All Systems Go

Well…I’m very glad that first term is over. It has been a pretty rough time for everyone, I think. The tremendous heat affected us all, then the emotional and psychological impact of the Victorian bushfires and a seemingly never ending series of little workplace ‘battles’  – those working in any institution would be familiar with these – added up to an intensely tiring term.

On this Easter Sunday, however, my thoughts turn to a more hopeful future. It’s not ‘good’ for the soul to dwell on the past. Easter Sunday is symbolic of new beginnings, new ways of thinking about things and the emergence (or re-emergence) of bright ideas and an engaging aesthetic….plus…delight in the world cannot be repressed. As Leonard Cohen said when he toured here earlier this year: “I’ve been studying the philosophies of the religions…but cheerfulness kept breaking through”.

Earlier this year, I attended a brief presentation by Ron Ritchhart, of Project Zero at Harvard University, that was about embedding leading and learning in schools. During this talk he asked the questions:  “How can we know if classrooms are changing?” “How do we know if schools are becoming cultures of thinking?”

He said that behaviours were ‘indicators’ of cultural forces, that behaviours were easily seen but that behaviours could also be misleading, in terms of what they showed about the authenticity of the enculturation of a thinking, learning community in schools. Behaviours can sometimes only indicate superficial changes. All teachers, may, for example, all be required to write up their lesson plans in a particular way or draft ‘essential questions’ for each topic taught or engage their students in self-assessment. These things may be occurring but is a culture of thinking really embedded in teachers’ practice, in their thinking and in their classrooms?

In classes, do students ask questions that focus on procedural things or questions that relate to the learning? Is there real interplay in the discussions in classrooms? That is, not ‘just’ student question, teacher response; teacher question, student response but student-student discourse that is spontaneously generated and isn’t filtered through the teacher. One of my greatest joys in the classroom comes when a student is doing a problem on the board and others start commenting on what this student is doing or has done….commenting, not to me, but directly to the student. I just sit at the back of the room and lap it up. “How did you get that answer?” “I got it by doing x, y and z”  “Why did you do y first and then x?”  “Can anyone help me out here? I don’t know what to do now” Sure, there are still moments when these are directed my way but I am doing my utmost to encourage real dialogue between my students, real ‘argument’ (in a Socratic, academic way), real application of mathematical thinking. This discussion helps me too. It gives me information about their thinking that informs my future instruction. When students have ‘completed’ their problems, I give them the opportunity to think about it and change their responses if they want to. I emphasise the importance of being able to make mistakes and learn from them. As Ron went onto say, teachers have the dominant voice in classrooms and it’s important we are continually open to think of ways in which we can increase the student voice…to increase the level of ‘tentative talk’ as students think and wonder and engage with the ideas in order to develop their own conceptual frameworks.

So…behaviours are what Ron calls ‘first order changes’. The deeper, more authentic, sustainable changes are second order changes. How do we get to these? What do they look like? What things stand in the way of them occurring? What are the structures and processes that support the creation of a critical mass of teachers in a school who then help a school become a real culture of thinking for learners and leaders of learning?

In this last term, I have become convinced that it is imperative for the totality of a school’s systems and processes to be integrated into a coherent whole that recognises and works towards aligning their goals, outputs – however you want to put it – for optimal learning. We have heard it often enough: “Learning is the core business of schooling”…but how often do we actually ensure that ALL processes and systems in place have better learning as their focus? There are too many mixed messages in schools. On one hand we are encouraged to create professional learning teams, get more involved in assessment for learning, use technology to a greater extent to broaden students’ experiences BUT the systems in place sometimes end up acting against these. Not deliberately, not overtly, not much. But every process or system sends out its own message about what is important, what is valued and what is not. Ron calls this ‘symbolic conduct’.

For example, if professional learning teams are important then their meeting times need to be protected and supported. Other meetings should not be scheduled for the same time as this dilutes the attention and sends out a symbolic message.

Resources, especially time, within a school are precious and limited. The available resources and expertise need to be accessed and utilised in the most efficacious way in order to maximise learning. If it doesn’t positively affect learning then it needs to go. Resources need to be intelligently used. Systems need to be held to the same levels of high expectation and efficacy as to which teachers are held. There needs to be a focus on what matters most, sustaining improvement over time and building on expertise. Systems and teaching need to be structured to ensure success and success is judged by that which matters most. Initiatives in both systems and teaching should be tailored to the overall attainment of quality learning, learning for students, their teachers and administrators.

I believe that a culture of leadership is a pre-condition to a culture of thinking. Not a culture of management. Strong, visionary leaders are needed in schools who can drive improvement within a school and continually reflect on the systems in place and change these if necessary to create those that are carefully and deliberately aligned with a whole-school focus on developing a culture of thinking and learning for all within.

Let’s go back to school with open minds and hearts. But also with a critical eye. A vibrant, professional thinking culture can be achieved for us, as leaders of learning. Simultaneously, a thinking culture can be achieved for our students. It is very clear to me, however, that these things cannot be achieved well if school resources and systems are not deliberately aligned to the same purpose – that of achieving optimal learning. That is, everyone and everything all working together to focus attention to that which directly impacts on student learning and to ensure any performance tail in any system or process is identified and reduced.

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About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
This entry was posted in Ideas for teaching & learning, Pedagogy, Students, Systems, The profession. Bookmark the permalink.

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