Time to think

20160505_212235-1.jpgI’ve been doing quite a lot of walking/running recently and it provides me not only with a well-needed brain break from the computer, leg-stretch from a chair and eye break from a screen but also time for my brain to slow down and stop thinking. Well, maybe not stop thinking but it helps me to filter my thoughts, get them in some sort of order through disordering them, breaking them up and somehow putting them back together again. I don’t necessarily gain any answers but they get “un-piled”!

Data has been top of mind in my work in the last few weeks. What is data? Despite myself, but also because I am a competitive soul, I can’t go for a walk or a run anywhere without trying to do it faster than the time before. I find myself calculating how many minutes it takes me to walk a kilometre, how many kilometres I can walk in an hour, was it faster than last time, slower, was the terrain similar, how much should I take off for stopping to take a photo, should I take anything off? If I hadn’t had to wait 45 minutes in the gully while everyone went through the hole in the rock, and then another 20 minutes for people to cross the river and climb the 3m rope climb how long would I really have taken to walk/run 23km and how would that equate to a half marathon…? But it is clear that those calculations are not just based on pure numbers, on data, they are based on human action, on nature, on the terrain, on feelings, on emotions, on abilities and competencies and relationships. Relationships between people and the environment, on rational and irrational fears, on prior experience and knowledge and understanding.

Take this weekend, for example. As part of the event I participated in we had to squeeze through a hole in a rock wall to get out of a gully. ‘Squeeze’ is an interesting concept – it was clearly not that small a hole as plenty of large-ish men got through with relative ease. My prior knowledge and experience of caves and caving meant that I was unafraid, eager, in fact to face the “challenge”. People around me who didn’t have that knowledge were fearful, anxious, uncomfortable. Feelings that were made more acute by the wait and the conversations and the “chinese whispers” passed back – the “fishermen’s tales” – “the hole is tiny!!” with hand gestures that indicated the smallest of gaps. But with support from those of us who did know, with encouragement, explanations and modelling of how to do it, with patience and with care everyone got through.

If this had been a test for which we were being assessed, I would have got top marks. My prior knowledge meant that the test was easy, my experience and my preparation meant that I had no problems slipping through. I may have also gained extra credit for being a “leader”. For others it was not the case, they may have been ‘judged’ not to have got top marks because they hesitated, or didn’t slide so gracefully through, or took too much time.

Personally, I think their achievement was all the greater. The obstacles they overcame to get through; emotional, physical, rational, irrational made their achievement more meaningful. Give me a situation where I have no prior knowledge, no confidence, no experience, irrational fear and I wonder how I would have fared.

So, how do you measure that sort of data when you assess people in academic tests? How do you compute immeasurable data such as emotions, human nature, social background, with knowledge and experience to make meaning, build connections and create pathways for learning?

This evening, I was talking with some friends. Both teachers and ex-colleagues. One of them is a drama teacher and some of her students do extremely well. Students who don’t do so well in other subjects. Students whose motivation for coming to school sometimes is simply because they have drama that day. Part of her inquiry this year is looking at why those students are motivated and engage in drama but not in other subjects. She said that one of the things she does is talk to her students about who they are, about their families, what they like doing, what their parents do, how many siblings they have, where they are in the family, what they do when they aren’t at school, where the family comes from, who they live with, who they spend the most time with; she finds out what makes them tick. She builds a relationship with them, trust, respect, interest, she cares. That’s what makes those kids come to school. That’s what makes those kids do well in drama.

So, in schools we need to look at our students, not just as they are in front of us, but who they are in their family, their community, their social groups, what they do in the classroom, of course, but what they do on the sports field, in the arts, in the community. Build on their experience and use all of that information, that data to gain insights, and generate meaningful action to personalise learning for them, give them and their whanau a voice, a stake in their decision-making and the pathways they choose.  That is the rich data. It’s not all about test scores. It’s about who we are, it’s about building relationships, making connections, trust, respect, humanity.

#28daysofwriting Day 20: eportfolios & student centred learning

Last week, as I have already blogged about, I was fortunate to work with Dr Helen Barrett, the guru of portfolios.  Her wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm and excitement about the power of portfolios for deep learning and personal growth is infectious.  We had already decided that we would like to introduce portfolios with our Year 9 students as we implement a whole new cross-curricular junior programme.  As we are a GAFE school, it made sense to trial using Google Sites as our platform.

The English department have assumed responsibility for guiding the students as they create their sites.  I started off with my class asking them what they thought a portfolio was.

  • A place to put their best work
  • A folder with writing in
  • Somewhere to store paintings

I asked them where they thought the word “portfolio” came from and gave them 2 minutes to find out.  Google gave them an answer but did they really understand it?

dictionary definition of the word portfolio

No!  But are these definitions of “portfolio” what we mean in education?  Well, as Helen Barrett says, the purpose of a portfolio is many things to many people.  And as technology has developed so has the function, purpose and meaning of a portfolio.

The girls then looked to find out where the word “portfolio” came from.

the origins of the word "Portfolio"

But were we any further forwards?  Most of them had created portfolios of “best work” at Primary School, they had also “led” student parent conferences at Intermediate school where they explained to their parents, under the guidance of their teachers, what they had been learning.  So they had some understanding of what a portfolio might mean for them in terms of their learning.

To make it meaningful to them we really needed to explore what they could use a portfolio for, what it would mean for them, how they could have ownership of it.  So I asked them to brainstorm ideas of what they could put in a portfolio of their learning.

mind map showing what students considered were important components of a portfolio

Interestingly, they came up with the same things that Helen Barrett had suggested could be incorporated into a portfolio.  I started them off with the idea of a “Splash” page but after that it was all them.

We talked about the idea that their portfolio should be all about them, that they could choose what they put there and who they shared it with.  Although we also talked about how it may be helpful for their teachers and their parents if they felt they could share it with them for them to have an insight into what they were learning and how their learning identities were developing.

I think we have made a positive start.  The students in my class were very excited about creating their space.  They loved being able to make their sites their own by creating their own themes and colours and adding photos and quotes.  In the first few weeks of term we had created our “Mihi” and presented them to the class.  They were very keen to embed them into their “Splash” page.

I think, though, that we have only just started in our journey of portfolios and our challenge is going to be working out who has ownership of them and maintaining a sense of excitement about them.  I am convinced, after talking with Helen, that if they are to be meaningful for our students, if they are to really be a way of making their learning visible, and a way of expressing their identity, then we have to let them have total ownership of them.  We must not hijack them and make them a tool of assessment.  One of the questions I was asked was, “Will we get marked on what we put in our portfolios?”.  My answer was unequivocal, but I am not so sure about some of my colleagues.  I said that some of the work they may choose to put in the “showcase” part of their portfolio might have been graded and reported on, but the portfolio itself was theirs.  It is their journey, their learning, their identity.

It is clear that, increasingly, employers and universities will be looking more at a person’s ability to reflect on their learning, how the experiences they have had affect the way that they learn and the decisions they make, and the direction they go in rather than the qualifications they achieve.  I believe we have to encourage good practice and also model it as professionals.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has used portfolios in secondary schools as to how they have worked and whether students have continued with them as they have moved through the school.