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Researching the future of education and community engagement: “hard fun”?

August 31st, 2012

For many years some of us at NZCER have been chipping away at  the gnarly question of what it might take to achieve deep levels of community and public engagement with education – not just for the purposes of  engaging the community in debates around the perceived educational issues of today, but to start to collectively reimagine public education to ensure that it is relevant for the future. We call this “future-oriented community engagement with education”.

I’m very aware of the ease with which a term like “future-oriented” can be used to mean everything and nothing. For example, I’m fairly certain that almost everyone involved with education (including teachers, students, families, and communities) believes that what they are doing now is preparing learners “for the future”; this idea is so ingrained that it’s almost tautological.

But as I have discussed in a previous blogposting and in a lot of my writing, in my opinion most of us actually have a very poor set of  ”futures thinking” skills and tools. This isn’t necessarily a failing of our intellects, but rather of our own educational experiences and the fact that the human environment has changed (and continues to change) so rapidly that our basic default settings for thinking about and planning for the future simply can’t cut it anymore. To my mind we may as well just come  to terms with this, and with due humility,  just start getting  on with the work of assisting ourselves and each other to become better futures thinkers and futures-builders.  This is good work and important work, and really, really challenging work.  However, as an educational researcher I have seen how the inherent rewards of this kind of work are energy-building, “buzzy”, and above all, deeply meaningful for the people who are engaged with it. (Years ago at NZCER we  adopted the phrase “hard fun” to describe this kind of work, and it still crops up in our conversations from time to time).

That brings me to another question I’ve been worrying away at for the last few years: What is – or should be – the role of research in informing, supporting, critiquing, or evaluating the kind of future-oriented work that we are arguing needs to happen?  If education needs to change, what about educational research? Where are we positioned in all of this? Should we be trailing behind the changes  to document and make sense of them?  Should we be informing and directing the changes, or leaving it to others to pick up our work so that their work is “research-informed” and “evidence-based”? Is it our role to sit on the sidelines or to get in amongst it?

I think many people assume that research is about finding answers, but in my experience it’s  all about reaching the meaningful questions. If my theme question for 2010-2011 was, “what does it mean to take a future focus in education” then my theme question for 2011-2012 has been “what does it mean to take a future-focussed approach to research?”. This question has filtered through several of my recent projects; you’ll see it addressed it in section 1 of the Future-oriented learning and teaching report NZCER recently prepared for the Ministry of Education, and it’s picked it up and addressed it again in a new working paper called: What role might research play in supporting future-oriented community engagement with education?

The working paper builds on several pieces of our previous work, and in particular this piece by Ally Bull.

As you can see, my own thinking on these matters is still forming and changing and growing, and I’d be interested to hear any thoughts from educators, researchers, or anyone else who is interested in discussing this!

 

Community engagement, Future focussed issues, Shifting schooling , , ,

Students as co-contributors to education design (new NZCER report)

April 19th, 2010

Another NZCER report has just gone online: It’s called Better than a professional? Students as co-contributors to educational design

This report concerns a sub-project of NZCER’s Families and Communities Engagement (FACE) project which is investigating ideas and practices involved in bringing together teachers, families, local communities and students to contribute to collective conversations and decisions about education.

We aimed to develop and research a process to engage small groups of secondary students in becoming critical and informed contributors to curriculum and education design, and developed workshops to support small groups of students (mostly in Years 9 and 10) in two girls’ schools to undertake small-scale research on their own and/or others’ views and experiences about learning and school. When given the opportunity to discuss big-picture curriculum ideas and undertake critical close readings of The New Zealand Curriculum, students could begin to articulate how these did or did not match their own experiences or those of others, including their fellow students, teachers and their family members. Students also recognised some of the key dilemmas that educators and policy makers grapple with.  Students in both schools presented their findings at a range of forums, where students could also discuss their views, answer questions and pose suggestions to teachers and school leaders, family members and other students.

The report describes what we, the students, and school leaders/key staff learned through this process. I welcome you to download the full report if you are interested, and I will endeavour to get some more blogpostings up about some of the ideas connected to this piece of research that we can all discuss!

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Community based organisations and parental engagement with schools

January 13th, 2010

I’ve just been reading an interesting article called “Beyond the Bake Sale: A community-based approach to parent engagement in schools”.  This article discusses three different school- community collaborations in the USA.  Although each collaboration was slightly different in emphasis and approach, all three shared some key features.  In each case a community based organisation was the initiator of the home-school partnership, rather than the school itself.  There was a focus on relationship building among parents as well as between parents and educators, a focus on the leadership development of parents and an effort to bridge the gap in culture and power between parents and educators.

The authors contrast the approach in this community-based model of parental engagement with a more traditional school-centred model. In this community based model the emphasis is on building relationships among parents as a basis for collective participation, rather than on involving individual parents.  The starting point in the community-based model is to create conversations to allow parents to articulate their concerns, rather than inviting parents to workshops or other activities.  When workshops are run, the focus is on the parents’ leadership development and personal growth, rather than on providing information. Parents are involved in setting the agenda.

I would be interested in hearing about any New Zealand examples where community-based organisations are brokering relationships between schools and their parent groups.

Reference:

Warren et al. (2009) Beyond the Bake Sale: A community-based relational approach to parent engagement in schools. Teachers College Record 111(9), pp.2209-2254

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Thinking together about future focused education

November 26th, 2009

Over the last couple of years several of us at NZCER have been working with schools and thinking and talking about family and community engagement in education. Schools put time and effort into “engaging” their communities for a whole range of reasons. In this blog I focus on some strategies that schools are using in an attempt to provide opportunities for whole school communities to engage with “future focused” ideas about education. I’m going to very briefly sketch out some of these strategies and raise some questions. We invite you to add to the strategies here and tell us what is working for you and your school community, and also add your thoughts about some of the questions raised. This is new territory that needs everyone thinking together.

Some schools are using current forms of communication, such as newsletters (whether hard copy or electronic), to “drip feed” ideas about how society is changing and what this might mean for education. Other schools have some information on their school websites. Several schools have run focus or discussion groups for parents where these ideas are discussed. Often these discussions are linked to the NZC document, especially to its vision and the focus on competencies.

Several schools have brought in outside “experts” to talk to parent audiences. In the words of one principal, “If you really want to shift people you need to bring an expert in who doesn’t have those everyday relationships that we do, who deals purely with ideas and who is able to present powerful ideas and research.” An obvious difficulty with this approach though is how do schools access these “experts”, especially small or isolated schools? Do we have enough “experts” to do the work, if we decide this is a desirable option? An alternative some schools have tried is screening You Tube clips or Ted Talks at parent evenings, or providing links to websites. What other resources are available? Is there a need for resources that have “future focused” ideas about education in accessible language? If these resources were available would parents access them? I’m mindful of the words of one parent who said, “I worry about getting three loads of washing dry…I don’t have time to get involved.” (I also think about how minimally involved I was with my own children’s secondary schooling).

We heard about a couple of schools where parents were facilitating discussions about future- focused ideas. At one school parents ran discussion groups in their own homes, in another school the “Friends of the School” group was very proactive in connecting with new parents of the school and although their focus was not engaging with future focused ideas about education – perhaps they could be a useful vehicle in the future.

Some schools are using individual student’s learning as a way of connecting their families with C21st ideas about education. This could be in the form of three way interviews where students talk about what they are learning and why this is important or it could be by parents having electronic access to their children’s learning programmes and records of progress.

Even though schools in this study have been trying out a variety of ways of engaging families with future focused ideas about education, all were concerned that they were still only connecting with a certain section of the school community. If we really believe it is no longer OK to leave education just to the “professionals” we need to think hard about how we most effectively make this change. Is it better to go deeply into these ideas with those who are already interested, or is it better to put energy into trying to engage as many people as possible, at whatever level? Should teachers have the opportunity to engage with these C21st ideas before parents are invited into the discussions, or should everyone be learning and thinking together?

Many of the schools in this study that are working innovatively with their communities are led by principals with clear, well articulated visions for how education needs to change. One challenge voiced by some of these principals was getting the right balance between inputting ideas and energy, and not being too directive. Another, issue they raised was about sustainability. Where is their energy most effective targeted?

Jane Gilbert suggests the following are key features of C21st education: personalisation; building learning capacity; competencies; foregrounding general intellectual skills such as higher order thinking skills, thinking for oneself, tolerating ambiguity; doing things with knowledge; new ideas about achievement and assessment; and equity – getting everyone tertiary ready. How do we engage the community with these ideas? We invite you to tell us about your successes and challenges in engaging your school community with ideas such as these, and join with us as we try and think our way through some of these issues.

Community engagement ,

Educating for the 21st century – is this just about school?

November 23rd, 2009

Others have written about communities learning together and of the fluid and ever changing nature of communities. The point has been made that we need dialogue between different groups within the community, such as between people within what we currently call formal education and people in the wider community (parents, employers, etc). Others have highlighted the more permeable boundaries between the formal (usually in the context of schooling) and the informal (community-based, out of school experiences, etc) and the enriched opportunity to learn that when this occurs.

As I have mentioned in other blog entries I attended a symposium, Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century and I one thing I am left wondering about is why when we talk about educating for the 21st century the assumption commonly made is that the conversation is about the education of 5-17/18 year olds (being in the US the speakers all referred to K-12)? The title of the symposium didn’t suggest to me that attention would just be on these years. There was maybe a hint in the high level questions posed in the programme: “How can our educational system evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century; and “How will we educate people to be compassionate, competent, ethical and engaged citizens in an increasingly complex and interconnected world? But, with the exception of references to the importance of learning in the very early years all the conversation focused on the systems of schools and schooling. Interestingly too there was only passing thought given to maybe re-thinking aspects of schooling. The conversation was mostly about how can we use the knowledge that we have from a variety of disciplines to improve the way we educate young people, mostly in terms of the curriculum we offer and the pedagogy we use. There was some acknowledgement that adults would need to learn new things, in this case the teachers who will need to take account of developing knowledge from neuroscience and psychology given that such knowledge could help improve the learning of their students.

Now of course we know how important learning is during the years of schooling but the very early years are also critical (with growing evidence that these years are even more important than we have realised) and the kind of education that supports learning post school; at work, and throughout life seem rather important too! We can, of course, hope that schools can be beacons ­ as many already are ­ of what 21st century learning might involve but to me it feels too narrow a window to be pinning all our hopes and attention in these years of life. Do we need a more spacious definition of “education system” so the default position isn’t just a focus on schools but takes account of the kind of “systems” we need at the various stages of life? Or, given that many are advocating more permeable boundaries between the so called “formal” and “informal” systems maybe we need new terminology so that we keep our conversation on education and learning and not on the “systems” of today?

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Video: Guy Claxton—Helping students build “learning power”

November 23rd, 2009


[23MB streaming Flash video]

Earlier this month, Guy Claxton, well-known British educationalist and writer, was visiting Wellington. We took this opportunity to get him to talk to some of the school communities we have been working with in our research project, Families and community engagement in education. Guy talked about why and how education needs to be different and what parents can do to help their children. One of the main messages he gave was that schools need to be helping students build “learning power”. He was clear that this did not mean neglecting standards but rather ensuring that students were taught in ways that also helped them become more independent, resourceful, and resilient learners.

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Communities learning together

September 23rd, 2009

Our school is participating in the Families’ and Communities’ Engagement in education research project. In this blog I describe the “lever” we are using to generate opportunities for community engagement.  Our school’s research has been around investigating further what our student researchers meant when they said “ learning happens if you feel confident”.  Our intention has been to work with three different student groups in the school to firstly define confidence, to identify ways it is already built in school and to investigate how it might be developed further. The students will then report their findings back to their parents and others in the wider learning community. The purpose of this forum is to create a focus for discussion about the learning capabilities parents would like their daughters to develop –in particular around confidence and resilience. We are hoping parents will have ideas about the strategies they use to help develop confidence and how we might work together to build and maintain confidence. We are also hoping that by discussing a specific capability that the parents ( in earlier research)  have also identified as being important we will be able to more readily engage them in discussions around the changing needs of learners of the 21st century.

In our Wellington discussion workshop Jane Gilbert spoke of the importance of collective decision making given that the ‘knowledge experts’ may no longer exist. The intention of our ‘confidence forum’ is a first step in modelling communities learning together.  

During this research project we have also read widely around concepts of confidence, why it is important and how it might be demonstrated both in and outside the classroom. Of course the best information has come from the students themselves. 

 We also decided to use three different research methods to collect the information. With the Year 13 students we presented them with the Year 9 findings from the year before and asked them to develop a series of survey questions that could be given to two tutor groups (approximately 45 students). They trialled their first survey on their own tutor class. This highlighted the need to ask less questions and to eliminate redundant questions. At this point we asked Josie and Rachel (NZCER researchers) to advise us. The second survey was then given out. During the analysis sessions that followed they quickly realised that their survey still needed further refining. The initial data from these surveys was not as reflective/deep as we had expected from Year 13 students but it did indicate clear trends, some of them unexpected. The discussions about the data with the research group was much more useful.

With the Year 10 group (student researchers of 2008) we interviewed them as a group using similar questions that the Year 13 group had designed. The information gathered from this was more as we had expected – deeper and more reflective – probably because there was opportunity to ask further questions. There was certainly some obvious similarities about the responses but also some interesting differences highlighted between the experiences of the two age groups.

The third group of Year 12 students (student researchers of 2007) we simply presented  with the summarised findings of the other two groups and asked for comment. Their responses were more far reaching, less structured and therefore probably more genuine than the other two groups because they were not constrained by giving expected answers to given questions.   

So in summary: Research Process Evaluation

  • Writing survey questions is more difficult than it seems! It is often not until you see the results that you begin to understand what questions really needed to be asked. These questions need to be constantly refined.
  • Data gathered from surveys is often interesting because it highlights possible trends and may provide some unexpected issues but only really becomes enlightening after opportunities to discuss and reflect on results is given.
  • Sometimes the unexpected data highlights a group of students whose experience is different to the majority and this could lead to the need for further research to explore what made their experiences different to others.
  • Gathering data through focused discussion and interview provides deeper analysis. 
  • The most genuine response came from presenting the group with summary findings and asking for comments, rather than responding to set questions. This seemed to be because the questions weren’t already leading the responses. There were no expected answers.
     

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Talking with families about learning

September 17th, 2009

Some researchers at NZCER are currently working with a group of school leaders to try and answer this question: “How can whole school communities (staff, students, families) be provided with opportunities to engage with future focused ideas about education?” This project began with a workshop where school leaders and researchers talked about what things about school might need to change, and which school practices might be effective levers in bringing about this change.  Each school is now thinking about which particular lever they want to focus on over the next year or so.

Two schools have already decided on using three-way interviews as a lever for getting the whole school community to think about future focused ideas in education. One school has not done three-way interviews before. The principal decided to try this lever having listened to others at the workshop talking about the potential they thought these interviews had.  She is hoping that at these interviews teachers will use assessment data to talk to parents about their children’s progress in literacy and numeracy and then the (primary aged) students will show their parents examples of work that they think are evidence of what the teacher is talking about. The hope is that this will help the children become more involved in their own learning and at the same time make the “teacher speak” more accessible to parents in this diverse community.

We would really like to hear from anyone who has used three-way interviews in this way or who may have ideas about what leads to successful three-way conferences. What support do teachers/ children / parents need to make these interviews successful? Remember the focus of this project is on how to engage whole school communities in future focused ideas about education. All input welcome!

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Opportunities to engage with 21st century ideas

August 17th, 2009

The NZ Curriculum has 8 principles. These principles are supposed to underpin all decision making in schools. One of these principles is about community engagement and one is about future focus. At NZCER we are running a project (Families’ and communities’ engagement in education) that is looking at what opportunities whole school communities (students, teachers, families) have to engage with 21st century ideas about education. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that families (and the wider community) have access to some of the current ideas about schooling and how it might need to change to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world?

Recently a group of principals (and other school leaders) we are working with met to talk about what current school practices might be useful for engaging families with future focused ideas about education.  How might parent-teacher interviews for instance be structured differently to serve this purpose? What messages do parents currently get about what is important to learn, from looking at their children’s homework or  school newsletters? What role do (or could) students themselves play in challenging the way the adults around them think about education?

What future focused ideas do you think your communities need to engage with? Why these ideas?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Shifting parents

May 19th, 2009

The questions on this blog site about community and family engagement in education are timely. Having been lucky enough to be paid to think about these education questions for a number of years now, and more lately having two children on their way through schooling it is becoming clear to me that schools and their communities are in something of a rut in terms of how they can collectively work to enable the learning of young people. This is not a great start point for shifting thinking.

Over recent years in education there has been a strong focus on quality schooling – schools getting better and more focused on enhancing learning outcomes for all children. Observers note a new professionalism in teaching, and effective educational leadership has been strongly harnessed to teaching, curriculum and indeed learning. There have been big moves to enhance literacy and numeracy teaching across diverse schools and some impressive gains.  The notion of a teaching community of practice has found favour and teachers are becoming more inclined to be critical of each other and themselves. Reflective practice is everywhere. Formative assessment is taken seriously and there are tools in place to support it.

I think parents and by extension communities are being left behind in the new professionalism. Most school parents I know in my decile 9 community have little grasp of the reforms presented in the paragraph above. At the same time I pick up an unhealthy amount of parent stress around schooling. Confusion, mixed messages from teachers, fluctuating assessment results, unrecognised talents, apparently different teaching standards in different classes etc… Nothing new here perhaps but what really concerns me is that there is a lack of open dialogue between parents and schools about these concerns. They fester.

Why? One theory is that as teachers have raised their professional status parents have become stragglers. Really not much has changed about being a school parent across a generation – odd considering that in in the past 20 years the schooling system has been radically overhauled in its administration and national curriculum (twice!), not to mention the rise of the digital education age and a completely new secondary assessment system. Teaching communities of practice have created stronger bonds between teachers, and in some classrooms, between teachers and students, but this learning community has not bridged to parents. Its language and operation are pretty mysterious to parents and I think teachers struggle to see this, as well as how their new professionalism can dislocate them from parents, even in very subtle ways.

But of course this blog is about shifting thinking, looking ahead. Is it good that parents have been left behind because we need to start practicing differently anyway? I don’t think so because engaging parents in discussions about what is valuable to learn and know in the 21st Century has to excite a passive and disengaged group. This is a community development task – a vastly different proposition to most of the current school tools of parent engagement.

I think there are good models out there and one of them is some of the practice in early childhood education. Open and engaging formative assessment combined with a resolute view of all children as capable and competent learners, and a view of the family and community as fundamental assets to the learning of these children, has established a more purposeful family-ECE link that empowers parents as it values their contributions.

In talking to schools and early childhood educators about engaging families meaningfully, some have literally described the need to ‘de-professionalise’ themselves. They do not mean this in the sense of playing down to the audience, but they recognise the fundamental importance of relations of trust between teachers and parents to getting things happening for children. Perhaps some also appreciate that uncomfortable parents are the product of decisions of history that saw the outsourcing of the education of the community’s young to an institution. Over time that institution has changed and improved with very little influence or direct input from families. It has become more sure of itself which reinforces that taking children away from their families and the factories and into schools was the right call.

So to address one of your questions:

If schools are to become more future focused, what sort of support or information does the community need to be able to participate fully in debates about educational issues?

What is needed is a pathway of re-engagement for each school. I think each school needs to look at their current family and community strengths and opportunities to see the way forward. Who are the movers and shakers, the connectors in this community, and what already works to engage parents in the school? Last week I heard of a single Pacific women in one secondary school that got 130 parents to a school meeting in 2 weeks. Today I shivered with a smattering of parents at cross country; six months ago I sat in a packed hall for a school quiz night.

But then what? How can relations of trust grow between teachers and parents. What seems to have worked for early childhood educators is to reinforce that parents are an asset to the teacher as well as their child. If parents learn through real experience with teachers that their ideas, histories, skills, stories, and everyday activities, are part of the stuff of good pedagogy, and that they are not merely backing up the real professionals this could create a more fertile platform to have a genuine community conversation about the future of learning and schooling.

It’s not simple I admit.

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