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Inspiring Teachers As Learners

By Janet Whittle, Assistant Principal

Focusing on innovative pedagogy

Jennie [Vine] and I work with the teachers in a similar way to the way we expect the teachers to work with the children. We have coaching conversations according to what we know about them as teachers, where they are in their thinking and in their skills and abilities. We are always trying to promote more curiosity in them, just as we expect them to do with children.

That’s building a learning culture?

Absolutely. Sometimes I’ll see something and I’ll send out an article or a quote. Jennie might do the same. We’re trying to keep teachers curious …get them to keep opening their own minds up and broadening them. We bring philosophy into classes because we want children to sure of how to question,  how to consider things from different viewpoints. It’s understanding that the broader and deeper you go as a thinker the more opportunities you create for yourself in life. This is what we’re doing with our teachers too.

You’re offering them a deep understanding of pedagogy.

Yes. But there’s balance too and sometimes that’s something we have to consider as well.

Ray, Jennie and I have come from such different places. So, in some ways, we’ve created a balance between us. That’s what we’re trying to classrooms as well. 

Edutopia showcases Wooranna Park

I was thinking about that question as we decided which teachers we chose to talk to Edutopia.

I realised that we needed to find teachers who demonstrated both ‘big picture’ and ‘small picture’ thinking. For instance, we have absolutely excellent teachers in the junior school who are really good at helping other people understand where the philosophy of Reggio Emilia fits into the school’s philosophy. They know how it’s done in practice. But there’s nothing innovative in the way they teach.

That person may embrace a particular practice and because they’re passionate about it, they promote it in the school. Whereas it’s really important to see the big picture in conversations about innovation.  Without the big picture, I don’t believe you can embed a sense of exploration in our classroom practice.

As a profession, how do teachers disconnect big and small pictures? 

We’re all different, but I think that some people become teachers because they have an image of a teacher, the teacher they want to be. It gives them self-esteem and the feeling of respect in the community.

Others become teachers because they are just passionately interested in other people and how they learn.

So, it has to do with your motivation. If your motivation is located in ‘big picture’ of teaching and learning anyway…then you’re going to be looking at that and going between the big and the small picture all the time.

The history of creating our raison d’etre 

The WPPS raison d’etre was being drafted when I came to Wooranna. So, I was here when Esme [Capp] was formulating it. Since then, we’ve had quite a few looks at it, and altered it over time. The latest one identifies a lot of this pedagogy, but we started to, I’d say, talk about and improve its application throughout the school. We wanted this because we didn’t have a document that talked to our philosophy of teaching. From there,  we were able to start working on the practice.

What they say from a Reggio Emilia perspective is that innovation is always about the practice and the philosophy being out of balance, and then having to rebalance. Sometimes balance will go because something new comes along. For instance, when Jennie was working on the Enigma Missions, the balance was tipped towards a really promising practice. 

On another occasion, teachers began using VCOP & the Big Write in the school without discussing its implications pedagogically. Basically, what Big Write is about is giving children a topic to write on, and then spending a couple of days talking to them about the writing before they do it, and then they all sit down and write on the same topic at the same time. That didn’t fit anywhere in our philosophy. As a result, we’ve been talking to teachers about writing in terms of how it has got to be stimulated in terms of what it means that children have things they want to write on. We want to encourage teachers and students to experience writing just because they want to write, just because they can…and to take into account that writing can be graphics, and things like that, you know, and it doesn’t have to all be the same.

So, then, you see you can go back to your raison d’etre and you can say to teachers, “Well, look, our philosophy says this. How can you justify doing such-and-such if this is what we believe about children and about their learning?”

So, imbalance between theory and practice is the driver of the innovation?

It is the driver of innovation. Even so-called ‘bad practice’ helps you innovate, because then you have to think around, “How did that bad practice happen? What kind of thinking is there in there, and how am I going to shift some of the thinking about that?”

What do you expect parents to get from viewing the raison d’etre? Is it meant for parents at all?

I don’t really think that it is meant for parents. It’s really meant for educators. And what I see as its weakness is that, while it really strikes strongly in all the educators who visit us, our staff don’t necessarily spending much time thinking about it. And, perhaps, that’s something that Jennie and I should be considering a bit more, though we try to have some very open-ended discussions with staff. 

For instance, I looked at the reasons why teachers are leaving the profession with the junior school staff. We started with a wonderful image of what a really good teacher looks like, and the fact that we have a very, very low attrition rate at this school, teachers moving or teachers leaving.

But I think that sometimes when we bring it back to raison d’etre, teachers feel they have ‘seen it’, but they’re not necessarily digging into it in the same way that Ray and Jennie and I might. So, when I look at the diagram, for instance, there’ll be something there, and I will think, “That’s a really good trigger for thinking about something that I was reading recently, and perhaps that’s something I should pull out and have a discussion with Jennie about.” And then we can take it back to the staff, too.

How could you put this diagram before teachers so that they would pay attention to it?

I think it’d have to be something playful. I think I’d probably make it into a 3D roll-the-dice type of an arrangement, or something, you know, where you could throw in the air, or do something playful with it so that all the teachers would be able to find a benefit in it… like playing with stress toy or something that they had in their pocket, and they’d pull it out, and they’d go, “Oh, yeah, I haven’t thought about that today.” Something like that’d be fun.

The AITSL website are really big on self-assessment. Do you think that works?

32 AITSL things that outline what it is to be a teacher!! 

It takes the focus off the learning and puts it squarely on the teaching. There’s a beautiful Loris Malaguzzi quote in our raison d’etre about learning and teaching sitting on different sides of the river, but streaming along together. AITSL is all about teaching, and we’re all about learning. So you can see that there’s a real mismatch with the philosophy. 

Teaching is something that becomes a very, very personal part of the process. If you can’t look at the children, create a relationship with them so that you understand them well enough to understand what their learning is going to be about, then it doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are. I can get you passionate about something, but it’s the guru effect we talk about, this professional development where you go and you see something. , When the guru effect is at play, teachers may ask “How can I go back to the school and do this and that?” Then people get back and they get lost in their usual thing, and there’s no change. No change happens.

Now, a lot of the reason that that happens is because change is hard. Whatever the change is going to be is gonna be too hard. So, things that are very, very easy, and very structured creep in, and then you have to get them out again,  move towards the things that make us uncomfortable.

One young teacher I was talking to last week about how her team was not necessarily being supportive of her ideas. And I said, “Look, just think about this in a different way. You’re making them feel uncomfortable because what you’re doing is quite hard, and they don’t all feel that they can do it. You’re putting them in the same space that we put the kids in, because when we make them feel uncomfortable, then that’s a trigger for learning.”  James Nottingham talks about it in “The Learning Pit.”

So, I advised the young teacher, when you’re in that situation, don’t accept it. Think of it as a bit of a triumph. “If I’ve made my colleagues feel bit uncomfortable because I’m doing this, and it’s difficult practice, then maybe I might help them learn something new.”

So, you asking teachers to develop muscles to handle discomfort?

In fact, if teachers don’t, they lose the muscle that they might have had for doing surprisingly simple things. One of the teachers commented recently about something that we’d done, “It put me back to being a learner again.” And it’s always good to go back to being a learner, to realize that everybody struggles in some way or another, and to be tolerant of the struggle. Don’t try and get the answers. Let the person struggle and learn.

So, someone else was coining the phrase, I think, “happily struggling,” or, “beautifully struggling.” I can’t remember which one it was.

So, your raison d’etre is still evolving? What do you see as the next step?

I’ve been thinking about how the learning symposiums support peer assessment. They’re still evolving. Workshops, the purpose of the workshops, the teachers still can’t quite agree. So, sometimes I’m in a planning meeting, and we’re talking about workshops, and I think that they all understand the idea of immersion, but they’re not quite sure what else they could put into their workshop. So, we have conversations about targeted teaching. Now, some teachers still think that every child needs to be ‘targeted’. And I ask, “Why?” Because there are still some of us who feel guilty if we’re don’t give a child the same thing.

You know, you’d say that that’s a bit absurd in a school like ours, but everybody is on their own journey. It’s my job to change their thinking. You know, targeted teaching is all about an opportunity for a child, or a group of children, to take something further in their thinking and in their skills. And I’ve got to do it in a way that makes sure that that becomes embedded in the student’s long-term understanding.

So, you know, I shouldn’t be just thinking about targeted teaching for today, and that’s what I’m trying to get across to them. If you’re planning targeted teaching, then you should be planning what I’m doing today, but also that I’m coming back to it in two months, or in four months, to find out, “Was that some learning that really stuck? Because it didn’t stick, I’ve wasted my time in these sessions. There’s no growth. So some of these concepts we’re still trying to get teachers to really embed in their own thinking as well. And layering the learning, we’re having discussions through an assessment committee on assessment practices as well.

The literature circles have really developed, as well, into Socratic Forums, but they’re spearheading a lot of group learning in the upper school. So we started with group projects in the junior school, and very Reggio-Emilia-style projects, things that interest the children. And when we create one of those projects, we look at the ‘teachers as researchers’ questions. 

What are we trying to find out about children’s learning? What are we trying to learn? And then, what are the children interested in learning about? Where is their passion and their interest taking them? Because that’s how the project develops. And, as it develops, you’re continually having discussions, you’re bringing what the children are saying, you have to look at that as a group, and then work out where the project is heading. So, you’re tracking the journey.

Literature circles have taken a similar role, and they’ve become a springboard for projects in the upper school. But the bounds of the project are really unknown, as well, and they may end up meshing with what children are doing in Enigma Missions. So they’ve become a group springboard for small group and individual thinking, as well.

Speaking at the British Education Research Association 40th anniversary, Pasi Sahlberg stated the importance of teachers as researchers.  This is what you’re highlighting here?

For me, one of the most important things is that the teachers see themselves as researchers of children’s learning… because that’s how you grow as a teacher, and as a group of teachers.

I also think, too, that some of the things that we’re doing now have a real link to what students might do if they were at a university, or if they were in a job where they would have to be able to think about, for example, if they’re scientists, they’re going to have to do all the reading they can on a topic before they start. If they’re doing a PhD, they’re gonna have to do all their reading on a topic to find out what other people have learned.

The Literature Circle teaches students to do the readings, to start with the readings, and, from there, to justify where the questions are taking them. I see it as putting in a process whereby in order to make research really solid for children teachers need to understand how to be researchers themselves.

You’re wanting teachers to model for their students how we build our knowledge around agreed meanings? 

Which brings up a problem in education and a problem that struck me when we were interviewed by Edutopia and they said, “Do something about personalized learning.”  And I said to them, “Just a cautionary note on that. What’s become known as personalized learning has become very, very narrow in the same way that project-based learning has become very prescribed.” 

So we used to talk about personalized learning a great deal, but if we talk to other people about it, they have an image of something quite narrow. However, at Wooranna, we don’t see it as a narrow thing at all because all of the different aspects of our philosophy & our pedagogy link into that idea that the learner is autonomous and their learning is personal to them.  When connected in a real way to the learner, learning changes the framework of their thinking. It changes the way they are as a person and it has a really permanent effect on them.

Views on neuroscience and brain theory

They do and different connections and more activity from a part of your brain. And that activity makes it easier for the next bit of activity

Some of it fits into Kieran’s [Nolan] space.  I’ve been looking at a few things through Susan Greenfield writings. She is amazing in explaining about brain development. She and Brian Cox are my pin-ups The way that he explains physics to me in a way that I can understand it, Greenfield explains the workings of the brain. I’m fascinated with the idea that if I visualize something, it’s just as effective in changing my brain as if I actually do it.  So I can visualize myself playing golf out there even though I’m not out there on the golf course, but it can have the same effect. That’s if I do it properly. 

What I think is technology is doing is giving us opportunities to learn to be better visualizers and to learn to take that visualized situation as an experience and use it to change your brains.  And the research is really quite early on some of that. But what I think Kieran is doing is that he is changing a lot of it. He’s giving children a lot of opportunities to visualize things that they may never have come across if they hadn’t been coming to the school.

I don’t know if you have had a turn with the VIVE (VR). For example, you put that on and you create an artwork. It’s done with brushes that don’t actually make anything permanent. But in creating that artwork, your brain has had the same experience as if you were sitting down with a piece of paper. The implications for that are very interesting for teachers because we have these little arguments over what children have to be able to do. But Will Richardson says we argue about things that in a few years will not matter. So why are we still arguing over these little bits and pieces?