Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas to all

A Merry Christmas to all,  may it be filled with joy, children and the gifts that fill your world with love and happiness.

Next year promises to be another great one.  I look forward to posting again in the new year.


National Curriculum

Here is a table that comes from a National Curriculum broadsheet.  It contains some interesting insights.

The first is fractions and decimals finished at yr 6.  I haven't seen many year 10 classes confidently performing four operations on decimals or fractions without a calculator.

The second is that I haven't seen many students enter year eight with adequate algebra skils.

With the movement of year 7 to high school we can address some of these issues but it does not really address the core issue of the declining ability of primary to progress students through mathematics outcomes.

The national curriculum writers seem to acknowledge this issue here, "In comparison to the Singapore mathematics curriculum, the Foundation to Year 10 Australian Curriculum: Mathematics content is introduced more slowly in the early and primary years to ensure students have the opportunity to develop deep understanding before moving on. By Year 10, the conceptual difficulty is similar to that described in the Singapore documents."

The responsibility has been placed on secondary school to accelerate through the course.  This will have an negative impact on the second tier of students to be able to absorb the information in a developmentally appropriate method through upper school.  It seems we may be revisiting the forgotten middle.

The issue of why students need extra consolidation in primary is probably more cultural than educational in origin.  With the loss of value and payoff of education in Australia, families are not supporting education in ways previously found.  With changes to compulsory education, the value of graduation has decreased as a workplace differentiator.  There are clear payoff changes exacerbated by the relatively high incomes available for manual labour related industries during mining years. Unless of a recent migrant group  - education is a social occupation.

Two parent working families have not been able to make the commitment to assisting students reach their potential.  Sadly, even families making the commitment (to embed tables, assisting with homework, taking an active interest and are reading together regularly) are not gaining the benefit as the majority now lies on the other side of the divide.  It is going to take considerable commitment by the department to turn this around, I think the community has already given up.

(...and Mackenzie reminded me of something today.. writing anything legible listening to Yogabba gabba is near impossible - having distractions in class for those who concentrate singly (like me) must be exceedingly frustrating.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The five years ago game.

Five years ago..

I didn't know how to play guitar
I didn't own an awful lot of board games
I didn't have this blog
I didn't know how to teach well
I hadn't experienced 5 years of wonderful kids seeking to excel
I hadn't worked with some exceptionally dedicated peers

I didn't have the joy of my beautiful daughter and the perspective of a parent

I miss my nana and could probably be less cynical.  All in all, I think, these past five years have been very good.

Point Systems

Extrinsic reward point systems often end in probability based rewards to reduce cost.  The more points in for the week, the higher the probability of winning a prize.  Like most extrinsic reward systems they have instant impact and then reduce gradually over the year unless continually renewed.

The system though is fairly one sided and lacks the concept of the win/win.  It's more the instant gratification/self gratification than something based in development of values, delayed gratification and development of the caring person.

I'm wondering if we could extend the points system to make a true currency of it.

Kids value when extra input is put into the classroom, they value when they can help someone else, they value when their effort contributes to something bigger, they value things that may help them improve.  Or at least this is what we want them to value.

What if kids could:
donate points towards a teacher doing extra PD to bring a clearly stated idea back to the classroom (points not generated in that classroom)
donate points towards the charity child (and the school converts them back to cents/dollars)
donate points towards the house points competition
donate points towards evaluating an overseas event
donate points towards a school speaker / event

Kids want ownership of their environment and these sorts of ideas help them get a feeling of self worth by expressing their value beyond themselves.  The feeling of self worth, I think, is a key goal.

Our kids are in an interesting place, I think it might be timely to investigate avenues for this type of idea.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Getting sick

Sickness is a constant issue as a teacher.  By the end of term, we're all a bit run down and as soon as the adrenaline cuts out, you tend to hit the wall.  If it's not the flu, it's migraine..  I'd estimate that at least half of the staff report to be susceptable to migraines. 

As curriculum demands on teachers become greater and society itself is asking more of teachers, I suppose the maintenance of teachers will become more of an issue.

Well... this time has been a doozy.  First four days after the end of term my fever has been spiking up to 40 every time the panadol runs out, sleeping 20 hours of the day and having lucid moments (like now) where I think I might just be getting better.

I knew there was a reason I looked forward to holidays!

Update:  It seems having temps of 40C+ for 6 days indicates pneumonia.  Off to get checked.
Update:  This high temp thing is great, xrays and blood test in under 20mins.  It was like an olympics.
Update:  It is pneumonia (the second math teacher this year).  The drugs are working now and the temp stopped overnight (yay!).  Hopefully I'm on the mend.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

WACOT and the Teachers Registration Board

The King is dead.  Long live the King.

For those that don't know, WACOT is being repealed and a new Teachers registration board is being set up.

I just read through the new bill. Teacher representation on the board is now at the discretion and invitation of the minister. Requirements for registration become the primary mandate of the board.  The new bill gives the board the ability to define what a teacher needs to be and do for registration and re-registration.

Hopefully they will treat the new board primarily as a body for weeding out miscreants and keeping teaching institutions honest, not as a body responsible for monitoring and developing professional development.  A school is the best level for monitoring, mentoring and developing teacher effectiveness, the mentoring programme organised by WACOT ended up being little more than paperwork.  The change might be recognition that a registration body is not the right vehicle to monitor teacher competence.  If a case ever reached the Teachers Registration Board, one would have to imagine that it would be serious enough to involve police.

Given that the registration board is nominated by the minister, embarrassing events such as the "Teachers for Australia" (the 6 week teaching course) being rejected by WACOT will now more likely be prevented.

With a fairly limited mandate, hopefully they can get on with getting the job done, not worry about costly fringe activities and keep the fees and paperwork down!

Reflective posts

Four years ago, I started posting here to record the journey from practicum teacher to teacher.  Stats on the blog have shown that reflective posts are the least interesting and posts that relate to improvement in the classroom are the most read.

I have often wondered why.  It could just be that my reflective posts are boring.  Personally, I find that they are the most important because they make me consider my own teaching practices and drive me towards the successful classroom interventions.

It could be that we don't want to know what we do badly and we do want quick fix band aids.

Often we don't want to be reflective or introspective - we don't have time, lack the will, we're scared of the results and are unwilling to make the effort.  Given all I have learned here, having worked with the blog for a reasonably long time, it's fairly easy to say I think reflective practices are worth the effort.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I must be an idiot

I'm an idiot.  I really must be, because I don't understand and I can't understand the logic of the criticism no matter how the concept of "Empire Building" has been explained to me.

We have an inspirational maths department (not my words but that of a teacher outside our department).  Kids say to us that they want to come to school to do maths and they're not always the geeky ones.  We have a high level of energy in the department, kids actively choose our subject and we have fewer behavioural issues each year than ever before.  Kids don't even look that embarrassed when we talk to them in the yard.  We actively seek to help other departments and we do our share of tasks around the school.

And for this we are accused of empire building.  By this (and I sought to get this clarified) it was meant that we have created a "cult" of mathematics where kids actively seek maths in upper school over other subjects.  Let me be the first person in history to apologise for having engaged kids.

Now if we were preventing students from completing work of other subjects by loading them up with extra work, you might think this could be true.  We don't.  If we advised them to take higher maths without having grades and work ethics to suit, it may be true; but we are diligent documenting how we justify our subject selections and unfortunately now have to turn kids away in upper school.  If we loaded up in school committees and ran an agenda (of any sort) and bullied them through, it may be said but we rarely volunteer for committees and are more frequently tutoring kids between classes than being in the staff room.

I don't think we're victims of tall poppy, but our relative popularity (??!!??) with kids seems to be threatening in some way.  If a kid selected Drama, Phys ed, Computing, English or any other subject because they liked the teacher group not an eye would be batted.  If this meant that they had to do a higher maths and they were motivated by their involvement in the other subject, we would work with them and find them a course that they could do.  Another student with a viable path to uni - that's fantastic.

If year 7 kids are choosing our school because of maths one would think that the collegiate group (not just the principal) would go, great guys, we'll get behind you and create a wider vision for us.  If kids are clamouring for a staffed and funded maths camp, what possible reason is to not get behind it.  Five years ago we arrived and the atmosphere was toxic towards the ATAR classes, I don't think anyone believed we had long left before we became a vocational school.  Today we have a growing group of TEE kids, a wonderful team that guides them into uni through ATAR and portfolio pathways and a teacher group that can and does support them in their final years.

... but we have a long way to go.  When asking our year 9 class, "how many students went to university from our school",  they said none and were shocked when we said close to 50% - they were more shocked when we rattled off the names from three years ago and told them how well they were doing.  There are a number of much larger schools in Perth that can't do this and can't even run stage 3 courses.

I suppose this is a cautionary tale, because sometimes we all are a little disparaging and I can say firsthand how demotivational this last week has been for at least two of the maths department - we both have thick skin (and heads) but it is annoying to say the least.  If others do not want to lead, get behind those that make the time and have the will to do so.  Be careful with criticism especially if it is only to assuage your own conscience about what you should be doing as it can have toxic effects on your school.  Be encouraging wherever possible.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pay rise

I don't know if anyone noticed but SSTUWA negotiated a 3.75% pay rise (12% over 3 years + the 1/2+ year lost already) on 9 December. 

It will be interesting to see what conditions have been traded and if it actually ends up covering inflation over the period.  I shouldn't be skeptical, but SSTUWA are not the most effective negotiators.

News here.  You may have to be logged into the intranet to view it

Oh, and as expected the news of 7's going to secondary school has been done in the last week of the school year to minimise discussion.  They're all in secondary in 2015 (a bit late to save a few secondary schools but better late than never).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Numeracy drives literacy

It has been asserted that literacy initiatives can assist in developing numeracy in schools.  In disadvantaged schools it is common to place high levels of effort into literacy programmes (often aspirational programmes with few measures attached and responsibility for results thinly spread throughout all staff).  I can't count the amount of times I have been shown how to draw a mind map or a jigsaw in PD and then told that I need to implement them in my classrooms.

It's not that I haven't tried, it's just that there is little measurable improvement afterward.  I think secondary teachers roll their eyes and think 'here is some more primary junk' (I'm censoring here) that doesn't apply well in upper secondary classes.

That's not to say that numeracy based subjects (particularly maths) do not have a part in driving literacy - especially at the pointy end of students heading towards university.  In fact I would say that mathematics has a higher impact on the motivation of students to do well in English than English itself does.

For students in disadvantaged areas, the vast majority of students get to university through math/science pathways rather than humanities pathways.  This is 'generally' due to the raft of reasons  students fail to enjoy reading at an early age.  (I say generally as this is not a simple topic and has been the subject of a lot of angst amongst teachers.  I do not claim to have the answer for this other than to continuing to encourage parents to read to kids and then continue to investigate ESL pathways, bridging courses and technological innovations for avenues to develop reading and writing).

For math/science kids, their fundamental barrier to university entry is in English as English in some form is compulsory.  Math and Science teachers are cognisant of this and draw attention to comprehension and literacy at every opportunity.  We teach explicitly the meaning of words and how to construct strictly logical arguments through proof.  Students learn method and can apply the method with the reasonable understanding that the endpoint is a correct answer (which can be abstracted into other subjects).  We teach students to identify teaching moments, take and make effective notes and prepare effectively for examinations.  These are tangible and measurable improvements to their English language usage/literacy!

We emphasize to students to work hard in English - often to the detriment of our own subjects.  Students have motivation to work in English because it is a necessary evil.  Without success in mathematics and science, they would not even try to succeed in English, what would be the point?  They cannot in most cases succeed in a purely humanities pathway.  They would be relegated to non university pathways as quick as you can say.. well.. Ingrish.

I think in our school I can say that in upper school Numeracy drives Literacy.  Without Maths and science, our stage 2 and 3 English classes would be considerably smaller and we would have far less students with the motivation to even try.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Disengaged students

Being given a class of disengaged students is a difficult task.  It's not something that I can do year after year, although after a break of a few years; the challenge isn't as daunting as the thought of doing it for the third in a row.

I'm not particularly talented with this group of students - I certainly can't get them energised and self motivated, but I can get them working and start them on a path to regain their self esteem.  If I remember this as my goal I can see progress.  If I focus on grades, I put my head in my hands in despair.  Success comes (I love the kids that get to say - "this is my first B ever" knowing that it isn't a charity grade and that they have had to work for it), but it is hard, constant work with a lot of negative feedback from the students.

My top ten tips for working with disengaged students in year 11 and 12.

1. Do not allow students to do nothing.  If a student refuses work, accelerate through the strategies for teacher intervention and pass them on to admin to hit consequences that might be meaningful for them.  If they are in a re-engagement programme, teachers have already tried the 4001 strategies for re-engagement, outside intervention is probably required.

2. Be real.  Students will know if you are faking it.  Their life skills relate to outside the classroom, they have a bullsh*t meter that can detect it at 40 paces.  If you don't want to be there, they will understand, let them know that you have something in common and get on with step 3.

3. Be something they don't expect - be prepared with material suited to their level of work.  Reduce the amount of content on the board or page, increase the number of boards or pages over time. 

4. Have clear expectations of behaviour - no swearing, be on time, be respectful of others.  Make them aware of what they are doing and why they need to do it.  Tie it to graduation if possible, being changed out of their class into a work programme for repeated failures, use punitive responses as a last resort, but don't be afraid of using them (such as suspension from class) if necessary to ensure a minimum level of work.  Work closely with the social worker to assist students learn classroom behaviours and how to code switch.

5. Celebrate their achievements using intrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards don't work with these kids, apathy is rife and you will too quickly accelerate through the extrinsic rewards required to bribe work.  With these students, extrinsic rewards are just not a good idea.  Everything about these kids is self esteem related.  Build that honestly, just a little, and it is success.

6. Find out their stories (where appropriate) and share yours, especially with indigenous students. Often by talking to students you will find out what does motivate them and all of a sudden you have a re-engaged student who is seeking your approval for those 5 minutes of talking about manga cartoons or about how to become a chef.

7. Do it quickly, be patient and forgiving.    They have 10-11 years of negative inertia to overcome, so if it takes a few times to change a behaviour it is ok (and forget as quickly as is appropriate if an honest effort to change the behaviour is being made).  They will run out of steam whatever you do, so get as much as you can early.  If they are working do a wad of assessment (by term three you will be pulling teeth to get assessment at a normal rate).

8. Ask teachers about the students.  Someone will know something positive about them and it will give you an in to start a lesson they may engage with.

9.  Acknowledge their existence in and out of the classroom.  You might be the only person to say their name in a week.  You may get a grunt or a finger in return behind your back, but over time they will realise that it is ok to say hi back.

10.  Make it clear that it is ok that they don't have to like you and vice versa.  In many cases they don't know how to like, they have been practicing the opposite for so long.  All of a sudden you become the one person that isn't giving them a hard time and you are the one getting the most amount of work.

Just be aware, if you get good at re-engaging kids, you run the risk of being the disengaged student expert and will get them year after year.  If this happens you need to be strong when you have had enough and insist on a break from it, or seek another school where you can get that break - timetabling will see you as a very valuable commodity whilst you are doing the role.  These students can break your confidence and deprive you of your will to teach - if you feel this is happening, seek assistance and return to normal classes.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Class centric schools

Last post I talked about making a class rather than a group of individuals and how that was important to how I tried to teach.  It reminded me of a large organisation that I did work for.  They changed the name of their administration centre to store service centre (or something like that) to change the thinking in the organisation from an administration 'ruling' the stores, to a service model where they were enablers that assisted stores to sell more product.

The admin vs teachers conflict is a common enough malady and sometimes I think I understand why.  Empire building is not uncommon and importance is placed upon being a gatekeeper for projects to become viable  - goodwill needs to be developed before a project is considered.  Multiple consultations are required before a project can get the go ahead and if someone steps outside of unwritten rules, the project leader is sent back to their classroom tails between their legs after doing considerable work to check that the project is both viable and has clear student support and benefit.  I have no problem with the gate, it's the pre-requisite of goodwill that is the problem.

This scenario is a recipe for reduced initiative and is quite clearly poor management.  An alternate method is to encourage the person seeking the initiative (if valuable) and then assisting in enabling the person make the event happen, to mutually decide it is unviable or send the idea to the third umpire.  Encouragement of initiative is a quality of a good manager.  Let's face it, rarely is a student event fun for teachers - but the kids get a lot out of well run events and it is something that they remember well after school (let's hope for the right reasons).

I like projects that can run with little assistance from admin as I tend to think there are things done best by teachers and other things done best by administration.  I think, a project that can be run without generating large amounts of cooperation from 9 members of a committee is more likely to succeed. I normally accompany committee involvement with a swear word - a small skilled selected team is nearly always a far more effective method than a voluntary committee.  Maths Academy, Summer school, board game clubs, the edmodo rollout, the IWBs rollout, 8-12 integrated maths programmes, creation of the maths lab, centralised marksbooks, programmes, newsletters, assessment and electronic resources are all initiatives that were able to be done with little if any admin assistance.  All of these Maths Dept initiatives had clear and purposeful gains for the school as evidenced by the development of a changed profile for year 11 and 12 MAT and MAS classes.

As a team there are things we cannot do, that admin can.  Streaming in year 9, pastoral care intervention, school direction, staffing profiles, funding and the like.  These things have large impacts on the classroom and to be honest we are better reacting to most of these than being involved in these decision making process.  We can have input but probably informal discussion is enough.  Long drawn out processes help no-one where a little leadership of both teams can make a decision happen.  In many cases even a sub optimal solution is better than developing a perfect one (after the need for it or benefit has passed).

In a class centric environment, if the teacher has evaluated that an event is in the best interests of students and a teacher is willing to assist making it happen (in addition to their normal roles as a classroom teacher) it is incredibly poor form to be anything other than encouraging and assisting to make things happen.  When we fail to do this, we need to ask, is it in the best interest of the school, the class and subsequently is it in the best interest of students.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Teaching unruly students

I teach at a school with a few social problems(I'm a little prone to understatement).. I get knowing looks from people when they find out where I teach.  I can hear them thinking, "Who in their right mind would want to teach there?  Can't you do better than that!"

Truth be told, the students are ok and once you understand how they think (since I grew up around my school, I probably picked it up quicker than some), they gave me a job when I needed one five years ago and I have enjoyed it.  Not the most glamorous job, but it is challenging and rewarding.

Probably the hardest time is capturing the kids and positioning them for learning.  Each teacher does it a little differently, but I do have a few tricks.

The most effective strategy is creating a rapport with the kids by making them understand that teaching 30 individuals is near impossible, but everyone benefits by being part of a class.  My strategies for this are quite primitive, but they are effective, especially with the second tier of students - where my teaching interests lie.

Struggling students know that they find it hard to rival the top students and seek attention in other often negative ways.  To counter this I leverage a range of rewards and penalties that focus on team behaviour.  The class gets a high test average (greater 70% mean), I get the class some party food. The class is working hard, the entire class gets reward points. Groups of students working well also receive reward points.  The class gathers 100 reward points, we have a game session (to get 100 points we're ahead of the programme anyway). Students now have a real reason to help each other.  Contrariwise, if some students get disruptive, the whole class is penalised by being kept in after class (I did say primitive!).

Gasp! - penalise the whole class - that's not fair.  Surprisingly, it is fair, because the class as a whole has the responsibility to maintain order, not just the teacher.  I'll manage the class if I have to - but I'd rather teach than be constantly punitive.  Peer intervention is often more effective, can be less disruptive and the student-teacher relationship strain is reduced - attention seeking behaviour from peers quickly turns negative and the behaviour stops.  It doesn't work with the next tier of students (as groups of disengaged/struggling students need other strategies and higher levels of intervention). It's a strategy you have to be careful with and you need the goodwill of some students in the class to make it work.

If it is working, the good kids won't object because the more popular disruptive students are quickly getting less popular.

Individual achievement is celebrated but rarely extrinsically rewarded.  The exception is that I'm always on the lookout for  kids that have discovered what it takes to be a future focused 'student' and promote them into higher classes.  It's always a pleasure to say to a former challenging student, "Grab your bag and head down the hall.  Your work here is done."

Western Australian Secondary Mathematics Teachers Group

If you are a WA secondary mathematics teacher and would like to join a local online teachers forum (there's 25 or so of us so far), join Edmodo as a teacher (it's free and takes half a minute to join) and use groupcode tp39qk.  There's a discussion on national curriculum, IT usage and a growing list of upper school investigations.

After a week or so I'll change the group code to keep kids out, so join soon if this may be useful to you!


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Survey and stats results

I quickly graphed the survey that's been running this year.  It's interesting to note that the majority of readers are teachers and students (students form the majority of the other category).  The proportions have stayed roughly the same after a spike with a load of students at our school realising that I was posting calculator tips here.

From analytics, I can see that students are most interested in graphics calculator help, many hits from the simultaneous equations page, and for teachers many of the entries about IWBs and pay claims are read.

Parent spikes in usage come around NAPLAN time.

This sort of information gives me better guidance about what people want from the blog, what to write and when.

Similarly I can see that the readership is growing steadily, although growth has been impacted by my masters, as I've posted fewer articles.  Hopefully this will improve as I become better at managing my time.

I try and keep readership around 20% (<5 secs indicates that a reader has not found what they are looking for).  Generally, the 20% is what forms a readership.  Cold canvassing rates are <1%, so I consider 20% reasonable since people have actively searched for information to find the blog.

Nearly all searches are done through google.

Promethean IWBs, Equation editor, fxDraw and Classpad manager

This is a momentus day for those of us using Promethean boards..  Activboard now has equation editor - the one we know and love/hate from Word.

Yay!  Go forth and press that update button.

Oh, and those of you that wish to use classpad manager and fxdraw on a mac winOnX does the job for about 5 dollars (thank Hieu for that!) but lacks some functions for updates and the clipboard. 

Those of us that need a mac to run Excel in a windows environment (because Excel on mac corrupts our marksbook files), classpad manager and fxdraw can try VMware, but it requires an IT guy to fiddle with it (whereas winOnX is simple but has less functionality).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The last week

Looking back over the week, kids have been preparing for exams in year 8,9 and 10. There is a decided lack of urgency in their preparation which is something that needs correction. In designing the exams, I focused on the DET C grade descriptors which provides a broad brush of what a C student should be able to do. From classwork I'll select the A's and B's.

I'll admit to being frustrated with the exam process. Test the A candidates properly and the 2nd tier lose motivation, fail to test the A candidates adequately and they get lazy and overconfident. The middle ground where an exam works for both can be hard to find and I'm loathe to split the exam as this hasn't worked in the past either.

At least their final assessment for the term we identified those with independent learning capabilities. It was a quadratics investigation run over two periods followed by a test. 3A candidates were able to identify connections to prior learning and make connections between turning point form and transformations. C students missed the connection even after being taught the material explicitly.

The edmodo portal is filling the OTLS hole well. Past exam papers, course outlines, grades, homework and boardwork are all being exposed to students at point of need. It has been a few years coming but it finally fills the gap between the digital student and the classroom.

The next two years will be challenging, finding ways of delivering my yr 10's to university. Mixed 11 & 12 classes have a breadth of spread of ability and maturity. Although we have an above expectation pass rate and we now deal with late maturation a lot better than in the past, we still have a long way to go.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Higher education

As a wannabe researcher, I look forward to research cycles and finding things that I can bring back to the classroom. It's also good to know things that can refocus a discussion in a direction that can be more fruitful in terms of outcomes.

My thing for today is edmodo - a web2.0 technology bringing a limited facebook environment to the classroom. It may be what we all hoped OTLS was going to be. It's being used in some of the private schools around Perth and may be worth a look.

This has been a strange week as I decide whether to restart my research or seek L3CT as many have recently suggested. One process enhances my ability as a teacher and the latter recognises my achievements whilst providing a significant increase in salary. As someone seeking continuous improvement, I'm not sure I could sustain my interest long enough to complete the L3CT process for fundementally only monetary gain nor am I sure that I have the resources and support available to complete my postgrad whilst on full load.

At this time in a career it can be difficult, watching those around you seek and get promotion whilst trying to remain focussed on why you started teaching. The L3CT benefits are particularly suspect when considering the choice in this way.. No sane person starts teaching for the money - and that's the primary benefit of L3CT.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Games that work in the classroom

The following games are the ones I've found best work in the classroom. They're quick to learn, easy to find, under an hour to play and a bit of fun.

I'd have a set of these in every classroom with kids over 12:
Dixit (replaced Apples to apples on this list)
Ticket to ride (longest game on list, most bits to lose)
Nuclear war
For Sale
Lupus in Tabula
Gloom (be a little careful with this one)

The following games have worked with subsets of kids:
Wrath of Asharladon (for kids wanting to try D&D)
Battlelore or Stronghold (for kids liking medieval warfare)
Pitchcar (for kids that like building things)
Tumblin Dice (for kinaesthetically minded)
Space hulk (small skirmish game)

No connect four, chess, draughts, chinese checkers, uno, monopoly or scrabble. I leave these to other classes.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Different forms of compromise

There are different forms of compromise. The common and often poorer solution is to take two productive but polar view points, mash them together and end up with a result worse than either of the original suggestions. In this instance often neither side is willing to respect the view of the other and a compromise is the only solution - ill will felt on both sides and the solution is truly compromised.

A second type of compromise is to allow one or both methods to proceed and then objectively evaluate which is the better method. This is much harder to do, is rarer for the management required to position the parties positively, but shows real leadership when done well. Hopefully a third solution could be developed in this instance, superior to the original ideas and developed by all interested parties and that was not compromised by process (in the true spirit of searching for a win-win).

Sadly, in our land of committees and the wariness of managers to take the time required to make gutsy decisions, the perils of the first solution occur all too often. It is also frustrating to watch scrutiny be attacked as criticism when questioning whether a method is valid or whether a better solution exists. The scrutiny is interpreted as disharmony and the opportunity for developing innovative solutions is lost.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The effects of standardised testing

I've been critical of the outcomes of standardised testing and its effects on teaching. I was reading the following and seeing some of my predictions come true in the US, home of the standardised test and the no child left behind program. We have only a limited time to reverse direction before we repeat the mistakes of others. I'm sure more articles like this will start to appear.

No effective public school system will leave whole generations behind.

(I've rewritten this twice and can't seem to get rid of the double meaning. One meaning is that an effective public school system will prevent generations being left behind, the second meaning is that without a public school system generations will be left behind. It's interesting that they are similar in effect, but the second meaning implies that a loss of the public school system will result in a negative consequence - which was the intent of the sentence - I wonder how people read it!)

The power of encouragement

Regular readers will know I take inspiration from my 2 year old daughter. Yesterday, we were at the playground and she ran herself silly but was afraid of the slide. To be honest, it was high and a bit fast for her but I figured she went on a roller coaster, why not a slide.

The first time, I held her hand and let go half way down. We yelled whhheeee and clapped when she reached the bottom. Needless to say she was soon going down on her own and started attempting other things that were previously impossible like the climbing frame and firemans drop..

How many times have we, as teachers, faced students that refused to try because it was too hard. Maybe this is a wakeup call to provide more encouragement first, scaffold a little more initially and then let go for a while whilst watching and enjoying their progress.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Leadership breeds competition

Staff in an education environment have little reason to be competitive. There is little opportunity for advancement, extra work brings no monetary reward or toil and the more done, the more is expected.

There is a form of anti competition. Those that do succeed are compared to other successes and compared using the strengths of each. The perceived lesser of the two is denigrated and the greater of them is tall poppied.

I call teaching the pirahna occupation because it feeds on itself. It never seems to gain momentum to do the great things it has the promise to do. I fault here the leadership models it creates. Teachers are not great managers, managers are not great administrators, administrators are not great businessmen. Put this together and you get very average in most cases - especially when there is an unwillingness to learn new skills.

Leadership in a school environment requires a vision of the big picture and then a plan to enact the vision. Without a plan, progress cannot be measured and people can't be held responsible. Circuit breakers need to be kept in place to ensure that senior management is not restricting access to information, typically to hide inefficiency and incompetency in leading repair and refinement of the teaching model.

It's not rocket science, but it's not easy to overcome organisational inertia and friction either. Gaining momentum takes time and needs ongoing breaking of ground to keep going. Finding those willing to break ground for little reward is difficult, luckily there are still vocational teachers in the system - seeking stability and job satisfaction over monetary reward.

Thankfully when these people lead, others must follow or look lazy and incompetent. Loss of face is what pushes education forward more than PD or organisational goals. This is wrong but without structural changes, it's the main process for improvement. I don't think I have the answers, but I feel I am starting to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dropping the ball

I went to playgroup with my young daughter. A little girl tried to grab a ball that she was playing with. She pushed the girl away who then complained that my daughter wouldn't share.

Two minutes later I was playing throw with my daughter. The other girl, with tears in her eyes, came and joined us. We threw the ball between us and eventually I left them playing together. It was the first time I saw my little one enjoying playing with another child.

Getting kids to play nice requires help. Expecting appropriate peer interaction to appear miraculously is not appropriate. All too often we put kids together without supports where they can interact appropriately. The older kids get, the longer it takes to overcome negative behaviours and peer stereotyping.

A perceived benefit of the heterogenous class and middle schooling is improved peer interaction. The problem is that all too often the skills required by students to benefit from interactions is not explicitly taught. My view is that the heterogenous class is the domain of the experienced teacher and beginning teachers should be sheltered from their demands, allowing them to develop content mastery and classroom management skills first, teaching strategies/pedagogy second.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Revision strategy

This year has been a better year for planned revision. Courses ended on time leaving a gap where we could do some in class work. To give ownership of the process to students, we pulled out the syllabus and decided what would be done in class together and what would be done on their own.

For a change students have been completing miscellaneous exercises all year, which is helping considerably in reducing revision requirements as is the increasing use of journals to centralise student notes.

Next students were told to get their revision books and answer the first question in each section (to build confidence, these are usually the easiest). The OT Lee books are best for this but the Purcell ones aren't bad either. Then do q4 of each section, then focus on sections where students are having the most difficulty.

Next I did the normal printing out of exam papers. One of the other maths teachers provided this suggestion on how to use them that I thought was a vast improvement on the usual, "look at the question, look at the answer" model. He suggested for students to read the whole paper and identify which questions they could answer, then (before answering any question) go back to their texts and investigate each topic they could not answer questions for. Only then sit down and answer the paper. I think this is a great idea.

The 11s in particular have used after school classes in addition to revision processes to master key topics. Vectors in year 11 remains a draw on time and is something we will focus more on during summer school. This is the fifth year working on study skills and revision to bring a methodology to aid mid performing students, and I think we are identifying a winning formula.

I'm sure high performing schools have more structured and better processes in place, but these ideas are a vast improvement on what we started with.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Portfolio Pathway

Many of our students are on Portfolio pathway - an alternate entry strategy for students to get into university.  I sat down with our careers adviser this morning to get an idea of what was involved in portfolio pathway.

The bottom line is that only two subjects are required to be passed (one of which is English) and the remainder of the application process is based upon community involvement.  It is a challenging idea  I'm trying to get to grips with how a student that can't pass school will be able to pass university.  It must be working to some degree as ECU is pursuing this strategy to get low SES students into university.  I imagine that they are banking on the idea that students in low SES schools develop late and with bridging courses they will be ok.

The reason I investigated further was that statements were being made that teachers did not understand portfolio pathway.  This I think is true.  Teachers in weeks up to mock exams are in a flap getting students ready for exams.   These exams are typically worth 25% of their year grade.  Following this is an external exam worth 50% of their year grade (I know this is a gross simplification but it illustrates the point).  If students are seen as putting non academic pursuits first in the weeks prior to mock exams academic teachers will be asking questions - especially if the school itself is encouraging students to pursue non assessment tasks in this time.

The portfolio pathway makes the exams for the majority of their classes largely irrelevant - a minimum amount of effort (to justify WACE grades) is sufficient.  If teachers are told a student is now on a portfolio pathway, a student is better off doing community events to bolster their portfolio for university entry than study to the extent required of an ATAR candidate.

Furthermore, if a student is on a portfolio pathway and unlikely to be studying to the level required of an ATAR candidate - this has the possibility to effect moderation by producing distorted ordering in the grade distribution.

The idea that our students can do external pursuits and academic pursuits is challenging as the best of us would struggle to compete with students without external concerns. It was put to me "a hockey student going to nationals will not put aside their hockey aspirations for their university aspirations - they will do both."  I don't know if this is true.  Many will hedge their bets and put sport aside in the weeks leading to exams and ensure they have a future going forward.  Elite athletes may make this decision but otherwise it seems to me a strange one.

I feel for people that see school events as huge events in their lives.  As someone that found life to be preferable to any events in school, I suppose I see the opening of opportunities post education greater than the impact of any singular school events.  I probably overestimate the contribution of MESS subjects to roles in life because of their contribution to my life.  Without my Math, English, Sose and Science teachers I never would have had the opportunities I have enjoyed.  My desire for my kids to have these same opportunities (and more) is likely similar to opportunities found by teachers in the school using skills from non MESS subjects.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Interactive Whiteboard usage

I have an interactive whiteboard in my classroom.  It's a 2.1m wide Promethean with a short throw projector.  I was reticent about getting an IWB as I had one in the past and it was smaller than a normal whiteboard, laggy, difficult to see in full light, was easy to cast a shadow upon while writing and had little in the way of usable technology for mathematics.

5 years later and things have changed.  My old whiteboard was only marginally larger than my new IWB.  The lag is gone (.. well .. nearly).  The short throw projector casts a minimal shadow.  The basic software is more functional than ruler and pen.

I'm not singing the praises of Promethean, I haven't used a Smartboard or its software since my awful introduction to IWBs five years ago.  I can just see how it helps deliver my material.

I can step forward/backward through slides
I can draw axes, coordinates and lines with ease
I can annotate graphs (such as those drawn by Autograph) for regression/seasonality and functions work (with a little difficulty)
I can share and store successful lessons more easily
I can write solutions digitally for sharing for small group moderation
It saves a few dollars in whiteboard markers (but will probably cost more in power and projector globes)

The advantages make my day more pleasant.  The downside is that lessons take considerably more time to prepare initially because you have to think of ways to use it effectively, whereas those methods already exist with a whiteboard.

There is also a short term motivational increase evident in student behaviour (which I expect to dissipate with familiarity).

I am guilty of not using the IWB to its fullest, but after 1 term, it is proving to be an integral part of my classroom, being used in every class.

The apple macbook powering the board has caused some problems.  The obvious being the difficulty in running PC software (such as FX draw and Classpad manager).  These we're slowly overcoming.  A big advantage of the mac is the fast powerup.  I have a backup PC on my desk and the thought of waiting for SOE4 to boot is enough for it to be an absolute last resort.

The big question is does it improve the results of my students?  The answer is.. well.. maybe..   I can more easily use some interactives for aid in learning but I haven't seen any great improvement in results.  The cost to implement is around 7-8K at present which is not a huge impost (compared to some of the money the government is throwing around) but as an insight into department funding - it is more than the entire 8-12 math budget for last year.  I couldn't really use student improvement as a justification for installing IWB's in schools - there are more reliable ways of raising student performance than IWB's.

Implementation (after installation) has gone smoothly with good support from the school technician.. I won't say great support or he might get slack :-)..  Now as a mature technology, opportunities are available to improve teaching practices further and collaborate with a much wider group of teachers.

I would probably still get an IWB if I was given the option.  The collaborative opportunities are just too many to ignore and are relatively easy to implement, even if the student benefit is harder to quantify.  Reviewing student board work or examining teaching pedagogy in particular becomes much simpler and is more easily recorded.  Unlike 1-1 laptop rollouts, surprisingly I think I currently fall in favour of IWB rollouts.

Making best use of teachers

Teachers are required to complete a range of duties other than face to face teaching time. Assignments and tests take time to be written and marked, programmes take time to be written, lessons need to be planned for, revision materials gathered, student teachers mentored, behavioural issues resolved, discussion is needed between moderating partners, coordination required for consistent judgements of student work. The first three alone take much of the time. You can normally spot an overloaded teacher because they are starting to wing more lessons and reduce the amount of assessment done or are reusing materials without tailoring them to the cohort.

Classroom first was a policy that quarantined teachers from duties other than that directly required by the classroom. It was a push back onto admin. It seems that that push back is starting to unravel and DOTT time is again being used for a raft of other things. The latest salary negotiation seems to be wrestling with getting teachers to do more.

You can't get blood out of a stone. We have high utilisation of teachers compared to OECD countries (see here page 406, albeit more appropriate statistics exist). Better lessons, better outcomes are not achieved by pushing untested rollouts, extended workdays, ill prepared curriculum directives and larger class sizes. It's done with effective management, good marketing and long/medium and short term planning with strong leadership and good morale.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Teachers work too few hours

Bethany usually writes well thought out pieces, but I don't understand the reasoning behind today's West article. If the intent was to start another round of teacher bashing then it will probably succeed. After all, teachers work between 9am and 3pm, forty weeks of the year. What a bunch of bludgers!

There are some flaws in this argument. Entry cost is high, with a four year full time course with practicum times devoid of income and a high attrition rate during university and in early years of teaching. The level of individual responsibility is high, including responsibility for curriculum, behaviour and teaching methods plus liasing with parents, teachers, CC, admin and other schools to maintain teaching programmes. Burnout is a constant risk, varying with the level of admin and collegiate support. Pay is not in this case a simple case of salary divided by hours worked.

When I hear an argument about teaching conditions I ask the following, "what would you have to be paid to give up your job for four years and then... work with reticent kids in a public school?"

I think many think I am mad and perhaps I am. A few of my friends that try and consider teaching as a possible profession, fall down when they consider that they present for six hours in front of an audience in an interactive manner. Imagine entertaining and engaging adolescents for forty weeks. The breaks are not optional, you can't do it without them. It's recovery time.

The problem is not being overpaid, it's establishing a fair equity position for teachers. It's not a job everyone can do, and to keep the good ones, they need to be paid enough to re-enter the trenches each year and seek the best for our children.

Populist arguments supporting positions that degrade working conditions and teachers position in society is not the pathway to a public education sector that can compete and contribute to education in WA. It's the path to a society where income governs your level of education - even more so than today. If we make teaching uneconomical or where the salary does not justify the conditions, it is unlikely we will end up with many vocational teachers in public schools. It will just get too hard for too little.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Laptop rollout in high school

I've made a number of attempts to utilise laptops within my classroom. The first three times were fraught with IT issues. The last time was not, but failed to be more effective than a teacher directed lesson.

I discussed this with Apple distributors today and they acknowledged that maths was a difficult area to implement laptops effectively for teaching purposes within the classroom.

It's not hard to imagine why.

The input mechanism (keyboard) does not lend itself well to handling symbolic expression, from fractions forward. Word is clearly inferior to paper/pen in terms of flexibility and execution time.

Math is highly skill and practice based rather than research and report based. The time to find applications specific to each skill exceeds the benefit able to be provided by an active teacher.

I did identify some areas where they may be beneficial.
A) repetitive simple skills such as tables
B) statistics in conjunction with autograph and Excel

I found propositions put forward by the distributor more marketing based than based in productive high school teaching practices:

A) As an alternate assessment tool(recording writing and reviewing) to judge performance (unlikely to be done other than as a gimmick or as part of formal research).
B) To implement a programming class (underestimating timetabling and student demand requirements)
C) To implement problem solving investigations (I think this still suffers the symbolic issue in non stats based investigations - particularly senior school ones)
D) As a way to promote cross curricular applications (with large time overheads to set up with questionable benefits).
E) That the focus needs to be middle school as the application in senior school was more difficult and required follow through from middle school. (I agree but am still struggling to justify the effort required for such low utilisation)

The meeting left me questioning whether anyone had anything more than a very superficial implementation of laptops at all. The distributor stated about 50% usage was possible across all learning areas (I would hazard to guess as a wordprocessor in most cases) and my guess is less than 5% in mathematics. Given the ATAR exams are written, I'm not sure promoting typing over writing and editing/ re drafting over planning/writing is a good idea.

Some things have worked. Mathsonline has more penetration. Kids are more likely to have a computer at home. They can complete homework using the digital copy of the text on the laptops. Once networking issues are resolved I could put worksheets and notes directly on their computers. I can dump Khan academy files for their review.

On the whole I felt that we were looking for a market for a product, rather than a product aimed to satisfy a market, indicating that the whole 1-1 student computer idea is a bit of a lame duck. I think the government has been suckered in by the promise without having an idea of what it could deliver in real results.

Given my background, I want to be positive about this idea. I haven't heard anything to date that justifies $100,000 per year of taxpayer dollars per school thus far. I hope someone can show me where to go next.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Afterschool classes

The Maths Dept runs four after school classes, two on Monday and two on Tuesday.  All classes are optional.  Students come that need help in particular topics, split by 9/10 and 11/12.  The senior school classes typically are seeking consolidation and the 9/10 class is typically those seeking extension.

Many afterschool classes are now becoming compulsory, especially at the end of the year.  I wish teachers wouldn't do this.  School is a complex organism and when you take freedom away, students are forced to make ill advised decisions.

This week I had to speak for students with excessive afterschool comittments, students that had options subjects in year 12 encroaching on class time (I doubt whether the student would appreciate my help either) and in study time.  I try and be supportive of options teachers and allow students to participate in extracurricular requirements but... stage 3 students in year 12 should be quarantined from them in the weeks leading to mock exams.   I'll be hard pressed to accept any argument that tries to say otherwise no matter how talented they are (or untalented in maths for that matter).

My thinking is this.   Students get into university based on an ATAR score or through portfolio entry.  Options subjects (at least at our school) are 2A or below in year 12.  Thus they are supporting cast when calculating an ATAR score.  3A scores are not, even low ones.  If we had stage 3 students in non MESS subjects that weren't scaled to useless, my position would be far different.

The argument that students will lose enthusiasm if not allowed to participate does not hold water either.  As a teaching body, it is our job to work with teachers to make sure these predictable situations do not occur.  It was a questionable teaching decision that put students there in the first place.

A student should participate because "they are helping market the school" is not acceptable either.  Year 12 mock exams are the culmination of 12 years study.  To jeopardise this by moving focus away from study lacks a little foresight and is not in the best interest of the student.

Don't think that I don't admire the option class teachers.  They are passionate about their subjects and passionate groups (even us maths dinos are passionate about our subject) will strive for what they think is right.  I'd rather have passionate groups striving for excellence than rampant apathy.   If people weren't discussing matters and pushing envelopes I'd be more concerned.  There are times where students can only continue in the academic subjects because they can vent using emotional and physical outlets.

MESS subjects do stupid things too.  We shouldn't be loading the end of the year with excessive assessment.  Identifying areas of weakness two weeks before exams is probably too late and of minimum benefit.  The words appropriate levels of study and revision need to be in the forefront of our teaching minds.  Student anxiety levels need to be kept at appropriate levels.

Coming back to the original point, this is why mathematics afterschool classes that I run are optional.  Students can choose whether they need the help or are in a position to enjoy extension.  They can prioritise their learning and optimise their potential.  Forcing a student to do something at this stage of the year is only creating a problem somewhere else.  Being able to make a decision is an important part of growing up, as is ensuring safeguards are in place when lack of maturity jeopardises their potential.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Responsible learning

There are many ways to motivate students to learn.  A common way is to provide extrinsic reward - "the bribery model".  This is a technique that is especially effective to provide short term performance gains, especially where the skill is not particularly exciting.  As the name suggests, its underlying value system is "I do something, I get something".  Immediacy is important as proximity to the reward  maximises the effect.  It is very now in its approach and is appropriate in many cases to kick start a learning programme.

A second model is an intrinsic goal oriented model, "education as a pathway".  It is the typical education model used by parents for the past 1000 years.  Be educated, have a future.  It is longer term and has elements of risk/reward.  Implicitly it has delayed gratification built in.

Where students do not value the goal oriented model and only work to instant gratification, the ability to maintain motivation fails.   The wall is hit earlier by students in an education lifecycle and the ability to be determined and seek excellence/success is greatly reduced whilst apathy or resistance to education grows.  Lacking resilience, the student is unable to bounce back fast enough after failure (a real issue caused by the no fail model at least until primary, if not middle school) and we produce students unable to cope with reality or that rebel not understanding options before them.

Part of the downfall of the intrinsic goal oriented model in WA is the failure to provide honest feedback regarding performance and the lack of effective career counselling (career structures have changed significantly in the past 15 years and schools lag this change).  Students are not aware of the possibilities in front of them and the consequences of their actions regarding learning in lower secondary.  Where all students pass, school graduation is not an indicator of an employable future.  Graduation becomes a hurdle rather than an enabler to access to the workforce.  Furthermore, the reduction in streaming takes away an important success indicator to students of their pathway towards employment and thus conceptually to their developing a concept of self (contrary to many views on streaming).

Discipline and setting clear behaviour boundaries (not just expectations) are safeguards to the success of the goal oriented model.  These are also being challenged by the incremental approach to discipline.   Students never reach boundaries thus have diminished ability to cope with limits.

To strengthen the goal oriented model we need to develop a range of appropriate pathways and more accurate indicators for students that they are on a pathway to a successful future.  National curriculum may provide some of the solutions together with positioning vocational studies properly within a school; strong leadership within schools, the department and universities need to provide the remainder.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Independent Public Schools

Now that the majority of government schools are either independent or becoming independent public schools, the rush is on for schools to examine their current practices as restricted by the department and seek ways to differentiate from nearby schools.

I welcome some things about independent public schools.  Without school boundaries, schools will live or die by their academic reputation.  This requires a broad strategy to ensure that students are enticed to each school.  NAPLAN scores, school reputation in the community and reputation with nearby primary schools will form a part of the drive of students towards a school.

Staffing will be a key issue moving forward as schools need to examine both their entry processes and how they wish their organisations to evolve.  The need for stability with driven, dependable, clever and caring staff will test the ability of schools to evolve into independent entities.  Promotional opportunities and the introduction of fresh staff with fresh ideas will be a key change issue in managing staff and developing the organisation.

It will be interesting to see how schools focus on both the long and short term requirements of keeping public schools as going concerns.  Schools that do not take a business approach to education may find that a superior academic programme is overshadowed by a lack of marketing ability.  Gloss and glitter, marketing tricks, making known extra curricular activities and wearing out shoe leather going to feeder schools may be required until parity is regained with the private sector.

I also wonder if short term focus on marketing will overshadow curriculum initiatives.  Ultimately short term tricks will not undo the damage done to education in the public sector through underfunding, mismanagement and poor curriculum direction.  Schools need to look to core business and identify how to raise education standards beyond that found in private schools.  Here again leadership will play a critical component in examining initiatives, encouraging successful attempts and marketing these successfully. Contrariwise unsuccessful initiatives will need to be redirected or discontinued.  Spending will need to be carefully evaluated in a way often ignored within schooling - often to the complete dismay and astonishment of observers from outside the system.

Do we need independent public schools?  Probably not... but we do require change and schools that can make the best of the opportunities have potential to benefit.  Now that the idea has had time to bed down, hopefully (fingers crossed) those that enter in the second and third rounds will not have too many transitory issues.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Games in mathematics

Developing strategic thinking in students is an emerging issue.  Living in a world of instant gratification, the ability to think is less prevalent in classes today.  The need for general knowledge seemingly has passed and rote learning tasks have been removed from WA curriculum.  There is little need to compete as everyone has access to the same information, gathered by Google, edited by Wikipedia.

In comes boardgames.  To play a boardgame a player needs to learn the rules and then work within the rules to seek advantage over competing players.  There is no prize other than the pleasure of learning and succeeding.  To succeed players must learn to strategise.

More than a few think I'm a more than bit nutty about games.  What I have found is that to engage students requires a wide variety of games and getting them to the point where they can open a box, read the rules and immerse themselves in a game is equivalent to the difficulty of getting a student to enjoy reading.  Similar to reading, success is based upon finding a related context.  Simpler gateway games can lead students to a love of thinking, not just success and winning.

To aid this below is my list of games that have been used successfully:

Gateway games
Pitchcar (7 players, <30 mins) 
Citadels (7 players, <30 mins)
7 Wonders (7 players, <30 mins)
Claustrophobia (2 players, <1hr)

Say Anything (5 players, <1 hr)
Apples to Apples (8 players, <1 hr)
Nuclear War (4 players, <1 hr)
Dixit (5 players, <1hr)
Lupus in Tabula (10 players, <1hr)
Carcassonne (4 players, <1 hr)
Ticket to ride, Europe (5 players, 1 hr)
Illuminati (7 players, 1+ hours)
Munchkin (7 players, <1 hr) 

Strategy Games
Through the ages (5 players, 3 hours) 
Indonesia (5 players, 3 hours)
Battlelore (2 players, <1 hr)
Space Hulk (2 players, <1.5hr)

Games currently under evaluation
Troyes (5 players, <1 hr)

Many games have been evaluated in establishing this list.  There are game links on the right hand side to help find and investigate these games further.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Professional Development

Any long time reader knows that I am a big critic of scheduled professional development days..  Most tend to be filled with administrative tasks and very little professional development is actually done.  Well, here I am now having to deliver a session to the local primary schools and I sit in the position of many presenters of not knowing what is expected by the primary teachers and having little time available to prepare a presentation of worth.

It's not that being asked to do it is a bad thing.  I am really looking forward to it.  My concern is that I could lose an opportunity to do it regularly by not being adequately prepared.  It's a bit of a fishing expedition as to how to create a closer relationship with the local primary schools.

On paper it should not be too hard.  Three of the five members of our maths department grew up in the area and two of them went to our school.  We relate to our kids.  The student profiles of our schools are very similar.  The results of both our schools are above like-schools in numeracy.  We both cater to the far ends of the student spectrum and have issues in the middle/bottom quadrant....  and we've taught much of the material now being pushed into primary.

I keep telling myself that it's only an hour.  It's an hour that could attract some of their top end to our school and give us an opportunity to do some extension work in primary.     I haven't done any adult training in the last five years other than practicum students and it's a little nerve wracking..   I hope at least some of the primary teachers are not as burned out with bad PD as I am and will see my ideas as worthy of consideration.

We'll wait and see.

Proofs in the classroom

Many of us have bad memories about proofs in the classroom and learned to switch off whenever they arrived.  After all, they were never assessed and the skill required always followed shortly after.   In texts today, the proofs are often missing and skills are instantly presented as the required content.

When writing assessment I tend to struggle with testing deep understanding vs trying to trick students into making mistakes.  I've read many external tests and they mainly use methods aimed at testing minute bits of content, "corners" of content areas rather than whether a topic is understood.  The wide splash of content that we are required to teach lends itself well to this method of assessment and it is quite easy to get a bell curve from it.

This is great for students that study hard and do lots of different types of questions.  It must be incredibly frustrating for naturally gifted mathematics students, the ones that enjoy delving into a new topic. I think this is where proofs need a more detailed treatment and where investigations in lower school can be repurposed.

The opportunity for delving into a topic is there for the picking.  Proofs for completing the square and Pythagoras' theorem are great ways of developing connections between geometric proofs and skills taught in classroom.  Developing conjectures about number patterns develops the idea of left hand side/right hand side of an equation and the setting up equations to solve problems.  Congruence, traversals of parallel lines and similarity are other topics that lend themselves well.

Having only taught upper school for awhile, it is interesting to see where the core ideas of geometric proof, exhaustion, counterexample, formal proof/conjecture/hypothesis and even induction can be introduced before year 11.  If 2C students can learn the idea of all but induction, there is little reason why we can't teach reasoning a little earlier.

Perhaps if they could reason more effectively they could then challenge their own results and complete investigations that developed into lasting learning events.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Last day of term

The last day of term was a lot of fun.  The praccies wound up their classes and went off into the wide world.  Students went off for break... .. and a long two terms finished on programme with tasks completed.  All good so far.

We were very lucky this time with two great practicum students in Math, both very different and bringing something special to the profession. I said to mine about half way through prac to name ten things that she did better than me.  She never came back to me with that list but here is what I came up with.

She has strong organisational skills
She creates a fantastic working rapport with students
Each task is well monitored for progress (macro)
She reflects diligently on each lesson
She actively seeks to monitor the progress of each student (micro)
Colleagues enjoy interacting and assisting her with issues she has identified
She thoughtful and caring
She is fun to work with
She is prepared and willing to take risks to promote learning
She has a great and appropriate sense of humour

As you get further into teaching, sometimes it gets harder to maintain these things..  It can be great to look back and see how bright and bushy tailed you were when you started.  When times get tougher, you can reflect upon areas to focus upon to regain that initial vigor.  Be confident and know that those awful teenage years finish, slowly you gain confidence and independence... things improve as you go through your twenties and thirties (I can't speak for the forties!).

After talking with the maths department, I won the praccie competition this term.

Well done you two..  We look forward to hearing about your progress.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Developing educators

I've thought for a long time that we fail to appreciate that there are a range of teachers required in education as different teaching styles benefit different students.  Our teaching practicum system has a tendency to promote outgoing, gregarious teachers and discourage practicum teachers that are not.  This is a real shame as those that take time to build their skills and have a calling to teaching may need more help to get over that initial hurdle of conquering teaching practices and behaviour management but then excel in creating engaging, caring and developmentally appropriate learning environments.

I was once told that I had a lifetime of occupations crammed into my twenties, but even with this I barely made it through my ATP.   My final practicum was a train wreck (my only pass grade of my degree) but does this define me as a bad teacher five years later?  Well.. I'm still here and still improving my teaching.  I'm no teacher of the year but my classes are well defined, my students are achieving and as a team we are moving forward.  My growth from that point on ATP has been linear and I expect that to continue.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that the best teachers are not necessarily those that found things easy, but those that really had to deconstruct a problem, seek to understand it deeply and then work with others to find a solution.  This creates an understanding of the difficulty of capturing the nature of the learning problem.  It's hard to get this point across to practicum teachers as many come in expecting it to be as easy as we sometimes make it look, not realising that getting kids to the point where they engage fully may have taken a term (or in some cases a few years) of hard work, organising resources has taken hours of planning and that skills and knowledge used in the classroom took years of experimenting until things came together.  Reflection is a key component in this growth.

The first five years in teaching for me wasn't easy, but after the first couple of years, with good support it certainly is becoming easier.  It's one reason why I say seniority has its place.  You don't survive as a classroom teacher unless you can handle the pressure most of the time and have management structures to relieve the pressure for the remainder of the time.  Without a hierarchy of some nature, we can't give teachers time to grow, nurturing them in soft classes, mentoring them through difficulties without fear and then developing them into true educators.

Perhaps after a few more practicum students I'll think this is a load of drivel and that the system is right..  but I hope not.  I'd like to say that we can develop a system where students, teachers and administrators see teacher diversity as a key goal within the system.


Saying what we would like to say.. Even if it is a little exaggerated.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

My interactive whiteboard

The school has recently sprung for an interactive whiteboard for my classroom.  A Promethean 2.1m wide board.  We purchased it from Concept AV, who have successfully added themselves to my list of inept IT organisations.  At this stage, I can't recommend them.  In fact I probably can't recommend getting far enough away from them.. but that is my general comment about all IT people. 

To start with they didn't return calls.  We called them and said we had a budget, how much and when can you install.  "We'll get our sales team to call you."  Four calls later someone responds.  The salesperson comes and we explain where we want the points and where the board is to go.

Two guys turn up and it's a bit of a Laurel and Hardy show.  I'm not getting involved, I point them at the room and go to lunch.  I have no idea how they managed to get it up the stairs in one piece.  It's delivered but not installed.

We say to them, install on any day but x, because on that day we are having exams.  "Sure," they say, "We'll be there on day Y."  I move shelving (and 300 or so books and files) and move all my classes for the room to be free on day Y, lugging 30 texts from one room to the next.  Needless to say, no-one showed.

The next day we call them and find out that they are now coming on a new day.  No prizes for guessing which one - yep.. on our exam day.  After some gentle persuasion they say they'll come on another day.

On the new day, the installer turns up and insists that the point needs to go directly beneath the board (as opposed to the position discussed with the salesperson) and that it will cost extra to put it near the computer that will run the board.  "But that's ok, you can just run a cable around the edge of the room."  No it's not ok, the idea is that it is tidy and has as few visible cables as possible.  A workaround is devised using a double adaptor, more cost and some extra ducting.

I sit down to read the manuals supplied to learn how to use the board.  The aspect ratio isn't set correctly for my laptop and sound isn't working.   RTFM Russ..  but that's right, I can't.. they haven't left them or any other documentation on how to use it - all they have left is a software CD, some cables that won't work with my mac, the projector manual and its remote.  Rummage around on the web, locate the amplifier button (which is wedged against the shelving in a place I can't see without a mirror) and then play with the projector remote to fix the aspect ratio.  Installer says can't use USB for audio with mac.  BS, it does if set correctly and the amplifier is ON.  Go to the shops and buy the mac adaptor for video.  A whole heap of frustration that could have been avoided and prevented hours of fiddling and searching.

Two days later I inspect the setup and realise that there is no RCA adaptor for external video such as used by DVD players or games consoles despite the panel being designed to be used in this way.  "Why only a monitor port when the projector supports a range of outputs?" I ask the installer, "That's the way we do it in all schools".  Can I respectfully suggest it's a bloody stupid way.  So now I have to get up onto the projector, standing on a chair on a desk and run a cable down to the amplifier and the console for our Singstar competition at the end of the term.

In his technical wisdom he suggested using an analogue to digital converter and run the signal along the monitor cable.  Oh yes, and I used the last one I had of those just lying around yesterday nor does the Dick Smith shop around the corner have one.  I wasted another hour checking.

Next, I found that working on the laptop could be a pain especially when the laptop locked and required a password.  As my computer faces the room I needed a fliptop head to put the password in.  Solution: buy a wireless keyboard, $79.

Next challenge.  How to use the board effectively.  It's dropping some of my writing due to lag (it wasn't before, I don't know what's changed, my new mac pro seems fine), so I suppose I'll have to figure out what is causing that too.

So, tips for those getting an interactive whiteboard working.

a) find an organisation that returns calls
b) be very clear about where you want your computer and the connection point to go and request to get it installed there
c) ensure that they install it where your want it
d) ensure you have all the cabling you need to make it work
e) find someone that knows about the board and get them to show you how it works
f) get an RCA cable run from the connection point to the projector and the amplifier on the whiteboard
g) get a wireless keyboard (the apple one is great)

It just reminds me that getting IT implemented so that it works is not a simple task and requires someone with IT skills to be working on both sides of the equation - someone knowledgeable is required on both the buyer and sellers side to get an effective solution.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

National Curriculum and reporting

The lack of curriculum standards in WA worsens with the implementation phase of National Curriculum continuing to be a lukewarm affair.  Schools continue to drag their feet with implementation for fear of 'disadvantaging' students that have received an Outcomes based education over the past generation.  It is very clear now when comparing to national curriculum standards that WA education in mathematics has fallen behind other states. 

Report time has illustrated that next tier of issue in WA during National curriculum implementation.  The ongoing issue of students being given A grades that clearly have not met the C grade descriptors continues as schools grapple with how to assess their students.  A student that has not passed a test all year is given a C, students that have not reached 75-80% are given A's.  We no longer can say someone reaching a certain 'level' is an A (OBE levels have been abolished), nor can we say students are meeting C grade descriptors (these relate to national curriculum and students are clearly not reaching these - and schools are generally resistant to make the required changes to curriculum, homework and discipline policy to reach these new standards).  The Curriculum Framework gives little guidance to grading years and assessment.  The scope and sequence is a document rarely referred to.  The exemplars are sparse and difficult to apply over a range of years where schools vary greatly in materials taught from term to term.

Some areas (including large amounts of algebra and geometry) are missing from student capabilities as they have not been taught to any standard from years 7-9.  This is not good enough.  I would suggest it is not that students cannot learn this material - teachers lack guidance on what should be taught.

If your student has been taught and is not fluent in linear algebra in year 9 they are not a C student.  Ask them to draw y = 2x +1 for you or for the same equation find y if x = 4 or state the coordinate where it intersects with y=-x.  Similar tests can be made in quadratics in year 10.  Try some basic geometry with traversals and parallel lines.  If you really want to see the issues in WA mathematics test order of operations (2 - 4 ÷ 8 * 2 + 3 = ) across year 8 students and staff at a school.  I know I did and was horrified.

It is no wonder that students are not getting the intrinsic reward for effort to gain an A (it takes little effort and little demonstrated competence for a student with some ability in middle school classes) and these students cannot clearly relate to their grades - there is simply little direct reward for effort and little real consistency from year to year.  I may be a national curriculum skeptic, but we need to escape this no mans land we live in at the moment.  Implement it or not - but make a choice and let's get on with it.

Oh - and the answer to the order of operations problem above is 4.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Schools have usually had quite fixed hierarchy, with about ratios of 1:7. Each 7 people have a direct line manager. In recent years I've begun to suspect that this is breaking down into more flat management structures.

In mathematics departments there are a number of structures that can be put in place. A common and traditional approach is to have a head of department(HoD) responsible for managing staff and curriculum(gaining .2-.4 FTE to do so) and then each year group being allocated to a teacher. The HoD manages performance issues, consistent judgements, liasing with admin and some behavioural issues. The HoD position is a level 3 position of responsibility within a school.

An emerging approach (in the last 10-20 years) is appointing a teacher in charge (TiC) and devolving responsibility for curriculum leadership, staff management and all of the HoD roles to admin staff such as team leaders. TiCs handle budgetary matters and the day to day issues of a maths department. No FTE is applied to such a position and a small monetary amount is given in addition to wages. Although this approach works in the short term on the momentum of past leadership (or if a person is found wiling to work a HoD role under the auspice of a TiC), it falls short when leadership is required to implement change. This model tends to lack responsibility for identifying and rectifying issues, leading to direct confrontation with admin over key issues where normally they would be resolved intra department. It also has the potential for conflict if the TiC is seen to be overstepping the bounds of their role.

A third model, worse than the TiC model is to rely on the professionalism of each individual teacher to self manage and monitor all processes via admin. The main issue with this model(prevalent in very small schools) is that admin does not have the skill to ensure that relevant curriculum is being followed, causing disjunct programmmes from year group to year group. It also causes feelings of isolation and dislocation from the collegiate group.

If regular time is not allocated to making a department work, they can be seen as dysfunctional rather than lacking leadership.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


From hits on previous pages, this is an active topic in teaching.  Leaving teaching college, we were all informed of the negative nature of streaming and how research showed that there was no benefit to students.   As discussed previously Hattie's extensive research showed that the benefit was small in mathematics.  Yet teachers of mathematics continue the demand for streaming and respond with extensive anecdotal evidence that shows otherwise.

Like many mathematics teachers I now agree with the anecdotal evidence.  If we don't stream, the average effect for all students is probably the same or better than streaming.  This, for catholic schools is a sensible position, where the rights of the individual can be compromised for the rights of the whole.

Yet, contrariwise, streaming has a detrimental effect on our top students as behavioural and academic requirements of the next tier, take away required teaching time, curriculum focus and effort from the top tier of students.  Only a small percentage of experienced teachers can prevent this effectively.  My observation is that top students, in an environment of top students, excel in a way that they cannot in heterogenous classes, especially in senior school when maturity kicks in.  It is not such a problem in higher SES schools as the gap between higher and lower performing students is much smaller.  It makes little sense not to stream in state schools as in upper school our marketing is driven by the performance of our elite (eg in league tables and media reporting) rather than by performing social good (as is the drive in other education sectors).

In low SES public schools, it also raises an equity position, as the brighter students are negatively effected by students that have no wish, need or demand for higher education.  For a considerable time, looking after our high performing students has been difficult as demands for average results has driven teaching away from the demands of excellence.  Furthermore, the retaining of ill suited students into traditional upper school classes has had a detrimental effect whilst schools devise suitable courses and exit points for these students.

At the other end of the spectrum it also raises equity issues for underperforming students that have little or no hope of meeting C grade standards (without help beyond that which is typically available in a heterogenous classroom).

It is a shame that this is not as readily recognised, as it is only from a drive for excellence does the majority have an aspirational goal and those in direst need receive the attention they require.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Retaining specialist teachers during half cohort changeover

Retaining specialist teachers when the half cohort reaches senior school is another challenge for state schools across WA.  Small schools will reach critical numbers where staff/student ratios will fall below that required to run core subjects.  Where year 11/12 student levels drop below 150, it is difficult to create a staffing profile in low SES schools that allows for students to access a range of stage 3 courses and also importantly for teachers to have access to these classes to ensure career progression.

A simplistic scenario for a maths team in a small school.

15% of a cohort is capable of completing stage 3 courses.

15% of 150 is about 23.  Assume all students are in a maths course.

17 in 3AB MAT combined year 11/12 (1 class)
6 in stage 3 3CD MAT year 12 (1 class)
3 in 3AB MAS combined year 11/12 (1 class)
3 in 3CD MAS year 12 (1 class)

To run these courses requires .8 FTE.

Assume all remaining students complete a maths course

62 in 1BC/CD MAT year 11/12 (3 classes)
42 in 2AB/2CD year 11/12 (2 classes)
22 in 2CD/3AB year 11/12 (1 class)

To run these courses requires 1.2 FTE (assumes 1DE/2AB does not run)

3 year 10 classes ~ 90 students

To run this requires .6 FTE.

Total 2.6 FTE (if MAS classes are allowed to run 2.2 otherwise)

This requires loss of a senior school teacher (.6 to be made up by teachers teaching out of area) or a senior school teacher teaching .4 in lower school.

This leaves schools in a precarious position of having limited capacity to overlap in cases of sickness or unexpected absence, limits subject knowledge into the hands of relative few and places load on senior teachers with regard to curriculum requirements such as small group moderation, curriculum monitoring, student preparation for exams and subject guidance.

I think to some degree risk management of increasing dependence of some schools on relatively few staff is an issue that requires urgent attention.  Where schools decide to drop MAS subjects, the ability for the school to direct students at earlier stages in preparation for these subjects diminishes as teachers may be unaware of the curriculum links to MAS courses.

When the half cohort passes through and senior school numbers again rise(and we now face the case of multiple half cohorts due to the lack of a decision to move year 7 to high school), we will also face the issue of a need for teachers in senior school, but will lack the numbers of experienced teachers to fill the roles due to teachers in the system lacking opportunity to teach upper school classes during half cohort years.

It is concerning.