Annual Reflection on Professional Learning 2015
In the same way we ask students to reflect on their work, so too should we, as professionals, take time to consider our practice. Returning to my home school after spending the 2014 calendar year teaching in Australia, I'm going to reflect on the two different systems and their impact on student learning.
My home province does not use high-stakes standards testing, rather, there is a greater emphasis on knowing the learner and nurturing their development. While our provincial department has subject based curriculum, my district makes it clear that academics are only one dimension of a child's development and we ought to attend to all dimensions (physical, emotional, spiritual, etc.). It is, in my opinion, a compassionate and empathetic approach to education where our primary focus on people rather than data.
I appreciated experiencing Australia's rich data environment (particularly New South Wales, one of the largest school districts in the world) during my exchange year. Students write national standards exams called the NAPLAN (National Assessment of Proficiency in Literacy and Numeracy) at grade 3, 5, 7, and 9. These tests occupy the better part of three days not to mention the work beforehand to prepare students for the testing environment. Their exams are marked centrally and their scores are ranked within the school and the state. The resulting data from the exams highlight areas in granular detail where the child either met or failed to perform to expectations. Each outcome is tied to interventions and lessons to build capacity. External companies also offer (for sale) test question banks meant to mimic the standards exams in order to prepare students for the test.
The wealth of data was overwhelming, but certainly could be useful though I'm not quite convinced that an attentive teacher couldn't achieve the same sense of a child's needs in less time and without the enormous capital outlay and testing infrastructure. Another challenge is the test validity. I observed that students approached the test with different levels of interest and motivation. In small schools, the aggregate data has little utility when ranked with other schools. The real danger is when the data becomes the focus and "how do we bring the numbers up?" is asked more than, "how do we help this student?" I'm sure that in our heads, when saying the former, we see the numbers going up as a byproduct of helping students, but I've also observed that the time spent crunching numbers can far outweigh the time spent planning learning interventions for children.
In my home middle school we keep the same students throughout the day and, as their homeroom teacher, we are responsible for all content areas. This can be disconcerting for those teachers who consider themselves content specialists and it was for me too. However, in a collaborative environment with inter-teacher supports, one can quickly fill those knowledge gaps. The goal is not to divide the work, but to build capacity in all content areas. Part of this is a shift from thinking about ourselves as content specialists to thinking about ourselves as learning specialists. We know how to look at a skill, break it down into component parts, structure learning experiences to build capacity, and assess growth along the way. As learning specialists, the content is secondary - required knowledge, for the most part, can easily be discovered in learning communities.