In late 2019 I was anonymously nominated for a National Excellence in Teaching award, and after submitting my application – the content of which I publish here – I found myself in the beehive at a pretty flash luncheon receiving two of the awards, one for excellence and one for innovation.
As a member of New Zealand’s state education system, I’m very aware of the collaborative nature of what we do. An award doesn’t sit easily alongside that – but, as much as I am able, I hope I have represented us all in this process.
Thank you, too, to the kind person who nominated me.
Innovation in teaching and learning that responds to the needs of students
Innovation sits at the heart of my practice as a teacher. Far from being one to throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, I have only changed established practice when that change has been proven to improve outcomes for students.
The underlying philosophy to the innovations expanded upon in this essay is concerned with the locus of control in the classroom. In pursuit of heightened student agency – an improved sense in my students that they can control their destiny – these innovations arise from a desire to challenge the existing power structures in secondary education. The benefits of these innovations are manifold, but the underlying driver is to shift this locus of control in learning to that limbic field equidistant between me and my students.
Three innovations that most embrace this philosophy are: My “You Choose” student course selection scheme, “Open Classroom”, the use of edutronic.net blogging for all my students and classes, and the development of “Unlock Achievement” micro-credentials (in the form of digital badges) to support assessment of student achievement both in and outside the classroom.
Fine words only get you so far, herein I offer three concrete examples of how I’ve made these high ideas a reality.
At the beginning of every year in our senior English programme, every teacher presents a ‘pitch’ to the assembled cohort of students. We devise our own programmes of learning around our passions and expertise, and each is defined by a singular line of inquiry. We outline what will be covered, what is assessed – and how, and a little about our own nature and style. The students then select their course from this array – ranking their preferred courses. Often sidelined in many meta-analyses of educational effectiveness is the impact of the teacher on learning. This scheme allows the students to decide what they will learn each year, and with whom. It allows for the development of strong student-teacher relationships and allows for every year to begin with both student and teacher establishing their expectations of each other – and if things don’t go as well as hoped, the student has the right to choose again the following year. What better feedback to a teacher that they’re doing good work than to find that parents and students select them for a year’s course?
You can read this year’s course selection booklets here: http://mtaspiring.edutronic.net
For over a decade now my students and I have completed all our work on blogs. This totally transparent means of publishing and sharing our class work has been pivotal in making the students’ work the centre of our shared universe. What they publish, what I comment on and the responses that follow have become the central ‘artefact’ of our work together in the classroom. Families and members of the community can also engage with the students via the work on their blogs, and over the years, their writing, their speaking, their film-making and all their analytical output gradually builds up a complex and elegant picture of their journey through learning.
The authenticity of a published platform has done a great deal to help students understand that their work fits into a wider context, and those who have attracted international attention for their work have seen the benefit of adding their voice to the literary conversation.
My class blogs frame this project and provide to my students, their parents and the wider educational fraternity a chronological record of the work we do in the classroom. Everything is shared, open and contestable.
You can check out one of my class blogs here, and see the students’ journals listed in the relevant menu: http://newspeak.edutronic.net
My major project for 2019/2020 and one of my proudest achievements is the establishment of the Unlock Achievement micro-credential programme in our school. This scheme of assessment replaces traditional testing with a dynamic array of digital credentials that the students can unlock at any time in their journey through their education.
The scheme revolves around 5 definitions of achievement: Knowledge, Skill, Reasoning, Disposition, and Taking Action. It puts into parity for the learner the knowledge that traditional subjects might offer and the personal capacities that school is also vital in the promotion of. A student can unlock a credential for explaining the semantic effect of a metaphor in Shakespeare – or they can unlock another for persevering at a difficult problem until it’s resolved. My students are being rewarded for their acts of civic good alongside their excellent performance in traditional aspects of scholarship.
Because all the credentials are published, moderated and exemplified, the system is transparent to students and their families. There’s no secret about what has to be done to gain an achievement – and no limitation placed on when it might be done.
The students build a portfolio of credentials that moves forward through school with them, allowing them to curate their own learning to ensure they’re always progressing.
In order to hold such a big project together, I have created a website which houses the credentials, contains a blog where the underpinning theories are being developed and I publish a weekly podcast that narrates (among a thousand other things) the gradual process of redefining assessment in the school.
You can take a look at all this here: http://achieve.mtaspiring.edutronic.net
One unifying purpose
Every innovation described in this summary has been designed to promote student agency. By offering students choice in their learning, by presenting their work as the central artefact of the classroom and by designing a scheme of assessment that allows them to determine when it is time to demonstrate their virtue, ability and knowledge, I have provided my students with an infrastructure in which they take charge of their destiny.
As a result I am able to offer my students access to my subject expertise so that we can collaborate together in pursuit of their success in learning. Through innovation I have shifted the locus of control towards the students, resulting in an undeniable surge in their motivation and confidence as learners. They now see me, more than ever, as a key supporter in their journey to success – but no longer the arbiter of it.
Through the judicious use of technology, founded in evidence-based educational theory and practice, I have been able to transform my classroom for the 21st century, and seen my students achieve results in national assessments that do us all proud. While this, and the sight of them leaving into the world as young men and women uniquely equipped to thrive and make a meaningful contribution to society is more than enough reward, I wish to say, the anonymous nomination I received for this NEiTA award has been a real validation for me. No matter what comes, I’m grateful to have had this opportunity to articulate who I am as a teacher.
Transcription of video answers
What in your experience makes a good teacher?
Upon a foundation of passion, expertise and a genuine affection for young people, a good teacher is one who constantly reflects on their practice. Someone who is fearless in pursuit of positive outcomes for their students, and who is willing to be rigorous and systematic in their self-critique in order to achieve that. A good teacher will take the best of what is known, actively search for solutions when these are not immediately apparent, and will innovate and find their own solutions when nothing serves. Good teachers work in collaboration with their fellow teachers, and, even more importantly, with the students they teach and their families in order to be sure that they’re serving those students’ needs as well as they are advancing the profession at large. A good teacher knows when to fit in, and when to be iconoclastic in the service of their students and school – and is comfortable in both modes.
What is the most relevant professional learning you have undertaken in the recent past and how did you apply the learning?
I think it’s important to approach professional learning in a structured way. Some learning happens as part of a school day, often in the classroom, and frequently alongside your students – the task there is to deliberately notice that you’re learning something, reflect on it, ask for feedback, and take action. Other learning is particular to a subject domain and will underpin the classroom delivery by providing us with a platform on which securely to stand. And then there’s the professional learning about the practice/art of teaching itself. This is where my greatest stimulation has been of late. Working with experts from the Education world, I have been exposed to professional critique and dialogue in response to my micro-credential project. The aspects of this which have had the greatest impact have been: The work on developing a measure for student agency in the secondary classroom; and our extensive conversations around the process of establishing a means of assessing thinking – including the development of some definitions of reasoning patterns that students might apply in their learning across all subjects. This has driven significant change in my approach to the classroom, in that I am actively seeking to classify all the stages and components of every classroom action in terms of the thinking that it promotes or employs. It’s enormously exciting work.
How do you work with parents to improve the quality of learning outcomes for each child?
Co-operation with families sits at the heart of the work I do. For a long time I have maintained that the ‘walls of the classroom’ should be porous, and that the experience of learning for the students should be authentic. An example of how I’ve worked to achieve this is the student blogging scheme, www.edutronic.net, which has now been in place for over 10 years. All the work that the students do in class, as well as everything I produce, is published via blogs. This allows families and the wider school community to actively engage in the classroom via the product of the students. This places them in the centre of the conversation – and, because I’m an English teacher, it also places their work in a privileged position. In addition to the use of technology to improve the amount and quality of contact with families, I also actively create opportunities for families to visit my classroom and participate in what we do – even to the extent of having set up student/parent observation and review teams.
What advice would you give to a teacher just entering the workforce?
The first thing I’d say is: Teaching really is everything you imagined and hoped it would be when you first signed up for your teacher education. It’s very likely one of the most demanding and fulfilling jobs a person can do, and it’s dynamic enough that it could keep you interested for a lifetime. My advice would be to maintain contact with the wider profession. Develop professional relationships with critical friends both within and beyond your local school environment and remember that every one of us has something valuable to offer to our students. One of the most sustaining things I’ve gained from over my career so far has been the professional relationships I’ve developed with other teachers and educators outside my own school. These people will help you maintain perspective in relation to the daily challenges you experience and will allow you to maintain a sense that you’re connected to a wider fraternity of colleagues, all committed to seeing young people thrive.
Also: Develop an idiosyncrasy. There’s nothing better when facing classes of students day in and day out than these iconic parts of your persona. They allow the students to have something distinctive to interact with, with which to identify you, and they allow you to maintain something of yourself in the face of the deeply intimate work we do. Maybe wear an eye patch. I have a faux-hawk and a quote from the film Donnie Darko in needlepoint on my wall. “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion”. It works a treat.
How do you work with community or allied professional members to improve the quality of learning outcomes for each child?
Some of this has already been touched on in response to prior questions, but to elaborate further. The first step is the fact that I have made all my work, my class materials, my professional reflections, my published articles and even videos of my teaching available online for anyone to read and view. I believe in openness and accountability, and I try to live by those values.
Possibly even more importantly, many of the ways I have developed my practice in the classroom has been with the underlying mission to shift the locus of control in the classroom towards the students and their families. This means everything, from the fact that in our department the students choose their teachers each year, to the development of a ‘badge’ based assessment scheme, allows students to have agency in their learning, thereby ensuring that my work is calibrated to meeting their needs, and not the other way around.
Further than that, I put a lot of energy into seeking input from other professionals, and inviting critique from my students so that I can be constantly reviewing and refining my work in response to them.