Wednesday, November 30, 2011

For no apparent reason (Anouar Brahem)

I haven't included many photos of school activities lately so I'll correct that now with a few from this week.

Before taboor with Ahmed, the music teacher.
Mathematics certificates (with Jan and her three maths
teachers on the far right)
Abdulla is the MC, Mohammed is between me and student.

Arabic studies students in the library.

Adbulla has never met a microphone that he doesn't love.

Shaban wraps up the festivities.

Khamis shares a joke with Jan (maths advisor)

Some of the students work at recreating the UAE flag.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Your destiny may keep you warm (Oasis)

Data driven teaching is today's topic.

I am so grateful for the Cognition Education twin thrusts on data driven improvements and evidence based inquiry. It gives such a solid foundation for building improvement, and while it seems absolutely self evident it is surprising how much we’ve got it wrong in the past.

Okay – how much I’VE got it wrong in the past.

Not through negligence, through ignorance.

And I’m not alone (pheww). Generally teachers and most administrators are not assessment literate (Popham's claim in 2001).

Oh sure we’ve looked at test scores and summative results and done some data analysis on that to a lesser or greater degree. But it’s hit and miss.

I now realise that I’ve been bad at making assumptions about students and their learning in the past and I haven’t asked the right kind of questions to improve their classroom conditions, instruction, and provided a repertoire of interventions to properly differentiate my teaching.

I didn’t learn how. I loved my time at teacher training college in 1982 but that was a long time ago now.

I’ve done a lot of management development over the last 12 years in New Zealand (a Masters degree in Educational Management) and the UK (the National Professional Qualification in Headship) but it took working in a little school in the UAE for me to properly appreciate how to use data properly to improve teaching and why it’s important.

My job here (and the other advisors) is basically to prod teachers to collect meaningful data on their own and ensure that they begin to ask questions and change their teaching practice.

The beautiful thing (yes beautiful) is that it’s happening!

Teachers here are challenging their assumptions, challenging themselves to find out more about their students. They are looking at their results for trends over time and talking to their colleagues in new ways.

I was really thrilled that the mathematics advisor (let’s call her Jan Thomas) organized a meeting for all the Cycle 2 mathematics teachers recently.  

Obviously this is not new in a NZ context but it was a revelation here and the teachers communicated in a new way – they talked about teaching strategies and how to improve their students’ learning. Fantastic.

Who would've thought? English teacher me - a cheerleader for data driven improvements!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Don't give me that, you snotty faced heap of parrot droppings! (Monty Python)

A colleague gave me an article recently called, Forgetting about friendship: using conflict in teacher communities as a catalyst for school change by Jorge Avila De Lima (thanks Jan).

Along the way he makes some challenging comments about collaboration, collegiality and communities of teachers. For instance he says;
It is ...clear that not all communities of teachers are favorable to educational change. The propensity of these communities to foster this change will vary with the nature of the elements that bond its members together.
My past experience has certainly been that some staffrooms are much more receptive to change than others. In fact I can only think of two staffrooms where the whole staff was united as one community and moving in the same direction as the Principal. The first was Macleans College when I was an English teacher there from 1985 to 1989, and the second is my current school - Ali bin Abi Taleb School in Al Foah (Al Ain, UAE).

But I didn't really want to focus on that bit of the article.

In analysing the community of teachers he identifies three elements.

1.      Community of understanding (common values, shared beliefs)
2.      Community of practice (mutual support, collaboration, collegiality)
3.      Community of affection (meaningful relationships)

In a statement that I know my friend PJ will embrace whole-heartedly De Lima says:

The only thing that seems to be absolutely imperative that teachers share in order to form a community of professionals is a deep commitment to students’ learning, development and well being. Strong personal bonds are by no means essential (my emphasis).

But I didn't really want to focus on that bit of the article either.

De Lima goes on to discuss the idea of trust in close relationships. Trust in close relationships reflects ‘confident expectations of positive outcomes’ from a partner.

Interpersonal trust can be defined as ‘the confident expectation that a partner is intrinsically motivated to take one’s own best interests into account when acting – even when incentives might tempt him or her to do otherwise’.

My company has embraced the concept of a ‘Performance Enhancement Payment’ scheme this year and we are required to submit a ‘stretch goal’ (see earlier posts on this concept).

A colleague who is also a friend, let’s call him Colin Donald, suggested we work on ours together as we have a history of working together on Professional Development ideas in Qatar a few years ago.

I had no problem placing my faith in his benevolent intentions and saying, “Yes – great idea”. We have that interpersonal trust and I have that confident expectation of a positive outcome.

It comes from history and the mutual professional trust that has built up. He trusted me in Qatar to do my job. I trusted his leadership abilities.

Of course, Colin and I didn’t need to be friends to work in this collegial way but it helped that we trusted each other’s abilities and motives.

But I didn't really want to focus on that bit of the article either.

De Lima makes a good distinction, when discussing collegiality and interpersonal ties in teaching between being friendly and being friends with colleagues.
While friendship ties us to others through positive sentiments of affection; due to our desire to establish some interaction beyond the relationship implied by our formal role, we often maintain friendly relations with others to whom we are not particularly attracted or whom we may even dislike somewhat.
[This is very blokey isn’t it? I can just imagine saying to Colin – I’d like to work with you because of a personal sentiment of affection. Yeah right!]

The point of the article promised in the title is coming soon I promise. But we need another slight digression.

When I attend meetings called by representatives of my company I can’t help notice how the men always sit together and the women sit separately. Partly this reflects the segregated nature of schools and society in the UAE. I am in an all boys’ school with no female teachers. Girls’ schools have no male presence beyond the security guard at the gate. Boys and girls have staggered bus timetables so they are not on co-educational buses.

But there’s more to it than that.  

The male advisors gravitate towards each other, so do the women (although less so). Friendship, especially at deep levels, is developed among people who view one another as similar. The male advisors are similar not only in race and sex but also in interests. Yes we do like to talk about sport and masculine pursuits.

De Lima’s thought is that in a schooling change scenario teachers not in close friendship groups can open doors of change wider than can the ties that bind together very close friends.

This is contentious. Andy Hargreaves says that in order to work successfully teachers need to feel some kind of commonality with the people with whom they gather and work.

As indicated above, for men that means other men.

Okay so…cognitive conflict (De Lima’s term and no pun intended with the company I work for – Cognitive Education).

De Lima’s point (yes we got there) is
Instead of pursing deep levels of friendship and harmony among teachers, sponsors of educational change in schools would be better off by going after cognitive conflict, by arranging ways of bringing together previously unacquainted colleagues in new and innovative combinations across subject areas, grade levels and even school buildings.

Basically – conflict is good. Even more than that, ‘school cultures will not flourish and develop dynamically without internal controversy’.


If you’ve made it this far you deserve some more Monty Python.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Well everybody's hoppin', everybody's boppin', boppin' at the High School Hop (Jerry Lee Lewis)

This post is brought to you courtesy of the inspiration derived from Michael Smith's PrincipalPage blog (link is in my blog list on the right).

Here's my list (in no particular order) of 25 things to be thankful for in my job as Lead Advisor at Ali bin Abi Taleb School.

    1. The laughter I hear in the corridor outside my office every day (from a revolving cast).
    2. Air conditioning - couldn't do it without you Mr General.
    3. My dream team of advisors. Take a bow Jan, Peter, Davego, David, and Gavin.
    4. Sharing an office with our translator, Hisham (a mutual support network of two).
    5. The band at taboor (assembly) every morning.
    6. Watching the teachers walk arm in arm with students.
    7. Shaking hands with students at break time.
    8. The Arabic teacher meetings - a riot of laughs.
    9. Morning greetings with the staff and handshakes all 'round.
    10. It's a boys' school with an all male staff - alhamdolilah (praise to God).
    11. It's a Cycle Two school (Grade 6-9) so nowhere near the same pressures as in Cycle Three.
    12. Mohammed, the Principal.
    13. Holy Qur'an readings by the students which float in the morning breezes.
    14. The view of the trees outside my office window.
    15. School rituals.
    16. The music coming from Ahmed's room (with Nidal's singing from time to time).
    17. Abdulla (one of the Arabic teachers) and his daily greetings.
    18. The boys' enthusiastic singing of the national anthem at taboor.
    19. The friendly warm relationships.
    20. Vice-Principal Fadhil's laugh and cheeky smile.
    21. The enthusiasm for learning and embracing change.
    22. The lack of private agendas that sabotage improvements for students.
    23. The sweet black tea.
    24. The open gate that symbolizes a lot about the welcoming atmosphere at the school.
    25. Blogs from Michael Smith that keep me amused, grounded AND inspired.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I'm deep inside myself, but I'll get out somehow (Neil Young)

Time for another TED talks experience. The ICT advisor (Gavin) suggested this talk to me and it's both fascinating and timely given what we are doing in our schools technology wise.

I notice that the Labour Party in Nu Zild is advocating laptops or tablets for every student. Michael Fullan would say that that is the wrong driver and I'd agree with him. Improving teachers and teaching is much more powerful than handing a new tool to a student.

Larry Lessig in this talk makes some powerful points about what we are doing to our 'kids'. It's worth watching until the end!

Larry Lessig on laws that choke creativity | Video on

I also came across this Larry Lessig talk where he explores the same theme.

Monday, November 14, 2011

On a boat in the middle of a raging sea (Cream)

Today's hot topic at school was the Student Support Team's meeting.

Actually it wasn't.

Not even close!

The hot topic was really the upcoming National Day festivities.

My Student Support Team meeting was after the staff meeting that discussed how we were going to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the U.A.E.'s founding and I kept some of the staff (those on the team) from a Jordanian lunch so I wasn't very popular.

Ah well. In the grand scheme of things it's a shrug of the shoulders. would be great if the hot topic was students with Special Educational Needs (boring but great). That's what the Student Support Team is all about - focusing on the less and more able. That equates to roughly 5% at each end of the student spectrum in my school.

I was interested that one teacher took issue with me for using the word 'weak' as in 'the really weak students' to describe the ones who needed the Individual Educational Programs (IEP). I can see his point (he didn't want to stigmatize those students) but I don't see anything wrong with the acknowledgment of weakness.

I love playing tennis and my game is pretty sound but I am weak on a topspin backhand. As in I can't do it. I can slice and hit it flat but topspin? Forgetaboutit! No one has showed me how to do it effectively.

It would have been good if someone had said to me when I was 12, "Hey Warren, your backhand is a weakness in your game - mind if I give you some pointers? We could design an IEP for you and the backhand would be as good as your forehand."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

You're the apple of my eye (Badfinger)

It seems that there is an awful lot of Steve Jobs product out there at the moment. I'm talking about books and articles on him rather than the ubiquitous ipad, iphone, ipod, Pixar, iMac presence in our world.

Bookshops are full of him. I can't help but notice the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and there is also a book being advertised called I, Steve by Mr Jobs himself.

I bought the latest Rolling Stone magazine yesterday, with a cover story on Steve (I'm sure he won't mind me be overly familiar - he feels like everyone's favourite uncle).

I love the pose in each of these covers. We don't change much in fundamental ways and we can't run from our genes.

I started reading the article in the bookstore and got hooked. Mainly because his former girlfriend (who he had a daughter by that he claimed wasn't his until DNA proved otherwise) wrote such a loving piece about him.

Until the last paragraph that is. Later he became (according to her) 'a despotic jerk'; before then he had shared a romantic youth with her and others.

The accounts I've read of him seem to bear out her characterisation.

In shorthand - he was a romantic dreamer in his youth with abandonment issues (he was adopted by the Jobs' family), a seeker of enlightenment, a Dylanologist, a hard driving visionary boss who embraced capitalism, a despotic jerk, and finally a micromanaging Apple figurehead who came to terms with his life and loves after the cancer diagnosis.

Like any shorthand it's both wildly unfair while containing grains of truth.

Whatever and whoever he was as a man (and he's nothing if not fascinating) he was someone who changed the world.

I love this quote from him when challenged about starting up a for-profit company like Apple:
Remember in the sixties, when people were raising their fists and saying, "Power to the people"? Well, that's what I'm doing with Apple. By building affordable personal computers and putting one on every desk, in every hand, I'm giving people power. They don't have to go through the high priests of mainframe - they can access information themselves. They can steal fire from the mountain. And this is going to inspire far more change than any nonprofit.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mystery train smoking down the track (Elvis)

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Einstein.

I love the idea that imagination is more powerful/important than information. J.J. Abrams' mystery box is a TED talks presentation that uses a number of modern references (Star Wars, Lost, ET and more) and Abrams' own career to illustrate this essential point.

You've also gotta love his energy and sheer enthusiasm. His vitality and forceful delivery takes a bit to get used to but I was hooked as soon as he mentioned his own grandfather.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ev'rybody's gonna need a ventilator (Rolling Stones)

We are currently enjoying an Eid break (three days holiday, back to work tomorrow - Wednesday).

The students didn't arrive for school in any great numbers on the Thursday before Eid so the school sent them home early. We are not expecting students at school tomorrow or Thursday. Usually the government extends Eid to include these two days but, unlike every other Emirate and Arab country around us, this year it hasn't.

The minister has said that Abu Dhabi needs to be more serious about education and not take extended holidays.

Upshot is though that the families and students will take the two days anyway.

My school was very relaxed about all this. Very philosophical. No problem.

As last Thursday was unfolding it was great to see this. I suspect in New Zealand there would have been large scale angst and hand wringing about the boys losing class time and there being no structure for the boys who did come to school. With only about 30 students arriving some composite classes were run for a couple of hours but then the place was empty by about 10am.

There was no panic, no sense of events spiraling us out of control. It was all very calm and orderly.

It was most impressive.

We could learn a lot from how this was all dealt with.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Take me disappearin'...down the foggy ruins of time (Bob Dylan)

From time to time I have wondered whether Human Resource Management (HRM) is an area I'd like to move into more.

As a Deputy Principal and Principal I used to enjoy resolving personnel issues. This was part of my overall job (a very small part come to think of it), but a bit that I was good at.

Then I came to the Middle East and witnessed the business model HRM at first hand, where it is a distinct area of expertise, and I realised it is not going to be part of my future career thinking.

Being involved as an educational advisor at Ali bin Abi Taleb School has made me realise how much I love being in a school.

I have nothing against the people tasked with HRM - they are wonderful human beings. Certainly all of the ones I've met in my company involved with HRM are very accommodating, uniformly helpful, upbeat and cheerful. I don't know how they do it.

I now realise it would drive me mad!

Peter Drucker is one of the best-known and most widely influential thinkers and writers on the subject of  management theory and practice and he once said (before Star Trek was on TV):
The constant worry of all personnel administrators is their inability to prove that they are making a contribution to the enterprise.
I've lost count of how many restructuring exercises have taken place in HRM during the year.

It seems that HRM's image of itself is also rather nebulous as well.

I did a Google search on 'HRM images' and there was an abundance of either group shots or vastly complicated organizational diagrams.

Does HRM actually make an impact?

It is generally thought that HRM affects performance for the better but it is difficult to understand HOW they produce an effect. It may even be impossible because they are dealing with so many variables:  people's feelings and foibles and difficult to measure things like how much they influence the climate of an organisation.

Like I said - I don't know how they do it (nor does it seem like anyone else does either).