Learning to Listen - Dr Nicole Mockler

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National and International Conferences. ... Senior school students were trained to run focus groups with ... It argues that if we can learn to listen to students, to ..... successful have computers been in assisting .... help them, old dog, new tricks, slow learning.” ...... Baccalaureate (IB). ..... professional judgement to guide you.

LEARNING TO LISTEN: Listening to learn A resource for teacher researchers jointly published by MLC School, Burwood and the Centre for Practitioner Research, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney.

Susan Groundwater-Smith & Nicole Mockler

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The authors would like to acknowledge the collaborative inquiry undertaken in each of the schools which form the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools: Ashfield Boys’ High School, Asquith Girls’ High School, Burwood Girls’ High School, Curl Curl North Public School, Loreto Normanhurst, MLC School and SCEGGS Darlinghurst. As members of the Coalition, schools have developed methodologies which honour and have listened to the perceptions and voices of students. Each school has engaged in ways which support and enhance the improvement of learning for all. Many of the examples cited in this publication grow directly from this work. The work of the Coalition has been supported by the Centre for Practitioner Research, Faculty of Education, University of Sydney. A special thanks is due to MLC School whose Council provided the start up funds necessary for this publication.

Cover image by Pam Hatfield, MLC School Community relations

Distributed by the Division of Professional Experiences, Partnerships and Development Faculty of Education Social Work, University of Sydney, 2006. © University of Sydney, 2003 ISBN 1 86487 555 0 This work is copyright. Reproduction for any purposes other than that allowed under Part VB of the Australian Copyright Act 1968 as amended 1989 requires the written permission of the distributor. This project was supported by a grant from MLC School, Burwood NSW.

Requests and inquiries concerning the purchases of this resource should be addressed to: The Division of Professional Experiences, Partnerships and Development Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, 2006. Phone +61 2 9351 7031 Fax +61 2 9351 6249 email [email protected]

PREFACE School based enquiry has a long history in Australian education. However, this resource has some characteristics that are distinctive. Foremost among these is the emphasis upon developing strategies whereby the voices of key stakeholders in schools can be heard and attended to; hence the title. When it was first proposed to publish such a resource the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools was in its infancy. The initial submission to the Council of the MLC School, Burwood and the Centre for Practitioner Research at the University of Sydney signalled an intention to draw upon the MLC School’s experiences in developing evidence based practice as a professional norm within the school. Since 1998 the school has engaged Susan Groundwater-Smith as a Researcher in Residence. Her role was, and continues to be, one where she works with teams of teachers to investigate matters of concern to the school in such a way that improvement in practice will follow. Over the intervening years a large range of studies have been undertaken and reported upon, not only within the school itself, but at State, National and International Conferences. As the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools grew and expanded, the range of examples also grew as did the possibilities for development and refinement. This can best be illustrated by a particular case. MLC School was interested in collecting the views of students in the junior school. Senior school students were trained to run focus groups with samples of girls from K–6. Subsequently a report was prepared and delivered. The next iteration of the process was at Ashfield Boys High School, where boys from senior years were trained to interview students in the middle years. Following the focus groups a questionnaire was developed and the results analysed by students in a computer class. A further development occurred at Burwood Girls High School, where it was a group of parents who were trained to run focus groups. Asquith Girls High School has since used the process and added in a cycle whereby the students have fed back the results to a whole staff forum. Several of these examples are spelled out in the resources. Thus, it may be seen, that over the two years between the initial proposal and this product a range of practices has grown and emerged, contributed to by all of the schools in the Coalition. Clearly this evolution has served to enrich Learning to Listen: Listening to Learn. However, it is important to acknowledge and respect the initiative taken by MLC School in perceiving that processes leading to improvements to professional practice should be widely shared and discussed.

Contents SECTION 3 Developing evidence based practice

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Developing commissions of inquiry

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Collegial pairs as a strategy for action

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The thorny nature of evidence

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The corporate learning portfolio

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Quality control and ethical practice

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Accountabilities

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STRATEGIES

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SECTION 1 Gathering the evidence

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Focus group discussions

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Images and metaphors

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The monologue – Interviewing oneself

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Scenarios as a stimulus

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Documentary photographs and drawings

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A silent conversation

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APPENDIX D

Structuring a questionnaire

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Example of a questionnaire arising from a focus group discussion

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Notes

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INTRODUCTION

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Evidence based practice as a strategy for school improvement and teacher professional learning

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Introducing teachers to evidence based practice within an action learning context

SECTION 2 Using the evidence

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The place of the position paper as a means of informing practice

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Reading research

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CONCLUSION Facilitating practitioner inquiry

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APPENDIX A Some helpful resources

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APPENDIX B Sample letter

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APPENDIX C A portrayal of a focus group discussion

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Introduction There can be no disputing the fact that teaching, well done, is difficult and demanding physical, emotional and intellectual work. It requires of teachers that they engage in multiple decision making, whether in preparing for the day, interacting in the classroom or assessing and reporting upon student learning outcomes. Teachers are continuously deciding what to teach, how to teach it, how to respond thoughtfully and constructively to the learners in their class, and how to engage with their professional colleagues and parents. Often their decisions have to be made quickly and efficiently. However, there are also occasions when decisions can and should be based on carefully assembled evidence. These are the important decisions which shape and frame what lies at the very heart of teaching and learning.

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LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

EVIDENCE BASED PRACTICE AS A STRATEGY FOR SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT AND TEACHER PROFESSIONAL LEARNING

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This resource material has been designed to help teachers collect evidence, in the context of their own school, in ways which will assist them and their colleagues to make informed decisions. It argues that if we can learn to listen to students, to parents, to the community, to our colleagues and professional partners, in systematic and well organised ways we can improve our practice as a result of what we have heard and how well we have understood it. Many books and articles have now been published which support teacher enquiry and school based research. We shall provide a short, annotated bibliography of these at the conclusion to the publication1. However, it is important to note that we are not going to burden our readers with the kind of referencing which goes into the usual academic publications. Instead we are concerned that we prepare a practical ‘primer’ which provides a range of strategies which can be employed and which are not only useful, but enjoyable too. We are anxious to illustrate the concept that gathering, interpreting and acting upon evidence can be accommodated into classroom practices and, indeed, can become part of the curriculum itself. Throughout the publication we shall present case studies of evidence based practice from schools who have been working in this way for some time within a loose alliance known as the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools which see as their purposes:

» developing and enhancing the notion of evidence based practice; » developing an interactive community of practice using appropriate technologies; » making a contribution to a broader professional knowledge base with respect to educational practice;

» building research capability within their own and each other’s schools by engaging both teachers and students in the research processes; and

» sharing methodologies which are appropriate to practitioner inquiry as a means of transforming teacher professional learning.

1 See Appendix A for an annotated list of useful publications supporting practitioner research.

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INTRODUCTION

Each of the seven schools in the Coalition has made a commitment to developing professional knowledge about: teaching and learning; curriculum and assessment; pedagogy; and school organisation. Their knowledge is based upon evidence which has been collected in a variety of ways to serve a variety of decision making purposes. Four of the schools: Ashfield Boys High School, Asquith Girls High School, Burwood Girls High School and Curl Curl North Public School are in the public sector; while Loreto Normanhurst, MLC School and SCEGGS Darlinghurst are Independent girls’ school, the latter two catering for students from Kindergarten to Year 12. In order to demonstrate the ways in which schools can use evidence to improve the ways in which they operate it is worth considering some of the projects that have been undertaken by the schools to improve practice. There have been studies in several of the schools which have focused, one way or another, on what students, parents and teachers believe to be good learning and sound conditions to promote good learning. A school has pursued with its parents the ways in which they perceived that the school was meeting its planned objectives for that year. Another was interested in systematically investigating the partnership which it had with a university to further develop critical literacy within the school. Two have been involved in innovations in science education which have encouraged greater autonomy amongst its student body. In one case there has been an investigation into student responses to its arrangements for the middle years of schooling, while in another teachers’ attitudes and beliefs regarding information and communication technologies were explored in order to identify further professional development needs. In several of the schools more than one investigation will be taking place at any one time. Clearly, then, evidence has been something which is being collected in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. Teachers, at times with the assistance of students and parents, were observing, interviewing, photographing and surveying. They were collating,

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analysing, and interpreting. They were puzzling, hypothesising, reflecting and discussing. In sum, they were engaged in satisfying and rewarding professional learning.

INTRODUCING TEACHERS TO EVIDENCE BASED PRACTICE WITHIN AN ACTION LEARNING CONTEXT How then does one go about introducing teachers to evidence based practice within an action learning context? Just thinking about evidence itself can be to challenge a number of preconceived ideas. For those of us addicted to television courtroom dramas, evidence is often that which is offered up in an adversarial way to prove a case. But when considering evidence based practice in the school context it is more useful to think about the ways in which the forensic scientist uses evidence to understand a phenomenon. The test is not to prove a case, but to more fully and deeply understand what is going on. In order to make the notion of evidence interesting and problematic we have developed what we call ‘The Wallet Investigation’. It goes something like this.



THE WALLET INVESTIGATION The group leader takes his or her wallet and lays it on the table. Teachers are asked to take everything from the wallet and use it as evidence to make hypotheses about the lifestyle of the owner. The leader then quietly observes and records what happens next.

Much can be learned from this simple exercise. Some participants are reluctant to investigate the wallet because they see that it is intrusive; in the same way that some teachers, acting as

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

researchers, will be concerned about intruding into their students’ space by conducting an inquiry of one kind or another. This delicacy is not to be dismissed and will further be discussed when we turn to the ethics of gathering evidence. Other participants will go to the task with great enthusiasm, pulling out the contents, exclaiming upon this or that. Imagine their chagrin when asked, at the end of the event, to return everything as they found it. Of course they cannot and this raises issues regarding the fact that the very act of collecting evidence can disturb the matter being investigated. Different participants will group the various artefacts in different ways, this too can be an indication of their own mindsets and beliefs. As well they may jump to conclusions that are subsequently unfounded. Only interaction with the owner of the wallet can verify their interpretation – but then the owner might be lying – so are there other means of verifying or ‘triangulating’ the evidence? Similarly questions may arise in relation to the extent that the owner of the wallet may choose to withhold some evidence by removing items beforehand, or even construct some evidence by adding items in. These are important research issues. It is even possible to reflect upon what is not in the wallet. Sometimes the ‘silences’ in research can be as important as that which is revealed. Once, when undertaking some research in the UK for the British Library one of the authors of this resource was required to analyse interview transcripts from the academic sixth form of a large number of schools across England and Wales. Among other things, students had been asked for their reasons for selecting given subjects to take for A Levels (mainly used for entry into university). In spite of combing the transcripts there were no references to the intrinsic worth of the subjects; that there might be any joy in studying English or History, Mathematics or Science. All of the reasons were instrumental – what would earn high marks, what was required for a given university course and so on. One would not want to make too much of it. But it could be an indication of a more general malaise,

or that the questions used in the interviews needed to be rephrased. The point of the anecdote is to indicate that what is not said can also be important. Inspired by the work of Michael Schratz and Rob Walker, referred to in our annotated bibliography, another strategy for introducing issues around evidence is what we call ‘The Apple and the Elephant Test’.



THE APPLE AND THE ELEPHANT TEST Several days before the workshop an apple is quartered, ensuring that one quarter retains the stem. This early preparation is important because the cut surface of the apple takes on a suede like texture and the distinctive apple smell disappears. Three volunteers are blindfolded and each has his or her hand guided onto a specific part of the apple: the outer skin, the stem, or the cut surface. All other participants agree that each has touched the same object. The apple is removed and the blindfolds taken away. The volunteers are asked to agree upon what it is that they have touched. Quite aside from the puzzlement and hilarity that this induces it raises serious questions about what it is that classroom research can and cannot touch upon. Schratz and Walker introduce, at this point, The Blind Men and the Elephant poem. Each encounters a very different part of the elephant’s anatomy and makes conjectures upon what it is that she or he has felt based upon that encounter.

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INTRODUCTION

These are not trivial exercises, but rather ones which will generate concerns in relation to ‘what counts as evidence?’. Clearly there is a relationship between evidence and the questions being asked. The wallet exercise would not be of much use if the question were “how tall and heavy is the owner of the wallet?” The apple exercise would scarcely work if the question was not “what have you touched?” but was “from where did this object come?”

THE THORNY NATURE OF EVIDENCE Evidence is all around us in school settings. Much of it is already available in students’ work, in displays, in school documents, in ceremonies and rituals. Some of it needs to be collected through testimonies and witness. Some of it will be quantifiable, some qualitative. What is important is that the evidence is used to a local purpose. It is not being collected in order to form massive generalisations about educational practices, but rather to address questions about what works and what doesn’t in the given school setting. Asking good questions is the key to deciding what evidence to collect. In wanting to know how students perceived changes to school organisation at MLC, for example, the school was mindful of the fact that the innovation was recent and disruptive. It was too early to make judgements about the efficacy of the change when the change had barely had time to settle down. So the question became one of identity. How do students identify with the new organisation of the middle school?

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THROUGH STUDENT EYES The decision was taken to ask students, in pairs, to take photographs of what it was that they liked and disliked about the new arrangements. These were then developed into posters which the students discussed with each other and with the researcher. In this case, as in all others among the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools, the study was documented. This means that later questions can be asked and the evidence returned to at a later point. For example, two years further into the change the same girls can be interviewed regarding their posters, or new girls could be asked whether they see things differently.

Again, it is important to note that this small piece of research was a part of the curriculum, not an add-on task. With larger inquiries the questions may be categorised as key questions and contributing questions. What do members of our school community believe to be the characteristics of good learning? How is it seen by students? How is it understood by parents? How do teachers perceive it? What impedes good learning? What facilitates good learning? And so on. Once the questions are asked then it is possible to identify the kinds of evidence that need to be collected and how these forms of evidence might be obtained.

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

Another example from MLC School is where the TAS Department decided that it would like to undertake an evaluation of the ways in which it was perceived and the forms of support available to it. At Loreto Normanhurst teachers within the Science faculty undertook an investigation into the nature and role of assessment in Stage 6 Science. The project was funded by the Association of Independent Schools as part of its New HSC Professional Development Program. Consequently, evidence was gathered that satisfied the requirements of the funded project while at the same time contributing to professional learning at Loreto with respect to assessment and moderation.

MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRLS IN TAS CLASS AT MLC SCHOOL

Investigations of TAS at MLC School Together, the teachers decided upon the following key questions: 1. What is the perception of the status of TAS at MLC School? 2. How do students evaluate their experiences in TAS at MLC School? 3. How adequate are the resources and facilities (including human resources) to meet the needs of student learning in TAS? 4. What are the recommendations for improvement in the light of the inquiry?

It was decided that focus group inquiry would be the main research tool to address questions 1 and 2. All members of staff in the TAS Department would take part in a focus group which would also be used as a training opportunity. This entailed their release from teaching for a morning. A consultant researcher would conduct focus groups with the previous exit group of Year 12 students in the early evening. She would be observed by two volunteer staff members. Similarly the current Year 12 students would be interviewed by the consultant researcher with two further staff members observing. The staff would then undertake focus group interviews with all students participating in TAS studies in Years 8 and 9. A second training morning was used to discuss the outcomes of the various focus group meetings. The consultant researcher modelled the process by preparing the Year 12 reports and negotiations were conducted regarding the thematic structure of the Years 8 and 9 reports. The resources audit was undertaken in two stages. Two senior members of staff outlined the range and quality of available resources. Staff then photographed and annotated what they believed to be the strengths and weaknesses of the physical resources. Staff met to discuss, on the basis of the resources, an analysis of the needs of the Department. The writing of sections of the report was allocated to various members of staff who had volunteered to undertake the task. The draft report was considered and ratified by all members of staff the following week. The final report was then taken, with the recommendations, to a school management meeting and to the school’s research advisory committee. The timeline below indicates the framework of the study.

Timeline

22nd March Focus Group Interview TAS Staff Focus Group Methodology TAS Staff Year 12, 2001, Focus Group

28th March Year 12, 2000, Focus Group

2nd-6th April Year 8/9 Focus Groups

4th April Feedback Year 12 groups Negotiate staff mini-report Resources Audit Needs analysis

12th April Draft report

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INTRODUCTION

Investigating assessment in Stage 6 Science at Loreto Normanhurst Science teachers at Loreto Normanhurst set out to address the following research questions: » In what ways will teaching and learning be enhanced across the Science KLA in Stage 6 as a result of designing from authentic assessment tasks to curriculum and pedagogical practices? » What type of tasks provide scope for students to meet the prescribed outcomes across a variety of subjects? » How is student learning enhanced by providing opportunities for sharing of learning between students? » How do teachers design lessons to support the task? » How are teacher decisions about learning informed by one-on-one teacher student interaction?

In the course of the investigation, evidence was gathered from students and teachers via surveys, focus group discussions and interviews. The evidence gathered was used to inform the development of an ‘authentic assessment’ task, which aimed to integrate assessment into the teaching and learning process. In the later stages of the project, students engaged with the assessment task and teachers worked together in the process of ‘moderating’ student assessment. This process was reported by the teachers involved to have been extremely beneficial in terms of developing their own professional judgement and developing their trust in that of their colleagues.

Designing a study takes time. It is not unusual for practitioners doing this kind of inquiry for the first time to collect far too much evidence. It is more desirable to do something, first of all, on a modest scale and within a realistic time frame than attempt something too large and overwhelming. Quality control is more likely to be within the grasp of the school when the inquiry is manageable.

LORETO NORMANHURST STUDENTS

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INTRODUCTION

Investigating assessment in Stage 6 Science at Loreto Normanhurst Science teachers at Loreto Normanhurst set out to address the following research questions: » In what ways will teaching and learning be enhanced across the Science KLA in Stage 6 as a result of designing from authentic assessment tasks to curriculum and pedagogical practices? » What type of tasks provide scope for students to meet the prescribed outcomes across a variety of subjects? » How is student learning enhanced by providing opportunities for sharing of learning between students? » How do teachers design lessons to support the task? » How are teacher decisions about learning informed by one-on-one teacher student interaction?

In the course of the investigation, evidence was gathered from students and teachers via surveys, focus group discussions and interviews. The evidence gathered was used to inform the development of an ‘authentic assessment’ task, which aimed to integrate assessment into the teaching and learning process. In the later stages of the project, students engaged with the assessment task and teachers worked together in the process of ‘moderating’ student assessment. This process was reported by the teachers involved to have been extremely beneficial in terms of developing their own professional judgement and developing their trust in that of their colleagues.

Designing a study takes time. It is not unusual for practitioners doing this kind of inquiry for the first time to collect far too much evidence. It is more desirable to do something, first of all, on a modest scale and within a realistic time frame than attempt something too large and overwhelming. Quality control is more likely to be within the grasp of the school when the inquiry is manageable.

LORETO NORMANHURST STUDENTS

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LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

QUALITY CONTROL AND ETHICAL PRACTICE Quality control is more than being meticulous in the design, collection, analysis and interpretation of evidence. It is ensuring that the study, in all of its manifestations is ethical. We cannot ever guarantee that we will do no harm in the ways in which schooling is conducted. We can inadvertently cause harm. For example, some years ago one of us was working with teachers in England, in the fen country around Huntingdon. A teacher spoke of a boy coming to school with his right arm in plaster. When he attempted to write with his left hand he proved very adept. The teacher mentioned this to the boy’s parents, noting “you would almost think he was a natural left-hander”. The mother blanched. In the small fen community to be left handed was to be seriously deviant. It later transpired that the boy’s father had gone to some lengths (including physical punishment) to ensure that he did not use his left hand. By disclosing the boy’s dexterity with his left hand the teacher left him exposed to further punishment. But, the teacher’s behaviour was not unethical, because he meant no harm or malice. However, in the conduct of human research, in whatever environment, we must take care to guard against harm. A teacher, conducting a focus group interview, may hear some negative comments about a colleague; but confidentiality cannot be broken. If surveys or questionnaires are said to be anonymous, then anonymity must be preserved. In all circumstances informed consent must be obtained; either from the students if they are of an age to give it; or from their parents.2

Three of the schools in the Coalition have formed research advisory committees. In the case of Burwood Girls High School the parent council is used in that capacity. Loreto Normanhurst and MLC School have established committees with staff, student and parent representation. In MLC School’s case the school’s chaplain also plays an important role. By having research advisory committees which act as a touchstone both in research planning and as an audience to the research there is an assurance that the inquiries will be public and transparent. While being ethical is the most important principle in the conduct of research in schools it is also critical that strategies are employed which seek for evidence from a range of different perspectives. In the research literature this is known as triangulation and is a vital form of quality control. No one source of evidence can be considered sufficient, so during an inquiry a school may wish to draw upon several using a range of procedures. We turn now to a range of strategies for collecting evidence. Again we would like to emphasise that much of the inquiry can be embedded in the lived life of the classroom. If there is to be a student questionnaire, why not have the students active participants in designing it. If a questionnaire’s results need to be recorded and presented statistically again students can be participative. After all, it is their schooling which is at stake. By being involved in the research the students not only have access to some of the results, but also will develop expectations that things will be improved. If not, why not? Having students and parents involved not only as informants, but also as researchers themselves, is a potent way of keeping us all honest!

2 See Appendix B for an example of a letter seeking informed consent.

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Strategies Our discussion of strategies will encompass three sections; one will address the gathering of evidence, the second ways of using evidence collected by others and the third ways of organising a whole school to become involved in evidence based practice.

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SECTION 1 Gathering the evidence:

SECTION 2 Using evidence:

» Focus group enquiry » The place of the and its merit as a ‘position paper’ as a source of evidence in a means of informing variety of contexts practice » Images and metaphors » Reading research as powerful research tools

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» The monologue – interviewing oneself

SECTION 3 Developing evidence based practice: » Developing commissions of enquiry » Collegial pairs as a strategy for action » The corporate learning portfolio » Accountabilities

» Using scenarios to stimulate responses » Documentary photographs and drawings » Silent conversations » Using questionnaires

3 From time to time participating schools in the Coalition have employed a professional research agency to undertake surveys using nationally validated benchmarks. This section would support those wishing to read and interpret such studies.

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STRATEGIES

SECTION 1 Gathering the evidence FOCUS GROUP DISCUSSIONS are small groups gathered together to respond to a set of questions which have been carefully considered beforehand. Hence the word ‘focus’. They are organised so that those participating can express their ideas, not only to the chairperson of the group, but also to each other. Teachers are generally very good focus group leaders because they are used to asking questions and not pre-empting the way that someone is going to reply. But, from time to time, it may be very worthwhile to train other stakeholders in the schooling process to conduct the focus groups. We have worked with students and parents to great effect.

Focus group discussions are used in a variety of situations: 1 Needs assessment

Allows participants to voice their needs and explain the reasons which underpin them. For example, ‘What do students need from their PDH & PE program?’ 2 To test new programs

Gives feedback at the design stage for the new program, thus the focus group can assist in the avoidance of costly mistakes. For example, ‘How should we design a different kind of school camp so that more young campers will participate?’ 3 To discover what participants consider

when deciding Identifies features of a particular product which may influence people in making particular selections. For example, ‘What do you consider when deciding which secondary school you would like to attend (or your child to attend)?’

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4 To inform a summative evaluation

Provides information regarding the worth or a particular enterprise. For example, ‘How successful have computers been in assisting student learning?’ 5 To identify strengths, weaknesses,

opportunities and threats during implementation Assists in a SWOT analysis as the program or service is underway. For example, ‘What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the ways in which our multi-age classes are operating?’ The notion is to encourage the exchange of ideas and perspectives. It is very important not to judge either the participants or their ideas, but to probe and develop the responses. You can say such things as: 1 Can you say a bit more about that? 2 Is there another way of thinking about that? 3 Can the rest of you remember when something

like that happened to you? What was it like?

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

Sometimes it may be the case that misinformation is exchanged, or a perception varying from the general school policy is put on the table. It is tempting to put things to right straight away, but it is better to merely say “perhaps we can come back to that later”, or “do others have a different view?” otherwise it will appear that there is a ‘party-line’ and participants will restrain their ideas and comments. Indeed, if people are misinformed it is better that the school is aware of this, rather than stifling the debate. Recently in a discussion conducted by one of the authors it was clear that parents were confused about the notion of standards based assessment in the new HSC in New South Wales and its implications for the Universities Admissions Index (UAI). It was important that this confusion was fully articulated, before any correction occurred. After all, focus groups are only a sample of the larger group and it is important that the discussion attempts to, as fully as possible, represent the concerns of that larger group. The advice which follows has been used in several of the Knowledge Building Schools. In this case we are drawing on the notes which we distributed to Years 10 and 11 boys at Ashfield Boys High School before they themselves ran groups with younger boys in the school. We trained them to work in groups of three, so that one would ask questions while the other two would prompt and keep notes.4 Finally, in using focus groups it is important to do two things. One is to distribute a brief questionnaire whose purpose is to gauge the extent of each member’s engagement and to elicit issues which may not have arisen for discussion, but which may prove to be ones which deserve further attention. The second matter to follow up is to undertake what is often called ‘a membership check’. Having written up a portrayal of the discussion (see Appendix C for an example) each member of the group should have an opportunity to read it and agree that it is a fair representation of

what took place. Should they suggest amendments it is then a matter of judgement whether the suggested change is merely idiosyncratic or that it is a serious omission or misrepresentation which requires correction. If the latter is the case the amended version needs to be renegotiated. The membership check can present some difficulties. One is that the participants in the focus group need to realise that the portrayal is still confidential until approved for use in the public record of the investigation being undertaken; thus they should not discuss the portrayal with others who had not attended the group. Another is the time which it requires. In the case of undertaking focus groups with students across an entire cohort it may be that the membership check is not undertaken. However, it is still important that students do receive some form of feedback on what has been learned as a result of the focus group inquiry. For further information on the conduct of focus groups, please consult Krueger, R. (1988). Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. Newbury Park: Sage Publications in the annotated reference guide.

FOCUS GROUP AT ASHFIELD BOYS HIGH

4 While in some cases it may be worthwhile to tape record discussions and use them to prompt recall after the meeting, some participants find that they would rather not be taped, in which case note taking skills are essential.

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STRATEGIES

Students as focus group facilitators – Notes to students at Ashfield Boys’ High School Why use students as researchers? (it is important that those conducting the focus groups are informed regarding the purposes and processes of the study in question): Ashfield Boys High School has developed a reputation as a knowledge building school. For a number of years now various questions have been investigated using teachers as researchers, particularly through the National Schools Network, and by inviting in university researchers. Student opinions and perspectives have been seen as important and valuable. Increasingly it is being seen that students themselves can become involved in the research beyond being the subjects of the inquiry. We imagine that it will be more comfortable and relaxing for younger boys at Ashfield to respond to you, as more senior boys, than to be led in the discussion by an adult, whom they may see as being somewhat intrusive and where they may try to anticipate what it is that the adults want to hear.

How do students go about the inquiry? Below is a series of steps. We shall undertake each of these initially in a trial run. We have left spaces between each step for you to keep notes about what you saw and what you heard that might help you. Step 1 Make the participants comfortable. Make sure that each participant is wearing a name tag that is clearly read from a distance. Think about an opening strategy which will relax the students, Have a ‘mud map’ and note their responses, be relaxed about them.

Step 2 Explain why they are here. Explain to the students that you are interested in their ideas about school and about learning. That you are going to take their ideas seriously and that they will help the school to become a place where they will be comfortable learning and their learning will go on improving.

Step 3 Set out the ‘rules’. Without being ‘heavy handed’ explain that there are some rules, that students should hear each other out and try not to interrupt or say that something is ‘stupid’. That you want everyone to have a say and that they can build on each other’s ideas. Also make sure that you introduce everyone – explain that you have some people helping, that they are taking down the ideas and that you will be having a talk afterwards to make sure that you have collected together the main ideas. Reassure the students that you are not going to talk about them as individuals and that you will respect their need for confidentiality.

Step 4 Discuss the questions (all of these questions have been negotiated with school staff). 1. How do you, as students, like to learn? 2. What is enjoyable about learning in Year……? 3. What makes learning difficult for you? 4. How much variety is there in the ways in which you can learn in your English/History/Maths and Science classes? 5. Do you like being challenged and are you challenged in these classes?

Step 5 Thank the participants Thank each of the participants and explain that their responses have been very helpful.

Step 6 Debrief Discuss with your co-researchers the things that they have recorded for each question – has anything been left out. Thankyou for your hard work!

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LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

IMAGES AND METAPHORS In the conduct of focus groups it has already been indicated that it is important to have a strategy for opening up the discussion. A powerful strategy is to present the group with a series of images which may represent a way of looking at the phenomenon being examined. A way of doing this is to collect the free postcards now so readily available in cafes, coffee shops and cinemas. They often have bold and interesting images and captions. For example, ‘Take Adventures, not Trips’, ‘Have your Say’, ‘Look Silly, Feel Great’. They may have a kaleidoscope of multiple images, or they may be quite abstract and

contain no words at all. Before commencing an interview, which may be with an individual or in a group situation ask the participants to find an image which best represents for them what is being discussed. If possible, have them write a few lines (anonymously) which can be collected afterwards and which will also be a form of evidence. The process does two things, first of all it focuses each person and ensures that everyone has some thoughts on the matter, thus avoiding the problem of one person dominating the discussion with his or her ideas. Secondly, where you may be working with several groups over time it provides a kind of tally of the issues which are emerging.

Images of ICT at SCEGGS Darlinghurst For example, in their study of Information and Communication Technologies and Teacher Professional Development, undertaken in the Spring of 2000, at SCEGGS, Darlinghurst, teachers were asked to “Describe the image which represents for you the ways in which ICTs relates to student learning in your teaching area at SCEGGS”. They were also asked to provide keywords which came into their minds when considering the uses of ICTs in the assistance of student learning. Below is a summary of the results.

Images Acrobatics Nine people selected this image which they related to the vitality of the work and the energy it required. “The image which best relates to IT and History is the man leaping in the air and holding an acrobatic pose. Areas of technology have been liberating for history in many ways. For example the Internet searches have allowed students into many new areas. The AUC has allowed the communication between students and staff. The use of PowerPoint for presentations has been great, but the teacher remains paramount.” I want to believe Six people saw this image as the one which they subscribed to. It suggested to them that there was a desire to connect IT to student learning, but that at times the actuality was difficult and demanding. “At the moment staff are too rushed to effectively implement IT properly. There are enough people who want to integrate it into the curriculum but they are usually the same people who are called on to do many other things. We have the hardware, but have not stopped to work out how to use it properly. Everything is so haphazard and done on the run. It would be sensible to free up staff to work on a whole school program. Only when certain things are mandated can we all move forward together.” “My teaching combines small and large successes and disasters. I would like to be in more control – in a more ordered environment but I can never quite get there – sometimes it is me, sometimes the class, sometimes the system. I have so many students so much more advanced than me. Many more can help me with IT than I can help them, old dog, new tricks, slow learning.” Friends The image of friends was also selected by six respondents who related the image to the social context of teachers and students learning to use IT in a friendly environment.

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STRATEGIES

Serious Energy Five selected this image, related both the energy which is generated by IT and the seriousness of the task. “IT could/should be exciting, energy-charged, rewarding. It could also be seen to be a ‘serious’ academic resource.” Corsets The rather frivolous image of being laced tightly into corsets attracted five responses. They reflected a senses of holding things together and often feeling constrained. “I sometimes feel constrained and tied up. We need to become independent users of IT, not tied to ‘quality control’. More consultation is needed as to the type of help teachers need in their individual classrooms.” Rush Four people selected this image. They were concerned for the time pressures placed on both students and their teachers as well as the notion that many are in a rush to find quick and easy solutions. “Students are often too quick to use the internet to find information for assignments. They are reluctant at times to clarify key terms. But expect to instantly find their answers in one complete ‘hit’ of the button.” Reach Out Three teachers selected the image of reaching out. They saw students and teachers reaching out to each other for assistance and help. “This image for me symbolises the student and teacher in a visual arts environment using IT. I feel that I am learning on my feet and that often the students know more. I often ask for their assistance. I also feel that it is difficult to access the technology. One or two students may need access and so we are unable to move to an IT room. It would be better to have access within the established art room.” The Gathering This image was selected by two people, both of whom referred to IT as a tool for gathering in information.

The Brain One person saw this image as representative of the many areas of knowledge and experience that information technology can offer in the context of the library.

Change Again one person selected this image and related it to reluctance to change. “Sometimes staff appear to be reluctant to try new methods. i.e. technology, in the classroom as a tool to enhance the learning environment.” Own Image One teacher created her own image which was virtually a blank space. “We have little/no direct links to IT in our rooms and the only place within visual arts it is used by the students is for assignments done outside the classroom. I can’t think of many appropriate descriptions except I personally find it frustrating, time consuming and often deflating. Not often rewarding. It’s just a relief to finish using it.”

Images Liberating, exploratory, powerful, frustrating (4) exciting (5) alive, potential, freeing-up-time, needs time (2) time consuming (3) flexibility, graphics, rush, galloping along, adhoc, students help, interesting, daunting, inexperienced, useful, discovery, conflict, opportunities, inspiration, clarity, change (2), tool (2) communication, Maurice (3) challenging, stressful, satisfying, helpful, empowering, supportive, friendly, accessible, non-threatening, skilful facilitation (4) professional, enjoyable (2), variety, good resources, innovation (2) fun, rewarding, encouragement. It would be interesting, in a case such as this, several years later, to use the same images to see the extent to which the discourse has changed.

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LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

In another study, working with parents across thirteen high schools in a district of Sydney teachers conducted focus groups in their own schools investigating the factors which influenced parents and children in making choices about which secondary school to attend. To commence the discussion, rather than using visual images, participants were asked to consider various metaphors for choice. “Which kind of choice is selecting a secondary school for your child’s education most like and why?

» choosing a car » choosing a doctor » choosing a neighbourhood in which to live » choosing a renovator” In addressing these metaphors the participants had to first think about making choices and how it is done before considering choosing a school. Following the discussion the participants then individually ranked school choice factors derived from the research.

from the Teaching ☛ POSTCARDS Staff at Loreto Normanhurst At Loreto Normanhurst, during the initial phases of a large educational change, postcards were used to elicit responses to the proposed changes from teachers and other staff members. Approximately 200 postcards, each bearing different photographs and text. Teachers were asked to choose a postcard that in some way represented their response to the ideas that had been presented and write anonymously on the back. Using images and metaphors liberates the imagination and ensures a more lively discussion. We are now going to turn to less interactive, but nevertheless practical strategies for gathering evidence.

EXAMPLES OF POSTCARDS

THE MONOLOGUE – INTERVIEWING ONESELF It is often claimed that gathering evidence requires more time than busy practitioners have available to them. We have emphasised that many of the strategies recommended here are ones which can be accommodated into the curriculum itself, particularly when we are training students to be researchers.

SCEGGS DARLINGHURST TEACHER AND STUDENTS USING ICT’S TO SUPPORT LEARNING

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LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

In another study, working with parents across thirteen high schools in a district of Sydney teachers conducted focus groups in their own schools investigating the factors which influenced parents and children in making choices about which secondary school to attend. To commence the discussion, rather than using visual images, participants were asked to consider various metaphors for choice. “Which kind of choice is selecting a secondary school for your child’s education most like and why?

» choosing a car » choosing a doctor » choosing a neighbourhood in which to live » choosing a renovator” In addressing these metaphors the participants had to first think about making choices and how it is done before considering choosing a school. Following the discussion the participants then individually ranked school choice factors derived from the research.

from the Teaching ☛ POSTCARDS Staff at Loreto Normanhurst At Loreto Normanhurst, during the initial phases of a large educational change, postcards were used to elicit responses to the proposed changes from teachers and other staff members. Approximately 200 postcards, each bearing different photographs and text. Teachers were asked to choose a postcard that in some way represented their response to the ideas that had been presented and write anonymously on the back. Using images and metaphors liberates the imagination and ensures a more lively discussion. We are now going to turn to less interactive, but nevertheless practical strategies for gathering evidence.

EXAMPLES OF POSTCARDS

THE MONOLOGUE – INTERVIEWING ONESELF It is often claimed that gathering evidence requires more time than busy practitioners have available to them. We have emphasised that many of the strategies recommended here are ones which can be accommodated into the curriculum itself, particularly when we are training students to be researchers.

SCEGGS DARLINGHURST TEACHER AND STUDENTS USING ICT’S TO SUPPORT LEARNING

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STRATEGIES

Monologues at Loreto Normanhurst Teachers in the English Department at Loreto Normanhurst recently were each given a blank audio tape. They were asked to take it home and interview themselves on questions related to their beliefs regarding the characteristics of good learning in English and classroom factors which could enable such good learning to occur. They also reflected upon school structures and arrangements which supported and inhibited the teaching of English. The tapes were then given to the consultant researcher who did not know the staff well enough to identify the various voices. She extracted a series of statements which were then used in the following workshop:

This exercise should be undertaken with about four participants in each group.

1 Take the beliefs about characteristics of good learning in English. Individually, highlight ten important ideas for you. With your colleagues agree upon six. Cut and paste them onto the paper provided.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Using the same process look at the enabling factors, but agree upon 8. Link the characteristics to the enabling factors. From these discussions reflect upon what you believe you do well and what you could do differently tomorrow. Share with colleagues. How would you be able to judge how effective you have been; what evidence would satisfy you and your peers? Discuss the structures and arrangements that enhance good learning in English. Which surprised you and why? Look at what is seen to hinder good learning in English at Loreto. Identify two or three major themes. Which one final comment most struck you and why? Make a commitment, as a group, to an agenda for your next workshop.

Nonetheless, interviewing, whether through focus groups or with individuals, generally takes time and organisation. However, it is possible to set up interviews where participants virtually interview themselves. Using a tape recorder they ask themselves the questions and then respond. The advantages of this process are that there is time for reflection; the questions can be thought about for several days before recording. Also the participant can choose his or her own time and place – after dinner with a glass of wine may be far more preferable than a snatched half hour in the staff room. While it is not strictly interviewing it may also be useful to think about times when having an audio-recording of students working together could be quite revealing of the ways in which they interact and approach the problem at hand. They can then later listen to the recording and add to it their observations and reflections on their learning. Or extracts can be created into scenarios for others to comment upon.

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SCENARIOS AS A STIMULUS It is sometimes the case that during the collection of evidence a particularly evocative narrative is related or a dilemma noted. Such material can become a very useful resource which can elicit the responses of others. In the case cited below the scenarios were posted on the website used by a research cluster of schools in South Australia. Responses were sent electronically to the evaluator of the project, working in Sydney. It may be that several schools, some distance from each other, want to research together in a similar way. Using strategies such as this can be both profitable and enlightening, leading to a higher level of collegiality than may be possible if schools are working in isolation. In this case it was requested that the schools respond to each of the four scenarios in terms of “could this happen at your place and how would it be handled or if this could not happen in your site, why is that so?” The responses should focus on the dilemma rather than the contextual setting. So hopefully, no one would say “that can’t happen where we are because we are a secondary school, not a primary one,” or words to that effect.

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

Research and Reform Project “Could this happen at your place?’’

Julie is working with a small team co-ordinating the Research and Reform project in her school. Their project has focused upon bullying, peer mediation and support. She is concerned with the ways in which they are collecting data from staff. “They are totally sick of surveys and I think we need to find a more interesting way of getting how they really feel about what we are trying to do. We don’t want just another ‘feel good’ set of answers; that doesn’t give us enough direction about where to go next.” But Ray is worried that if they use more qualitative methods they may uncover some pretty sensitive stuff which may be much harder to negotiate and get into the broader discussion. Because School X is a small school, the whole staff are involved in the Research and Reform project. They have been looking at ways of mapping student skills in information technology in order to develop a coherent IT curriculum with good scope and sequencing. They have been interviewing their students about how they learn to use the computer and have been discussing their results with their university associate. He/She has suggested to them: “What you are really struggling with is that you have assumed a transmission model of learning. That the teachers have to set up this sequential curriculum. But what the kids are telling you is that they are learning in a different way. They keep saying that they ‘play around’ with the computer and find out what its capabilities are in terms of meeting a need they have for its use at a particular time. Now that’s the evidence you are getting from the kids. So is there a different way of designing a curriculum which recognises that the kids are learning in a different way, and that a lot of the time they actually know more than you do!” Bob is the Head of the Science Department at a co-educational comprehensive high school. He is a key member of the school’s Research and Reform team. They have been looking at providing longer blocks of learning time and integrating the curriculum in Year 8. Bob feels that the work impacts upon the whole school ethos and can act as a catalyst for ongoing reform for Years 9 and 10. He conducts regular team meetings which have been systematically collecting and reflecting upon data; but he wants to broaden the communication base and ensure that the whole school knows about the progress of the change. He has suggested that there be a once monthly whole school staff meeting devoted exclusively to the project. He and his team plan to present to each meeting a mini-paper outlining particular features of the research and providing some time for subsequent discussion. He and the school Principal see this as an important form of professional development. He would also like to invite parents, who are able to come, to attend on a ‘drop-in’ basis. While Bob’s team is very enthusiastic other Heads of Department are concerned that meeting time is a scarce resource and would be better taken up addressing departmental concerns. The group at one of the primary schools in the Research and Reform project are struggling with the ways in which they want to write about their work. They have developed an in-house strategy for conferencing about their writing, asking those less directly involved in the project to read drafts and provide feedback. Several times the issue of ‘how’ things are being done has come back to haunt them. As one member of staff has written “you keep writing about giving the students more opportunities to make decisions, but you haven’t spelled out how you do this – we know, because we’re in the school; but someone outside the school wouldn’t have a clue.” One of the problems that the group see is that they have been working together now for several years, both on the Research and Reform project and one which preceded it. They know they are taking for granted the ways in which they do things. They want to be transparent, but they are not sure how to best proceed. It is suggested that they approach the Project Manager and ask him to act as a critical friend for writing purposes.

It should be noted that each of the four scenarios has a different focus. The first raises questions about research ethics; the second is concerned with teaching and learning issues; the third relates to school structure and organisation, while the fourth

considers ways of writing up the project. The project evaluator was able to collate the emailed responses and use these to add to the evidence regarding the impact of the Research and Reform Project on the schools.

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STRATEGIES

In a more modest vein, Ashfield Boys High School asked students to not only respond to questionnaire items on a Likert scale (more of this later) but also to indicate their reactions to the following scenarios which had grown out of some of the focus group discussions:

Ashfield Boys’ High School ‘Is this true for you?’

1 The teacher gives really good feedback on assignments. I am told where I went wrong and what I need to do to improve. As well, I am told what my strengths are and how I can build on them. I am also given a chance to assess my own learning and give a comment on how well I think I went. Can you give an example of this happening in a particular subject. Does it happen often?

2 The teacher puts our rankings up in the passage for everyone to see. Sometimes our actual marks are read out in class. I hate this because I don’t think it helps my learning and other boys have a go at me later. Has this ever happened to you or your friends? How did you feel about it? What would you like done about it?

3 The teacher spends a good bit of time helping us to think through how to tackle an independent task or one where we are working in groups. We are taught how to plan, to investigate and research and then to set out our findings. The teacher doesn’t just leave us to learn alone but checks up every now and then on how we are going. Is this true for you? Do you get enough help when you are set a major assignment? Would you like it to happen more? What other things would you like your teachers to do to help your learning?

Scenario writing can itself be a part of the curriculum. Students might write about a time when they succeeded or failed in a particular key learning area. The scenarios themselves can then be treated as evidence and, at a later point, particular scenarios used across the cohort. Just as scenarios can be illuminative, so too can photographs and drawings.

DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHS AND DRAWINGS Anyone who has gone back through old photographs knows how evocative they can be. The photograph is not only a representation of a particular person, place or event; it is also a catalyst for much that is not contained in the image itself. A photograph of

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the school camp may depict a series of buildings in a bush setting, with one or two students in the foreground. For the outside viewer that is all that they may see, but for the students it may remind them of lumpy beds, or cold showers. It may bring back memories of being on kitchen duties and the time a possum was trapped behind the stove. A teacher looking at the photograph may remember that one of the students in the frame went sleepwalking and what anxiety that provoked. One can think of a photograph as an episode in a longer and more complex narrative. Photographs of camps and excursions, of special events within the school and the like, can be considered as sources of evidence. But generally they are not sufficient on their own. To have them

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

contribute to our understanding of what has taken place we need to use them and this is often done by interviewing participants with regard to their recall of that particular occasion. Rob Walker, whose work we have referred to at an earlier point, asked a photographer, Janine Wiedel, to take photographs of the first day at secondary school for just one class. Later he interviewed the students about the meanings they attached to the images. They varied greatly. For some there was elation, for others apprehension. Some emphasised one aspect, such as relations with the teacher; while others commented on new friendships which had been formed, or how worried they were about being lost in an unfamiliar, even alien environment. Even more powerful is when we ask the participants to knowingly take the photographs as a form of evidence. In the introduction to this publication we cited the instance of students taking photographs of the newly formed Middle School at MLC and the ways in which they liked and disliked its arrangements. These photographs were taken by small groups of students who needed to negotiate with each other in their selection of the images. As well they worked together, using the photographs, to make a poster, which they annotated and which would be on display for others to see and comment upon. Michael Schratz and Ulrike Steiner-Loffler, two Austrian researchers, argue that young students can use photographs as a means of providing the school with feedback on how they experience school life. They asked small groups of seven and eight year old students to discuss and photograph the places in the school where they felt good and where things were ‘not so good’. Whereas the school playground was a well liked spot, the toilets were clearly disliked and seen to be unpleasant and smelly. The photographs could be used to uncover not only the explicit and planned for activities in the school, but also that which is hidden. In the negotiation, implementation and subsequent

discussion students were involved in a large variety of learning outcomes. The task became part of the curriculum, provided the students with a voice and the teachers with insight and understanding. A school about to embark on an innovation could consider using photographs to prompt ‘before’ and ‘after’ discussions. While the example which follows is not in a school setting it is an illustration of how this might work. One of the authors of this publication was contracted to undertake an evaluation of a large ICT project in the early days of computers in schools. Teachers came to the university for a two week induction program, the computers were then taken to their homes for them to ‘play’ and find what was possible within their own specialist key learning areas. Finally they worked in teams within and across schools to develop curriculum applications. Teachers selected for the project had very little experience with computers. On their first day at the university the evaluator photographed each teacher as she or he sat at the computer. She then interviewed them at the end of the project and used the photographs to stimulate their recall of that first day.

ASHFIELD BOYS HIGH STUDENTS PRESENTING A PROJECT

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STRATEGIES

Building evidence around contrasts can be very rewarding. Students can not only photograph differences, but also draw them. Teachers from a Greater Western Sydney region school asked children to draw themselves reading at school and at home. They found that children reading at home fell into two categories; those who read for pleasure (often girls) and those who read in order to engage in an electronic game (usually boys). They noticed that generally the reading was alone. Reading at school was more diverse, ranging from reading in order to accomplish a task, such as research, to shared big book reading. Returning to the Middle School innovation at MLC, teachers were interested in the effects of having Year 6 teachers teach into Year 7 and vice versa. Students were asked to draw a ‘cartoon’ of a way in which these teachers taught differently. As we have noted before, this kind of work can be risky business. Sometimes students will identify issues that we prefer to keep concealed: unpleasant toilets; bullying peers; boring, out of touch teachers. But if we are truly listening to learn, as well as learning to listen, it is essential that we provide opportunities for student voice to be manifest. Of course, it is not all negative. Many times students will hearten and surprise us with their insights and understandings. Such was the case when undertaking a ‘silent conversation’ at Asquith Girls High School.

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A SILENT CONVERSATION The notion of a silent conversation appears to be a contradiction in terms. The basic idea is to provide ways of not only responding, in writing, to a particular input, but also developing the response through the observations of others. For example, students might be considering the photographic posters made by their peers. They might be asked to indicate what they see to be the plus, minus and interesting points which have been made. This they do on large, separate sheets of paper. Once they have written their own comments they look at others which have been made. They may agree or disagree or want to elaborate on a point. All of this is done in silence. It ensures that the quietest student is ‘heard’. Asquith Girls High School recently arranged for Year 8 and 9 volunteers to be trained as focus group leaders in the ways that the boys at Ashfield Boys High School had. Following the training and the conduct of the focus groups the girls met again for a debriefing. After they had spoken around the issues of student learning and the ways in which it could be improved in the school they were asked to record any further thoughts they had within the framework of a silent conversation. They were asked to consider those things that worried and surprised them and what they believed that the school should do to enhance the learning conditions for students. Just some of their observations are recorded below. It was clear that as they engaged in the ‘silent conversation’ the students were not only recording their own observations, but were engaging with issues raised by their peers.

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

Asquith Girls’ High School ‘Silent conversation’

Surprises The students, acting as focus group leaders, expressed surprise at the dynamics of the group interaction and the level of participation.

» Very small groups seemed to want to talk more, they worked better with their friends. » They got off the topic a lot. » Not all group members liked to open up and give out their ideas and feelings. » One girl was a bit of a rebel and she dominated the discussion and everyone was ‘yeah, I agree’, ‘no, I don’t have an opinion on this question’! » I found they changed the subject to what they wanted to talk about. For Year 9 students who had interviewed Year 8 participants there was a number of observations which commented positively upon the experience.

» They (participants) really enjoyed doing the discussion. » They thought it was great to give out what they wanted with the teachers. » They felt comfortable with saying what they felt because we were nearly the same age and we would tell others what they said. » They really opened up about how they feel about their teachers. » They wanted to do more focus groups. Worries The Year 9 group leaders divided their comments between the processes involved in the conduct of the focus group and the reactions of participants to questions being posed. Our first group just didn’t talk, they were very silent. There was a group of girls who sat at the far end of the desk and there were others who were feeling left out. They didn’t want to say something that others would have thought dumb. Students felt uncomfortable at first when we started, but when they realised no-one was going to judge them and we were going to listen to them they revealed more and spoke out. Some only talked among their friends, others were left out so we changed the seating plan, but it continued. We tried to be nice but one girl kept talking and fiddling. Maybe next time they shouldn’t bring anything in.

» » » » » »

Year 9 student leaders indicated that opportunities to ask questions in class appeared to be a significant issue for Year 8. It was both a matter of confidence, and peer pressure as this string of eight responses on one sheet indicates. Students are not confident enough to ask questions in class. And not enough self esteem to speak up and help themselves learn. Some students are really worried about getting judged by friends when they speak up. They didn’t want to get the wrong answer in case people laughed at them, but if they did speak up they would not be cool. They didn’t want to say something that others would have thought dumb. There’s peer pressure but they don’t mind talking to others their age. There should be less students in class because students are scared/intimidated to ask questions in front of 30 kids. Smaller classes would be better.

» » » » » » » »

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STRATEGIES

‘Silent conversation’

contined

But, speaking up was also linked to the nature of the question and the student/teacher relationship. Students feel embarrassed with a certain teacher and cannot ask questions. Yeah, especially male teachers about certain things. Students feel that they can’t put their hand up and ask a question without being embarrassed. They feel that the teachers should be young. They can’t relate to the older teachers who know more. Older teachers have to be more enthusiastic about their job. But then younger teachers would be more inexperienced.

» » » » » » »

Finally, as one respondent astutely observed, there were questions and issues which had not been anticipated when the question schedule was designed. There were things that the girls talked about that was about school, but there weren’t any questions for what they were saying, and I felt that these things they were saying were important. But these things didn’t get written down, because there wasn’t enough time and also because it just wasn’t a question.

»

What Next? The students’ main concerns were related to ensuring that teachers were advised of the results of the focus group enquiry. Give the results to the teachers so in future everyone can learn at… Start working on the responses we got and start changing this school so that students feel more comfortable. If this school listens to these responses it will make the school a better place to learn. Have a better system of teaching so it’ll be interesting.

» » » »

Consider what students said and try to work from these (answers) to improve and help students’ learning. Have a big meeting with all teachers discussing what students want and how they want to learn from the results, then teachers use this so they can teach better. There should be a consideration of student ideas, but also how the teachers feel about them. Discuss how they can improve their teaching skills to make it a better and more interesting environment.

» »

They also wished the questions to be extended. More questions! A range of questions, not just on school problems. (We need to discuss) homework, travel, bullying and friends.

» » »

They also wished advice to be given to specific groups. Teach the new teachers coming through how to teach students with learning difficulties. It’s really hard to learn if the teacher doesn’t have an understanding of your learning difficulty. Older teachers should consider being more enthusiastic and have more hands on activities. They should vary activities. They should try to relate to the students. This should be discussed with all teachers.

» »

In spite of their surprises and worries students indicated the worthwhileness of the project. Do this every year to see how everyone’s learning ideas change (4 agreements) Do it with Year 12 and Year 7 and compare results.

» »

Silent conversations can play an important part in developing responses to situations where, ordinarily, those with power and confidence hold the floor. A school may be researching parent responses to an innovation. More vociferous parents may take the discussion in a particular direction. The silent conversation can provide a medium for

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all participating parents to have a voice. Just as focus groups may provide statements which can later be tested across a larger cohort through a questionnaire so too can the silent conversation. Indeed, it is important to realise that several strategies are used in order to triangulate the evidence.

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

STRUCTURING A QUESTIONNAIRE While there is a great deal of technical advice available for the design and structure of a questionnaire, we would suggest that some simple rules are kept in mind.

» Use a scale which forces a choice. For example, ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘disagree’, ‘strongly disagree’, or ‘most like me’, ‘like me’, ‘not like me’, ‘not in the least like me’. When a midpoint is employed many will use it to opt out of effectively responding to the item. What you will be interested in is the strength of the response; having a large number of your respondents opting out is not helpful.

» Avoid technical or specialist language (particularly when asking for parent or student responses). It is best to have a small group sampled from your target group read the items and point out to you any problematic language. As professionals we are very accustomed to such words as ‘curriculum’ or phrases such as ‘student learning outcomes’, these may be less familiar to those who are completing the questionnaire.

» Watch out for double negatives ‘I don’t like it when I can’t play sport’ may be better put ‘I like it when I can play sport’. Also keep each item discrete; that is, do not have several points embedded in the one statement.

» Take care to not imply a desired response. For example one of the authors of this resource, some years ago, was working with a school on the role of the careers’ counsellor. Students were asked to complete a questionnaire about her contribution to their understanding of the range of careers available to them. The questionnaire had a preliminary statement “Ms ….., is important and helpful in assisting you in choosing your careers. We are interested in your perceptions of her contribution”. It may also be the case that there is a lack of balance between positive and negative statements. Too many of one or the other suggests that the questionnaire is going in a particular direction.

ASQUITH GIRLS HIGH DISCUSSION GROUP

» Keep it short. One side of an A4 sheet is a good rule of thumb. We can get too greedy for information and alienate the person who is responding.

» In developing your questionnaire think about how you are going to collect and collate the results. Are there particular group characteristics that you want to know about? It may be that gender or age or ethnicity are important considerations, or you may want to know whether students have changed schools and how many times. Remember to provide a means of collecting that relevant data on the questionnaire.

» Provide for a response to the questionnaire itself. If using one side of a sheet of paper, you could indicate that the respondent could write a few sentences about the issue, or the questionnaire itself on the back.

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STRATEGIES

» Finally, ensure that you have made arrangements to ensure confidentiality. If the questionnaire is given out in class have students collect the sheets and shuffle them before handing them in to the teacher. If parents or teachers are responding provide sealed envelopes and have them deposited in a neutral spot. This does mean that you may have a reduced response rate, but that is a reasonable cost to pay. A little good humour can help. Follow up letters can suggest “sorry to bother you, we know that the dog ate the last request or it fell into the bottom of the school bag with yesterday’s lunch and the squashed banana, but we would really appreciate you completing this questionnaire if you have not already done so”. (See appendix D for an example.) Once you have developed and delivered your questionnaire you have the task of collecting and collating the data. Depending upon the size of your sample or population of respondents you may elect to use manual or electronic means. Excel is a user friendly application which will allow you to generate easy to read graphs; but if you are only dealing with small numbers you may be using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Whatever means you use you should be alert to additional information. If a number of your respondents have made notations on the questionnaire regarding the wording of an item you should be prepared to treat this as a form of data and take it into consideration when interpreting your results. While you may not be involved in sophisticated item or cluster analysis you will probably want to group items using categories that are appropriate. In your analyses it will be helpful if a small team forms to provide each other with alternative explanations and points of view and to look at the congruence between the questionnaire results and other sources of data.

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In this section of the strategies component of Learning to Listen: Listening to Learn we have covered a range of ways of gathering the evidence. We turn now to considering evidence which has been gathered by others but will be of use to the inquiring school. We shall do so in two ways; the first of these is in relation to developing a research based position paper, the second with respect to attending to research conducted by those outside the school, but feeding back into the school’s policies and practices.

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

SECTION 2 Using evidence THE PLACE OF THE POSITION PAPER AS A MEANS OF INFORMING PRACTICE

The position paper makes use of current thinking and research on an issue or topic to create a ‘position’ or stance which can then be debated and discerned by members of the school community.

The position paper can be a useful tool for:

The Construction of a Position Paper

» Clarifying thinking about a proposed change or

Like most research, researching a position paper calls for some ‘detective work’. In simple terms, the process of developing a position paper should begin with the ‘unearthing’ of sources on the issue, in the first place by asking colleagues for any ‘leads’ they may have discovered in their own professional reading and doing keyword and boolean internet searches. Accessing the website of Australian Council for Educational Research, Australian Association for Research in Education, the Educational Resources Information Centre (ERIC) and the Educational Policy Analysis Archives might also assist, as may accessing a university or union library. Generally, one recent, well-written article will yield a list of significant references which may in turn yield a number of other references. Remember, quality is more important than quantity.

possible pathway

» Drawing together current research findings and theoretical perspectives in order to better inform decision making

» Fuelling professional discourse around significant issues

» Challenging cherished beliefs and understandings The position paper is usually written by a small team of people, who endeavour to research and represent the issue from a range of perspectives, integrating recent research findings with current thinking and theory and salient aspects of the local and/or school context.

Recent research findings Current theoretical perspectives

Local/school context

KEY ISSUE POSITION OR STANCE

In constructing your paper, try to use a balance of theoretical perspectives and research findings, perhaps beginning with a discussion of the broader theory and moving then to the way in which the theoretical perspectives are represented in the research. Linking both of these dimensions to the specific local (depending on the issue, this could mean national, state, sectoral or school) context will help you to define your position on the issue. While it is not essential that a position paper be written by a team of people, the process and product are both usually enhanced by the opportunities for critical discussion and professional conversations which are invariably offered by the process.

25

STRATEGIES

Position paper to inform policy at MLC School Who has not heard the lament, ‘If only I had more time…’ Time is one of the most precious commodities we have and it is finite – there is no more time. But there are ways of using time differently and that was the focus of a position paper on the organisation of learning time at MLC School. The purpose of the discussion paper was to raise issues with respect to academic learning time at the school – issues which take into account the manner in which it was then organised, and the rationale for reconsidering its configuration based upon both published research and in-house enquiry. The MLC Strategy 1997 – 2005 had as its central focus an imperative to transform learning; this was to be achieved by fostering: …a culture that is outward looking, flexible and continuously monitoring performance to see whether there are opportunities to improve and grow. Critical to its understanding of transforming learning was the notion of the differentiated curriculum – a program for learning which takes account of the varying needs, orientations and abilities of students. Resourcing the different curriculum, along with human skills development, required material, human and technological facilities. The staff development program at MLC had been placing an emphasis upon teachers knowing and understanding the key elements to transforming learning. This professional learning took place in a context which understands the realities of the need to do things differently, not only substantively, but also in terms of organisation. Fifty-two minute periods were the norm, with students frequently changing their rooms and the curriculum focus occuring within them. Transforming learning required of students that they be academically engaged, which in turn required that they have sufficient time to become absorbed in their learning. The notion of engagement is well documented in student learning literature. High levels of academic engagement produce high levels of academic acheivement. Engagement is characterised as being related to task persistence, cognitive effort, excitement and interest in encountering new ideas. Students who are engaged with their learning are said to exhibit enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity and interest. They are willing to exert intense effort and concentration and will select tasks which challenge and intrigue them. All of this takes time. It was in this context that a formal discussion paper that explored the literature in the field was developed. It was then presented to the executive of the MLC School for their consideration and ultimately for wider debate among the staff. The position paper was very effective in developing a new policy for arranging student learning time. It may have been the case that such a change could have been made anyway; but in this instance the change was well informed and groundeed in an enhanced awareness for all.

READING RESEARCH Evidence is often collected within schools by a third party and fed back to the school community in one way or another. Some of the schools involved in the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools have, on occasion, engaged an independent researcher to conduct research within the school, reporting on an aspect or aspects of school life. Results of competitions such as those conducted by the Educational Testing Centre at the University of New South Wales, Basic Skills Tests, ELLA and SNAP Tests, and the School and Higher School Certificate can all be ‘read’ as examples of evidence on aspects of school life. This section will provide some advice on the use and reading of such evidence. Research Conducted by an Outside Researcher Sometimes, often due to a sensitive issue which has arisen within a school, or the need to collect a

26

volume of data which would be difficult for teachers to analyse within the busyness of their working lives, it makes sense to engage the services of an outside researcher. The benefits of doing so often reach beyond these reasons, however – the outsider brings a new perspective to the school, seeing and attending to those elements of school life that can be taken for granted or go unnoticed by those who ‘live’ within the day to day reality of the organisation. The outsider can often ask questions which might otherwise go unframed within the micro political community of the school. Often within the course of reporting on their research, an outside researcher will suggest ways of ‘making sense’ of the data based on their knowledge of the school, and utilising their outsider’s perspective. Those to whom the findings are reported then face the challenge of needing to deal with the findings honestly, both those which

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

are positive and those which might not be so affirming while at the same time applying their own professional judgement to the data and assessing whether there might be multiple plausible explanations for the trends which emerge. This is a serious challenge, for the aim is neither to reject the ways in which the data has been ‘made sense of’ by the researcher nor to be afraid of interpreting it in different ways according to the context of the school. Reading Results Results provide an excellent source of data, which often arrive within the school complete with tabulations and graphs. Like any evidence, results can always be ‘read’ in a variety of ways, and it is important to recognise at the outset that results, whether they are of competitions undertaken for ‘fun’, standardised tests, or high stakes assessment are extremely complex representations of learning and understanding and that no one factor can be isolated as causal. In reading results, it is essential that data is triangulated (see section 1) where possible, so as to allow them to be interpreted in the light of what else is known about the particular teaching and learning context. As with all other research, it is also of paramount importance that sensitivity and confidentiality is observed where particular conclusions may be drawn about individuals or groups within the school. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that results provide a valuable resource in the form of ONE measure of the output of the teaching and learning enterprise, and if they can be read in a way which seeks to affirm, problematise and problem-solve with teachers, they can be a very valuable source indeed. As we have emphasised throughout this resource the use of evidence must be purposeful. This is true for reading results – Why are we reading them? How are we going to use them? Are there other sources of evidence that we shall need to consider? Curl Curl North Public School is planning an innovative project to support Year 4 boys who are considered to be ‘at risk’. The emphasis of the

MLC STAFF MEMBERS DISCUSSING RESEARCH ON THE PAPERLESS CLASSROOM

project is upon the development of literacy skills. The eight boys involved in the project will become mentors to Kindergarten students, assisting them in using technology. In turn the Year 4 boys will be supported by teacher education students from the University of Sydney. These students will act as online coaches. Thus the boys identified as ‘at risk’ will be using technology in a number of ways, all of which will enhance their own literacy development. So how have the boys been identified? This is where using research becomes critical. The school has used a wide array of information including: Basic skills testing; a personality profile and a self esteem questionnaire. It is not just depending upon teachers’ observations, although these too have been important in the process. Neither has the school only used the BST, but has added in the other data as well. Importantly the standardised tests will allow the school to map the progress of the boys who have been supported by this innovation.

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STRATEGIES

SECTION 3 Developing evidence based practice In the previous two sections we wrote about user friendly strategies for collecting evidence and ways in which evidence that has been collected by others can be used effectively in the knowledge building school. In this final strategies section we are going to discuss some practical approaches that the school might take to embed the collection and interpretation of evidence into its work. As has been the case, throughout this document all of these strategies have been used by one Coalition school or another. Necessarily, the section is brief in its outline of each strategy as we believe that schools will want to find their own ways of reshaping these ideas and making them their own.

6 Transforming learning through independent

learning. 7

Transforming learning in the context of the new Higher School Certificate.

8 Transforming learning in the context of the

International Baccalaureate.

DEVELOPING COMMISSIONS OF INQUIRY Whereas in much school based research, the group concerned with investigating a particular area of interest is a small group within the school the notion of Commissions of Inquiry has been one which has been inclusive of all the teaching staff. The Commissions of Enquiry formed at MLC School in 2000 were teams of teachers and their leaders with specific briefs. In the main, teams ranged across school sectors: junior, middle and senior years; and subject departments. All members of the teaching staff were involved. The eight commissions all had a shared focus in terms of the school’s commitment to transforming learning and were: 1 Transforming learning by integration of the

curriculum. 2 Transforming learning through differentiation. 3 Transforming learning using technology as a

learning tool. 4 Transforming learning by integrating human

skills in the classroom. 5 Transforming learning through theories of

knowledge.

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Each commission drew upon both the professional literature in the field and the team’s own research to examine the given perspective on transforming learning at the school. All but the last two commissions had arisen as a direct result of the earlier studies undertaken in the school. As to numbers 7 and 8, they were in response to a strong awareness of the external environment, in that New South Wales in 2000 was restructuring its exit credential, the Higher School Certificate (HSC), with a greater emphasis being given to standards referenced outcomes. The school was concerned to evaluate the new credential against the claims made for the International Baccalaureate (IB). The formation of the commissions was challenging. Not all staff had hitherto been involved in research projects in the school. Consequently a discussion paper was prepared which drew upon that literature which focused upon the development and management of learning teams. As well, those leading the change have been encouraged to form collegial pairs with dedicated time to puzzle over emerging issues and examine ways in which challenges and problems might be addressed.

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

COLLEGIAL PAIRS AS A STRATEGY FOR ACTION Leading a major inquiry project in a school is not a task to take on alone. It is helpful when one has a colleague with whom to anticipate and solve problems and celebrate success. Throughout this resource we have made a point that learning to listen, whether to students, parents or one’s colleagues is critical to ongoing school improvement. Collegial pairs can: Develop a team climate by: Encouraging openness in discussion Sharing values Establishing agreed ground rules Encouraging members to listen to one another

» » » »

Develop a commitment to the school’s agreed purpose by: Ensuring members are clear about the team’s contribution to the school’s values and goals Clarifying and sharing team goals and aligning them to those of the school.

» »

Commence team organisation by: Ensuring members’ roles are clear Identifying individual goals Encouraging active participation.

» » »

Develop the team’s skill base by: Ensuring an appropriate mix of skills Improving knowledge and skills where needed

» »

Attend to intergroup relations by: Developing a working relationship with other groups Ensuring that the given project’s aims and objectives relate to those of the school

» »

Engage in effective leadership by: Involving team members in decision making Being a part of the team Being consistent

» » »

Reinforce effective work practices by: Conducting efficient meetings: Establish a meeting agenda Start and finish meetings at agreed times State the purposes of each meeting Prescribe times for agenda items Summarising outcomes at the end of meetings Set next meeting time Evaluate meetings

» » » » » » » »

Contribute to team’s purpose by: Rewarding and recognising achievement Voicing a commitment to succeed

» »

Generate and maintain creativity by: Encouraging creativity and risk taking

»

Encourage critiquing by: Providing the opportunity to critique the project’s purpose and the team’s performance

»

When team leaders are in collegial pairs, where they discuss their team’s work and development it is less likely that teams will become competitive, trying to outdo each other. Rather, a synergy develops across teams with a good understanding that the common purpose is to contribute to the school as a good place for learning. The example given here is of collegial pairs formed through the pairing of team leaders. In other instances, in the Coalition, collegial pairs have been formed across a part of the school that is involved in an innovation and which gives time, opportunity and affirmation to teachers working in new and challenging circumstances. If collegial pairs are to work it is essential that they are written into the school’s development plans and properly resourced. It is not enough to depend upon the goodwill of the individuals. In our experience, collegial pairs work best when there is a dedicated time for them to meet and there are expectations that they will document their learning. A tool which we have found to be extremely useful for documenting the development of a project has been what has been called ‘a corporate learning portfolio’.

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STRATEGIES

THE CORPORATE LEARNING PORTFOLIO Just as schools are places in which individuals learn, so too are they institutions which can collectively learn. ‘Corporate’ literally means a body which acts as a whole. The ‘body’, in this sense may be the whole school, or a division within the school, early, middle or senior years, or a faculty.

The important thing is that it is more than just a loose confederation of individuals but is a cohesive group willing to contextualise, document and reflect upon its learning as the result of gathering evidence. The example below is from MLC who decided to keep a comprehensive documentary account of the formation and actions of its Middle School Initiative.

MLC School Middle School Learning Portfolio The Middle School Learning Portfolio provides MLC School with a structure for reflecting on shared history and growth, collaboratively developing and articulating a shared understanding of salient issues, engaging in practitioner research with a particular agreed focus and documenting professional learning in the context of the establishment of a Middle School. The basic elements of the Portfolio are: Middle School History This section of the portfolio involved a research facilitator working in conjunction with the Head of School and a small management team in collecting information through key people and artefacts within the Middle School in order to develop a social history of the sub school. Unearthing the legends and stories is an important part of this section, as is the development of a current ‘Who’s Who’ which records the staffing of the middle school, including a skills inventory. Philosophies and Beliefs This section of the portfolio involves the Head of School, Heads of Departments, current MS staff and parents to discuss, refine and document philosophies and beliefs. It is thought that this component will become particularly salient in the induction of new staff into MS. Philosophies and beliefs, once agreed upon, will form a ‘charter for practice’ and be used as a touchstone when new ideas are introduced – ‘do they fit, are they consonant with the espoused philosophy of the Middle School?’ Exhibits The portfolio is seen as a living document which contains exhibits of school based inquiries. During the first year of operation, 2002, the following two exhibits were included: ‘At Sixes and Sevens’ Focus Questions: What has been the experience of Year 6 teachers as they have moved towards engaging with Year 7 students? Reciprocally, how have Year 7 teachers perceived these changes? What are the consequences of these changes for student learning in MS? This section of the portfolio involved nominated members of the Middle School in an inquiry into the agreed area of their own practice with the aim of improving learning for their students. As well as describing the innovation the exhibit contained data from student surveys, which also involved students in drawing cartoons of their experience. ‘Collaborative Learning in Maths’ Focus question: What have been the experiences of teachers and students during specific teaching learning sequences in maths which have required them to work collaboratively? This project was undertaken with the assistance of an academic partner from the University of Sydney and involved action, observations, interviews and surveys. Goals and Needs This section of the portfolio engages stakeholders in determining their agreed goals and needs for the future, informed by their reflection on their learning throughout the portfolio.

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LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

An important feature of the corporate learning portfolio is that it satisfies genuine accountability requirements.

ACCOUNTABILITIES Accountability is not merely a kind of audit requirement. It is an ethical one. Schools who are willing to listen, and who listen to learn, welcome opportunities to make their work transparent to their key constituents: students, parents, staff and community. Schools in the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools welcome opportunities to speak publicly about their work. They have all been involved, one way or another, in reporting on their work at professional conferences and in professional journals. They are also accountable within their schools. A number of them have satisfied this need by setting up research advisory committees. MLC School has a committee representing staff, parents and students as well as an external academic adviser and the school Chaplain who ensures that the research processes are ethical and appropriate. The committee advises on the development of inquiries and comments on the results. Burwood Girls High School has evolved a committee which is formed through its school council and is advised by its SRC. Loreto Normanhurst’s committee comprises staff, student and parent representatives as well as an academic associate.

AN MLC SCHOOL TEACHER INVESTIGATES LEARNING IN THE CLASSROOM

In this key section of this resource, the Strategies Section, we have provided many practical examples. However, it is important to recognise that they are not recipes to be followed slavishly, but careful accounts of how schools have managed school based inquiry. In our conclusion we point out that this work is not the ‘silver bullet’ that will solve all of the many challenges facing a school; but rather is one part of the complex and demanding process of schooling.

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Conclusion Facilitating practitioner inquiry Facilitating practitioner inquiry is not for the faint hearted. While we both agree that engaging in practitioner research is extremely rewarding, both for the researchers and the research facilitator, here we aim to anticipate some of the ‘traps for young players’ and provide some advice for first-time facilitators.

»

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

Essentially, there are two sides to the successful facilitation of practitioner inquiry, namely the relational and the administrative. While it could justifiably be claimed that the relational is by far the more important of the two, considering the notorious intensity of teachers’ work and the fact that often practitioner inquiry is undertaken as an ‘add on’, effective administration of practitioner inquiry can often do much to assist in the building of the necessary relationships, while conversely ineffective administration can do much to undermine relational spaces. The best facilitators of practitioner inquiry in schools enter into the process with no agenda other than the achievement of the best possible professional development for the teachers involved. Of course, sometimes the parameters of a project may be set in advance by the handing down of a research agenda from either outside or inside the school, but in this case it is absolutely essential that the teachers involved are made fully aware at the outset. In the first place, the role of the research facilitator is to assist in the building of trust within the team, and this is only possible where underlying aims and agendas have been declared and acknowledged by the group. The building of trust and a readiness for risk-taking are difficult tasks and there is no set formula for doing so within the parameters of practitioner inquiry. In our experience, demonstrating confidence and trust in the professional judgement of your colleagues, a willingness to validate the opinions of all members of the group while acknowledging the diversity of those opinions while at the same time being able to state your own opinion without the expectation that it will necessarily be adopted by the group and being demonstrably non-judgmental in your approach go

BURWOOD GIRLS HIGH SCHOOL DISCUSSION GROUP

a fair way towards beginning the building of trust. Demonstrating your own trustworthiness to members of the team over a significant period of time is the only real way to move ahead on this journey. An important aspect of facilitating practitioner inquiry is remembering that quality is much more important than quantity. Sometimes at the outset of a new project the urge to collect large amounts of data from multiple sources rears its head. The wise research facilitator reminds team members that a little bit of data can go a long way, and that conserving energy for the vital conversations around the interpretation of the data rather than spending it on tabulating huge amounts of information is sometimes best. More can always be sought if the team decides that the initial yield is not quite rich enough. Supporting team members in reading the data they have collected and sometimes in being confronted

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CONCLUSION

with reflections on their work which they find difficult is a most important (and difficult) part of being a practitioner research facilitator. Much of the risk-taking implicit in practitioner inquiry and referred to above is related to this issue. Marion Dadds puts it well when she writes:



[In self-study] we may be entering into processes by which we deconstruct some basic, historically rooted views of ourselves. In such processes our existing images of the professional self will be challenged, questioned, re-thought and re-shaped in some degree. These processes are necessary if change and development are to occur and selfstudy is to lead to new learning. We cannot escape them, or the discomfort they may bring if we value our commitment to professional development.” (Dadds, 1993:288)5

While we believe that Dadds is right in her assessment that it is not desirable to escape the discomfort the processes may bring, the best facilitators of practitioner research are able to support their colleagues through that discomfort, by (for example) affirming what should be affirmed, sharing stories of their own professional growth under similar circumstances, offering alternate interpretations where they are called for, empathising in the midst of the discomfort. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of facilitating practitioner inquiry, and the only real advice here is to approach it with authenticity and concern for both teachers and students, trusting in your own professional judgement to guide you. The need to ‘tell the story’ of the research with integrity is a significant part of the work of the practitioner research facilitator. Sometimes a dilemma presents itself in terms of the need to authentically represent the findings of the research while being sensitive to the needs of those involved. While ethically it is of paramount importance that confidentiality and anonymity be maintained where it has been promised, in some cases where findings point to difficulties and problems, people may be

left feeling exposed despite the confidential or anonymous nature of the data. A ‘forensic’ approach to the data may help here, as may accentuating, although not unduly, the complementary positive findings (in our experience, there always are some!). This is another situation in which some experience at facilitating this kind of work will assist you in developing the confidence in your own professional judgement to deal competently with the issues as they arise. The administration of practitioner inquiry is a key task of the facilitator, and although this task can sometimes seem quite burdensome and thankless, it is through the effective administration of projects that teacher release time can be preserved for the type of critical conversations which are at the heart of practitioner inquiry efforts. Minute taking at meetings so as to keep a record of decisions taken, organising letters of consent, focus groups etc and the preparation of initial tabulations of data for consideration by the team are all part of this task. The writing up of projects, while not strictly administrative, is also an aspect of this task, although in many cases the writing is shared among team members while co-ordinated by the research facilitator. Finally, the best facilitators of practitioner inquiry are those who engage in what John Elliott has termed ‘second order’ practitioner inquiry, that where they constantly engage in reflection and gather evidence on their own practice as facilitators. Doing so not only assists the facilitator on their own path to constant improvement but also provides a powerful model of reflection on action for the teachers with whom they work. We began this conclusion by stating that facilitating practitioner inquiry is not for the faint-hearted. In our experience, however, the task is delightfully rewarding in the scope it offers for assisting teachers to come to understand their own practice, and through them, the improvement of student learning. We wish you well in your journey.

5 Dadds, M (1993) ‘The Feeling of Thinking in Professional Self Study’ Educational Action Research 1(2) 287–304

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LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

Some helpful resources

Bloor, M., Frankland, J., Thomas, M. & Robson, K. (2001). Focus Groups in Social Research. London: Sage Publications.

Janesick, V. (1998). ‘Stretching’ Exercises for Qualitative Researchers. London: Sage Publications.

The writers recognise that for many people the use of focus group enquiry is something which is done by market researchers rather than those in the professions. They address the key issues of using focus groups in the latter context and deal with issues of design, group size, composition, and ways of breaking the ice. There are a number of examples which are very useful to practitioners.

Developing the skills necessary to become an effective school based researcher involves more than simply learning the rules, tools and formulae. In this book Valerie Janesick treats research as an artistic enterprise, rather like dancing, which requires the researchers to ‘stretch’ their capacities and think beyond conventional practices.

Harbour, R. & Kitzinger, J., (Eds.) Developing Focus Group Research. London: Sage Publications, pp. 1—20. This, and the book above, are helpful to those using focus group enquiry. In the work of the Coalition, the focus group has been seen as an important strategy for delving into issues where many and varying of points of view prevail, such as “What is the experience of learning mathematics in Year 9?” While a number of the chapters are case studies in other disciplines such as health there is very useful advice in the opening chapter regarding the structure and function of focus groups.

Prosser, J. (Ed.) (1998). Image Based Research. London: Palmer Press Much qualitative research is dominated by words – words which capture people’s attitudes, feelings and perceptions about particular events and practices. Jon Prosser, in this book, has brought together ways in which researchers have moved from words to images. For example there is a paper which examines the ways in which students used photographs in a school self evaluation that is particularly revealing. Schratz, M. & Walker, R. (1995). Research as Social Change. London: Routledge. This book is committed to the notion that social enquiry should become an integral part of school improvement. Not only does it demystify research, but also provides many strategies for developing enquiry skills; a number of these have been referred to in the text of Learning to Listen: Listening to Learn.

SCOPE (1996). Self-Directed Collegial On-Going Personal-Professional Effectiveness. East Perth: Education Department of Western Australia. This kit contains twelve small booklets addressing such strategies as observation in the classroom, research techniques for student feedback and ways to write up school based enquires. The material is written in ‘teacher friendly’ language and was contributed to by a range of practising teachers in Western Australian classrooms.

Appendix A

This brief annotated bibliography contains items which schools in the Coalition have found useful starting points for thinking about school based enquiry.

Tripp, D. (1993). Critical Incidents in Teaching. London: Routledge. Although David Tripp’s book has been around for a while now it is still refreshing to find a text which discusses professional judgement used in situations where there are no easy or ‘right’ answers. Tripp uses the notion of the critical incident in research which may well be a fairly ordinary event that can be made critical by examining it from a different perspective.

Clearly there are many other resources that are available. We would encourage you to think about journals such as Educational Action Research where there are articles setting out various studies in various professions in different parts of the world as well as more theoretical accounts of current issues in practitioner enquiry.

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Appendix B

Sample letter

Date Address Dear

Evaluation of Middle school Festival As you may know the MLC Middle School undertook an innovative integrated curriculum unit which resulted in the ‘Middle School Festival’. As part of its normal procedures of evaluating innovations the school would like to interview a random sample of students to obtain from them their views of the ways in which the Festival was an effective learning opportunity. The interview will be conducted by Professor Susan Groundwater-Smith, who acts as the school’s researcher-in-residence. It will take the form of a focus group with eight to ten students responding to a set of prepared questions. The group discussion will not be audio-taped, but notes will be taken without any individual student being identified.

e l

has been selected to be a member of a focus group. It will take approximately forty-five minutes of her time. Could you please complete the form at the bottom of this letter giving permission for her involvement. Could you please ensure that the form is returned to the school by With many thanks,

Di Cottrell-Dormer (Head of Middle School)

m a S

/

/

p

I give permission for

to take part in a focus group discussion on the Middle School Festival to be conducted by Dr Susan Groundwater-Smith on Monday, 18th November 2002

(Parent signature )

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LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

A Portrayal of a focus group discussion

Do you believe that our school is a safe and caring environment for the students? Can you give some examples? There was strong affirmation that the school is a safe and caring environment. It was felt that the school is a very supportive environment for the students and that there is a “culture of mutual support that everyone recognises and strives for”. Clearly the students’ emotional safety is in good hands. As a manifestation of the school’s concern for its students its follow up on absenteeism was considered noteworthy.

Have there been times when the school has not been as safe and caring as you would like? The state of the toilets is a key concern, which is mainly related to cleanliness and hygiene and them being a site where students smoke. The security pass system for going to the toilet has some problems, particularly salient in these times when schools are subject to intrusion. There were some worries which may be beyond the school’s direct control – these were principally in relation to travel safety on the streets, in the buses and on the trains. There are still orientation difficulties for new students coming into Year 7. It was seen that insufficient attention is given to the information that comes from Year 6 record cards – this is of particular concern when related to health matters.

Are there ways the school could improve the manner in which it looks after the girls?

It would seem that TAFE classes provide a good learning experience and motivate the students.

It was suggested that an enhanced buddy system could alleviate settling in anxieties and even some of the travel worries.

Community Service classes in Year 9 are seen as very positive for girls as is work experience and the opportunities in the program to hear different speakers.

Signage would assist both students and their parents in finding their way around the school. It was suggested that during the orientation period guided tours occur so that parents could picture the environment in which their daughters are learning.

The Roundtable presentation for R&D was seen as a great success. The Band was seen as highly positive and contributed to an enhanced image of the school. However, some attention needs to be paid to the ways in which it is run.

At times there are worries that when a girl’s parents would like to raise a negative issue they are ‘silenced’ – they don’t want to be seen by teachers/executive as a ‘whingeing parent’. This could have repercussions for their daughters.

Excursions were generally enjoyed and the camp is considered a great experience for the girls.

Students requiring assistance from the school counsellor should be tactfully and thoughtfully dealt with. Mild depression in adolescence is fairly common and should be dealt with early on.

People were keen to see that achievements should be recognised across a range of activities, including a recognition of effort. It is more difficult for less able students to be acknowledged and affirmed.

How well do you believe the school provides for a range of different learning experiences for the girls, in the classroom; out of the classroom (e.g. excursions, field trips, camps, performances)?

Does the school provide an education that prepares girls well to cope with the wider world?

Again, the tenor of the responses were positive. Some discussion centred around the notion of differentiation. Not all students learn in the same way or like to learn in the same way. For example group work, while sound in some instances may not be desirable in others. The notion was that there should not be ‘one size fits all’ solutions.

Appendix C

Synthesis of responses given by parents Parents on the School Council had been trained and acted as focus group leaders

Does it recognise a variety of achievements (academic, cultural, social)?

Generally there is good career guidance for students. There is a wide range of subject choice. The multicultural nature of the school gives its students opportunities to mix with girls from many different backgrounds and experiences.

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Appendix C

Does the school encourage leadership in all girls? While it is clear that leadership is available for many girls (especially through avenues such as debating, public speaking, PIP) there does not appear to be a definite policy whereby all students are nurtured in their leadership capabilities. Girls are not given enough opportunities to be involved in policy making, certainly the SRC is active, but it is seen as important that all girls are consulted regarding significant issues.

How well does the school communicate with you about your daughter’s skills and abilities? Communication was the area that parents were least satisfied with. NESB parents can sometimes feel excluded because of their lack of mastery of English. Important communications should be posted rather than sent home with students who may not pass them on. This is particularly important when they deal with such complex matters as the new HSC, or major assignments such as R&D in Year 9. Parents often find out about an event after it has occurred, for example International Women’s Day, Music Evening. Face to face interviews, where a real exchange can occur in an unhurried way, are not conducted often enough. Parents reported feeling uneasy about ringing up to discuss issues and are often discouraged by their daughters. Furthermore, they perceive that informal interviews are discouraged by the school and that matters which could be ‘nipped in the bud’ may develop unnecessarily. Front desk reception is often the first contact with the school and needs to be friendly and courteous.

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Do they let you know in time when there is a learning or emotional problem and give you an idea of how the school is handling things? There need to be opportunities to hear about lack of progress, or emotional difficulties, at times other than formal reporting times. Parents want to know if their daughters are failing to achieve and how the matter is being addressed by the school and how it can be addressed at home.

Does the school encourage two way communication; that is not only reporting to parents, but also listening to what parents have to say? Again, it was seen that valid, two way communication takes time and that there seem to be few opportunities when it can occur.

Do you believe the school has sound discipline policies? Where parents knew of the policies they generally thought them to be adequate and appropriate.

Is homework managed well by the school? Responses to this question were mixed. It seems to fluctuate over the years. Some thought too much, some too little. But it was agreed that there was a lack of coordination between subjects with the loads being uneven and poorly distributed. Feedback from major tasks is often slow and insufficient to support the students’ improvement. In some cases it was taking a whole term. Some concern was expressed regarding equity. Not all students have access to sophisticated technology and this needs to be taken into account.

What are the things about the school you are least satisfied with?

» Communication (including the » » » »

» » » »

misspelling of girls’ given and family names); Toilets – poor maintenance; No drop off zone for students who are driven to school; Expenses – many of the extracurricular activities are costly, over and above the expenses parents normally meet in government schools; In some specific subjects there were concerns, for example, Mathematics – not enough explicit instruction or explanation, Languages – inappropriate choices in Year 7; Changes in teaching staff with no advice to parents; Appropriate locker and storage space is lacking; Poor volleyball training; Would like more encouragement for parents to be around – assemblies etc. When guest speakers come to the school parents could be interested in attending also.

What are the things that you are most satisfied with?

» Great School! » Positive atmosphere; » On top of things; » Multicultural; » Girls safe and challenged; » Girls happy; » Band; » Annual Report very detailed; » Academic work encouraged. In sum, it was seen that although the school is in a run down physical state it is one where the girls experience high expectations of them and where they are “overwhelmingly happy”. “The school is an arena for dispelling fears and concerns.”

LEARNING TO LISTEN: LISTENING TO LEARN

Ashfield Boys High School Student Survey, Years 9 and 10 PART A STRONGLY AGREE

1 I most enjoy learning when I am doing something, not just copying notes from the board or overheads.

AGREE

DISAGREE

STRONGLY DISAGREE

Appendix D

Example of a questionnaire arising from a focus group discussion

2 I find it difficult to learn when we have a lot of different teachers for one subject.

3 I like to be told why I am doing things in class, not just what I have to do.

4 I don’t believe that my teachers know me very well or the ways in which I learn.

5 I would like teachers to get together and work out our assignments so that they don’t all come at once.

6 I like being challenged in class, sometimes things are too easy.

7 The teachers don’t seem to want us to get involved in class. 8 It is good when we can talk with each other and learn from each other.

9 We could do with more videos, as long as they are up to date. 10 There never seems to be enough time to get things finished. 11 Teachers depend too much on textbooks. 12 I don’t think that my teachers know when I don’t understand the lesson.

13 Some of the subjects, for example are pointless to me.

14 I like it when I can do some problem solving, rather than being told the ‘right’ answer.

15 My reports should explain better not only what I have learned, but how I am learning.

16 I like being given chances to be independent and have some control over my own learning.

17 I would like more assistance in learning how to manage better like managing time and preparing for exams and tests.

18 Some of the books that we use are irrelevant and out of date. 19 I like excursions, we don’t have enough of them. 20 Its good when teachers explain things really well.

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Appendix D

PART B

Below are some brief accounts of things which may happen to you at your school. Please comment on them. 1

The teacher gives really good feedback on assignments. I am told where I went wrong and what I need to do to improve. As well, I am told what my strengths are and how I can build on them. I am also given a chance to assess my own learning and give a comment on how well I think I went. Can you give an example of this happening in a particular subject? Does it happen often?

2 The teacher puts our rankings up in the passage for everyone to see. Sometimes our actual marks are read out in class. I hate this because I don’t think it helps my learning and other boys have a go at me later. Has this ever happened to you or your friends? How did you feel about it? What would you like done about it?

3

The teacher spends a good bit of time helping us to think through how to tackle an independent task or one where we are working in groups. We are taught how to plan, to investigate and research and then to set out our findings. The teacher doesn’t just leave us to learn alone but checks up every now and then on how we are going. Is this true for you? Do you get enough help when you are set a major assignment? Would you like it to happen more? What other things would you like your teachers to do to help your learning?

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COALITION OF KNOWLEDGE BUILDING SCHOOLS NORTH CURL

CURL PS

FA IR

Ashfield Boys’ High School

Asquith Girls’ High School

Burwood Girls’ High School

AY PL

Curl Curl North Public School

Loreto Normanhurst

MLC School

SCEGGS Darlinghurst