Sunday, March 27, 2022

Week 8 complete - Covid at peak.

Covid is impacting on classes at all levels.

Student services is struggling with demand.  Assessment is scattered.  Large numbers of students have missed significant parts of the school year.  Teachers are fearful of getting sick and have found it hard to take leave with the restrictions in place to recharge.  Relief is hard to find, classes are being collapsed and schools are coping - but that's about it.

Behaviour issues tend to revolve around getting students to put on masks.  It's a bit tense.

It's important we all keep our heads down, focus on what needs to be done, and keep it all together until week 10.  It's not the time for new initiatives, pushing for progress or seeking improvement.  Calm the ship, wait for still waters and then strike again forward.

My classes this year have been a joy to teach with results at all levels.  It's a shame it's happened under these conditions where the initiative put in place would be able to shine. Academic support classes in 7 & 8 are engaged and enjoying school.  Pathway 3 classes in Year 10 are providing feedback to students of realistic course selections for Year 11 and Methods well supported through ICT and MathFest earlier in the year.  Few requests for changing streams and high levels of success being encountered resulting in lower behavioural challenges.  Time is available to work with students at risk.

Lets get through covid peak and move on.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Programmes are not prescriptive

Programmes of work are not prescriptive.  They provide the intent of the teaching for a series of work as set by the syllabus.  As a HOLA, explaining this is difficult and when a teacher tells me that the reason for teaching work that is not understood well by students is that "it's in the programme", it creates an all too common scenario.

If 1.0 FTE is full time, 0.2 FTE is a class load.  HOLAs are officially on 0.7 teaching time, but 1/2 a class (0.1) doesn't timetable well and is typically filled with behavioural support; it is more common to have 0.6 teaching time.  I have two after school classes and the summer school, so I'm not topped up sharing a class with someone very often.

.. thus, it's reasonably common as HOLA that I take a class for another teacher.  This is different to classroom observation, as I am teaching the material and can get a feel of what is possible and not possible to do with a class.

What worries me is how often I get given the class and assess that it is off syllabus, too difficult, lacks differentiation or is too easy.  When queried, all too often it is because "it is on the programme".

I scratch my head at this point.  I understand that teachers are time poor, prepare in advance to manage load and have the occasional lesson that is pitched incorrectly.  What I think we need to do more is evaluate the programme and if it is not working, be more willing to discuss that it is not appropriate for a particular class, abandon the preparation and move with what the students can do until the next topic.

This is quite confronting for teachers reliant on their programmes to sequence their lessons for them.  

It is also very risky to prepare booklets prior to knowing the level of a class - it is not necessarily time wasted (as they might be used at a later date by the teacher, another class or a colleague), but may not be appropriate for the class intended.  The great thing about a teacher vs online coursework is that if the lesson is not working, it can be abandoned and modified typically as a "chalk and talk" lesson that can be devised on the fly. With the knowledge gained through interaction, the next lesson can be planned better.  I am not proposing all lessons are done on the fly (it takes a lot of skill to do this) and I don't know too many people that can do this successfully, but there are times this is necessary to maintain the flow of learning.

A text can be superior to an ad hoc google based worksheet series of lessons for "average" students as the sequence has been trialled and most of the time interprets the intent of the syllabus dot point.  A worksheet can be good to supplement where a text does not give a comprehensive approach.  After years of denigration of the benefit of texts to provide sequenced item banks of questions, sometimes I think we go too far photocopying work that sounds ok until we put it in front of kids (typically in a form they are not used to seeing, is too hard/too easy, out of sequence, for a different context or year group, overly repetitive and skill based).  There are times we are better working through the worked examples in texts with students than re-inventing the wheel.  Where proof is involved (particularly in Trigonometry and Geometry with average to talented students), working through textbook examples are often better than empirical "use this formula" by "putting numbers here" and having no idea why formula or identities work.

My instruction to teachers about programmes is that programmes are not prescriptive - they indicate the intent of the year and when assessment will be held.  Tests should not be written until after the coursework is completed (or at least is known where the course will finish). If a class has different requirements, do different work and assess that.  Be aware of the grade related descriptors and continue the discussion with students and colleagues about the level of work being done with the class. 

A class constructed to support the volleyball timetable will be different to one supporting art students or English students.  Although it is attempted to balance behavioural and academic requirements in streams, it is not always possible.  

How we teach requires re-thinking of how information is presented to ensure each student finds a level of success. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The true superheroes

Today we have Marvel leading the way in what it takes to be a person that does the right thing. The message is that you need special powers to do something that is not full of self interest or narcicism.  It is not normal to participate in something that you don't gain material benefit from.  After all, capitalism is the American way.  Philanthropy is what you do when you can't possibly spend it all and cynically could be seen as "a look at me" event or publicity exercise, rather than actually doing good in the community.

Our culture is dominated by "the look at me" ideal, but it wasn't always so.  The idea of giving as a pathway to fulfilment and happiness is known by the older generation.  Looking at organisations such as Lions and Rotary, putting internal politics aside, both organisations have people in them that genuinely get pleasure from doing good in the community in which they live.  I would put forward that these people are the real superheroes as they assist where there is no reason to assist, other than it is the right thing to do.  There is no material benefit other than gratitude and a thank you.

Current generations have faced hardships: bushfires, high interest rates, climate change and now covid but have not faced war, high unemployment, famine - issues about safety, security, extreme poverty and basic needs in the way past generations have.  Bringing together of a whole community has not been required in the same way as past generations.

There are some members of our community that have faced a loss of basic needs.  These are some of the nicest people in our communities as they know what it is like to have very little and still see the good in the world.

It is important that our youth are encouraged to experience that community service is a path to a fulfilling adulthood and have authentic ways to engage with it.  I do not in any way propose compulsory community service, but giving them access to those that are willing to serve, when they are ready to serve (through the armed forces or through local community organisations) is important to their growth - having opportunities and positive experiences that they can access when they are ready and continue into adulthood.

Without these positive role models, they may believe the hype that only those with super powers can do good.  And it is simply not true at all.

Friday, January 21, 2022

MathFest 2022

MathFest 2022 is rapidly coming to an end.  It's been quite a ride.  My feet are hurting, my voice is gone, I might need some time to recuperate over the weekend.  But.. has it been a success?  I'll know for sure after surveys are in.

Initial signs are good.  Four schools, sixty Methods students, anecdotal student responses is that they have loved it, even though it is five days during the holidays, in 40C heat with evap airconditioning, no internet due to a network upgrade, surrounded by building works, presenters dropping like flies due to covid fears, zero budget; yet there has been no student dropoff in attendance during the week.  Developing together a concept aimed to increase engagement, retention and achievement of high level mathematics students in the northern corridor has had its challenges. 

Comments like "this is awesome" and "thank you sir for this" from students mean a lot.  Teachers commenting that students will "remember this" and "we'll be back next year with more" confirm that the idea is sound.

The volunteers that presented for the week are the pinnacle of what teaching is.  People giving up their time, for highly engaged kids.  No sign of the entitled youth we encounter during the year, engagement hasn't been extinguished through explicit instruction.  We're doing it like it should be done.

Two 'big ideas' came out of MathFest 2022, "infotainment" and "unstruction".  Infotainment was a mode of delivery that allowed presenters to ignore syllabus requirements during MathFest and travel with the interests of students.  This freed presenters from assessment/course outlines and allowed them to flavour the course with topics, questions and interest areas such as historical elements, associated mathematics, delving deeper into key concepts than time would usually allow.  Unstruction was freedom to work with students to enjoy learning rather than be instructed explicitly from a syllabus led schedule that needs to be taught.  

Delving into the meta of learning helped students see the difference in learning vs instruction and empowered students to adapt and develop agility to shift thinking, rather than be fixed in their expectation (and engage in the blame game), when teaching style does not align directly with a student. 

Presenters have been subject to getting WWC, vaccination records, medical issues, childcare for their own children, caring for sick family members, competing demands at the start of the school year, broken cars, covid fears, without funding for resources we take for granted during term.  All with a smile.

Teachers have been designing investigations together, doing them with students, discussing resources, pedagogy, impediments to success, finding things that work.

We need to think beyond chalk and talk if we want to engage this generation and define what teaching needs to be.  We need to embrace our responsibility that teaching goes beyond subject knowledge and into the realms of values education and what was parenting.  We need to think laterally beyond the 40 week term.

The themes of consolidation, concept investigation and self development have permeated through the sessions.  Community involvement through past students, volunteer teachers from across Perth, the local Duncraig Lions club volunteering time and resources, Curtin University involvement all have provided the example required to get students to think beyond themselves and know that they are valued and belong.  

Students now have a responsibility to not only believe in themselves, achieve but also to inspire younger students, their teachers and the local community.  They will do great things.

It's nice to be a part of it. 

Monday, December 27, 2021

'Merit based' in DOE, permanency and retirement

As an employee, I rarely criticise my employer.  This comes from my corporate roots, if you are in conflict with your employer, find another job or risk being demoted or fired.  

I'm also known for considering the teachers union an anachronistic parasite, similar to the entire union movement.  I'm not an activist and I don't represent (or seek to represent) anyone. I just seek to find ways to improve things and this so far has kept my little blog out of harms way. 

DOE has a highly skilled workforce, with the majority of staff university educated.  The Department is run as a hierarchy, with Principals at the top in schools and the Director General above Principals.  In schools, a teacher can aspire to be a Principal, a Principal can aspire to be the Director General with steps in between.

As with any pyramid hierarchy there are fewer positions available the higher you get.  Those aspiring are well known and mentored by those above them.  Although there is no seniority per se, it is built into the system.  The idea of merit has created a "seniority based" approach as mentors are required to successfully apply for higher positions - it is not about demonstrating good practices at current level, it is about demonstrating the skills and capability required for positions above level that you are not doing, or are doing in relief capacities, and being able to apply for promotional roles in the form required (answer selection criteria, use SAOs, etc).  An incumbent has a significant advantage as they know the position and can more easily meet merit based requirements. Without help from a mentor you will not create a competitive application to get an interview.  Schools do not want disruption or introduction of a person that could break a fragile culture and restricting access to promotional positions is one method to achieve this.

This can lead to a disatisfied workforce where staff are unable to attract mentors as they lack connections to the leadership team they are attached to.  In these instances promotion is seen as favouritism - which is true to a degree, the system requires staff to bend to the needs of the organisation and show that they can do the tasks required before being given the position.  There is a lack of understanding that the process is not about the job you are doing.

The protection of school culture is a safety net though, as the wrong person at the wrong time can negatively disrupt a culture, especially if they view the current culture as flawed.  The culture is set by the Principal and although a Principal can be influenced to change their position directly, they cannot be undermined by school leaders whiteanting a position.

Permanency causes a problem. In the corporate world the person would be encouraged to move on or be counselled to change their views if they were in direct conflict with management.  An underperforming staff member in DOE is tolerated as long as they do not cause headaches with parents and are isolated from causing harm.  

Mental health is a common concern. Teaching is a highly stressful activity at times, when combined with family trauma, children growing up, constantly dealing with adoloscence, caring for elderly parents, sickness, dips in performance can occur.  Staff can also be reaching retirement age and lose some of the drive found earlier in the profession.

Underperforming within the protection of permanency is not necessarily bad.  The 'Merit system' with promotion the positive objective, has taken the "teaching college" and tried to force it into something it is not.  To avoid the disgruntled workforce, we need to change how we think of teaching and not see promotion as a career objective.  Permanency is the correct strategy but does not need to be tied to a Merit approach.  Culture is instead the key. 

1. We do it because we love teaching
2. The outcomes are not promotion but delivery of the next generation of students and teachers to their aspirations
3. We have a responsibility to protect the college by mentoring younger teachers through the early crisis years
4. We have a responsibility to assist those at risk and guide them back to being productive students and teachers
5. Those with reduced capacity heading towards retirement have significantly contributed, need to be valued, recognised, cared for and given productive work
6. Recognition that most staff roles have a management requirement, unusual in any other industry
7. Recognition of success and failure through an evidence based approach
8. Acknowledgement that our working conditions are better than most other industries
9. Recognition that promotional positions do not have remuneration commensurate with the increase in responsibility. 

If you haven't asked yourself, "why do I teach?" now is always a good time to do so :-)   There are those suited to promotional positions, but they are not for everyone and should be given to those in the correct frame to do the job well.  The real return and fulfilment is in teaching children, not money, not promotion.

What our profession does not need:
1. Tokenistic care through 'here's a card, call them' without follow up.
2. Use and abuse workforce
3. Cliques
4. Promotion to incompetence (misuse of the Merit approach)
5. Faddish application of research (explicit teaching of "all" I am looking at you!)
6. Being risk averse: poorly managing innovation/risk taking/workload
7. Undervaluing management under the guise of a "Leadership" focus
8. Leaders without proper guidance and accountability
9. Poorly defined roles
10. Political interference

All the elements of a great system are there but it needs a new lens to consider how to take the best of the system and provide members with a feeling of contentment and worth through student performance, rather than through promotion.  Without this, we risk losing the heart of teaching and will not garner the respect earned in countries where education is a key part of the national culture.  As our industry moves from dig it/sell it mining base to a service based economy, education is the biggest element to providing export dollars from students working internationally or in manufacturing with high levels of automation which will subsequently protect our high standard of living. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Boardgame update 2022

Each year I go through the successes in my boardgame collection with students at school.  This will support the majority of students in a high school and most classes that I have introduced them to.  If you were looking to set up a boardgame collection for a library or department, you wouldn't go far wrong.

None have a huge ruleset and can be self taught by most groups (other than the adult ones at the bottom).

Dexterity Games

* Rhino Hero
* Tumbling Dice
* Looping Louie

Puzzle Games

* Blockus
Turing Tumble


* Santorini
For Sale


* Anomia
Murder in Hong Kong
* Spot it / Dobble
** Crappy birthday
* Uno


* 5 Minute Marvel

Traditional Board/Card Games

Ticket to ride

Games most played with adults in 2022

Warhammer Killteam
Imperial Assault
Space Hulk

Staff often ask me how I hear about games and where I get them from.  Stand up and sit down on youtube is a great channel for board game information, as is the hottest list on  Student favourites are marked with a *. The favourite by far marked with **.

Most games can be bought locally in Perth from Tactics or Gamesworld at a premium.  Harder to find games can be found from in Melbourne, Amazon online or sometimes

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Changes in 2022 and beyond in Upper School Mathematics

Five emerging themes in 2022 are of some concern in Mathematics and the severity will depend on the implementation by SCSA.  These are not new to 2022 but may be a surprise if you are not familiar with them.

- The requirement to embed design requirements (general capabilities) in classroom programmes
- The reduction in assesments per course to 8-10 assessments per year
- The requirement to follow the Mathematical Teaching Process, Statistical investigations or Theoretical investigations in ATAR
- Grading in Essential and ATAR courses
- Intended purpose of Applications and Methods

They are listed in order of prediction of impact from lowest to highest

General Capabilities  
<rant>General capabilities assist with the design aspects of a course.  A well designed syllabus has the general capabilities written in such that they flow naturally through the programmes of teachers.  If we are having a discussion (again) that general capabilities are not being implemented by teachers and displayed by students then the design of the course is the problem, not the application by teachers </rant over>.

Likely Impact: Minimal as teachers will ignore instructions about general capabilities as they can't be measured and have little/no positive impact on the course results.

Reduction in assessments per course to 8-10 in 2023
Statistically creating fewer data points, will reduce the reliability of results in mathematics.  This has the potential to reduce the correlation of class and external exam marks from the enviable position of Mathematics compared to other courses to among the same lines.  

Given the requirement of two of each type required

Year 11 (Four terms)
Investigation: 2 items
Response: 4-6 items
Exam: 2 items

Year 12 (Three terms)
Investigation: 2 items
Response: 4 items
Exam: 2 items

This is 1-2 response task per term.

The is not significantly different to current programmes albeit I prefer to have an additional investigation as the marks are more variable than response tasks and skew the distribution.

Suggestions made by SCSA to not assess dot points (which has always been done to some degree) or include assessment of content in investigations (I'm not even sure how assessment of content can work within an investigation as that is not the aim of an investigation) were put forward as good alternatives to response tasks.

Teachers are already talking about ways around the new requirements, specifically to combine recording of assesssments (one assessment with parts held two weeks apart).

The rationale for this by SCSA was to decrease the anxiety of students (using Physics as the example of 17 assessments) but I am not sure that creating more high stakes testing (as weighting is much higher with fewer assessments, likely to increase anxiety) will achieve this especially as encouragement was made to increase ungraded formative assessment through EPW style investigative learning practices.

The stated goal of reducing dot points in Unit 1 of Methods 11 is more likely to reduce student anxiety.

Likely impact: Reduction in reliability of Mathematical correlation between class and exam marks to level of other courses.  Reduction in number of investigative tasks given.  Lower SD in class marks in during investigative tasks to minimise impact (likely based on work ethic rather than capability). 

Mathematical Teaching Process
The ongoing faddish discussion about embedded critical thinking through Mathematical thinking processes continues with the encroachment of MTP in ATAR courses since 2018.  Until now the definition was fairly wishy washy and could be worked around.

Investigations have now been informally categorised as Statistical investigations, Practical Applications and Theoretical investigations each following a similar process to the old Mathematics in Practice (MIPS) approach.  Whilst I am a big supporter of the MIPS approach in a MIPS type course, imposing the time requirements of this approach on a student and the subsequent reduction in mathematical application during an investigation that it imposes is detrimental to an ATAR course.

Likely Impact: The watering down of theoretical style investigations continues in Methods.

Grading changes
The statement made by SCSA presenters was that in ATAR and General courses, the difference in an A, B and C style question is not content related but is related purely on how the question is asked and the amount of scaffolding given.

This makes a mockery of the differential in Mathematical ability required to complete each course particularly evident in the difference between Applications and Methods.

The rationale given was that scaling would compensate for this - but it doesn't if the gap between courses increases beyond the 5% mean + 5% of course total scaling given - Methods students are penalised for doing harder work (rather than rewarded).  

Given an A, B or C in Methods is significantly harder to achieve (due to content continuing to be learned at a faster pace than Applications requiring a more difficult sequence of learning), it is hard to fathom how the way a question is asked and subsequently answered, fairly and adequately assesses the level of a student.  To reduce it to this does not replicate the alignment currently required by ATAR assessment via understanding displayed in the external exam and the assessment completed to achieve similar class marks.

Likely Impact: This will need to be rethought.  It is not a good idea and will not be replicable under exam conditions without a blowout in Methods marks.  Students in 50-57 Methods range (exam and class) in Year 11 are achieving 80% (65% after scaling) in Applications - and this is being told to students by course counsellors, reducing retention in Methods courses.

Rationale of Methods and Applications
Universities have knobbled interest in Specialist courses (there is little desire during mining slumps) by reducing pre-requisites outside of engineering (or even in engineering in some cases) and now are doing similar to Methods courses.  Students are discouraged from attempting ATAR Methods by counsellors as it is not required for their courses and complete the easier ATAR Applications instead.

Intended level of difficulty (increasing to left)

Foundations            Essentials                    Applications/Methods                   Specialist

In a discussion with SCSA staff post meeting it was stated (and themed throughout the presentation) that Applications and Methods are aimed to be delivered at the same level (and the grade related descriptors show this) but for different purposes (eg Applications for biological sciences/humanities students, Methods for Physical Sciences, Specialist for Engineering students).

If this is the case Methods and Applications require a significant re-write (and I don't believe this is the intent as this was stated in the presentation) as they do not meet this purpose.  Whether Methods needs to come to the level of Applications or the Applications course requires a complete rethink (this is my belief) is not clear.

Likely impact: This will need to be rethought.  Scaling will negatively impact students whilst this is poorly understood and implemented as per 2020.  Return to a hierarchy of Foundation -> Essentials -> Applications -> Methods -> Specialist in a future iteration of courses is likely.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Maths as a Mixed Martial art

 Entering a Year 7 classroom can be quite daunting for a student. I'm reading a few dystopian dramas and imagined a parallel universe with traditional classes mixed with mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts - a child entering a high school classroom for the first time.  It's all a bit dramatic but typical of my sense of humour.

“Jonny enters the Octagon being unable to count the sides, knowing that he is about to take a beating.  He hasn’t done the work required to be at this level.  Every previous outing he has failed. He seeks to distract his opponent by avoiding work set, breaking the rules and getting thrown out before his lack of competence can be identified and ridiculed.  Against all odds he attempts to answer the first question and it beats him to a pulp.”

“Mary enters the Octagon full of confidence.  She struts around the room announcing to everyone how this is too easy, she has the answer for every problem, being well prepared through her summer programme and her University educated parents.  She sees others in the room similarly confident – is she really the best in the room anymore? Her confidence falls.  Her first answer is wrong and now she is no longer the no.1 contender.”

“Harry walks into the Octagon.  He has worked hard but never found the success that warrants the work that he has put in.  Every step forward is difficult and he envies those that make it easy.  He timidly lifts his hand to give an answer.  He is ignored for a student that is actively seeking to give theirs.  His answer is correct but nobody knows.  He fails again.”

“Jill enters and listens to the instruction before the match.  She has heard it all before and could recite it before it is said.  She drifts off and starts thinking about fairies and unicorns.  The match starts, the test given and it is all over in a moment.  She has defeated each question and can return to the unicorns, with no idea of what she is capable of.”

“The teacher stands in the middle of the ring again as referee, coach, mentor, instructor.  Full of enthusiasm at the start, waning over the course of the match as the level of focus required and the challenges faced start to wear her down.  Will she do a good job or will the commentators attack her for not being all that is required?”

“The crowd stand on the edge of the ring, each encouraging their contender despite all odds.  Every parent is different – some on phones watching Netflix, others actively denouncing the referee despite all evidence, others taking notes of what needs to be done in the next match, others confused unable to comprehend what is happening.” 

In hindsight after writing this in the shoes of each participant, I realised learning should not be treated as a combat sport but often has elements of it.   I think I traumatised some of my staff when I read it to them.  We need to be mindful of what we are expecting of students,  making it into something that is wonderful to experience and not what is written above.