#17 School improvement, the principal and becoming skilled observers.

#17 School improvement, the principal and becoming skilled observers.

School improvement, the principal and becoming skilled observers.

'If we could get every teacher to move every student in their class up at least one competency level, the overall impact on the system, on the country, would be enormous. Just one level of competency....'  Emeritus Professor Patrick Griffin talks about the importance of moving to a competency-based curriculum and the need for principals to help teachers become skilled observers.


Loretta  00:03

You're listening to Loretta Piazza, experienced school principal, mentor, and coach. And together were talking out at school. You will hear from leaders who have lived and breathed so many experiences, good and bad, agonized over decisions, and have tossed and turned through countless sleepless nights. These are the people who will help you stay ahead of the game.  The curriculum debate is once again raging. A couple of years from now, we will be at it again. And again. And again. We all agree that we want our kids to do better. So what do we focus on? Revising the curriculum and bringing in more compulsory assessment such as the year one phonics check. Don't get me started on that one. What are we missing here? According to Patrick Griffin, we're missing a lot. Let me tell you a little bit about Patrick. He was a professor at Melbourne University. And he was also the founding member of the Assessment Research Center. He was Deputy Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. And he has published over 30 books, and has written hundreds of journal articles. He's worked in many countries during his long and distinguished academic career. It was on a lovely autumn day that I drove to Drummond North, located roughly between Castlemaine and Kyneton in Victoria, to have lunch with Patrick, and to interview him for this podcast. These days, he takes life very slowly. But he hasn't lost the spark, or the fire in the belly, when he talks about the over-emphasis on teaching content, and the disservice our schools are doing to our highest achieving students.  Patrick, Hello, welcome to Talking out of school. So you've had an incredibly interesting career. I know you're an academic, but very specifically, what has your work entailed?

Patrick  02:23

Almost inevitably, my work as an academic has been to do with competence and competence education. In fact, I've been employed by several governments around the world to help convert teachers to a competence rather than a content model of learning and teaching.

Loretta  02:51

What are you passionate about?

Patrick  02:54

I guess that's the thing. It's, I am quite passionate about competence, rather than content. Somebody said, the difference between content and competence is the teacher who teaches the students the poem, Daffodils. That's content. It's whether or not they can then take the lessons from that and apply them in a context somewhere. That's competence. And increasingly, the curriculum, content curriculum, is becoming so crowded. At every issue, every problem is foisted onto the schools to teach another topic, another topic, another topic, and then teachers  tend to portray the content as the end product. Whereas in fact, it's not every school, every teacher, every principal should be looking at. What is the trajectory? What what is the progression of increasing competence? This is what have Glaser in America, coined in the 1980s. We monitor students through stages of increasing competence. That's not true stages of increasing content. So once we do that the content doesn't become irrelevant, but it's not the dominant thing in education. That this is a very, very big change in teaching is, you know, teach To Kill a Mockingbird. That's the That's the story. What is one of the lessons that come out of that? And what can we do with those lessons? So it's a matter of identifying what level of competence each student is at and then deliberately intervening to move them to the next level. So the teacher's job is really to identify, first of all the progression, the stages of increasing competence. It's analyzing what in the teachers mind, is the skill involved? Then how does that skill become progressively more difficult to demonstrate? How does the progression of skills lead to the idea of a competence? Once we develop that, on that notion? What's the why? What are the stages of increasing competence? It becomes possible to abandon a lot of the peripheral content curriculum, and focus more on what the students can do. So

Loretta  05:59

So there's no real reason for us to have an overcrowded curriculum, is there?

Patrick  06:06

No reason at all. In fact, the thing that is attractive to ministers, at least in other countries and not here is that this actually frees up the curriculum. We're now interested, instead of the curriculum being a model of what the student what, what, how the student imitates the adult population. It's a matter of how the student can demonstrate skills and competence outside of the classroom, as well as in the classroom. The key to all of this is the progression of increasing competence. And when we developed the literacy profiles in Victoria, in the 1980s, we started out asking teachers, how did they know somebody could read? How did they know someone could do mathematics? Inevitably, we got a feedback to say, what the teacher did. And that was transferred to the student in terms of the competence. But it wasn't Of course, it's not about the teacher, it's about the student. It's not what the teacher does, says or performs. It's about how they lead students on. So that started out with at the very bottom of this scale, just beginning to read, holds the book up the right way, read from left to right, and so on through to the top of the progression, where the student is able to differentiate between strategies, persuasive strategies that different authors might use. And then to be able to evaluate those strategies in terms of their meaning that comes across. That's very different to what the general curriculum might be. There, most teachers have this in their mind, but still refer to their own performance rather than the students performance. And a teacher comes back into the classroom might breathe a sigh of relief. That was a tough lesson. I did this and I did that, that couldn't break through or, alternatively come into a word of what a brilliant lesson there was. Whether it's a brilliant lesson, or whether it was a tough lesson is dependent upon what skills the students acquired as a result of it, not what the teacher did.

Loretta  09:04

That's a really interesting perspective, Patrick, because I think teachers, they do spend a lot of time reflecting on their own practice. So based on what you're saying, then we should be encouraging our teachers to spend more time observing and noticing what it is the kids are achieving, and conversely, what they're not achieving?

Patrick  09:33

That's correct. And in fact, the work, my work was governed by three theoretical perspectives. The first was criterion referencing is developed the notions developed by an American psychologist Bob Glaser, who talked about monitoring students' growth through stages of increasing competence. Now, formally, we can see things like the NAPLAN progression, we can see things like PISA progressions, they all came about as a result of the notion of criterion referencing stages of increasing competence. So you don't need the formal NAPLAN progression, you don't need the formal PISA progression, just in the teacher's mind, they need to spend time talking about the stages of increasing competence that they observe in the classroom with their colleagues. The second theory that drove the work was the notion of the zone of proximal development or scaffolding, largely attributed to the Vygotsky, the the Russian psychologist, and that zone of proximal development is a thing. It's a region between what the student can do and what students cannot do. The important word there is do, not learn. Alone, there's ways to find that the ways we find the zone of proximal development as a result of the third theory, that is psychometric theory of Rash. Rash developed techniques of measuring the student ability, and the difficulty of the task were given to the students on the same metric. What we did to identify this was we developed something called a Guttmann chart. I regret calling it a Guttmann chart now.  What do we call them now? They're still Guttman. But I'm astonished at how students in our Melbourne University program took to the notion of guttman charts to identify the progression of increasing competence. But also the area for every student with a performance broke down between the can and cannot do. Astonished at the take up of that amongst teachers. So that's across the top of the guttman chart, you'll see the progression of increasing skills, because the teacher's got to be able to recognize that they're skills, not content, put those across the top, then, for every task that the student does, who records yes can do within a one year, no cannot do with a zero. And really, teachers only need to recognize where the pattern of ones and zeros gets a bit mixed up. That's data. It's also important that teachers can do this without formal statistics or formal by becoming skilled observers. Noting in the class, where the student is able to demonstrate the skills involved, and a student who is not able to demonstrate the skills and the students who are inconsistent in their performance. That inconsistency is what we call the randomness of it. And that is the zone of proximal development. So in this one chart, we can identify what the zone is for every student in the class. Experience tells us that there is not 25 or 30 different zones of proximal development in any classroom, but probably a maximum of five groups of students who can be mentored to move them to the next level of competence.

Loretta  14:15

So they will then indicate to a teacher that they could confidently differentiate the curriculum and run maybe five different groups of kids that all their kids would actually fit into those groups.

Patrick  14:35

Absolutely. Then, the difficult part then is what the heck are teachers gonna do about it? Because if we talk in terms of grade equivalence, now, it may well be that at the bottom end of the scale of the competence level, the student may be at a grade Three level, at the top end a student might be at a grade seven or eight level. And this presents a bit of a challenge in terms of lesson preparation in terms of monitoring progress. So now different forms of teaching activity take place. I wouldn't purport to know how to do that in every subject. But when I was teaching, I very rarely ever taught a whole class. What was happening was identify students who are stuck, who are needing intervention. And I would gather that small group of people out front or another place in the classroom, and we would just teach, directly teach that group the problems that they were having with the competence level, then they can move to the next level. Now, that didn't happen immediately, while but by direct instruction, when we identify the zone of proximal development, we could we could move on informing that and helping the students move through that stage of competence.

Loretta  16:31

So the emphasis that our current education department and previous ones have, the emphasis that they put on assessments such as NAPLAN. How important do you think it is for our kids to do well in Naplan? What's the value of that type of assessment?

Patrick  16:56

It's important at a school level, I think, it's not particularly useful for a teacher to know what the score is. One thing we can do is abandon scores all together and talk about zones of proximal development. Scores is a number and it's useless, a useless piece of information in that the teacher has a class full of students whose scores range from say 153 to 300. What are they going to do with that information? They can't watch us work harder. What will our teachers do? However, if I could reanalyze, the NAPLAN data to take a look at it. Guttman charted of it. They might be able to move kids quickly to the next level. But I honestly can't see what is four months between doing the test and getting the results. But that waste of time and wasted effort and stressful effort on the part of teachers. I don't think school principals should be stressed. But it does give an idea of how the whole school is is progressing. And that's important. It is important for the principal to know how the school is going. And even to know within the school, there might be cohorts of kids who might be particular groups of kids who are also struggling. It's important for the principal to know that. But there's not a lot that says the teachers can do four months after the test, or in Pisa, a year or two after the test.

Loretta  19:00

Looking at the high performing kids. And I know you've done a lot of research around this. Why is it that we don't see high levels of growth in kids who are performing say above average, compared to the kids who are not achieving to the same level? Yet we see we can see higher levels of growth there. Why is that? What's going on there?

Patrick  19:30

A number of things. Some of the research that we did at Melbourne University was related to exactly this. We took the lower quartile, lower 25% of the class and the top 25% noted the difference between these two top-meaning high scores on a test. We monitored the difference between the top quartile and the bottom quartile from grades three to grade nine, in maths and reading. The at the same time we invited workshops with teachers to come in and tell us what teaching strategies they would have employed in their classroom for these different groups of students. The first thing that was noted was that for the kids at the bottom, and the bottom 25%, they had almost a limitless array of strategies they could use. To get to the top 25%, almost nothing. Because we're so fixated on the bottom 25%. We're not self congratulating on top 25%. Just what's the results come out with NAPLAN? What will results be? So many percentage below the bottom benchmark is a report about 70 percentage above the top benchmark. That's the first thing. The use of the data focuses on the bottom quarter. Don't ignore them. But my goodness, we've got to get strategies to help kids in the top quarter. And teachers coerced almost into thinking about the bottom quartile of the class. But the top quartile will be all right, they can learn on their own. I don't know how to help them. Some teachers are intimidated by kids at the top end of the spectrum. So there's a whole lot of work that needs to be done in terms of the top quartile of kids. When we monitor those bottom and top quartile across schools. We were alarmed. And to say that by year nine the top quartile kids were going backwards in mathematics. Not so bad in reading but in mathematics, the top quarter, were not progressing, on average at all.

Loretta  22:50

Now, what year did you do this research?

Patrick  23:00

2005, 6.

Loretta  23:02

Okay, so we're 15, 16, 17 years further on. Has anything changed do you think?

Patrick  23:09

I don't think so. We're still focusing on the bottom end, which is good. Some schools are doing well. Some classrooms are doing well. And there's a long, long way to go.

Loretta  23:31

You mentioned that a lot of teachers are perhaps fearful of these higher performing kids. I'm interested in a comment that that you made not long ago about a fairly large cohort of teachers who are not particularly, for want of a better word, skilled, or intelligent. I'm not sure where do they fit in in terms of their ability to teach kids in that top quartile?

Patrick  24:13

I think the most serious area where this is the case is in mathematics. Teachers are not trained in maths education. They're not mathematicians. They're not... they don't understand themselves what the principles, what the competencies are. Did you come into the staff room in grade eight, and say today I taught simultaneous equations? Well, that's good. Did the kids learn anything? Most wouldn't know.  So let's for the teacher who knows simultaneous equations, one of our students went into school teaching mathematics and was alarmed with the coordinator in the school, the level of mathematics competence that person had. That's unfair to teachers. It's so unfair to put a teacher who doesn't have a background in mathematics, in reading, in history. And I asked him to teach kids at the top end of their spectrum. Not going to happen. So I wouldn't say that teachers are not intelligent enough to do it, I'm certain now. Competence is not natural, if you don't have it, you don't get it. You don't become competent by teaching somebody else. If we move to a competence curriculum, all these things should settle. And we can dispense with a lot of the content in the garage. And then the expertise in the teachers who have the skills and competencies will be much better aligned to the zones of proximal development that they discovered in the classroom.

Loretta  26:43

So thinking about principals now, imagine you're standing in front of a group of 100 principals, like you did many, many, many times. Many times, I was one of those principals in that room. In terms of whole school improvement, what do they need to be focusing on? What are the key points, in a nutshell, to bring about whole school improvement?

Patrick  27:17

They need  the teachers to become skilled observers of students. It's as simple as that I think. I've worked with with teachers a lot. And I am bothered by the teacher performer. The teacher who's got her wisecracks, who's got the jokes, who's got the charm, exuberance in the classroom. I'm thinking of someone in particular at the moment, who entertains the class knowingly, but the kids don't bloody well learn. Because they're too busy watching themselves perform in front of the class, their audience. And they're not picking up on the messages that the audience gives them through direct observation. So as far as school performance is concerned, whole school improvement become skilled observers, of what the students can do, and what the students cannot do. And identify that zone of proximal development, you don't need the statistics or anything like that. They just need to be skilled observers to say that the zone is evident, in ways where the student is inconsistent. With the performance, become observers.

Loretta  28:54

Yeah, that's..... in my own mind it becomes.... or thinking about what we keep hearing: evidence, latest research, et cetera, et cetera. So we continually hear about that. And yet, the message is, and very clearly, that teaching is a craft. And it's the teacher who has the knowledge to be able to identify where kids are at in terms of their observations, their questions that they ask, listening to the kids and so on. So are you referring to going back to teaching as a craft, where we give teachers permission to really do the job without necessarily doing all these assessments? Doing all these tests and running all these, you know, running records and doing Fountas and Pinnell and pre and post tests. Is that what you're suggesting?

Patrick  30:10

Oh, probably not to that extreme. But in the teacher's mind, in fact, the principal need to talk with every teacher. What in their teacher's mind is the progression of where are the stages of increasing competence? For every teacher? Once that notion is identified, then there's no further, there's no further formal identification that is needed. Teachers just need to be able to articulate what three or four levels of competence might be exhibited in their classroom. And to make a note of those things, so that they're able to pass that class on from one teacher to another. And the second teacher also has stages, three or four stages of increasing competence. No more than that, you don't need to 10 or 11 stages. Maybe two or three, four stages of competence that they can recognize in their students, or that they deemed to be critical for the students' progress. I think that that would get that would get teachers out of the content curriculum, and into the competence curriculum. But if I were to advise you as a school principal, I would talk to all your teachers, find out if they've got this notion of competence and progressions at all? Or are they still tied to content in the curriculum? If they're tied to content in a curriculum, then I'd be watching very closely how their students were developing. If they're conscious of the competence, and stages of competence, then they should be able tell you the percentage of kids that are reached my stage three, or my stage two? And why stage one? What am I going to do with kids who are in stage one? To get into stage two? What are we going to do with kids at stage three, move on to the next year's level, or whatever. But I would say, if you don't know what your teachers have in their mind, you've got no hope of moving out of a content curriculum. You're gonna be pestered by issues, tension cycles, ad nauseam. It's got to be competence, not content.

Loretta  32:59

So if you were the Minister for Education, what would change?

Patrick  33:05

Oh, I would move immediately move towards a competence based curriculum. We know how to do it. We get, yes, we know how to do it, how to shift it. That would be the one thing that I think would help Australia, help this country become really high skilled, quickly. Teachers need to have in heir mind progression that the kids are on. I know every kid's an individual, and they don't all follow the same trajectory. But the data needs to have that in mind. This is where I want this class to be. I'm going to move them. I've got four levels in my class. I'm going to move every one of the kids up one level. If we can get every teacher to get all the students to move up one level in the year that the teachers have them, the overall impact on the system, on the country, would be enormous. Just one level of competence.

Loretta  34:30

Patrick, thank you very much for

Patrick  34:33

thank you for the opportunity.

Loretta  34:34

Your insights are fabulous, and it's certainly no nonsense. It's, the notion of competencies are quite complex, but how we progress through competencies, it doesn't have to be a daunting task does it.  Patrick  thank you for your time. Thank you for your thoughts. Thanks for your many,  many insights. Wishing you all the best.

Patrick  35:07

Thank you.


Loretta  35:08

Thanks for listening to this latest episode of talking out of school where we cover topics and dilemmas associated with the ups and downs and even the downright curious of the school leaders job. Want to know more? Then visit me @shapingleaders.com.au But for now, here's to staying ahead of the game.