Sunday, March 31, 2013

Combined 11/12 courses for Australian Curriculum

One of the surprising successes of the school has been the running of combined classes in 11 and 12.  It has been made clear that SCASA ("the authority") does not want this to continue with Australian Curriculum.  This was stated by teachers at the Swan Schools Conference that are part of math discussion groups with SCASA.

At the moment we can run 1BC / 1DE / 2AB / 2CD / 3AB / 3CD MAT, 3AB 3CD MAS and even PA/PB or 1A courses as needs arise with a high school cohort of 470.  With an even smaller cohort this year, this will need to be reconsidered but is manageable.

We can do this because if we have 10-15 students from yr 11 and 10-12 students from yr 12, we can combine them to make a reasonable sized class (except the end courses 1DE MAT or 3CD MAT or specialist courses 3ABCD which can run at around 10 because of the larger classes).  This structure provides differentiation for our students and has been effective.

If we could not run these combined yr 11/12 classes, specialist courses could not run having a detrimental effect on school marketing as an academic institution.  Furthermore combining year groups has had the surprising effect of exposing yr 11s to students that have adjusted to yr 11/12 workloads providing the level of mentoring that MAG classes always promised (but never really delivered) because the endpoint is actually evident and the drive to work harder has clear reward.  Using this method we have built our 3CD courses to 7-8 students, a respectable 12% of our yr 12 cohort (with MAT class averages over 60% close to state averages).

The school cannot run Australian Curriculum "Focus, Essentials/General, Methods and Specialist yr 11" with class sizes of 10-15 and "Focus, Essentials, Methods and Specialist yr 12" with classes of around 10.  It will not fit within a small school math department staffing profile. It's going from 8 courses with reasonable numbers to 8 courses where the spread of students is not even, requiring additional classes (this is only evident when student cohorts are put to courses during timetabling). Add to this the increased focus on the WACE numeracy test with management of students failing the test in year 10 and then passing the test in year 11 (thus making general course sizes variable), I see issues on the horizon.

Given that a reasonable number of schools are in this predicament due to boundary degradation, half cohorts, yr 7s in private schools, gentrification and a host of local reasons,  this will further degrade the offerings of small public schools, ultimately further reducing their competitiveness.

I hope this is a direction that SCASA will reconsider.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

iPad journey

My iPad journey has hit a snag.  I designed a model that sends the iPads home and it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that I won't be allowed to do it.

This means something that was meant to complement classroom activities has become something that dominates preparation time.

Let me explain...

In a 1-1 model, students are responsible for the iPads, tracking usage is relatively simple.  In a classroom model, teachers are responsible.  This means keeping them in locked stores, being aware of which student has and had each iPad at all times, being able to liaise with ICT when misuse happens and identify which student (in which class) had the iPad.  If multiple teachers are involved this rapidly becomes untrackable as are issues with moving between rooms around the school (30 iPads are heavy).

In a 1-1 model, students take iPads out of their bags and put them back in - no real impact.  In a classroom model, taking them from the store, issuing them to students and counting them back in at the end of the lesson is time consuming.  5-10 minutes is 10-20% of learning time.

In a 1-1 model, students are trained to do the same thing every lesson with the iPads, they become just another tool like pen and paper.  In a classroom model,  there is a novelty factor, they fiddle with them, it's harder to train them into desired behaviours (like putting them at the top of their desks when doing written work).  Furthermore, each iPad is now being used over multiple year groups with a range of students, increasing the demands for identifying suitable materials than if it was focussed on one student at a particular skill level.  There is little point designing ebooks to put on iPads if they are going to remain in cupboards rather than used in conjunction with homework.  In a classroom model, levels of students have to be catered for if the iPads are to be used effectively.  In a take home model, the iPad can be used more effectively as an intervention tool (where the student does not miss teaching whilst catching up).

Incidental usage
In a 1-1 model, incidental usage is possible.  In a classroom model,  because there is an overhead to allocating the iPads, incidental usage is not as likely - I'm not taking them out for 5 minutes of use, whereas I might let a student that has an iPad do tables practice if they have completed their work if there is one on the corner of their desk..

In a 1-1 model, students are responsible for charging iPads, uploading apps and fixing small issues, along with ICT staff.  In a classroom model, teachers are responsible for identifying issues, finding solutions and liasing with ICT staff.  This should not be underestimated, as anyone that is in charge of a computer lab will recognise.

Retention of work
In a 1-1 model, the work is on the iPad and can be worked on over a number of lessons. In a classroom model, classwork has to be stored on resources linked to students rather than the device and this resource needs to be accessed from multiple devices.  Although this is normally the preferred model, iPads are not well suited to this and workarounds need to be found.  Any type of user authentication will slow down classes as authentication issues reduce available teaching time.

Behavioural incentive
In a 1-1 model, loss of the device is a real behavioural incentive. In a classroom model, it's only lost until the end of a class, a minor inconvenience.

I like using the iPads as mini whiteboards, doing quizzes on topics and giving students instant feedback to how they are doing, having lessons focussed on core numeracy.  We can now video students attempting problems and use it for diagnostics of a range of tasks.. I get all that.. but ultimately...

Conclusion: Poorly suited to classroom mode use in high school
Most apps at the moment are rote learning practice based - something that is poorly suited to learning environments and better suited to play (in extension or after school classes) or at home - they are important, just not in a highschool classroom with the overhead suggested.  Unless the student is able to use the device without impact on a learning programme it has the potential to be a distraction from the main game - learning.  Unlike in primary (with the same students in a class), I can't see how I can get utilisation to a level where buying iPads is viable for students within learning area budgets for use in classrooms (IWBs, texts and exercise books are more cost effective in 95% of cases).

If you take into account that applications need to be found to use on the iPads and classes designed for their use, put these issues on top and my enthusiasm wanes rapidly.  I am not saying that these issues cannot be overcome (and I have solutions for each issue), I question whether they are worth overcoming.  The outcome at the moment is that rather than complementing classroom use, they are fast become an impact tool only, one that I'm not sure is worth the investment of time, cost and effort within a classroom compared to other techniques.

I'm sure I'm not making each point as clearly as I could but they are a basis for discussion.  I'm also a little negative as I did a lot of work to ready the programme for take home use (with enthusiasm generated by students and parents) and now have to rethink it, something that I can't do now - it will have to wait until later in the year.

Monday, March 4, 2013

IPads and the classroom

I hate ICT when used without purpose.

Some of my favourite misuses of technology:

  • Social Networking
  • Research assignments
  • Interactives
  • Online learning modules
  • Portals
  • Blogs & Wikis
If someone comes to you and says we should be doing this, immediately ask why.  I wouldn't give a teacher a sledgehammer hoping that they will find something to do with it.  That's what is happening all too often with ICT.  You can do great things with these tools, but they need to be appropriate for the task.

Rather, start with a problem that inhibits learning.  If ICT is the optimum solution for solving the problem - then use it.

I have a problem in one of our streams.  Student work rate is low in the top class and self image is at risk in the focus class.  There is no personal excitement in learning new concepts and little drive observed.  The gap between the top and bottom class is quite large and there are issues with core numeracy skills in both groups.

I had 30 IPads at my disposal, so i designed a solution to bring both classes together (50 kids) and bring some excitement back to the group.  I could have done it without the iPads but it saved me some work and was a motivational factor for the kids.  I was lucky to have four teachers available to help on the day so student ratios (even though there were a lot of kids) were low.

Problem: Low motivation and low student output.
Solution: Use the iPads as motivation for completing a large amount of work to illustrate what can be done by students.  Schedule high and low performing students together.
Method: Six worksheets on core numeracy (tables and basic number facts) were placed at the side of the room.  All students were given the first sheet (25 questions).  The next sheet was given on completion of the previous sheet.  Students were given an iPad on completion of the last sheet.  Students in the focus stream only had to complete 4 sheets in the timeframe.  A math game (KingofMaths) was placed on the iPads($30 total cost) and high scores were recorded on the board (with the top stream students given a 10000 point handicap).
Outcome: Crazy, off the chart fun.  Completely controlled chaos.  Each student completed over 100 questions in the hour with little difficulty.  The few disengaged students were identified for further work, other students were taking the incomplete sheets home to do them later.  There was a sense of fun in the room and students were able to see what they could do when they tried.  

It hasn't solved the problem (that takes time) but has given students a new way of looking at what they can do.  Next week I have some puzzles to do to challenge their thinking, not just their computation speed, using a similar model.  Given that the whole thing too about 30 minutes of preparation and was a first attempt,  I think we can improve with more efforts.  I would not do this every lesson, but once a week I can see how we can attack the type of topics used in NAPLAN and improve our results further.   Teachers in the room responded that they thought it was awesome and something completely different to what we normally do.  Hopefully it will stimulate ideas for driving teaching pedagogy further.