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Implementing 'Looking for Learning' in Primary Music

Natalie Abad-Merritt, Former Head of Primary Music, East Campus
10 Aprill 2017

Why introduce Looking for Learning TM?

Looking for LearningTM is a professional development and school improvement programme which focuses on the core purpose of all schools – improving learning. The programme is designed to give evidence of learning with the provision of qualitative and quantitative data in any subject, at any time. It presents evidence to know whether or not learning is happening, what learning is happening (knowledge, skill and/or understanding), and if the learning is engaging, appropriate, sufficient or challenging. Looking for LearningTM involves a teacher inviting an observer to come to his/her class and have a learning conversation with some students. It is designed to do two things: firstly, to provide the scaffolding for a learning conversation between a student and observer (another teacher); secondly, to provide facilitative tools and questions to support a dialogue between the teacher and observer. The teacher builds understanding of the learners in his/her classroom, based on the evidence provided by the observer.

School leadership has a responsibility to lead the learning of its students, lead its own learning and lead the learning of colleagues (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013, p.43). Hence, one of the most valuable resources to draw upon is the expertise and experience of its staff. Having previously worked as a Fieldwork Education Consultant, the founding Vice-Principal for Curriculum in the Primary School was the lead advocate for the Looking for LearningTM programme. Yet, effective implementation of an innovation cannot happen if teachers, departments and leaders are not all on-board. It is therefore the responsibility of leaders to create the conditions for successful teaching and learning outcomes (Robinson, 2013).

When considering implementing an educational innovation in a learning focused school, one that looks towards developing deeper learning (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014) and 21st century competencies (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014; Bellanca, 2015); one must look beyond the leaders and look at ways to raise a school's collective organisational intelligence (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013). To achieve this, research suggests (Durrant and Holden, 2006; Barber and Mourshed, 2007; Garmston & Wellman, 2013; Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013; Barber, 2014; Frost, 2014; Ballanca, 2015) it is imperative to look both at students’ learning and teachers’ learning.

“Current approaches to teacher development need to change substantially to support deeper learning and the development of transferable knowledge and skills. Researchers have identified many needed steps, including strengthening teachers’ understanding of the subject matter they teach, their knowledge of how students learn, and their awareness of students’ common misconceptions about the subject matter.” Pelligrino (2015, xxii)

In so doing, it has the potential to unleash “students and teachers’ energy and excitement in new learning partnerships” (Barber, 2014, p. i). It has the potential to view teachers and students as life-long learners, “striving for improvement, always growing, always learning, always modifying themselves” (Costa & Kallick, 2015, p.67). To accomplish change, Fullan (2015) suggests effective leadership requires leaders to “immerse themselves with teachers, rapidly building the professional capital of teachers” (p.282).

“The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.” Dweck (2012, p.194)

It was with a premise such as this, leadership purchased the Looking for Learning Toolkit, and professional development commenced.

How was Looking for LearningTM implemented?

In Hattie’s (2009) extensive study on the meta-analyses relating to achievement that impacts student learning, he discovered the common factor in excellent schools was that teachers and principals constantly gathered evidence of student learning and worked together to ask, “‘What is working best?’, ‘Why is it working best?’, and ‘Who is it not working for?’” (p.240). One cannot know whether learning is happening if one does not have a definition of learning. Therefore one of the first steps in implementing Looking for LearningTM was for the school to write a definition of ‘learning’.

Looking for LearningTM was implemented as a school-wide initiative at UWCSEA East. It was launched to all Primary staff during weekly professional development sessions, where “the clarity of the message and the constancy of purpose” (Harris, 2012, p.396) was clearly shared. For an innovation to be successful each phase of the improvement must be planned, prepared for and managed (Louis et al., 1999). Relationships between colleagues need to be fostered and nurtured to “create a much greater sense of collegiality” (Glatter et al. 2005, p.389).

To manage the innovation, it necessarily became a regular agenda item for department and grade-level meetings, keeping Looking for LearningTM at the fore. This intended focus could be described as “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied” (Barber, 2011, p.33); yet, to foster a culture where teachers’ everyday learning is shared and discussed, inviting ideas to be tried by others (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013, p.200), it is necessary for learning conversations to become the norm in an educational institution.

From research to experience, what happened next?

One of the most significant benefits in implementing Looking for LearningTM for a team is: dialogue and discussion begin to focus primarily on learning; specifically questioning, What is best for students’ learning? Looking for LearningTM created a shift, driving the team to seek understanding pertaining to the following:

We want to gather information about our students as learners. We want to develop strategies to help generate the evidence of learning so that we know our students are learning.

After launching and conducting a number of Looking for LearningTM conversations with students, teachers appreciated and valued insight into students’ learning. But, with this appreciation came a desire to know more. Teachers began to probe for specificity and clarity during the follow-up conversation with the colleague. Teachers identified a need and desire to hear the students’ words verbatim, with a greater focus to listen for learning (Edwards et al., 2012). Thus, a trial period of videoing Looking for LearningTM conversation commenced.

Frequently, Music students (particularly the younger students) are unable to explain what they are learning; yet, in sharing their knowledge, skill or understanding, making the learning audible or visible - by singing, clapping, moving, and drawing etc. the teacher could attest the recorded evidence. The sharing of the videoed conversation during the follow-up conversation generated richer dialogue between the teacher and colleague; thereupon aiding a deeper understanding of the learning and, the learner. Our experience suggests this follow-up conversation between the observer and the teacher is a crucial step in developing reflective practice. As such, the team has come to appreciate the diverse and multifaceted functionality of Looking for LearningTM.

The significance of an informed follow-up conversation - a personal account

The Reggio approach (Edwards et al., 2012) places great emphasis in observing learners, listening for learning and documenting learning. As educators, what is of substantive importance is the acknowledgement of, and the “reaction against the concept of the education of young children based mainly on words and simple-minded rituals” (Gandini et al. 2005, p.7 in Cooper, 2012, p.298). By observing the learning conversations, teachers are able to witness the non-worded verbals; using changing intonation or singing to explain a concept when vocabulary is not accessible; observe the non-verbals: hand gestures, hand positioning, expression, facial expression and movement; as well as see the behaviours, attitudes and observations of the cognition process. We not only want to look for learning in students’ knowledge, skills and understanding; but, also the observations we make as we review the videoed conversation. A recount why this is important is shared below:

“In one particular instance, a ‘homeroom’ teacher asked me to offer feedback on a specific student in her class. Concerns were being raised as the student could not ‘sit still in class’. I invited a colleague to video a Looking for LearningTM conversation with the child during a lesson. The following day, my colleague and I met for the follow-up conversation. The power of videoing conversations became significantly apparent. True-to-form the child wriggled and rocked, jumped and rolled - it was evident that it had been a difficult learning conversation for my colleague to conduct. At one point in the video, my colleague and I paused, noticing an emerging pattern to the child’s responses. Everytime he was answering a question he rocked and moved; yet, once he had responded, he relaxed and sat perfectly still! We shared our observations and findings with the ‘homeroom’ teacher who in turn shared the information (and video) with his parents. We could not expect this child to sit still in class - for learning to be effective for this child he needed motion to process his thinking.”

The team began to ‘look for, and listen for learning’ within the skills and qualities of the UWCSEA learner profile. The team believed the profile was embedded in the teaching and learning, yet there was not sufficient evidence to affirm or refute this assumption. The conversation model map became two-fold. A place to map the ‘evidence’ of the students’ conversation as well as prompt thinking during the teacher and observer follow-up conversation. An example of the amended conversation model is below:

UWCSEA East Primary Music Looking for Learning Conversation Model

The subsequent innovation the team wished to explore was: Could core elements of Looking for LearningTM be used to gain a greater understanding of learners across a whole grade? As such, a simple Google Form was created, using the key Looking for LearningTM questions. All students submitted their responses mid-unit during a designated Music lesson. Upon analysis of the responses the team’s interpretation of the data suggested a few students were missing the key taught concepts. The data enabled teachers to identify specific students with whom Looking for LearningTM conversations might take place. In some instances, it was possible to identify a misunderstanding or a misconception, in other examples, a child had made an error or, had a preference to type a word they could spell confidently (the reality of working with seven year olds!) rather than the relevant word.

Having conducted numerous Looking for LearningTM conversations across the Primary age range in Music; the team has gathered sufficient evidence to know whether or not learning is happening, what learning is happening (knowledge, skill and/or understanding), and if the learning is engaging, appropriate, sufficient or challenging. While it is reassuring to know our students are learning, it has generated a period of inquisition. It has prompted dialogue and discussion about the curriculum, urging the team to look for gaps; to enquire why some ‘units’ are more learningful than others and, to rewrite or remove some units. It has led the team to return to the purpose of learning and redefine why it is important and necessary for students to receive a Music education. Ultimately, it has elicited some core ‘Big Picture’ questions.

Drawing upon Richard DuFour and Rebecca DuFour’s research (2015), it is clear the school has been intentional in developing communities in which educators work collaboratively to improve student and adult learning. Establishing a trusting community provides the safe environment for teachers to develop habitudes for reflective practice. With each Looking for LearningTM conversation that takes place, the team gains knowledge of the learners and a greater understanding of what is effective for student learning. The findings as educators look for learning can be used for both deep learning outcomes and, new pedagogies to support the outcomes (Fullan and Langworthy, 2014, p.43).

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