Written by Tim Gander, Director of Education, The Mind Lab.
With the announcement that schools in New Zealand would be entering a period of lockdown and ‘school-led learning at home’, the beginning teachers we worked with had to rethink their approach to teaching and learning, as well as the skills that this would require. With this, The Mind Lab, as an Initial Education (ITE) Provider, also had to rethink how we would support the beginning teachers we worked with.
The Mind Lab has always held an innovative position in New Zealand education, from pioneering physical labs where school aged children could tinker and experience robotics, coding, augmented reality and science in collaborative environments, to future focused postgraduate qualifications based on digital and collaborative learning, contemporary education, teaching and education leadership. Over 3000 teachers have graduated from our award winning programmes, leading future focused change in their own communities and beyond.
It was a natural progression to adopt an innovative approach when supporting beginning teachers in our ITE programme, The Master of Teaching and Education Leadership, an employment based qualification that aims to reduce educational inequality and promote social justice by training high quality graduates to teach in low decile schools throughout Aotearoa, New Zealand. Coaching and mentoring are critical aspects of our programme and after trialing several video observation technologies we chose IRIS Connect to support critical reflection of classroom practice. We found that the software enabled authentic and dialogic communication based on the timestamped comments (Gander & Thorn, 2019), as well as the encrypted footage proving an assurance in safety for all schools which we worked with.
During Covid-19 the New Zealand Government introduced alert levels to provide guidelines on how to interact with others. Alert level 3 in New Zealand prevented our coaches from entering schools and lockdown level 4 prevented schools from opening at all. This meant that as an organisation we had to move all of our observations to ‘distance’. One thing we were conscious of during the various stages of lockdown was the number of emails our beginning teachers were receiving and the number of platforms they were expected to work on. This highlighted the true threat of platform fatigue and how crippling it can be to be constantly bombarded by notifications and login demands from a range of applications all doing relatively similar things. By consolidating all of our observation communications to the IRIS Connect platform we attempted to minimise the challenges faced by teachers with regards to their overflowing inboxes. The Alert level 4 lockdown timed nicely with the release of the ‘screen capture’ option within the IRIS Connect software. Beginning teachers were able to record their online teaching practice and share this with their coaches who were all experienced in online delivery. Through active reflection, this encouraged beginning teachers to pinpoint what was working and what wasn’t working with their online delivery and then have the opportunity for feedback/feedforward.
The process that was developed involved the coach and beginning teacher co-constructing goals prior to the lesson, the beginning teacher recording practice (either part of a synchronous delivery session, an example of an online activity/platform they were using, or examples of student work for feedback) with IRIS Connect, then uploading the lesson plan and a 500-700 word critical reflection to IRIS Connect based on the goals and areas that the coach could provide feedforward and feedback on. This was accompanied by any annotations that beginning teachers made on their lessons via the software, these comments and reflections were then opportunities for further discussion and reflection.
As an organisation we were aware that online teaching was a distinct skill and it was not possible to replicate what you would ‘normally’ do in the classroom for a wide variety of reasons. Many beginning teachers we worked with adapted their practice effectively, varying their approach to incorporate synchronous and asynchronous tasks, online and offline activities and sometimes just providing a space to have an informal chat with their students, moving from a reliance on direct instruction to a more agentic and student led approach. One of the resounding benefits that many teachers found was that there were new ‘leaders’ in their class and different voices were being heard through presenting learning and opportunities for interaction in different ways. Practices in UDL, flipped learning, and formative assessment were all strengthened through these opportunities, and overall, we found that beginning teachers were more confident by consciously adding another dimension to teaching practice which, as they now realise, requires careful consideration and refined skills.
When reflecting on their online practice, our beginning teachers uncovered some unconventional teaching behaviours. Some observant beginning teachers came up with interesting ways to gauge their delivery style and used the ‘Forms’ element in IRIS Connect to create a way to ‘Count how many times I say or do stupid things that I wouldn’t do in person!’
Although lighthearted, this again demonstrated that teaching and learning from a distance requires a greater awareness of your interactions with learners, and IRIS Connect was the optimum tool to facilitate conversations about this.
Now in the post-COVID era we have a headstart on reimagining the concept of ’being a teacher’. In the short term, a shift has happened in how teachers regard themselves, as well as what learners, families and their communities expect, and how the groups interact with each other (Riwai-Couch, M., Bull, A., Ellis, B., Hall, K., Nicholls, J., Taleni, T., Watkinson, R. 2020). This refocusing could start with ITE, we are aware that the skills of a teacher pre-COVID are different to the skills required post-COVID, the following questions are encouraging us to think about how training providers might adapt to this?
How is a teacher prepared with regards to the awareness of the ethics, challenges and opportunities in teaching in an online or remote way, how is it safe and equitable for all learners? Can this approach be more valued and supported as a ‘teaching’ method, perhaps effective online and remote facilitation should be recognised as an explicit ‘key teaching task’?
Through beaming directly into the homes of learners, teachers had a unique opportunity to develop compassion, empathy and ultimately a stronger connection with their families, how might we support teachers to maintain and amplify this? As Hattie (2020) notes, how can we work with families so we “move them beyond homework police and fundraisers”? In relation to this the pandemic also highlighted the fact that learning happens a great deal more outside of the classroom than hegemonic school models like to acknowledge, teaching is often only categorised as what happens when a teacher is standing in front of the learners, perpetuating the didactic teacher led approach which has been holding back many learners and disenfranchising their diversity and authentic social connections for centuries.
In observing this there is the impetus to shift the locus of control beyond the school, and more towards the family and community, to reflect this in ITE the locus of control needs to move beyond the University and more towards the school or community in which the teacher is training in. ITE students are increasingly studying online, and are postgraduate career change professionals (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2019), they are often connected to the communities in which they work, innovative ways of working with schools in providing feedback, making connections and enabling greater autonomy is a change that needs to happen. A localised approach to teacher education and an acknowledgement of the positive practices that may already be in place to support this could be emphasised, in New Zealand ‘Kāhui Ako’ are already established to support localised goals and priorities, there are many other Iwi groups and local organisations that training providers should work alongside to support these initiatives.
What really shone through in returning to ‘the new normal’ was the adaptive competence required of educators in this time to rally around, collaborate and adapt in a matter of days. We have learnt that we are living ‘in the moment’ more than ever, this responsive approach in education is only sustainable if there are mechanisms to support critical reflection as an ongoing element of dialogic professional development. There is a huge importance on the provision of tools for teachers to enable them to transform their practice, within this there are opportunities in the development of the use of video footage and AI in teacher reflection and synchronous feedback to support teachers with the rigorous development of practice. A combination of a community centred approach and effective use of technology will develop future teachers and leaders to become adaptive and responsive to their learners, and in turn to further disruptive global events. With this mindset we may hopefully work towards what Michael Fullan (2019) holds critical, whereby we reflect and embrace collaborative professionalism and support each other in a connected autonomy.
About Tim Gander
Tim Gander is Education Director at The Mind Lab, delivering the Masters in Teaching and Education Leadership. Tim is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern Queensland, researching Bug-in-Ear technology and effects of collaborative synchronous feedback in the classroom.
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Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2019). Initial teacher education: Data report 2019. Melbourne.
Gander, T., & Thorn, R. (2019, November). E-mentoring in Te Kura Kaupapa Māori. Paper presented at Talking Teaching 2019: Diverse Learners, Inclusive Teaching. Auckland: Ako Aotearoa. Abstract retrieved from https://akoacademy.ac.nz/images/symposium2019/25_Nov_update/Abstract_Summary_F.pdf
Fullan, M. (2019). Why Some Leaders Fail and Others Succeed: Nuance. In Visible Learning World Conference. Edinburgh.
Hattie, J. (2020). Lessons learned from teaching in changing times. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from: https://www.aitsl.edu.au/secondary/comms/australianteacherresponse/lessons-learned-from-teaching-in-changing-times
Riwai-Couch, M., Bull, A., Ellis, B., Hall, K., Nicholls, J., Taleni, T., Watkinson, R. (2020). School-led learning at home: Voices of the parents of Māori and Pasifika students. Auckland, Evaluation Associates Ltd.