Let’s Talk About… Our Journey With Student Led Conferences – July 2016

The desired outcome of making learning visible is having students who can talk about their learning as clearly as their teacher. How well students do this, is proof of our success in this mission.

One of the criteria within the visible learning framework is that teachers are inspired and passionate. A by-product of this is students who are able to speak with passion and power about their deep learning; what they know and how they learned it, what was tricky and how they overcame difficulties. They exhibit the dispositions of good learners and rise to the challenge of confidently delivering an informed message to their audience. At Opaheke School we are on a journey to have learners who are self-regulating, set goals, monitor their own progress, and reflect on their strengths and areas for improvement. These skills are important to us because these are the skills that will help our students to be life-long learners.

Starting the Journey

We’d been carrying out student led conferences (SLCs) for a few years in the senior school with varying degrees of student involvement.  Last year, for instance, some of the conferences were more three-way than student led, and the junior conferences were more the traditional parent – teacher meetings.  This year we modified it in a bid to bring greater consistency, success and ownership. Change, we know, can be daunting and become stressful so the journey has been one of scaffolded baby-steps.  To be successful we would need our students, teachers and families willing to try something different.  This change from the traditional parent-teacher interviews in the juniors to three-way conferences, and the shift to a more consistent student led conference in the seniors, has meant there is a structure in place to help students develop their thinking and  share their deep learning in a way that is accessible to their families.

I wish I could say that on the journey I had absolutely no doubts about what we were doing, but the truth is I did have minor panics and sleepless times. I had no doubt that running multiple student led conferences in a room is a successful model. My doubt was around my ability to ensure buy-in from staff and families; that part was my role!  If we got that part wrong we’d be sunk, so yes the transition to multiple SLCs was daunting; we needed to build a shared picture of what it would look like and map out a plan to move forward.

We began by establishing a shared understanding with our students, staff, and community last year. We visited schools, where students talked about their learning articulately and confidently. If they could do it then so could our students. Eager and motivated by what we had heard we looked at video clips of how students talked about their learning, what they did when they got stuck, and how they talked about their thinking. We shared these with students in the senior school.  We planted a seed.

At the start of this year we shared our vision about multiple SLCs with Year 4-8 teachers and asked them to identify what support they would need to get this off the ground. This included digital learning journals, modelled conversations and a video of multiple conferences in action. We defined the purpose, described the role of teachers, parents and students and created a list of helpful questions. We share this information on our school website and informed parents through newsletters. Teachers worked collaboratively to identify what would be included in the SLC, creating exemplars for staff to use with their students.  We worked with a small group of students and parents to create a video of what the multiple conferences would look like. Teachers modelled SLCs with students multiple times, and then students practised with one another, taking turns being the parent. A role many students enjoyed!

Students who needed a scaffold to begin with were able to use exemplars or scripts to help the flow of their learning conversations. These then evolved into student and parent prompts (open-ended questions) to help keep SLC conversations moving smoothly.

Developing the technology

It was about now we needed technology to support our pedagogy, to find ways to make sharing our reflections easier and more convenient. A tool that the students could use easily to gather their thoughts, assessment information and evidence of learning.

With a little bit of SharePoint magic and the help of a team we set up student learning journal blogs. The blog template in SharePoint allowed us to do everything we needed in a simple and intuitive way. Categories helped us tag and sort entries, include images, embed video and presentations.

As this was new for many staff we provided some specific professional learning around the implementation of blogs into classrooms.  Using MS forms we sent out a short survey asking about current skill levels and the types of support required, to enable the use digital technology to be successful.  Once the survey was complete we allocated weeks to deliver support.

Some teachers opted for all of this PD and some attended just the aspects they specifically needed. Rather than keep pouring PD we wanted teachers to share in the control of the PD so that it was useful to them.

Listening to our staff and families

Key to making this successful was listening to the concerns raised by some staff and some parents and then gathering feedback once the event was over. The number one shared concern was that parents and teachers would not get time to talk to each other.

There was also a concern that the younger students particularly wouldn’t be able to share their learning process and give a true or clear picture of where they are in their learning, but because we expect our students to reflect and self-evaluate so often, we are helping them develop these conversations. Sure they may require more support to begin with, but that’s just a natural step in the learning journey.

Some teachers were afraid the technology would get in the way, or there wouldn’t be enough devices for students to access if there were other families in the room, and some thought that the learning blogs would be the only or main focus to the detriment of other aspects.

In designing our SLCs we made sure to address these concerns. We scheduled them conveniently, made them accessible (afternoon and evening sessions to accommodate working parents, welcoming younger siblings), and made them purposeful for parents and students alike. Allowing time slots of 45 minutes meant that although there were up to four families in the room at a time, there was still a ten-minute timeframe in which parents and teachers could speak. We encouraged these to be about the learning rather than focusing on other aspects.

Student-led conferences are not the only time our students are invited to talk about their learning. Through everyday lesson teachers provided opportunities for students to articulate their learning process, strategies, strengths, challenges, and how they work to meet learning targets. Our students are becoming increasingly used to sharing the story of their learning journey with visitors that come into school as part of our Microsoft Showcase School status. Empowering our students to do this leads to deeper learning.

Co-authored with Nikkie Laing.

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