Monday, October 31, 2011

Brain salad surgery (Emerson Lake & Palmer)

I'm home sick today from school - sore throat has gone but it has been replaced by a runny nose. This means a stuffy head full of mucus and waste bin full of tissues. Just the right conditions to write about today's subject - the brain!

I am, by nature, both fascinated by and suspicious of many of the latest edufads - learning styles, De Bono's damned hats, talk of the right and left brain hemispheres, the knowledge wave and so on.

In education I often get the distinct impression that an interesting idea gains fadhood by being essentially misunderstood. It then goes viral and every educator who wants to appear au courant propagates and increases the misunderstanding

The Knowledge Wave idea gained fadhood a few years ago in Nu Zild. Everyone was quoting Jane Gilbet's book (Catching the Knowledge Wave?). It became a catch phrase, a conference theme, a training website, a T-shirt and Marvel were considering making a movie of it. Okay I'm making that last bit up (I hope).

Thing was, I don't think many people actually read Gilbert's book. I did and it made sense to me as a way of dealing with the production model of education.

The right and left brain people would have us believe that we are one or the other. Educationalists, who always appear to want to simplify things, therefore seek ways to accommodate each side's characteristics in teaching practice.

I found this talk recently which may take a few views to follow but I enjoyed both the delivery and the message.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

We get some rules to follow, that and this, these and those - no one knows (Queens Of The Stone Age)

The book I'm reading (Evidence-Based Reward Management) poses some interesting and pertinent questions.

Before I get to them - they make the point that:
The tendency is for organizations to ignore research evidence and base their HR and reward policies on generalized 'truths' that have little foundation in that evidence.
That would certainly be my experience thus far. I have seen or heard no research based evidence advocating a reward policy, nor have I seen or heard any rationalisations about why we need one.

Some of those questions:
  • How effective will the performance related incentive scheme be?
  • Will it add value?
  • What would happen if we swapped from an individual incentive scheme to a team emphasis?
  • How do rewards affect the levels of engagement and performance of the employees?
  • In fact, do we have any evidence whatsoever that our pay and reward arrangements make any difference?
That last one's a doozy isn't it?

Ehrenberg (1990) answers this when he says, 'There is very little empirical evidence on whether compensation policies have their intended effects either at the individual or corporate level.'

Food for thought surely...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

You must be some kind of superstar (Jamelia)

I started my formal observations of the Arabic teachers today. Given that they teach in Arabic this is tricky. There is only so much my translator can give me while I am filling in 18 boxes of criteria. Each with 6 areas of rubric to consider. Sheesh.

I like Al Burr's differentiation of teachers into three groups:

Superstars, Backbones and Mediocres

I discussed this will Mohamed today and he could easily place his teaching staff into one of these three categories.

Superstars (the cream - the top 5 - 10%) - we have 4 or 5.
Backbones (the middle 80 - 90%) - we have 21 in this category.
Mediocres (the foot draggers, the gripers) - we don't have any. Amazing but true. We had some last year but they have moved on.

Mohamed and I also discussed what makes an effective teacher.

This is his answer:

He (we are in a boys' school and all the teachers are male):
  • is well prepared;
  • uses modern teaching techniques;
  • has clear learning objectives for each class;
  • ensures success criteria are met;
  • is student centred in his approach;
  • differentiates to include different learning abilities and styles;
  • reinforces good students;
  • motivates lower achievers;
  • uses co-operative learning techniques, group work;
  • reflects on what the students are doing;
  • explores his own learning to improve his practice.

Wow - this is a great list.

I then asked him how many of his staff would match this list and he named his four superstar teachers (I would include one other but that's by the by).

The following article is worth reading on what makes a great teacher.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I'm one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind (Dylan)

Evidence based management is what we are about in our local work in the sandpit.

In a nutshell this means asking two essential questions: What is it you think you know? How do you know it?

I like evidence based management and I like these questions.
They get to the heart of the matter. They question assumptions.

Frinstance - I am an advisor for Arabic (as well as being the Lead Advisor) in my school and I know that, compared to other boys in Al Ain, our boys struggle with reading and are excellent at writing. I can prove it by comparing exam results. Evidence. Powerful stuff.

It means we can put some things in place to improve the boys' reading. And when I say 'we' I mean the Arabic teachers who are uniformly terrific.

I am reading a really interesting book at the moment, Evidence-Based Reward Management by three UK business writers.

The following statement of purpose jumped out at me:

[Reward management] is also about helping to create a climate of trust between management and employees in which the former recognize that they must apply the principles of both distributive and procedural justice and the latter believe that the management will act fairly in 'delivering the deal' as evidenced by what they do and how they do it.
As I gear up for having an incentive scheme done to me, I thought this was quite pertinent.

It's an excellent book - all that and I'm only up to page 14!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

All I want is someone to believe (Billy Joel)

Still with the Whitaker book - he struck a chord with me when talking about autonomy and recognition.

He quotes Al Burr's discussion that truly outstanding teachers need two things to make them content and motivated - autonomy (freedom to do the things they know are best) and recognition (can be formal or informal)

Let them take chances and risks and watch them implement innovations.

The best leaders I had gave me both.

The best of the best was Colin Prentice at Macleans College. He used his Monday mornings before staff briefing to distribute his yellow bits of paper containing his personal recognition of staff. We would look forward to Mondays and the chance of getting those yellow bits of paper. When we did it was an exhilarating feeling.

Intrinsic rewards (and not extrinsic rewards) are the best drivers.

While I was there I wanted to start a media studies department. He allowed me to do so and left me to it. I really appreciated that!

Greg Taylor at Mt Albert Grammar left me alone to run the boarding hostel and gave me the freedom to make mistakes and complete innovations.

So I did - honours boards, dorm names, refurbishments and so on. It was a thrilling time.

In my current job I work with subject specialists who are experts in their fields. I aim to give them autonomy and informal recognition.

I figure I can't do their job any better than they can so why would I try?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hot hot hot stuff (Donna Summer)

Internet frustrations are hard to deal with. We've had a couple of days where I couldn't access the internet and therefore emails.

So I had to relax, let it go/build a bridge and work on boring stuff like making an English version timetable for the school instead and breathe through the fact that I couldn't access emails from my bosses (I have a few!).

I did an English version last year when our non Arabic speaking inspectors came so I put this year's version on that.

And made lots of mechanical errors. Frustrating!

I was tired, it was a boring mechanical job, I had loads of interruptions, a headache from concentrating so hard, the computer screen is small, there are thousands of small entries to make on the spreadsheet, the sun was shining, it was hot, I was dehydrated....etc etc.

I did find it hard to concentrate on the task though. Luckily one of my errors was spotted when I published it and I did a more careful check of the document. As I was doing so I realised that I should have shared the task with someone. That way there would have been more accuracy.

Been thinking about two statements in the Todd Whitaker book (What Great Principals Do Differently):

1) Make every decision based on the best teachers (i.e. keep your superstar teachers in mind when making decisions and not the backbone teachers or the mediocre ones) and...

2) Don’t have a 'principal's pet'. As Whitaker says - our true superstar teachers don't want to be singled out for special treatment in front of their peers.

This is tricky. In my current school the Principal has go-to guys he trusts as a sounding board for decisions. Being human, we naturally gravitate to a few people whose judgment we trust.

Whitaker again - our superstar teachers will tell us the truth in a way that we can accept.

The balance is between reality (bouncing ideas off a trusted few to make better decisions) and perception (having principal's pets). As I said - tricky.

In one of my schools the Principal created a formal Advisory group that she would call upon when she needed advice on sensitive situations. Mohammed has an informal Advisory group to do the same.

I think the informal works better - it can be more flexible, people don't get upset when not consulted, it doesn't create an aura of division in the ranks and avoids the potential for the wrong perceptions to circulate.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

It's a goal (Winston McCarthy)

The education world loves jargon. Jargon and acronyms. First and second place.

A colleague of mine at Waimea College asked me once what the difference was between an 'objective' and a 'goal'. As an English teacher (and someone with a brilliant mind) he knew the subtleties at play.

What he was alluding to was the unnecessary obfuscation of language that seems to emerge on a daily basis in teaching. I'm sure he'll be spluttering while reading the next sentence.

A new addition (or at least, new to me) is the term 'stretch goals'. 

It seems a 'stretch goal' is:
A goal that cannot be achieved by incremental or small improvements but requires extending oneself to the limit to be actualized.   Stretch goals are used, not to drive short-term action, but to inspire longer term innovation processes aimed at making desirable outcomes, that are currently impossible, achievable at some future time.  While it might be hoped to achieve a stretch goal either in large measure or in full within a defined time frame (usually quite some time into the future) the timing of the achievement of the stretch goal cannot be guaranteed - it can only be striven for.

A “stretch goal” is any goal “which seems to be unobtainable with the existing resources”. The intent behind stretch goals is to force employees to think creatively for solutions to apparently impossible problems. 
Interestingly, I am currently being asked to come up with such goals (three or four) that need to be achieved in a nine month period. No really!

Methinks the term has not quite been understood.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Oh, my old man's an All Black, he wears the silver fern (Howard Morrison Quartet)

Yesterday (Sunday Roctober 9) was a pretty tough day. Loads of stress, shouting, banging on tables frustration, heated arguments and ultimately - relief.

Yes The All Blacks played Argentina in the quarter finals of the world cup and we were at work!!

In between visiting classrooms, meeting with the Principal and watching the English teachers doing their reading program I kept an eye on proceedings at Auckland's Eden Park. A place I know well.

A colleague sent me a link to a live stream of the game (bless him) and so the kiwi advisors clustered around computers or checked on the score as they came and went about their business.

The locals think we're mad (they checked out the images but all those men running around throwing a ball away from themselves confused them no end).

We'll do it all again next Sunday at work when the mighty All Blacks take on Australia at fortress Eden Park.

Go the ABs!!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I'm stuck on your heart (Tina Turner from 'Simply The Best')

Back to Todd Whitaker's book. I like the approach he has.

According to him there are only two ways to improve schools.

One - get better teachers.
Two - improve the teachers you have.

In the UAE context getting better teachers is a fluke. This is because Principals can't choose who gets terminated and who gets a job in their schools.

At the end of each year a termination list appears in the school. Last year we lost seven staff. We're not sure why. Four were of retirement age but three were not (and they were good teachers).

This year we arrived on the first day of school and met their replacements. There had been no imput by the school into their employment. By a fluke we appear to have strengthened our teaching staff.

The whole chemsitry of the staff is a fluke here. A nicer bunch of men you would be hard pressed to find. The relationships they have with each other and their students is a constant source of inspiration for me.

For us then it is a matter of improving the teachers we have.

But let's assume for a minute that the Principal could employ someone. What is Todd's advice?

Employ talent!

Simple. What does he define as talent?

Love of students. Bright mind. Positive attitude. Congenial personality. Great work ethic. Leadership skills. Charisma.

I love the list because they are mostly qualities that are inherent in a person, rather than learned.

My conviction is that great teachers are inherently great.

Monday, October 3, 2011

I listened with all of my might (Laura Marling)

Tuesdays mean a meeting at 9am with the Principal. Today is Tuesday.

We have just had a great session for 40 minutes on the data analysis that informed our School Improvement Plan (see previous post).

I went through the process of tracking each grade in Arabic Reading and Arabic Writing for our school compared to all schools in Abu Dhabi and boys schools of our status.

Basically our boys perform really well at writing but poorly compared to other boys in reading (actually it's more specific than that - it's that our middle ability boys are not making improvements into better grades).

Their scores in writing are far superior.

So I went through this process with Mohammed.

Mindful that he is tired and preoccupied with family things. One of his daughters is in a hospital in Dubai. Poor guy - for some weeks now he has been travelling each day and spending long hours with his family and daughter there.

He told me this morning that he was leaving for Dubai after our meeting today which is why I restricted it to 40 minutes.

It was a good 40 minutes though. Less is more (always).

Made me think about how difficult it is to listen with all of our might. All the time.

Our boy brains are zapping from thing to thing and it's often difficult to sustain an attention span.

Boys in class are no different.

Jacky asks me sometimes, "What are you thinking?"

I usually answer - billions of things and I'm not lying.

I think we need to remember that the people we work with have a number of things on their minds and giving us some undivided attention is at times impossible.

Basically we need to cut each other some slack!

If you don't dig the jive you better scat (Joe Montgomery in Cool Cat)

I have just finished the School Improvement Plan (aka SIP) for Ali bin Abi Taleb for this year.

I didn't write it all. I compiled a lot of it.

It runs to 22 pages.


22 pages! The cynics among you will have a field day.

But it's actually a really good document. It details our action plans for the year as a school and for the individual subjects.

The trick of course will be to monitor the progress and adapt as we go.

Cognition has turned me into something of a data analysis junkie. I actually enjoy sifting through the screeds of data we collect to determine where the gold is.

School improvement depends on pertinent data analysis, then an action plan, then revision and reviews (that progress thing), then more action plans.

From what I've read the Inquiry process (summarised in that last sentence) is the way to go. So that's the way I'm going.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dear diary

I have decided to rescue Baggy Trousers out of its self imposed hibernation.


My creative juices have been re-energised by working at Ali bin Abi Taleb School. Simple.

I have decided to operate this weblog as a kind of diary for a while to get back into it - so a weblog in it's purest form.

I also want it to be livelier.

Today is Monday in Al Ain and a normal school day. I only have a mathematics advisor here on a Monday so it's a comparatively quiet day on that front.

I'm working on material for my Principal's PD and so I'm reading a book by Todd Whitaker called What Great Principals Do Differently (15 things that matter most).

I'm up to lesson 4 - treat everyone with respect, every day, all the time. Yeah right!

I try hard to do this but when others don't do it back to you it's a tad harder to accomplish.

I hate all the hidden agendas that are often at work in a NZ school context. They exist everywhere I guess but they seem a lot less in this current place.

Mohamed is a great example because he does aim to treat all his staff and students with respect, every day, all the time.

And its got to be an aim right? No one is perfect. No one can do this every day, all the time. We all lapse.

I think the message in the book is to remember this. Treat people as you wish to be treated. And recognise when you don't.

Take a positive approach every day.

Respect. Every day. All the time.

And fix it when you don't succeed.

Recently I was interviewed for a Principal position.

I did a lot of preparation for it. Being an advisor has sharpened up my analytical skills a lot.

The interview was odd though. I could sense that the interviewers weren't really interested in my answers or my ideas for the future of the school.

Just a feeling.

I could tell. They were polite but they weren't really listening. I was telling them some hard truths about their school and they didn't really want to know.

It didn't daunt me or cause me to pause. I was paying them respect.

I didn't get the job. It went to someone whose stated reason for applying was that he owned a house in the town that he couldn't sell. That was it.

I wanted it because I wanted to help the students improve. I outlined ways I would do this. I highlighted the most important areas to focus on.

Nevermind. I wasn't a good fit for this school. They weren't looking for what I was presenting.

It's a pity but I think it's also called a lucky escape.

Respect. Every day. All the time.