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Courage and Commitment – Ahmed Kathrada’s challenge for school leaders

A few days ago South Africa laid to rest a giant of the struggle against apartheid. Ahmed Kathrada (21 Aug 1929 – 28 Mar 2017) embodied the spirit of activism and determination which brought an unjust political system to its knees. While his funeral was distinctly political, it was also a moment to reflect on our conscience, not only as a nation, but also on a personal level.

Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela (source: http://eagle.co.ug)

The purpose of this blog is not political so I do not want to venture there. Instead, I want to focus on the courage and determination of a man who was willing to be imprisoned for a cause he believed in, to the very core of his soul. When I consider the life of Uncle Kathy, as he was affectionately known, I am challenged to reflect on both my own courage and commitment as a leader in my school. I am forced to wonder in what areas of my life I need to increase my quotient of these key character traits. Would I be willing to give up freedoms I currently take for granted in order to stand firm for a cause I believe in deeply? In what areas of my life is it easier to “go with the flow” rather than swim upstream in the face of popular opinion in order to make decisions which, will wildly unpopular, will grow our school and benefit our children? How determined am I to commit to a course of action or cause even when it causes me great discomfort?

The life and death of Ahmed Kathrada forces me to consider my role as educator and parent. Like water, human beings tend to choose the path of least resistance and, as parents and educators, we are tempted to make this choice for our children too.

Allowing children to work together in cooperative learning activities, asking them to commit to schedules for their extra-curricular activities, giving them opportunity to debate hard issues in class and providing a safe space for them to be themselves, holding children accountable for their personal organization, all contribute to developing young people who are learning the value of commitment and courage.

Our country needs more people whose courage and commitment to do what is right and to stand up for their values and beliefs, places them in a position of moral leadership. I hope that in some small way, our school will play its part in developing a generation who will be held in the same esteem as those who in previous years have held aloft the torch of courage, commitment, determination and moral leadership which others have followed.

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Are schools guilty of peddling myths about the brain?

Understanding how children learn is a critical part of the studies teachers undergo in order to qualify in their field. For decades researchers have studied the science of learning and have tried to bring some level of deeper understanding to the complexity of the learning process from birth through to ongoing learning as adults. What are the factors that produce greater learning? Why are some people able to learn more in certain subjects than in others? What role does social interaction play in learning? How can teachers provide optimal conditions for learning to occur? Can we really train our memory? What causes us to remember some things and not others? The list of questions is endless!

 

Over the last few decades, the field of neuroscience has blossomed and the education sector has sat up and taken a keen interest. As a profession whose work revolves around learning, it makes sense that teachers continue to develop their understanding of how the brain learns. Unfortunately, along with excellent insights and understanding, has come a plethora of neuromyths which have unfortunately been peddled by schools as neuroscience. Parents and teachers have taken these ideas and embraced them in homes and classrooms as if they are absolute fact without due consideration given to the truth of the science behind them.

 

Have you ever heard these before?

 

– A child is either a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner.
– We only use 10% of our brain.
– A child is either left-brain or right-brain dominant.
– Playing brain games make you smarter.

 

The attraction of these myths is that they make the complex simple; the confusing clear. It is tempting to latch onto one or more of these and to categorise our children according to what seems to be their learning style or area of brain dominance. What we know is that teaching children using a variety of senses results in stronger learning and that children sometimes choose not to give of their best in certain learning areas as they’ve been told it doesn’t fit with their right or left brain dominance. False science runs the risk of preventing our children from fulfilling their God-given learning potential. When we learn more about how the brain actually does learn, we can provide the best possible opportunity for real learning to occur.

 

In her book, Brain Matters, Patricia Woolfe lists eight ways we can optimise learning based on what we know about how our brains learn:

 

– Provide as much experiential learning as possible
– Build on prior knowledge
– Use rehearsal strategies appropriate to what is being learnt
– Provide many opportunities for children to revisit information
– Emphasize concepts over facts
– Assist children in understanding information and how it can be used in the ‘real’ world
– Provide a safe psychological environment
– Provide positive emotional events

 

While not neuroscientists or brain researchers, teachers continue to grow in their understanding of how the brain learns. Great teachers work diligently at using research and data to provide the best possible opportunities for their pupils to optimise their learning.

 

As science continues to shed new light on how the brain learns, teachers need to continue to use this information to provide the best possible learning experiences for their pupils.

 

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Teacher Stretch

I recently came across this statement in the book ‘Leadership for Learning‘ by Carl Glickman. I love the sentiment and challenge expressed:

If, as a teacher,

  • I present the same lessons in the same manner that I have used in the past;
  • I seek no feedback from my students;
  • I do not analyse and evaluate their work in a manner that changes my own emphasis, repertoire and timing;
  • I do not visit and observe other adults as they teach;
  • I do not share the work of my students with colleauges for feedback, suggestions and critiques;
  • I do not visit other schools or attend particular workshops or seminars or read professional literature on aspects of my teaching;
  • I do not welcome visitors with experience and expertise to observe and provide feedback to me on my classroom practice;
  • I have no yearly individualised professional development plan focused on classroom changes to improve student learning; and finally,
  • I have no systemic evaluation of my teaching tied to individual, grade/department, and schoolwide goals;

THEN

I have absolutely no way to become better as a teacher.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if we truly to create learning environments which teach children to love learning, to engage creatively with the world around them and to develop the skills needed for them to be successful adults in our ever-changing world, every teacher in every school will need to create a culture of continual learning and a commitment to a growth mindset. There is simply no more place in our schools for teachers who believe that they can no longer adapt their practice through professional learning and feedback.

Glickman also states,

“Successful schools stand in great contrast to mediocre and low performing schools where faculty work apart from each other, and without common purpose, and with self-centered beliefs that they are doing the best they can.” – Glickman, Carl D. Leadership For Learning. 1st ed. Alexandria: Assn Supervn & Curr Dev, 2002. Print.

This is such a powerful challenge and one which those of us working in schools need to take seriously if we are to provide places of dynamic and relevant teaching and learning.

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uLead 2016 – Twitter summary notes

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Its the finishing moment which counts!

2016 sees the 31st holding of the modern Olympic Games. From 5-21 August Rio de Janeiro will host 10 500 athletes participating in 28 sporting codes. Olympic politics and economics aside, the Olympic Games gives the world an opportunity to pause for a moment and appreciate the talent, tenacity and determination of world-class athletes. It is truly a sporting spectacle and I cannot wait for the opening ceremony on 5 August!

One of the flagship events of the Olympic Games is the marathon. It is truly an event of endurance and determination. As the athletes set off on their 42km journey they are fresh and ready to face the road which lies ahead. They are full of hope, some with the dream of earning a medal, some with the promise of finishing the race as an Olympic marathon competitor and the honour which accompanies this accomplishment. As the race continues and the road stretches on for the athletes, some of those who set off with the determination of champions are faced with the reality of the standard of the competition, the performance pressure of the Games, the realisation of their own limitations in the heat of Olympic competition and the moment of decision-making when finishing the race no longer seems possible.

In 1968 John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania faced the agonising decision of whether to akhwariwithdraw from the Olympic marathon in Mexico City. In jostling for position he had fallen hard, injuring his shoulder and partly dislocating his knee. Despite the protestations of the attending medical staff, Akhwari picked himself up and insisted on completing the race. Back at the Olympic Stadium, the medal ceremony had concluded when the crowd became aware of police sirens and a group of police motorcycles surrounding an athlete approaching the stadium. In a mix of walking, limping and attempts at running, John Stephen Akhwari entered the stadium over an hour after the winner had crossed the finish line in front of the few thousand people who had remained behind (see this on YouTube). In what has been described as the greatest last place finish ever, Akhwari demonstrated that it is not the start which determines our place in history, it is the way in which we complete the race set before us. When interviewed after his incredible feat of endurance, he said,

“My country did not send me over 11,000 kilometers to start a race. They sent me over 11,000 kilometers to finish one.”

When our parents choose to send their little ones to join our school at three years of age, they are beginning a journey which will last another 15 years until the day comes when their young man or woman will complete their final day of Grade 12. It is a journey filled with challenges and obstacles and yet it is also a journey filled with exciting opportunities to discover, to learn, to create memories, to develop life-long skills and make friends which will last decades. We are privileged in the primary school to lead our young charges on this journey for 9 years. The pre-primary and primary school road is, in my opinion, absolutely vital to how the remaining 6 years in Junior and Senior High develop. It is in these 9 years that critical skills are developed, curiosity is encouraged and talents are unearthed and allowed the space to grow. The growth of key character traits and attitudes of grit, resolve and problem-solving is encouraged and our teachers provide ample opportunity for personal growth.

Teaching our children to get up when they fall, to live out the truth that it is how we respond to failure and difficulty which determines our success and to develop resilience and grit, is the responsibility of both parent and school. As the guardians of our pupils during their critical pre-primary and primary years, we are committed to ensuring that our pupils finish their scholastic race well-equipped for the life they will lead both in the High School and indeed after Grade 12.

 

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MEC Lesufi dances to the wrong tune

IMG_2361I came across the February edition of a publication entitled “Public Sector Manager” at Lanseria International Airport while waiting for a flight back to Cape Town. On the front cover was the portrait of Mrs Angie Motshekga, National Minister of Basic Education. Realising that there must be an education focus in this edition (and fascinated by the headline of ‘High Standards’), I took some time to browse the magazine.

One of the articles was entitled, “Gauteng Department of Education leads the pack”. The thrust of the article was that the GDE was the top performing education department in the 2014 Matric examinations. As I read through the very blatant self-congratulatory tone (after all, the magazine is published by the state’s Department of Communications), I was struck by the fact that nowhere was there mention of the high dropout rate on the way to Grade 12 in Gauteng (see this article for insights into the 2014 Matric pass rates).

I was also troubled by this sentence:

As the Minister makes the announcement Gauteng MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi jumps up screaming and punches the air as if he has just won a million rand.

It seems that Matric pass rates have become competition fodder for politicians. This is simply unacceptable. If the provincial MECs were truly concerned about the state of many of our schools and the education system, they would realise that matric results do not give the full picture of the health of the education system. MEC Lesufi was surely pleased with the announcement as I am sure he and his team have worked at various strategies to improve the matric pass rate. His reaction is however out of proportion given the huge obstacles still faced by the schools, pupils and teachers in his province.

Focusing purely on results is counter-intuitive as it creates an environment in which teachers and school principals feel pressured to hold pupils back in the lower grades who may not perform as well in Grade 12. It focuses on outcomes rather than the process of learning and it fails to take into consideration other factors in the school improvement process.

It is my hope that our politicians, including our Minister of Basic Education, stop using Matric results (and our pupils) as a means to give each other a pat on the back and start focusing on the real issues at hand (such as the quality of the Matric pass and the lack of true skills-based curriculum in the FET phase).

 

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10 Day Twitter Challenge

Twitter is my number one source of new information, challenging thinking, teaching and leadership resources as well as the medium through which I share my own online discoveries and thinking. I cannot imagine why any teacher would not use Twitter to connect with other professional educators for shared learning and resource sharing.

Some folk to whom I have spoken feel that Twitter is too complicated for them or that it is simply too much of a time-waster. These people have not spent enough time learning how Twitter works (very simple actually!) nor have they developed the discipline of 10 minutes a day browsing Twitter to discover what is actually available. There is rubbish on Twitter (as with any other online network) and there are those who use the medium to self-promote and certainly don’t add value through their inane commentary on the world. Those seeking to use Twitter as a professional tool need to be given the tools to do so and the support and encouragement to persevere.

This is why I really like the idea put forward by @SeanHCole who has issued a 10 Day Twitter Challenge for South African teachers. The graphic below explains how the challenge works. I will be putting this to my staff on Thursday morning and running this as an internal staff challenge. I encourage you to do the same. Let’s build the South African education community on Twitter so that we can all learn from each other. Those on Twitter already may wish to share this challenge. Follow the #10STCSA hashtag to find those teachers who have taken up the Twitter challenge.

Follow me on Twitter too – @artpreston

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How We Do Assessment

I recently shared a presentation with the Head of Curriculum and Assessment in our school. The purpose of the presentation was to inform our parents about the changing nature of education and the way in which we have structured our assessments.

Without the commentary for each slide, this may not make much sense but here it is anyway!

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School Leadership Lessons

Video source : http://www.mentorcloud.com/resources/weekly-insights-19/

Although this video is aimed at business leaders, I believe there are take-away pointers for school leadership as well. What follows is my attempt at summarising some of the key points from the various speakers and a few thoughts on their application in a school context.

  • There is a need for leaders to develop the skill of managing across boundaries (real or imagined)
    • Schools are full of boundaries. Some are real while others are imagined. There are boundaries between grades and departments, among the pupils (across and within grades), professional boundaries (often linked to a lack of skills in certain areas), boundaries of knowledge, boundaries of leadership capability, boundaries of time, boundaries of classroom doors and walls separating physical space and boundaries set up by those who seek to maintain their sense of power by position alone. Effective school leaders are those who can identify the boundaries in their school which are causing conflict and inefficiency and deal with them decisively and fairly.
  • Tomorrow’s leader needs to be excellent at engaging with people and be willing to give things away (knowledge, skills, time)
    • At the core of school leadership is relationship. A school leader who is unwilling to engage with  his/her school’s constituents (pupils, parents, staff, community) is bound to fail. It is imperative that a school leader be willing to make time to speak to parents, visit classrooms, engage with pupils and be a person to whom teachers can come and chat about curriculum, class management, challenging students and more.
  • Leaders need to accept that they will be much less in control and that they are no longer the only ones who set the agenda of their organisation
    • The picture of the Victorian school principal patrolling the school grounds, cane in hand and academic gown flowing behind him, is an outdated one and yet there are some school heads who act as if they are the 21st century embodiment of that stereotype. This approach to school leadership is doomed to failure as these principals have failed to understand that in an ever-changing world, access to knowledge, ideas, innovations and collaborative endeavours is now the norm and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. The school principal is not the tyrant ruling his school with an iron fist but rather the catalyst for discussion and the enabler of teachers, parents and community to develop new initiatives in the school.
  • Leadership is about connection – allowing distributed leadership across the organisation and across sectors, divisions and industries. It is also about being a leader who builds bridges across assumed boundaries and who is willing to be open to alternative viewpoints.
    • Our world is no longer insular. Technology has enabled us to make connections with people all over the world. These connections expose us to varied views on educational theories and management ideas. They force us to consider a different viewpoint and provide a platform for the sharing of best practice. Our connectedness helps us become better at what we do.
    • It would be wise for school leaders to seek ideas about management, leadership, organisational theory and strategic planning from outside the education arena. There is much that can be learnt from the business and entrepreneurial worlds. School principals need to seek these connections to increase their own efficacy and capacity for high-level leadership. Likewise I believe that business can learn from education. Its a partnership which needs to be forged so that there is mutual benefit.
  • Communication remains key but leaders need to become adept at the effective use of many different media to engage with others
    • Technology and the rise of social media has presented school leaders with an unprecedented opportunity for more effective communication. A ‘spray and pray’ approach to communication is however not effective and school leaders need to learn how best to use the various media now available. They need to understand their target markets and know which tools are  best suited to those markets.
  • Leaders need to be in the present to allow them to recognise talents and solutions in their organisation. 
    • School principals needs to be practitioners of “Leadership By Walking Around”. They need to be visible to their staff and students and should always be on the lookout for those who need a helping hand or those who can be praised. The solutions to problems faced inside a school can often be found simply by recognising that within their staff (admin and estate staff included) there may well be innovative solutions and expertise waiting for the opportunity to be released. Empowering the staff of a school to be part of the solution-finding process is a powerful practice and creates community and ownership amongst all those who work together at the school.
  • Ultimately, leaders must be clear about their purpose
    • There are few things that make me feel more despondent about a school than a principal who is simply going through the motions. Perhaps it is a little naive and idealistic given the demands of the job, but I still believe that leading a school is a calling. Those who have given up on this ideal, who have been burnt out and who no longer feel the passion of their work, need to think very seriously about why they continue in the job.
    • Purpose gives passion. Passion creates energy. Energy creates action. Action in a school creates exciting, dynamic learning experiences set into motion by inspired and motivated teachers. It starts at the top.
    • I feel desperately sorry for those principals who are burdened by bureaucracy, held to ransom by politicised teacher unions, constantly hassled by department officials, made to feel incompetent by unsympathetic governing bodies and pushed to the limit by the day-to-day life and death struggles of the impoverished communities in which they find themselves. How easy it would be for them to throw in the towel! I salute those who continue to lead their schools with passion despite these conditions. They are our education heroes. May we never lose sight of their dedication and may they continue to inspire us to lead with passion.
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Global Education Conference – 12-17 November 2012

Conferences can be very expensive and time-consuming. How wonderful then that teachers can now take part in a free global conference focused on bringing some of the best minds and practioners in education from all over the world together for five days of training, discussion and input.

The Global Education Conference runs for 24 hours a day for its duration and you can choose which sessions to log into. The schedule is available here : Conference schedule

Here is the latest press release from the conference organisers:

 

 

The 2012 Global Education Conference Press Release – October 2012