Fear – a natural part of change?

I’m privileged to work with so many great teachers and leaders who are looking to shift their practice to best serve their learners. I do see this as a great privilege. In a staff meeting today, we donned our black hats to consider the challenges to moving towards student-centred learning where students and teachers co-construct the learning.

It was great – teachers were honest about the perceived risks and constraints around the shifts. Assessment pressures, time and resource constraints, concerns about “getting it wrong” were some of the points raised. Working where there is such high relational trust means that these were discussed objectively and respectfully – there were no judgements only supportive and respectful conversations. This led to dialogue around how we perceive our role in the classroom/learning and how a shift of pedagogy may lead to reconsidering what their role(s) look like.

The teachers are definitely on board with changing to sharing the locus of control with students but I think that talking about the ‘elephants in the room’ meant that they could be planned for and considered.

Making the uncomfortable comfortable:

I love using James Nottingham’s Learning Pit as a metaphor to talk about change and our cognitive and emotional responses to new learning. I’ve used this with students and teachers alike. The beautiful simplicity of the model means that it is really clear what the “pit” that we fall into as we feel consciously incompetent.


Love the connections with #SOLOTaxonomy as well! Moving from unistructural to extended abstract!

But the challenge is not just to know this but also to acknowledge when you are in the pit, and what the next progressions may be and how connections between ideas and responses are building towards the new understanding.

New learning involves taking a risk. And risks are rewarded. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said “He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored” Jumping into the unexplored is risky for many when faced with new learning. One thing that I do believe is that you must talk about and acknowledge the risk so that the scary nature of change can be mitigated.





Seeing is believing

Part of my job involves being an observer in other teachers’ classrooms. At Evaluation Associates Ltd, we have clear beliefs (underpinned by relevant evidence, of course) that ongoing feedback, evaluation and support of teachers in the classroom supports them to grow and improve. Cycles of inquiry are used to build teacher and student capacity where purposeful classroom based observations are key evidence to see shifts.

Sounds great, right? And it is. Having someone else in the room, noticing what a teacher is doing, how they are interacting with the students and how the students work with each other is a great thing.

During or just after the observation, we interview the students to get their perspective on whatever the teacher is working on in their practice, and the impact of this for them as learners. Still great. Student voice and facilitator notes are used to inform a professional discussion. Still great, right?

On reflection, I felt as if I didn’t fully commit to the power of observations. Ideally, teachers would also make a video recording of their practice that they could analyse prior to meeting with the observer. When some of the teachers I was working with last year expressed reluctance, I pulled back and allowed them to opt out. But I’m not happy with that and want to change this practice within my own facilitation this year.

Why? Without the recording acting as another set of eyes that the teacher can use to monitor and reflect on their practice. Without the impartial eyes of the video, the facilitators’ observation notes could become the perspective on the teaching and learning – which is too limited.

Assessment for Learning (which I avidly believe in) has the ultimate aim of enabling learners to become self-regulating. Part of this is generating their own feedback and connecting this cognitively, conatively and affectively. My concern is that if teachers are not filming their own practice, and using this recording as an artefact for reflection, then they could be relying on the observer as “outsider” to bring in some points about quality or how closely they have  met their goals. In short, they are not really self-regulating as learners. The role of the observer and the observation is still essential but could be improved if coupled with the video as another point of evidence to use for triangulation.

Seeing how you go about things, or things that you may not have noticed about how the students are learning, or moments where you’ve shown progress as you shift your practice are all positive outcomes of filming. Getting over the surface features- the sound of your voice, the wee foibles and eccentricities we all possess, how ugly that jumper really is (it was always borderline in your head anyway) –  and using the video as an extra set of objective eyes in the room means that it can be really powerful.

So, where to from here? For me, I need to be more upfront with the teachers and leaders I work with about the power of observation and the usefulness of the video for active reflection. I raised filming at a staff meeting last night (nervously) and the overwhelming response was positive. The teachers were keen. If I come across objections to filming in my work, I need to use my OTL skills to unpack the beliefs which have led to this reaction and build on it from there. I don’t want to push anyone into the learning pit but understanding the “why” rather than just doing the “what” is key.

When thinking about my own practice, as well as the shifting practice of the marvelous teachers, leaders and learners that I am privileged to work with, I think I need to keep the mantra up – whatever we do, it has to be better than before.



This post broke my blogging drought!

Moving toward Assessment for Learning

I was recently contacted by an educator in Hong Kong wanting some advice around how he could make his tests more AfL appropriate. This is a great question (and a million more questions popped into my head – why a test? What is it measuring? etc.) and I promised myself to answer him fully.

Here is my response: 

There are heaps of ways to make tests more AfL appropriate for students. 

Ideally, working with the students to identify what the key learning needs to be and what is the best way to test this would be a start. 

If this isn’t possible (I.e. there is a set, common test for all students), try thinking about the lead up to the test. Are the students familiar with the success criteria? Have they had enough exposure to examples of what a quality response in the test may look like? Are they able to talk confidently about the learning and what is expected of them? Are they able to look at previous questions / test papers and go through how they may apply their learning to these?

After they’ve sat the test, don’t mark it and hand it back straight away. AfL is primarily about empowering the students as learners. I would give them a blank copy of the same test and ask them to identity questions that were easy, hard, or manageable (I use different coloured highlighters / pens for this). Then talk through in pairs where they have similar responses. This gives you really good info as a teacher where gaps may be occurring for your students. 

Then I would get them to peer mark the test. As a teacher, you could guide this process, provide model answers, act as a third pair of eyes for a student marker etc. Giving ownership to students of the learning and making them active participants in the classroom is key. I would probably get the person who the student had discussed where the student had struggled or found things easy to mark the test.

After this, I would suggest working towards some peer assessment. This is different from marking as the students need to evaluate the test information (which concepts or skills the students were able to deal with, where there are gaps etc.,) and then provide some feedback to each other. I would recommend using Hattie and Timperley’s questions: where am I going (how closely did I meet the learning goal), how am I going (feedback on strategies used, concepts or skills which are working) and where to next (new direction for learning, where the gaps need to be closed). 

Providing quality feedback to peers can be challenging for learners so some teachers guidance is key at this point. Using some sentence starters for peer feedback can be useful at this point.

Get the students to look at their peer marked and assessed work and reflect on their test. Was there correlation between things they found easy and what was correct? Or not? What does this tell them (and you) about how they are feeling about their competency at the moment?

Record the data from this test in your teacher markbook. I wouldn’t just record the final grade / percentage though. Find a way to record the student perception of their competence (at that point in time), the individual grades, groups of students who have gaps in the same areas, students who seem to be covering the key learning and finding it all easy. All of this information gives you some indication of where to go next as a teacher.

This is a suggested approach and makes some assumptions. I’ve assumed that the test is paper based, not online. If it is an online, computer-marked test another approach may be needed. The principles of AfL remain the same though, getting students actively involved in their learning so they can become self-regulated learners.

I hope that this helps in some way, please let me know how you are going with AfL.

I tried to touch on the principles of AfL and still keep things grounded at a practical level. And this is really important to me, knowing a theory and knowing what it may look like in practice are often different things. I have a clear theory for improvement coming through in my suggestion – share the locus of control with students, give them a chance to evaluate their own or someone else’s understandings of the concepts or mastery of the skills, and in doing so, students are more likely to be engaged as learners (which should lead to better outcomes for them). 

When I first moved toward an AfL pedagogy I felt a little hamstrung by the rigour of high-stakes assessment in senior secondary. By focusing on the principles of AfL, I found ways (and continue to find ways) to empower learners even when I couldn’t set the the assessment task myself (such as in NCEA exams). Assessment for Learning requires a shift of thinking for both students and teachers.

Support students to develop processes to work towards their goals.

I’ve been working on making our learning goals more visible with my learners at HPSS. This is a document that I found on pinterest that we used to make our goals, steps towards our goals more visible. We completed these individually, then sought peer feedback from the learning hub around the quality of these, and have now pinned them on the wall of the hub so that we can be accountable for our goals.

Here are some of the students’ documents:



And peer feedback from another student:


A huge focus at HPSS is the concept of ‘ako‘ where teachers and students learn from each other, I always participate in the learning. I shared my professional goals with my learning hub, sought feedback, and refined my processes based on the feedback. Here is mine…

My goals

Making the relevance clear

On Friday morning we (the HPSS assessment team) supported our staff to develop their curriculum rubrics. The idea here is that there is clarity from the learning goals of the module through to the individual aspects of our learning design model which formulate the learning objectives to be assessed.

We are using SOLO taxonomy as the qualifiers to unpack the curriculum levels. I am so very grateful to the wonderful Pam Hook for her support in developing this approach. Friday’s professional learning was really positive and most teachers were feeling empowered around making the learning clear for their students.

Clarity and relevance are essential components of effective pedagogy. If the students (or teachers) are not explicit in what the learning is or why it is relevant, there is the risk of engaging in busy work. Likewise even if the teachers are clear, students who do not understand would simply comply rather than engage in the learning actively.

Saturdays are my day off. I often work on Sundays – prep, blogging, marking, providing feedback for learners etc. – but Saturdays are for me. So when I was laxing on the sofa, watching rubbish TV on Sky’s Vibe channel – I stumbled across Mary Portas’ “Queen of the Charity Shops”. In this show, Mary is overhauling a charity shop (in a similar manner to other challenges she has tackled in the retail sector). I was hooked, partly because the volunteers were resistant and partly because Mary’s point about selling were so profound.


She talked about the two key things in retail – features and benefits. Features are what makes up an item – be it an exposed zip, 5 inch heels, pleather jacket – whereas benefits are why the shopper wants/needs said item. So as I was sitting there, on my day off, I realised that this could be a useful analogy which we could apply to learning. This is the hook for relevance.

So often, especially in secondary schools, students are often learning something for the sake of learning it. Or they don’t know why they are learning it. Or they can’t see the point of what they are learning.

What if we, as teachers, were to commit to “selling” the features and benefits of a concept, context or skill in our teaching practice. Heaven forbid anyone read this as “because it is on the test” but instead what if we were to make the relevance clear for our learners so they can make sense of what they are doing and why.

So what does that look like then? I’m teaching two distinct things tomorrow. In my learning hub we are focusing on “my learning” or understanding themselves as learners; tomorrow’s lesson is going to be around goal setting.

  • WALT: To set relevant, effective goals as learners
  • Features –  relevance, informed by evidence, timely, measurable, knowing how to measure them
  • Benefits – by setting your own goals, based on your needs, you put yourself in the drivers seat of your learning

Whereas in my Year 9 module (with a social science focus) which I teach with Tracey, we have a different learning objective altogether.

  • We are learning to “evaluate the impact of Irish migration on American society”.
  • Features of this will be the specific aspects of migration
  • benefits to consider negative and positive perspectives of migration, to challenge our own assumptions about migration

I’m keen to explore with the students the benefits that they see. We could co-construct these as a class or in smaller groups.

Both of these benefits will link to the wider educational impact of learning for the individual. It is not about the stuff we are learning; it is about why what is happening in the classroom is relevant for each individual.  Sometimes inspiration come from the strangest of places.


Goals – is there more to them than meets the eye?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading lately around goals, clarity, progressions and all things education. In my new role(s) as part-time PLD facilitator focusing on Leadership and Assessment part-time HPSS teacher + leader of assessment + leader of the performing arts area (this role is not new but the part-time part is), and part-time – who knows when I’m going to find the time – Sheilah Winn Shakespeare festival organiser, director, Stage Challenge co-ordinator, Classical Studies trip co-organiser… But I digress.


Goals are one of those things that we think that we need to do but I’m not sure how well-used they are in classrooms. Schools set goals, teachers set goals, teachers get students to set goals / co-construct goals, students set goals for themselves that they don’t share with us.

Personally I’ve been really unsatisfied with SMART goals for a long time. It took me a while to really put my finger on it. Locke and Latham’s seminal 2006 article on goals clearly define the differences between performance and learning goals. When reading this article I had an ‘aha!’ moment reading “a learning goal facilitates or enhances metacognition—namely, planning, monitoring, and evaluating progress toward goal attainment” – learning goals focus on the strategies needed for success whereas performance goals focus on the outcomes. SMART goals could be used to support learning goals but the lack of focus on the how (strategies, dispositions, skills) means than they may limit attainment of the goal.

I was re-reading Viviane Robinson’s Student-Centred Leadership on the plane yesterday and her comments about when to use SMART goals and when to use learning goals. More and more the puzzle pieces are falling into place.

“At one level, setting SMART goals makes sense because people cannot regulate their performance if they are unclear about how to assess their progress… At another level, there are occasions when the call to set SMART goals is inappropriate. In order to set a SMART goal, you have to know quite a lot about how to achieve it. When goals involve new challenges, how can you possibly know if it is achievable, if it is realistic, and how long it will take you to achieve it (Seddon, 2008)? In the absence of such knowledge, it may be better to set a learning goal or a broader performance goal that expresses your shared commitments and helps keep you focused”

Student-Centred Leadership, Kindle version, Location 1100

Surely, we are wanting to get our students to be considering new challenges – why are we encouraging them to put constraints around their goals because we think that performative goals are better / easier / they way, truth and the light? I believe that the needs must be addressed before there is goal setting. If the situation requires something that needs to be achieved (an outcome), sure go ahead, be SMART. However, if there is more at stake (and I would like to imagine that there is) a learning goal is a much better fit.

So timing is important. In preparation for playing the role of the “devil’s advocate” (yes that is an actual role one gets to play, it has a cool badge / picture thing and everything) on tonight’s #edchatNZ chat hosted by my lovely colleague and friend Danielle Myburgh (@missDtheTeacher), I was thinking about some provocative questions / statements which I could challenge teachers with. Here are some (n.b. I only used one or two as I was trying to respond to people’s statements):

  • What is the point of deciding on “measurable” goals when dealing with innovation and change? Multiple measurements should evolve, shouldn’t they?
  • Goal setting, with goal follow through, clear strategies and accountability, is meaningless. How much time do you dedicate to work with your students on follow through? What about your own goals? Your colleagues?
  • how do your students’ individual goals impact their day to day experiences in your classroom?
  • How much alignment is there between your students’, staff and school’s strategic goals?
  • What checks and balances do you have to robust critique of goals? Yours, your students, or your colleagues goals?
  • What is the point of goal setting if the goals are not enacted? Need to be coupled with frequent checking in and feedback/feedforward, what does this look like in your practice?
  • Have your students been setting goals this year? Why? What evidence or research is underpinning your practice?


I guess from the feedback, aspects of my devil’s advocate role resonated with some. Personally, I felt that I was a bit slow and (as always) struggled with 140 characters.

Twitter chat extract

I do believe in making the learning visible – using learning intentions which clearly show what we are learning, why we are learning and how we are learning is the key. The harder part of me is to relate this to each individual I’m teaching, be it in hubs, modules, my times or big projects.

On Monday, I will be starting working with my HPSS learning hub around their goals. I’ve got a couple of approaches to consider. I could just bowl in “Goal Setting” and support the students to make some learning goals through co-construction with me and each other, rather than performance ones, with clear check points for progress and keen understanding of what success of the goals may look like. This is what we did last year, however I felt that some students were occasionally complying with me because they are all decent people who trusted me enough that this was a good idea. We made the goals visible in our hub, we reflected on progress but I’m not convinced that there were enough deliberate acts to improve their learning goals. Not trying to make excuses but some things did get lost in the busyness of starting a new school last year.

However, the questions I was challenging myself to come up with to challenge others are now challenging me. What evidence will students be using to inform their goals? Is now the right time? How can I align my own goals for this year (which I have yet to formulate) to those of my hub? How can I best support my students in this highly personalised environment without resorting to following the “letter” of goal setting, rather than the “spirit”?

Over the weekend I’m going to keep pondering this and if I come up with something better, I’ll blog about it (promise).


Learning to learn: Herrmann’s Brain

I wrote this blog post late last year, left it in draft because I wanted to add something but couldn’t recall, so here it is – a little out of date but still very relevant to my thinking right now…

Understanding yourself as a learner is a key to success. Knowing when and how to apply different modes of thinking to different situations is a learned skill. At Hobsonville Point Secondary School, one of the focuses of our hub curriculum this term is around building the students’ capacity to understand themselves as learners. We are using a variation of Ned Herrmann’s Whole Brain model as a means of unpacking the students’ learning preferences. While we had introduced the students to the model earlier last year, it was definitely time to come back and delve a little deeper.  In term 4, students across the school were empowered with some understanding of the parts of the brain, what they do and how this may link to our learning preferences.  This was a bit of a stretch for me to prepare for the learning coaches to use as I had to make sure that my understanding was deep enough it so I could translate it for others to use. Using terms like ‘limbic system’, ‘cerebral cortex’ and ‘corpus callosum’ is far removed from my drama/classics teaching experience so I was thankful for one of our biology teachers looking over the presentation beforehand.

When I presented the science of the brain to the students in my learning community, Taheretikitiki,  and I was astounded by the questions that they were asking (here are a few) – many of which I didn’t have the answers for:

  • can we combine our thinking quadrants to use them together?
  • can we learn to think in each mode?
  • what part of the brain covers addition or bad behaviour?
  • What happens when one part of the brain doesn’t work anymore?
  • Can we tie autism to the parts of the brain?

We talked through the whole brain model and the brain for about 40 minutes. I love that the students in my learning community are hooked on knowing and understanding more. One of the focuses of our school is on empowering students and I think that understanding how they think and how the brain works is essential – there were so many students hanging back during their break to ask more questions. In our community we built on the thinking quadrants in our extended hub community time. The students had to refamiliarise themselves with the quadrants, but this time focus on the common attributes of each thinking mode, expectations held by people when that mode is their preference, and what each quadrant struggles with. There was a cut and paste collaborative activity to get the students used to using the language of the quadrants, their descriptors, strengths when using that mode of thinking, as well as what each quadrant struggles with. Then the learning coaches offered a different activity for each of the thinking quadrants.

The catch… we had to plan an activity which would challenge us to work with our least preferred thinking quadrant. Steve worked with  the strategic quadrant (green), Bryce worked with the innovative quadrant (yellow), Danielle with the red quadrant (relational) and I had the blue quadrant (thinking). I found this really challenging. As a learner. For me, the whole point of the preferences is that this mode of thinking is not what I would normally be drawn to. So I had to really think about what types of things I wanted the students to engage with – being analytical by dealing the specific information in a logical manner. Making connections between ideas to draw some kind of conclusion. I thought about it all weekend. And it was only on Sunday night that I decided to use some ponderous riddles for the students to analyse facts to come up with an evidence based conclusion. Upon reflection, I realised that this activity was really successful. Thankfully, the feedback from the coaches involved was also positive. Each of us had to work outside of our comfort-zones, which is always unnerving – and I was so thrilled to see the students actively engaging with some different modes of thinking. Our coaches’ debrief included us noticing how some students used different strategies to deal with the problem presented, the Hobsonville Habits that we could see visibly in their learning, and the types of questions asked.

So where to next?

The new year has arrived and my role at HPSS is slightly different this year, as I am not leading Taheretikitiki community due to my secondment. However, I still want to consider how to empower the students to understand themselves as learners, to move beyond their preferences and to make this aspect of thinking more visible in the school. I’m working my way through Ned Herrmann’s Whole Brain Business book and while the context tailored to the corporate world, as indicated by the title, I’m busy transferring to what it looks like in the classroom /school context. I’m excited about the communication and creativity sections – lots of scope there to tie into growth mindsets and Hobsonville Habits.