We need new architecture to support the development and agile adoption of tools and processes for teacher self-managed career-long professional development in schools

I read a timely article yesterday titled “The Flipped Classroom: Students Assessing Teachers” by Brianna Crowley[1].  It is not about the flipped classroom concept made famous by the Khan Academy it is about another sort of flipped – where students provide feedback to teachers.

It was timely, to me at least, because I have been thinking a lot lately about the lack of ready access to a comprehensive and high quality set of well tested and reviewed smart tools, protocols and processes to support teachers to:

  • Identify their most important professional development needs
  • Affirm their areas of strength for sharing with others
  • Reflect on their practice through focused feedback
  • Work with mentors or coaches on continuous improvement
  • Develop portfolios that demonstrate their knowledge, skills and experience for assessment purposes – whether this is for moving from graduate to proficient or deciding to go for accreditation as a highly accomplished or lead teacher

There are a number of ways in which teachers can, and do, get feedback on their teaching.  Instructional observation, peer to peer coaching, classroom walkthroughs, protocols of student work, learning journals or classroom videos are the most obvious and none of these are yet fully embedded into the regular core practice of schools, although they are becoming more and more utilised.

 But what about students providing feedback to teachers?

Now when I first thought about this I was a bit cynical – thinking that if this practice became commonplace (and high stakes)  it would turn classrooms into a sort of market place as teachers tried to outdo each other in being the most entertaining. But of course it all depends on how the feedback process is designed – what information will be sought, for what purpose will the information be put, and how frequently it is sought.  In this sense the ‘politics’ related to teacher feedback from students is no different from the ‘politics’ surrounding assessment or teacher feedback to students.

This article on the flipped classroom puts it well.

A homemade laminated sign behind my desk announces, “In this classroom, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student.” For me, teaching is a fluid interaction of constantly shifting roles. My students and I are engaged in a cycle of mutual learning.

Effective teachers provide concrete feedback throughout the school year. Through formative assessments, students recognize their growth and understand where they can improve.

But what formative feedback do teachers receive? …  A lucky few experience regular peer observations—but most of us are observed only once or twice a year. We have all been encouraged to reflect on our own practice in journals, but it’s probably not a daily routine for most: Who can find the time between urgent activities like meetings, emails, grading, and planning? We rarely prioritize our own learning.

Crowley urges teachers to consider drawing on the experiences and perceptions of students – and to treat them as “experts” about the teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom.  She suggests that it does not necessarily have to be a formal survey process – feedback can be embedded in the teaching and learning process with only small adjustments to practice.

First, look at activities already in place and think about whether they can be altered to provide additional information.

For example, after each major project or writing assignment, my students complete a reflection form. They are prompted to think about their process, identify strengths and weaknesses, and create goals for future assignments. Then I add two or three questions that look something like this:

(1) Which activities helped you understand this assignment, and which were less valuable?

(2) What questions do you still have about what we learned or about the feedback I have given you?

(3) With what skills or ideas do you feel that you need more practice?

These questions prompt students to better understand themselves and articulate their learning styles. In providing constructive criticism, students practice higher-order thinking and communications skills. And the process helps all of us take ownership of the learning that occurs in our classroom.

It’s win-win: Students develop metacognition skills, and I gather valuable Intel.

And how should this information be used? 

With professional discernment argues Crowley.

If my students tell me they learn better by working in small groups with peers than independently, do I reconstruct my classroom for collaborative work in every lesson? Probably not. But I do consider how I can incorporate additional structured group work. Each member has a role and each group is accountable for a product. Then I monitor to see whether my students’ level of engagement and understanding increases.

Likewise, if 70 percent of my students claim that work in their textbook did not help them learn, I have a choice: Do I vow not to use the textbook for the rest of the year? Or do I try to use that resource in more relevant and engaging ways?

Embedded in every piece of student data is a professional choice. We must respect students’ perspectives while applying our professional discernment. We can then take risks, change patterns, and ask for feedback again.

There is also a role for well-designed formal survey instruments – especially at key points through the teaching cycle like the end of a semester or a year.

This article is USA based but it is highly relevant for what we are at in Australia. Now that we have an endorsed set of national professional standards for teachers, the development of exciting new tools, processes and instruments needs to be fostered.

Some states have some useful tools as do a number of clever people in the ever-growing education consultation and ICT software development industries.  We need to find a balance point between a heavily regulated state endorsed tool development process, that necessitates going to tender for something – when we may not always know in advance what smart idea could be just around the corner- and an open market that lets a hundred flowers bloom – not all of them fit for purpose.

We need a QA regulator that assesses new processes, tools and instruments and certifies those that have been road tested in a range of schooling contexts, are aligned to the teaching standards framework, are value for money and fit for purpose.  With a strong quality certification framework in place it would then be desirable and possible to encourage all kinds of smart tools and processes from a variety of sources.  After-all until twitter came along, teachers and systems would not have said ‘if only we had a tool that lets children do … . We need to go out to tender to see who can develop this for us”.  Those days of product development are long over but new processes are not yet in place to enable the agile adoption and adaptation of new ideas and processes.

I think this is a big gap in our school education national architecture.  Now some might suggest that this is the role of Education Service Australia (ESA) but I am not so sure.  Can an organisation be both a developer of products and an assessor? No, not in my book.

Others might consider this to be in scope for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) but to my mind this is a very bad idea.  These tools should not be assessed and certified by an organisation that, while engaging the profession, is very much an organisation driven by education employers and their perspectives on teacher quality.

Now don’t misunderstand this as a dig at AITSL.  The fact that AITSL reports to MCEECDYA and has all states and non Government systems represented on the board has been essential to the agreement making process for accreditation standards and processes for teacher education as well as for professional teaching standards.

However if these tools first come on stream as part of the standards assessment process they will be seen as impositions   – as part of quality compliance and appraisal processes.

In my view, as the teaching profession gets accustomed to seeing feedback for continuous learning and self directed improvement as an integral and highly regular element of teaching throughout their career, it is vital that the balance of emphasis leans towards support and development, and not towards underperformance management and external review.

So what we need is an organisation that is willing to fill this gap.  An organisation that says, “We will set up quality assessment and certification processes for tools to support the professional development of teachers throughout their careers”.

We could wait for education ministers (MCEECDYA) to set this up – unlikely I think. Alternatively, we could look at it as an opportunity.  After all, the developers of the Wikipedia have managed to be seen as the arbiters of quality input into the global dynamic encyclopedia of life.  No-one gave them this job.  They just did it well.  And this is a much less ambitious task.  Any takers out there?

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