Thursday, 2 October 2014

Wandering, Experimenting, Reflecting, Refining

."Not all those who wander are lost."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
When you try to innovate, when you do something that is different you have to wander a little bit. You have to experiment. You have to expect it to include failures, and you have to expect it to take time.
We said good bye to Term 3 last week and I've had a bit of time to reflect on the last three terms. I've been teaching full time in our Middle Years learning community this year. And we've certainly wandered. We've tried new things, refined some, discarded others.
We've been wondering for a while how do we prove it's working? What is IT? What is success?
Is it success as it would be judged in a traditional environment? What does that look like?
Is it achievement? How do you measure that? Some test scores on a few standardised tests that represent a very small portion of what it is we hope these learners are developing.
Is it engagement? I've had the privilege of participating in some amazing PLD this year and one thing that has stuck with me was a comment made about confusing compliance with engagement.
I think that many schools, classes and teachers have compliant children in them and teachers are mistaking that compliance for engagement. Just because a student doesn't cause trouble and hands in everything they are asked to does not mean they are engaged. Just because classrooms look structured and/or there is a quietness or a "busy"ness does not mean real learning is happening.
What do we know is different for our learners than from 9 months ago?
We have done a series of standardised assessments over the last few weeks. They show some tremendous growth in nearly every young person we have the comparative data for from last November. Some are still below where they should be for their age. But many of those same students they have shown two or three years growth over the last nine months. A few have shown four or five years growth.
We know that engagement is a lot higher than it was six months ago, and tremendously more than it was two-three years ago. We feel that and see it every day.
We haven't got it all right and we haven't got it right all the time. But we have courage to wander, to get lost a little and to constantly search for what will make it better. We have built a strong capacity for reflection. And a measure of the strength of this is the openness with which it occurs.All teachers, the trainee teachers, the teacher aides all contribute a lot to ongoing reflections on an electronic forum. That strong reflection allows us to wander, to innovate, to try new ideas and then to reflect and refine on these ideas.

The data shows a lot, the feel in the classroom shows a lot more. The genuine joy the learners show in learning naturally with other students within a significant age difference. The genuine joyful but purposefully learning focused relationships between adults and students in the community.

Our students aren't quiet nor are they always compliant. Sometimes they come to school carrying personal burdens or big questions from things they have witnessed. And sometimes that means a whole lot of other things have to be done to help them so they can focus on learning. They don't always wear their uniforms correctly or remember not to swear at school. Compared to compliant kids in a traditional setting some may not like what they see in our community because it doesn't fit into their image of how school should look. We've deliberately wandered far away from that.
But these learners are engaged. They can plan their own timetables every day, including writing specific goals for each period. They can hold each other accountable for whether they met those goals or not. They know where to go to, and who to go to, if they have problems. They have moved great distances over the course of the year. It may not be easy to define or to measure. But there is success. There is joy and laughter in the learning that is happening
They have control of their learning which emulates real life every day, and they can articulate how this learning ties back to the NZ curriculum.