My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Book Review - A Culture of Quality by Ron Berger

Why would you review a book that is 17 years old?
The answer. thankfully comes from the quote chosen by Warren Simmons (Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute for School reform) to open the 2011 reprint of the book. It rings as true as ever, as does Bergers thinking and writing. The quote is taken form the book.

"There is a common perception that today's schools are in crisis. People are grasping for solutions- longer days, new management structures, alternative assessments, and fresh curriculum, even a return to curriculum from the past. Though I support many of the initiatives being proposed, I think there is a real danger in assuming there is any quick fix or single strategy that will " save schools." It is in this context as Simmons puts it " it is worth revisiting Berger's reflections on improving quality of practise in individual classrooms by creating a culture of quality in the entire schools."

This is why I am re-reading and reviewing this text. On the surface, it looks and sounds very much like the precursor to "An Ethic of Excellence", it's steeped in Bergers classroom experience and is driven by narrative. Some of the differences are nuanced, but it is the depth of thinking into school culture is the real beauty of this book.

A quick glance through the chapter headings and sub-headings reveal a series of very useful axioms.

School Culture Still Matters.

An Opportunity Arises.

The Radon Project. Motivation. Learning from Past Experience. Learning on the Job. Focused Work. Analysing our success. It was a good curriculum idea. There was some inspired teaching. These were gifted kids. The key to our success; School culture.

What is a culture of Quality? What goes on in the hallways is as important as what goes on in the classroom. Less Can be Better. Qualities of a Good Project. Quality Entails Universal Success. The most important assessment in schools is done by the students, not the teacher. The Language of Critique. The role of Portfolios. Peer pressure should be directed, not discouraged. When Quality is cool. Pressure has its rewards. Art is fundamental. Setting Standards. Is this real art? Details are important. An obsession with detail. Unexpected benefits. High standards require negotiation. What is negotiable? Earned Power. School culture must extend beyond the school walls. Teachers need support for growth as much as students do.

Adult work and children's eyes.

For those who lament the idle cretinous Govian rhetoric it  is pleasing that Berger has already tackled this head on.

"We still underestimate the capacity of our students and teachers and focus on "fixing" individuals rather than building communities that bring out the best in everyone" and the scarily prognostic criticism of the use of "narrow and shallow metrics of success for students, teachers and schools and spend little time considering the features of comprehensive school cultures in effective schools that shepherd students to success".

I'm sure most teachers will recognise this, with individuals picked out "for development" following a performance management observation that's " requires improvement". Our system is awful.

He then goes on to point to the development of Expeditionary Learning Schools model for doing just this. If you have never been to their Website, please go now. Take my car, you must go now.

This is just the Preface.

So what do I think this book can teach us?

That school can, and should from time to time have impact beyond the classroom.Schools should have a wider role within the community. This is not substitute for teaching students, but a shift to educating them. As with everything Berger writes, it has deep roots in community. I don't think it's an accident that the Radon Project involves a significant collaboration with the local University. As a method of raising aspiration of all students this is a powerful method, reminding me of something Larry Rosenstock said "Students will only go to University as far as they have travelled". We need to show all students the (academic) world.

Authentic projects provide motivation, there is a genuine reason for knowing "stuff". If you get it wrong there is a consequence. It is impossible to teach a student everything before a project begins, and just like the "real" world a certain amount of learning on the job must take place. The obvious examples are the tacit bits of knowledge, that must be experienced and reflected upon in order to learn. I recognise this, I am a better teacher than I was last year.  Less obvious is the fact that literacy, numeracy and subject content  all now have a context. Projects are not an addition to the curriculum but become the reason for the elements in your curriculum.

The idea that how time is spent in school is also important. The multiple lesson day approach actively inhibits not only the securing of relationships within the classroom that allows such demanding work, but also the opportunity for such focused work where learning, practise and improvement to be made. This is where Ken Robsinson is right, the 100 year old system is failing our kids. Learning is too often a slave to the timetable.

Reflection and debriefing are essential as part of this process for both students and teachers. I have written more on this here and here. This can lead us to challenge some of the assumptions on what great teaching looks like (Berger suggests a focus on learning, student dispositions, and deep knowledge of each student)  and what constitutes a "gifted" students stating "all of my students were gifted in different ways" .  Reminding me that the much derided Multiple Intelligences still have a role to play in broadening our thinking about the narrow way the measures of education are currently determining the experiences are students gain while being schooled. Whether you agree with Gardner or not,  a breadth of experience for all students in the 13 years of schooling is not just a desirable, but should be a fundamental part of it.Within this is the power of this book.

All of this stems from the school culture which is rooted in IT'S community. Berger goes on to argue that "The only way to understand a school culture is to understand what students experience in being part of it" , he does this in a all encompassing way "in all domains......[and] standards for kindness, integrity, industriousness and responsibility."  Explaining the choice of sections on the hallways, the community, the focus on quality over quantity, on every student (reminding me of Jeff Robins' worthy PBL summary below) , the opportunity to apply what they have learned immediately. Relevance is an underplayed educational card.

Berger makes a coherent argument that the Culture of Quality is and should be pervasive. Student portfolios play a central part in the assessment and reporting on students learning and progress to parents. Students undertake  Presentations of Learning  , "formal presentations...that students prepare with discussion, critique and rehearsal...highlighting their strengths and weaknesses" These portfolios as a result turn into a source of accomplishment for the students.

This clip shows Rob Riordan ( HTH's Emporer of Rigour) unpacking the process. It clearly demonstrates the prior learning and the learning that takes place during this process.

Models of high quality are central to this culture. It allows students to see the details of quality in all subject areas and give them ways of at least emulating this.  I too struggled for most of my teaching career that it "should be process centred, or perhaps person centred- anything other than product centred", but these products become the conduits for knowledge and personal development. The more I think about this, the more I become convinced the blend between well designed knowledge based lessons and experiences authentic projects and products can bring is the Holy Grail we are looking for.  This book does nothing but reinforce this feeling.

Despite this book advocating a model, it is remarkably student centred. No more than the section on Negotiation and its role in ensuring the quality. "More than once this year, a student has approached me , often with eyes a bit teary, to explain that the work I would not accept represented much more effort than I had guessed...... I applauded their self advocacy". Berger is correct to highlight our job , partly to "aspire to push each student to his or her maximum potential by refusing to except work of poor effort"  To differentiate he makes clear that the components of the project may be negotiable but Quality never is.

Staff development is central to this approach, ensuring consistency and understands that teacher behaviours are hard wired , and that the lack of true educational apprenticeships (I think this is changing) and the professional reflection this brings makes it difficult to develop. At the time of writing he contemplates how good a teacher he would be if he had a third of each working day to plan, reflect and prepare his lesson as the teachers of Japan have, and not just evenings and weekends. Oh how this resonates.

The final section Adult Work and Children's Eyes, is a highly connected statement, I think potentially subconsciously alluring to a common background with David Perkins at Project Zero. Perkins excellent book Making Learning Whole and the notion of finding Junior Versions of The Real Game, also makes clear the teachers role in making learning accessible to all, while maintaining a focus on quality and challenge. However, it is always, always through the eyes of what their students experience. Maybe, this is something for us all to "think on".

You can buy a Culture of Quality here