5. From a culture of care to a culture of caring about children's learning

Cover of 5th narrative

From a culture of care to a culture of caring for children's learning

Roscommon School in Auckland has over 600 children in Years 1 to 6, taught in Māori-medium, Pacific-medium or English-medium classes. More than half the children are of Pacific ethnicity; most the others are Māori.

School leaders were quite definite about what had contributed to the improved achievement of their children, particularly those in Years 5 and 6. It was the significant and ongoing professional learning and development (PLD) designed to improve content and pedagogical knowledge, particularly in relation to senior reading and mathematics throughout the school.  

The impetus for change came from the previous ERO review, which found that the school had a caring, collaborative and inclusive culture characterised by respect, empathy, relational trust and cooperation, but that it needed to care just as much about the children’s learning, achievement and academic success. The teamwork and collaboration that were already characteristic of the school provided a sound platform for this new development. The school went on to substantially improve the children’s progress and achievement by:

  • working together to change teachers’ mindsets and expectations
  • engaging and working closely with outside experts to implement bespoke, targeted PLD that catered specifically for their teachers and children
  • developing leaders’ capabilities so that the professional learning would continue when the experts had gone
  • improving teachers’ assessment capabilities.

Working together to change teachers’ mindsets and expectations

Given the culture of collaboration and teamwork, teachers were able to engage in honest and challenging discussion about where they were at and what needed to change. They knew that it was not sufficient to acknowledge the low levels of achievement and the only way to lift achievement was to improve their practice. They asked themselves ‘What can I do?’ and ‘What do I need to do to make a positive difference to children’s achievement?’ They identified the need to:

  • increase their content and pedagogical knowledge
  • inquire into their own practice attitudes.

Collaboration and teamworks between teachers and students.

Many teachers were courageous enough to recognise they had not been taught mathematics well when at school themselves. As a result, they now avoided parts of the curriculum or rushed concepts without appreciating the connections children needed to make to ensure future understanding.

Leaders wanted teachers to explore and introduce teaching practices that would engage students in problem solving and promote deeper thinking and learning. They challenged teachers to define an ‘effective teacher’ and discuss what makes an effective teacher. They saw that they needed to move from being totally in control of the learning to:

  • doing the learning themselves
  • facilitating students’ learning
  • learning with the students.

Some changes in practice were implemented without delay to increase children’s opportunities to learn. In the past, teachers had taken the first few weeks of the school year to get to know their children and build relationships with them. Now they realised that they if they wanted to accelerate achievement they had to get learning underway much earlier. Teachers also committed to guided reading everyday, to making every activity a learning opportunity, and to ensuring independent activities were always closely linked to whatever the children had been learning with the teacher. Now there would be reading, writing and mathematics every day and learning would start on day one of the school year.

Assessment data revealed a dip in reading achievement in Years 5 and 6 and generally poor mathematics achievement throughout the school. Although teachers had previously been involved in lots of general, school-wide PLD, they realised it was time to do something different. Year 5 and 6 teachers wanted PLD in reading, recognising their students were generally good at decoding but struggled with processing and understanding. They were able to participate in a Ministry PLD contract with the goal of developing more effective literacy teaching practice.

To improve mathematics achievement the school applied for Ministry-funded PLD in numeracy. An associate principal who had previously participated in Accelerating Learning in Mathematics (ALiM) PLD, argued what was needed was more intense, school-wide PLD that would simultaneously strengthen both content and pedagogical knowledge.

School leaders are responsible for making sure teachers are not involved in so many initiatives they cannot cope or have insufficient time to embed new practices. For this reason, Roscommon leaders were advised against trying to improve mathematics while also working on reading in Year 5 and 6. However, they and the board were not prepared to wait. With their new mindset and heightened expectations, they wanted to develop teacher practice on both fronts simultaneously.

The board funded release time for the teacher with ALiM expertise to work closely with the whole staff at the same time as they were involved in reading PLD. In a related development, teachers were also learning about teaching as inquiry and being supported to undertake mini inquiries. Leaders admitted it was a challenge to be engaged in PLD that had a number of different focuses, but they could see achievement increasing as effective practices were implemented across the school.

"It was a struggle for staff but every day learning and other aspects of some of our children's lives are a struggle for them."

Leader   

“They pointed out that the school’s whakataukï, whakapono ki a koe (believe in yourself), also gives reference to expecting great things for yourself and your whānau: unless you have had the opportunity to struggle and work through something, can you truly believe in yourself?”

ERO evaluator

Working with outside experts to implement professional learning that caters specifically for teachers and children

Mathematics professional learning and development

The mathematics PLD was designed to give teachers the capabilities to develop mathematical inquiry communities (MICs). In a MIC, children work in mixed-ability groups to discuss, negotiate and solve problems. The emphasis on voicing thinking, asking questions and expressing ideas focused on new pedagogies teachers were keen to explore. The fact the mathematics PLD involved a major financial commitment made leaders even more determined it would have a positive impact on achievement.

The leadership team worked closely with the external providers to make sure the PLD promoted culturally responsive pedagogies. They explained the strengths, needs, sensitivities and ways of working of the different teachers as well as the cultural considerations they needed to be aware of when working in a school with Mäori and Samoan immersion classrooms.

In team and staff meetings, maximum time was spent on collective inquiry into the effectiveness of teaching practices, using evidence of student learning. Many staff meetings and teacher-only days became mathematics workshops for the whole staff. School leaders closely monitored the teachers’ progress and confidence. At the end of each PLD session or workshop they discussed with the providers what was working and for whom, who was disengaged, what needed to change, and what the next steps should be.

When we visited the school, teachers were still consolidating new strategies and practices, but many changes were already evident. Long-term overviews had been modified to make sure children experienced the full curriculum. Concepts and skills children were still not confident with (for example fractions) were now taught several times during the year. Teachers varied the amount of direct instruction and ran workshops to address gaps while making sure their students had frequent opportunity to solve problems in mixed-ability groups.

Reading professional learning and development

This PLD focused on developing teachers’ capabilities to teach, assess and reflect on the reading comprehension of Year 5 and 6 children.

Personal reflection indicated children had many opportunities to practise their recall, and assessment data revealed they were generally good at it. It was clear, however, they needed more deliberate teaching related to comprehension.

The teachers adopted the practice of making sure children always read the relevant text before any instructional teaching, whether individual or in groups. This meant instructional time was optimised for improving comprehension, not taken up by silent reading or decoding, which the children could already do. Shared expectations of what should happen in a reading lesson were agreed among teachers.

Instructional time now focused on:

  • comprehension skills – activating prior knowledge, predicting, self-monitoring, questioning, making connections, visualising, summarising and retelling, inferring and synthesising (as outlined in Sheena Cameron’s resources)
  • having children discuss and justify their answers and the strategies used                        
  • providing specific feedback about the strategies the children have  successfully used.              

Developing leaders’ capabilities to continue professional learning after the experts have gone

Not only did leaders attend the reading and mathematics PLD, they also participated in PLD designed to develop their capabilities as leaders. This latter PLD focused on developing their confidence to observe teachers’ practice, reflect on what they had seen, lead feedback conversations with teachers, and mentor them. Much of this learning took place in conjunction with the reading PLD. Leaders observed literacy teaching, then learned how to do in-depth observations followed by post-observation reflections with the teacher concerned.

Literacy facilitator works with students t demonstrate the use of modelling book

The literacy facilitator works with teachers.

Initial observations or walk-throughs focused on:

  • the classroom learning environment
  • routines and classroom management
  • the organisation of resources for the programme
  • conversations between the teacher and children
  • student voice.

The external facilitator modelled observation and questioning techniques and supported leaders to develop the confidence to engage in challenging conversations about teaching practice.

Later, real-time classroom observations were replaced by videoed lessons. These were more successful as the teacher got to see the video first, and could quickly identify when, for example, their questioning moved from recall to inference or their feedback was general rather than specific. They were often able to recognise and discuss where they could improve.

They continued to use a practice analysis framework. Before the observation, the teacher and observer would meet to clarify the teacher’s goals, discuss any pre-reading, and agree on what would be looked for. After the observation, they would jointly analyse parts of the lesson and discuss the thinking behind the teacher’s actions. They would discuss the impact of the teacher’s actions on the children and next steps or goals.

   “One teacher talked to us about watching a video of herself taking an instructional reading lesson. When she had finished. She said to herself, ‘Oh I am wasting their time. I haven’t asked any inference questions. Now I know why my kids aren’t getting it.’”

   ERO Evaluator

By 2016, the new reading and comprehension strategies were being used in Year 4 classes. Some were also being used with Year 2 children.

Improving teachers’ assessment capabilities

As their professional thinking changed, teachers were expected to be involved in trialling new, more effective strategies and approaches. In doing so, they had the support of their curriculum team. Where specific needs were identified, specific PLD was arranged. If leaders could provide this PLD they did. If they were not sufficiently confident or knowledgeable, they would use external expertise. Teachers at different stages of implementing new practices would support each other. Teachers who had been implementing the MIC approach over the previous two years mentored and supported teachers who were new to it.               

To improve their teaching-as-inquiry capabilities, teachers did mini inquiries in which they identified an issue, found professional readings, trialled a teaching activity, reflected on the impact for students, and then shared their findings with colleagues. Instead of relying on one particular teacher as the ‘go-to’ expert on curriculum, teachers learned to have collaborative, open-to-learning conversations in which everyone was expected to contribute and learn.

Teachers increasingly understood what was meant by ‘teaching as inquiry’. They were honest about what the data was saying and accepted responsibility for making improvements. Some inquiries were undertaken collectively by teaching teams. One of these involved Years 5 and 6 teachers using a common assessment to investigate children’s mastery of reading comprehension and their learning needs. They adapted and used a task from the assessment resource banks (ARBs), analysing the resulting data using a framework they had developed. They jointly planned a response to the findings but developed their own class plans to address specific areas of weakness identified by the ARB task.

Class activities

After further teaching, the children were reassessed using a similar task. Again, the teachers identified areas needing further teaching, and planned actions to address them during each week of the following term. Any necessary resources were found so that teachers could confidently do what they had to do.

After working with external facilitators to develop better assessment practices, teachers were now using a greater range of tools when making overall teacher judgements (OTJs). They had also improved their practice of formative assessment as could be seen in the children’s workbooks, class and group modelling books, and observational notes. As the children were increasingly able to explain their thinking and share their ideas, this also helped teachers make informed judgments about their progress and achievement.

The following framework was used by the school to support teachers to make informed OTJs:

Observations and conversations

Tasks

Tools

What sources of information have we included?

What has been collected?

Where might these tasks be located?

Check the date of the testing: what is currently relevant for this student?

How does this evidence  marry with National Standards?

Do we have sufficient evidence to suggest that this is where the student operated on a regular basis?

Learning goal defined by students

As their teachers’ content knowledge and assessment practice improved, the children were increasingly able to set their own learning goals. This was especially true in classrooms where the learning progressions (for example, in the form of learning stage cards identifying the skills at each level) were visible. In these classrooms, children knew what they were learning to do and were given specific oral feedback on their progress. All children from Years 1 to 6 were expected to justify answers and explain their thinking and reasoning.

Students were now engaged in more purposeful learning, with the result that we saw Year 5 and 6 children on task and enthusiastic about their learning. With their teachers’ support, they were seeing connections between their reading and what they were learning in other learning areas.

Children were secure in the knowledge that, even though their learning was set at a challenging level, they would succeed with the help of their teachers and their peers.       

Some Year 5 and 6 children told us that their teacher was a learner too. They said this because they had access to their teachers’ planning, which showed what they were working on as a result of the PLD. In one class, students told us their teacher was working on giving feedback related to the success criteria they had developed together. Sometimes they would remind him to do this, in this way helping him with his learning.

Year 5 and 6 children told us their learning was now set at more challenging levels than in the past. They valued being exposed to challenge. They were not afraid of hard learning and were more confident to ask questions when they didn’t understand. They knew this is what good learners do.

Reading results in particular showed the progress students were making as a result of more effective teaching.

Learning progress of students

Percentage at or above reading National Standards

 

2013

2014

2015

Reading

Percentage

Percentage

Percentage

After   1 year

17.5

29.3

25.7

After   2 years

62.4

47.4

64.0

After   3 years

87.0

66.0

55.0

End   of Year 4

68.5

62.4

73.8

End   of Year 5

54.5

68.7

71.4

End   of Year 6

67.1

74.3

77.8

      

“Our teacher teaches us strategies like asking questions and challenging ideas.”

“We have a maths wall that has all the strategy cards for stages 

6 and 7 that we can use to see our progress.”

“We have reading cards that remind us about remembering, understanding, creating, evaluating, applying and analysing.”

 “The teacher has a modelling book that we can use if we get stuck on something like fanboys [conjunctions] or sentence interruptions [aspects of punctuation]. If you have forgotten what to do you go to the modelling book and it will remind you.”

Year 5 and 6 children