was taught to always start with the achievement objectives, but if you look here, you’ll see that they form only a very small part of a whole. Through this diagram, the New Zealand Curriculum advocates a a three-way approach – values, key competencies and learning areas. These are guided by the curriculum’s vision and underpinned by the curriculum’s values. All these parts together make up the whole of education.

 

Of course all of these bits are equally important, but I want to focus today on the values.

 

This term the teachers in our syndicate have been working with groups of students on wicked problems, using design thinking to tackle these. As our students work on these they have been noticing and commenting on the learning dispositions (key competencies) they have been using as part of the process. These dispositions will then help them in creating CVs, portfolios and learning paths later in the term as part of our Future Selves topic. But the really interesting bit (today at least), is the way they students are using the values of the curriculum as a focusing lens for their ideation and investigation.

 

The NZC explores seven principles, and has an eighth overarching idea, which are explained like so:

“Students will be encouraged to value:

  • Excellence, by aiming high and by persevering in the face of difficulties;
  • Innovation, inquiry and curiosity, by thinking critically, creatively, and reflectively;
  • Diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages, and heritages;
  • Equity, through fairness and social justices;
  • Community and participation for the common good;
  • Ecological Sustainability, which includes care for the environment;
  • Integrity, which involves being honest, responsible, and accountable and acting ethically;

and respect of themselves, others, and human rights.”

(New Zealand Curriculum, 2007, p. 12)

The curriculum further goes on to explain that the values should then be interpreted by the school in consultation with it’s community. Our school values look like this:
“At [our school] we want our students to be constantly
pursuing excellence in everything they do. They will value:
  • Integrity
  • Personal responsibility
  • Diversity
  • Lifelong learning
  • Creative and innovative thinking
  • Positive relationships
  • Collective achievement
This is underpinned by Tūrangawaewae – a sense of one’s place in our changing world”
As you can see, there are many similarities, but also naturally some differences. I particularly love the last line in our school’s values statement about Tūrangawaewae and the sense of place in a changing world.
But stating the values isn’t enough – and talking about them isn’t either. Not if we’re going to evolve education; so lately I’ve been starting to explore and unpack these with students. In the wicked problem context described above, I asked students to choose two key values to explore their wicked problem – human rights and the media. I created a values frame that looked like this:
Untitled 2
After a brief discussion of what the different values meant, it was interesting to see which ones the students chose to focus on, because of course this will change they way they approach things. Unsurprisingly, a lot chose diversity and community (two of the more understandable ideas and most relevant to the context) but I was interested and pleased at the number of students who chose to focus on ethics.
We’re only a little way into this process but already I can see that my students are starting to think critically about values and the actions that stem from them. By giving them the language to use, and the concepts, they are becoming increasingly aware that values give rise to opinions and opinions to perspectives and, often in the case of wicked problems, perspectives to conflict. So as they continue to explore the context and settle on their own particular smaller problem to apply the design process to, I plan to provide my students with lots of opportunities to discuss differing opinions and how values might frame these.
“Ahh, but what does this actually look like in the classroom?” you ask. Well it will start with these discussion questions:
  • How might humanitarian organisations use social media in innovative ways?
  • How could social media be used to develop a culture of excellence in human rights reporting?
  • How might personal ethics be supported through social media?
  • How might improving our ecological sustainability (environmental practices) reduce breaches of human rights?
  • How might it benefit refugees if we apply the principle of equity, rather than equality?
  • How can social media bring communities together to support human rights?
  • How does diversity impact on human rights?

And then we’ll go from there – where exactly we’re still figuring out.

See the thing I realised last term, is that it isn’t ever going to happen if you wait until you the end destination to set out. You actually just have to start and trust that the road will guide you, a sentiment Tolkien captured perfectly.

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”

Tolkien

So wither I’ll end up? I do not know, but the journey so far, though just begun, has been most marvelous indeed.

Dispositional Thinking, Changing the Game

 

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the importance of developing students’ ability to think beyond themselves and beyond knowledge as the be all and end all. In fact I’ve been thinking about it so much I signed myself up to give an EduIgnite talk on it at the Emerging Leader EduIgnite Evening in Wellington at the end of the month.

It’s about developing dispositional thinking, and in researching and reading about dispositional thinking as I write my presentation, I’ve realised something important. Dispositional thinking is a game changer, and for me to might just be the game changer.

Dispositional thinking is about changing the focus from learning being something you are good or bad at, to something that is learnable and changeable, something that you can practice and improve; moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. It’s about developing the skills that support learning and are, at the same time, invaluable in 21st century workplaces.

It means that as a teacher my practice no longer centres around increasing students’ knowledge. Instead I focus on skills, strategies and concepts. If they can Google it in 5 seconds flat, is it really something I need to spend a whole lesson teaching? So, we deal with the contextual, the ungoogleable – and through those contexts we uncover learning, together. Sometimes we miss things, so we loop back and take a second look, sometimes we screw things up, so we talk about where we went wrong. But mostly we ask a lot of questions – questions that aren’t so easy to answer.

In the process of exploring these contexts and asking questions, my students are developing skills through learning in action. It is practical, but at the same time theoretical and those two develop naturally, interwoven sometimes, and deliberately made separate at others. The ideas don’t come before the practice, they come alongside, with and through the practice.

Our learning is becoming increasingly holistic, allowing more opportunities for creativity, problem solving, and collaboration. And I can see the effect that this focus on teaching to develop learning dispositions is having on my students’ confidence. My learners are more articulate than they were at the start of the year, they are more resilient, they are more creative, and they are far more open minded. And yet I wonder is it enough? How can we achieve greater depth, allow for more creativity? Increase collaboration? Develop a sense of wonder and a need to adventure in their learning in our students?

Reflecting on the development of my students’ learning dispositions has solidified my belief in the importance of dispositional curricula, thinking and learning in the classroom, and luckily for me the New Zealand Curriculum agrees mandating a three-way focus on values, learning areas and key competencies (dispositions). But I know I’m only at the beginning of this journey, with so very many things yet to explore, to refine, to uncover, discuss and reflect on. I don’t yet have the answers but I do have the questions. So many questions.