What Great Teachers Do Differently – Part I

The difference between more effective teachers and their less effective colleagues is not what they know. It is what they do (xiii)

41204q11wal-_sx313_bo1204203200_What Great Teacher Do Differently was a super summer read from Todd Whitaker. This blogpost is just a capture of his first 7 main points (the books is subtitled ‘the 14 this that matter most’) and a few thoughts that those chapters provoked.

1.It’s People Not Programmes

Improving teachers or getting better teachers are the best ways to improve a school. People make the biggest difference. But people are all different, and what is effective to one person isn’t going to be effective to someone else. I am a remarkably different teacher to the colleagues that I work most closely with. To pick up a programme or a plan of theirs and take it into my classroom is a mistake. People make the difference: not just myself as a practitioner, but the students in every class are different. No programme can be the solution; people have to be at the centre.

2. Power of Expectations

The start of the year is the chance to set the tone and to frame positive expectations of the behaviour of the students. The book doesn’t mention it but I kept thinking of the ‘don’t smile until Easter’ mantra that some of my colleagues still mention (and possibly even employ). I couldn’t think of a worse way to create expectations than not smiling. That kind of approach leads to setting rules (being responsive to behaviour) rather than expectations framed as positive and welcoming statements.

3. Prevention Versus Revenge

My takeaway from this chapter was the reframing of the toolkit of behaviour management strategies. The point Todd made here was that every teacher has a list of options they may take when a situation arises (eye-contact, send to the Dean, praise another student for the correct behaviour etc.). However, the point is which of the list of strategies always work? Answer: none of them. So what makes an effective teacher is being able to select the right strategy at the right time. Also: never use sarcasm and never yell.

4. High Expectations – for Whom?

Todd points out that high expectations is not a variable between ineffective and effective teachers: all teachers have high expectations for students. However, great teachers have high expectations for themselves. “If the students are not focused, great teachers ask what they themselves can do differently” (34). Sometimes I find myself articulating this idea through asking whose actions are you ultimately responsible for, so therefore whose actions can you actually change?

5. Who is the Variable?

The empowering approach of accepting that you yourself is the one in control can raise teacher efficacy which will trickle down to the students. A focus on self, on responsibility, on how we respond and on what – at the end of the day – we can control will lead to success. I would challenge the binary that Todd suggest here however. I do feel there need to be a balance managed between reflecting on our own actions as teachers and attributing success of lack of successto the actions of students. We need to be cautious about attribution or causation when thinking about pedagogy.

6. Ten Days our of Ten

The challenge for all teachers is not to be positive and upbeat some of the time – it’s to create a positive atmosphere of mutual respect all of the time. Todd explains a number of aspects to this, from arguing that you don’t have to like all your students – you just have to act as if you like them, to the ins and outs of praise: effective praise must be authentic, specific, immediate, clean and private. And finally, you can never have too much nice.

7. The Teacher is the Filter

As teachers, we are responsible for the tone of the class. When we sneeze, the class catches a cold. Our focus becomes the students’ focus. Meetings are an opportunity to make “the teachers more excited about teaching tomorrow than they were today” and lessons a chance to make the “students to be more excited about learning tomorrow than they are today” (57). Filter out the negatives that don’t matter: they don’t do good to anyone. Instead share a positive attitude and watch that spirit become infectious.


The Teaching and Tracking of Key Competencies

Over the course of the year I took the approach of measuring key competencies and collecting data on the development of key competencies. This was a consequence of my inquiry into how much my teaching was focused on assessment rather than learning. The importance is captured by this idea straight from the NZ Curriculum:

Key competencies matter because they support dispositions that will enable young people to learn well now, and to go on learning throughout their lives.

The approach I took was to include more explicit teaching of key competencies in my teaching and to have students complete three self-assessment surveys that asked them to rate themselves (a general question – problematic in retrospect, but still gives usable data), share an example of where a key competency was applied, and finally set a goal for the next term around the development of that key competency. The data has allowed me to reflect on this area of my teaching and develop an action plan for taking this area further.


The data here shows an increase across the year, but a curious drop off in term three and four. This is reflected in the other key competencies, and I would suggest both the increase in sample size (in term two the motivated students were more likely to complete the survey) and the nature of the school year, whereby by term three many realise they have achieved their goals/the necessary credits and therefore coast to the end of the year. I found this a problematic part of such a student centred course, as self motivation was key to success – but I don’t feel like I explicitly addressed this enough.

The shift in the written responses provided some interesting insight. Some of the responses in term one represented some quite basic understanding of the idea of thinking as a key competency:

Thinking skills like guessing what people are saying? Yeah i use it all the time.

I used thinking skills when I was developing the concept: I wanted the concept to be entertaining to the audience and spark a conversation about genders, this meant that I needed thinking skills to make these work together.

It took me a while to think and come up with an idea and then develop it.

But later in the year it was clear this understanding had developed as more insightful and reflective responses suggested a deeper understanding of this key competency:

I was able to look at topics and go beyond what was there to reach a higher level of thinking.

I particularly remember the time while talking about Modern Family and Mr Cargill went and flipped perspectives on the show. This was a light bulb moment on how there are always two sides to each perspective and something to discuss in between too.

Throughout term 3 and 4 I have tried to extend my thinking to the wider world and incorporate these ideas into my assessments and general thinking when I approach something. Not just thinking about passing or in the moment but the further thinking and effects.

Critical thinking was a focus of term three whereby I would often assume the role of devil’s advocate or mediate a debate with the class on a contentious topic or issue.

Using Language, Symbols and Texts

This was generally a key competency that the students struggled to understand. Over the course of the year, this increased in the sense that a connection was made between this competency and expressing knowledge and understanding. This led to one reflective response that I found interesting:

Using the correct terms and skills when it comes to external and internal assessments. I understand and know the skills I’m just not distributing it in the right places

This captures the concept of communication as multi-faceted. This student is reflecting on the fact that they understand the ideas that they wish to communicate but that the representation of their ideas did not meet their level of understanding.

To develop this area further I think I need to take more explicit steps around teaching this area for students to be able to recognise the learning they have developed in this area. They have all learnt about visual storytelling, as well as communication in media form (as I would estimate 90% of them have submitted an assessment using a blog or weebly etc.) They have all developed writing skills as well with the concentration of conveying higher order thinking and learning new terminology a regular focus. But all this needs to be explicitly conveyed to the students.

Managing Self

This represents the same trend of improvement, but no significant shifts to speak of. The agentic style of the course has offered the chance for students to reflect on how they approach this aspect of their personal development:

This term I learnt from my mistakes where I started my assessments earlier

I set mini deadlines for my film production that I could make.

My self management was extremely poor in term one, hardly doing any work at home and talking off topic in class.

This gave them the opportunity to identify areas of growth. These included:

I am hoping to keep a consistent and balanced workload throughout the term for the future assessments so that I can do my best work.

I should probably get feedback from the teacher if i’m unsure about something because he has a different view on things.

I hope to possess more self motivation to complete tasks earlier in order to be highly successful.

However, the question that remains for me, is while I am giving them the opportunity to self-manage, how do I ensure as a teacher that they are maximising their learning from this opportunity? I’m absolutely sure I haven’t got the balance between freedom to delve and checkpoints to conform right and I know that this balance needs to be differentiated from student to student.

Relating to Others

This competency shows a visible shift. The main focus for this year was about capitalising on the multi-level aspect of the class using the principles of ako, collaboration, reflection, whanaungatanga, and me whakamatau.  This manifested in weekly critical quartet times where the students were organised into groups to reflect on prior learning and use each others experience to develop deeper understanding and outcomes. During this time I was able to observe the groups and their dialogue and support them in developing skills around how to navigate a deeper discussion through asking questions and promoting opportunities to contribute. This was reflected in the comments:

I related to others I don’t really talk to when we had our critical quartet sessions.

I applied these skills in our critical quartets where we helped each other develop some ideas and give feedback.

In my creative quarters I was put with people I wouldn’t normally communicate with and I talked to them about my script and my opinions and problems I have/will encounter during the production of it.

There were further efforts to create a collective environment where the priciples of ako were visible, but I don’t know that I could claim that I’ve truly capitalised on the potential of this. I am considering how to further integrate the year groups so that there are more opportunities to develop skills for this competency. From quartets to trios? Or learning peers? Finding more connections between the learning areas or more cross content? More student voice operating in a teaching capacity? These thoughts need further exploration.

Participating and Contributing

I tend to frame active involvement in the community as participating in the online global community. For this media studies course this usually meant creating work that contributed to the online knowledge economy or creative products that could achieve a wide audience. Like using language, symbols and texts I don’t believe I explicitly taught this skills well enough for this feedback to provide much insight. Some interesting comments did emerge:

Unfortunately my contributions community wise have been low with my film not being up to par, not attending 48hrs and in my opinion my learning and work as a whole have not come been up to anything notable which for me being a person with high hopes in this industry is a little bit of a bummer.

Having to actually avoid saying too much in class, because it’s more so for the people who don’t understand it. By myself answering so much, it doesn’t become as beneficial to those who don’t understand it.

I have really tired to voice more of my opinions and contribute

These responses (and many others in a similar style) show that clearly the explicit teaching was missing, but also that there are interesting student assumptions in play. It is worth considering how the students value knowledge and contribution of knowledge – and then how to shift this to something that is more valuable to them as lifelong learners.

Overall, collecting this data has been highly valuable, but next year some changes I need to investigate to develop my teaching in this area include:

  • Integrate more explicit teaching of the competencies into my class design
  • Use the data proactively throughout the year to address individual learning needs
  • Integrate the key competency self-review process with the critical quartets (or whatever system that might look like next year)
  • Review the gathering of quantitative data on key competencies – at the very least I need to rephrase my questioning.
  • Inquiry into self motivation – by following through on 2016’s goal.

2015 Goal Reflection

In 2015 my focus was to redesign 3MED as a student-centred course. This was a tangible, measurable goal that was closely connected to my wider focus around my teaching as being learning focused, not assessment driven.

A student-voice post from last year captured many aspect of the class – as does many planning documents including a slightly cringe worthy attempt at capturing the course in a letter I wrote and emailed to all students at the beginning of the year. The measurable outcomes suggest I was successful. All students recorded an improvement in their self-motivation and self-management skills. Personally I averaged less than 5 minutes at the front of the class for the entire year. And results wise were comparable to previous years.

However, the class culture was more favoured by students than the learning outcomes. They noted that they enjoyed the class but didn’t feel like they learnt a lot from it. This might reflect that the skills they were developing are part of the hidden curriculum and therefore less accessible for their own reflection. However, I agree that the learning wasn’t as strong as it could have been. The tutorial structure didn’t work as well as I hoped and the collaboration that I envisioned never really manifested.

The next steps are bringing the momentum that I have begun in this class to the multi level combined 2MED/3MED classes I have this year. Some of the strategies I have begun to explore to address what happened last year:

  • Formalised tutorial plan co-constructed with the students – every class has a teacher-directed offering that the students have control over what it is.
  • Collaborative critical quartets – assigned groups that check in once a week for reflective conversations about what is going on.
  • Four set deadlines throughout the year – however, student choice enables the to decide what they submit for each of these checkpoints.

Stay tuned for more reflection on the progress!

Authentic Learning in the Digital Age – Larissa Pahomov – Part Two

In my previous post on this book, I looked at  Larissa Pahomov’s take on creating an authentic learning environment using the perks of the digital age. She took on teaching research and collaboration, and then looked at presentation. She continues…

Chapter seven focuses on Making Reflection Relevant.

The key question that opens the chapter is: “If you were to do this project again, what would you change or do differently?” Of course, rarely in the culture of NCEA do we take the time to reflect adequately on a completed task before moving onto the next assessment. However, this is valuable and Pahomov argues that for meaningful reflection to occur it must be “metacognitive, applicable and shared”. I found the challenge that reflection needed to be shared the most confronting. I think I have been guilty of seeing reflection as being tunneled into an independent process, because that is what it needs to be in order to be honest. However, often we aren’t honest with ourselves, so it makes sense that reflection is brought out into the open to be navigated in a space where help is available. The challenge here is to a create a culture of infinite improvement and where “the classroom can become a place of collective support” (113).

The framework for Student Reflection (114):

  • Put reflection first
  • De-emphasize grades
  • Integrate student and teacher reflection
  • Let reflection accumulate

Chapter eight focuses on Embracing the Culture: Schoolwide Practices. This is a discussion of how the model of SLA can actually be made to work and what practices and policies are in place to make the kind of teaching and learning possible.

  • Common Language – this has been evident in my experience when the school adopted SOLO and students’ built an understanding of a common language because it was being used in all their classrooms. How powerful would it be if our values, and key competencies were more prevalent in our language rather than the back end of the curriculum which so often gets put first? The benefits here are that the language encourages learning, not assessment, it helps to empower students, and teachers support one another because everyone is reinforcing the same thing.
  • Open Doors – through using shared planning procedures, the opportunity to access everyone for conversations (no one expert) and frequent classroom visitors. They also have a peer tutoring arrangements which I found quite interesting. Academic credit is incorporated into this service and it builds role modelling and enriches the learning environment.
  • Outside Partnerships – real world learning is embraced through getting students out into authentic environments to extend their learning. Again a shift away from the teacher as the expert.
  • Advisory – a central teacher figure (sounds very similar to what ‘Form Time’ or ‘mentoring’ is trying to be as it seems to be in the NZ context). It is essential the relationship between the teacher and the students are strong in this context, and the continuity here is obviously also key.

I’ve taken a huge amount away from this book and consider it one of the best professional reading I’ve done in a long time. I’ll be recommending it whenever I can and sharing the love!

Teaching Conversations: From Inspection to Reflection

Speak in such a way as others love to listen to you. Listen in such a way as others love to speak to you

This is how an article by Shelly Arneson kicks of in a discussion around improving out reflective conversations with colleagues. The shift from arriving at the conversation as an inspector to creating a dialogue with authentic reflection comes down to Arneson’s mantra: Talk with teachers, not to them. There are two main barriers to this, time and the unknown. Arneson suggests two solutions:

  • Make better use of time – narrow the topic
  • Overcome the fear of the unknown – admit our uncertainties

Using these strategies, outlines with examples, one is able to see how conversations can be made more purposeful. To get this right, we have to improve our Communication Skills, and Arneson has the following suggestions:

  • Listen at least as much as you speak
  • Be aware of body language
  • Craft feedback that invites dialogue instead of shutting it down
  • Ask open-ended questions that will allow for future learning, not just questions that are lesson specific
  • Understand that relationships matter

The overall purpose of Arneson’s article is to promote conversations that Empower Teachers to Improve.

High Expectations

A quick post after reading this brilliant challenge to teachers from Ben Soloman at Edudemic: “The Pygmalion Effect: Communicating High Expectations”.

A colleague from another school brought high expectations to my attention a few years ago when I was suggesting that my students weren’t writing well enough to achieve higher marks – these sorts of comments characterised my early teaching as I was based in a ‘student blaming’ model that I believe  I have since broken out of. Her response was quite simple “expect more”. We discussed what this meant and she challenged me to articulate high expectations more regularly, do away with presenting student exemplars at lower levels and simply show professional level work that was accessible and challenge them to meet that standard. It was an eye-opening conversation.

This post re-challenges me to think about my high expectations, but adds something new, which compelled me to write this. The idea of making failure unacceptable. Personally, I would accept that I do not address failure well. Too often I take a soft approach which misses the opportunity for a learning shift to occur. Soloman offers this dialogue as an approach:

My job as your teacher was for you to learn this material, so let’s figure out how to make that happen. If you’re not learning the way that I teach, maybe I need to teach the way that you learn. Is this a cognition issue? Then let’s get you to tutoring. Is it a learning strategies issue? Then let’s talk about other ways to study, learn, and organize your thinking. Is this a motivation issue? Then let’s talk about the short- and long-term repercussions of failing.

I like how these are questions designed around solutions and they are questions that seek answers and to initiate a dialogue, not a one way discussion. This means finding time to meet them individually, but I think – done right – it could be extremely valuable.

ULearn 2014 – Day Two

I may be spending ULearn14 in Wellington, but I was engaged as ever online, following everything I could from twitter, to live streams, to blogs, to the various links that popped up. Here’s some snippets of the things I took away from day two and some of the next steps.

Keynote #1: UDL with Dr Katie Novak – collaborative notes & powerpoint plus  Novak’s site.

UDL = Universal Design for Learning.  It seems like the philosophy around it is:

If they have not learnt, we have not taught

Which is such an appealing idea! It is a responsive attitude to teaching, taking ownership your potential and exploring it fully to assist all learners reach their potential. I wrote about the reflective (as oppose to refractive) educators a few months back and this this work with that nicely.

UDL_GuidelinesThe philosophy seems to me more important than the specifics. I like blogposts like this, which popped up on twitter during the presentation, where the list of tips together articulate a vision for strong teaching to all students. This blogpost of UDL at the dentist is a good application. It’s about fixing our teaching, not fixing the kids. We are the professionals, we should be finding the way that works for them.

So in a way is this just the New Zealand Curriculum with best practice? Or differentiation dressed up in purple, blue and green? Probably. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a helpful framework. I think that there is a lot of this that happens naturally in my classroom because I value individualised structures to learning, but there are some great elements in here that can be unpacked and used to enhance SOLO processes or self-directed units.

UDL_summaryTakeaways: allow students to assess me? Encourage meta-cognition and more authentic student choice with sharing the power in the classroom. Further principles of encouraging independent thinking and respecting student difference. Asking questions: “What does your teacher do that helps you learn? What have other teachers done?”

Breakout #3 – Social Media Ninjas: A masterclass in becoming a connected educator with Karen Melhuish Spencer

Argued that we shouldn’t just share for the sake of sharing (guilty!) but instead weave your sharing into your inquiry. How can we learn more about what we do? Then we draw on the wider social media network to inform what we are doing?


I’m not sure if I picked up quite why there are kumaras there, but as guidelines for using social media they make a lot of sense.

Takeaways: a lot of my social media use is incidentally passive – in the sense that I actively post, but I don’t necessarily get involved in dialogue or seek help. So while I add my voice, I’m not sure if I add value. Two things I can do right off the bat is participate regularly and actively in #edchatnz (stop going out for drink after netball) and use twitter to ask for help using “why” and “should”.

Breakout #3 – Learner Agency in the traditional school: a call to adventure with Tim Gander – collaborative notes

Came across this via twitter due to the lack of working stream (above). Also found a colleague was there and she helped me to collaborate and get a full gist of the content from Wellington. Basically, Tim allowed his PE class at level 2 to co-construct their learning and then choose the standards they sat – something which was really valuable for increasing engagement.

From the shared notes:

  • Autonomy is different from agency
  • A class website of content isn’t creating agency – Google+ community
  • Time constraint – NCEA credits
  • Like everything it may not work for everyone.  But are the ones the current way isn’t working for the ones we should be focussing on?

He has written in detail about this process: First cycle of the enquiry: Co-Constructing agency; Second cycle of the enquiry: Hacking the NCEA; My thoughts on UDL, e-learning and learner Agency.

Takeaways: this is totally inspiring. How powerful would it be to turn up day one of my Y13 media class (I wouldn’t do this with Y12 because I think that it being a new subject there’s a lot of base concepts and adaptation that goes on in that formative year that students have to experience in order to make good choices – unlike which is compulsory in the junior school and builds on those foundations and structures) and not have a course outline, not have a preconceived idea of what I want to teach, not have a prepared NCEA scheme. Holy meatballs- this could be amazing! Then this would be co-constructed with the students and we would take that journey together. I think there’s an opportunity to trial this approach in the next three weeks with my Y11 drama class and the revision process. We have three week to simply revise prior learning, so I’ll introduce learner agency and see how they want to do it. That could be so powerful. I’m buzzing!

Breakout #4 – Before collaboration teachers need to make connections – Sonya Van Schaijik & Wendy Kofoed presentation hub

Profiled: #GlobalClassroom, #edchatnz, #TeachMeetNZ, #educamp, #eduignite, #edbooknz, #CENZ14, #POND

TeachMeetNZ seems worth exploring. The wikispace is here and the YouTube channel is great. Each educator has only three minutes to introduce themselves and their initiatives. This one here from Richard Wells is a good example. He goes through how he solved various issues when he became the Head of Technology at Orewa College with a general focus on thinking long term.

Takeaway: maybe I could endeavour to get up there?