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.


Let’s talk about… VisiblE-Learning

When you combine the philosophy of visible learning and the philosophy that sits around e-learning you end up with a model that will increase student outcomes. How so? By combining the two and creating a seamless entity you end up with increased student engagement and increased motivation. You end up with motivated teachers. You end up with increased student learning. A win-win –win situation all round.

At Opaheke School we are making a difference but we want to make more of a difference. We are always constantly trying to improve, and our professional inquiries this year have focussed on looking for ways to improve student progress by introducing ‘Mymobile Learning’ and ‘Visible Learning’.

During two recent staff meetings I listened to teachers describing and explaining how they are incorporating a range of digital technologies and explicitly taught strategies to make the learning visible and clear to students. Our teachers are trying new things, such as flipped learning, digital modelling books, and variations on powerpoint such as sway and they shared this in the staff meetings.

The idea of flipped learning fascinates me. In a study, National Faculty Perspectives on Flipped Classrooms, 81% of those surveyed reported improved mastery of information and improvement in communication, collaboration and problem-solving skills. Now it seems to me that if we want 21st century learning, and 21st century skills, flipped learning has real potential. I love the fact that the learner can revisit as many times as they want or need and then pull out what they are finding tricky so that we can get straight to the nitty gritty without the merry dance we normally participate in trying to get to the nitty gritty.

flipped learning1
A poetry unit studied by year 7/8

At my previous school, my class had a web page where I uploaded videos related to literacy. Students would use this often, to learn new information, revisit and clarify their prior understanding and to help explain their thinking to others. The videos provided explanations, step by step exemplars and models. It wasn’t until the classroom computers were all out of action that I realised the students were asking me much more meaningful questions because their surface questions were answered as they watched the videos. We were getting to the deeper learning much more quickly because the students could access information as they needed it time and again. Just as importantly I no longer felt like a broken record. I felt re-energized in my teaching. Let’s face it, there are only so many times you can explain what a verb is before losing the will to dig deep and find inspiration. Discussions went from “What’s a powerful verb?” to “I’d like to look at the use of anaphora in speeches. Can I look at some examples from history?”flipped learning 2

It wouldn’t be right to talk about ‘visiblE-learning’ and not mention the impact of OneNote. Using this tool I have been able to share the planning for the lesson with the students in the collaboration site. (I’ve always shared my planning with my students but doing it digitally is so much more convenient and efficient.) We’ve co-constructed the success criteria and students have evaluated their learning against the intended outcome using the success criteria. They knew the ideal, the reality and the next steps to reach the ideal. And it meant I had a really clear picture of who needed what in the next lesson. The sense of agency increased through the use of the tool and for me that is one of the most important aspects in improving student outcomes.

collaboartive evaluations
Early stages of students evaluating the work.

The ability to record the feedback through audio or video option is something I want to explore further after seeing this in action at the recent information session with Travis Smith, but even without this facility OneNote has allowed for the students to give each other feedback about their work. It’s allowed for collaboration and publishing. OneNote gives you the freedom that traditional modelling books don’t. If I see things that I think will be good models as I’m trawling the internet I can just link it to my modelling book. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere. There’s even a tool that will let me create a quiz and collect data about who is accessing, how long they are spending on the questions, which areas will need further work and what doesn’t need a revisit. I’m looking forward to using this particular tool with maths enrichment next year.

Digital chatBoth concepts of flipped learning and digital modelling books (OneNote I this case) allow teachers to make content more engaging and interactive for the learner. With quality teachers driving this we can’t help but raise student achievement, right? Signs are that we are on the right track. We’re starting to build momentum and a name for ourselves.Opaheke Rocks

It would be very tempting to see e-learning and technology as the panacea to all that ails in the classroom without giving it much thought, but to improve student achievement the use of digital technology and e-learning has to be carefully thought about, quality opportunities constructed and expertly woven into the plan.  Just check out the recent OECD report which was pretty damning of the impact technology has on learning. The problem is not with the technology but in how it is being used. This brings me back to making the learning visible, being clear about the tools we are using and selecting the right tool for the job, whilst ensuring that we are developing and constantly improving the dispositions of successful learners- collaboration, innovation, self-regulation, challenge-taking and (critical, creative, caring) thinking. Hopefully, the examples given above, show a cohesiveness between visible and e-learning.

Let’s talk about… The Learning Climb

We’re on a journey to make learning visible. As you would expect we’ve been looking at research to see what works and what has the most effect. We’ve decided on our five dispositions and now we are talking about describing what learning feels like. James Nottingham talks about the learning pit but we’ve decided not to use the analogy of the pit but rather pull out the ‘4Cs’ that Nottingham identifies on his pit diagram.  Could we use the 4C’s if we inverted the pit diagram and turned it into a mountain? After all, learning new things can seem like an uphill struggle at times.

My thinking is that you can have any analogy you choose but to be true to the concept of Nottingham’s pit the analogy needs to include the following

Learning pit* Concept (what is being learnt)

* Conflict (Where the learning becomes challenging – without this no learning occurs)

* Construct( constructing a clear understanding. This is where you get the ‘Eureka’ moments)

* Consider-(reflect on the learning. The metacognitive stage)

So what are the steps on the learning journey?

Preparing for the climb. Photo: Raynah Thomas

Step One – Preparation:

To successfully make it to the peak of the learning mountain takes preparation. Learners gather the equipment or tools that are needed for the learning climb and they practise to get their mind physically fit. Learning requires preparation of the mind as well as equipment.

Step Two – Use your teachers:

If you were climbing a mountain you’d want to have a guide providing encouragement, advice and support. Whenever you are trying to learn something new you often go to an experienced person to get good advice. Without your guide you won’t make it to the top of the mountain. Without a teacher and their advise and examples learning becomes much harder.

Step Three – Break it down:

You’re not going to climb a mountain without taking it slowly at times and having rest stops. The same is true when you are learning something new and challenging.  Without the step-by-step approach you run the risk of making avoidable errors. During a climb regular breaks are required. A time to rest, reflect and check the equipment to make sure everything is in order. Brains need breaks too.  A quiet place to sit and consider what you’ve tried so far, what’s working, what isn’t. Brains need nourishment and water breaks to work efficiently and think clearly.

Step Four –  Overcome anxiety:

We all know about feeling anxious or nervous. We may even fear failure. I’m sure if I were climbing the mountain I’d fear I would fall, fear I’d make one wrong step. Overwhelming “what-ifs” would plague my mind. Learning new things, going out of comfort zones and challenging oneself can have similar feelings .

Step Five – Believe in yourself :

Many people attempt to climb mountains and many people fail. Not because they are physically unfit but because of their mental attitude. Henry Ford is quoted as saying “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you are probably right.” Hmmm I think he may be on to something here.

Self-belief and determination can move the metaphorical mountain. If you are  determined to make it to the peak, you’ll succeed. Same with learning. I’m not saying it will be easy just because you believe but self-belief does make a difference. Nike has a commercial where  “Athletes tell themselves they can do the impossible, even when they are not sure they can.”

Step Six –  Teamwork: 


Edmund Hillary didn’t climb mountains on his own. He had a team of people tied together with ropes and harnesses. The reason? If one person fell, the others would drop and slam their ice axe into the slope, holding on tight, keeping them from sliding down the mountain. Being a team member has benefits – safety, a sense of security, keeps you at a good pace. In a school there are many people who are in your team, and you are in many different teams.  Being part of a team makes the hard stuff more manageable. Team discussion, strategising and bouncing ideas off each other allows for the next steps to be taken.

Step Seven – Persevering through learning pain/challenge: 

What is it they say? “No pain, No gain.” If you’re going to climb a mountain you are going to feel pain.  Aching thighs, calves on fire, burning feet, throbbing with every step taken. Boots cut into shins as your mind screams “Enough!” The guide will encourage you and tell you “You need to work through your pain”. To stop would only lead to more pain. Learning is hard. It is challenging. It’s not meant to be easy. We need to carry on regardless or “keep on keeping on” as David Bailey once said.

Step Eight – Encouragement:

So you’re climbing a Mountain, almost at the peak, and everything is overwhelming. You’re ready to give up. You need someone to keep encouraging you, giving you feedback and feed forward. “”You can do it. Move the left foot slightly to the right. You’re nearly there;” Learning is no different. You need the feedback and feedforward. You need the cheering on the sidelines encouraging you when you think that you are completely stuck. Sometimes you need it more often than other times. But you don’t always need to hear it from other people. Developing an inner voice to feed you encouragement is an essential part of the learning process.

Step Nine –Celebrate the successes : 

Making it to the top of the mountain means you have been successful. Each step has brought success closer. Some of those steps have been minor successes of their own.  Celebrate. Celebrate the big successes and celebrate the small ones. That in itself is its own form of encouragement towards the next step.  Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself with the success of others. Own your success- it is afterall yours because you made it happen.

Finally (for now) Step Ten  On top of the Mountain: 

At the top of the mountain you can look out, process the journey and all that you have achieved; Think about the climb. AS you descend everything seems easier, clearer. At the top of our metaphorical learning mountain we do that too. We have struggled with many ideas and concepts on the way up. Now we can synthesize ideas and create new ones. That’s learning. At the peak of the mountain we think about our thinking and strategies; On the way down we have clarity and then new information emerges that challenges what we know and a new climb begins.

Will the mountain analogy work? We’re about to find out!

Let’s talk about…effort, determination and hard work

As a mom, teacher and mentor I have always told my children, students and mentees that nothing worth having comes easily. You have to work harder than you believe is possible in order to achieve the goal or live the dream.

When my daughter was diagnosed with verbal dyspraxia at the age of five my belief in everything being possible if you just worked hard enough was tested. I fell into a pit of despair knowing that the chances of her ever being understood verbally were slim. Fortunately her determination to “speak like everyone else” was stronger than my initial desire to sit on a pity pot and cry that life wasn’t fair.

I won’t go into all the details, as there are far too many of them, but after years of hard work, effort, determination and enormous courage on my daughter’s part no-one would ever guess she has a speech disorder, let alone one as severe as verbal dyspraxia.

I learnt a valuable lesson from my daughter- no matter what the odds you still have to put in effort and hard work to improve. I was recently reminded of my daughter’s determination and effort when I saw Will Smith talk about the treadmill. She was either going to conquer the speech treadmill or die trying.

Let’s talk about… feedback

​After being an Assessment for Learning facilitator for 7 years, there’s one thing that I have heard more than anything thing else from teachers; feedback from kids is just too difficult to contemplate.

“Self and peer assessment/ feedback is too hard.”

“The kids are too little and so they can’t do it.”

This has always puzzled me, partly because if you listen in to conversations between students,  in the classroom, they give comments and feedback all the time.

The clip below entitled “Austin’s Butterfly” shows how peer feedback can impact on a student’s work.

So my question is this: Is it too hard for the students or is it too hard for the teacher to give up some of the power and allow for opportunities for peer feedback?