Friday, June 24, 2011

Balancing Act

I recently blogged about the importance of educating parents as well as students when it comes to the use of internet technology in this day and age. Yesterday I was reading a newspaper article with a similar topic.

The article indicates that the increasing proportion of teenagers using technologies such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter is now filtering down in a similar way to include primary school students. It goes on to mention that schools are in a difficult situation because they don't condone the underage use of these sites but also shoulder some responsibilities in the education of their students for the appropriate use of them. One of the most concerning statements in the article for me was that some children are hesitant to report incidents of cyber-bullying to their parents because they are scared of having the technology taken off them.

Unhealthy amounts of screen time, violent programs/games and cyber-bullying are all important issues that need to be managed and these should all be closely monitored within the classroom - I know they are in my school. This technology is here, there's no getting around it. Removing them from children will not solve any problems. Parents and teachers need to have a strong relationship, one built on trust, that allows them all learn together about appropriate ways to use these tools.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Behind the scenes

As part of a maths assessment for a unit on fractions, my students were required to plan, resource, teach and evaluate a lesson focussing on one of the topics we'd addressed in class. Today they shared their lessons and taught a small group of their peers.

The students had the choice of what topic they would teach - they could combine topics if they were related. They could also decide at which grade level their lesson would be directed towards. Four students surveyed some Grade Three students to find out what they knew about their topic before they planned their lesson.

They were welcome to use any of the available tools in the classroom in order to deliver their lesson. Quite a few students saw the effectiveness of using the SMARTBoard and prepared resources to use on that. This was great as we've only had the boards for this year and it showed me that they felt very comfortable with it. Others enjoyed applying their knowledge through games and created their own versions of maths games that would suit their lesson. Another group created process and word problems with extra challenges at the end. A whole range of learning styles at work! The process needs some improving before I try it again but all of the students did a fabulous job and were very enthusiastic about their lessons. The fact that they had invested their own time into the development of their lesson helped them to form a stronger connection and I was able to see how well they understood their topic as they presented it.

One of the things that a lot of the students found difficult was the ability to have everything as prepared as possible so that the lesson would flow freely. Some students were unable to engage in much teaching as they spent too long setting up and their 'students' were lost. Some planned lessons that were too easy or difficult, or didn't research their topic enough so were caught out when asked tricky questions by their peers. Some were simply missing important resources so their lesson didn't run well. Obviously I wasn't gauging them on their teaching skills. I did look for appropriate planning and preparation, but teaching techniques and delivery methods weren't the focus of this activity. I wanted to see how well they knew their topic and whether or not they could be creative in the way that they applied it.

I was recently a mentor teacher for a student on his first teaching practicum. He'd been in the class 3 months earlier as he was changing careers and, as a parent of the school, he was considering taking up teaching as a profession and wanted to get 'a feel' for it. The observation period was a lot of fun for him as I was the one preparing all the learning experiences and he had the freedom to sit in with small groups or observe the class as a whole. The shock for him came when it was his turn to handle lessons on his own. He was blown away by how many balls he had to juggle at the same time as a teacher. It was a valuable lesson for him and something that he took for granted in the observation phase. He's already a very good teacher and these realisations will only help to make him even better.

The amount of planning for each lesson we teach requires an enormous amount of preparation and sometimes I think this work is invisible to third parties. It's all well and good for people to agree that keeping our students at the centre of learning is best practice, but to actually do it effectively is a whole different ball game. Great teachers are well prepared, knowledgable and enthusiastic about each lesson they teach. On the outside it may look like some lessons can be thrown together on a whim, but in most examples this is certainly not the case.

Friday, June 17, 2011

In the Zone

The philosophical basis of the Primary Years Program is built on the theories of constructivism. Constructivism learning theory argues that humans generate knowledge and meaning from interactions between their experiences and ideas. They construct understandings based on the information they have learned in the past. A key part of this in practice is being able to maintain students in their zone of proximal development. This means that their learning should be at an appropriate level so that it challenges them, but is not beyond what they are capable of. For us to ensure that we are keeping our students 'in the zone' we need to know what they are capable of.

Throughout learning this is achieved by regular formative assessment. This helps us to keep track of where we currently are and where we need to go in the future. Another important element of this is pre-assessment. This is completed at the beginning of an inquiry so we can ascertain where we should begin. For example, there is no point jumping into a lesson on adding fractions if the students don't know what a denominator is! The same obviously works the other way and sometimes students become disconnected from class if they're not inspired by the work. Obviously the difficulties come for teachers as they inevitably find out that there are varying levels of ability throughout a class. Learning has to be catered for all of these levels and requires dedicated work from teachers to ensure that this is happening.

Sometimes I get the feeling that we gloss over pre-assessment and don't give it due credit. Mindmaps, T-charts or a picture analysis can be great tools for pre-assessing students, as long as they are not seen as ways in order to simply tick a box. Better still, we should make sure we provide pre-assessment tasks that cater for a variety of learning styles and abilities. We need to ensure that our pre-assessments are differentiated - there's no excuse for not keeping our students in the zone of proximal development purely because of what stage we are at in the inquiry. By guaranteeing developmentally challenging pre-assessment, we learn valuable information about our students that can lead to more authentic, meaningful inquiry in the future.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Forgotten Students

Over the past two weeks I've had the unfortunate experience of having to deal with an issue regarding internet security. Two of my students have had their email accounts broken into and abusive emails have been sent to other members of the class. Despite a thorough investigation we are no closer to finding the persons responsible and, with less than a week to go before the end of the school year, I doubt we will discover the culprit before we break.

I have found this whole incident extremely frustrating. I desperately want to know who is behind it all so that (1) they have to deal with the consequences of their inappropriate actions and (2) to help them through this obviously difficult time in their life. It is such a fine balance, though. I would never accuse anyone of anything without suitable evidence and this is the case here. There is not enough proof to confidently point the finger at any one person. Although I believe we have truly done all we can at school, if the culprit gets away with it all there is more reason for them to repeat their behaviour in the future. I really hope we can somehow find out who is involved.

Today I sent an email to all of the parents in my class, informing them of what had happened. Part of the email reminded parents about responsible and respectful use of the internet at home. Their children are growing up in an age that is, in a technological sense, vastly different to that of their parents and teachers. We are often reminded to help guide and support them through these new links of collaboration. But what about the adults? Who is teaching us? Sure, we're more capable of rational decisions at our age. Our years of experience in 'life skills' have enabled us to assess new situations and tools more effectively than, say, a nine year old.

Our school asks that parents, their children and the teachers of their children sign an I.T. agreement at the beginning of the year. This outlines what the school defines as proper use of technology at home and at school and describes expected behaviours when using these technologies. I find this a useful document to refer back to when 'reminding' someone about appropriate behaviour when using technology. But I don't discuss it with the parents. I don't provide a forum where parents can discuss what they understand about appropriate uses of I.T. For some it may mean allowing their children to have a personal computer in their room. For others it may mean fully supervised use of the computer. It is important to remember that a lot of these technologies are new for the parents, as well as the students, and that sometimes they need to be guided and supported just as much as their children.




Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Negotiated Curriculum

At about this time every year I sit back and reflect on the year that is fast coming to a close. I think I have done many things right this year and learned a lot. Still, I know I have many areas to improve in and have been asking myself an important question over the past few weeks: Am I afraid to give up control of a learning experience?

By handing over the metaphorical reigns of learning to the students, teachers allow them to drive their own learning through their own curiosity. This usually results in genuine and significant inquires. This aspect of the curriculum - the role of students in decisions made about and for their learning - is valued by the IB, and particularly in the Primary Years Program:

Many different forms of inquiry are recognized, based on students’ curiosity and on their wanting and

needing to know more about the world. They are most successful when students’ questions and inquiries are

genuine and have real significance in helping them progress to new levels of knowledge and understanding.

The most insightful inquiries, ones most likely to move the students’ understanding further, come from

existing knowledge. (PYP Basis for Practice pp. 4)


It is also something that I don't find particularly easy to manage and one of my goals for next year is to really try and improve in this area.

Generally, I think I fall into one of two traps. I either expect (a) too much too early from my students and they aren't able to lead a learning experience (or don't yet know how) with their own curiosity, or (b) I don't give them enough of an opportunity.

These aren't done on purpose, of course. Sometimes I simply don't feel that I have enough time to let the students 'wonder and wander' for extended periods as I have to get through other mandated curriculum. Other times I haven't provided the students with enough opportunity to develop their knowledge of an inquiry before allowing them the chance to drive it. Then I feel worried that nothing is happening, the lesson is shallow and my reaction is to take more control.

Some strategies that I will be working on next year are:
Taking more time to really listen to my students - either as a class, in small groups or individually. Although I give my students plenty of my honest attention I am sure there must be some things that I'm not picking up. So I'm making a conscious effort next year to really look for indicators when the students are talking. I'm going to make a checklist of things to look out for during conversations so I can constantly remind myself. I'd also like to trial a few different ways of recording the information too, as this is something that I've found tricky to manage in other years.

I'm also thinking about the best ways to display student questions and inquiries as they arise. When I've attended PYP workshops in the past the facilitators have usually created a 'wonderwall' or something similar. Unfortunately these are not always re-addressed throughout the workshop but when they are I really like the way they work. It's not something I've successfully achieved in my own classes thus far so I want to try harder next year. I've tried using wallwisher before but I think I'd really like something that is up in the class and can be accessed at all times.

The next strategy I'm going to try and employ is to try and work opportunities for student input into my planning. I know that many student observations occur 'out of the blue' and can't be planned for, but I think I can facilitate these better by thinking about the type and structure of my lessons. What are my students revealing to me? How will this inform and alter future lessons?

I think it is also important that these experiences are developed around an environment that really encourages this type of behaviour. Some students may not be used to this level of freedom, opportunity or responsibility from other classes they've been in so I think it is important to model the sort of behaviour I want from my students. I must admit, I regularly fall into the trap of expecting that my students know what I want them to do without me really modeling it for them. It will also be helpful for me to provide routines and structures which they can follow - scaffolding, not controlling!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Consecutive Years

When I was in primary school I never had the same teacher for more than one year. Some students did, but this was rare. As a teacher I have also never taught the same class for consecutive years. I have often thought about whether or not it would be beneficial to have my students for two years in a row, either as a whole class or as part of a split where the older half would move on after two years and the younger grade would take the place of the older ones when the next bunch joins. I have just read 'Learning Together Through Inquiry' by Kathy Short and several other authors. Quite a few of the teachers who contributed to the book spoke of having their students for more than a year, or as part of a split. They seemed to heavily favour it.

I can see some of the benefits. A lot of time would be saved at the beginning of a year that is usually used as 'getting to know you' time. Obviously it is very important to connect to your students on a personal level and this cannot be done overnight. You would also have a good idea of the different ways that each student learns. At the start of the year time needs to be set aside for pre-assessing students for specific skills and abilities. This could be heavily reduced if you had a good idea of where they were coming from. The dynamic of the class as a collective and what they do and don't respond well to is another thing that takes time. If you have the same students from the previous year you can get straight into the curriculum and not have to worry about a lot of the aforementioned. Time is at such a premium in our crowded curriculums and this could be one way of finding some more.

A situation where it may not be beneficial for students to have the same teacher for consecutive years could be if the student and teacher do not have a strong relationship. Perhaps the teacher is ineffective, perhaps the two personalities don't mix, perhaps there are other reasons. There are many occasions where people work with each other purely on a professional level without any social connection and this may also happen in the classroom. Although, in Primary School especially, I think this would very difficult. There would need to be a lot of trust between the teacher-principal-parent triangle for things to work in this situation.

In progressive systems of education (eg. Finland) teachers regularly have their students for more than one year. I am sure this is practised in quite a few systems around the world but I hardly hear of it - unless a school is under-staffed and teachers are forced to combine classes. I can't think of any International Schools that follow this system. I wonder if this model is considered in many schools? Is it too difficult to manage? Proven to be ineffective?

Next year I have a teacher joining my team that has taught in the grade below me this year. It is possible that she'll have some of the same students in her class and I'll be interested to hear her opinions on this subject.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Fast Food Education

Standardised testing is common throughout many school systems. The results are used for a myriad of reasons, from comparing national standards to other countries, to exploring whether students are achieving at a predetermined level that is designated by a school.

I believe tests are useful. Administered in the right way, they can help a student see what they know and what they still need to improve at. This can aid in raising standards, which is generally the goal of any test.

The problem with this is that many people identify standardised testing with raising standards. This isn't the case. Borrowing from the preachings of Ken Robinson et al., standardised testing serves to create conformity among it's recipients. It makes sure everyone can so the same thing at the same stage. This has been referred to 'fast food education' - a lot of the same thing. The argument against this type of conformity is that humans are not machines. We don't all perform at the same level at the same time for the same rate. We are individuals who all develop at different rates and, if you believe in multiple intelligences, learn in different ways.

We should do the best we can to create systems of education that cultivate conditions to let our students flourish. By trying to ensure that everyone can do the same things, at the same stage of their lives, we are sending a message to some students that they are not good enough. What does this do their psyche if they begin hearing it at the age of 8?

It concerns me that education in Australia seems to heading down the same path as the US is finally beginning to shy away from. The No Child Left Behind Act failed and the NAPLAN assessments introduced in Australia in 2008 similarly has the potential to lower standards, instead of raise them.

The school I am currently working at is at the pointy end of the process of developing learning outcomes for each grade level at our school. This is helping them achieve their goal of creating a clear and connected curriculum for K-12. Being an International School that is a private institution, they don't have the shackles of a national curriculum to adhere to. The idea is that stake-holders will be able to see what students will be able to know, understand and do at each year of their education. I think it is important for a school to have a clear and strong curriculum. How else can we drive daily instruction in relation to the school's values? During our process, the usual concerns of OBE have been raised: Are we measuring everyone to a minimum standard? What happens if students don't achieve the required level? What happens if they do it before they're 'meant' to? How will these affect assessment and reporting processes?

I advocate certain aspects of OBE. It is based on constructivism theories, it doesn't compare students to other students and assumes nothing in terms of student's capabilities. What concerns me is that if outcomes are too shallow (ie. 'a mile long and an inch deep' - as Linda Darling-Hammond puts it) or restrictive and narrow, then we run the risk of measuring our students to the same standards and this can also lends itself to an over-emphasis on standardised testing procedures. We need to ensure that we develop continuum based outcomes that allow students to achieve at a rate that is developmentally appropriate for them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Performance based pay

I was recently reading an article about teachers in Australia being paid extra if they comply to certain standards that classify them as a 'highly accomplished teacher'. This relates in some way to the school that I currently work at as they are considering bringing in a type of performance based pay scheme.

I'm not sure how I feel about it all, to be honest. As with most things, the extent to which it will work will depend on how it is managed. A lot of the staff seem concerned that they are being backed into a corner and won't be able to enjoy the yearly pay rise that is currently offered. I'm sure that's probably part of the plan too! I'm not too worried about having to 'prove my worth'. I can understand that people may be concerned, but if you're a hard worker who constantly looks for ways to improve your performance then I can't see there being too much of an issue.

One of the key elements that needs to be well-handled is that of trust. If the staff can't trust that the system will reward teachers who achieve high standards then it simply won't work. The process has to be clear and achievable. As the article states, it's no small task to appraise and evaluate a staff body and if there are questions of rigour then suspicions will be aroused. Also, if the staff are forced into an environment of competition, then the collaborative nature that is so important in our daily practice will suffer.

One of the potential benefits of a well managed performance analysis system is that good teachers will be more likely to remain in the classroom. This will serve to raise standards, which surely has to be the key focus of any such system.

I'm sure I'll have more to say on this topic once a decision has been made as to whether our school will employ a system of this type. Watch this space!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Connection vs Protection

I recently watched a TED talk by Steven Johnson about where great ideas come from. His discussion centered around the position that great ideas generally come from hunches - and that two or more hunches that join together develop into a great idea.

He argues that collaboration is the key for the development of great ideas and that we must create systems that allow those hunches to come together and turn into great ideas. Coffee houses during the Enlightenment, Parisian Salons of Modernism were such vehicles. What is it for the 21st century?

Technology is the obvious answer. The opportunity to reach out and connect your hunches with other people's. One of our jobs as educators - and I classify teachers, parents and peers under that umbrella - is to teach each other how to use these tools effectively in order to avoid the inevitable distractions that can result from it's exponential growth. There is much to be gained from the effective and appropriate use of technology.

One of the other points Johnson raises is that intellectual property is regularly patented, copyrighted and trademarked. In order for effective collaboration to occur, we must consider less protection of our ideas and allow for more connection. My students' summative task for their current Unit of Inquiry involves them creating a machine that will solve a task that is identified in a scenario. There were four scenarios they could choose from, each asking them to use their understanding of the principles of force and motion to help design and build a machine. I first asked the students to choose the scenario that most appealed to them and they drafted their own ideas. The next day I grouped them with other people who had chosen the same scenario and gave them the opportunity to join up their ideas with their peers or continue to work on their own. Every student decided to collaborate with someone else and the enthusiasm they have shown to share and develop their ideas has been amazing. I hope this will be a valuable lesson in the power of collaboration for them as they head into next year.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

What is Creativity?


I recently (re) watched a speech by Sir Ken Robinson about changing the education paradigm. The above clip is an abridged version but hits the main points. He raises some very interesting ideas, most of which I agree with, and challenges society to redefine their thinking about how we view and value education.

His major argument is that schools systematically (but not deliberately) destroy creativity in our students. Sir Ken defines creativity as a process of putting your imagination to work - applying your imagination. It is the process of having original ideas that have value.

He mentions three key points in relation to creativity. It is a process, not an event. You have to work on and refine it. Historically there are some exceptions, such as Mozart, (who was said to have never refined his work) but this is the exception, not the norm. Robinson states that it is a process we can plan and teach. Like literacy, we can give people the tools to go through the writing process, but can't say what they will write. We can give students the tools to be creative, but cannot tell them what to think.

Secondly, it is about originality. Thinking things that are either new to yourself, your workplace or even to history.

The third point is about value. Any old ideas are not creative - they have to hold value. Understanding which values to apply to an idea is a key part of creativity. Too often ideas are dismissed because people apply the wrong values to them. They relate to their present values instead of what might evolve. A classic example of this is the internet. When it first hit the mainstream some people thought it was clever but not very useful. Tell that to the people who came up with E-Bay!

This third point is something that I think teachers can have a definite impact on with their students. Teaching them how to apply critical judgement in the correct way and with the appropriate values in mind. Alongside this we need to cultivate an environment in our schools where students can feel ok to make mistakes. If we have a fear of getting something wrong we will be reluctant to try anything new, hence no creativity.

Skills are essential for our students. But they also need to know how to apply them in a creative manner.




Friday, June 3, 2011

Villain, Victim & Rescuer

I recently finished reading a book called 'Talk it out! The Educators Guide to Successful Difficult Conversations.' It was recommended to me by my Vice-Principal after I was discussing with him how to appropriately deal with a parent who had some 'interesting' ideas about what should be happening in the classroom.

The book is a guide to help deal with conflicts and confrontations which occur in a school environment. A lot of what the author (Barbara E. Sanderson) says is fairly straight forward and common sense, but there was one chapter that I found particularly interesting.

Sanderson identifies three roles that are always destructive in a work environment:

Villain: One who causes a negative impact on others - either intentionally or unintentionally. When confronted with their impact, villains have to accept responsibility and change their behaviour in order to remove themselves from this role.

Victim: Someone who gives up personal power in favour of productive behaviour. Avoiding this role requires proactive behaviour over being a martyr or appeasing villainous behaviour.

Rescuer: Someone who gets in the way of a resolution by enabling the victim in some way. Rescuers should support both parties to find a solution instead of taking sides, acting on someone else's behalf or being sympathetic to the victim.

I think that I have fallen into the trap of being all three of these roles at some stage during my professional career. I'm glad that I can now identify these positions in order to avoid them in the future.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Girl Power

I recently read this article from an Australian newspaper. In a nutshell, it addresses the decline in NAPLAN maths testing results for girls. The article goes on to recommend studies and funding into finding a prevention for this perpetual 'drop-out' rate in maths participation as girls progress through school.

I realise that there are some benefits of criterion-based standardised testing, however those who analyse and make decisions based on the results must do it from an informed perspective. Earlier this year I read a fantastic book by Jo Boaler entitled 'The Elephant in the classroom: Helping children learn and love Maths'. The book addressed many topics including, among others, the effects of ability grouping, assessment styles and teaching practices. Boaler based her arguments on research collected from longitudinal studies conducted in the UK and USA.

One of the discussions that interested me the most was about the different ways that boys and girls learn. Research shows that when an embryo reaches the stage that the sex is decided the specific changes occur in the genetic make up have potential ever-lasting results on the way that they learn. The onset of testosterone required for the development of the X chromosome in males destroys other parts of their genetic make up that affect communication. This is why a higher percentage of babies that are born with communication-based developmental disorders (such as autism) are males. This also means that females generally have a greater propensity to learn in a more communicative environment.

The way maths is still currently taught doesn't always lend itself to this style of learning, especially in middle and upper primary. Girls can be more inclined to talk things out, work collaboratively and discuss their findings whereas boys can find it easier to work through things on their own in a systematic approach. The 'skill and drill' environment that is still present in many classrooms can have a strong negative influence on performance and inclusion rates, especially for girls. Of course these learning styles don't fit the mould of every student. I have taught many boys that thrive in an environment where they can discuss their work and, conversely, there are many girls that find the opposite approach easy to relate to.

Those in charge of policy and curriculum decisions need to be up to date and aware of current research findings and take them into account when analysing things such as standardised test results, that are very closed, individualised performances. These aren't always a clear indication of a student's understanding.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Inquiry Cycle - Tuning In

During our UOI for How We Organise Ourselves my grade level inquired into the purposes of trade. This involved us exploring the history of trade, the reasons for trading and ethics in trading. It also coincided with my class assembly. My class and I had the choice between basing our assembly on our previous UOI (about The Arts) or jumping straight into the new UOI and presenting something associated with that. After some discussion we decide to run with the new unit.

This presented me with a new challenge. How would my students show their knowledge and understandings of the inquiry? There wasn't even an inquiry for them to show their understandings of! Due to the timeframe, our choices were limited. It was either tuning in for our UOI or practice for the assembly.

I made the executive decision to front-load the students with a lot more information than I normally would. This worried me because I was wary of simply give my students the information that I figured was relevant. The result of this, of course, would be that they would be able to share their new knowledge with the rest of the school at our assembly (our focus was on fair trade).

The assembly went well and the kids were brilliant. But it was what happened in the next 4 weeks that really surprised me.

My students had such a great understanding of fair trade early on in the unit that they were able to apply it in many ways. This took the UOI to a whole new level and was definitely something that I didn't foresee. They integrated their understandings into their language focus, took meaningful action throughout the local community and could easily relate to formative and summative assessment tasks.

This got me thinking, how much I should be front loading my students during the tuning in stages of the inquiry cycle? My feelings of worry at the beginning of the UOI were alleviated throughout the remaining weeks as the students raised the bar. Perhaps I have 'under-tuned-in' in previous units, only skimming the conceptual surface in fear of effecting a more didactic approach to teaching? Perhaps I was allowing too much freedom and not providing enough guidance for their inquiry?

What occurred with this UOI reminded me that my students need to have acquired a certain level of knowledge and skills in order to make meaningful connections with the concepts they are focussing on. It is misguided of me to think that they will always be able to engage in deep and dynamic inquiry from the get go. The trick is finding the magic balance of providing them with enough information, through a constructivist approach, that will give them the opportunity to explore their learning with enthusiasm, confidence and curiosity.