Monday, August 9, 2010

The problem with incentives

Today's solution can be the basis of tomorrow’s problem. 

The Australian Prime Minister has proposed substantial incentive payments to up to 1000 schools which show improvements in student attendance and results (more...). It is generally a good thing to recognise and reward achievements and the intended outcomes of the proposal are highly desirable.

However this is not simply a system-wide recognition and reward arrangement. Offering incentives with a limited number of possible recipients turns it into a competition.  Competition can certainly promote improved performance, as in sport.

At the same time, there can be unintended side effects. In any competition there will be winners and losers. Incentives work best for those who are likely to be rewarded and they tend to become less effective over time unless the rewards are increased. Very few of us commit ourselves to winning Olympic medals despite the ever increasing value of doing so.

To be competitive we need to minimise the factors that reduce our likelihood of success while maximising the factors that increase the likelihood of our success.  Other than luck, our likelihood of success is associated with factors over which we have some control.

The Prime Minister has promised that national criteria will be developed through consultative processes and measurement of performance will be overseen by an independent body. Fairness is important in any incentive scheme. But is this actually possible?

Student attendance and results are closely associated with many factors well outside the school's control including the natural abilities of individual students; family well-being; levels of parental education; and the families’ access to social capital, community resources and so on. But will the selection processes be able to measure the school’s and teacher’s contributions separately from these non-school factors?

If not, it would make sense for schools and teachers to generally avoid students who have additional needs for support and whose families are in distress; whose parents have low levels of education; and who live in communities with limited services, facilities and social capital.

Conversely it would make sense for schools to attract and retain students who have minimal need for additional individual support; whose families are in great shape; whose parents have high levels education and  easy access to material and social resources and services.

The unintended side effect is that the most successful school response to the Prime Minister's proposal could well be to avoid the very students the proposal is intended to assist.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Understanding Data

Why we need data
Data is used to construct our knowledge, actions and arrangements. In order to gather meaningful data we need matching concepts and some awareness of the context. A height of 170cm may be "tall" or "short" depending on the person's age, gender, race, group....

The application of data may, or may not, be problematic depending on the nature of causal relationships (if any) involved. For many physical phenomena, cause and effect are consistent over place and time. Thus data can be used to make reliable predictions and transfer best practice.

In most social phenomena, the relationships between cause and effect are not consistent over place and time. This fundamental reality is often masked by the fact that some observations can make sense in retrospect (after the event). The thinking error involved is, "because something can now be explained it could have been predicted before it happened".

Rather the following are often true if the phenomena are complex or chaotic:
  • cause and effect may not be related at all in any meaningful way
  • cause of effect may be remote from each other in place and time
  • cause and effect may be related but also inconsistent over place and time - repeated experiments give significantly different results, or small differences result in very different results
  • despite our best efforts, outcomes are unpredictable, messy
Data and Complex Phenomena
In complex phenomena such as social activity it is common for patterns to emerge in/from the interactions of the agents. That is, the outcomes are better understood as patterns rather than "products".
[Note: It is more appropriate to use  the term 'product' in relation to the outputs of a production process, one which can be properly understood in terms of Input-> Process-> Output (product)]

The use of data in relation to complex phenomena is to enable us to identify patterns, trends and opportunities rather than to manage our endeavours as production activities. Understanding the difference between production and emergence is critical in field such as education.  

Of course education and similar endeavours uses processes but they are typically iterative rather than linear, as is typical of production processes.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Moving forward and gaining momentum

Enormous efforts are going into improving schools, schooling and education but most are disruptive, counter-productive and undermine stakeholder commitments to future initiatives.

Here are some basic (but counter-intuitive and very challenging) ideas about the way forward for schools, schooling and education:
  • Education is NOT a "process/production" activity and cannot be treated, nor modelled as such - A VERY BIG PROBLEM!!!  more...
  • Reality is complex, messy, uncertain and unpredictable - Forrest Gump was right: "Sh-t happens!!"
  • Certain people may be in charge at various levels, but it is not possible for them to be in control
  • Hierarchical systems tend to protect senior officers from the inconvenience of knowing about the current reality
  • Knowledge, not plans and policies, make people responsible (and knowledge can help make people, response-able)
  • People want to do a good job (unless they are totally discouraged)
  • We need to reduce the need for counter-measures (re-work) and move directly towards solutions by nurturing the emergence of what is desirable more...
  • We need much less change but much more improvement
  • Organisations (including schools) are constructed in the everyday conversations of those involved.
  • Such situations require a set of agreed and easily retained rules of engagement/interaction (everyone's job description*), e.g.,

    • Know what is happening
    • Work with others to improve what is happening
    • Do your work in a way that makes it easier for the next person to do well
  • When making changes/improvements always start by making things easier. 
  • As a result of the above, everyone will do more and to do it better!!
That is, ongoing improvement of schools, schooling and education can be achieved quickly and economically  
[*This 'job description' was used at RPS for the last several years of my time there and was clearly proven to work. In a school of 670 students, I taught 0.4 FTE, the APs taught 0.8 and everyone else taught full-time.  That is, 97% of all the available teacher time was spent working directly with students.]

Monday, July 5, 2010

Understanding Social Emotional Learning

I have been mulling over how to understand the social emotional learning component of School-wide Positive Behaviour Support.  The following is a summary of my current thinking
For me, at this time, I see SEL as
  • a major component of a school's taught, shared and lived curriculum
  • complementing the academic curriculum
  • enabling teaching, learning and belonging by and for all.
From listening to schools in the Network, and monitoring a lot of what is on the net, it seems to me that their are probably three SEL dimensions:
  • School expectations/rules/agreements - These key school aspects are described and articulated in various ways. They are intended to guide everyone's ongoing actions and interactions but and detailed meanings change from context-to-context, from setting-to-setting. To understand, appreciate, accept and support the school's requirements involves substantial social emotional learning:  the expectations have to be met, the rules observed and/or the agreements kept.  The  capacity to do so involves social skills, habits of mind and emotional literacy.
  • Social skills - The ability to use verbal and non-verbal communication skills that enable successful interactions between members of the (school) community. That is to meet one's own needs in acceptable ways and to support the needs of others.  For example, Teachers frequently use 
    • Attentive listening (from Tribes....)
    • Active Supervision (SWPBS...)
    • Restorative Inquiry (Restorative Practices...)
    • Affective Statements (Tribes, RP...)
    • Showing appreciation (Tribes, RP...)
    • ...
  • Habits of Mind - Patterns of thinking and acting in one's own best interests and leading to ongoing success. For example, You Can Do It!!proposes several 'habits of mind, including..."
  • Emotional Literacy - 
    • Identifying, relating and communicating one's (emotional) responses to experience, and
    • Understanding and appreciating those of others.
2. Implications arising
It seems to me that there are some major implications from the above:

Firstly, emotional literacy underpins success including the successful use of social skills and the development of useful habits of mind.

Secondly, the key elements of most structured SEL programs include elements from each of the above SEL dimensions.  Consider Tribes as simple example. The Tribes elements are
  • Attentive Listening = habit of mind + social skill + emotional literacy
  • Showing appreciation / No put-downs = social skill + emotional literacy
  • Right to pass = emotional literacy + social skill
  • Mutual respect = emotional literacy + social skill
  • [Focus on task = habit of mind  + emotional literacy]

Thirdly, social skills, habits of mind and emotional literacy are not subject to the law of physics: they are not universals in a determined sense. They are emergent, cultural and situated. This may mean that your school can simply choose its own preferred approach, and if done well, the school will make a profound contribution to the life and work of those involved, both now and in the future.
Fourthly, and keeping this last point in mind, consider your school's key expectations, e.g., "Be Safe, Be Fair and Be a Learner"

3. Discussion Starters
  • What are the required social skills that will enable all staff and students to meet these expectations?
  • What are the associated habits of mind that will make meeting the school's expectations natural and easy for staff and students?  
  • What emotional literacy is required of staff and students in order for them to understand, appreciate and achieve the school's expectations.
  • What educational strategies does your school currently have in place to develop the social skills, habits of mind and emotional literacy required?
  • What needs are not currently being addressed? That is, what are the gaps in the schools continuum of support in these areas, and how do you know (data)?
  • Possible next steps?

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010

    Changing to a Solution Focus approach

    There is  a central issue that has challenged me for years:
    • Why is it so difficult to get a field like education to adopt a well
      demonstrated strategy?
    The issue is made all the more puzzling by the fact that there are numerous examples of where a strategy (in this case SF) has been used successfully in the field, yet it remains very difficult to achieve wider and systemic adoption. Here is my latest thinking:

    Most schooling is currently dominated by the idea of a simple production system
    •  input -> process -> output 
    • curriculum -> teaching & learning -> knowledge and know-how 
    Indeed in most places in the world, schools are the last of the great factories. They certainly are here in Tasmania.

    On the other hand, SF is based on the idea of a complex adaptive system: one in which 
    • the interactions of those involved result in the emergence (or lack of emergence) of such things as knowledge, relationships, attitudes....
    I now believe that the current domination of "production thinking" in education, particularly amongst administrators, makes it  very difficult for education to adopt a  Solution Focus  approach  on a large scale.  

    The production model assumes:
    • predictability of outputs and outcomes 
    • transferability of processes ('best practices'), and thus 
    • "justifies" decision making that is remote in place and time.
    One the other hand, Solution Focus 
    • is a local and real time strategy 
    • with unpredictable outputs and outcomes, 
    • resulting in  specific situated responses that are 
    • not readily transferable, and so 
    • highly problematic for administrators and governments responsible for
      policy, planning and resource distribution.
    Of course, some aspects of schools and schooling can be modelled as production systems. However, most aspects of teaching, learning and improvement are best understood as complex  (emergent, unpredictable...).

    In such situations it is best to understand that the challenges involved 
    • are complex, and so are
    • about nurturing the emergence of those things that are desirable in the specific situation
    • likely to be amenable to complexity-based strategies such as Solution Focus
    Almost universally, the world wants teachers to change their practices to improve student learning. But teachers are caught in the middle:
    • Good teachers understand the complex nature of teaching and learning and usually respond well to SF.
    • At the same time, teachers are constrained by the erroneous 'production system' thinking of the schools amd schools system in which they work.  
    That is, the well intentioned policies and accountability requirements  based on "production" thinking make it very difficult for teachers and schools and school systems to adopt well demonstrated but less predictable strategies.

    IMHO, this is why there are examples of individual schools having great success with SF but no school system has yet adopted it as its improvement strategy.

    See also an overview of Solution Focus and Nurturing Emergence

    Friday, May 7, 2010

    Understanding the "outcomes" of a restorative process

     It seems to me that it would be helpful to encourage people to consider and report the outcomes comprehensively.  And it will be helpful if those responsible for implementing RP can articulate the real outcomes -  they will need to be able to tell 'the full story' of what was achieved.
    From the examples given in the workshop, outcomes can be
    • actions - "apologise", "shake hands", "make restitution", "forgive", "reconcile", "vent"...
    • experiences - belonging, being heard
    • changed relationships - changes in the way in which particular people interact with self and others during and following the meeting
    • learning and insights - a better understanding of how the world and people are, and how they work: cause and effect, flow-on effects, the experiences of others, similarities, differences, motivations,...
    • attitudes - beliefs and feelings that guide judgements and actions in relation to self, others and property
    • life chances - the ability to access opportunities that lead to success and well-being for
    • ...         (these are the one I have managed to identify so far)
    And outcomes also need to be considered on a timeline:
    • immediate - e.g., concludes the issue
    • short-term - e.g., retains student at school, avoid the courts, improves the relationship between the student and others,... 
    • long term - life chances - improved likelihood of success and well being
    And finally the outcomes will be unique for each of the parties involved: each offender; victim, supporter.... and all need to be considered and accounted for.

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010

    Schools in the Age of Measurement

    The Impact of the Age of Measurement
    The Telegraph recently reported:  'Age of Measurement' harming schools, says Eton head (here).  Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton has suggested that Boarding schools have entered an 'Age of Measurement' where only results are valuable.
    •  "...the current inspection regime for .... schools is flawed - because it splits schools into parts, judging them separately for different areas of their work...  I see teachers becoming averse to risk, naturally concerned about their responsibilities should they offer to take a school trip in their own time, feeling that they are judged most tellingly on the grades their students achieve in public exams, becoming more adept with the jargon and canny about 'delivering the outcome'."
    Expensive Bureaucracy 
     Another report of the same address (here) had the headline Schools 'harassed' by pushy parents, says Eton head. Tony Little's comments included the observation that
    • ... independent school fees had been driven up in recent years because of the “lethal cocktail” of maintaining facilities, meeting competitive staff pay rates and complying with    “constant waves of expensive bureaucracy.(my emphasis)
    In the case of public education the "constant waves of expensive bureaucracy" are paid for by taking teachers away from teaching. That is, in our system the cost is paid by those who can least afford it: those students who need the most teaching.

    Teaching is the core business of schools. When I was Principal at Riverside Primary (enrolment  670), I taught 0.4FTE, APs taught 0.8 and everyone else taught full-time. I believe that this level of staff engagement in teaching would be impossible today because of the huge increase in demands made on schools by the Department of Education, and State and Federal Governments.

    Given that Eton is experiencing the those things reported by Tasmanian schools one might conclude that this is a worldwide phenomenon and we are, indeed in the 'Age of Measurement'

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    School Improvement - a conversation

    Earlier this year the University of Tasmania advertised several 'New Stars' positions in various disciplines, including one for the Faculty of Education specialising in School Improvement. They couldn't recruit anyone suitable in School Improvement. This would indicate that the lack of expertise in School Improvement may be a much wider issue.
    Goldratt has identified a change management strategy based on three simple questions
    1. What to change?
    2. What to change to?
    3. How to cause the change? That is, "By what method?"
    Most people are confident about their expertise in relation to Questions 1 & 2, especially in relation to specific changes. The world is full of experts, who know what's wrong and how things should be.
    But a gaping void exists in relation to Question 3. This usually leads to attempts to drive school improvement by
    • focusing on outcomes (MySchool, Tasmania Tomorrow...) and/or
    • mandating changes to teacher practices (often based on notions of 'best practice')
     [The continual search for best practices is based on the largely unexamined assumption that 'best practices' are universally best, and are also readily transferrable] 
    These approaches tend to make school improvement initiatives
    • disparate
    • episodic
    • inefficient
    • ineffective ('after the horse has bolted')
    • lacking in overall coherence
    • often mutually disruptive: most schools struggle to meet the demands placed upon them
    On the other hand, there are a whole range of proven improvement strategies available. However, they seem have little or no traction in the field of Education. Tasmania is ideally situated  to redress this situation.
     Change management strategies worth considering include
    • Action Learning* (Revans,...)
    • Activity Theory (Engestrom,...)
    • Complexity Theory (Snowden,...)
    • Theory of Constraints (Goldratt)
    • Continuous improvement (Deming,...)
    • Sense Making (Weick, Snowden)
    • Solution Focus (McKergow,...)
    • Communities of Practice (Wenger,...)
    • Knowledge Management (combines with complexity theory and sense making)
    • Key Factors (Webb)
    • and even SWPBS (Sugai,...) - as per my recent email
    • ...

    The latter two strategies are currently understood to be specific to particular school contexts: the implementation of ICT and student behaviour respectively. In fact,  both have the potential to be generalised in such a way that they become applicable  and useful in improving most aspects of the life and work of the school.
    Interestingly, all of these strategies are constructivist and they boil down to being Action Learning in one form or another - not really surprising!!
    Thus, there is an urgent and important conversation to be had around the question
    • School Improvement -  by what method?
     And the conversation needs to be fostered at all levels and with all stakeholders.

    Tuesday, April 27, 2010

    A Positive Future for Tasmanian Schools

    Deming led the redevelopment of Japan after WWII and was a founding contributor to the quality movement. When people made great claims about about their future achievements ("No child will live in poverty", "No Child Left behind"...) he would ask the question: "By what method?".

    He was not asking "What are you going to do?". He was asking "How are those involved going to achieve this desirable thing?".

    One way to achieve a positive future for Tasmanian schools would be to adopt, adapt, appropriate and extend the main principles of SWPBS (School-wide Positive Behaviour Support) to address the various aspects of the life and work of the school; not just student behaviour.

    What would this mean?  It means that is areas such as teaching & learning, behaviour, organisations, community & families... Schools would be purposeful, capable and successful.  

    That is, in a positive future Tasmanian Schools would
    • be focused on success and well-being for all (staff, students, families, communities...) in a range of contexts
    • have clear widely shared hopes and expectations for all 
    • know what was happening 
    • have data to confirm or challenge their knowledge of what was happening
    • use this data to inform their decision making and responses
    • continually work towards achieving and improving outcomes consistent with their hopes and expectations
    • adopt and/or develop evidence-based practices that enable the outcomes to be achieved
    • apply these practices to provide a continuum of support according to the needs of those involved
    • develop systems that enable data to be acquired, processed and used in a timely manner,and for practices to be effective, efficient....
    • focus on improvement, rather than change, and thus
    • become inclusive (and restorative) communities in their own right
    Using SWPBS as a 'platform' would be strategic in that, to a greater or less extent, most schools have some knowledge and experience of PBS.  For those schools that already implementing SWPBS well, the extension would be simple and natural. And it would further strengthen the good work they are already doing in SWPBS.

      Thursday, April 22, 2010

      The Immediate Future of Tasmanian Education

      Understanding the current window of opportunity
      We are in a period of rapid transition and the critical changes are not being chosen, managed or designed or even predictable - they are simply emerging. So an understanding of complexity will prove to be critical.
      The old idea of a system as Input-Process-Output is very much alive but not at all well.  That is, this notion is working less and less well as our world becomes more complex, interactive, uncertain and unpredictable.
      Many aspects of our daily experience have elements that are at the 'edge of chaos'. While some people may be in charge, no-one is really in control of literacy, numeracy, retention, behaviour... and other critical matters. Still we have to respond and how we respond to these conditions determines our ongoing success or otherwise.
      Some key emerging concepts to consider
      • A system is network of people, tools, policies, facilities, arrangements... that interact with some coherence
      • And what is basic (literacy, numeracy...) is often not simple.
      • In complex situations consistency is more meaningful that uniformity
      • Knowledge, actions and arrangements are continually constructed and reconstructed in everyday interactions (mainly conversations)
      So many of the Tasmania education initiatives of recent years have proven to be disruptive and counter productive. While the thinking behind the individual initiatives has often be sound, their effect has been disruptive to other initiatives and thus reduced the overall coherence within the system. Consider the following examples:
      • SARIS fatally disrupted the ELs and all local reporting arrangements - the ELs were no longer coherent in the light of the SARIS
      • By defining the outputs (in effect, selecting the inputs) SARIS has also made significant curriculum development and implementation since the ELs virtually impossible
      • The national curriculum is very likely continue this process
      • The MySchool website is having similar effects
      • And many experienced Tasmania Tomorrow as very much less than coherent, especially in terms of its stated aims (retention) and the basis for its structure.
      It is interesting that SARIS, the National Curriculum, MySchool... are all strategies based on Input-Process-Output assumptions and they also assume that that uniformity is possible and meaningful.
      Increasingly leadership will require very different thinking, starting now. The "edge of chaos" phenomenon is not always bad. It can represent a condition in which significant system change can be achieved very easily and quickly. Thus, a new government and new Minister represent a window of opportunity that will be open for at least the immediate future. The responses made may keep the window open or slam it shut. 

      Wednesday, February 24, 2010

      The flow of Web 2.0

       It seems that many major organizations are beginning to respond to Web 2.0 in terms of how they operate on a day to day basis.  

       My impression is that rather than Web 2.0 driving these changes it goes something like this:
      • Web 2.0 makes new interactions and relationships possible
      • Individuals and groups explore and use these and begin to think and act differently
      • This seeps into organisations  with which these people are involved
      • Small parts of these organisations begin to try things  with Web 2.0 
      • Some of these work quickly, easily and cheaply - creating a competitive advantage
      • These are adopted more extensively along with changed rules resulting in a cultural shift and creating a comparative advantage
      The overall direction of the shift is
      • from understanding 'the system' as a classic input-process-output entity
      • towards understanding the system' as a network of agents (people, tools, ideas,...) that interact with some coherence, that is, as a complex adaptive systems.
      The phenomenon seems to be akin to Naisbit's notions of Hi-Tech Hi-Touch. This beginning to emerge in schools and may flow onto to education, per se, soon.